Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Economists vs Historians round 7649

with 6 comments

by Wiz

There has been a bit of discussions lately about why economists are more prominent in public debate than historians.

For what it’s worth, I think the issue of ideology is too often left out of these debates. And not just that historians tend to be more left-wing than economists.

From my perspective, it’s that decision makers- and those who like to pretend they are decision makers- are naturally drawn to disciplines that can wrap themselves up in a scientific veneer. It gives them a legitimacy and authority that others lack.

But more importantly, economic language (or what Tony Judt would call economism, the tendency to think of all things from the perspective of economic rationality) often provides people a dry detached language with which to emotionally distant themselves from morally questionable decisions. Thus a language of efficiency, of “elasticity,” and all the rest of the “really-hard-to-follow math or statistical analysis” allows people to pretend that what they are talking about is simply a math problem to be solved, rather than a political question about power and morality. “Opps… my hands are tied, the minimum wage simply can’t be raised, see this advance level calculus equation proves it.” It is a convenient tool for those shirking responsibility for their own decisions.

By adopting the dry technocratic economics language, no one has to say: “I have chosen to adopt a set of policies which primarily benefit the investor class in New York City, and guarantee a life of misery and poverty for most.” Most importantly, probably, no one has to say that to themselves. As David Harvey has shown about neoliberalism, there may be a utopian theory behind neoclassical economics, but the functional result has simply been a restoration of class power, a restoration that could not have been sold on its own terms.

When historians stress ambiguity, agency, and contingency we uncomfortably remind decision makers that they have choices to make, sides to take. The result of no math problem will allow you to shirk your responsibility to figure out whether you side with the workers or their bosses, with the oppressed or the powerful, etc…

Finally, one of the most unsettling lessons of history is how rarely the elite were correct about matters, and how often outsiders and the marginalized had it right. Abolitionists, suffragists, labor reformers, etc…- these were tiny minorities who were laughed at (or mobbed in the streets) by the early equivalents of the Washington Posts or New York Times. That awareness has to gnaw at anyone today who laughs at radical outsiders.

This all goes to say, that economics is more popular than history with decision makers, and elite journalists who have convinced themselves they are decision makers, because the language it uses, the internal logic it presupposes, the intellectual tools (instrumental rationality, methodological individualism, etc…) of its trade are more ideologically consistent with the neoliberal moment than history and the other humanities, to their credit, tend to be.

(This, of course, is not to say that all economists are horrible neoliberals. Some of my best friends are economists! And I actually admire economists’ ability to engage with the public. Read silbey’s excellent post about this. But rather these are my thoughts about why elite discourse treats economists with more respect and deference than any other discipline.)


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

March 31, 2010 at 12:52

6 Responses

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  1. Funny, when you follow the idea trail (aka the links) from Ezra to Klein to Justin Fox, you then stumble upon the source, a certain NY Times columnist…


    March 31, 2010 at 17:55

  2. Oh no! Does that give you permission to pull a Brooks?!


    March 31, 2010 at 18:33

  3. You’re being a little unkind. I think economics is more popular for two main reasons. The first is it is explicitly predictive. An economist lays out a couple of assumptions surrounding a couple of variables and predicts an outcome. The second reason ties in the first- the assumptions and variables used for the economic model typically set out an apparently plausible approximation of reality in quantifiable terms. These assumptions and variables are appealing because they give the comfort of concretely saying what the world looks like. The big problem is that those assumptions and variables are often, even usually, wrong or not applicable to reality.

    It might be true that neoliberal economics is popular among the elites because its underlying assumptions lead to policies benefiting the elites. But the counter is to explain why those assumptions are wrong. For instance, employment at will is a policy based on the economic assumption that an individual employee’s bargaining power is sufficiently commensurate with the employer’s to reach a fair negotiated contract. Obviously, that’s a stupid assumption, and can be pretty strongly countered by the fact that in a situation where employees seem to have close to equal bargaining power, a unionized workplace, the employment contracts almost universally call for just cause termination.

