Life Among the Econ: Talking history with Axel Leijonhufvud

[Cross posted from the History of Economics Playground – original here]

Like many economists, I have enjoyed Axel Leijonhufvud’sLife among the Econ” and nodded appreciatively when he described the social classifications of the Econ as “Grads, Adults and Elders” and chuckled when the young grad tries to impress the elders of the ‘dept’ through adept ‘modl’ building; so when the man himself was holding a glass of champagne and chatting with me at the INET conference, I had to ask how he got that paper started.

“Ah that, you know, of all the papers I have written that is the one they probably translated into the most languages”. [At this point Till jumped in and said of course we all started with ‘Keynes and the Keynesians’ but I digress].

“You know, that paper came out of me being department head, and after a long day of administrative duties, I found myself writing a paragraph here and there, and putting them all in a drawer by my desk.”  Over time those paragraphs accumulated, but there was further inspiration from Farlay Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf – a study of arctic wolves in their harsh northern climate – and it might have provided more than just the homeland of the Econ, as Mowat later wrote:

When I began ‘Never Cry Wolf’ thirty years ago, I intended to cast the wolf in a rather minor role. My original plan was to write a satire about quite a different beast – the peculiar mutation of the human species known as the Bureacrat, who has become the dictatorial arbiter of all our affairs. I also thought it would be fun to take the mickey out [i.e. make fun] of the new high priests of our times, the Scientists, who now consider themselves the only legitimate interpreters of truth. (Mowat, 1963 2001 paperback edition, Preface p. V)

Mowat’s intention was never published with the original book, but life among the Econ definitely puts it across very nicely for the economists…

Publication is a different story of editorial (mis)fortune. The new editor of the Western Economic Journal, Bob Clower, was in the process of changing the journal to Economic Inquiry and was purging a lot of previously accepted papers which he felt were not good enough for his new standards. Clower was in the rare position of being short for the next issues, and as a close friend of Axel, and sometime co-author, Bob asked Axel for his sociological piece (which Axel “had no plans to try and get into print”). The many paragraphs and loose sheets from the drawer were put together in a “somewhat consistent manner” and if you haven’t yet read it, or it’s been a while, it starts a little something like this:

“The Econ Tribe occupies a vast territory in the far North. Their land appears bleak and dismal to the outsider, and travelling through it makes for rough sledding… More research on this interesting tribe is badly needed… Read on

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Advice to young economists… zzzz

[Cross posted from New School Economic Review – original here]

A new video on the INET webpage promises ‘advice to young economists‘ but it’s not exactly awe-inspiring stuff (despite the star cast of the video). Best of the lot is probable INET director Rob Johnson who (paraphrasing Richard Hamming or Johnny Bunko) says to focus on important problems, because you only have so much time on earth and you should look at the big questions.

Beyond that John Kaye says to look at how people act, not how we think they should act – despite, as he says, the things he has been teaching over the last many years. Joe Stiglitz says to look at solving the problems of the developing world, Ian Goldin wants a toolbox and Anatole Kaletsky says these are exciting times to study economics. So yeah, despite the amount of interesting things these people usually have to say about economics, there’s not a lot to take away here. The cruel twist is perhaps Rob Johnson’s comment that he would give this advice to a ‘rising star in economics today’ … Of course, said rising star would probably not be coming with your radical or different ideas.

I think Deirdre McCloskey’s letter to a graduate student is a better time to spend five minutes, so let me leave you with her closing sentiment:

Please, please, my dear, be brave, and remake our splendid subject, the intelligent student of prudence, by bringing it back to science. I’ll hire you, if I can. And you’ll have a worthwhile life in science.

A call to arms for Historians and Economists

[Cross-posted from the History of Economics Playgroundoriginal here]

The Marshall Lectures often provide thought provoking talks and one talk in particular spoke to me looking at the relationship between history and economics: The speaker is a well known historian and he said exactly the right thing:

The only thing that encourages me to open my mouth, other than the pleasure of being on record as a Marshall Lecturer, is the feeling that, in the present state of your subject, economists may be prepared to listen to lay observations, on the ground that they cannot be less relevant to the present situation of the world than some of what they write themselves. Especially, one hopes, they may listen to a layman who appeals for a greater integration, or rather reintegration, of history into economics.

But Eric Hobsbawm said this in the 1980 Marshall lecture – I guess some progress has been made.