Tag Archives: history

“Is there really an empirical turn in economics?”

The recent “empirical” turn in economics should be known as an “applied” one and it is just one in a long series of related developments. Moreover, it is a move towards the historical roots of the discipline. Those are some lessons from Beatrice Cherrier‘s essay “Is there really an empirical turn in economics?“. Based on research conducted together with Roger Backhouse, she takes issue with the idea that there has been a revolution in economic research involving empirics. Some points I liked:

  • Empirical work has been live and well, what has changed is its recent larger role in top journals. Besides, the view of theory as dominating in economics is based on looking only at the last 50 years – pre- and immediate post-war economics used to be a lot more empirical.
  • Much theory has become more applied, often involving data. And John Bates Clark medal citations stress “applied,” often taken consisting of a mix of theory and empirics.
  • Increasing availablity of data is a development that has been ongoing since at least the 1960’s. Hype around and criticism of new, large sources of data were the same in the 1970’s as today.
  • Computerization is overrated, much modern empirical work is computationally and numerically very simple.
  • Oscar Morgenstern (of von Neumann and Morgenstern‘s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior fame) proposed that to become a fellow of the Econometric Society, it should be a requirement to “have done some econometric work in the strictest sense” and be “in actual contact with data they have explored and exploited for which purpose they may have even developed new methods.”

H/t: Erwin Dekker.

How Americans Die

Via Andrew Gelman, a great slideshow about “How Americans Die” from Bloomberg. We see the development of American mortality 1968-2010 broken down in several different ways. It was new to me how important AIDS was as a mortality factor on the population level between the mid-80’s until the mid-90’s and that it affected black men the most. Also, “suicide […] has recently become the number one violent cause of death.” Go have a look.

Bloomberg 2014 How Do Americans Die

Why do we study?

Now that the world is obsessing about the PISA scores of 2012 is a good time to think a little of the trade-offs involved. South Korea is one of the best performers in international student achievement tests, such as PISA. However it is also “the world’s top producer of unhappy schoolchildren” (h/t MR). Lant Pritchett made a related comment in his Econtalk interview:

I think the parents in Bedford got out of their school system exactly what they wanted out of it. And they wanted football teams. And my wife teachers choir, and they wanted choir. And they wanted the school to put on a musical; and they wanted the school to provide their children with a range of athletic and artistic experiences. And engagement in a variety of other activities; and that’s what the school system delivered. Because it was quite carefully and closely controlled, both formally and informally by the parents. And that produces kind of not world-beating math scores. I don’t think that’s what the parents of Bedford thought was the totality of their educational system. So, I’m a very big fan of the local control by parents of educational systems. And if that doesn’t produce scores of 600, I am actually pretty happy with that. Because I’ve seen what it takes in Korea to produce scores of 600, and no American parent is willing to put their kid through that. Nor should they be, in my opinion.

To put in something more classic as well, here is US president John Adams:

I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

(Letter to Abigail Adams, 1780)

How much would you demand to be paid if I took out your appendix without anesthetizing you?

Discussing economists’ reliance on measures of growth and GDP, Joel Mokyr asks:

So you go to somebody who is about to have surgery and you ask him, How much would you demand to be paid if I took out your appendix without anesthetizing you, without putting you to sleep? Nobody would agree. The sum would be infinite. What can anesthesia contribute to GDP when it was introduced in the 1850s and 1860s? Russ:Could not be very much. Guest: Nothing. It’s very small. But that is exactly the kind of thing we fail to account for in our calculations. So that’s why I gave that whole list of things; and we could make this list infinitely large. It is the small things that actually don’t amount to an awful large part of our income and product that actually have improved life a great deal and that we really wouldn’t want to do without any more.

From Russ Roberts’ interview with Mokyr at Econtalk. The quote was first brought to my attention by Arnold Kling.

Scott misses the point of Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday

Does James Scott have something personal against Jared Diamond? That is unfortunately the question one is left with after reading Scott’s review of Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday. Scott acknowledges that the question of whether there is something to be learnt from traditional societies is reasonable, however he resents Diamond’s answers.

First, he thinks the lessons to be learnt are unexciting:

But what a disappointment it is, after nearly five hundred pages of anecdotes, assertions, snippets of scientific studies, observations, detours into the evolution of religion, reports of near-death experiences – Diamond can be a gripping storyteller – to hear the lessons he has distilled for us. We should learn more languages; we should practise more intimate and permissive child-rearing; we should spend more time socialising and talking face to face; we should utilise the wisdom and knowledge of our elders; we should learn to assess the dangers in our environment more realistically.

But what what kind of magic bullets was Scott expecting?

Second, he mischaracterizes Diamond as maintaining

the indefensible premise that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are survivals, museum exhibits of the way life was lived for the entirety of human history ‘until yesterday’ – preserved in amber for our examination.

Of course Diamond believes no such thing, but in the absence of much hard evidence, contemporary traditional societies is what we have. Maybe Diamond exaggerates what can be learnt, but Scott does not make this nuanced criticism. And even if he had, that would partly have been missing Diamond’s purpose, which specifically is to see the world of traditional peoples as being full of small experiments that we might learn from, not to show exactly how people lived hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Scott tops it by ending the review with asking Diamond to “shut up”. All this is unfortunate, since what is valuable in his review disappears. I too thinks it strange that Diamond does not discuss large-scale wars or other dangers of modern states. There are problematic aspects of the development of states. Scott claims that slave-holding was also an essential part of early states.

To conclude, Diamond’s point, which Scott apparently does not see, is to see what we can learn from traditional societies. His sample size is limited, but he does a great job with what he has.