The Skeptical Liberal: 09/16/2007 - 09/23/2007

The Skeptical Liberal

How can we live together in peace, prosperity, and harmony, while retaining our liberties as autonomous individuals who can, and must, create our own values? -- J.M. Buchanan


The Chicago School 2: Mainly Milton Friedman

Second session of "Revisiting the Chicago School," Notre Dame, September 14-15, 2007.

The first presentation in this session was by Beatrice Cherrier. Her doctoral research involves a comparison of the ways in which Milton Friedman, Gunnar Myrdal and Jacob Marschak understood the relationship between their scientific work as economists and their involvement in political advocacy. Claims by Friedman and others that his scientific work was not influenced by, or a defense of, his political views are often doubted, and Cherrier takes as her task both the attempt to understand how Friedman might make such a claim, and how, in a manner consistent with that claim, a relationship between the two might be sustained.

Those familiar with hermeneutic theory will recognize Cherrier’s task as one which simultaneously takes the interpretative framework of the author on its own terms and attempts to construct a meta-interpretative framework which allows the historian to render consistent that which the author himself does not see as consistent. Friedman claims that his science and politics were separate spheres. How could that be? What overarching framework (Cherrier’s word is “worldview") could render that claim consistent?

Cherrier’s argument is that Friedman’s positive science and his political advocacy emerged simultaneously from a common set of experiences and events; in other words, his politics did not come first and his science second, nor his science first and his politics second. The fact that science and politics were separate but inextricably woven together explains both Friedman’s claim that they are separate and their necessary connection. Explaining the relation between his science and his politics requires a complex understanding of the interconnections between his scientific, methodological and ethical commitments, which may transcend his science and his politics.

I was initially hesitate about Cherrier’s use of “worldview” talk because of my previous history with the use of the term, but was impressed with her ability to weave a complex story about the relation between a person’s science and politics by it. I particularly liked her use of an argument by Roger Backhouse that methodology often provides the channels by which ethical and political values enter science. I would add that the reverse is also true. My one suggestion would be that Cherrier ask to what extent her analysis assumes that Friedman’s work is a consistent whole, and that one can move with relative ease across the span of his work as if the author understands all of these relationships ahead of time. My frustration with “worldview” talk in the past emerged from precisely this point: the “historian” tied together all the connections and implications of an author’s work after the fact, not accounting for the reality of the person’s life, in which the connections and implications are figured out and discovered as the person went along. Perhaps the person’s expressions of the underlying “vision” were occasional moments of insights? I am not accusing her of falling prey to Quentin Skinner’s “mythology of coherence,” only suggesting that it might be an issue she should pay attention to.

The second presentation at the session was by Robert Leeson. Robert is in the process of producing a multivolume collection of Friedman’s writings. His presentation was largely an outline of the collection and a set of questions about both the collection and a potential biography of Friedman.

The question he raised about the biography of Friedman was an interesting one. Could a multi-author biography of a person be produced that would have some intellectual cohesion? The response of the conference participants was one I shared: the “art” of biography is an individual art, and the biographer in many ways “creates” her subject by the act of writing about him.

That said, the Pulitzer Prize for Biography has been given several times to co-authored biographies (of de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Julia Ward Howe) and even once to a multi-volume biography of George Washington which was started by one biographer and finished by a team of two others. However, no other biographical prize in the English-speaking world has been awarded for a book authored by more than one person.

So I’ll turn Robert’s question to those who read this: is it possible for a multi-authored biography of a person like Milton Friedman to be written that would have integrity as a biography, and not simply a set of essays about the person’s work and life?

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The Chicago School of Economics 1: Roundtable on John Van Overtveldt’s book

I promised yesterday to begin posting blogs on the sessions of the "Revisiting the Chicago School [of Economics]" Conference held this past weekend at Notre Dame. I also encouraged other participants to post responses and/or additional comments. I hope they will!

The first session of the “Revisiting the Chicago School" was devoted to a discussion of Johan Van Overtveldt’s new book The Chicago School: How the University of Chicago Assembled the Thinkers Who Revolutionized Business and Economics (Agate, 2006). Perhaps an appropriate beginning, although we turned the session (and I say we because I contributed) into a critical bashing of the book.

