Academia

Virtual Conference on "Teaching Ethics to Economists: Challenges & Benefits"

By Jonathan B. Wight

Conference Dates: October 21-22, 2021

Virtual Conference

LSBU Business School
&
London Centre for Business and Entrepreneurship Research

During the last 30 years, the conversation between economic theory and ethics has been restarted, after a period of interruption, generated by the positivist era in economics. We cannot ignore, in this revival, the role of the financial crisis, gender and racial inequality and now the divisions revealed by the unequal impacts of the pandemic. An important contribution has been the call for a professional economic ethics led by DeMartino (2011) and DeMartino and McCloskey (2016).

More recently, Dolfsma and Negru (2019) challenge the idea that ethics has no place in economics. Building on their ideas we ask: Is ethics important for the study of the economy and, if so, how should it be taught?

This two day conference will be of interest to lecturers and students in economics and business - and anyone with an interest in the future of the economics curriculum.

Link for the event & registration: 
https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/teaching-ethics-to-economists-challenges-benefits-tickets-170298187463 


Programme

Day One: Thursday 21 October

9.45am - Virtual housekeeping & Zoom functionality - Neil Hudson-Basing, Corporate Events Manager, LSBU

9.55am - Welcome Craig Duckworth, LSBU Business School, UK

10am - Introduction to the day. Economics and Ethics - what is the agenda?

10.30am - Revisiting the analytical relationship of Ethics and Economics María Isabel Encinar & Félix-Fernando Muñoz, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain

11.15am - Theoretical and ethical reductionism and the neglect of subjectivity in economics and economic education - Giancarlo Ianulardo, University of Exeter, UK

12pm - Lunch break

12.30pm - Keeping alive non-individualistic ethics in political economy: a review of concepts from Aquinas to Habermas Stefano Solari, University of Padua, Italy

1.15pm - Racism, the economy and ethics: where does it all begin? - Paolo Ramazzotti, University of Macerata, Italy

2pm - Teaching economic harm to economists - George DeMartino, University of Denver, USA

2.45pm - Comfort break

3pm - The fate of moral philosophy in the age of economic scientism: ethics and welfare economics in mainline economics - Peter Boettke, George Mason University, USA

3.45pm - Plenary: Reflections

4pm - End of Day One

______________________________________________________________________

Day Two: Friday 22 October

9.45am - Virtual housekeeping & Zoom functionality - Neil Hudson-Basing, Corporate Events Manager, LSBU

9.55am - Welcome and intro to Day Two Craig Duckworth, LSBU Business School, UK

10am - Managerial decision making: consequences and Consequentialism - Malcolm Brady & Marta Rocchi, Dublin City University, Ireland

10.45am - Economic curricular, pluralism and the Global South Michelle Groenewald, North- West University, South Africa

11.30am - Accounting as applied ethics: teaching a discipline - Wilfred Dolfsma, Wageningen University, Netherlands

12.15pm - Lunch break

12.45pm - Purusharthas: the human pursuit of wealth and welfare. The Indian approach to ethics and economics - V P Raghavan, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, India

1.30pm - Economics, ethics and deliberation

  • Ioana Negru, Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Romania
  • Imko Meyenberg, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK
  • Craig Duckworth, LSBU Business School, UK

2.15pm - The kidney market debate: a retrospective on Becker and Elias - Jonathan Wight, University of Richmond, USA

3pm - Comfort break

3.15pm - Alfred North Whitehead on the education of the commercial class: its influence on Keynes Dennis Badeen, University of Hertfordshire, UK

4pm - Plenary: Reflections

4.15pm - End of Conference

*Times according to GMT

________________________________________________________________________________________________

This conference will be delivered virtually via Zoom. You will receive the joining instructions on the Monday before the event takes place.


The Shocking Case of Ethical Misconduct in Economics

By Jonathan B. Wight

UPDATE (8/17/14):  David Warsh retracted the harsh critique of Debreu that I quoted below.  Warsh now states that Debreu did not delay in sending a referee's report on McKenzie's paper. He did, however, not inform Arrow of the paper's proof.  For more, see economicprinciples.com.

David Warsh (“The Startling Story behind a Famous Footnote”) calls attention to an apparently shocking case of ethical misconduct uncovered by Till Düppe and Roy Weintraub. 

In Finding Equilibrium: Arrow, Debreu, McKenzie and the Problem of Scientific Credit (2014), Düppe and Weintraub reveal that Gerard Debreu, while himself trying to write a paper on general equilibrium with Kenneth Arrow, had been the reviewer of a paper on that subject by Lionel McKenzie (photo). 

