Positive, normative and provocative economics

Last night it was my privilege to give the annual Pro Bono Economics lecture. I’d be delighted to hear people’s comments on it. (It would be even more pleasing if you’d look at the website and consider making a donation to their work.)

Many people in the audience have been enthusiastic, but one macroeconomist has taken great offence at my criticism of macro. I daresay I was too provocative – Dave Ramsden of the Treasury, chairing the evening, diplomatically described it as ‘challenging’ – but it does simply amaze me that so many (but not all) macroeconomists don’t think anything much needs to change in their area. Anyway, views welcome.

In the chat afterwards, somebody recommended to me Rational Economic Man by Martin Hollis and Edward Nell. The blurb says:

“Economics is probably the most subtle, precise and powerful of the social sciences and its theories have deep philosophical import. Yet the dominant alliance between economics and philosophy has long been cheerfully simple. This is the textbook alliance of neo-Classicism and Positivism, so crucial to the defence of orthodox economics against by now familiar objections. This is an unusual book and a deliberately controversial one. The authors cast doubt on assumptions which neo-Classicists often find too obvious to defend or, indeed, to mention. They set out to disturb an influential consensus and to champion an unpopular cause. Although they go deeper into both philosophy and economics than is usual in interdisciplinary works, they start from first principles and the text is provokingly clear. This will be a stimulating book for all economic theorists and philosophers interested in the philosophy of science and social science.”

Rational Economic Man

I’d like it to have been a bit more specific about the authors’ doubts, but it sounds intriguing.

Richard Davies of The Economist (@RD_Economist on Twitter) has recommended Three Methods of Ethics by Marcia Baron et al.

Three Methods of Ethics: A Debate (Great Debates in Philosophy)

I can see I’m going to have to improve my philosophy to continue in the vein of the Pro Bono lecture.

UPDATE: Paul Kelleher (@kelleher_) recommends Philosophy of Economics by Julian Reiss

Philosophy of Economics: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy)

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5 thoughts on “Positive, normative and provocative economics

  1. The Hollis and Nell book is old, originally published in 1975. The picture is of the 2007 reissue. Hollis died in 1998, though Nell is still alive.

  2. The arguments are well made but familiar to a student of psychology from the 1960s. The debate about the great schools of the day, psychoanalysis, behaviorism etc, and their claims for therapeutic effectiveness raged on similar methodological and epistemic grounds. What emerged from the evidence was the importance of the therapist’s personality and his training and intellectual background were of little practical consequence. No school of therapy or counselling has ever chosen to highlight such research. So my question is how would you assess effectiveness in an economist, and what would make a person a competent economist. Although your paper seems to confront, it stays with the dismal science as if it were the issue; what about the people who do it?

  3. I’m an economist, but I can’t say I recognize my field in your talk. Is Rubinstein not an economist?

    • Yes of course – so I don’t understand your comment. There are lots of examples of thoughtful, interesting economists – I wrote a whole book about the exciting work that’s going on, The Soulful Science. But my talk is about the need for the centre ground occupied by the majority of economists to shift decisively towards all the good stuff. Rubinstein’s book Economic Fables is well worth a read if you haven’t yet.

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