Monday, June 11, 2007

HES Continued

HES Day Two

What a wealth of opportunity HES is for every political economist, neoclassical or heterodox, historian or philosopher, new graduate, working professor or adjunct, emeritus, retired, ‘put out to pasture’ or simply passionate about the history of ideas. This is the Republic of Letters in session.

There are five or six concurrent sessions every couple of hours, or so, with walking, talking, chatting or thinking time in between while you get from one session to another. I chose sessions to with Adam Smith as the subject, but you are spoilt for choice whatever your interest set.

The first session I attended was addressed by Warren Samuels, a distinguished scholar, fastidious in his preparation, speaking with that calm assurance that he has done the research and has command of its details. He studies the largely mid-20th-century ‘invisible hand’ phenomenon (he reported he had found no references to it prevalent in the 19th century, but added the scholar’s proviso that if anybody finds anything he’d be glad to hear from them). I look forward to reading his work when it is published.

A feature of HES is the welcome invitation to ‘young scholars’ to deliver early papers. Unlike Adam Smith who kept his ‘intended juvenile’ work (we know it as his ‘History of Astronomy’) locked in his bedroom bureau until published by his friends, Joseph Black and James Hutton, on his instructions for after he died, HES young scholars are given a platform to show something of their interests. I found the conduct of these sessions (by Jerry Evensky) enlightening and, if I may say so, ‘humane’ in that he was a calming influence on what was a tense and nervous time from two (Ryan Peterson and Martha King) I listened to. How many professors of today would have enjoyed exposing themselves, not to familiar class mates in a tutorial, but to complete strangers, some not unknown to them via their readings, on a first outing after they graduated?

Ryan and Martha, if I may be so familiar, have a great future ahead of them on the basis of what they demonstrated. Ryan’s was a paper on utility maximisation using Smith’s references to ‘antipathy’ in Moral Sentiments in contrast to his more well-known association with sympathy. Martha’s was on conceptions of human nature from Smith to Mill, again a thoughtful essay, well argued and defended.

Maria Paganelli, a young economist further along her career ladder than the ‘young scholars’, read a paper in another session on contrasting Homo economicus rationality with how people in industrialised countries played Vernon Smith’s Ultimatum and Dictator games as compared to people in pre-industrialised hunter-gatherer communes. Neatly done and showing her future ‘star qualities’. She also was a discussant and in the chair at other session, showing she had a ‘safe pair of hands.

In the afternoon I listened to four of the ‘big guns’ at HES deliver papers (Eric Schliessor, David Levy, Sandra Peart, in the Chair, and Kevin McCabe). Time was too short for full consideration, but these are three ‘must read’ papers, as the relaxed enthusiasm of the speakers was infectious. Interestingly, I noted Martha King attended this session and when she spoke in the discussion and addressed to Eric Schliessor’s remarks, she was far more relaxed, and ‘on topic’ too, again showing HES is developing some formidable young talent.

The plenary session was addressed by David Warsh (of the Economic Principals Blog), with whom I have commented on his take on Adam Smith. He is a most charming person and no mere journalistic hack. He knows his stuff and knows the people who ‘rock-and-roll’ in US academe. He was recasting themes from his book, ‘Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations’ (see archives for my earlier comments), and was openly wondering why the profession had not reacted much yet to Paul Romer’s consensus-busting paper on ‘endogenous growth theory’. I think he may be expecting far to fast a movement in innovation. Keynes wasn’t exactly busy implementing his macro-economic ‘General Theory’ immediately after 1936 (his earlier work was ignored too).

It doesn’t work fast in industry either. My first research job after graduation was in a team assembled to provide the ‘grunt work’ investigate innovation in technology from when new ideas were reported in technical magazines to when products were available, from 1945-60 in the UK. I would say, from memory, though we were not shown the conclusions, that not many ever got further than prototypes to products in that period. Basic science to sellable applications seems to be not much faster than biological evolution (joke).

Of course, David’s ideas on Smith – this time on the division of labour – were so far from my own (and Smith’s) that I shall not report this time as I am about to leave my hotel to go the Day Three. It was, however, a great pleasure to meet David in person.

I will comment later on the 3rd day's sessions, some of the people who spoke and my conclusions about HES.


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