Saturday, July 14, 2007

Line of the Day: 2007-07-14

…he has the intense, unblinking mien of a self-published science fiction writer …
-- Christopher Hayes

Here, Hayes is describing Michael Perelman, a so-called "heterodox" economist. As I've mentioned from time to time, I am firmly in the camp that describes capitalism as the worst economic system ever, except for all the rest. I have no idea whether the heterdocs are on to anything, but I'm glad to hear that some serious people are trying to think of something better. I'm also saddened to hear that they seem to be having trouble getting heard. Here's another teaser:

Despite the fact that as many as one in five professional economists belongs to a professional association that might be described as heterodox, the phrase "heterodox economics" has appeared exactly once in the New York Times since 1981. During that same period "intelligent design," a theory endorsed by not a single published, peer-reviewed piece of scholarship, has appeared 367 times.

Obviously, I recommend the article.

I got to this article by following one of the links mentioned in this week's edition of "Science Saturday" on I've raved about this site before, and perhaps I've also mentioned that the "Science Saturday" diavlogs are consistently among the best. If you're interested, I posted a longer rave about this episode in the Comments over on Or, you can just go watch it, and see how good it is for yourself.

One of the participants was a guest, Sean Carroll. Carroll works at Cal Tech, and besides writing papers that you probably need more math than I have to follow, he apparently blogs heavily and proselytizes to other scientists to do the same. I like this line, from his Self page:

Like all contemporary deep thinkers, I've taken up blogging as a way to share my free-ranging wisdom with the breathlessly waiting world.

In the diavlog, Carroll talks about the thirst of the public to be let in on the excitement of current research, and says "the demand is dramatically underserved" (by the researchers). We need more scientists like this.

Well, this post is starting (starting?!?) to approach the state of many topics in one, none of which have much to do with the title, so I'll end it here. I urge you to follow the links, though.

1 comment:

bjkeefe said...

My uncle David, a professor of economics, sent me an email in response to (part of) this post. I thought it a good bit of additional reading in connection with the Nation article that I mentioned in the original post. The rest of the words are his, except that I linkified the NYT article that he mentions.

Hi, Brendan. The NYT article a few days ago on heterodox economists touched on several different things. Unfortunately, such surface touching often leads the lay reader to think that everything contained therein is of a piece. In fact, the criticisms of the standard economic profession today are quite heterogeneous themselves. ie, there are several quite different camps within the profession which are criticizing the orthodox from very different angles. (A bit like the critics of Bushie's war policy.)

One camp of the disagreeers (i luv it) is the old, disaffected lefties. In the 60's and 70's, and too a lesser extent in the 80's, they proudly called themselves Marxists. To varying extents, they defended the USSR and/or China policies against all criticism. They reflexively rejected anything from capitalism or market oriented states. (They had a hard time dealing w/Sweden, etc.) My personal observation was that 90+% of them had personal problems of one sort or another which made them severely disaffected about their own lives and society. ie, "something stinks about my life, and I am going to lash out; don't ask for details." This camp, called Radical Political Economists, was scorned by mainstream economists bc/they totally rejected the scientific method -- the baby who has been mostly responsible for the econ prof rising above the other social sciences in intellectual status since the early 1950s. ie, they had a different paradigm, which was untestable, unrefutable (?). Even if they had been right in essence about what was best for society, you could not imagine any test of their theory.

Another camp of the disagreeers (it's too good to not use again) are those who feel that equity questions (concerning econ "topics") are just as important as efficiency questions. The mainstream since the late 1970s has gone almost completely to asking and trying to answer efficiency questions only. It's understandable bc/they can be answered thru the scientific method almost always, especially by creative scientists who see real world, unintentional experiments occurring. Those people rise to the top of the empirical economists. The equity questions are usually impossible to test; even good analysis of them eventually comes back to individuals' and society's weighing of one value against another -- which can't be scientifically tested.

Being able to understand why a mainstream economist gets attracted to focussing only on efficiency questions does not excuse the whole profession's ignoring of the equity questions. It's a collective goods problem: what is understandable for any individual to do may yet add up to the whole group's totally ignoring another dimension of the econ problem for society.

As you may be able to tell between the lines, I find myself in this second camp of dissenters. However, I still consider myself a mainstream economist -- but with a strong penchant to criticize the profession for ignoring the equity questions, especially when teaching the vast numbers of intro students we see in college. The econ teachers are right to pay so much attention to testing the efficiency questions; they are wrong to totally ignore the equity questions.

A third camp of dissenters these days is quite different, and it cannot be understood by outsiders bc/the problem it points out seems unbelievable to outsiders. By outsiders, I mean anyone who has not had the exquisite pleasure of going through a PhD program in econ. The problem with the PdD education nowadays in econ is that it totally focusses on math for the first year or two. The ritual of passage in exclusively using high level (post?-calculus) math goes on for a year or more. It's like Army basic training with a sadistic sergeant for a year or two, rather than 8 weeks. It's like frat pledges suffering under a particularly heinous pledge master for three or four times the usual pledge period. Extremely painful, and of little use to the ultimate objective. Unbelievable. But true. I no longer send my best undergrad econ students on to an econ PhD program unless they have been double majors with math. Rather I try to convince them to go business school (MBA) if they really want a business career, or to public policy or urban planning or .... if they want an advanced degree to help become better qualified to shape our society in the future.

Enuf. Things are not so simple when looked at intensely. Yet, the central fact that not everything is rosy within the econ profession is true, I suppose. The problem to me with the recent articles is that most readers will misread the situation to be something different from what is really is and then come to erroneous conclusions.