MckenieMcKenzie presented and published first, but Debreu never communicated with Arrow about McKenzie’s work, and never cited McKenzie’s contributions.

Did Debreu steal a Nobel from McKenzie?  Warsh reports that:

Further details had emerged, including an astonishing fact:  the anonymous referee, who bottled up McKenzie’s submission to Econometrica for a critical time, while Arrow and Debreu tidied up their proof, was none other than Debreu himself; and Debreu hadn’t disclosed his conflict of interest to the editor, Robert Solow. Debreu’s conduct was thus revealed as having been dishonorable.

Is it possible Debreu’s conduct can be justified?  Did Debreu think McKenzie’s work was sufficiently different so as to not merit citation?  Did he think McKenzie’s work was of such poor quality that it did not merit citation?

One cannot cite everything that one reads and omissions may seem obvious with hindsight that are not at all obvious at the time.

Still, this reminds us why journals need to lay out and follow strict guidelines for conflict of interest and to promote virtue ethics through exemplars and role models. 


My personal debt to Gary Becker (RIP)

Mark D. White

BeckerI was very sad to hear of Professor Gary Becker's passing. Although I never met him, and heard him speak only once, he had a tremendous impact on my life and career.

As an undergraduate economics major in college, I was focusing on monetary economics and anticipating a career with the Federal Reserve -- I wasn't even thinking of graduate school at that point. And like many an economics geek, I would confuse amaze my friends by applying reasoning based on marginal benefit and cost to everything in their lives, advising them (for instance) to ignore the sunk costs of "everything they'd put into a relationship" and focus on whether they were likely to derive positive net benefit from it going forward.

Oh how they mocked me.

But then two things happened. One was the publication of Richard Posner's book Sex and Reason, which applied basic economic reasoning to a variety of sexual topics. The other was Gary Becker's being awarded the Nobel Prize and my subsequent introduction to his work on crime, discrimination, and the family.

Validation at last! Here were two brilliant scholars, at the top of their fields, applying economic reasoning to topics other than the traditional subject matter of undergraduate economics: interest rates, GDP, and widgets. I loved the internal logic of economics since my sixth-grade teacher Mr. Dalton drew a supply-and-demand diagram on the chalkboard, but I was bored by the topics to which it was normally applied in my college classes. And here were Becker and Posner, doing interesting things with economics -- dare I say, sexy things -- and being heralded for it!

Furthermore, they showed me that I could have an academic career studying these things using economics. So I forgot about Alan Greenspan's job and instead applied to graduate schools (which I would have had to do anyway, but I hadn't thought that far ahead yet). My eventual graduate program didn't focus on "Becker topics," so instead I took the full range of microeconomics courses to get the basic modeling techniques under my fingers. And while I wasn't working on marriage or crime as I progressed toward my PhD, I did always have them in the back of my mind -- and I would include these topics in the introductory economics courses I taught in graduate school and beyond.

By the time I addressed topics like marriage and the family in writing, it was as part of a critique of the ethical foundations of mainstream economics. The same topics that fascinated me and drew me into academic economics as an undergraduate later frustrated me because of the difficulty mainstream economics had dealing with their inherent normativity. People don't help their family members and obey the law simply because the expected payoff exceeds the expected cost -- there's often more to it than that, ethical factors that are not easily reducible to raw utility. Economics has a valuable perspective to offer on these issues, although it is neither complete nor dispositive.

But, I repeat, it is valuable. And for that value, anyone who studied topics such as crime, discrimination, and the family -- or economics in general -- owes Professor Becker a tremendous debt of gratitude. My personal debts go much deeper, of course: I thank him for showing me a new avenue for my curiosity and, indirectly, for inspiring my shift to philosophy to supplement the economic approach he helped to teach me. Rest in peace, sir.


Do we need different types of tenure? On Adam Grant in The New York Times

Mark D. White

AdamgrantIn an op-ed in today's The New York Times, Adam Grant, bestselling author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (and fellow blogger at Psychology Today), examines the current tenure system in American universities and the skewed incentives they provide for continued work after tenure:

It's no secret that tenured professors cause problems in universities. Some choose to rest on their laurels, allowing their productivity to dwindle. Others develop tunnel vision about research, inflicting misery on students who suffer through their classes.

...

Instead of abolishing tenure, what if we restructured it? The heart of the problem is that we’ve combined two separate skill sets into a single job. We ask researchers to teach, and teachers to do research, even though these two capabilities have surprisingly little to do with each other.

Later in the piece he recommends three different kinds of tenure: research-only, teaching-only, and research-and-teaching, each tailored to a professor's talents and drives.

