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.

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Too complicated for tragedy

George Demartino kicks off The Tragic Science: How economists cause harm (even as they aspire to do good) with the strong accusation that, “The economics profession is culpable in the contemporary backlash against democratic governance, civic obligation, and racial and other forms of equality. It is equally culpable in inducing the social conditions that promote the widespread rejection of expertise in policy-making.” He describes economists as ‘harm accountants’ while asserting that the profession ignores many of the harms caused by its advice. What to make of this set of charges?

Well, the blame game for contemporary ills is not a straightforward one. I’d share it around – with politicians, with financiers, with crooks – while agreeing that economics has significantly helped create the intellectual weather enabling others’ actions. I also agree with two key building blocks in Demartino’s argument. One is that economists are entirely wrong to insist that the positive and normative elements of their analysis are separable (see Cogs and Monsters): the concept of economic ‘efficiency’ is absolutely value-laden, and in an undesirable way. The other is that welfare economics needs rebooting (we will hopefully have a symposium out on this soon), and in particular to highlight the central dilemma of irreconcilably multiple dimensions (incomes and jobs but also community and culture) in evaluating policy choices at the same time that decisions are unidimensional (does the government sign the trade treaty or not?) Elizabeth Anderson is my go-to reference on this.

Having said that, I thought the book over-does the anti-econ rhetoric. Cost benefit analysis (CBA) is indeed highly flawed, and does indeed aim to come up with a single number weighing all costs and benefits against the same kind of metric, and with moral assumptions shovelled into its discount rate. But “morally reckless”? The limitations of CBA are well-rehearsed, especially by economists (including me but also titans like Nick Stern and Partha Dasgupta). The alternative to using CBA is – not using it. And then what? What decision making procedure is better? I was surprised the book didn’t make more of the arguments for participatory processes, for procedural justice, in trying to ease the many dimensions versus one dimension dilemma. Sen in particular emphasises this, and it’s a feature of public value approaches, which extend CBA to incorporate non-monetary dimensions of the choice, in a reasoned and evidenced framework.

I wasn’t particularly wowed either by the book’s alternative calculus of harms, a page-long list setting out a taxonomy in which economic harms form a minority group. The list seems to be top-down, and it isn’t clear what the principles of categorisation are. Nor does it help address fundamental questions. For instance, many of the examples of the harms done by economists consist of trade liberalisation treaties. There’s no doubt these harm certain groups of producers and workers, to which the standard economics response is compensation schemes – which never happen adequately. Many economists have rowed back from the view that trade liberalisation is always and everywhere a good thing. And yet increasing trade has – equally without doubt – underpinned post-war rises in living standards in many countries, and the Asian export-based miracle economies. Saying, ‘but the China shock in the Midwest, but Brazil,’ doesn’t imply trade liberalisation is always bad, which seems to be the assertion here.

(Personal gripe – the book also ignores Scitovszky’s 1941 refutation of the Hicks-Kaldor compensation argument. Which in my view restates the existence of fundamental dilemmas in policy choices…. the welfare evaluation all depends whose perspective you look at it from.)

So, is economics too reductionist? Yes. Are economists over-confident in their ability to solve problems? Often, yes. Is economics too paternalistic, assuming a god’s-eye view it cannot possibly have? Indeed. Was the shock therapy approach to post-1989 Russia a disaster? Yes! I agree with all of this. And yet I think it’s much more complicated than this book claims. 71vagYXe2KL._AC_UY436_QL65_

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Women and our economics problem

The Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession was established by the American Economic Association in 1971. Its first survey found that just 6.7% of faculty in US universities were women and more than two thirds of them were on the lowest rung of the profession. Gender and the Dismal Science: Women in the Early Years of the Economics Profession by Ann Mari May documents the route to that shameful situation. It is not surprising that in the late 19th and early 20th century women struggled to access higher education and academic jobs, but economics was distinctively sexist in sustaining 19th century practices into the 1970s.

The book uses archival material to document how this came about. Some of the factors were indeed common across disciplines, such as unwillingness to grant women access to PhD studies, or to hire or retain female members of staff who got married. As US universities professionalised, professional associations determined the boundaries of the discipline and regulated access to PhD programmes and the network of contacts these grew. Two aspects of economics seem distinctive, however.

One is the early dominance of professional journals by what are still referred to as the ‘top 5’, which were run by a remarkably concentrated group of men – in two cases, by individual top departments (Harvard and Chicago). This facilitated the rise to status of an old boys network – it still operates as reflected in long-serving editors disproportionately publishing papers by those they know – and the journals still have outsize influence on professional advancement.

The other is the fact that many early female members of the American Economic Association were associated with social reform movements. And of course the subject matter of economics has significant implications for job markets, monopoly power, migration and other politically-contentious issues. But the resolution of early intellectual conflicts within the AEA went against advocacy and in favour of “disciplinary boundaries that made clear the scientific nature of economics.” Campaigning was for sociology, or theology; economics would deal in facts. Female membership of the AEA didn’t climb above 5% from 1890 until 1928.

