Metaphysical struggles

I really enjoyed reading Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachel Wiseman. It’s one of two recent books about the quartet Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch, all philosophy students at Oxford just before and during World War Two, and remaining close in the postwar years as they began their scholarly and writing careers. (The other is The Women Are Up To Something by Benjamin Lipscomb, which I haven’t read yet.)

Unsurprisingly, the book is about philosophy rather than economics. I did PPE at Oxford and felt pretty hopeless at the philosophy despite doing ok in exams. We were taught the British tradition – Locke and Hume – and modern linguistic and analytic philosophy – Ayer and Hare. The four women didn’t feature; I’d heard of Irisl Murdoch only, and only for her novels. So I think this implies that the subtitle is perhaps wrong: at least from my perspective, the four might have halted the onward march of reductive positivism in philosophy, but they lost the war.

I was particularly struck by the description of how the shockingly male and misogynist Oxford philosophy establishment reclaimed territory when the men returned from war. “If undergraduate classes before the war had been full of ‘clever young men who liked winning arguments,’ … graduate classes were now led by such men and full of others who were being specifically trained in modern methods and hothoused for a profession that would reward cleverness, quickness and agression.”

Well, hello. Isn’t this the story of economics too? Both disciplines have painfully low proportions of women (and others from backgrounds where people are not automatically taught the confidence needed to put on a show of clever, quick and aggressive). Both are still like this. The culture and make-up are mutually reinforcing. There won’t be a quick solution if any, but the struggle of these four philosophers is inspiring. As is that of all the women of their era who fought to be able to wear trousers if they felt like it, and above all get the same education and scholarly opportunities as the men.



Hayek, in two tomes

Christmas has passed in the usual blur of social over-eating, but I’ve found time to retreat and finish Hayek: A Life 1899-1950 by Bruce Caldwell and Hansjoerg Klausinger. As the authors state, they intended this to be the definitive biography and they have achieved this ambition. Not only do these 700+ pages (plus references etc) constitute only the first part of Hayek’s life, up to his move to the US, the account is based on deep research and familiarity with the mass of sources, primary and secondary, available.

Now ‘definitive’ also has its downsides, only one of which is mustering the strength to hold the book up to read it. Another is that parts of it just aren’t all that interesting: I was held by the story of Hayek’s late-Austro-Hungarian empire childhood but really not at all by his love life. This unfortunately includes his dreadful behaviour in divorcing his first wife after the second world war in favour of his childhood sweetheart, which – as it’s the final chapter of this volume – leaves one with a very negative impression of Hayek the human being. Still, it’s easy enough to skip these chapters.

However, the other downside – at least for one not deeply immersed in Hayek or Austrian School economics – is that it’s quite hard to follow the thread of the intellectual narrative. While ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society‘ is one of my all-time favourite economics articles, and I read ‘The Road to Serfdom‘ back in my undergraduate days, this isn’t my background. So while I did enjoy reading this biography –  particularly the section about Hayek’s intellectual formation in the early 20th century Vienna of logical positivism, and those about his presonal/intellectual rivalries particularly with Keynes during his years in England –  I’d be hard pushed to give a capsule description of what I’ve learned. So I will look forward to Volume 2, the Chicago years, but also to the eventual concise one-volume version of this definitive work.   81Ooi2SOinL._AC_UY436_QL65_


Models and Morals

This has been a busy term so I’m behind on my reading, but have recently finished a fine biography, Jan Tinbergen and the Rise of Economic Expertise by Erwin Dekker. I knew little about Tinbergen so was bound to learn a lot from any biography, and this one is genuinely interesting. It has some personal detail but is much more an intellectual history, locating Tinbergen in his historical context. That was not a happy one: the Depression and the Second World War occurred in his early adulthood. The intellectual currents were, of course, fascinating. I had never realised how much Tinbergen was engaged in policy throughout his career. As well as being the founding director of the CPB (which gave me as a thank you gift for a talk a fine bronze bust of Tinbergen earlier this year now in prominent position on my shelves),  he had previously worked at the League of Nations, and continued throughout his career to be heavily engaged in policy. This followed a youth involved in idealistic progressive political movements.

To the extent economists now know anything about Tinbergen, we think of the econometric models for which his Nobel Prize was awarded. The book prompted me to read the Prize Lecture, which is very interesting: “Models constitute a framework or a skeleton and the flesh and blood will have to be added by a lot of common sense and knowledge of details.” He went on to suggest using models to compare different social orderings – communism and capitalism – on a scientific basis; it seems a forlorn hope now but evidently not in 1969. And think about the literary illustration of the equivalance of perfect markets and perfect planning in Francis Spufford’s wonderful book Red Plenty.

Dekker comments that Tinbergen found it irritating that this work from the 1930s was remembered rather than his later thinking about the institutional framework within which economies operate – the ‘Ordnung’ (the book uses the German word). I found particularly interesting a chapter titled ‘The Expert in the Model, the Economist outside the Model’, portraying Tinbergen’s effort to reconcile the fact that he had put policymakers inside his model of the how the economy operates with his simultaneous view that economists could nevertheless analyse from above  – ‘the view from nowhere’ – how the system then changes and can be controlled. The chapter uses the Lucas critique to analyse this in a macro context. It’s one of the themes of my Cogs & Monsters.

