Being an economics rebel like Prof. Deirdre McCloskey…

Superb interview of Prof McCloskey who has challenged most aspects of current economic teaching and research.

In May, I had the fortune to interview Deirdre McCloskey at the INET offices in New York as part of the ‘Rebels and Masters’ series that JW Mason and I conduct (previous interviewees include Axel LeijonhufvudJames Crotty and Anwar Shaikh. During the wide-ranging conversation, we broached several issues, but focused on three matters in particular, her continued engagement with economic history and her “Bourgeois Virtues” trilogy that seeks to make a philosophical and scientific defense of capitalism, her criticism of economics as practiced, and her advice for young economists seeking to break out of the stultifying confines of what is acceptable.
Somewhere around 1980, Deirdre McCloskey undertook a decisive break with her intellectual past. She had a PhD in economics from Harvard, having trained under the legendary economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron and was a tenured Professor at the University of Chicago-at that time, perhaps the most important university worldwide in terms of its generational impact. She had a gilt-edged education and reputation and had earned her stripes as a fierce and uncompromising economist. Hardly the natural time to move into something radically different.
But while she had ‘learned the tricks’ of being an economist, for many years she felt a brewing dissatisfaction with her training. As she puts it, her experience of life in economics departments for decades meant that she harbored a fundamental suspicion of the narrowness and ‘phony’ methodology of much of the discipline. Much of economics had deliberately clad itself in a garb of positivism, even when scholars knew the critical importance of the historical, social, and political embeddedness of their interventions.
So, she did something unusual. She began a serious and much deeper engagement with the humanities. Encountering Wayne Booth, a professor in the English Department at Chicago, got her into thinking about persuasion and rhetoric in economics. She began to study Latin and Greek to reconnect with the deeper intellectual traditions of which she was a part. She wrote a book on epistemology, Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics. She began to think more clearly and carefully about speech and writing in economics. She began an interdisciplinary group with several people in English and Engineering at the University of Iowa. She began to have deeper and more extensive conversations with people from other traditions in economics- Marxism and Austrian Economics for example, and finally even moved to the University of Illinois at Chicago and held the intellectually much broader position of Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication.
Amazing. Wish there were more people like her. I got hooked to her research much later which is not surprising. The mainstream profession wants fewer people like her who challenge the entire shaky edifice on which current economics is based. So they will neither recommend nor refer her work.
Her view on economics training:
McCloskey worries about the current teaching of economics and urges a return to a more holistic approach as suggested by Joseph Schumpeter-one that emphasized economic ideas over simply mathematical proofs. She proposes also having much greater training in courses beyond econometrics such as archival research, accounting and experiments. Similarly, renewed attention to the History of Economic Thought. But such widespread revisions seem unlikely to occur anytime soon.
There is much more there.
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