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Economic representations and the power of ideas

from David Ruccio

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As readers know, there are few things I take more seriously than economic representations and the power of ideas.

As I argued in my book, representations of the economy (including, of course, issues of inequality) are produced and disseminated in many different discursive forms and social sites, only one of which is the academic discipline of economics. We also find them in academic disciplines other than economics (such as anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, and so on) and in many places outside the academy (including in literature, from Balzac to DeLillo).

And, of course, I wouldn’t teach, write, and give talks (not to mention compose posts for this blog) unless I believed in the power of ideas—especially those ideas that represent a ruthless criticism of everything existing.

So, I was pleased to find I’m in good company, as Thomas Piketty explains in this interview with Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias:

Pablo Iglesias: When I was reading the introduction of your book, my attention was caught by the way you described your experience in the United States. You said you wanted to return to Europe immediately. You were criticising the deification of economists in the US and showcasing your admiration for Pierre Bourdieu and Fernand Braudel.

Thomas Piketty: I really enjoyed my stay in the US, but I couldn’t wait to get back to France, to get closer to historical research, especially economic and social. Overall, I see myself as a researcher in social science rather than as an economist.

I think that the line between economics, history, sociology and political science is thinner than what economists sometimes tend to affirm. It is tempting for economists to have people believe that they created a separate science, too scientific for the rest of the world to understand. But of course this is a big joke, which has done a lot of harm. I believe we need a modest approach to economics, and that we shouldn’t let economists keep economic questions to themselves.

In my work, I try to conduct research on the history of income and assets, and I don’t believe it’s possible to tackle this issue without an economic, social, political and cultural approach. This includes the representations people have of inequalities, which is why in my book I also mention representations in literature. I believe it is crucial not to leave these questions for the economists, as they are far too important.

PI: What you are saying is very interesting, as sometimes economists introduce themselves more or less as representatives of a natural science; as if they were putting on a lab coat and stepping away from social sciences. Moving on to your recent rejection of the Legion of Honour, what in your opinion should be the role of intellectuals today?

TP: We do not write books for those who govern, we do not write books for governments. We do not write books seeking official honours. We write books for anyone who reads books, and above all I try to contribute to the democratisation of economic and social knowledge. I trust the power of books, of ideas. I believe in a general democratisation of society and of economy. This can enable citizens to take up issues that are not technical. Public funding, income, assets, interest rates, salaries … these questions are for everyone.

I’m trying to democratise this knowledge so that every citizen can be more active and take part in collective deliberation. I believe this shows more political commitment than going to official receptions. Political leaders often implement what they believe to be the prevailing opinion. Therefore, the most important thing for me is to help in transforming this opinion.

  1. blocke
    February 26, 2015 at 9:55 am

    If you are right, David, and I think you are, then something needs to be done about the way economics is approached. One needs to start with a liberal education. For my doctorate, I took the 19th century French novel, as one of four examination field, read Balzac, Stendhal , and Flaubert, and then lots of Zola for the later period, because I was told by my mentor, a 19th century European historian, that the social economic transformation of 19th century Europe was mirrored in the literature. If I had been studying neoclassical economics at the time, which had taken over the subject, I would not have found any Balzac, or Flaubert, etc. My point, is that entry into graduate studies in economics must resolve the infernal conflict between mathematical modeling and the liberal arts. We have seen general knowledge dwindle as an aim off studies since the swindle of a money based economy took over. Any proposals that would gain the attention of the power brokers in economic studies that would touch on the question of moral order, would be welcomed. No wonder sensitive students are heading for the Turkish=Syrian border. The universities have abandoned them.

    • davetaylor1
      February 26, 2015 at 11:59 am

      I very much agree with you, Bob; you might look up J H Newman’s “Idea of a University” on the need for a liberal education. That is why I mentioned “The Merchant of Venice” the other day: about as plain an account as Shakespeare dared give at that time about what happened after Henry VIII lost his navy with the capsizing of the Mary Rose. But likewise with many of the Biblical stories, which are fairly evidently addressed to historic and first hand experience rather than scholarship. Today they are being dismissed unread as “just religious myth” by people who, like Shakespeare’s Shylock – not brought up to be grateful for tolerant co-existence and to “love the sinner, hate the sin” – hate others and deny the skeletons in their own cupboard. Muslims at least haven’t forgotten usury is a sin. Peter Selby’s “Grace and Mortgage” would be a very useful reader for those starting in economics, along with Woodward and Bond’s “Algol68-R Users Guide” and the challenge of understanding ancient stories as programming our ability to perceive (as against what we perceive) at the four different levels of that mathematical modelling language for scientists. Add Sawyer’s “Prelude to Mathematics”, of course, and perhaps Brennan and Brewi’s “Mid-life Directions” for their professors, to help them through their mid-life crisis.

  2. Macrocompassion
    February 26, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    There is a way of approaching the subject of macroeconomics which turns it into a more exact science. It uses systems analysis and is not at all difficult to understand even though it calls on the reader to follow some logic and mathematical treatments. With all the discussion about liberal education preceding the economics courses, I would suggest that some time be spent on the way that such systems can be represented by block and flow diagrams, in particular by the model in DiagFuncMacroSyst.pdf would also be useful and in fact if you REALLY want to learn how our system works. This model is of course how I have found it can best be expressed for beginners.

  3. February 27, 2015 at 5:49 am

    Mr. Piketty’s views comes from a very good place. A very, very good place. Thanks for sharing that encouraging revelation about him.

    • davetaylor1
      February 27, 2015 at 9:19 am

      Thank you too for seeing and saying this, Jerry. I suppose I’d been addressing the thread title in light of blocke’s comment.

  4. February 28, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    I have written too about the power of ideas (and epistemic communities) in economic governance. See http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415691284/

  5. Macrocompassion
    March 1, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    “False ideas are more dangerous than big guns” Quoted from “Mathematics for TC Mits (The Celebrated Man in the Street)”

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