Some universities currently have similar positions: some have research professors, for instance, and most have some version of a lecturer. As far as I'm aware, however, the lecturer position, while it may carry some form of tenure, is rarely considered equivalent to professor positions, which demeans the devotion of one's time primarily to teaching. So Grant's proposal would certainly be an improvement over the status quo in this regard.

Having three types of tenure would allow for more delineation of job responsibilities, improve the targeting motivation (as Grant argues), and provide more precise guidance to committees charged with granting reappointment, tenure, and promotion. (As chair of my department I serve on such a committee at my college.)

Ideally, however, a scheme like this would not be necessary. Since evaluation occurs at the level of departmental and college-wide tenure-and-promotion committees, they can lead in reforming this process (with changes in motivation flowing down from there). They should allow for faculty to have different orientations regarding teaching, research, and service (the often-forgotten aspect of a professor's job). They should be willing to assess each faculty member according to his or her particular mix, as long as they remained "productive" in whatever way they chose to further the mission of the college or university. Fantastic instructors should be valued as much as prolific and acclaimed researchers, as well as active campus citizens and the faculty members who successfully combine two or even all three of these roles.

As I advocate for in my committee, all three roles are essential to a flourishing university but not every faculty member should be expected to excel in all. As economists know, there can be enormous benefits to specialization of labor, and I would like to think these benefits can be realized without creating additional bureaucracy and proliferation of tenure-tracks. While I agree with Grant's concerns, I would prefer to encourage plurality within the existing tenure system rather than making it more complicated. But this relies on those responsible for making personnel decisions to adopt this pluralistic mindset—and if they cant (or won't), then multiple tenure tracks may be the next best option.

(By the way, for a humorous look at this topic, see The Onion's recent post here.)


The Nobel Quandary

Jonathan B. Wight

My co-blogger Mark White questions the need for economics to be considered a science. 

Along similar grounds I will ask whether there are enough outstanding discoveries in economics to warrant a Nobel Prize every year?

The first Nobel in economics was awarded in 1968, technically today called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred NobelNobel

Given that only living people can win the Nobel (which seems a crying shame), the first ten or twenty years had plenty of 20th century breathing giants to celebrate—Samuelson, Friedman, Hayek, Arrow and others. 

I’m not saying we are now scraping the barrel.  Eugene Fama, Robert Shiller, and Lars Peter Hansen who won this year made great contributions.  But the contradictions between Fama and Shiller demonstrate how uncertain those contributions might be. 

John Kay notes that:

“Copernicus [Shiller] was right and Ptolemy [Fama] was wrong. There are not, and will not be, equivalent certainties in economics, and if such certainty is the hallmark of science – I do not think it is – then economics is not a science. The resulting insecurity seems to lead the Nobel committee to claim more for the subject of economics than it has achieved.”

I am waiting for the time the Nobel Committee announces that no one has won that year, out of respect for truth and humility for what we think we really know.  


How to Stop "The Death of Economics"

Mark D. White

Recently, at The Weekly Standard, David M. Smick opined in a piece titled "The Death of Economics" on the decline of the field over the last 50 years, focusing on the last decade in particular and the increasing hubris among policy-oriented economists:

For decades, hubris has been the common currency of the economic policy world. It is killing the economics profession. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, liberal economists believed they could eliminate all poverty. In the 1980s, conservatives thought tax policy could permanently raise the savings rate. It turns out other factors also influence a person’s decision to save.

In the first decade of this century, some central bank economists thought they could engineer monetary policy (with the help of global capital inflows) to eliminate the U.S. business cycle. What happened? The underpricing of financial risk helped lead to the global financial crisis.

After outlining the perilious state of the world economy (for those who haven't noticed), he asked some probing questions, such as how we can know when much debt is too much debt; how we can hope to understand entrepreneurship and its relation to regulation; and how we can stop making "the little guy in America the permanent fall guy." He concluded:

An economic policy rethink won’t be easy. But the first step is to deep-six the hubris. This year should mark the death of all government five-year economic forecasts.

I agree, as I've written before. As Smick stated in the beginning of his piece, a five-month forecast might be reasonably accurate, but a five-year forecast... fuggedaboutit.

But I found this statement from the middle of the piece more intriguing:

So at worst, the field of economics is dying. It is becoming less a science and more an art.

Let's not go that far... yet. Economics is dying only if one conceives of it as a science like physics in the first place. If one doesn't, however, one can see economics emerging from this internal crisis a more holistic, thoughtful—and yes, ethical—discipline.

