Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Solow on interdisciplinarity

Everyone thinks economics and other subjects should be interdisciplinary.  Just to show there is nothing new under the sun here is the brilliant economist Robert Solow on the matter, from 1972,  Science and Ideology in Economics. (update: full reference is: "Science and Ideology in Economics." The Public Interest no. 21 (Fall. 1970):. 94-107)

"When you leave your car with a mechanic, it doesn't bother you that he regards it as combustion engine on wheels....you don't feel it necessary to remind him it is also a status symbol.  Why then is it wrong for economists to regard the economy as a mechanism for allocating resources and determining income, despite the fact that it also plays a role in the determination of status, power and privilege?  why should economics be interdisciplinary?

the answer is, presumably, that because otherwise it will make mistakes.  The trouble is that the injunction is presented as...self-evident not as a conclusion from failure of certain narrow undertakings."

Solow continues:

"When they want economics to be broader and more interdisciplinary they seem to mean that they want it to give up on standards of rigor, precision and reliance on systematic observation interpreted by theory"

The productivity puzzle is a case in point.  By all means let's be interdisciplinary, but concentrate on the data and facts so we don't end up trying to solve the puzzle via casual observation.  Indeed this is one of Solow's most famous quotes "..every discussion by Economists of the relatively slow growth of the UK economy seems to end up in a blaze of amateur sociology".