Best friends

As re-entry reading for the onset of the Autumn semester, I indulged in The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought, by Dennis Rasmussen, on the way home this weekend. This is a chatty account of the friendship between David Hume and the 12-years younger Adam Smith, discussing the extent to which Smith’s thought was influenced by Hume (a lot, Rasmussen argues) and analysing the differences between them (he identifies four areas of disagreement: the nature of sympathy, the role of utility, the foundation of justice, and the effects of religion). As a total Hume fan, I enjoyed reading it, and it’s a well-written book. You don’t need to be an expert on either to enjoy it, and get some flavour of the milieu of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Judging from Jesse Norman’s review of the book in Prospect, it might help not to be an expert on either, as he concluded it has little to say about the influence the two had on modern thought. As he points out, the problem Rasmussen faced is that the correspondence between the two men on which he based so much is rather small, and that mainly letters from Hume. Rasmussen fills out more in an interview in 3am Magazine with the stellar Richard Marshall.

I warmed to one comment Rasmussen makes here – a point also covered in the book: “Just as Smith’s contributions to moral philosophy have been unduly neglected in favor of Hume’s, Hume’s contributions to political economy have been unduly neglected in favor of Smith’s. As an economist Hume has long been regarded as a minor predecessor of Smith, insofar as he’s taken notice of at all, but in fact he argued for free trade and stressed the moral, social, and political benefits of commerce several decades before The Wealth of Nations appeared. Hume’s essay “Of Luxury” (later retitled “Of Refinement in the Arts”) is one of the most forceful, comprehensive, yet succinct defenses of the modern, liberal, commercial order ever written.”

As he notes here, Smith was in his turn an ethicist and analyst of human nature. We do like to pigeon hole people, but one of the joyous aspects of the Enlightenment is not only that knowledge was expanding so quickly but that it touched on so many different areas. We lose so much that falls into the gaps between disciplinary boundaries.

The thing I took away from The Infidel and the Professor was quite how scandalised so many people were by Hume’s skepticism about religion. The book has quite an extensive discussion about the differences between Hume and Smith on religion, and reckons Smith was just as sceptical but keener to observe social convention, though the evidence for this seems rather speculative. But, if public opinion did find Hume as outrageous as Rasmussen says, who could blame Smith for keeping that much quieter about his views. And Smith did honour Hume after death by insisting, in a letter written for publication, that Hume had died in good spirits and completely untroubled by the prospect of nothingness. When so many people hoped the infidel Hume would repent on his deathbed and embrace god, out of fear if nothing else, to make it clear this had not occurred was an act of true respect and friendship.


Origins, of different kinds

I’ve read The North by Paul Morley on this trip. It’s a big book that has sat on the pile for a while, waiting for a suitable journey. Although Morley’s writing style is pretty florid, long lists a speciality, I enjoyed it. He grew up in a Manchester satellite – closer to the city than I did, a few years earlier – there’s enough familiarity in the description to make it grittily Proustian for me. Eccles cakes, not madeleines, naturally.


Among other things, this quotation from Gertrude Himmelfarb (in Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution) leapt out:

“The theory of natural selection, it is said, could only have originated in England because only laissez-faire England provided the atomistic, egotistic mentality necessary to its conception. Only there could Darwin have blandly assumed that the basic unit was the individual, the basic instinct self-interest and the basic activity struggle. Spengler, describing the Origin as ‘the application of economics to biology’, said that it reeked of the atmosphere of the English factory. … Natural selection arose… in England because it was the perfect expression of the capitalist ethic and Manchester economics.”

There’s nowt wrong with Manchester economics of course. I think this Spengler claim doesn’t stand up to a bit of thought. But the intereaction between biology and economics is interesting. Darwin was very interested in Malthus – Janet Browne discusses this in her wonderful Darwin biography. In turn, Marx was very influenced by Darwin, and the mutual influence has continued through game theory and beyond.


As a by the by, someone on Twitter linked to this fabulous talk by Richard Hamming about how to do good work in science & I particularly loved this:

Darwin writes in his autobiography that he found it necessary to write down every piece of evidence which appeared to contradict his beliefs because otherwise they would disappear from his mind”


Books at a conference

I’ve been attending the biennial conference of the International Network for Economic Method (in San Sebastian, such hardship…). It’s always interesting to see what books get cited. This time they’ve been:

Against Democracy by Jason Brennan

Price: £24.95


Why Democracies Need Science by Harry Collins and Robert Evans

(both discussed critically)

Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century (ditto, although in a friendly way)

Valeria Mosini’s Reassessing the Paradigm of Economics

Nancy Cartwright Evidence Based Policy

Dani Rodrik One Economics, Many Recipes

There were no doubt others I missed because I wasn’t familiar with them. But always interesting to see what other groups of scholars are referring to.




Women in economics

There has been a big response to a column I wrote for the FT about the male domination of economics, following up Justin Wolfers’ recent one. My conclusion was:

The reputation of economics is already tarnished, even a decade on from the financial crisis, and this new evidence of entrenched discrimination will not improve matters. This is not a women problem, it is an economics problem. It is deeply embedded in the discipline’s culture and norms, and the profession’s senior men need to take it seriously.

