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Doctor Doctor

May 24, 2011

Like I’d give you the news, this blog is reliably unreliable. I’d like to think that genius doesn’t allow itself to be restricted to temporal constraints, but in reality these things just take time to write. And concentration. Things that are hard to come by when you’re working on several essays at a time as uni invariably forces you to do. I think I did manage to avoid the “month of hell”, but week 6 to week 12 is always an uncomfortable experience. How people have the time to do things in societies, I’ll never know. On the upside, doing well in Uni is pretty gratifying.

Anyway, time for what this blog is truly about: complaining and proving things wrong. This week:

Essentially I got this book (they’ve released a few, it may be a different one) last Christmas. It was entertaining enough – demonstrates baffling phenomena and demonstrates how we can always analyse deeper. Things like why crack dealers live with their parents, why some crime rates dropped (they cite abortion of disadvantaged/unwanted children as the main cause) and the patterns of sumo wrestlers’ victories. Entertaining enough. They also have a podcast which I’m a partial towards. However, certain things about this have begun to bug me, which I’ll get onto in a second. When I found out that Levitt, the economist of the two, was a Chicago University graduate, I was not surprised.

To those who aren’t familiar with economics, the “Chicago School” refers to Milton Friedman and other Monetarists – those who firmly disagreed with the Neo-Keynesian tradition entrenched in the US up until the 1970s (erroneously just called Keynesians). That is, those who believed that government “intervention” within the economy is not only ineffectual, but in fact is counter-productive. There are more radical versions of this, such as Rational Expectations, but essentially such right wing economics has largely been disproven, as either complete nonsense or just inapplicable to the real world. You’d be surprised at how much it still pervades economic thought and policy debate though.

What really frustrates me about these podcasts though is how they always talk about “economists” as if they’re all one lump sum, all from the Chicago school, which can obviously be the only real school of economic thought. The only economists they ever feature on the show are people who either worship Milton Friedman (who they bring up every few episodes or so, and maybe an Adam Smith reference here and there) or are otherwise only in ever so slight disagreement with the Chicago School. In one episode, they discuss what an economist would do if he were in charge of the United States, and the man they interview immediately speaks of privatising anything he can get his hands on.

I don’t really care if the Chicago school wants to promulgate its crap – it’s perfectly entitled to. But I really dislike the frankly disrespectful way in which it treats economists. Freakonomics has a fairly wide readership, and undoubtedly not all those who read it are across the fact that what they entitle “The study of incentives” is in fact not economics at all. It’s the study of one particular strain of economics, and a fairly radical one at that. Their constant repetition of some variation of “So who do we turn to? How about an economist” or “Let’s see what an economist says” diminishes the reputation of economics as a whole, as a collective of government-hating, the-market-will-solve-everything-fairytale-believing, intellectual infants.

Unfortunately this type of economic arrogance is all too common. Of course, I’m biased myself, being a heterodox political economist, but at least I recognise economics is not some kind of factual science, but a social science in which many different theories conflict and disagree. It’s why I tell people that if anybody ever uses the phrase ‘economic theory tells us/says’, they’re not worth listening to.

There are theories. There’s no such thing as “theory”.

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