Monday, June 11, 2007

My Last Day of HES 2007 Conference

I’m used to the routine by now: 'good morning coffee', fruit and bun; sit anywhere with or without company; if with, short introductions and chat about general interests; if without, look through the day’s agenda. I choose the sessions with Smith in them. Fortunately for my interests there’s a ‘Smith contribution’ in at least one session per time slot.

There’s also a fair number of sessions on ‘religion and the history of economics’ too. In conversations about mutual interests, I seem to meet many people with interests in religion – not all of whom have a religious affiliation – and with whom I have interesting exchanges, especially those with interests in Smith. As a conversation starter, I assert that Smith was not ‘religious’, based on a close reading of Smith’s biographical trail and Moral Sentiments. Like with my recent correspondence with Andy Denis (City University), the reception to this notion is mixed, but negative. Some seems to consider me ‘wholly wrong’; a few ask for details. But all are polite in their dissent. Only one agrees with me. It was ever thus.

First up is session 5E: ‘Mandeville, Hume, and Smith’. Amos Wiztum, London Metropolitan University, delivers a stunning lecture on ‘Interdependence and Equilibrium’ – mainly about General Equilibrium and Smithian interdependence, built around a ‘72-slide presentation’ - combining wit, total command of his subject, and excellence in equal balanced measure. I found him informative and I want to hear more, but time squeezes it out. I discuss briefly with Amos some differences and clarifications, and I shall follow up on his ideas over the next few weeks (including reading his paper – no copies available at the session or on line).

Maria Paganelli (Chair and discussant) handles her role well, with Eric Schliesser (Discussant), both providing excellent-value comments. Eric is an accomplished teacher, critical where he finds something lacking, but at all times he delivers his views professionally without crossing the thin line that causes resentment. He is a formidable professor, on top form. I should imagine his students and colleagues respect and like him.

Then it’s my session, chaired by Paul Oslington, a young professor (compared to me)from Australia; another accomplished performer, who specialises in economics and theology too. He critiques my paper, which I note for the rewrite (including some unclear points and their ‘relevance’), plus an important journal article from 2000 missed by me (near knock-out blow - quelle horreur!- but he was polite about it). Only one question from the listeners, though several speak to me with enthusiasm afterwards. I feel that I got off lightly because I could see certain flaws a I spoke, but nothing that cannot be put right ('rewrite here I come, via Edinburgh University Library to check the JPE article'). That is the power of academic discourse; it keeps one’s feet on the ground and out of the clouds.

A Plenary session gives the floor to Tiago Mata, a recent PhD graduate, who discusses ‘Dissenting Identities in 1960’s Economics’. I knew several of the people in the UK who ‘led’ an effort for ‘radical economics’ from Cambridge. John Vaizey, the head of department at the time, brought Joan Robinson to the Brunel (West London) campus for an Honorary Doctorate, the first she had received in the UK; others were Eatwell, Kaldor, and Shackle (also Amartya Sen: Vaizey was well connected), plus copies of Eatwell’s ‘Ricardian’ introductory textbook and Sraffa's obscure, at least to me, 'Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities'…

Much of what Tiago Mata uncovered in the US, explained what was going on around me during that period when I started teaching (Vietnam, students boycotting exams, interruptions in lectures, including mine in statistics(!!), etc.,). Radical economists in the USA were heavy into ‘activism’ in the 1960s, but as someone suggested from the floor, the trigger in the 60s and 70s may have been the draft, which in its absence today there has not been any similar radicalisation of young students over Iraq, an equally controversial war. This made Vietnam personal. Everybody in Iraq and Afghanistan is a volunteer.

Inevitably, the 1960s student radical ‘activists’ soon split off into separate factions. I was minded of Adam Smith’s dictum: philosophers should ‘do nothing’ except observe and understand the world, in contrast with Marx’s call for philosophers to ‘change’ it. Smith’s approach is better for all concerned, as many attempts to ‘change the world’ only make it worse. Meanwhile, at the time, I went off into research and teaching into defence economics…

Two more plenary meetings took place; one inducting A. M. C. Waterman and Donald Winch as ‘Distinguished Fellows’ of HEC. From the presentations by colleagues who knew them well, I could see why they were awarded their distinctions. Warren Samuels was one of the speakers, and he explained with his masterly style why they had been chosen, with telling anecdotes about them and cameo expositions of their work. Profs Waterman and Winch, demonstrated by their lives and demeanour, the modesty that is common among the truly talented, and which I have found when in the presence of the three Nobel Prize winners I have met. Top academics of the other kind - arrogant, loud, gossipy and rude to colleagues and students alike – are very rare inductees into the uppermost perches in the academic roost. Incidentally, Professor Waterman qualified as an Anglican priest before taking up economics.

After a second corridor discussion with Amos Wiztum on Smith, I arrived minutes late at a ‘Roundtable Discussion’ on editing and writing for professional journals. Warren Samuels was speaking here too, and was well worth listening too. He was followed by others (editors of journals and referees) and there was a heavy presence in the audience of graduate students, no doubt anxiously placing their feet on their ladders to tenure. The advice from the platform was practical, sound, and born of years of editing journals. I trust the young lions will take note.

The last session I attended was the HES Presidential Address by Bradley Bateman, on ‘Reflections on the Secularisation of American Economics’. This I really enjoyed. A summary would not do it justice. I was most impressed, to put it mildly. He made a strong impression on me in his historical analysis of the close role of protestant Christians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on the development of US economics, and the apparent, though misleading, absence of religious influence from the 1950s in the neoclassical paradigm.

After the Presidential Address I attended the last reception, to be followed by the course dinner. I spoke to several attendees before the dinner and then slipped away quietly before it started, after thanking them for their kindness and company. I am not too good at ‘socialising’ with relative strangers (a personal defect I confess); though be clear, the people I met during the three days of HES were very welcoming. This was unlike my experience of the Columbia University conference last August, where my attempts to speak with attendees mainly ended in disappointing failure, with a few exceptions (e.g., Chris Berry, Pierre Force and Sam Fleischacker).

David Levy and Sandra Peart were at the centre of most things during the conference. Sandra, having organised and managed two back-to-back conferences this week was tireless everywhere, all day. I must record my appreciation of the outstanding energy and cheerfulness of Sandra during what must have been a most exhausting and anxious week, plus the many weeks earlier she spent arranging everything.

She spoke, in reference to younger participants, on one occasion, suggesting, inter alia, that they should remember that they were in a community of scholars, the influence of which could help them in their careers. Berating editors and referees over rejected papers was not a ‘good idea’. File the referees report for a while and then go back to it. This made me think of Martin Luther’s thesis that he nailed on the church door; not a good example for a young historian, though the urge to do so is understandable. You have to earn the right to do what Luther did, and that right is bestowed by your present peers.

I am not surprised, now that I have observed her work rate, that Sandra has neglected her Blog (‘Adam Smith lives!’). When she recovers, I hope she revitalises her Blog, though now that she is President of HES for 2007-8 I doubt that she will slow down.

There is online access to the course papers here (and follow the links).

Next year’s HES conference is in Toronto. I would like to attend it on the basis of what I experienced at this year’s in Fairfax Virginia.


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