Not invented here

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.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

6 thoughts on “Not invented here”

  1. I thought Diamond was a geographer. Wikipedia tells me he's that plus (earlier) the other two you mentioned. But the expertise that produced GG&S probably has more to do with his last specialty.

    I understand from conversations with a historian that there's a lot of skepticism in that field about the "determinism" of Diamond's explanation. Something like Gould's objection to viewing evolutionary history as a teleological progression towards humankind.

    But this is all a quibble. Your larger point certainly stands.

  2. A better link to the Kahneman and Tversky paper.

    How did they smuggle their subversive theory into Econometrica, a house journal of economic scholasticism? It's impressively mathematical, and builds on suitably arcane work by von Neumann etc on utility theory, in a tradition going back to Bernoulli. They left out the anecdotes that enliven Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, and downplayed their strong empirical evidence. They finished up with an axiomatic analysis. So it all looked kosher to the editors.

  3. As one of the people involved in CORE, thanks for the review! Guns, germs and steel is given as further reading in Unit 1. Easy to move it to Unit 2, or double up, if that improves things. We're open to suggestions.

  4. It might also be useful to alert students to some of the serious critiques of Diamond’s work, e.g., those presented at the symposium

    “Exploring Scholarly and Best-Selling Accounts of Social Collapse and Colonial Encounters” at the 2006 American Anthropological Association meeting in Jan Jose; or those linked from

  5. Having grown up with a fair number of economists, I think that there are likely several (somewhat conflicting) reasons for acting this way. The first, of course, is the past 50 years of economists trying to be all sciencey and looking with scorn on narrative explanations for anything. Along with this goes the general social-science problem that people lie to investigators of all kinds (so, for example, if your anecdotal student had asked the people at the agencies why they didn't do A, untangling the answers would have delayed the thesis by who knows how long). And tying the two of those together: the lamp post effect. The more you know about analyses from other fields, the more the tractable models seem pointless, at least initially.

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