Given that the participants were largely historians of economics, our discussion naturally focused on two types of issues: a) Van Overtveldt’s historical blunders; and b) why a book that would be judged harshly by historical standards would receive such popular acclaim amongst economists (at the time, we did not know of any negative reviews; but see the review by Phillips-Fein, which makes many of the points raised at the conference). Throughout our discussion of those two issues ran another: how historians and others treat overt apologia compared to works that take on a school of thought from a critical perspective. The discussion was kicked off by comments from Warren Samuels, me, Robert Leeson and Phil Mirowski (the conference organizer). My comments are available on SSRN, and will be published, along with Warren’s and Robert's, in volume 26-A of Research in the History of Economic Thought & Methodology (Elsevier, 2008).

Upon reflection on this session, I came away with four things:
a) Van Overtveldt’s book is poor history because it is “Whig history”;
b) The book is an even poorer history because it ignores external issues which would enrich the history, even if it was still a Whig history;
c) “Think tank” histories are a particularly poor version of “Whig history”; and
d) There are still things to learn, even from a poor history.

Whig history is history written by the “winners” for the purpose of accounting for their victory. Almost invariably, Whig history also has the purpose of de-legitimating alternative histories, which might portray the winners’ victory as less than a just cause. Van Overtveldt’s defense of the Chicago “revolution” largely invokes the age-old claim that great men did great deeds (in this case, they had great thoughts). Like Keynes, Van Overtveldt believes that ideas rule the world. Because he accepts the intellectual power of Chicago’s ideas, he has little need to explain why they may have succeeded. Thus, the “reasons” he gives for Chicago’s success are fairly anemic: Chicago’s isolation, the fact that department members had a strong work ethic, the intense “debating culture” of the workshops, and the University’s commitment to academic excellence. Ironically, given the Chicago emphasis on constrained maximization, Van Overtveldt explains Chicago economists as the product of an unusual utility function (they work harder and like to debate) more than the result of a different set of constraints. Of course, the argument that the brilliant men hired in the Chicago department were different than other economists underwrites the Whiggish-ness of the story Van Overtveldt tells: no need exists to examine other reasons for the success of the Chicago School, because the quality of the people accounts for the quality of their ideas.

But the other reasons for Chicago’s success kept intervening in our discussions all weekend! T. W. Schultz’ ability to bring foundation monies to support departmental research was integrated with domestic agricultural policy, trade policy, and US foreign policy; Friedman’s monetary work was connected to NBER methods and of course an integral part of the response to American Keynesianism; Chicago’s industrial organization and law & econ research gained impetus from the Volker Fund’s efforts to create an American version of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom; Stigler’s creation of a research institute deliberately sought non-traditional funding models that addressed themselves to industrial leaders; etc. In other words, our histories of the Chicago School almost invariably at least pointed to external issues, even if they did not explicitly treat them as part of the evaluation of the School’s success.

My own difficulty with Van Overtveldt’s unwillingness to address the external issues that affected the department’s success was not only the fact that it made the history anemic, but that it also ceded key aspects of the intellectual terrain to those who would wish to argue that the Chicago School may have won the political battle, but lost the war. The lack of discussion in his book about the changing political environment in the US, the history of post-war economic development, the Cold War and American foreign policy, domestic agricultural or monetary policy debate, labor policy debates both internationally and domestically, etc. could lead one to suggest that, for Van Overtveldt, Chicago’s positions were not entirely defendable in these terms. The only terms he could find to defend them in were those of intellectual brilliance. [For a massive attack from the other side, see Naomi Klein's new book, to be released tomorrow!, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.]

[Note: you will no doubt realize that this comment about Van Overtveldt's book is a potential criticism of my own work on Chicago!]

In his discussion of the book, Phil Mirowksi called Van Overtveldt’s book “think tank” history. I take “think tank” history to be a special category of Whig history: it is overtly polemical, powerpointish in its simplification of history, and considers anecdotes the stuff of history. In other words, the extreme of Whig History. The purpose of think tank history is to rally the troops for another round of fund-raising and political lobbying in order to get the think tank’s agenda back at the center of policy discussion. We see this all the time in education, environmental policy, trade, industrial policy, R&D, antitrust, and other areas. Van Overtveldt’s book comes along, Phil might argue, at a time when the Chicago laissez-faire program is under attack along with much of the rest of the neoliberal and neoconservative agenda. In that sense, Van Overveldt provides a narrative that rejuvenates neoliberalism. [If this is true, then Klein's book could be seen as the response; and it is no doubt equally "think tank" history--she even has a film already!]

