Methodology

New book: Jennifer A. Baker and Mark D. White (eds), Economics and the Virtues: Building a New Moral Foundation

Mark D. White

E&V coverOur readers may be interested to know about a new book coming out soon from Oxford University Press that I co-edited with Jennifer A. Baker entitled Economics and the Virtues: Building a New Moral Foundation. From the blurb:

While ethics has been an integral part of economics since the days of Adam Smith (if not Aristotle), many modern economists dismiss ethical concerns in favor of increasing formal mathematical and computational methods. But recent financial crises in the real world have reignited discussions of the importance of ethics to economics, including growing calls for a new approach to incorporating moral philosophy in economic theory, practice, and policy. Ironically, it is the ethics of virtue advocated by Aristotle and Adam Smith that may lead to the most promising way to developing an economics that emphasizes the virtues, character, and judgment of the agents it models.

In Economics and the Virtues, editors Jennifer A. Baker and Mark D. White have brought together fifteen leading scholars in economics and philosophy to offer fresh perspectives on integrating virtue into economics. The first section covers five major thinkers and schools in the virtue tradition, tracing historical connections and suggesting new areas of cooperation. The second section applies the ethics of virtue to modern economic theory, delving into its current practices and methodology to suggest areas for integration with moral philosophy. Finally, the third section addresses specific topics such as markets, profits, and justice in the context of virtue and vice, offering valuable applications of virtue to economics.

With insights that are novel as well as rooted in time-tested ethical thought, Economics and the Virtues will be of interest to economists, philosophers, and other scholars in the social sciences and humanities, as well as professionals and policymakers in the fields of economics and finance, and makes an invaluable contribution to the ongoing discussion over the role of ethics in economics.

Many if not all of the contributors will be familiar names: besides me and Jennifer, they include Christian U. Becker, Tim O'Keefe, James Otteson, Michael Baurmann and Geoffrey Brennan, Eric Schliesser, Andrew Yuengert, Christine Swanton, David C. Rose, Seung (Ginny) Choi and Virgil Storr, and Jason Brennan. (You can see the complete table of contents at Amazon, OUP, or my personal blog.)

Personally, this book has been a dream of mine for a number of years, and working with Jennifer, Adam Swallow and (the late) Terry Vaughn at OUP, and all the contributors, made that dream a reality in every possible way.

Economics and the Virtues has already been reviewed by Adam Gurri at Sweet Talk, where he calls it "a valuable source of insight, especially for economists used to operating within only one framework." Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center and The Economist calls it "a fascinating volume" and "an indispensable collection for anyone interested in moral psychology, economic theory, or the morality of markets," and pre-eminent philosopher and Kant scholar Onora O'Neill calls it "a rich and rewarding collection" that "explores classical accounts of the virtues, and argues that they remain essential not only to character but to culture, including the culture of markets."

(You can also see Jennifer's and my post at OUPblog discussing "The Big Short" in relation to the theme of the book.)


Does economics need religion?

Mark D. White

Thanks to my globetrotting co-blogger Jonathan Wight, who emailed me about this: a symposium in Econ Journal Watch titled "Does Economics Need an Infusion of Religious or Quasi-Religious Formulations?", anchored by Robin Klay's article "Where Do Economists of Faith Hang Out? Their Journals and Associations, plus Luminaries Among Them" and featuring seventeen short responses from people such as Ross Emmett, Dan Finn, David George, Mary Hirschfeld, Eric Rasmusen, and Andrew Yuengert. Bless tham all.


Call for abstracts: Conference, "Economics and Psychology in Historical Perspective"

Mark D. White

Conference call for contributions

Economics and psychology in historical perspective

(from 18th century to the present)

Paris, December 17th - December 19th 2014

Organized by Mikaël Cozic (UPEC, IUF & IHPST, France) and Jean-Sébastien Lenfant (U. Lille 1, France)

 

IMPORTANT DATES:

Notification of interest: June 10th 2014

Deadline for abstract:  July 10th 2014

Notification of acceptance: August 31th 2014

Full paper: December 1st 2014

 

SCIENTIFIC COMMITTEE:

Erik Angner (George Mason university, USA), Richard Arena (Université de Nice Sophia-Antipolis), Laurie Bréban (Université Paris 8, France), Luigino Bruni (Università Lumsa a Roma, Italy), Annie L. Cot (Université Paris 1, France), Agnès Festré (Université de Picardie Jules Verne, France), Till Grüne Yanoff (Royal Institute of Technology, KTH, Sweden), Alessandro Innocenti (Università di Siena, Italy), Ivan Moscati (Insubria University, Italy), Annika Wallin (Lunds Universitet, Sweden).

