Friday, August 1, 2008

Economics = devil's advocacy

There's some low-key furore over in Chicago over the naming of a new research institute after Milton Friedman: here's a little background from the New York Times. The real joy in the story comes from the "protest letter" sent to the powers-that-be by a ton of Chicago faculty, and John Cochrane's double-barreled destruction of said letter.


As usual, academics need to waste two paragraphs before getting to the point, which starts in the first bullet.

If academic writing stopped wasting ink, I'd eat all my hats. The point of the protest seems to be that the signatories don't want to be associated with the evils of "the neoliberal global order", "monetization", "globalized capital", etc etc, which are apparently inexorably linked to poor ol' Friedman, and Chicago. Leaving aside the issue of whether naming a research institute after Friedman would invite some kind of new or extra, real or perceived bias to the actual work of that institute, Cochrane makes a stab at devil's advocacy:

The content of course is worse. There isn’t even an idea here, a concrete proposition about the human condition that one can disagree with, buttress or question with facts. It just slings a bunch of jargon, most of which has a real meaning opposite to the literal. “Global South,” “neoliberal global order,” “the service of globalized capital,” “substitution of monetization for democratization.”

It's a familiar problem for all economists. Everything we're perceived to believe in and stand for - whether or not we do - is simply evil, enemy of the environment, the people, democracy(?), happiness, community, the poor. I mean, I'm super sympathetic to the perception that economics has an agenda; as I've argued with tedious regularity, the pollution of the beautifully hopeful positivist method by normative judgment - the very sin positivism tried to prevent - is the great tragedy of the teaching of economics, but, by god, when we have to argue against this kind of jargon with no intellectual content, is it any wonder we end up sounding like the frontline warriors of 'capitalism'?

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