Economic Culture Wars

The search for better economic policy.
Oct. 25 1996 3:30 AM

Economic Culture Wars

For reasons explained below, the editor dares not add a subtitle to this article.

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But many intellectuals who can't stand algebra are not willing to stay away from the subject. They are thus deeply attracted to a graceful writer like Gould, who frequently misrepresents the field (perhaps because he does not fully understand its essentially mathematical logic), but who wraps his misrepresentations in so many layers of impressive, if irrelevant, historical and literary erudition that they seem profound.

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Unfortunately, Maynard Smith is right, both about evolution and about economics. There are important ideas in both fields that can be expressed in plain English, and there are plenty of fools doing fancy mathematical models. But there are also important ideas that are crystal clear if you can stand algebra, and very difficult to grasp if you can't. International trade in particular happens to be a subject in which a page or two of algebra and diagrams is worth 10 volumes of mere words. That is why it is the particular subfield of economics in which the views of those who understand the subject and those who do not diverge most sharply.

Alas, there is probably no way to resolve this conflict peacefully. It is possible for a very skillful writer to convey in plain English a sense of what serious economics is about, to hide the algebraic skeleton behind a more appealing facade. But that won't appease the critics; they don't want economics with a literary facade, they want economics with a literary core. And so people like me and people like Kuttner will never be able to make peace, because we are engaged in a zero-sum conflict--not over policy, but over intellectual boundaries.

The literati truly cannot be satisfied unless they get economics back from the nerds. But they can't have it, because we nerds have the better claim.

Paul Krugman is a professor of economics at MIT whose books include The Age of Diminished Expectations and Peddling Prosperity.

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