Wednesday, July 30, 2014


Four economists and their views on the mathematicisation of political economy that has passed its tipping point. (Taken from a History of Economic Thought Blog, this morning).

1 "I am appalled ... by the extent to which there has been a tendency for economics to become a purely abstract branch of mathematics, no longer to be a political economy concerned with the facts of the real world but an intellectual exercise" (Milton Friedman 1985). 

2 “Indeed. I wonder how long it will be before economics 'departments' are housed in the mathematics faculty. Perhaps it has already happened somewhere."

3 “I would go further: Some argue that the culture of mathematics departments has overtaken graduate economics to the extent that realism is of lesser concern than elegance. I saw this culture first hand and when I took graduate mathematics classes as part of 
my graduate education.”

4 “Your daughter's professor was and is surely correct. Indeed, it is probably not an exaggeration to argue that a mathematics undergraduate has an easier time of it at economics graduate level than their economics counterpart. This is why we need more history of thought - and I don’t mean history of mathematics!”

5 "Yes, it has happened.  Until recently Chicago State University had a
Department of Mathematics, Computer Science, and Economics.  I believe
Economics has now been moved out of that department."

6  " Birkbeck College in London has a Department of Economics,
Mathematics and Statistics.
I suppose I was thinking more along the lines of when and if an economics
department is subsumed into a maths faculty, i.e. without the word
'economics' even making an appearance in the faculty title. But I think I
was getting ahead of myself."

7   "t also happened at Emporia State University when the Program in Economics was removed from the Social Science
Division and moved to the Department of Mathematics in Arts & Science.  Last time I looked it still is listed in the catalog
in the mathematics majors."


It is not just the mathematic techniques that led the way down this path to the cul de sac ; it was the theoretical assertions that accompanied them (rational expectations and assumed predictability of the future without studying how the historical past led to the present ).  With a multitude of schools of thought contending for our attention and the consequential stalemates of competing ideologies, economics has even less to say about the real economies of the world than our predecessors before economics replaced political economy and lost its claims to be taken seriously.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


