Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A few things from the first day of class

- First, my math econ professor running the "math camp" in the mornings waxed pragmatic (and tautological): "being able to abstract in useful ways is useful".

- They really emphasized how important the political economy courses were to the program, which I was glad about. They have two sets of advanced micro and macro - they have mainstream advanced courses for each and they have "heterodox" or "political economy" macro and micro. I'm doing the macro track so I have to take the advanced mainstream macro and the "political economy macro". People on the micro track similarly take advanced micro and PE micro. You can also be on the "political economy track" and do both PE micro and macro. I think this emphasis is great - more departments need to bring in political economy. One thing they mentioned that I hadn't thought about before is that this is apparently an advantage on the academic job market. Departments want people that can teach an economic thought or an economic history or a political economy course, and many top departments don't prepare students for that.

- Waiting for my economic thought class, I read some of Keynes's 1937 defense of the General Theory. Apparently he had trouble with people acting like they were in an epic battle with him when they actually weren't too! He wrote: "My differences, such as they are, from Mr. Robertson chiefly arise out of my conviction that both he and I differ more fundamentally from our predecessors than his piety will allow. With many of his points I agree, without, however, being conscious in several instances of having said (or anyhow meant) anything different." Geez - how often do I have that reaction. I think three quarters of the disagreements I have with people in the blogosphere are of this variety: they are taking issue with a view that I never disagreed with them on in the first place. Good to see it happens to the best of us too.

- Lot's of interesting students in my cohort - lot's of master's degrees, which was interesting to see. Very nice people that seem like they'll be easy to work with.

- Finally, I'm TAing a big macro lecture - not that much grading, but two review sessions and one office hour a week. We're using Mankiw's book, which I've never actually used before, so that should be interesting to get familiar with.


  1. So you're simply taking Keynes' word for it that Keynes and this fellow disagree less than this fellow realizes or claims?

    There is a famous quote where Keynes claims that soon enough only a couple of old guys are going to really disagree with his viewpoint, and even they will eventually will forget why they disagreed once the benefits of Keynes' system comes to full flower. There remains a fair amount of disagreement regarding such, and not simply from old men. I think Keynes expected something to happen along the lines of what happened to the ideas of Louis Agassiz or Richard Owen or Asa Grey re: their position on evolution (that is Darwin's original take on evolution and the eventual neo-Darwinian synthesis) - namely that none of the students of these people would adopt their ideas and thus their ideas would eventually be assigned to the dustbin of history. That hasn't been the case. Supposedly heterodox viewspoints in economics remain alive and well (and even expansive). It as if Lamarkianism (or neo-Lamarkianism really) were still alive and well in the biological sciences. Or alternatively, as if geological actualism (sort of the update of Lyell's uniforminitarianism) were still competing with neptunism.

    Now I am not suggesting that the so-called heterodox views are a kin to either neo-Lamarkianism or neptunism, just that economics remains a rather unsettled discipline.

  2. re: "So you're simply taking Keynes' word for it that Keynes and this fellow disagree less than this fellow realizes or claims?"

    There are always potential problems for interpretation of Robertson, of course, but when Keynes says "I think 'y'" and Robertson says "Keynes thinks 'x'", then yes I do trust Keynes. The thing is, Gary, this is a very common argumentative strategy - suggesting that people are saying outrageous things that they actually aren't. It's done to libertarians all the time. It should not be that surprising to come across it.

    As for Keynes's acceptance - modern economics has developed Keynes in a variety of directions, but as far as a paradigm for how to think about economics a huge portion of the discipline is Keynesian. Heterodox schools are fairly marginal - that's something the blogosphere distorts. Creationists are more active online than among evolutionary biologists' ranks too - but of course there are actual biologists who still question evolution.

    The tough thing is "Keynesian" has come to mean "support an expansive fiscal policy". That doesn't seem to be how Keynes meant that claim. If you read the first couple chapters of the General Theory you'll get a better sense of what Keynes thought would sweep the discipline, and he was largely right.

    That's the umbrella paradigm. A huge majority of modern economists are "Keynesian" in that sense.

    Of course on more specific questions there are heated disagreements. I think that's in no small part because empirical work in macro is so hard, for the reasons I've talked about here a lot (and that Andrew Bossie and others have contributed a lot too in the comment threads). That's much like string theory. Nobody looks at the back and forth among string theorists and suggests that Heisenberg and Einstein have failed to establish themselves.

    And on specific questions, of course, Einstein was wrong - take the expanding universe. Darwin was wrong on specific questions too. So? We still work in their paradigms, almost exclusively.

    This is ultimately what Friedman meant when he said "we're all Keynesians now". Not that the models were all the models that Keynes came up with. Not that we all agree with Keynes on fiscal multipliers. But that we conceive of the macroeconomy in the way that Keynes did.

  3. (a) I don't trust Keynes.

