Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Economists as storytellers

Economist blogger Dave Iverson has written to me about my “tease” (his words, nice choice) in the Financial Times about neoclassical economics. Dave has previously commented in a way that I found insightful and fair on the exchanges and debates in the blogosphere, particularly those on Mark Thoma’s and Dave Altig’s sites. His latest post is another useful contribution, and here it is:

“Philip Ball's Financial Times' critique of economics, titled Baroque Fantasies of a Peculiar Science caused quite a stir recently in the economics blogs (particularly here here and here here.). But last week the bickering subsided with Dave Altig (macroblog) and Philip Ball seeming to have reached an accord.. At one point Altig said, "If you want, call economics an attempt to construct coherent stories about social phenomenon..." Sounds about right to me. We economists are indeed story tellers. Following this discussion, it seems clear that economists need to be much more open and honest about our assumptions and the linkages, such as they are and often are not to the real world of policy and action. No argument from me on that score. I've been arguing similarly for years.

“For more critique, see Steve Cohn's August 2002 Telling Other Stories: Heterodox Critiques of Neoclassical Micro Principles Texts, wherein Cohn attacks the "'rhetoric' of neoclassical theory, …critiquing many of the stories told, the metaphors used, the analogies drawn, and the framing language deployed."

“In addition, there have been many book-form critiques arguing that economists, particularly neoclassical economists have over-driven their headlights in much the same way that Bell argues. Here are six of my favorites (arranged by date of publication):
J. de V. Graaff. Theoretical Welfare Economics. 1957
Guy Routh. The Origin of Economic Ideas. 1975
Mark Blaug. The Methodology of Economics: Or How Economists Explain.
1980
Robert L. Heilbroner. Behind the Veil of Economics: Essays in the
Worldly Philosophy. 1988
Mark Sagoff. The Economy of the Earth: Philosophy, Law and the
Environment. 1988
Andrew Bard Smookler. The Illusion of Choice: How the Market Economy
Controls Our Destiny. 1993”

The Cohn paper is excellent – it says pretty much all of what I said in the FT article and much more, and in more depth, and frankly more persuasively. I particularly liked this, in relation to Paul Ormerod’s FT critique of how the textbooks tell the same old neoclassical story, despite what some of the practitioners are now doing to the contrary:

“We shouldn’t allow neoclassical economists to “run away” from their textbooks. The tracts educate well over a million students a year and lay the groundwork for much of educated opinion about economic issues. They should be defended or abandoned. In critiquing principles texts we should quote from the books themselves and if charged with attacking straw men, ask who is to blame: the textbook authors who built these scarecrows, or the photographers who took their picture?”

In any event, I offer the Cohn paper to those who say I’ve misrepresented the field (or have misused the word ‘neoclassical’). And I do so partly because Cohn seems to me to be very fair, acknowledging (in a way that I admit I could have done more explicitly) some of the ways in which modern economics has moved beyond the simplistic picture. This seems to me to be about dialogue rather than attack – which is absolutely what I’d like to see.

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