Friday, February 12, 2016

More on Cowie on Economics

There were a couple of other points about Cowie’s critique of economics in the Chronicle that I wanted to address but did not have time for the other day. Cowie claims that
 “smug in their security, economists are the least likely to cite other disciplines. Perhaps the most disturbing thing is the remarkable extent to which graduate training in the field is similar across institutions and departments — a stark contrast to other disciplines. And most of that graduate education is driven by textbooks and textbooks alone. To other social scientists and humanists, that is an astonishing proposition, and evidence of the field’s range of ideas.”

The argument that that economists are the least likely to cite others is from "The Superiority of Economists," in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Unlike Cowie the authors of this study do note one of its limitations. They do not include books in their analysis, and economics is much more focused on journal articles than most disciplines. Books tend to count very little, if at all, in economics departments at research universities.

Moreover, anyone concerned with the issue should be familiar with the actual numbers. This is the table from the article

The percentage of citations to articles in journals from other disciplines is very low in economics, but it is not high in political science or sociology.

Cowie’s other point about the training of economists also suggests that he does not understand the role of articles in economics. Graduate study, and undergraduate study, in economics tends to be relatively uniform. Even heterodox economists tend to make sure that their students are well grounded in the standard theory and methods, and textbooks play an important role in graduate education. The role of textbooks is, however, primarily limited to the first year. After the first year the focus shifts to journal articles or, if you have a professor who is working on the cutting edge of a topic, the latest working papers (that’s what happened when I took Norm Schofield’s social choice and welfare class). In addition, much of the most important parts of graduate education take place outside of the class room in the seminars and workshops.  Economists do not spend three to five years reading textbooks. They spend most of their time learning how to write papers that can be published in peer reviewed journals.

It also turns out that Cowie’s essay in the Chronicle was pretty much verbatim a speech that he gave last year at a conference on the education of economists. I’m serious. He gave a talk at a conference on educating economists. Here is the video. The video is relevant because he ad libs a few times, and those ad libs turn out to be pretty informative.

One of the ad libs has to do with his reference to Robert Frank’s experiments on the prisoner’s dilemma (about 33 minutes in). Cowie jokes that he would like to have someone explain to him “why this is such a popular way of understanding the world” since he has “never actually been in a prisoner’s dilemma scenario.” Anyone who actually tries to talk to economists and wanted to know why they are interested in this game would know that it is model that illustrates the problem of maintaining cooperation when individuals have an incentive not to cooperate. The problem is pervasive. People often face situations in which they can benefit from cooperation but also have incentive to individually depart from that cooperation on the job. For instance, when employees shirk on the job or employers don’t properly credit them for all of their time or for overtime they are departing from a cooperative outcome. I usually point out  to students that much of modern political theory arises from a prisoner’s dilemma scenario because Hobbes stated
I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death.
And the cause of this is, is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate amount of power; but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath at present without the acquisition of more.”
The prisoner’s dilemma is not important because we will all become prisoners or because cooperation always fails. It is important because cooperation is often difficult, but to understand how we overcome the difficulties and maintain cooperation we need to understand the underlying problem. One can disagree about the role of the prisoner’s dilemma in social analysis but to assert that one simply doesn’t understand why it matters reflects a degree of willful ignorance.

Even more telling are Cowie's comments related to Piketty’s work (41 minutes into the video). He recites the long quote from Piketty that he included in the Chronicle essay. He then states that “Piketty is a lousy historian. He doesn’t even get his facts right, oftentimes.”  He points out that one historians review called the history in it abysmal. He goes on, however, to say that “I use the data all the time. I’m hoping the data is clean because I use it blindly and I think it’s very powerful.” What? All the stuff I know about he gets wrong, but I’m going to keep blindly using his numbers because I like what they say. This is precisely the problem that I have with much of the new history of capitalism. Advocates of it tend to throw out old historical standards of source criticism in favor of producing the argument that they want. Perhaps he should focus on the beam in his own eye than the mote in his brothers. 

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