    (b) Of course Darwin was wrong; he became a neo-Lamarkian (basically) toward the end of his life. And not surprisingly; there was no mechanism for descent with modification until Mendel was rediscovered.

    (c) Comparing heterodox economic schools with creationism is of course fundamentally wrongheaded. Which is why I compare them to neo-Lamarkianism or natural theology or any of the other competing theories to Darwinianism (as first conceived - descent with modifcation). None of these schools ignored or rejected evolution; they merely rejected the mechanism for such claimed by Darwin and Wallace in the late 1850s.

    (d) So I think you fundamentally misunderstand my point. Everyone agrees that capitalist economies have cycles (just like everyone agreed that biological organisms are the result of evolution by the 1880s - indeed, really the backlash against such only happened in the 1920s when the neo-Darwinian synthesis was on the rise), what they disagree on (and what Keynesians ultimately hold up as their greatest achievement I'd say) is their explanation for such and the available remedies.

    (e) Anyway, I have to get back to work. Presumably thought what you you mean is methodology, and I will grant that Keynes had a significant amount of influence on such, however, not as much as is generally afforded to him. There is a certain amount of smoothing over of differences when it comes to how and in what way that influence is accepted or rejected in other words.

    (d) "Nobody looks at the back and forth among string theorists and suggests that Heisenberg and Einstein have failed to establish themselves."

    The relationship between string theory and Einstein (or Maxwell for that matter) is not the same as the relationship between Keynes and those that followed him.

  4. (c.) is right. It's not as if the heterodox schools are unscientific (for the most part). But they do get overemphasized on the blogosphere. It's not as if economic science is contested. The political ramifications of economics, combined with our tendency to weight voices equally in politics distorts the strong scientific consensus among economists. Heterodox positions in other sciences are rightly marginalized. Because of the political relevance of holders of heterodox positions in a politically relevant field like economics, the heterodox positions get a bigger voice.

    It's not that this is bad necessarily. In a lot of cases heterodoxies are unusual tangents from a very reasonable starting position and they may have something valuable to contribute. But this should not be construed as the science being a heavily contested science (in the way I think you were implying). It's a complex subject matter with all sorts of mechanisms operating. Heterodox positions are generally "wrong" insofar as they are offering an alternative to the mainstream. But they can certainly add important insights and nuggets.

  5. re: "is their explanation for such and the available remedies"

    Right but this isn't "Keynesian economics" in the sense that "Darwinian evolution" is "Darwinian". See my comments above on string theory. Pointing at differences over fiscal policy is similar to pointing to arguing string theorists. Again, Friedman said "we're all Keynesians now" for a reason. And he got frustrated and he had to clarify what he meant because people made the same mistake you're making here.

    re: "The relationship between string theory and Einstein (or Maxwell for that matter) is not the same as the relationship between Keynes and those that followed him."

    You seem confused about the relationship between Keynes and those who follow him, so it's understandable why you might say this.

    Keynes waded into more specific, less soluble debates and that's what you continue to focus on. Keynes would disagree with John Taylor about fiscal policy. And yet Taylor is often considered Keynesian.

    Read what Friedman wrote about Keynes.
    Read what Taylor has written about Keynes.

    You are wrong to say it is unsettled. We are in a Keynesian paradigm right now. There are questions that are hard to get at. That leaves room for considerable debate. But I wouldn't say the science itself is "unsettled".

  6. "Because of the political relevance of holders of heterodox positions in a politically relevant field like economics, the heterodox positions get a bigger voice."

    To go a bit Aristotelian, I'd say that this is due to different anthropological viewpoints; that is the heart of the disagreement. Keynesianism makes some fairly strong claims about about man and society that non-Keynesians disagree with; the former tends to mesh nicely with claims about the need for the modern regulatory state, for deference by the courts to such, for the rule by unelected experts, etc. There is an entire edifice to Keynesianism as a philosophical system - and it pivots to a great degree on claims about fiscal policy (which has broad implications for the role of government and the role of the individual generally). BTW, that conclusions shouldn't be that surprising; Keynes posited a number of claims about the future of man and civilization that look oddly like a social democrats or a democratic socialists wet dream; they didn't come true obviously in any general sense (and those areas that did see such come to fruition have been plagued by many ostensibly unexpected effects).

    As for paradigms, (and I am sure I am not the first person to ask this) does any period of change in economic theory really fit the Kuhnian definition of such? Admittedly it has been a while since I've read "The Structure..." and I am probably not going to re-read it again any time soon.

    Actually, I just Googled "economic thought change kuhn" an got this: http://www.richmondfed.org/publications/research/region_focus/2011/q1/pdf/cover_story.pdf

    It states rather bluntly that Keynesianism is the closest to the a Kuhnian style paradigm shift; I'd like a little more detail on that obviously. And what does "closest" mean exactly?

  7. BTW, since so Darwin got so much coverage here, there is an interesting article on why people have such a hard time believing in evolution in I believe the most recent edition (or the one directly that) of _Skeptic_ magazine.


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