Friday, April 18, 2008

Walnuts in a game of marbles 

Janet and I will be at the MAS annual meeting tonight. Its feathered speaker is Peter Wood, the national association's new president, who was recently at the APEE meeting.
I rather suspect I am the only member whose academic credential is a Ph.D. in social anthropology. I joined APEE to attend its annual convention, held this year (and most years) in Las Vegas. And I stood out like a walnut in a game of marbles. Economists, at least APEE-style economists, speak a language of efficiency. The goal is to figure out how to conjure human behavior from a parsimonious set of premises. If all goes well, the marbles roll smoothly. Anthropologists, by contrast, spend their time examining the rough texture of human affairs, delighted if a pattern emerges from the crisscross purposes of culture, but never expecting it.
Brother Wood, welcome to my life in MAS. I have yet to meet a fellow economist in the group, and suspect I won't. Perhaps it is because the "parsimonious set of premises" we use, while allowing for the average economist to be a moderate Democrat, doesn't have people working daily in departments with people who have surrendered reason to emotion. There is no such thing as "post-modern economics" and I believe there never will be. So when I go to MAS or other such organizations, it is often to hear of departments and university administrators that seem to me a fiction.

Wood challenges me:
At least to me as an outsider, the participants in the APEE conference seemed quite frequently ready to put paid to ideas they found fallacious�simply by pronouncing a logical refutation. I tried without success to detect a spirit of combativeness that would carry the fight further. When I pointed out that Arizona State University had established a degree program in Sustainability and had appointed several economists to its faculty, an economist complacently replied, �But they aren�t in the Economics Department.�

That was a revelatory moment. I suppose all academics perform with a particular peer group in mind: a body of experts whose good opinion matters more than the views of other scholars and intellectuals. APEErs seemed to draw that circle fairly tightly.
But it's not just the more Austrian economists that do this. Where economists do participate more broadly in the life of the university, they are either the 5% of economists who are leftist radicals or someone who decided to chuck the whole notion of academic life and pursue administration. There was a sharp undertone of "told'ja so" to Larry Summers demise at the hands of the feminists of Harvard from his more academic economics brethren. (Oh yes, and "sisteren".)

But the language and culture of these Scholar meetings -- which I started attending around the time this blog was formed, and from which the blog's name is drawn -- are very different from the language of the meetings I attend with fellow economists. I just came back to home from a seminar in which a colleague (who reads here I believe) tried to analyze why movie studios keep making R rated movies when it's G-rated movies that sell well. The answer tends to have more to do with what foreign movie-going audiences purchase: they want Pulp Fiction, not Return of the King. Any talk of why they want that is not part of the discussion, as preferences are taken as a given. It's where we economists stop and where the anthropologists begin.

And I usually stay in my place, except for one night of the year. Which is tonight, so off I go to be a walnut.

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