I also greatly enjoyed the chapter ‘Measuring the Unmeasurable: Welfare and Justice’. Dekker writes: “Tinbergen was mostly silent on philosophical matters. …. One of the very few exceptions are his reflections on ‘measurement in the human sciences.” He saw measurements as a vector for changing behaviour, and in addition saw the purpose of economic measurement as measurement of economic welfare. His was not a positivist view, but rather a moral one: economic policy had a deep societal purpose.

The book is quite long but the 400 pages zipped by. Tinbergen was clearly a fascinating person and deserves to be better appreciated by the Anglophone dominated economics profession. This biography serves him well.


How economists think

Elizabeth Popp Berman’s Thinking Like an Economist: How Efficiency Replaced Equality in US Public Policy, is a historical account of how a broad spectrum of policies set in Washington DC became – from the 1960s – increasingly determined by the criterion of economic efficiency. As she points out (& as I do in Cogs & Monsters), this notion of efficiency is far from value-free, although many economists (and others) insist that it is.

One distinctive aspect of the book’s account is its focus on the centre and left as the source of this economic thinking. Often the dominance of economics in policy decisions is attributed to the Chicago School, or neoliberals, or the Reagan/Thatcher administrations with their emphasis on markets everywhere. I think the book makes a convincing case that the economics turn started earlier, and gained important momentum from the drive to use government programmes to address social problems. The book focuses therefore on microeconomic issues – competition policy, cost benefit anaylsis – rather than the macro battle of monetarists vs Keynesians.

The transition it is interested in is the shift from pre-1960, indeed pre-war, institutionalist economics: “Institutionalism emphasized the collection of quantitative data, but with an inductive, historical approach in mind.” It avoided formalism, and tended to be progressive. Post-war, however, the institutionalists in Washington lost influence over time to two groups highlighted in the book: economists from RAND’s economics division and from new schools or programmes of public policy that trained a growing number of officials in “RAND-lite” formal modelling approaches; and anti-trust and I/O economists who – even before the full flowering of the Chicago School – brought neoclassical economic analysis emphasizing the role of markets in allocative efficiency in place of earlier structuralist approaches. The former group grew at pace during the Great Society years, along with more policy institutes evaluating social programmes. The Reagan years cemented the role of economic thinking by adding more cost benefit analysis of government interventions, favoured by business to limit ‘interference’ in their actions.

As the concluding chapter points out, there emerged a divergence on partisan lines in terms of the embrace of economic thinking: Democrats consistently embraced it and “allowed the economic style to define the boundaries of legitimate policy debate.” But Republicans “continued to use the economic style strategically and fleixbly, embracing it where it helped advance their goals and rejecting it when it conflicted with more fundamental values.” I wonder if there is a less on here for the centre-left now?

The book is entirely US-focused; it would have been interesting to read some reflections on how the economic style spread internationally. The other element I missed was the interaction between economic thinking in government, and how economics itself changed over the postwar period. How did the role of economists in policy-shaping contribute either to the rational epectations era of the late 70s/early 80s, or the later applied turn? Having said that, it’s a nice study of how ideas work in policy, and the key point about the consistent embrace of economic-style thinking by the left contrasted with the intellectual flexibility (cynicism?) of the right is very interesting.


Regiments of Women Economists

The unattractive word ‘herstory’ always makes me grit my teeth but of course I had to read A Herstory of Economics by Edith Kuiper. Nobody with any interest in economics can have failed to notice the welcome discussions of what a male-dominated profession it is, and how distorting that is. Not much has changed yet as a result (in terms of proportion of women, or selection of research questions, or indeed sometimes-toxic culture) but at least there is an awareness and a plan on the part of the professional associations.

One key thing I learned from Kuiper’s book is that there have been many more female economists than I ever realised. As well as some (now-)familiar names – Joan Robinson, Sadie Alexander, Rosa Luxemburg, Elinor Ostrom – the list at the front has many names I didn’t know, and also some I did know but had never considered to be economists. But the book makes a persuasive argument that this reflects the exclusion of women from universities until well into the 20th century, and writers on economics outside academia should therefore be included. The list is almost three pages long, for the period up to around the mid-20th century. Even then it has some omissions – Phyllis Deane for instance, or Edith Penrose. (Maybe the latter is a bit too late for this history, but then Ostrom is included.)

The book is ordered in broadly thematic rather than chronological chapters, after an introductory chapter about the origins of political economy, covering subjects like property rights, education, production, consumption and wealth/finance. The final two chapters cover government policies and then the role of feminist economics. While this organisation makes sense – a chronology would not have worked – it does mean there are some sharp corner turns as a chapter jumps from, say, an analysis of labour in the household to Ida Tarbell’s expose of Standard Oil, in the chapter on production.

Nevertheless, the book describes the important contributions of women to economics over more than a century, and in doing so illustrates the kinds of questions and social reality generally ignored by the male mainstream. It ends with a focus on the need for feminist economics to expand. I’ve never myself been interested in the separate arena of feminist economics because all of economics and economists should be feminist. The AER should be covering the kinds of questions that feature more often in Feminist Economics: the macroeconomics of gender and care (the topic of the current special issue)? Absolutely.

Still, that’s mostly about tactics. A Herstory of Economics gives a voice to some of the pioneers never included in the standard intellectual histories of the subject.