  • An economics which doesn't purport to understand and model the entire economy in precise quantitative terms (reflecting the hubris Smick decries), but one which uses sound qualitative judgment, based on experience, to move economic indicators by small increments in the desired direction, reflecting improvement in people's lives.
  • An economics that doesn't claim to have "the solution" to a crisis, but has a good idea what to do to get there (in the sense described above).
  • Finally, an economics that will assess its own progress and will admit when the first choice of action has failed and it needs to move to the second one.

If economics were reconceptualized along these lines, it would resemble neither science nor art, but rather practical philosophy—which, after all, is how it all started. While economists trained in the current quantitative, positivistic paradigm would resist it, I believe this approach to economics would recapture people's faith in its predictions and recommendations—in no small part based on its humility rather than hubris.


"Should We Trust Economists?" Yes and no.

Mark D. White

The worst thing to do when I'm trying to write is have Twitter open. Not only is it distracting (obviously), but it can be positively engrossing. So why do I do it? Because it helps me keep me up-to-date on the state of the world and what smart people are saying about important things.

In the last hour, I've seen two articles that pose questions, which I'll take a shot at answering—please feel free to offer your own answers in the comments below.

Question: "Should We Trust Economists?" asks Noah Smith in The Atlantic.

Answer: Yes, but with serious qualifications.

Smith recounts some familiar and valid criticisms of economics and economists, largely focusing on the limitations of economic models and the lack of experimental data with which to test them. He falters, though, when he dismisses alternative approaches, such as Austrian economics, and in a particularly infantile and insulting way. (I'll leave it to my friends at Coordination Problem to address this if they choose.) Except for that piece, Smith gets a lot right. I'll just mention two reservations that Smith fails to address:

a) Economists have a strong ideological and political bent, which consciously or unconsciously influences their work. This may be true of all scientists and researchers, of course, but the arbitrary and heuristic nature of many assumptions in economic models grants economists a great deal of discretion to insert their values and beliefs in their "scientific" models. So when an economists says "my model recommends stimulus" or "my model recommends austerity," keep in mind that this is not an entirely objective statement—nor can it be.

b) Somewhat related to the first point, economists are much better at saying what will happen than what should happen (and that's true even if you're very doubtful about how well they know the former!). When economists say what should happen—that is, what the government should do or what society should aim for—they're assuming a certain goal which is not an economic concept but an ethical or political one, about which economics training lends little specialized insight. So to the extent we should trust economists, we should trust them to recommend ways to get different places, leaving it to our elected representatives, acting through us, to decide where we want to go. (Or, ask a philosopher!)

So should we trust economists? Yes, if we restrict and temper that trust to focus narrowly on what economists do best—trace out the implications of various actions for key economic variables—and keep in mind the limitations of their prescriptions, based on both the limitations of economic science and the inherent ideology of economic models.

Question: "The question libertarians just can't answer," which is: "If your approach is so great, why hasn’t any country anywhere in the world ever tried it?" This comes from Michael Lind at Salon.

Answer: Many reasons, but the most important one is probably the temptation of power and the wealth it artifically creates, which libertarianism minimize. Even if we want to take a more optimistic approach, then I would cite the presumption of some people to think that a) they know what is better for other people and b) they have the right—nay, the responsibility!—to impose this better way of life on them. This is temptaton of a different sort, born of beneficence but grounded in hubris and disrespect. (I trust Bleeding Heart Libertarians will have more to add to this before long!)


Two book reviews in economics and ethics from the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

Mark D. White

Thanks to the indispensable Heterodox Economics Newsletter (latest issue here), here are two recent book reviews that may interest our readers, both from the latest issue of the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics (6/1, Spring 2013). [In the interest of full disclosure I must note that I blurbed the first book and the second was published in my "Perspectives in Social Economics" series from Palgrave Macmillan.]

Economics_as_applied_ethicsEconomics as Applied Ethics: Value Judgements in Welfare Economics, by Wilfred Beckerman (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), was reviewed by our own Jonathan B. Wight, who finds it "a well-written textbook geared to advanced undergraduate or graduate students of economics, many of whom are largely and regrettably innocent of the ethical problems inherent in conventional economic analysis." After a detailed critical breakdown by chapter, Wight concludes that:

Overall, this book is highly recommended. It covers the selected topics with depth and sensitivity. The writing is generally excellent, but there are occasions of repetition and unevenness, as if the chapters were compiled separately and merged later. A student reader who is not already familiar with basic ethical theories could benefit from a primer in some places. For example, the book discusses Amartya Sen’s theory of commitment, however it does not dig very deeply to explain or defend that notion, whether from a deontological or virtue ethics approach.

