Tuesday 17 May, 2022

Through a glass, brightly

Quote of the Day

”An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterwards.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Giuseppe Verdi | Và pensiero | Nabucco


Put on your white tie, run a bath, get in and sing your heart out.

Long Read of the Day

“Life among the Econ”

Here’s a delightful reprint of Axel Leijonhfud’s celebrated satirical picture of an interesting academic tribe.

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.

It’s a lovely read, especially if you have a jaundiced view of the discipline in question.

Another sample:

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.

Do read the whole thing. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Her Majesty’s awkward question

Leijonhfud’s spoof reminded me of a lovely story from 2008 when, on Wednesday 5 November, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the London School of Economics to open a new building. During a briefing by eminent, besuited LSE economists on the build-up to the turmoil on the international markets the Queen asked: “Why did nobody notice it?” At which point the assembled geniuses were observed opening and closing their mouths in a passable imitation of stunned carp.

At this point, the economist Geoffrey Hodgson takes up the story:

On 17 June 2009, the British Academy convened a group of leading academics, economics journalists, politicians, past and present civil servants, and other practitioners for a roundtable discussion to address this question. The chairman, Professor Peter Hennessy, explained that a purpose of the British Academy Forum was to provide the basis of an ‘unofficial command paper’ that attempted to answer the Queen’s question.

Professors Tim Besley and Peter Hennessy’s letter to the Queen summarised the views raised through this discussion at the British Academy. They mentioned that ‘some of the best mathematical minds’ were involved in risk management but ‘they frequently lost sight of the bigger picture’. In summary, they concluded, ‘the failure to foresee the timing, extent and severity of the crisis and to head it off, while it had many causes, was principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole.’

Incensed by this, Professor Hodgson and some of his colleagues, drawn from the more enlightened members of the Econ tribe (and including my good friend Geoff Harcourt), composed their own letter to Her Majesty.

“In addition to the factors mentioned in their letter,” it began,

we suggest that part of this responsibility lies at the door of leading and influential economists in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Some leading economists – including Nobel Laureates Ronald Coase, Milton Friedman and Wassily Leontief – have complained that in recent years economics has turned virtually into a branch of applied mathematics, and has been become detached from real-world institutions and events. (We can document these and other complaints fully on request.)

In 1988 the American Economic Association set up a Commission on the state of graduate education in economics in the US. In a crushing indictment published in the Journal of Economic Literature in 1991, the Commission expressed its fear that ‘graduate programs may be turning out a generation with too many idiot savants skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues.’

Far too little has since been done to rectify this problem. Consequently a preoccupation with a narrow range of formal techniques is now prevalent in most leading departments of economics throughout the world, and notably in the United Kingdom.

The letter by Professors Besley and Hennessy does not consider how the preference for mathematical technique over real-world substance diverted many economists from looking at the vital whole. It fails to reflect upon the drive to specialise in narrow areas of enquiry, to the detriment of any synthetic vision. For example, it does not consider the typical omission of psychology, philosophy or economic history from the current education of economists in prestigious institutions. It mentions neither the highly questionable belief in universal ‘rationality’ nor the ‘efficient markets hypothesis’ – both widely promoted by mainstream economists. It also fails to consider how economists have also been ‘charmed by the market’ and how simplistic and reckless market solutions have been widely and vigorously promoted by many economists.

It goes on in this vein for a while before concluding

In summary, the letter by Professors Tim Besley and Peter Hennessy overlooks the part that many leading economists have had in turning economics into a discipline that is detached from the real world, and in promoting unrealistic assumptions that have helped to sustain an uncritical view of how markets operate.

We respectfully submit that part of the problem lies in the additional factors that we have outlined above. As trained economists and United Kingdom citizens we have warned of these problems that beset our profession. Unfortunately, at present, we find ourselves in a minority. We would welcome any further observations that Your Majesty may have on these problems and their causes.

Professor Hodgson reports that the signatories “received a grateful and considerate response from Her Majesty” but, alas, did not provide the text. Hopefully, though, the Queen came away from it with a better understanding of the Econ and their strange practices.

My commonplace booklet

More on Wernher von Braun

The philosopher Huw Price, who’s currently in Bonn and had read my Observer column, sent me this photograph.

“The street”, Huw writes,

is right behind us here in Bonn, and it’s a conspicuously minor one. My German friends are surprised it exists at all, and say that it wouldn’t be in Berlin.”

Interestingly, it’s a one-way street — straight up. Just like Wernher’s career!

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