Economics as a doctrinal discipline

In science, empirical disciplines such as physics, chemistry, history, and parts of sociology and political science, reason from facts. By contrast, doctrinal disciplines such as law, philosophy, and parts of sociology and political science reason from doctrines, or dogma’s. While doctrines must of course have a grounding in the empirical world, this relation is much harder to grasp. Moreover, to understand the doctrine and its derivation it is as much necessary to appreciate the context in which it was formulated, to understand the person first formulating it, and to assess the development of amendments subsequently made over time. Read more

From 1000AD to 1970 the History of World Trade is Based on Fact, After 1970, Fiction?

Having just started Findlay and O'Rourke's mammoth history of world trade in the second millenia, I have been struck by a strange incongruity. From before year 1000 and onwards the introduction is all about data, politics and the co-mingling of influences. Then you get to the 1970s and the data seems to be replaced with two very generic statements, and fiction on the effect of recent trade reforms (p. xxv). Read more

UK Budget Appeals to Adam Smith's Approach to Taxes... Sort of

Yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer (or UK 'finance minister') gave his annual budget speech where UK fiscal policy is set for the coming years. In announcing his tax changes he name-dropped Adam Smith as the inspiration for his objectives on tax:

Two hundred years ago, Adam Smith set out the four principles of good taxation - and they remain good principles today. Taxes should be simple, predictable, support work, and they should be fair. The rich should pay the most, and the poor least.  George Osbourne, 21 March 2011

The Dynamics of the Chicago / MIT Dispute (in the Archives)

In his notorious "How Did Economists Get It So Wrong" NYT article in 2009, Paul Krugman relied on the freshwater/saltwater distinction to explain that the economists' inability to predict and solve the current economics crisis was due to the fact that MIT/Harvard economics lost their long dispute against their Chicagoan counterparts. Read more

Three Questions to Judy Klein

Judy Klein is Professor of Economics at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia. She is the author of Statistical Visions in Time: A History of Time Series Analysis 1662-1938, (Cambridge 1997) and co-editor of The Age of Economic Measurement (Duke 2001), and co-author of The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality (in preparation). She has been a research fellow/visiting scholar at the National Humanities Center, the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, the École normale supérieure de Cachan, and the Max-Planck Institute for the History of Science. Read more

Professor Ponzi, or thinking about the methodology, the sociology and the economics of economics

I am writing from my notes. The event I want to report took place some two months ago, I have since been preoccupied, then occupied, and now increasingly overwhelmed. In the rooms of the Washington Duke Inn sat some 20 economists, philosophers, historians and methodologists, discussing "herding behavior" in the economics profession. I have been to several of similar events and they are spottingly attended, with folks coming in and out of the room, physically and mentally. Not so this time. Read more

How God, Adam Smith, and the invisible hand changes over time

So with a suitably provocative title I think we can declare 2012 open. And in starting the year I was struck by how words and sentences can change in meaning over time, particularly prompted by this quote:

"No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States." Read more

At Home in Economics

My friend read somewhere that the experience of death makes people think in philosophical terms. He might have thought of religion rather than philosophy, I replied. We agreed, and wandered off talking about our crypto-religious experiences in good old secular Europe. On my way back home, however, I wondered: what then makes people think in scientific terms? If it’s true that science can meet similar needs as religion does – for how else could some perceive a conflict between the two – one might ask: does the experience of death trigger an interest in science?

During my recent preparations for my history of economics class, I indeed stumbled over several people that entered the annals of economics and had rather difficult personal lives: Read more

Student discontent, teaching economics, and Robin Wells's suggestions for shifting our perspective: A historical case

On November 2nd, some Harvard undergraduate students walked out of Greg Mankiw's introductory economics course and wrote an open letter criticizing the biases inherent in the current teaching of economics.

On November 2nd, I was sitting in the Hayden Library Special Collection reading room at MIT, browsing archives on the undergraduate and graduate students' discontent during the early 70s and the response of the economics department faculty. Read more