The situation has improved in the US – or rather, it did in the 1980s and 1990s – but economics remains a male-dominated field. Cognitive narrowness and a narrow range of experience matter for any subject but particularly for a social science with policy influence. May reports on a survey she and co-authors conducted finding that male and female economists in the US and Europe have systematically different views on some issues. It isn’t obvious, ahem, that male views are more correct. At least now both the AEA and the Royal Economic Society are self-aware, and some male colleagues are truly concerned about the continuing evidence of systematic bias. And of course it extends far beyond women to the even lesser representation of people of colour and people from low-income backgrounds.

The historical perspective in this book is an interesting supplement to the recent literature on this structural deformation of the economics profession – both the new empirical documentation of the scale and scope of the problem, and the history of thought approaches that emphasise the desire to be ‘scientific’ (often linked to logical positivism but evidently with roots back in the early days of universities and the emergence of disciplinary boundaries). The data May has assembled on the history of the US profession is a real trove. And the individual stories of injustice make one’s blood boil…

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Ethics, culture and economics

It was thought-provoking reading Deirdre McCloskey’s Beyond Positivism, Behaviorism and Neoinstitutionalism in Economics right after Jamie Susskind’s Digital Republic. They’re about different subjects of course, but also have contrasting philosophies. The Susskind book points to more government action, much more, in shaping digital markets, and I agreed with some – althoug not all – of his suggestions. McCloskey is concerned to make the case against the frequently-heard kind of analysis that market failure X requires government action Y to fix it. And I sort of agree with her too. Am I just hopelessly inconsistent?

To take a step back, this book has three messages. One is that it’s incorrect and misleading of economists to claim – as so many of us always do – that the positive and the normative can be separated, and all we’re doing is the objective, evidence-based analysis. In this section the book targets a 2017 paper by Werner Erhard and Michael Jensen that I haven’t read but sounds philosophically naive. For a little reflection – really only a little – shows this to be false: if we’re recommending an action for its good outcomes, ‘good’ is an inherently normative, evaluative criterion. I wholeheartedly agree with McCloskey on this point and wish I’d been able to read this book before writing those sections of Cogs and Monsters.

McCloskey’s second point is to argue for a broader, multi-dimensional, humanities-inflected approach to economic analysis. She takes particular aim at ‘neoinstitutionalists’ from Douglass North to Daron Acemoglu for their reductionist view that economic institutions are wholly described by incentives and utility-maximising outcomes, arguing that standard economic models alone are insufficient for explaining modern economic growth. Her own view – set out in her major Bourgeois virtues trilogy – is that a change in culture toward liberal (in the old-fashioned sense) ideas are needed to explain the scale of change between 1800 and now. Changes in incentives bring small (Harberger-triangle sized) gains, not increases in incomes by many multiples. I’m on board with this too, while still thinking the economic max-U approach brings interesting and useful insights.

Her third aim, though, is to argue for a more libertarian public philosophy: governments mess up economies more than they fix problems, and policies had little to contribute to the massive growth of the past 200 years. Here is where I diverge. For sure there have been many government failures too. Indeed, markets and governments tend to fail in the same contexts and for the same reasons (natural monopoly, externalities, incomplete markets etc). But I disagree with her implied counterfactual that there would have been an even more massive improvement in living standards in the era of modern growth without government. Collective action problems need collective action even if the location of the need shifts over time with technology, or with the complexity of high fixed-cost markets characterised by technological or other uncertainties, or with social expectations. So yes, there are a lot of simple-minded government-can-fix-it proposals – on this point McCloskey takes aim at Mariana Mazzucato‘s claim that the government in effect brought us the smartphone, albeit caricaturing it somewhat. But I’d contend we’ve of late had too little market-shaping policy rather than too much – including in digital domains.

Some of the terrain will be familiar to McCloskey’s readers – the importance of ethics in economics, of culture in growth, the misleading cult of statistical significance. I enjoyed reading this book nevertheless – her style is a bit of an acquired taste and I like it although I know others don’t. And it’s a compact discussion of some crucial issues economists should be contermplating. Even where I disagreed, it made me think.

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Economics – people or facts?

In preparing for a small workshop I’ve co-organised* in Oxford tomorrow, on “Rebooting Welfare Economics”, I’ve been browsing my bookshelves. Two titles jumped out: Ariel Rubinstein’s wonderful Economic Fables (winner of the first ever Enlightened Economist annual prize in 2012 – I’ve only just realised this blog is 10 years old) and John Hicks’s The Social Framework. Hicks states (p3 of my 1947 edition): “Economics studies facts and seeks to arrange the facts in such ways as make it possible to draw conclusions from them.” The positivist claim to separate ‘facts’ and positive knowledge from the normative shines out (see Chapter 3 of my Cogs and Monsters). Rubinstein says (p15): “Economic theory is concerned precisely with the abstract concepts related to the interaction between people.”

People or facts? I’m in the people camp.

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*With Eric Beinhocker, Tim Besley, Mark Fabian and Margaret Stevens.

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