Economic methodology, internationalization, and writing style

This one’s really for the economists. Just wanted to record some jumbled thoughts while I work my way through The Nobel Factor by Avner Offer and Gabriel Söderberg. It’s about the relationship between economic methodology and the sociology and political context of the discipline, through the lens of the economics Nobel.

It’s a book practically guaranteed to produce a mix of violent agreement, indignant anger, and existential angst in the economist-reader. So, very good stuff, is my point. I will probably have more to say about the book specifically in about 200 pages when I’m finished reading it. I had written something here about my initial impressions but I am overwriting it with this sentence because I should wait and see what else it holds.

What is giving me pause is that I accidentally paired it with a re-read of Deirdre McCloskey’s The Secret Sins of Economists. Never a good idea to go too long without a read or re-read of some McCloskey, I say, and this one crossed my desk again at random this week.

The one-two punch of these two things together (and Paul Romer’s recent broadside against macro, for that matter) is making me wonder again about the links between methodology, the composition of the discipline, and our writing style as economists. Which of these begets which parts of the others?

One thread underlying McCloskey, Romer, and Offer and Söderberg is being lost in the void of ahistorical theory-for-its-own-sake.

McCloskey:

Until economics stops believing, contrary to its own principles, that an intellectual free lunch is to be gotten from qualitative theorems and statistical significance it will be stuck on the ground waiting at the cargo-cult airport, at any rate in its high-end activities uninterested in (Really) How Much. High-end theoretical and econometric papers will be published. Careers will be made, thank you very much.

According to these accounts, there is little space in economics for the hows and whys of specific episodes or events. What exactly went on in a particular case is not the point of the exercise, at least in theoretical work and so the argument goes. Rather: what is the minimal general equivalent model of the problem that generates regularities?

I think there are structural and stylistic facts on the ground that are part of the rich brew of explanations for the context of this critique.

First, let’s note how mechanical our style of writing papers has become. There is an accepted template that grad students especially hang on to for dear life—and a good thing too, since it takes a lot of the pain and challenge of writing off the table in favor of getting the product on the page. Intro, literature review, data/model, analysis, conclusion. Propositions, theorems, tables, and so on.

Second, we can contrast this with the writing style of the most famously readable economists through at least the middle of the 20th Century, rich with examples and conversational tone, looser with structure, precise and formal but without being arcane.

Third, we can accept that graduate programs in economics are an extremely international affair, with the “top” programs in particular very diverse, at least in terms of country of origin. The degree to which economists from around the world talk in the same formal and technical language is presumably related here. Yes, economics operates in English, but the “house style” of economics is the true dominant language of the profession. Jargon is our common tongue.

Fourth, is it fair to say that at least a majority of our graduate curriculum is about fields as opposed to things, places, or times? Is it fair to say that in our apprenticeships, one’s “local knowledge” is more about schools of thought than it is about events?

Fifth, and related to all, our research output, to varying degrees depending on the level at which we operate, is tailored for presentation in seminars as much as it is for a written essay. The job talk rules; the hybrid marketing-refereeing exercise of the pre-print seminar tour rules. Even when written down, lengthy arguments—books—are not a valued currency in our field.

Throw some of these, dare I say, stylized facts in a shaker and what will it taste like on the other side? It might taste like something vulnerable to the kind of critiques my sources are getting at. I took a dim view of what I saw as ill-informed, column-filling economist-bashing in the immediate aftermath of 2008 and its discontents. But these are not that.

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Internationalization is great! It’s excellent that we can make a plausible stab at rowing in the same direction and being able to talk to each other. Yet is there no effect on our writing? To become less parochial, we have to become less specific. We must now be understood in a way that can’t tolerate local flavor if we’re going to get anywhere in addressing the audience of our peers.

We must fit our work into an off-the-shelf template if we are going to reliably turn out graduates who reliably turn out publications. Stylistic uniformity, with rules of layout to follow and terminology that is somehow both plain and convoluted, is the real flattening of research output across the discipline.

It is at least possible that the dead-eyed technical manual house style of the profession can’t be separated from the forces of internationalization, curriculum design, and professional advancement. In turn this mutually reinforces the methodological tropes that leave us at a loss to explain the world as it is. We reach for a model.

I like economic models! I think rational choice (properly understood!) is the bee’s knees. I think story-telling, game-playing, and thought-experimenting are all wonderful and valid ways to confront ideas.

And yet I also think our manuscripts could be livelier, earthier, and quirkier. I like reading about history and case studies, and I like learning about interesting people and places. This ain’t that. And I’m not claiming any moral high ground here, by the way: I am just gradually coming to realize all of this, and my own work hasn’t remotely fit the description of what I say I’d like to read.

I took a remarkable course as an undergraduate called “The Economics of OECD Countries”, with the late, much-missed Gavin Cameron. We read about historical episodes and then applied simple ideas and models from macroeconomics to understand them better. We worried about context and “facts on the ground”. I am exaggerating only slightly when I say that nothing in my formal economics training since then was supposed to help me understand in that way a thing that had happened.

I’m starting to think that might be a bit odd.

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