Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Imperialist and Scientistic Pretensions…or The Secret and Not-So-Secret Sins, of Economics


In his Salon review of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), Thomas Frank writes:

“Academic economics, especially in the United States, has for decades been gripped by a kind of professional pretentiousness that is close to pathological. From time to time its great minds have grown so impressed by their own didactic awesomeness that they celebrate economics as ‘the imperial science’— ‘imperial’ not merely because economics is the logic of globalization but because its math-driven might is supposedly capable of defeating and colonizing every other branch of the social sciences. Economists, the myth goes, make better historians, better sociologists, better anthropologists than people who are actually trained in those disciplines. One believable but possibly apocryphal tale I heard as a graduate student in the ’90s was that economists at a prestigious Midwestern university had actually taken to wearing white lab coats—because they supposedly were the real scientific deal, unlike their colleagues in all those soft disciplines.
Piketty blasts it all to hell. His fellow economists may have mastered the art of spinning abstract mathematical fantasies, he acknowledges, but they have forgotten that measuring the real world comes first. In the book’s Introduction this man who is now the most famous economist in the world accuses his professional colleagues of a ‘childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation’; he laughs at ‘their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything.’ In a shocking reversal, he calls on the imperial legions of economic pseudo-science to lay down their arms, to ‘avail ourselves of the methods of historians, sociologists, and political scientists’; the six-hundred-page book that follows, Piketty declares, is to be ‘as much a work of history as of economics.’” 

I’d like to point out to those (understandably) not familiar with, let alone failing to have kept abreast of, the academic economics literature* of, say, the last three decades or so, that this critique of the profession by Piketty is hardly new. In fact, it’s been made with eloquence, passion, and persistence—and in some circles at least, with devastating effect—by Deirdre (formerly Donald) McCloskey (who is not at all of Leftist suasion), beginning with The Rhetoric of Economics (University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), continuing through Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics (Cambridge University Press, 1994), and again, in a little gem (58 pgs.!), The Secret Sins of Economics (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2002). Much of what Piketty is saying here sounds virtually word-for-word what she has been saying for several decades now. In the latter book, for instance, she laments the appalling extent and degree of institutional and historical ignorance of her better-known colleagues in the profession, as well as their corresponding “cultural barbarism,” dated and simplistic (because crudely positivist) conceptions of science, and “high school” ethics, in addition to otherworldly mathematical formalism.
McCloskey has courageously and cleverly attempted to persuade her colleagues in economics to rely far less on mathematical formalism and a “scientistic style,” and far more on the “whole rhetorical tetrad—the facts, logics, metaphors, and stories necessary” [….] that can render economics “more rational and more reasonable,” not to mention accessible to a literate public. As she notes, “[i]t would of course be idiotic to object to the mere existence of mathematics in economics,” and indeed, mathematics in economics, used properly if not modestly, is a “virtue,” but “[l]ike all virtues it can be carried too far…, becoming the Devil’s work, sin.” Pure theory and econometrics, for instance, have too often been purchased at the expense of old-fashioned empiricism and intelligent inquiry into and observation of the real world (hence the need for journals like Real World Economics Review). Worship at the altar of qualitative theorems and statistical significance is otherworldly, consciously or otherwise designed to have its practitioners don the priestly mantle of “hard science” (as exemplified by physics). In McCloskey’s words:
“It is not difficult to explain to outsiders what is so dramatically, insanely, sinfully wrong with the two leading methods in high-level economics, qualitative theorems and statistical significance. It is very difficult to explain it to insiders, because the insiders cannot believe that methods in which they have been elaborately trained and which are used by people they admire most are simply unscientific nonsense, having literally nothing to do with whatever actual scientific contribution (and I repeat, it is considerable) that economics makes to the understanding of society. So they simply can’t grasp arguments that are plain to people not socialized in economics.”
Related critiques have been made by others, including S.M. Amadae in Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism (University of Chicago Press, 2003), and in several articles and books by Philip Mirowski. Two works by Christian Arnsperger, Critical Political Economy… (Routledge, 2008), and Full-Spectrum Economics: Toward an inclusive and emancipatory social science (Routledge, 2010), proffer a programmatic focus on transforming the discipline from within and without, serving up a plethora of provocative if not utopian possibilities for fundamentally altering the character of the profession. I think it’s also useful to examine writings suggestive of “political economy” in the broadest sense—like Gandhi’s—that are clearly well outside the parameters of neoclassical economics: see, for example, B.N. Ghosh’s Gandhian Political Economy (Ashgate, 2007), and Beyond Gandhian Economics: Towards a Creative Deconstruction (Sage Publications, 2012).
* And without implying I’ve come anywhere close to mastering same.

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