Economics, Philosophy, Politics

Thucydides and the Social Sciences (Autobiographical)

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This post offers a little piece of intellectual autobiography that I hope will place some other posts in a clearer light — especially the posts related to the later Wittgenstein, and the posts on economics. For me, it’s a chance to sort out some of my current thinking by considering what preceded it.

There was a time, shortly after my first exposure to the history of economic ideas, following years of being focused almost exclusively on the humanities, when I thought that what the scholarly world really needed was a kind of new grand unified theory of the social sciences. All I look for from a social science — from any science — is an increase in the power to predict and control nature in ways that serve our purposes, whatever they are. The intellectual run-up to the global financial crisis seemed to show that orthodox economics, as practiced by the world’s leading economists, was failing by this standard.

And economics appeared to be at the vanguard of the social sciences. If economics was driven by “physics envy” — the scientistic desire to emulate the mathematico-deductive rigor of theoretical physics — then other social sciences, such as political science, seemed to be afflicted with “economics envy.” But the global financial crisis called into question whether the emperor was wearing any clothes. Under such circumstances, it seemed to me, wasn’t it worth questioning the reigning assumptions? Might it not be time for some revolutionary science?

Once I began reading about the history of economic ideas, along with critiques of contemporary economic thought, my enthusiasm for this idea grew. To begin with, the secondary literature on economic thought is full of persuasive critiques of the intellectual underpinnings of a great deal of contemporary academic economics, especially the kind practiced in “freshwater” economics departments and by business school professors teaching finance. The more one reads about rational choice theory and the assumptions of quasi-omniscient, hyper-mathematical rationality that dominate so much of mainstream academic economics, the more the field seems ripe for a paradigm shift based on a skeptical rethinking of the basic phenomena under investigation.

In fact, it occurred to me that the predictive successes of modern economics, such as they are, might be largely attributable to the fact that when one is investigating human behavior related to money and closely related subjects — the core focus of economics as a subject matter — the single most important factor in human behavior is calculated self-interest, or, as economists sometimes call it, “rationality.” When making money, people will generally try to make as much as they can with as little effort as possible; when spending money, people will generally try to spend as little as they can for the greatest possible return; and so on. If you’re trying to predict money-related human behavior using as simple a model as possible, a model based on the assumption that individual actors are more or less rational agents (in the economic sense of rationality) is probably your best bet.

But even if you achieve good predictive results with this model in the context of money-related activity, this success obviously does not imply that rationality will always be the most useful model for predicting human behavior, especially in contexts less directly related to money, or where we have good reason to believe that non-pecuniary concerns may trump pecuniary ones.

For example, when we try to imagine what contemporary American political life would look like if all the political actors behaved purely based on calculated self-interest — without gaming the results ahead of time by redefining “self-interest” to include all sorts of ad hoc preferences and motivations that we would not ordinarily view as “self-interested” — the thought experiment leads to absurd results. Do we live in a world with no voters, where politicians run for office without any ideological commitments, tribal affiliations and moral commitments play no role, and officials attract the public’s support by offering generous populist benefits, such as lavish infrastructure and a guaranteed minimum income, with no concern for the deficit? Not at all. Many of the central features of our political life are phenomena that one would not expect to see if the relevant actors were behaving purely as rational actors — unless, again, the idea of rationality is transformed beyond recognition or usefulness.

So, when one discovers that the rational choice methodologies of economics have expanded, perhaps based partly on economics’ scientistic allure, to other domains in the social sciences, the case for a new grand unified theory of the social sciences seems even stronger. If the use of rational choice theory in economics invites skeptical questioning, the use of rational choice theory in, for example, political science — in so-called “public choice theory” — can sometimes seem not only absurd but useless. What unexpected predictive successes can public choice theory claim, against the countless instances where its models would lead us astray? The same could be asked of many rational-choice-based forays into sociology, such as the study of family life.

Certainly, focusing on calculated self-interest may help to dispel comforting illusions about human behavior — for example, if anyone thinks that crime results from some kind of mental pathology, it could certainly be useful to show the contexts in which rationality helps explain crime. But how many comforting illusions are there left to dispel today? Hasn’t the Machiavellian assumption of cold, calculating rationality as the driving force in all human behavior become our own dominant illusion — comforting us not by flattering our moral characters, but by flattering our cold-eyed realism, our courageous perceptiveness and freedom from childish illusions — even where an equally tractable alternative model might yield superior predictions?

With these thoughts in mind, I asked myself: why doesn’t someone develop a better alternative to rational choice theory that can displace its imperialistic role within the social sciences? Why, for example, doesn’t someone follow the lead of Thucydides, who recognized the great importance of self-interest to human behavior, but saw self-interest as one only one of human beings’ three central motivations — the other two being fear and honor?

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Politics, Science

Syll, Krugman, and Models in the Social Sciences

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The heterodox Swedish economist and gadfly Lars Syll had a blog exchange with Paul Krugman recently that reminded me of some thoughts I’ve been meaning to post about modeling in the social sciences. First, Syll accused Krugman of not being a “real” Keynesian, because Krugman subscribes to the model-driven, orthodox-economics “John Hicks IS-LM interpretation of Keynes,” not to the true Keynesianism that passed down through Syll’s heterodox mentor Hyman Minsky.