CONFIRMED INVITED SPEAKERS:

Philippe MONGIN (CNRS & HEC Paris, France), Floris HEUKELOM (U. Nijmegen, Netherdlands), Robert SUGDEN (University of East Anglia, United Kingdom).

CALL FOR CONTRIBUTIONS

“Psychology is evidently at the basis of political economy and, in general, of all the social sciences. A day will come when we will be able to deduce the laws of the social science from the principles of psychology” (Pareto, Manual of Political Economy, 1909, II, §1)

Neoclassical economics was built upon a theory of rational behavior that pretended to be independent from psychological foundations. Actually, Pareto, who has been instrumental in laying the foundations of modern utility and rational choice theory, uphold that economics and psychology needed to develop separately and that the hopes for reconciling psychology, economics and sociology in the social sciences “still remain some way off”.

Over thirty years or so, an important part of economics has been oriented towards realizing Pareto’s prophecy that a day would come when economics and psychology would benefit from reconciling each others, opening the way for a better understanding of individual and collective behaviors. This reconciliation comes after a period of time during which economics has developed its tools and principles away from psychology (or so the standard narrative argues), on the mere assumption that rational behavior could be described satisfactorily with a well-behaved utility function. For many economists, the offspring of this collective effort is called “behavioral economics”, and it is sometimes viewed a new paradigm in economics, providing tools and principles that may be applied to different fields of economic inquiry (finance, development economics, game theory, etc.).

Basics of behavioral economics are now part of any curricula in economics. The advent of behavioral economics has often been associated with a story-telling argument about its early development in the 1970s and its establishment, focusing on three main points: 1) the legitimization of experimental methods in economics; 2) the usefulness of concepts and ideas borrowed from psychology to increase the explanatory or predictive power of the theory of rational behavior; 3) the advent of a renewed view of human behavior and hence of new ideas in normative economics.

Actually, Pareto’s opening quotation reminds us also that psychology (in different guises) has been a fundamental issue for economists even since 18th century, if only because economists have usually grounded their own theory of economics on some ideas about human nature, and especially on human desires and beliefs.

In recent years, historians of economic thought and theoreticians have shown an interest in understanding the ins and outs of the behavioral turn in economics, and more broadly, on the introduction of psychological elements in economic explanations. Some have focused on recent history, enhancing the different trends of behavioral economics. Others have dealt with the nascent of behavioral economics and the early collaboration between economists and psychologists in the 1950s. Still some others have tried to understand how the marginalist school of thought had relied on the experimental psychology of its time—namely psychophysics—and how it had progressively been expelled out of the realm of economics, at least temporarily, with Pareto and Fisher. However, those contributions have not been coordinated and we are far from having a comprehensive overview of the complex history of the relationships between economics and psychology.

The aim of this conference is to gather contributions from historians of economics and historians of psychology (including cognitive sciences), and also from historically-oriented researchers and philosophers of these disciplines. The overall ambition is to understand the way economics has dealt with psychological arguments, methods and concepts throughout history and to highlight the main debates between economists and psychologists that have fostered and are still fostering behavioral economics. It is hoped that these will pave the way for an overall vision of the history of the relationships between economics and psychology and of the methodological transformations of economics as a discipline.

The organizers wish to limit the number of contributions so that most of the conference will take place in plenary sessions. Interested contributors are asked to indicate their interest in participating to the conference to A COMPLETER. The deadline for submitting an abstract is July 10th 2014. It is hoped that the contributions to the conference will in turn lead to the publication of a comprehensive reference book with short versions of papers and to thematic issues in journals.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of topics, authors and schools of thought:

