Wednesday, January 19, 2011

methodological revolution as political revolution -- reflections on the future of heterodoxy

At certain times over its 1.5 year history, this blog has been used as a platform for my personal reflections on the state of heterodox economics, either in the very specific case of my own institution or in much more general considerations. Of course, as a leading institution of heterodox thought it is hard to disentangle UMass from larger issues of the past, present and future of radical economics. Today sees another one of these reflections, though I do believe it is one with much more meaning and potentially much more relevance to the future of leftist economics.

You see, while I have thus far focussed on historical issues in searching for a hint of light for the future contained in the past, I am both happy and disheartened to say that this post concerns itself almost explicitly with the future: an "experiment" if you will, in radical economics.

The case has to be made for or against a kind of "radical Freakonomics", an empirical program motivated largely by political frameworks which aim to answer big questions whilst supported by a set of sophisticated statistical techniques. The first main issue is the place of data in economics -- how it has been used and what has its impact been.

The story of data in economics as a social science, and in particular the academic impact of new datasets to enlighten and enrich theories, is of course a very old one. Marx himself found that the story of industrial capitalism needed to be told through the perspective of the disadvantaged classes, searching "underground" and developing his theory of alienation and exploitation based on what he saw to be a serious disconnection between the current "bourgeois economics" of the day and what actually happened in capitalism. Moving to other areas of economics and social science, the examples multiply: what John R. Commons' Documentary History of the U.S. did for institutionalism, or what Richard Morris' Government and Labor in Early America, collecting all those old colonial court records, did for legal history. Revolutionized history and became (and still is!) one of the definitive works on early American legal history -- written in the 1950s!

More recent accounts, however, is where I want to focus my attention:they include Fogel and Engerman's Time on the Cross. Published in the early 70s, the cliometric revolution called for in that book sought to rewrite American history on the back of regressions and other statistical output, starting with the new economic view of slavery.

Like Freakonomics, Time on the Cross had a shock factor to it, and like Freakonomics, it was based on the idea that clever econometricians could overturn a century of historiography on slavery. Coupled with a rising body of theoretical literature by Douglass North and others on the efficiency of institutional change, these libertarian-oriented, empirically-minded economists seriously sought to rewrite American economic history. Unfortunately, while there are still quite a good number of followers in this field, my assessment is that at this point, around 30 years later, economic historians are moving on to other crucial questions, are reaching out to other methodologies, and talking more to people in other disciplines in a more substantive way than simply, "Got any good data?". In short, the field is fragmented right now with no clear direction, especially as North's brand of institutional economics has been formalized and improved upon greatly by scholars such as Daron Acemoglu. It is still possible to take a strongly ideological (and simple) view, but in light of all the theoretical nuances which have been developed as well as a greater respect to cross disciplinary boundaries, the attempts at doing so largely fail.

And so the looming question is whether a radical Freakonomics is really going to make an impact on the trajectory of heterodox thought...

...Or, may I add, on economics at all.

Fogel and North both got a Nobel prize, don't get me wrong. But that's because they ushered in a methodological revolution. By asserting their econometric techniques over the "implicit models" of the historiography, they were radicals in their field. But work which simply strikes at some leftist sympathies is quite different. This type of work has a political "shock power" but without an accompanying methodological revolution (which is, of course, itself a political revolution -- just think for a minute about what Fogel and Engerman were able to accomplish in terms of getting people to think differently about social phenomena) it has a very low discount rate.

This is not the kind of work that changes the trajectory of radical economics -- this is the kind of work that makes it to the front page of the Times, becoming old news in time as the right wing figures out a new way for people to think about incentives.

I will have more to say about this in the very near future, but I just needed to get these thoughts out as I begin to organize my own views about what the future holds for heterodoxy.


  1. This is a pretty forgiving take on Time on the Cross, which is really remarkably bad scholarship as well as being politically noxious. Have you ever looked at Herbert Gutman's Slavery and the Numbers Game?

  2. The second volume is better...

    My point was not to praise TOTC but to compare it to another book which contained a lot of shock value but ultimately will not prove to have a substantial grip on future scholarship: namely, Freakonomics.

    In particular, the same attacks that you make about TOTC being a terrible example of "rigor" have been launched against Superfreakonomics quite successfully.

    When you're dealing with mainstream pop econ, the bar is not set very high to begin with.

  3. Not praising is still pretty generous for a book that is to economic history as The Bell Curve is to sociology. If you meant Without Consent or Contract, you could have written that. But then of course no one would have known what you were talking about. Because what they're famous for is the fraudulent stuff in the initial volume.

    And yeah, Levitt sucks too. There's suck to go around.