    I disagree with your point about economists not having to explicitly state their policy goals are and who they benefit (the elite). Economists still have say what the policy goals are and who will benefit from them, but unlike historians, they can get away with saying “here is what the world looks like, and here is what happens in this world when we subsidize X.” Historians have to reason by analogy to other moments in history, and it’s always going to be easy to tear the analogy apart because the world today is never exactly like the analogous other historical time. Bickering with an economist’s conclusion is more difficult, because you have to shoot down assumptions like “people vote for representatives whose interests align with their own” or “people would never take out a loan they can’t possibly repay.”


    March 31, 2010 at 20:08

  4. I agree with Wiz that a lot of elite politicians use what I’ll call Econ101-think (or Ec10 think if you’re from Harvard) to justify neoliberal views, and I agree that this gives a pseudo-scientific veneer to these views, But it’s unfair to blame the whole field of economics for this, just as it’d be unfair to blame all historians if an elite used a historical analogy poorly.

    Econ101-think is not a set of models that economists all believe is almost always true. These models are the simplest we have, sometimes they’re useful, and they’re a good introduction to our methodology. Unfortunately, Econ101 is rarely taught that way.

    I posted the following in response to Brooks’ column on a couple econ message boards (preaching to the choir): “As much as I’d like to ignore Brooks, the fact that this kind of column can be published reveals problems in how Econ 101 is taught. Students need to know that the goal of economics is not to find universal laws like physics — it’s to take a complex system and reduce it to one that can be easily understood in certain cases that are often close enough to the real world. Sure, there’s no one model that’s best for all cases, but over time we develop an understanding of which models are best in certain contexts. This process involves a kind of scientific rigor, which the humanities often lack. The goals of our field are badly misunderstood, and that’s our own fault.”

    One more critique of Wiz’ post — Economists do often analyze distributional impacts of policies, and who the winners and losers are. Yes, it is true that under a lot of Econ101 models, everyone benefits from certain policies, which actually might benefit only elites. There are plenty of economic models that yield more accurate conclusions. But Wiz is right in the sense that the Econ101 models are often the starting point for analysis, and then the analysis doesn’t go any further.


    March 31, 2010 at 22:29

  5. J (c’mon, lets get some more original names!) is right that I’m being unfair. I’m a firm believer in Richard Hofstadter’s dictum that every good idea deserves to be overstated.
    Looking over what I wrote I think I didn’t make clear enough that my target wasn’t really economists themselves, who I think are more liberal than their public image, and instead was more thinking about what DRDR calls the ECON 101 crowd. Or if thats not what I was thinking at the time, that’s what I think now. The worse offender in this is the Atlantic’s Megan McArdle, who throws around her basic econ knowledge all the time in an incredibly annoying way.
    In terms of J’s point about predictive qualities though, this I find slightly baffling. After all, one of the worst crimes of academic economists is that they (with some noble exceptions) failed to predict the worst economic disaster in over 50 years. So while its true that economics does make predictions, it often makes very bad ones. Predictions are always popular (I’ve seen the supermarket magazines) but when they’re wrong, or premised on ideologically blind constructions, they do more harm than good.
    btw… Historians fuck shit up all the time. I should be clear about that. Most of us are schmucks. I have some thoughts about that too, but I’ll save them for some other time.


    March 31, 2010 at 23:20

  6. “. For instance, employment at will is a policy based on the economic assumption that an individual employee’s bargaining power is sufficiently commensurate with the employer’s to reach a fair negotiated contract. Obviously, that’s a stupid assumption, and can be pretty strongly countered by the fact that in a situation where employees seem to have close to equal bargaining power, a unionized workplace, the employment contracts almost universally call for just cause termination.”

    In addition, economists have the fallback of claiming something is ‘economically optimal’, where they get to influence the conditions which determine what actually happens. Warp the market, and then claim it’s blessing.


    April 5, 2010 at 10:12

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