Sunday, February 19, 2012

The art of economics

A series of essays (called Uneconomics) is appearing on the website Open Democracy. I found Judith Marquand's piece, "Economics as a public art" interesting. Although she doesn't mention it, John Maynard Keynes' father, John Neville Keynes (an economist at Cambridge) wrote a book in 1891 on the methodology of economics in which he argued that economics could also be considered an art, "having for its object the determination of practical rules of action".

But to arrive at 'practical rules of action' to deal with some of the major problems facing the world (which Marquand writes about), economists have to have a much wider vision than the narrow one reflected in standard maximizing models. The best economists have always thought like that, but it takes a wide range of skills to do so and that is not the training young economists are getting. As usual, JM Keynes best described the necessary skills in a famous passage from his obituary of Alfred Marshall:

the  master-economist  must  possess  a  rare  combination  of  gifts.  He  must  reach  a  high  standard  in  several different  directions  and  must  combine  talents  not  often  found together.  He  must  be  mathematician,  historian,  statesman, philosopher-in  some  degree.  He  must  understand  symbols and  speak  in  words.  He  must  contemplate  the  particular  in terms  of the  general,  and touch  abstract  and concrete  in the same flight  of  thought.  He  must  study  the  present  in  the  light  of the  past  for the  purposes  of the  future.  No  part  of man's  nature or his  institutions  must  lie  entirely  outside  his  regard.  He  must be  purposeful  and  disinterested  in  a  simultaneous  mood;  as aloof  and incorruptible  as an artist,  yet sometimes  as near the earth as  a  politician. (p.322)

The part of Marquand's essay that is most relevant to the subject of this blog (and our Anti-Textbook) comes near the end where she writes:
The teaching of economics needs to be changed from top to bottom. Students need to have a grounding in economic history, set in its social and political context. They need to learn some social psychology, drawing on insights from neuro-science and anthropology. They need training in social science research methods focussing heavily on areas which are often neglected in the training of economists – all the ethnographic methods. They need to think critically about selecting indicators; about the design of questionnaires; about the crucial importance of the assumptions when building models. They need to study the operation of current economic organisation set in its political context. And they need some understanding of the rich heritage of economic thought.

1 comment:

  1. They say they will continue with neoclassical theory until a better one comes along. This has happened, but they don't want anyone to see it. Certainly not any students. The dirty little secret of neoclassical economics has been exposed. A former PhD econ student has discovered an equation that formalizes quantity, quality, variety and convenience. This creates a scale for utility.