BEACON Researchers at Work: The Invisible Hand of Evolution

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work blog post is by MSU postdoc Jeff MorrisHERE 
“Adam Smith, an 18th century Scottish philosopher, was struck by how economics obeyed natural-like laws despite the often capricious and irrational behavior of economic actors. Smith envisioned an intrinsic interrelation between producers and consumers that pulled economic behavior toward certain norms as if “led by an invisible hand.” The net result of many financial actors behaving selfishly is a well-regulated, self-organized system: the parts don’t have any intention of working together, but screw up and do it anyway.
… The chief problem with evolving cooperation is the tragedy of the commons. Briefly, if cooperation has a cost, then a non-cooperator that can still get the benefits of cooperation will always have a fitness advantage over cooperators. Theoretically, this advantage will always exist even if the breakdown of cooperation totally trashes the environment. We know the tragedy doesn’t always happen because we see organisms in nature working together – but how does evolution escape it?
Bill Hamilton proved that self-sacrifice could evolve by natural selection if the recipients of the sacrifice were related to the sacrificer – something we’ve come to call kin selection. In the microbial world, kin selection can happen when microbes live in close physical association with each other.”
An interesting and readable article by a newly appointed Assistant Professor of Biology, of which subject I know little but I read in related fields.  My recent reading included Edward O. Wilson: ‘The Social Consquest of Earth’, Norton, 2012. 
Inter alia, Wilson reports Bill Hamilton’s classic demonstration that self-sacrifice for near relatives is an overstated assertion among biologists. I cannot and do not claim to adjudicate on such matters, but I do know that co-operation and wilful exchange of benefits occurs across nature including where near relatives are not involved.  Edward O. Wilson’s theory of eusociality  is a better general explanation for these behaviours. 
But let me focus on Adam Smith and Darwinism.  
Smith was struck by how economics obeyed natural-like laws despite the often capricious and irrational behavior of economic actors.” 
Obeying “natural-like laws” is contentious.  The fraility of the generalisation lies precisely in the “often capricious and irrational behavior of economic actors.”  “Laws” that are not universally obeyed seem short of “natural”.  Moreover, whereas atoms and such like act alike across the universe in identical manners, which can claim  to be explained as “natural laws”, human beings act in mutlitudes of ways and multitudes of mixtures and combinations of possible ways, well outside any description of singular “natural-like laws”.
Humans are self-directed in their behaviours.  The benefits of co-operation were not instinctive; they had to be learned and other elements of co-operation had also to be learned; both evolved over time, though not universally nor simultaneously.
The “tragedy of the commons’, such as found in over-grazing a pasture or over-fishing a lake or ocean is explained not solely as “over population” - the original obsession of Garrett Hardin’s assertions - but of the absence of property rights and its management.  In the absence of property, a human adaptation from nature - animals have a sharp sense of the defence of their ‘property’ from rival intruders and over-exploitation by humans was and is common.  In the deep past until recently by vast spaces and very low human population densities (Europeans recently ‘discovered’ forgotten peoples that had migrated to the Americas via north-east Siberia and to Australia via south-east Asian island chains). 
This whas not a case of humans learning to “pull” economic behavior towards certain norms, as if ‘led by an invisible hand’. Jeff Morris reports this as a tension between “co-operators’ and ‘non-co-operators’, with the former accepting the costs and the latter seeking to avoid the costs.  The evolution of co-operation among humans took tens of thousands of years (and their Hominin predecessors that took millions of years) and not from just a few meetings, nor some formal agreements.
Jeff’s urge to link the long evolutionary processes of co-operation to the instantly recognisable “invisible hand”, used as a metaphor by Adam Smith (though for a distinctly different metaphoric purposes) and as a simile by Jeff, is unfortunate.  Social scientists and biologists even, should look where they tread when entering another domain in case they cause are misled.
There is no “invisible hand in the human domain”.  Co-operation among human kind was present as a possibility from the beginning.  In Nature, lions, tigers, hyenas and dogs (and insects too) sometimes hunt in packs (co-operation) and after the kill, they compete for their share of it.  Humans from the beginning of their speciation also faced the possibilities of hunting or gathering alone (with some degree of risk to their safety)  or acting in groups.  Before then they were dependent entirely upon what they found in rude nature, just as they found it, as was the case for all animals, whose bodily functions were suitable for their limited purposes, and always in competition with other living creatures.  Humans learned from their intelligence to adapt the fruits of nature to their different needs.  Groups that adapted did better over the millennia than other humans that did not. 
Economics as a science is not a finished product.  Attempts to find its natural laws are flawed.  Know-all assertions of ‘natural’ laws that ‘explain’ economic behaviours in the same manner as they may be stated in the natural sciences are idealistic.  When used to predict the future they are pernicious.  The best we can do is to approach an understanding of the recent past which may help us to explain the present.  But as a predictive science economics remains dissappointing.  
The fact that there are multiple ‘schools’ of economics nowadays - some going back to the 18th and 19th centuries - all fighting for the supremacy of their ‘schools’ over the multiple alternatives, suggests to me at least (I am in a school of one!) that a degree of modesty is required when speaking of economic certainties about the real world. 

Perhaps its different in biology?  Read Jeff Morris and see what you think.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Ellis Thorpe wrote the following letter to “The Scotsman”, Edinburgh,  22 July:
Smith’s legacy”
“IT CAN’T be gainsaid most people will be “delighted” Adam Smith’s house refurbishment is nearing completion (Jim Tough, Letters. 18 July). However, it may be debated if Smith’s legacy, as the father of modern economics, is “beyond question”.
Would he have recognised much of today’s economics with its algebraic and mathematical models? Did the proclivity for this methodology obscure the “bigger picture” in the run-up to the global financial crisis?
Perhaps Adam Smith would be better described as a political economist, as economics was once called. Have today’s university degree courses in economics shed economic history and the history of economic thought?
Arguably, and perhaps somewhat heretically, political economy will be taken up again, or controversially even economic philosophy.”
Ellis Thorpe.
The following is my response published in “The Scotsman’ (Edinburgh) on 23 July:
“Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy”
“Adam Smith’s lost legacy as represented by mainstream mathematically-inclined economists and their fantasies of ‘rational expectations theories’ have very little to do with anything written by him. 
Practically everything claimed about Adam Smith is mythical, peversely misunderstood, or asserted merely to support ideologies for ‘laissez-faire’ versus state regulations and unfunded spending. 
Smith was not the first nor the only 18th-century, political economist.  He wrote just before what we call the ‘Industrial Revolution’.  His focus was on history, not the future (he did not make predictions for the future; he tried to understand the past as a guide to the present). 
Ellis Thorpe asks if universities have “shed economic history and the history of economic thought” and he answer is ‘Yes’, but there are happy signs of a revival of student interest in such courses.  
Restoration of Panmure House, Smith’s last home, off the Royal Mile, may be part of that revival because economists certainly ought to examine the recent crises in US and EU economies to avoid repeating them.

