Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Confessions of an economist

A revealing dialog from Brad DeLong, in which he questions the choice of topics in his spring semester macro course. A must read for all social scientists who have faced math intimidation tactics from economists :-)

[... Previous discussion: the Solow model tells us nothing useful about the real world. But Brad spent 5 weeks last semester covering it in his macro class... ]

Glaukon: But the bottom line is that we don't have good explanations at any deep level for why the U.S. today is and stays 30 times richer than Kenya.

Akhilleus: Or, rather, that we have good explanations but they are historians', political scientists', and sociologists' explanations--not explanations in which a facility with the differential calculus is terribly helpful and thus not explanations instrumentally useful to a sect of academics who want to use their facility with the differential calculus to impose a form of hegemonic domination over social science in general.


Akhilleus: But surely there is value in being confused about the issue at a higher and more sophisticated level...

See also this Larry Summers anecdote (Ellison, an anthropologist, was Dean of the Graduate School under Summers):

Over lunch not long after Summers took over the presidency in 2001, Ellison said, Summers suggested that some funds should be moved from a sociology program to the Kennedy School, home to many economists and political scientists. ''President Summers asked me, didn't I agree that, in general, economists are smarter than political scientists, and political scientists are smarter than sociologists?" Ellison said. ''To which I laughed nervously and didn't reply."

Most amusingly, see Life among the Econ by Axel Leijonhufvud. Discussed previously on Economist's View. Twilight of the modls!

Life among the Econ

The Econ tribe occupies a vast territory in the far North. Their land appears bleak and dismal to the outsider, and travelling through it makes for rough sledding; but the Econ, through a long period of adaptation, have learned to wrest a living of sorts from it. They are not without some genuine and sometimes even fierce attachment to their ancestral grounds, and their young are brought up to feel contempt for the softer living in the warmer lands of their neighbours such as the Polscis and the Sociogs. Despite a common genetical heritage, relations with these tribes are strained-the distrust and contempt that the average Econ feels for these neighbours being heartily reciprocated by the latter-and social intercourse with them is inhibited by numerous taboos. The extreme clannishness, not to say xenophobia, of the Econ makes life among them difficult and perhaps even somewhat dangerous for the outsider. This probably accounts for the fact that the Econ have so far-not been systematically studied. Information about their social structure and ways of life is fragmentary and not well validated. More research on this interesting tribe is badly needed.

Caste and Status

The information that we do have indicates that, for such a primitive people, the social structure is quite complex. The two main dimensions of their social structure are those of caste and status. The basic division of the tribe is seemingly into castes; within each caste, one finds an elaborate network of status relationships.

An extremely interesting aspect of status among the Econ, if it can be verified, is that status relationships do not seem to form a simple hierarchical “pecking-order,” as one is used to expect. Thus, for example, one may find that A pecks B, B pecks C, and then C pecks A ! This nontransitivity of status may account for the continual strife among the Econ which makes their social life seem so singularly insufferable to the visitor.

Almost all of the travellers’ reports that we have comment on the Econ as a “quarrelsome race” who “talk ill of their fellow behind his back,” and so forth. Social cohesion is apparently maintained chiefly through shared distrust of outsiders. In societies with a transitive pecking-order, on the other hand, we find as a rule that an equilibrium develops in which little actual pecking ever takes place. The uncivilized anomaly that we find among the Econ poses a riddle the resolution of which must be given high priority in Econological research at this time.

What seems at first to be a further complication obstructing our understanding of the situation in the Econ tribe may, in the last analysis, contain the vital clue to this theoretical problem. Pecking between castes is traditionally not supposed to take place, but this rule is not without exceptions either. Members of high castes are not infrequently found to peck those of lower castes. While such behavior is regarded as in questionable taste, it carries no formal sanctions. A member of a low caste who attempts to peck someone in a higher caste runs more concrete risks-at the extreme, he may be ostracized and lose the privilege of being heard at the tribal midwinter councils.


A comparison of status relationships in the different “fields” shows a definite common pattern. The dominant feature, which makes status relations among the Econ of unique interest to the serious student, is the way that status is tied to the manufacture of certain types of implements, called “modls.” The status of the adult male is determined by his skill at making the “modl” of his “field.” The facts (a) that the Econ are highly status-motivated, (b) that status is only to be achieved by making ”modls,” and (c) that most of these “modls” seem to be of little or no practical use, probably accounts for the backwardness and abject cultural poverty of the tribe. Both the tight linkage between status in the tribe and modl-making and the trend toward making modls more for ceremonial than for practical purposes appear, moreover, to be fairly recent developments, something which has led many observers to express pessimism for the viability of the Econ culture. ...


Anonymous said...

Do physicists ever have economics envy?

Steve Hsu said...

I'm envious that they have lots of interesting problems to work on. But most physicists would probably not agree with me.

Anonymous said...

" ... we don't have good explanations at any deep level for why the U.S. today is and stays 30 times richer than Kenya."

Could the fact that the average IQ in Kenya is 70 have something to do with it?

Kennon Gilson said...

" ... we don't have good explanations at any deep level for why the U.S. today is and stays 30 times richer than Kenya."
The explanation is in law--the US is more Libertarian-based and becoming so more every day: respect for rights, transparency, low taxes. Kenya has a strong libertarian group, but is centuries behind.

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