  • Psychology in economics before the marginalist revolution (Hume, Smith, Condillac, Quesnay)
  • Psychophysics, psychology and the (pre)marginalists (Gossen, Jevons, Walras, Marshall, Edgeworth, Pareto and Fisher, psychology in the Austrian tradition)
  • Psychologists, economists, and the birth and development of experimental psychology (1850-1950)
  • Psychology in the institutionalist and Keynesian schools of thought (Veblen, Mitchell, J.M Clark, Keynes, Duesenberry, Post-Keynesian school).
  • How psychologists came to study decision and choice after World War II (Edwards, Davidson, Luce, Suppes, Siegel, etc).
  • The role and importance of ‘mathematical psychology’ and of the ‘representational theory of measurement’
  • Allais’s paradox and other decision paradoxes from the point of view of economics and psychology.
  • National traditions in the development of “economic psychology” (in relation with social psychology) and early behavioral economics in the USA (Katona, Simon), France, Germany, England, Italy, etc.
  • How psychologists have been involved in the development of behavioral economics and alternative paradigms to study economic behavior (e.g. Kahneman, Tversky, Slovic, Gigerenzer)?
  • Did economics borrow concepts and laws from psychology or did they rather borrow methods?
  • What has been the influence of behavioral sciences, marketing and business studies on the development of behavioral economics?
  • What have been the effects of behavioral economics on public policy? Which role played public policy in the development of behavioral economics?
  • What have been the after effects of behavioral economics on the representation of utility and welfare? (Pigou, Boulding, Scitovsky, Easterlin, Happiness economics)
  • How has behavioral economics come into different fields of economics (finance, development economics, health economics, social choice, public economics, normative economics)?
  • The historical development of neuroeconomics and its links with psychology.
  • The role of normative considerations in the development of behavioral economics, and the links between normative and behavioral economics.


If you are interested in participating in this conference, please send a notification of interest mentioning the theme of your contribution by June 10th 2014 and an abstract of approximately 1000 words prepared for blind review by July 10th 2014. Send your abstract by email at eco-psycho@rationalite.org  with the following information:

Name and surname

Affiliation

Title of your contribution

Abstract


Agency, Policy and the Future of Macroeconomics: A Summer School in Economics and Philosophy

Mark D. White

INEM/CHESS Summer School in Philosophy and Economics

“Agency, Policy and the Future of Macroeconomics:

A Summer School in Economics and Philosophy”

University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU

Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain

21-23 July 2014

The International Network for Economic Method (INEM) and Centre for Humanities Engaging Science and Society (CHESS, Durham) will be holding an International Summer School in Economics and Philosophy for graduate students and researchers.

The Summer School is part of the UPV/EHU XXXII Summer Courses and XXV European Courses and continues the series initiated by the Urrutia Elejalde Foundation (UEF).

Lecturers:

Alan Kirman, University of Aix-Marseille, France

Till Grüne-Yanoff, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden

Natalie Gold, King’s College London, UK

Convenors:

Julian Reiss, Durham University, UK

Conrad Heilmann, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands

Anna de Bruyckere, Durham University, UK (Grad Student Assistant)
 
Aims:

The recent financial crisis has shattered the economics discipline like an earthquake. Whilst many economists are striving to rebuild and strengthen the structures that were hit others are taking the opportunity to open their horizons. Economists are often being blamed for having contributed to the crisis, even by prominent members of the profession: ‘the economics profession went astray because economists... mistook beauty... for truth’ (Krugman 2009); economists ‘killed America’s economy’ because of unrealistic models (Stiglitz 2009), and that the Crisis has made clear a ‘systemic failure of the economics profession’ as it had systematically disregarded key factors responsible for outcomes such as the Crisis (Colander et al. 2009).

At the same time, many economists have become at lot more open towards neighbouring disciplines. Some now regularly collaborate with psychologists to investigate to provide the behavioural foundations for choice theory. Even mainstream economists such as Greg Mankiw now urge the importance of political philosophy for their discipline. Modellers look to alternative approaches from complexity theory and agent-based modelling.

The aim of the Summer School in Economics and Philosophy is to present a variety of new insights from this exciting new work from the fringes of economics. It will bring together graduate students with scholars from economics, philosophy and neighbouring disciplines in order to exchange ideas, build a community and strengthen ‘economics and philosophy’ as an independent and diverse research field. This year’s main focus is on complex systems approaches in macroeconomics, the modelling of agency and behavioural policies.

Registration:

The Summer School is open to Masters/PhD students and other researchers at various stages of progress on their dissertation project or academic careers.

To register please send us, by June 15 at the latest, 2014, a short CV and motivation statement to Anna de Bruyckere (email: a.m.c.de-bruyckere@durham.ac.uk). We will accept applications as they come in, so to be guaranteed a place let us know as soon as possible.

