Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Thinking in the can

Brad DeLong: How to Think Like an Economist (If, That Is, You Wish to...)

It's an awkwardly constructed title. The "that is" should come first or last inside the parentheses. When you separate the "if" from the "you wish to", the power of those four syllables is weakened immeasurably.

Also, since parentheses set off minor ideas, the "..." doesn't belong in there. (Or if you do put it there, maybe you shouldn't close the parentheses...

An awkward title, but the first six words drew me to it. DeLong opens with a grand introduction:

I have long had a "thinking like an economist" lecture in the can. But I very rarely give it. It seems to me that it is important stuff—that people really should know it before they begin studying economics, because it would make studying economics much easier. But it also seems to me—usually—that it is pointless to give it at the start of a course to newBs: they just won't understand it. And it also seems to me—usually—that it is also pointless to give it to students at the end of their college years: they either understand it already, or it is too late.

By continuity that would seem to imply that there is an optimal point in the college curriculum to teach this stuff. But is that true?

JFC, he's setting up a Laffer Curve to describe the "optimal point in the college curriculum" to give his lecture-in-the-can.

Oh, and the last time I saw anybody use the word "newbie" they spelled it "newbie".

"Every new subject requires new patterns of thought," DeLong says. Not sure what he means. Creative spelling, maybe?

What is a "pattern of thought"? I look at patterns all the time in the lines on my graphs. One line goes up, or it goes down, or it doesn't; and the other line does something similar, or it doesn't. Those are patterns. But what the hell is a "pattern of thought"? Maybe it's like being in a rut?

After a semicolon, DeLong finishes his thought:

every intellectual discipline calls for new ways of thinking about the world.

Well, I'd hesitate to disagree with that. But I still don't know what he is talking about, apart from vague generalities.

After too much of this grand emptiness, DeLong gets around to describing economics:

While economics is not a natural science, it is a science—a social science. Its subject is not electrons or elements but human beings: people and how they behave...

I disagree. Economics is not about human beings. Economics is about monetary balances. Most economic quantities are measured as monetary balances. DeLong continues:

While economics is not a humanity, it is humanistic. Its subject matter is made up not of quarks or molecules or animals but of people. And to understand people you have to get inside their heads: understand their hopes, fears, desires, reasoning, plans, expectations, and actions. Thus one of the principal intellectual moves in economics is one that is totally absent from the natural sciences: it is for you to imagine yourself in the place of the people you are studying. Thus economics often turns into an exercise in introspective psychology.

I get very uncomfortable when someone starts talking about getting inside my head. I worry that they might want to understand my behavior so that they can change me, to get me to do something else instead: drink Mountain Dew instead of coffee. Or smoke Marlboro instead of Winston. Or get people to stop smoking. Or get people to think Donald Trump has a personality disorder, or doesn't have. Or, however you want to manipulate society, instead of just letting people be.

Whatever economics is, what it should be is the study of what's wrong with the economy, of when it went wrong, and of how we can fix it. It's not about people. It's about piles of money: monetary balances and, in particular, monetary imbalances.

Just one more thing.

DeLong talks about "The principal things to remember that flow because economics is a social and not a natural science". First on his list:

Because economics is a social science, debates within economics last a lot longer and are much less likely to end in a clear consensus than are debates in the natural sciences. The major reason is that different people have different views of what makes a free, a good, a just, or a well-ordered society. They look for an economy that harmonizes with their vision of what a society should be.

In other words, you've got a bunch of self-interested assholes with "different views" and they base their science on their views, when really they should base their views on their science.


Michael Leddy said...

I think you have good reasons for your exasperation with this fellow’s writing.

I’ll add two more details about this sentence: “While economics is not a humanity, it is humanistic.” Humanity is indeed a singular form for referring to a branch of learning (the OED has citations for it), but “one of the humanities” would keep the reader from wondering whether “a humanity” is a thing and looking it up. And the writer misuses “humanistic.” That something is about people (like, say, crowd control) doesn’t make it humanistic.

The Arthurian said...

Hi Michael. DeLong's "a humanity" bothered me a lot. I like your solution. (I didn't even notice the bigger problem with "humanistic".)

I find I'm a lot more willing to point out problems I find with the writing, since Paul Romer opened that door. Being clear is as much a part of the process as working out the economics of a situation.

But I still have too many problems with my own clarity.