(Prof) Gavin Kennedy (Edinburgh).

Friday, July 18, 2014


Interesting Discussion of Increasing Interest Among Economics Students in the History of Economic Thought
I have mentioned on Lost Legacy signs of discontent at Manchester U and Harvard U among some economics students in their standard modern economics classes, dominated as they are by higher mathematics allegedly ‘proving’ the dominant school of rational expectations ( “MaxU”) certainties are the driving force of human behaviours in markets.
This was to be expected given the apparent disconnect between recent events in several major economies from 2008 and the complacent certainties of the dominant ‘theologies’ driving many academic departments in recruitment of staff and students.   Economics no longer has a credible claim to its so-called ‘scientific’ status for its mainstream dismissal of the History of Economic Thought (HET) of the discipline as being worthy of study within an economics first degree, and, for the few graduates who aspire to an academic career, a ‘kiss-of-death’ for their chances of passing a selection board for entry-level appointments with even sniffs of HET in the academic cv.
Here are to recent posts relevant to what is beginning to happen to HET in academe and of which I was very pleased to read:
1. Steve Kates (Associate Professor RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia): 
“I found Jerry Green's description of how he ended up teaching his mini-course in HET quite remarkable, especially this:
"I am teaching a course on the history of economic thought this year -- actually it is running all year long so that half of it is still to come. . . . Last year I began my lectures in economic theory (the course that is required for all our graduate students) with a few minutes of historical introduction, before getting to the main part of the lecture. I always did this to some extent; it was not a new idea or a change in the course. However, for some reason it hit a responsive chord with two of the students and they asked if I would lead a reading group on history of thought this year. We made up a reading list and circulated it to all the graduate students -- 40 people indicated an interest in joining the group." 
If the academic world were made up of profit-oriented institutions in the normal sense, the latent interest would lead to more such courses finding their way into the world. In Auckland, in a fashion similar to the experience described by Jerry Green, I discovered that an HET group was set up by the students themselves to which they invite their own list of speakers. 
The manifesto put out by the Manchester University Economics Students earlier this year ( ) also raised the importance of HET as seen from a student perspective:
"History of economic thought and economic history are essential for students to be able to evaluate the quality of economic theory. To understand the historical development of a particular model or economic paradigm provides an invaluable insight into the problems it was designed to solve and how context influenced its formation. This is a vital counterweight to the hubristic belief that economic theory can represent universal truth and the refusal to recognise the limits to our knowledge."
Leaving aside "hubristic", I think this is exactly so, and I also agree with Jerry Green where he states that most academic economists are not against such courses. A course, for example, in the history of the theory of the business cycle would be the kind of mini-course that would attract serious interest and would be of genuine educational value - truly useful for an economist - although I suspect there wouldn't be all that many who would even know how to teach such a course or even where to begin.
It is a sad fact that the way that we now recognise academic success in economics is far distant from the history of economic thought, but it does not have to remain this way. There is clearly an interest, and also serious value in a restoration of the history of economic thought in the curriculum of economists. This is something that those who set the agenda both for HET and economics in general ought to be thinking seriously about.”
2. On 17 July 2014 David Colander, wrote <>:
“I don’t know anything about MIT, but a couple of years ago Jerry Green at Harvard responded to student requests and started a reading group that morphed into a  one semester, and then a two semester, graduate course.  We invited Jerry to  come up to Middlebury  and talk about the course, which was a very useful exploration of where recent economic ideas came from.  He did a lot of research preparing for the course.   Here is what he wrote me in an email as we were discussing the course.
I am teaching a course on the history of economic thought this year -- actually it is running all year long so that half of it is still to come. As you may know, this is not my field. However, last year I began my lectures in economic theory (the course that is required for all our graduate students) with a few minutes of historical introduction, before getting to the main part of the lecture. I always did this to some extent; it was not a new idea or a change in the course. However, for some reason it hit a responsive chord with two of the students and they asked if I would lead a reading group on history of thought this year. We made up a reading list and circulated it to all the graduate students -- 40 people indicated an interest in joining the group. Clearly this was too large for a small group discussion, and so we made it two "real courses".
This is not going to be a permanent fixture of my teaching, much as I have enjoyed doing it. I do plan to do it again, however, maybe condensed into one term and maybe for undergraduates instead of graduate students. 
So I think it was a one-time thing, and it certainly was not part of the core.  
The reality is that there is interest by students in the history of thought—especially as  it relates to current ideas, but  when push comes to shove, and one has to start thinking about getting published in acceptable journals, that interest fades.  The faculty recognize that, and provide the education that will further their student’s careers.
I think the best chance for history of thought to make some inroads into graduate programs is with mini-courses that some programs offer.  I will be going to Tel Aviv next year to teach a mini-course in the history of thought.   I think if the HES put together some mini-courses and provided ways for those course to be taught in grad programs, that it could be a useful outreach, and is the best way for history of thought to be presented to students. My sense is that students want relevant history of thought—faculty are not against it, but they  see the technical training as being that which they should focus on.  I remember when NYU gave up the history of thought course—Bill Baumol was there and was a strong supporter of history of thought—but he voted in favor of giving it up history of thought in order to make room for another technical course that he felt would help students more.  In terms of their future, that’s probably true, but it is sad that that is the case.”
 3. History of economic thought being reintroduced at graduate school? Alex Millmow
“At the latest HETSA Conference in Auckland, New Zealand there was a forum session on the future of economic thought. Various  strategies were discussed. One intriguing comment from the floor was that Harvard and MIT were reintroducing HET into their doctoral programs Does anyone know anything about this?”

