[Marxism] The dismal science

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 30 13:59:45 MST 2006


Dismal news about the dismal science
A new piece of economics research suggests economists are more ruthless 
than others.
Richard Adams
March 30, 2006 04:32 PM

When the Cambridge economist Piero Sraffa heard the US had dropped atomic 
bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he went out and bought Japanese government 
bonds, on the grounds that they could only go up in value. They did so, 
spectacularly, and Sraffa later made a substantial sum. Hard-headed it may 
have been, Sraffa was being perfectly rational. But his is the sort of 
attitude that gives economists a bad reputation among the public, of 
knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, confirming the 
label attributed to Thomas Carlyle (actually coined to describe liberals) 
of economics as "the dismal science".

Lately, however, economists are in danger of becoming likeable: the booming 
sales of Steven Levitt's book Freakonomics and the "economics-lite" of Tim 
Harford suggests there is a market for user-friendly economics. Harford has 
a TV series coming up in which he at pains to point out that economists are 
cuddly, fun-loving guys and gals. And about time too.

But before Meghnad Desai is recruited for the next edition of Celebrity Big 
Brother (actually, that's not such a crazy idea), have a look at this 
research just published in the Economic Journal by Ariel Rubinstein. He 
surveyed different groups of university students, including those studying 
economics, philosophy law, maths, and business administration. The survey 
asked how many workers the students would advise sacking from a notional 
company in some financial difficulty (I won't go into the details). By a 
substantial margin the economics students were prepared to sack more people 
than their opposite numbers in other disciplines. More in fact, than even 
the MBA students.

Although this is not the first research to suggest economists might be 
selfish, the result still depressed Rubinstein, who concludes: "I believe 
that we actually do harm to our students in only teaching them the 
intricacies of mathematical models and that we are unintentionally 
distorting their economic views." He hopes that his research will "confront 
readers, especially the economists among them, with the results of how 
economics is taught and encourage them to consider changing our teaching 

On that basis, Rubinstein himself has an unusual attitude for an economist 
when it comes to maximising profits. His personal web page has a foul 
colour, but has this very unusual link. In his list of publications he 
mentions one he edited, Game Theory in Economics, alongside a link entitled 
"My sincere opinions about buying this book", which takes you a comment: "I 
think that the book is outrageously priced (I am afraid I was very very 
naive when I signed the contract...) and thus, unfortunately, I cannot 
recommend buying it."

In the meantime, it may be worth remembering that Sraffa, when he wasn't 
profiting from nuclear war, was also a friend and supporter of Antonio Gramsci.



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