Some senior men emailed to ask for suggestions. Here are some.

These come from a Twitter thread compiled by Jan Zilinsky (@janzilinsky):

1/ Some thoughts on gender biases in academia, following up on @JustinWolfers’ article / Alice Wu’s findings on sexist expressions on EJMR

2/ Causal evidence shows that even when full info about candidates’ past performance is provided bias against female candidates persists

3/ The experiment (How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science) is by @ErnestoReuben Paolo Sapienza @zingales…

4/ Plenty of issues to dissect (low representation, disrespect online & offline…)

For the thread I want to focus on *unequal treatment*

5/ One thing that bothers me a lot is the co-authorship penalty. Heather Sarsons @saskatchewin shows men who coauthor more are not penalized

6/ but women are less likely to receive tenure if they coauthor more papers:…

7/ That paper is about outcomes in economics. On evidence that women benefit less from co-authorship in polisci see…

8/ The leaky educational pipelines signal more problems…… and @DianeCoyle1859’s…

9/ And when the path leads to professorship, imagine you are discouraged with comments such as ↡…

10/ Want to end the thread w/ some “what can be done” links. But many steps are tiny, as @cheng_christine said…:

11/ Let me try anyway. First, we can learn pay attention to other disciplines; see this @BetseyStevenson talk…

12/ Second, at a minimum, as @Noahpinion wrote workplaces must be professional (why does it need to be said?!)

13/ Third, evaluation nudges could help. Not anonymizing papers/CVs, but moving toward more joint rather than separate assessments…

14/ Promising research shows people rely less on group stereotypes when making joint (not case-by-case) evaluations…

15/ Tools like the gender bias calculator seem fine, as long as there are users motivated to write fair letters…

16/ And it’d be great to eliminate some behaviors that range from baffling to outrageous. Copious examples were shared in the last 1.5 weeks

17/ Things like first-naming female faculty members; title-forgetting; off-color remarks about parenthood; etc…

18/ We could try valuing things other than prestige, as @cjwich pointed out: “As a field, we fetishize hierarchy. ‘Top 5 journals,’ ‘top 10 programs,’ who is/isn’t in the “club” 19/”

19/ Sometimes I lash out at the fashion police b/c the (gendered) focus on some economists’ wardrobe is ridiculous.

A number of people have suggested ending the anonymity of referees’ reports as this conceals biases – there is deep scepticism about the fairness of the process, which is seen as perpetuating privileged networks, mainly male.

Along with many of the female economists who have emailed me, I have observed a range of patronising behaviours – calling women by their first name, men not, is a common one as Jan notes. Offering ‘advice’ to lower one’s ambitions, in research, or submissions and so on. Asking women dispropotionately to do admin tasks, meetings, ‘service’ in the department.

I’d add:

  • senior men are the only people who can address the aggressive culture of economics seminars, which is unique as far as I know. Stop male colleagues from interrupting presenters frequently, rather than giving them space to present. Call people out on hostile, disparaging comments.
  • the ‘publish or perish’ culture for young academics makes it impossible for the primary carer of young children to achieve the expected publication targets; this is usually the woman even in apparently egalitarian couples. As Justin Wolfers has noted, the way policies operate may help men even more. The extension periods for new mothers are laughable, as everyone who has had children really ought to know.
  • I hope male economists would reflect on the recent discussion, acknowledge that the discipline has a problem, and think really carefully about their judgements about people. When you say ‘X is not very good’ and X is female, are you holding her to a different standard than you would a male colleague? The answer is almost certainly yes.
  • I agree about the comment in Jan’s thread about the hierarchy obsession. It is bananas to have only a Top 5 matter….

I hope these provide food for thought. I’ll be happy to update this post with other suggestions.


Rational ignorance, redux

I’m preparing for the start of the new semester & picked up Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations, his follow up to The Logic of Collective Action. It has a wonderful clarity of explanation. For instance, explaining why it can be that tax systems are usually progressive, while their loopholes are usually regressive:

“Since the probability that a typical voter will change the outcome of an election is vanishingly small, the typical citizen is usually ‘rationally ignorant’ about public affairs. … Just as lobbies provide collective goods to special interest groups, so their effectiveness is explained by the imperfect knowledge of citizens, and this in turn is mainly due to the fact that information and calculation about effective goods is also a collective good.”

People know they pay income tax and so the headline figures need to be progressive, but few pay attention to the detail, and special interest groups (such as the well off and their professional advisers) can craft the details to suit themselves.

The book has chapters on trade, development and macro policies. Less relevant to me but equally enjoyable to read. For instance, he was on to the role of institutions in development some time before it became so prominent (and indeed helped make it prominent): “In the many countries that have failed to grow as far or as fast as the leaders, there are quite enough stupidities, rigidities and instabilities to explain the lack of success.”

I always find myself heading down rabbit holes at this stage of preparation: so much interesting stuff, old and new, to read.