The book devotes a lot of attention to questions of equality and justice, particularly on the work of economist philosophers such as John Broome, Partha Dasgupta, Ian Little, and Amartya Sen. This is
appropriate, interesting, and relevant. However, the book does not appear to address research in experimental economics, biology, and psychology that might be relevant to some of these questions, such as the work in neuroeconomics by Paul Zak, experimental work by Vernon Smith, or recent philosophical work on virtue ethics by Deirdre McCloskey. This is the normal limitation of any text that strives to be concise, yet students should understand there is much more to ethics and economics than can be conveyed in this book.

Approx_prudenceApproximating Prudence: Aristotelian Practical Wisdom and Economic Models of Choice, by Andrew Yuengert (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), was reviewed by Ricardo F. Crespo. According to Crespo, 

Yuengert shows in this book that economic modeling undertakes only a partial analysis of economic action, because it ‘puts away’ interesting features of its subject that deserve to be taken into account. He proposes adopting the Aristotelian account of human action—more specifically, of practical wisdom—as the benchmark against which to consider economic modeling. He maintains that “economics can learn much about its limits from Aristotle, who describes aspects of choice behavior that cannot be precisely modeled” (p. 3). Thus, the aim of the book is to determine what aspects of human behavior cannot be captured by the economists’ models.

After a careful analysis of the book's structure and arguments, Crespo concludes that it

provides the useful service of identifying the characteristics of human action that economic models cannot take into account. It is useful because it explains the challenge to positive economists of trying to incorporate these characteristics into their approach, and because it highlights the features that economists must consider in their normative work. The contribution of the book lies in its originality. Economics books are not usually about what economics cannot do.

Both the author and the reviewer are Aristotelian economists, and readers benefit greatly from Crespo's detailed analysis of Yuengert's use of concepts such as eudaimonia  and contingency (the latter is comparison to Knightian uncertainty). (See Crespo's Academia.edu page for his own work on Aristotle and economics.)


The “Academic Playground”

Jonathan B. Wight

UVA Board rector Helen Dragas is at it again. You may recall that Dragas fired UVA president Teresa Sullivan last June, without cause or due process (see also here and here). A faculty/student uprising led to Sullivan's reinstatement, with promises by Dragas of playing nice in the sandbox.

But Dragas apparently cannot control her need to micro-manage, according to The Washington Post. A few weeks ago Dragas gave Sullivan 65 goals to implement this year—when there are just a few months left in the semester. Dragas stated: "U-Va. is a public institution. It's not an academic playground, and we have to make some difficult decisions."

No one should think UVA is perfect, or even close to it. A great university is like an ocean liner that changes course over many miles; Dragas is like the captain of a PT boat, zipping in circles around the ocean liner, yelling "Follow me! I said! Follow me right now or you're fired!"

This is so condescending it borders on outrageous. More important, it is dangerously ignorant of the moral norms that have guided higher education and contributed to America's economic flourishing.

Successful businesspeople (of which Dragas is one) populate the boards of higher education. But business and academia operate along different ethical norms—for very good reasons. This is beautifully brought out in Reason Magazine's interview with Paul Romer, one of the architects of "new growth theory." Romer notes that

Continue reading "The “Academic Playground”" »


Our Children’s Economics

Jonathan B. Wight

What is the future of economics? Barry Eichengreen posted his ideas in "Our Children's Economics" in The Economist.

According to one view, the economics of 2030 will have marginal improvements, adding a bit of behavioral economics here, a spice of institutional theory there, perhaps even a re-writing of Adam Smith's ethics and a reinterpretation of the invisible hand that is not based on greed.

Eichengreen argues that the marginalist view is likely wrong. We are heading for major rifts and breakthroughs, similarly to the Keynesian revolution of the 1930s. What these are he cannot say.

My own pet theory is that economics will merge with biology to make BIO-ECONOMICS. Both fields try to understand survival and procreation in particular habitats with innovation and adaptation to changing environments.

Eichengreen notes that the mechanism by which knowledge is transferred from generation to generation will radically change. The old model is of a great authority who writes a definitive textbook that lasts for a generation: think of Smith and Wealth of Nations in late 18th century, Ricardo and his Principles in the 19th century, Marshall's great fusion at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, and Samuelson's great synthesis of Keynesian economics in the 1950s and on.

In the future, Eichengreen argues that textbooks will no longer be written by big-name authors, but through a wiki-process, electronically built from the bottom up. The result will be different to be sure:

"The outcome will be messy. But the economics profession will also become more diverse and dynamic – and our children's economics will be healthier as a result."

[Thanks to Pam Thomas for this link.]