Sunday, February 25, 2007

Diane Coyle for the Defense

"Would you agree with the following statement? '[Economists] should take credit for the deteriorating quality of existence. For it is their philistine notions of personal and national welfare that have helped to ruin the natural world; confused technology with culture; reduced art to money, time to interest, sexual relations to pornography, friendship to advantage, and liberty to shopping, and wasted whole generations who, because they have only been taught to think in categories of money, have, in Schopenhauer's phrase, "missed the purpose of existence".'

If so, you'd have plenty of company...

...What is truly bizarre about this persistent and frequent set of claims - economics ignores or over-simplifies reality, is based on a false conception of human nature, is only about money, thinks the world operates like a machine - is how untrue it is. Those who make the claims haven't been reading any of the economics published since about 1980. The caricature never represented reality all that accurately, but a whole generation of research has made it completely unrecognisable..." -- Diane Coyle (2007). "Economics, the Soulful Science"
What "whole generation of research" is Diane Coyle talking about? Presumably it would include literature making claims like the following:
"One thing we have learned for sure as a consequence of this programme of research is that [Expected Utility Theory] is descriptively false. Mountains of experimental evidence reveal systematic (i.e., predictable, not random) violations of the axioms of EUT, and the more we look, the more we find. This is not good news for the general economist, but there it is." - Chris Starmer (1999). "Experimental Economics: Hard Science or Wasteful Tinkering?", Economic Journal, V. 109, N. 453 (February): F5-F15
Somebody who is concerned to comment on the notion that economists "think the world operates like a machine" and emphasizes literature since, say, 1980 surely has read Philip Mirowski. (I'm fairly sure Deidre McCloskey and Paul Ormerod have, for example.) And I know Mirowski has read, for example, Starmer.

Mirowski is always quotable. Here are some quotations from one Mirowski essay:
"Because I am not a product of a successful socialization into the economics profession, lots of things that economists say strike me as funny. The idea we are paid according to our marginal productivity, for instance, rocks me as risible; the tendency to suggest the economy 'overheats' is a richly wrought satire. The doctrine that the market maximizes the freedom of a set of agents identical in all relevant respects is a joke worthy of Nietzsche...

...Asking me now to write on how I feel about economics journals is like asking a lamppost to write a memoir on dogs...

...when I read a particular economist's advocacy of regarding children as consumer goods, or another insists that Third World countries should be dumping grounds for toxic industrial wastes since life is cheap there, or a third proclaims that no sound economist would oppose NAFTA, or a fourth asserts confidently that some price completely reflects all relevant underlying fundamentals in the market, or a fifth pronounces imperiously that no credible theorist could recommend anything but a Nash equilibrium as the very essence of rationality in a solution concept, I do not view this as an occasion to dispute the validity of the assumptions of their 'models'; rather, for me, it is a clarion call to excavate the archaeology of knowledge which allows such classes of statements to pass muster, as a prelude to understanding what moral presuppositions I must evidently hold, given that I find them deeply disturbing..." - Philip Mirowski (1997). "Confessions of an Aging Enfant Terrible"

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