Need Economics with less math and more Jane Austen…

Interesting piece by Profs. Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, both from Northwestern University.

In their passion for mathematically-based explanations, economists have a hard time in at least three areas: accounting for culture, using narrative explanation, and addressing ethical issues that cannot be reduced to economic categories alone.

People are not organisms that are first made and then dipped in some culture, like Achilles in the river Styx. They are cultural beings from the outset. But, because culture cannot be rendered in mathematical terms, economists typically embrace the idea of a pre-cultural humanness.

To understand people as cultural beings, one must tell stories about them. Human lives do not unfold in a predictable fashion the way Mars orbits the sun. Contingency, idiosyncrasy, and unforeseeable choices play an irreducible role. Life displays what might be called “narrativeness,” implying the need for explanation in terms of stories. And the best appreciation of this is to be found in novels, which may be considered not just a literary form, but also a distinct way of understanding the social world. Although the events that novels describe are fictional, the shape, sequence, and ramifications of those events is often the most accurate account we have of how lives unfold.

Finally, economics inevitably involves ethical questions that are not reducible to economics itself – or, for that matter, to any other social science. Economists often smuggle ethical concerns into their models with concepts like “fair” market price. But there are many ways to make these issues overt and open them to argument.

There is no better source of ethical insight than the novels of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Henry James, and the other great realists. Their works distill the complexity of ethical questions that are too important to be safely entrusted to an overarching theory – questions that call for empathy and good judgment, which are developed through experience and cannot be formalized. To be sure, some theories of ethics may recommend empathy, but reading literature and identifying with characters involves extensive practice in placing oneself in others’ shoes. If one has not identified with Anna Karenina, one has not really read Anna Karenina.

Not that math and models do not help. Just that stories/narrations matter too:

Econometric methods and mathematical models teach us much, but only so much. When it comes to human lives, characterized as they are by contingency and narrativeness, stories are an indispensable way of knowing. That is why the quantitative rigor, policy focus, and logic of economics must be supplemented with the empathy, judgment, and wisdom that defines the humanities at their best.

Economists must speak to other disciplines – and let them speak back.

Currently, even economists are unable to figure what other economist is writing and speaking…

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