Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Coase and Wang are starting a new journal, with an overwrought (but unavoidable) theme

Slightly old news, but I just came across it. From an interview by Nick Shultz: "We are now working with the University of Chicago Press to launch a new journal, Man and the Economy. We chose our title carefully to signal the mission of the new journal, which is to restore economics to a study of man as he is and of the economy as it actually exists."

I look forward to the project. However, this way of putting it always bothers me. Why the hell do they think we all got interested in economics in the first place? Because it was "a study of man as he is" and "of the economy as it actually is"!

This sort of critique gets tired, IMO. Pretty much every economist makes this claim for their work in one way or another. I am restoring economics to a study of human social behavior as it actually is! Those people over there are just playing with unrealistic models! I'm getting to the real thing!

Seriously - can you think of a single economist that doesn't raise this banner over their work? Name me one that doesn't genuinely think this is what they are doing. Maybe the economics equivalent of the machine tool industry (econometricians, etc.) - but even they're building those tools in service of people who are "restoring economics to the study of man as he is".

I don't take Coase too seriously (yikes... that was agonizing to write) when I read this. I've read similar statements too many times before. Everyone thinks this.

I read this statement as saying "Human society is complex and multifaceted. It's hard to take into account everything you'd want to take into account. There are some things I wish people would focus on more and some things I wish they'd focus on less. I'm starting a journal that's going to feature things I wish they'd talk about more and it will reject papers about 'man as he is' that happen to focus on things that I don't want to focus on".

That is not as dramatic, but it's still intriguing. After all, Coase is brilliant. This mission statement would suffice for me. I'd love to get better acquainted with things that Coase thinks are important to focus on. He certainly hasn't disappointed in the past.

As for "restoring economics"... meh.

Self-appointed restorationists ought to be taken with a grain of salt, even if they're Ronald Coase.


  1. "Everyone thinks this."

    Nonsense. There was a huge thrust in social science from the late 19th century and still kicking today to treat humans as automatons subject to a few simple laws like particles in physics. If you think Coase is just blowing smoke here, perhaps it is because he is more familiar with this history than you are?

    And if you want a very prominent example of someone quite famous who very explicitly did NOT think like this at all, see the Milton Friedman of Positive Economics!

    1. Gene -
      So Friedman disagrees with Coase on the best way to think about humans as "they really are".

      The point is that Friedman thought he was getting to the bottom of what "they really are" just as Coase does here. Coase doesn't pay attention to other elements that presumably Friedman thinks are important.

      Which brings me back to my italicized version of what Coase actually means when he presents this mission statement.

    2. It's a trade-off. Do you model a few simple laws quite well and explain a big chunk of what humans "really are" or do you talk less formally about a bunch of things that also explain a big chunk of what humans "really are".

      Neither of these approaches gives us everything we'd want out of talking about humans "as they really are", and it's unclear which explains the most. We're probably best off doing all of it and then connecting the dots together.

  2. "Seriously - can you think of a single economist that doesn't raise this banner over their work? "

    My maths lecturer explicitly said he was not concerned with reality. Friedman's 1953 essay is similar.

    I understand where you're coming from here, but I think you overstate your case.

    1. I really don't think you have actually read and properly understand Friedman's 1953 essay at all.

    2. Thanks anonymous for a substantive and original critique.

    3. OK perhaps I shouldn't feed the troll, but how else do you interpret his essay other than completely unconcerned with real world causal mechanisms?

      I mean, seriously, under a hard version of Friedman's methodology, I could suggest somewhere in my theory that the economy were operated by omnipotent lizards and there would be no real problem as long as I could find some evidence to support it.

  3. Urgh, that should be evidence to support the implications of that, rather than the actual evidence on whether or not lizards run the economy.


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