Mirowski’s criticism raises an issue that came up at several times during our discussions, and to which I am certain to return over the next several days. The issue is who sets the standards for historical inquiry and how the work of standard-breakers should be addressed. Our reaction to Van Overtveldt was a common reaction of historians to attempts by journalists and non-historians to write history: his account fails to meet the standards that historians set for themselves and police within their own discipline by the requirements of academic peer-review. But think tanks operate on a different standard: their products are successful to the extent that their policy agenda is advanced and dollars raised to continue the cause. The historians’ response to think tank history may be to ignore it, or it could be to do a better job. I hope we take up the latter course of action.

Finally, even with its faults, I cannot entirely dismiss Van Overtveldt’s work. In my paper on his book, I outline five things that I think he gets right, and I am serious in that endeavor. As the first to plow this field, especially the post-Friedman era of Chicago economics, he has turned up a lot of good material. I am reminded that I was drawn to the study of the history of economics because of books like Van Overtveldt’s! Today, I think the economics and history of the books I read then as shallow, and think that they provide a poor representation of the work real historians of economics do. Yet books like Van Overveldt’s draw people to examine Chicago economics more closely, and that is a good thing. But we should still work to provide a better history.

Here are the reviews of, and web commentary on, The Chicago School that I could find (additions welcome):

Marginal Revolution


BookTV (CSpan 2)

The Economist

John Kay, Financial Times

Alan D. Viard, The American

Kim Phillips-Fein, Chicago Tribune

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Revisiting the Chicago School of Economics

On September 14 and 15, I attended the "Revisiting the Chicago School of Economics" conference, sponsored by Phil Mirowski at the University of Notre Dame. The conference website holds a schedule, the list of participants, and abstracts of the papers.

The conference gathered a varied group of historians of economics, economic historians, economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers together to discuss the Chicago School. Over the next several days, I intend to post a blog about each session of the conference, with my comments on the papers. I will also offer my own reflections on the theme of each session.

My own paper for the conference was written on the history of the famous Chicago "workshop model." The paper can be downloaded at SRRN.

Tomorrow I will comment on the first session, which was a roundtable on Johan Van Overtveldt's The Chicago School. I participated in the roundtable, and also invited participants to submit their comments to my blog. Hopefully, some will! Maybe we'll even be able to get some pictures?

Financial strategy: Knightians vs. Bayesians

Craig Torres from called me the other day to talk about Knightian uncertainty and Federal Reserve policymaking. He included some of my comments in his article.

The point of the article was that Fed Chair Ben Bernacke was taking a different line than former Chair Alan Greenspan. Greenspan tended to use changes in interest rates as a kind of insurance: cut rates when your instincts tell you that sharp market alterations may be on the horizon. Bernacke is more of a Bayesian: keep updating info for your models until your evaluation of the probability that something really bad is going to happen is high enough that you act. Greenspan's strategy would lead to quick cuts; Benacke's to delayed cuts.

Craig then quotes me on the Knightian origin of Greenspan's approach:

"Both [Bernacke's and Greenspan's] approaches have risks. Greenspan cited uncertainty as 'the defining characteristic' of the monetary policy landscape in an August 2003 speech. 'Only a limited number of risks can be quantified with any confidence,' he said.

"The speech was critical of models, and elevated the role of judgment. He invoked theories of Frank Knight, a University of Chicago economist from 1927 to 1955, to explain his ideas of risk management.

'Knight distinguished between risk and uncertainty: Risk is quantifiable, uncertainty is random. Managers 'would try to turn those uncertainties into knowable costs,' said Ross Emmett, a professor at James Madison College at Michigan State who has edited a collection of Knight's essays. 'They would purchase insurance.'"

My only quibble with Craig's comments about Greenspan's Knightian approach is that, for Knight, uncertainty is not random. In a random world, you can at least form a probability distribution of the possibilities. In an uncertain world, you cannot know what will happen, nor if it will be random or the result of a human action (Knight doesn't think the latter is ever "random"). You have to use judgment (Greenspan's point).

See Torres' entire article from September 13, 2007 here.

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