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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Why do Economists talk Gibberish?

I have, I readily admit, a certain fixation about the style of social science booksparticularly economic ones. I have at least 5 reasons for deep concern –
- the lack of taste shown by publishers - who insist on imposing narrow and badly-written texts on us
- the way continuing academic compartmentalisation into tinier and tinier sub-fields makes it more and more difficult for those who work across disciplinary fields to get a serious hearing
- the obfuscating nature of the prose - which results as they disappear up one another’s arses;
- the dominance and unjustifiable arrogance of the economists; and
- the managerialist grab of the past few decades

I try, occasionally, to explore why specialists write such inferior books compared to those who have resisted groupthink and who approach an issue more creatively…..from a multidisciplinary point of view. I find myself using the metaphor of a bridge, border or network.
But perhaps “outsider” is a better term since it better conveys the sense of not belonging to the group – of being on the periphery…..Indeed the word “periphery” also gives a useful sense of the importance of messages and pressures from diverse sources in helping avoid the dreaded disease of “groupthink”…  “Think “peripheral vision” and “tunnel vision”, focus – which is why my blog currently bears the title it does….

Like the good social scientist I am, I already have a hypothesis – namely that the feeling of being an outsider is a catalyst to identify and challenge “groupthink” and that writing is an effective way of exploring the multiple perspectives which subsequently open up…..
Clearly one can be a great writer without being (or feeling) an outsider - although I suspect that people who lack empathy won’t be great writers. But the weak point in my argument is the connection between creativity and writing. There’s no obvious reason why those with creative insights should be able to express them clearly in writing,,,,……Or is there?    

But I have probably been insufficiently sensitive to the system in which social scientists are trapped…
Academics are now under pressure to publish - with their Departments rewarded financially for those who have high ratings from what’s called “peer-reviews”. Those who accept the “conventional wisdom” in their fields and write in jargon will generally score well in these ratings.
But go off piste and/or write in plain language the (wo)man in the street can understand and you’re in trouble.
One of the concluding chapters of The Econocracy – the perils of leaving economics to the experts by Earle, Moran and Ward-Perkins (2017) explains this very well. And argues, correctly in my view, that the way we allow economists to continue to bamboozle us into believing that the subject is a difficult one is nothing short of criminal!

It was early 2018 when I did the first list for my readers of clearly-written explanatory economics books which I could recommend….   So it’s about time it was updated
All the books until the list reaches 2017 are downloadable in full

Table 1; Best written books about Economics for the general reader (chronological order)
Title, author and date

Comment
Very practical insight into local economic development by an Irishman – but also inspirational….24 years on, it hasn’t really been bettered.

Written before the crash, it might be called the first alternative textbook (except it’s much greater fun to read!). By an Australian
 a very user-friendly book commissioned by Canadian trade unions with excellent graphics and “further reading” list ….for full version see table 2 …..
is a great read – with a self-explanatory title. He is also an Australian

superbly-written demolition job on the myths perpetrated on us by economists. By a Cambridge economist educated in South Korea
a highly readable book by an ex-Director-General of the Club of Rome
written by a Scottish political scientist/political economist (now working at Brown Uni in US) , it shows how old theories still affect the contemporary world profoundly  
One of the best introductions to the subject - which can't be faulted for being over-diplomatic! 
By a US economist who worked in London from the 2000s
An alternative approach to economics which situates it in its cultural and historical context. It may be long (at 500 pages) but is definitely worth persevering with....
Rodrik is from Turkey and is one of the few economists prepared to challenge the mainstream. This is a balanced rather than critical analysis
This is a highly readable little book from those who took part in the protests about the irrelevance of economic teaching and set out the deficiencies they experienced. This is one of the few which is not freely downloadable
A sociologist’s treatment which earns high points by stating in the very first sentence that it has “stood on the shoulders of so many giants that he is dizzy” and then proves the point by having an extensive bibliography with lots of hyperlinks…
This Oxford economist’s book is advertised as a new perspective on the subject. One of the few not downloadable
Economics for the common good; Jean Tirole (2017) A French Nobel-prize winning economist


Economics in Two Lessons; John Quiggin (2019)
Google excerpts only

Quiggin wrote this book on his website, seeking feedback as he went . You may therefore be able to see a fair amount of the content here
“What’s wrong with economics – a primer for the perplexed”; Robert Skidelsky (2020)
Skidelsky is a stylish writer – historian and biographer of Keynes – I’ve long admired. I’ve not had a chance to read the book yet – although Diana Coyle’s not impressed

Further reading
429,500 academics are employed in British universities
What are Universities for? Useful briefing paper from 2008

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