Does any reader know of similar initiatives in their institutions or elsewhere?

Thursday, July 17, 2014


Donald J. Boudreaux (with Russell Roberts), Cafe Hayek Post a fascinating debate on Ideas about Ideas.

Donald J. Boudreaux, “Deirdre McCloskey and Economists’ Ideas about Ideas” (July, 2014)
Deirdre McClosky is over the halfway point of her 4 volume work on The Bourgeois Era. Two volumes have already appeared, Bourgeois Virtues (2006) and Bourgeois Dignity (2010), and a third is close to appearing. This Liberty Matters online discussion will assess her progress to date with a Lead Essay by Don Boudreaux and comments by Joel Mokyr and John Nye, and replies to her critics by Deirdre McCloskey. The key issue is to try to explain why “the Great Enrichment” of the past 150 years occurred in northern and western Europe rather than elsewhere, and why sometime in the middle of the 18th century. Other theories have attributed it to the presence of natural resources, the existence of private property and the rule of law, and the right legal and political institutions. McCloskey’s thesis is that a fundamental change in ideas took place which raised the “dignity” of economic activity in the eyes of people to the point where they felt no inhibition in pursuing these activities which improved the situation of both themselves and the customers who bought their products and services.
Two articles in particular (there are more) are very much worth a look.  I found their content and the style of debate highly commendable (no cheap shots).  Just sheer, readable intellectual exchanges by two of the best Adam Smith scholars publishing tday.

1. Donald J. Boudreaux, "Deirdre McCloskey and Economists’ Ideas about Ideas" [July, 2014]
3. Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, The Fruits of Humility, and Reading, in Economics: A Genial Reply to Don Boudreaux" [Posted: July 7, 2014]
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Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Panmure House, Adam Smith’s Last Home, Restoration Phase Begins

“Work to underpin the 300-year-old building, which was Adam Smith's final home, has been completed and the next stage will focus on the outside.

The next phase to restore the final home of the economist Adam Smith is getting underway in Edinburgh. It is part of a £3.6m project to secure the future of Panmure House, which had been left derelict.
Work to underpin the 300-year-old building has been completed and the next stage will focus on the outside.
The £430,000 programme of works will involve repairing and re-slating the 17th century roof, plus conservation of the exterior stonework and windows.
The works, which are to take nine months, are supported by a £150,000 grant from Edinburgh World Heritage and funding from the Friends of Panmure House, as well as individual donations from around the world.
The house was bought by Edinburgh Business School (EBS) at Heriot Watt University in 2008.
'Intellectual endeavour'
EBS is conserving the A-listed building as a living memorial to one of the most influential members of the Scottish Enlightenment and to develop Smith's house as a world-class centre for education, events, debates about Smith's life and current economic issues.
Professor Keith Lumsden, academic director and founder of Edinburgh Business School, and the chair of the fundraising committee of the Panmure House Campaign, said: "Adam Smith is often said to be the world's first economist.
"He is a vital part of Scotland's heritage and a beacon of intellectual endeavour.
"Revitalising his last home as an educational centre will help ensure his pioneering thinking lives on in the minds of future generations.
"We are delighted to be getting this vital stage of the project to renovate Panmure house underway, making it wind and water tight and restoring the exterior to its former glory."
Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, said: "Panmure House is an important historic building, not only because of its links to Adam Smith, the Enlightenment and modern socio-economic thinking, but also as rare survival of a seventeenth century town mansion.
"We welcome the carefully considered scheme for its re-use as a centre for economics and social studies, very much in keeping with the spirit of its past.
"Rethinking a significant building at risk in this way will support the surrounding area, bringing wider benefits for the people of the Canongate today.”
At last!  After seemingly endless delays, the restoration of Panmure House is about to begin.
Donations (large and small) are still needed to keep the careful restoration of the all important inside of the building, which also includes modernisation for global Internet communications systems to send its special, graduate and school-level education facilities across the world.  

