Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Misnomers in Economics.

Economics, it seems, is largely the science of attributing to authors ideas they never supported (h/t Economist's View). At least, this is what one infers from a recent Vox column by Thorvaldur Gylfason, Helgi Tomasson, and Gylfi Zoega (Vox, Mar 24). Referring to the cases of David Ricardo and Irving Fisher, GTZ write:
"The pattern is pretty clear – you make a discovery (or perhaps you just make a point!) and it may become irretrievably associated with your name.
"Or it may not.
"Or something completely different can happen. Just ask David Ricardo and Irving Fisher."
Or you could ask Karl Marx.


Why this happens in economics?

One can think of several explanations, non-mutually exclusive.

The first one -- garden-variety ignorance/laziness -- does not involve malice: I must write about this subject, but right now I'm too busy to read those boring authors; well, never mind, I think I once heard such and such be said of them; thus, I repeat that here, so that I can finish this in time to watch Iron Chef.

The second explanation -- paraphrasing Mark Blaug -- involves an effort to invent a pedigree for one's own ideas: one uses someone's prestige to promote one's thoughts. GTZ seem to think along those lines in the case of the deformation of Ricardo and Fisher:
"There is a lot in a name. Irving Fisher has suffered similar treatment as David Ricardo when different authors have attached his name to an empirical relationship that he rejected. The prestigious names of Ricardo and Fisher have been used to justify inattentive fiscal and monetary policies."
There is deception involved, but one is not trying to destroy someone's reputation, but enhance one's own.

But there are other possibilities. One can, for instance, build a straw man argument around a name whose prestige one wishes to tarnish. Here one reaches the peak in malice: one lies and deceives to destroy.

At any event, neither explanation speaks highly of those practicing that art, or their toadies.

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