Hippie Punching Among the Econ Nerds

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

My post this past Friday completed, at least for the time being, my extended response to the "left-on-left action" that recently erupted among some liberal American economists.  As my series of posts demonstrates, the substantive issues at stake are hardly new, extending back at least half of a century, and bearing on a fundamental set of questions that have defined the insider/outsider status of economists for several generations.

Today, with nothing more to write on the substance, I nonetheless think that it is worthwhile to add one further point on the "sociology" of all of this.  In my May 8 Dorf on Law post, I tried to explain why people like Paul Krugman (avatar of the Orthodox Left) see the world as "jerks to the right of me, and jerks to the left of me," as opposed to "jerks to the right of me, and unjustly excluded frequent allies to the left of me."  This is, after all, a truly odd state of affairs.  As described so well in Professor Hockett's recent Dorf on Law post, there seems to be no space at all between the two "lefts" with regard to current macro policy, or even about how to think about the the key underlying theoretical questions (regarding private debt dynamics, consumption propensities, and risk/uncertainty).  So why the animosity?

The answer that I offered on May 8 was, I think, correct but incomplete.  There, I noted that even calling something the "sociology of economics" is inimical to the self-images of orthodox economists on the right and left alike, because the most important element of self-identification among orthodox economists is that they are True Scientists, unlike those soft, squishy, non-rigorous people in the Political Science, Anthropology, Psychology, and -- ughh! -- Sociology Departments, who dare to call themselves social scientists.  There is a reason that economists love to call their field "the queen of the social sciences," after all.

Recall, for example, that during the squabble earlier this year over the false claim that "Obamacare will kill 2.5 million jobs," an orthodox-right economist was quoted as saying that his opponents' arguments made him unhappy "as an American, as an economist. Those kind of conclusions are tarnishing the field of economics, which is a great, maybe the greatest, field."  Similarly, in one of my gigs as an economics professor at a small, liberal arts college, the other three professors in the economics department very excitedly told me that they were going to petition to have Economics moved from the social sciences division into the natural sciences division.  (I objected, "because economics is, you know, actually a social science.")

This is all to emphasize that nothing I say here should be read as backing off of the "we can't be seen as sociologists" explanation of why right and left orthodox economists band together, policy preferences and ideology notwithstanding.  Their common view of economics, at its essence, must still adhere to the supply/demand and optimization approaches that now define the field.  (A lot of gratuitous mathematics also satisfies the need to guard against being accused of softness.)  This necessarily means that all analyses must be based on methodological individualism, and it rules out studying things like "power," which is deemed too vague to be measured or to have any real meaning -- even though "utility" is perfectly fine.

Krugman is a particularly interesting supporting example of this sociological explanation.  He has shown that he is willing to stand apart from his colleagues and (quite appropriately) savage them for their intellectual dishonesty, deliberately removing himself from polite conversation and proudly suffering the slings and arrows from offended EU officials and conservative economists alike.  He is willing to be weird, but not so weird as to stop being a Real Economist.  So why is he so intent on repeating (completely out of context, as I described last Friday) that the British Cantabrigians were wrong?  Apparently because accepting their critique would undermine the core starting point on which Real Economics is built.

Having thus re-emphasized my initial sociological explanation of orthodox economists' defensive death grip on their methods, what else is there to add?  As I have noted, one of the perks of being an orthodox left economist, rather than a heterodox left economist, is access to political power.  Democratic politicians lavish attention on people like Larry Summers and Janet Yellen, but it is rare indeed that they listen to heterodox lefties.  (Again, Summers and Yellen are often correct on the policy -- certainly as compared to the people who advise Republicans.  That, however, is a separate issue.)  True, Democrats will occasionally invite Jamie Galbraith to join groups of economists who are gathered to give policy advice, but it is hard to escape the sense that they do so simply to be able to claim that they are open-minded, with the orthodox lefty economists knowing that there is no danger of unwelcome ideas from the heterodox lefties ever being taken seriously.

The frantic insistence with which those on the orthodox left distance themselves from their heterodox fellow travelers, therefore, can also be explained as a matter of careerism in the form of maintaining political relevance.  In fact, I think the best way to understand it is as yet another form of "hippie punching."  As I described in a recent post, hippie punching describes efforts by people on the nearer left to reassure others that they are not TOO FAR to the left -- not like those crazy hippies over there!  As Elvis Costello once sang, "Even a scapegoat needs someone to hate."  The glee with which mainstream liberals engage in this distancing exercise is something to behold, especially because there appears to be no such tendency on the right.  If anything, mainstream conservatives feel the need to reassure people that they are truly men of the right.

What makes the hippie-punching explanation so interesting in the context of my recent recapitulation of the Cambridge Controversies is that Joan Robinson, one of the key players on the British side of that debate, was quite explicitly "hippie punched" during her later career.  (Also, as a matter of personal style, Robinson was unfortunately the ultimate "jerk on the left," which helps to explain -- but only partially -- the failure of the British side to, er, capitalize on its victory in the Cambridge Controversies.)

Robinson was a punching bag, but she did not need to be red-baited, because she was increasingly willing over time to embrace socialism openly, and she spoke positively of real-world communist regimes.  The entry on Robinson in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics begins: "She was in the same league as others who received the Nobel Prize; indeed, many economists expected her to win the prize in 1975. Business Week was so sure of it that it published a long article on her before that year’s prize was announced. It did not happen. Was the Swedish Royal Academy biased against Robinson? Many economists believe it was, but not because Robinson was a woman. Rather, her political views became more left wing as she aged, to the point where she admired Mao Zedong’s China and Kim Il Sung’s North Korea. These extreme views should not have affected her chances of getting an award for her intellectual contributions, but they probably did."

Of course, Robinson's substantive work in economics was compatible with modern mixed capitalism, no matter her political views.  Even so, she was the ultimate hippie to punch.  During the Cold War, I suspect that it would have been too scary for American left-leaning economists to say, "We are now going to develop ideas based on the work of Joan Robinson and her colleagues, because they have shown that our theoretical approach is incoherent."  There was a very, very strong reason for economists who still wanted to be invited to cocktail parties in Washington, and to work in the U.S. government, to distance themselves from Robinson.

So, the timidity of orthodox left economists is not just a matter of protecting their self-image, clinging to the belief that they are almost physicists -- and certainly not sociologists.  It is also a matter of seeking power and influence, which is a different sociological explanation for their behavior.  In any case, with the Cold War long since over, it is notable that one of the strongest reasons for American Keynesians to distance themselves from British Keynesianism has long since disappeared, but the habits of mind persist.  And economics, to say nothing of the world, is the worse for it.