Profiles have just been published of two of my cherished friends – each of whom happens also to rank among the finest, deepest, and most creative scholars I’ve ever known (or even just read).
The “Joan Baez socialism,” as she puts it, was in reaction to the Vietnam War. McCloskey recalls blocking then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s car during a student protest as he tried to get to a Harvard speaking engagement. She enjoys astonishing her Marxist friends by quoting more lefty folk songs than they can. Because Keynesianism was the oxygen Harvard econ grad students breathed when McCloskey studied with her beloved mentor there, Alexander Gerschenkron, she once believed that government had a substantial role to play in stimulating the economy. But the free market was doctrine at Milton Friedman’s University of Chicago, where McCloskey taught for 12 years after grad school. There she pursued esteemed studies of how early England’s property law influenced its economy, of how people interact in markets, and of the misleading nature of statistical correlation — the last boiling down to the argument that just because something can be statistically tracked doesn’t mean it matters and, conversely, that many things that matter don’t lend themselves to tidy statistical tracking.
Straying far from her Harvard Keynesianism of yesteryear, McCloskey now finds government market interventions patronizing and oblivious to unforeseen consequences. She ridicules “the idea that you can make an economy expand by just spending more. If that were true, the Industrial Revolution would have happened in Mesopotamia four millennia ago.”
She also dismisses the pessimism of Robert Gordon, the Northwestern University economist who, in his recent, much-discussed book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, sees technological growth as having slowed, leaving a precarious or wannabe middle class in danger of spiraling down the drain of a service economy of poorly paid Walmart greeters and Starbucks baristas. McCloskey, in contrast, bets that the 37 percent of the world population in China and India whose incomes are rapidly growing will lead to “a gigantic increase in the number of scientists, designers, writers, musicians, engineers, entrepreneurs, and ordinary businesspeople devising betterments that spill over to the now rich countries allegedly lacking in dynamism.” Similarly, she banks on innovation to overcome current environmental and health problems.
The second profile is of Cafe Hayek’s co-founder Russ Roberts (who, coincidentally, was one of Deirdre’s students at the University of Chicago). Some slices:
Russ Roberts has never been satisfied to simply reside in the ivory tower. He believes deeply in the importance of the people understanding the repercussions of economic policy.
“It’s always going to be the case that people will exploit a lack of knowledge of economics to try to get people to favor what they want that is good for them and not necessarily good for the country.” Roberts says. “That’s very sad. It gives me a job.”
But after all Roberts and others have done, he still sees politicians prey on the public’s lack of understanding about economics. Roberts’ beliefs about the importance of free trade remain unpopular. Bashing free trade, without acknowledging its benefits, is common among most of the presidential candidates.
Explaining complex economic ideas can be a sisyphean task — a fact that Roberts acknowledges. “Of course it’s frustrating and sometimes it’s very depressing,” he says. But he is philosophical about what one person can do. “I follow what the Talmud says about this. It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”