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.

Economics writer Bob Kuttner devotes an essay in the American Prospect, a journal he edits, to an attack on my writings in Slate and elsewhere. Don't worry, I won't respond here to that attack. If you're interested, you can read my response in the November-December issue of Kuttner's journal. What I would like to discuss is what I think is the true reason people like myself and Kuttner--who also writes columns for Business Week and the Boston Globe--have so much trouble getting along. We are both, after all, liberals. I have even written for the American Prospect. It is not, I claim, really a political issue in the normal sense. What we are really fighting about is a matter of epistemology, of how one perceives and understands the world.

If you try to follow arguments about economics among intellectuals whose politics are more or less left-of-center, you gradually become aware that the participants in these arguments are divided not only by particular issues--deficit reduction, NAFTA, and so on--but by the whole way that they think about the economy. On one side there are those whose views are informed by academic economics, the kind of stuff that is taught in textbooks. On the other there are people like Kuttner, Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute, and Labor Secretary Robert Reich. Some members of this faction have held university appointments. But most of them lack academic credentials and, more important, they are basically hostile to the kind of economics on which such credentials are based.

If the anti-academic faction does not draw its ideas from textbook economics, however, where does its worldview come from? Well, here's a story that may sound trivial but which I regard as revealing. Back in 1992, I supplied the American Prospect with an article on the problem of growing income inequality. In the published piece, the editor, Kuttner, improved on my drab title, but also added a dreadful subtitle: "The Rich, the Right, and the Facts: Deconstructing the Income Distribution Controversy."

Deconstructing? Why on earth would anyone not a member of the Modern Language Association want to use an academic buzzword that has been the butt of so many jokes? (What do you get when you cross a Mafioso and a deconstructionist? Someone who makes you an offer you can't understand.) How could the cause of liberal revival be served by making me sound like a character out of a David Lodge satire?

Astrong desire to make economics less like a science and more like literary criticism is a surprisingly common attribute of anti-academic writers on the subject. For example, in a recent collection of essays (Foundations of Research in Economics: How do Economists do Economics?, edited by Steven G. Medema and Warren Samuels),

James K. Galbraith, a constant critic of the profession (and a frequent contributor to the American Prospect), urges economists to emulate "vibrant humanities faculties" in which "departments develop viciously opinionated, inbred, sometimes bitter and tyrannical but definitely exciting intellectual climates." Economics, in short, would be a better field if the MIT economics department were more like the Yale English department during its deconstructionist heyday.

Academic economics, the stuff that is in the textbooks, is largely based on mathematical reasoning. I hope you think that I am an acceptable writer, but when it comes to economics I speak English as a second language: I think in equations and diagrams, then translate. The opponents of mainstream economics dislike people like me not so much for our conclusions as for our style: They want economics to be what it once was, a field that was comfortable for the basically literary intellectual.

This should sound familiar. More than 40 years ago, the scientist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow wrote his famous essay about the war between the "two cultures," between the essentially literary sensibility that we expect of a card-carrying intellectual and the scientific/mathematical outlook that is arguably the true glory of our civilization. That war goes on; and economics is on the front line. Or to be more precise, it is territory that the literati definitively lost to the nerds only about 30 years ago--and they want it back.

That is what explains the lit-crit style so oddly favored by the leftist critics of mainstream economics. Kuttner and Galbraith know that the quantitative, algebraic reasoning that lies behind modern economics is very difficult to challenge on its own ground. To oppose it they must invoke alternative standards of intellectual authority and legitimacy. In effect, they are saying, "You have Paul Samuelson on your team? Well, we've got Jacques Derrida on ours."

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A similar situation exists in other fields. Consider, for example, evolutionary biology. Like most American intellectuals, I first learned about this subject from the writings of Stephen Jay Gould. But I eventually came to realize that working biologists regard Gould much the same way that economists regard Robert Reich: talented writer, too bad he never gets anything right. Serious evolutionary theorists such as John Maynard Smith or William Hamilton, like serious economists, think largely in terms of mathematical models. Indeed, the introduction to Maynard Smith's classic tract Evolutionary Genetics flatly declares, "If you can't stand algebra, stay away from evolutionary biology." There is a core set of crucial ideas in his subject that, because they involve the interaction of several different factors, can only be clearly understood by someone willing to sit still for a bit of math. (Try to give a purely verbal description of the reactions among three mutually catalytic chemicals.)

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.

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.