Registration Fee and Bursaries:

Participation in the Summer School is free of charge. There is, however, charge a small registration fee of under €50 (with a small increase if you register after May 31) to be spent on food and beverage during the event. There will also be a bursary to help with accommodation expenses in San Sebastian. If you are interested in applying for a bursary, please let us know in your registration letter.

We would like to draw your attention to national sponsorship institutions like the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) in the case of Germany, who offer training course scholarships for students. Please contact your university’s international office for further information on scholarships available in your country.

We gratefully acknowledge the financial support from the International Network for Economic Method (INEM) and the University of the Basque Country (UPV).

Further information: http://chess-centre.org/index.php/chess-events/summer-school-in-economics-philosophy


"Is Economics a Science?" Why I Couldn't Care Less

Mark D. White

There’s been a lot of discussion of late regarding economics’ claim to be a science; Harvard economist Raj Chetty recently answered this question in the affirmative in The New York Times in response to mutterings about Robert Schiller and Eugene Fama sharing the 2014 Nobel Prize (with Lars Peter Hansen) despite having different views on the efficiency of financial markets. Several months ago, Phil Mirowski (Notre Dame) made headlines criticizing neoclassic economics and its claims to be a science while discussing his book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown.

All of this makes me wonder: why is it so important to decide whether economics qualifies as a Science anyway? (The pretentious superfluous capitalization is intentional, by the way, representing the quasi-religious importance placed on this title.) Some thoughts follow below the fold…

Continue reading ""Is Economics a Science?" Why I Couldn't Care Less" »


Call for papers: Special issue of Œconomia on externalities

Mark D. White

I'd like to bring to your attention a fascinating call for papers from the journal Œconomia, a relatively new journal examining the history, philosophy, and methodology of economics:

 

Externalities in economic thought and beyond

Editors of the special issue : Steven G. Medema and Samuel Ferey

Expression of interest: November 15th, 2013

Deadline for submission: September 1st, 2014

Planed publication of the issue: 2015

 

Over the last sixty years, the concept of externality has become prominent within economics. It is common knowledge that the concept was first discussed by Marshall and then given an analytical content by Pigou (1920) in The Economics of Welfare, in which he analyzed the divergence between marginal private interest and marginal social interest in case of a negative externality and proposed to implement a tax system on polluting activities. Since Meade's (1952) now classic presentation of the effect of an externality through the fable of the apple grower and the beekeeper, the concept of externality has gained visibility in mainstream economic analysis. It has fostered a vast literature and many debates between economists intent on refining the definition and the actual scope of the concept. [Read More]


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.)


Interview with Julian Reiss, author of Philosophy of Economics: A Contemporary Introduction

Mark D. White

Phil of econThe good people at Routledge have posted an extensive Q&A with Julian Reiss, Professor of Philosophy at Durham University, regarding his forthcoming book Philosophy of Economics: A Contemporary Introduction. From the lead-in:

Philosophers since Aristotle have asked questions and offered opinions about economics, broadly defined. But during the 20th century economics developed into a field which was, as Julian points out in the beginning of his upcoming work, “hostile to philosophical reflection.” Economics became a science: economists began to see in “the economy” a space made up of empirically observable facts interpretable by the assumptions, methods, and models familiar to students enrolled in Econ 101 classes. In recent years, though, certain economic realities—the financial crisis, e.g.—have challenged those assumptions, methods, and models. A writer for the Economist described the consequence of recent challenges to the science of economics: “OF ALL the economic bubbles that have been pricked [since 2008], few have burst more spectacularly than the reputation of economics itself.”

Julian’s book introduces readers to the field in which many of those challenges are now being articulated. Questions of ethics, of the nature of human rationality when faced with economic decision-making, of the verifiability of economic models—these questions and more are all now being asked anew about economic practices and decisions. This interview hopes to open those questions to all curious readers.

Read the entire interview here.


