I was just informed, on a public affairs listserv, of this project, aimed at making didactic material in this extremely important field available to students at something like marginal cost. Hooray for them: the textbook market needs loosening up in many ways. You have to sign up to look inside, but it’s free. I checked out the second chapter and had a kind of ambivalent reaction. On the one hand, it took what looks to me like a good approach to the material, making the law of demand shed light on a question students could be expected to find considerable on its own terms (why is the West so much richer than everywhere else?). On the other hand, having asked that question and presenting some different theories about the answer, the chapter does not discuss, nor mention in the “further readings” section, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, just books by economists. This is really mystifying to me; I really thought almost every literate person knew this book, certainly anyone who is going to set hand to keyboard about differential national prosperity.
I have been here before, and more than once. Every discipline has its blind spots, but there seems to be something about economists as a group, even though I have nothing but love and affection for my economist friends and colleagues, and gratitude for all the good stuff I have learned from them. I can’t count the times, for example, that I’ve asked a young economist, who just presented a paper with a cool regression from actual data showing that government agencies don’t do nearly enough of A to accomplish B, “that’s really interesting! Why do the people in these agencies say they don’t do A?” and triggered a complete deer-in-the-headlights freeze. “You mean, like, ask them?” How could that poor student’s thesis advisor not have ever told him, “part of being a responsible scholar in our business is to pick up the phone and talk to the people who do what you are studying: lucky you, the entomologists can’t do that!” A few years ago I gave a talk to a large hall full of cultural and arts economists, and had to do some fast course adjustment when I discovered that no more than two or three were aware of Lawrence Lessig’s work on copyright and digital media. I’m sorry, but in that field, that is like not knowing how to read. The problem, I realized (and yes, I did ask them afterwards) is that Lessig is a law professor, not an economist. (Diamond is an ornithologist and physiologist).
As Yogi Berra said, “a fella can see a lot by just looking.” As he meant, “…and miss a lot by not looking.” When your data and standard methodology doesn’t give you p<.10 confidence that something is a certain way, what do you do…jump out the window? send society to an astrologer for an answer? You need to get out more, folks. Be like Tom Schelling and Bob Frank: knowing all kinds of different stuff doesn’t seem to have dumbed them down any. And by the way, the most-cited paper ever published in Econometrica was by a pair of psychologists.