Chris Watkins, Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University, EH14 4AS, Scotland, UK.  (+44 131 451 3090) or email:

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


SEKTA (Money & Information on East African Business) writes (13 July) HERE 
The Theory Of Laissez-Faire – 2. The Meaning Of Laissez-Faire and The Invisible Hand – 2
In the 1700 and 1800, French businessmen felt they would be much better off if left alone without any business rules.
Philosophers who agreed, began to write essays that advocated Laissez-Faire, but it was a Scotsman who made the idea of Laissez-Faire famous.”
Adam Smith never mentioned “Laissez-Faire”!  How then did he make the idea of laissez-faire” “famous”?
SEKTA: “In his book, The Wealth Of Nations Adam Smith argued that all restrictions on business should be removed.
Yet, Adam Smith argued that even with “perfect liberty” there were cases where their liberty should be constrained by laws, examples: in matter of the interest rates charged for loans; in the matter of builders adding ‘party walls’ on the properties they build to prevent fires spreading to other people’s apartments.  He also stated quite clearly that those who believed that “opulence” would be impossible for any country without complete “natural liberty” were wrong as there were many cases of countries enjoying opulence without “perfect liberty”.
SEKTA: “One of the most important ideas in Smith book, was the concept of the ‘invisible hand’ Smith believed that this invisible hand would always guide the selfish acts of individuals to help the country”.
On the SINGLE occasion only, in Wealth Of Nations, when he mentioned the “invisible hand”, it was as a METAPHOR never as a CONCEPT (check the Oxford English Dictionary if you are not sure of the stark difference between the meanings of these words).   He never argued that the metaphoric “invisible hand” would “always guide the selfish acts of individuals to help the country.”  
SEKTA: By working for his own private gain, the businessman must produce as much as he can, and for the lowest price. In order to sell goods he charges very little. This will help society as a whole, even though that was not his intention. The invisible hand thus directs selfish acts for the good of the community.
In Wealth Of Nations Smith gives many examples of the “selfish” and “self-interested” actions of businessmen leading to disavantages for society Examples include the frequent lobbying of governments for tariff and prohibitions on imports that raised, not “lowered”, prices and “reduced production”, not increased it, and raised, not lowered, their profits.  These practices did not “help society as a whole” and neither did they “direct selfish acts for the good of the community”.
Smith did not “urge trust in the invisible hand, and not the government”.  Government role in law making and enforcing justice were fundamental for a free society.
SEKTA: “Every person is a much better judge of what is good for him than any President, Governor, or Legislator. When the government starts telling people what they should do with their money, they are telling people how to mind their own business. This will make a bigger mess than that which they tried to correct.”
That every person “is a much better judge of what is good for him than any President, Governor, or Legislator” is likely to be true or untrue, dependening on the examples chosen, it did not follow that their individual “judgements” were good for others in the commmunity, examples: buying drugs, including excessive alcohol and smoking, driving at high speeds, flying with unqualified pilots, seeking health checks from witch-doctors, entering building designed by unqualified architects, and so on.  
Selfish actions may, and often do, have negative consequences for others. “Presidents, Governors, or Legislators” may impose, often at the behest of lobbyists, paid by beneficiaries,  laws and regulations that worsen the interests of some or all consumers. 

Adam Smith is wholly innocent of that which SEKTA attributes to him.  The best remedy is to read Adam Smith for yourself and refrain from quoting what other ill-informed modern economists and journalists claim for him.