The Illusion of Mathyness

Mark D. White

KimmoKevin Drum at Mother Jones recently highlighted a new paper by Kimmo Eriksson (Mälardalen University and Stockholm University) published in Judgment and Decision Making titled "The Nonsense Math Effect" (7/6, November 2012). Here's the abstract:

Mathematics is a fundamental tool of research. Although potentially applicable in every discipline, the amount of training in mathematics that students typically receive varies greatly between different disciplines. In those disciplines where most researchers do not master mathematics, the use of mathematics may be held in too much awe. To demonstrate this I conducted an online experiment with 200 participants, all of which had experience of reading research reports and a postgraduate degree (in any subject). Participants were presented with the abstracts from two published papers (one in evolutionary anthropology and one in sociology). Based on these abstracts, participants were asked to judge the quality of the research. Either one or the other of the two abstracts was manipulated through the inclusion of an extra sentence taken from a completely unrelated paper and presenting an equation that made no sense in the context. The abstract that included the meaningless mathematics tended to be judged of higher quality. However, this "nonsense math effect" was not found among participants with degrees in mathematics, science, technology or medicine.

It's a short paper and well worth the quick read (or read Drum's post, which summarizes it well). Eriksson reports that humanities/social science readers tended to be enchanted by the irrelevant equations, with 60-65% rating the adulterated abstract higher, but economists are not broken out of that very broadly defined group (which only includes 84 people as it is). Given some (most?) economists' predilection for mathyness, though, I would not be surprised at some degree of unconscious bias for research that promises greater mathematical sophistication (though I assume any such bias would melt away once the paper was read).

But I think many other economists, especially heterodox economists who are more skeptical about the benefits of mathematical modeling, might go the other way. I know that when I read an interesting abstract and then skim the paper, my eyes glaze over when I hit math--not because it doesn't add anything to support the author's thesis but because I'm afraid it will leave out many things in the interest of abstraction and simplicity, such the very nonquantitative aspects of the model that I found fascinating in the first place! Some things must be left out of a model, of course, but these factors should be omitted because they are relatively unimportant, not because they're don't fit into the modeling framework.

As Eriksson writes in his introduction to the paper,

In areas like sociology or evolutionary anthropology I found mathematics often to be used in ways that from my viewpoint were illegitimate, such as to make a point that would better be made with only simple logic, or to uncritically take properties of a mathematical model to be properties of the real world, or to include mathematics to make a paper look more impressive.

He very well could have included economics in there as well--I'm curious if his exclusion of it was intentional or random. Gee, I'll bet we could model that...


Which is "harder": social science or physical science?

Mark D. White

Yesterday, Kevin Drum at Mother Jones spoke up for social science following an editorial in Nature arguing against the NSF's proposed defunding of research in political science. Here's a bit of the op-ed:

Part of the blame must lie with the practice of labelling the social sciences as soft, which too readily translates as meaning woolly or soft-headed. Because they deal with systems that are highly complex, adaptive and not rigorously rule-bound, the social sciences are among the most difficult of disciplines, both methodologically and intellectually. They suffer because their findings do sometimes seem obvious. Yet, equally, the common-sense answer can prove to be false when subjected to scrutiny. There are countless examples of this, from economics to traffic planning. This is one reason that the social sciences probably unnerve some politicians, some of whom are used to making decisions based not on evidence but on intuition, wishful thinking and with an eye on the polls.

...As Washington Post columnist Charles Lane wrote in a recent article that called for the NSF not to fund any social science: “The 'larger' the social or political issue, the more difficult it is to illuminate definitively through the methods of 'hard science'.”

In part, this just restates the fact that political science is difficult. To conclude that hard problems are better solved by not studying them is ludicrous. Should we slash the physics budget if the problems of dark-matter and dark-energy are not solved? Lane's statement falls for the very myth it wants to attack: that political science is ruled, like physics, by precise, unique, universal rules.

And here's some of what Mr. Drum added to it:

The public commonly thinks of disciplines like physics and chemistry as hard because they rely so heavily on difficult mathematics. In fact, that's exactly what makes them easy. It's what Eugene Wigner famously called the "unreasonable effectiveness" of math in the natural sciences: the fact that, for reasons we don't understand, the natural world really does seem to operate according to strict mathematical laws. Those laws may be hard to figure out, but they aren't impossible. ...

Hari Seldon notwithstanding, the social sciences have no such luck. Human communities don't obey simple mathematical laws, though they sometimes come tantalizingly close in certain narrow ways — close enough, anyway, to provide the intermittent reinforcement necessary to keep social scientists thinking that the real answer is just around the next corner. And once in a while it is. But most of the time it's not. It's decades of hard work away. Because, unlike, physics, the social sciences are hard.

Bonus points for the Foundation mention!

(I don't have much to add; I made a similar point in this post, comparing the complexity of marcoeconomic forecasting models to meteorological weather-forecasting models.)