Monday, November 8, 2010

the dismal science

The "economists as soulless money-grubbers" stereotype I don't think usually extends to "economists as soulless scientists manipulating human lab rats" but this title almost sounds like it. I love it =)


The abstract reverts to the term "peer group", which makes more sense in terms of feasibility. The title, I'm sure, is meant (in a somewhat drolly self-aware manner) to point out how cool it is that randomized peer groups allow causal identification even though true 'randomly assigned friends' are impossible. But I don't think noneconomists would necessarily read it that way.

As for the euphemism "dismal science", let's please set the record straight on its origin...

Thomas Carlyle coined the term in 1850 in the context of criticizing economics for justifying black emancipation, in what is the most phenomenal racist diatribe I've ever encountered. He called economics a rueful science "which finds the secret of this universe in 'supply-and-demand', and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone." And in the West Indies, where fruits were plentiful and black men, the "indolent, two-legged cattle", could allegedly live happily with little labor, the outcome of this law of supply and demand infuriated Carlyle, as "no black man, who will not work according to what ability the gods have given him for working, has the smallest right to eat pumpkin, or to any fraction of land that will grow pumpkin, however plentiful such land may be, but has an indisputable and perpetual right to be compelled, by the real proprietors of said land, to do competent work for his living."

Sounds more like the optimistic, uplifting, confidence-inspiring, life-affirming science to me!

5 comments:

brucetheeconomist said...

I thought Malthus was associated with the dismal science label, and maybe Ricardo.

I'm not history of thought expert by any means.

brucetheeconomist said...

You may not wish to say, but are you from Oklahoma??

Vera said...

yeah, I've definitely heard that the phrase was a response to Malthus's theories (and Thomas Carlyle did refer to those theories as "dismal") but it looks like the first time the full phrase "dismal science" was used was in "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question". But I'm also not any kind of historian and am relying on google to inform me...

and yes, I am from Oklahoma, and proud of it =)

brucetheeconomist said...

By the way. I thought it might sound like I was slaming Oklahoma. I meant you might not wish to say where you're from. People are sensitive about revealing any kind of personal info, including birthplace. I thought you're line about outlining Oklahoma most imply you're a sooner.

Vera said...

yeah, don't worry I didn't think you were trying to be offensive, but considering how frequently I myself insult various aspects of Oklahoma, I thought I should point out that I mean it entirely affectionately =) (well, most of the time. Since I don't live there anymore it's easy to forget how frustrating or infuriating certain things really were...)

I gave up on the personal info bit a long time ago... very hard to hide yourself when you have a unique name.