Krugman offered his usual responses, noting that “Keynes said a lot of things, not all consistent with each other,” and that in any case, the important thing in economics — as in any field hoping to be a science — is predictive power, not faithfulness to some oracular founder.  Then Krugman offered a remarkably direct challenge:

And as I have often argued, these past 6 or 7 years have in fact been a triumph for IS-LM. Those of us using IS-LM made predictions about the quiescence of interest rates and inflation that were ridiculed by many on the right, but have been completely borne out in practice. We also predicted much bigger adverse effects from austerity than usual because of the zero lower bound, and that has also come true.

Now, what have those who declare themselves the true Keynesians had to offer? Has insisting that expectations are volatile and unpredictable been helpful in this context? Actually, if anything it lends support to believers in the confidence fairy. After all, if it’s all animal spirits, who are we to say they’re wrong?

Has declaring uncertainty to be unquantifiable, and mathematical modeling in any form foolish, been productive? Remember, that’s what the Austrians say too.

If you can show me any useful advice given by those sniping at me and other for our failure to be proper Keynesians, I’ll be happy to take it under consideration. If you can’t, then we’re just doing literary criticism here, and I’m not interested.

What surprised me — and I have to admit, disappointed me — was Syll’s response. He failed to offer any example of “useful advice” (good predictions) made by heterodox economists like Syll but overlooked by gadget-driven, orthodox “Keynesian” (i.e., not dogmatic right-wing neoclassical) economists like Krugman.

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Politics

A hierarchy of political needs?

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Longtime readers of the blog may remember that when I first started posting, in March 2014, I began with an odd question: what would a progressive Milton Friedman say? Underlying the question was my sense that contemporary American progressives have failed to articulate a vision of government that could replace the crumbling vision of the Reagan era, as embodied in Milton Friedman’s rhetorically powerful and very influential Capitalism and Freedom.

In retrospect, one of the unstated assumptions of that series of posts — to which I hope to return, especially as the materials for a progressive post-Reagan-era vision continue to accumulate, if not coalesce — was the idea that a contemporary, progressive Capitalism and Freedom would be primarily about economics, as Friedman’s book was.

But why should this be the case? Why must economic policy and the government’s role in the economy be the defining focus of the next “era” — the next political or constitutional regime — in the United States? Even if the New Deal era and the Reagan era were largely defined by changes in economic ideology and policy, must this always be the case?

In particular, as I turned toward thinking about the environment as part of a recent project, I wondered whether the next American political regime could be defined by the response to environmental problems and above all climate change, which, it’s at least plausible to argue, is the single most important political issue facing the United States and the world today. Maybe Europe’s Green Parties could be a sign of things to come.

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If, Literature

If (a novel) now available on Kindle

 

 

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For anyone who was curious about my experimental novel If but thought — can I really afford to spend $17 on an unfamiliar novel of ideas by an author who does not even exist? — Livingston Press is making If available on the Kindle for only $2.99 for a few weeks. Please take a look — and if you like the novel, consider writing a review.

As mentioned in earlier posts, If is a philosophical novel with a choice at the end of each chapter. It explores themes of freedom and constraint. I discussed it in an interview with Electric Literature earlier this month, and I’ll have more to say about it in a soon-to-be-published interview with the Seattle Wrote blog. In the words of the publisher:

In If, you are the nameless protagonist, a young dreamer from northern California. At the end of each chapter, you must make a decision, some seemingly frivolous, some traumatic, but all far from inconsequential. These decisions shape your identity as the novel swerves toward twenty-two possible endings. From the margins of starvation in a third world country, to a romance in Paris, to an opulent party in a Manhattan high-rise, your life becomes the unexpected result of the choices you make. Can there be too much freedom? And how much of life lies within our control?

 

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Literature

Coming soon: If (a novel)

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I’ve been helping to write the promotional materials for If (a novel by the author(s) of this blog) over the last few days, and I thought I’d post some of the materials here in case anyone would be curious. If will be coming out later this year from Livingston Press, a refuge of the humanities in the fine state of Alabama:

In If, I used an experimental form where the reader makes a choice at the end of every chapter, and this choice determines the course of the novel. A lot of people probably remember reading adventure books like this when they were children, and part of my goal was to play with that association — to start the book as a children’s book, and slowly have it transform into different things. I wanted to show the metamorphosis from youth to adulthood by making the book change from the kind of book that a middle schooler might read to the kinds of books and poems we read as adults.

Instead of following a single narrative, the chapters in If branch out from one another. Why did you take this approach?

I wanted to write a novel where not only the characters and the setting change, but the book itself goes through metamorphoses. The style changes, the shapes of the paragraphs change, sometimes the genre. My sense is that a boy’s lived experience at the age of twelve is so different from his life at the age of twenty, it’s more like the difference between two novels than like the differences inside of most novels. If tries to capture that.

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