Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Amartya Sen on Mathematics

Over on Lars P. Syll's Blog HERE 
he reports an interview of Amartya Sen by Olaf Storbeck and Dorit Hess on the state of modern economics from 24 July.
Among the topics discussed by Sen he comments on the role of mathematics in economics in a far more positive slant than I often give it on Lost Legacy.
While I accept that mathematics is a useful gateway for students to gain admission to an economics degree course at Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, etc., I question its overly prominent role for mathematics in economics theory and practice.
Statistics, yes, and perhaps  there is a role for elementary maths to assist reasoning, but rigorous higher maths?  I am less sure, especially when the maths take over and the economics becomse divorced from any resemblance with reality.
If economists cannot distinguish between a philosophical assumption of self-interest of an individual and miss the absolute requirement of Smith's assumption that the postulated self-interest of an individual requires to be mediated by concerns for, and attention to, the self-interests of others, as is the clear case with modern treatments of Adam Smith’s elementary example of bargaining with the  “butcher, brewer, baker” example, then I worry about the conclusions drawn by mathematical economists that Smith somehow postulated that self-interested individuals pursuing their narrow self-interests (tariffs, monopolies, pollution and such like) somehow leads to general pubic benefits, as asserted in the usual attribution to Smith's "invisible hand".  Such reasoning is an absurdity from which competence in maths does not save them
I suggest readers visit Lars P. Syll’s Blog and read it regularly. It is thought provoking.  


Blogger airth10 said...

In the interview Amartya Sen talks like a typical economist. At the start he sounds pessimistic and by the end he sound optimistic.

11:55 a.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

I would suggest that Amartya Sen is not a typical economist. He certainly understands the maths. His background is much broader than typical neoclassical economics. That makes his judgement on maths today is authoritative, though I do not agree with him.
I first heard Sen speak to a economics seminar at Brunel University, West London, in 1971 on the field he was known for, Welfare Economics. At that time it was fairly mathematical, and was one I was interested in from my undergraduate degree. I had just complete my Masters and was working on my PhD, under John Vaizey.
His more recent work has been on a much wider field than pure maths. He is known today for his Adam Smithian approach to social economic problems, including the role of women in India.
It is not possible to simply dismiss him, as neoclassical people are inclined to do of critics, because he is more than competent in maths. His Noble Prize was earned largely on development economics without notions of equilibrium, etc.
I was somewhat surprised to read the extract from his reported interview, however.

12:25 p.m.  

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