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Ancillary reading related to economics/political economy December 30, 2011

Posted by larry in economics.

Here is some reading I have found over the years to be helpful in placing economic/political economic reasoning in a broader perspective, and I hope that they are reasonably accessible. They are not in any particular order. I have included more than a few in the hope that at least one will prove of interest.

Goffman Unbound: A New Paradigm for Social Science (2006) by Thomas Scheff. This is a quite brilliant exposition of the thinking of Erving Goffman, the late behavioral social scientist, whose own writing can be a little difficult. His first, ground-breaking work was Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Had you read this in your early twenties, as I did, I could virtually guarantee that, if the work spoke to you at all, you would look at what your friends and acquaintances did and said in a new and somewhat disturbing way. Goffman placed individual behavior in its social setting and explained their interaction via role theory interpreted as theater.

Leon Festinger, Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957). And Festinger, Rieken, and Schacter, When Prophecy Fails (1956). The latter is a test of the theory set out in a more formal way in the former. This is one of the great theories of social psychology. It influenced George Akerlof, at least until he collaborated with Shiller on Animal Spirits and began to incorporate Prospect Theory in an unhelpful manner. There are two versions of Prospect Theory, one that takes history into account and one, the original version, that doesn’t. In either case, it is still insufficiently developed psychologically for the purposes envisioned by economists.

Spiros Latsis, ed., Method and Appraisal in Economics (1976). The pieces in this book use Imre Lakatos’s approach to the history and philosophy of science to assess the predominant economic theory of its time, which was the neo-classical paradigm. The general consensus was that the paradigm consisted of a degenerating research program. The neo-classical paradigm was considered to be degenerative from a logico-philosophical perspective, which is consistent with a discredited paradigm continuing to be used by professionals in the field.

Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes (1978) (Vol. 1 of collected essays). Lakatos viewed his work as improving on and extending that of Karl Popper. He felt that Popper’s notion of falsification was too simplistic and failed to account for what actually took place in scientific testing scenarios.  Some Italian economists are currently using Lakatos’s methodology and outlook to inform their own perspectives of their field. One example is The Wealth of Ideas, a history of economic thinking, by Allesandro Roncaglia (2006).

Robert Heilbroner, Behind the Veil of Economics (1988). This terrific work concentrates on the power and ideology behind economic ideas, as does the work of the great Kenneth Boulding (too many to list).

The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help? by Bibb Latane and John Darley (1989). This is another theory of social behavior, where individual and small group behavior is interpreted as a consequence of situational influence. It complements Goffman’s work, as it does Stanley Milgram’s justly famous study of Obedience To Authority (1974). The results of this study are incredibly disquieting. No one wants to believe that out of a large crowd of people who don’t know them, more than 60% will engage in acts that could kill them if told to do so by a suitable authority, that is, if the situation is appropriately influentially structured. Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, described in The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil (2007), also supports Milgram’s results. While Milgram’s study has been replicated all over the world with very similar results (with the exception of Australia), and thus his original results confirmed, you see virtually no studies like this currently. This is because ethics committees will not pass them. Milgram was himself deeply concerned about the consequences of his experiment on his subjects and checked up on them afterwords.

Roger Brown, Social Psychology (1st ed. 1965). This is a beautiful exposition of work that isn’t much discussed these days. Included is a critical assessment of The Authoritarian Personality by Adorno et al. In some ways, this edition is better than its second incarnation.

Barrington Moore, Jr., Moral Aspects of Economic Growth and Other Essays (1998). This is by an historian whose most famous works are Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (1967) and Authority and Inequality under Capitalism and Socialism (1987).

In my opinion, this is essential reading even though some of it has been superseded: John K. Galbraith, The New Industrial State (orig. 1967; but the new edition (2007) with a forward by his son, James K. Galbraith, is the best choice). This is part of a trilogy, preceded by The Affluent Society and succeeded by Economics and the Public Purpose.

A sequel to The New Industrial State is James K. Galbraith’s own The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too (2008). Neither of the Galbraith works are strictly speaking examples of economic analysis. Galbraith pere’s colleagues considered him to be a “policy wonk”. The pejorative tone is obvious. The truth is that he was both more interesting and more relevant than his more mainstream economic colleagues.

Jerry Ravetz’s No-Nonsense Guide to Science (2006). This comes out of work he carried out with Silvio Funtowicz, a good bit of which can be found on Jerry’s web site, http://www.nusap.net/. I worked on this as well and came out with a computer-based statistics tutorial, Statistics Without Pain, that included my modifications of Jerry and Silvio’s scientific assessment paradigm, which I dubbed NUSPA to differentiate it from theirs.

A kind of follow-on from Jerry’s book is the best and most accessible history of the concept of zero that I have seen: The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero by Robert Kaplan (1999). I unreservedly and unhesitatingly recommend it. It is a beautiful work.

Since economists virtually never engage in statistical analysis these days, different from days of yore, a discussion of how to avoid statistical errors written for the non-statistician is important if only in order to see what economists currently don’t do that perhaps they sometimes should.

First, the most famous of these is Darrel Huff’s How to Lie With Statistics (1954). What can I say that hasn’t already been said? It is exceedingly elementary, however, but lovely to read.

A more up to date, and less elementary, exposition with a little more detail is P. I. Good and J. W. Hardin’s Common Errors in Statistics (And How to Avoid Them), 3rd ed. (2009). The examples aren’t from economics or political economy, where experiments are virtually impossible, but the general issues are much the same. The perspective is that of the Neyman-Pearson descriptive and hypothesis testing perspective (rather than the Bayesian).  But that should prove no obstacle. The essential thing is to know the scale type of the data you have and the character of their distributions. Only then can you decide what sort of statistical analysis to adopt.

Well, I guess that is enough for this year, though I might think of something else. I hope you enjoy at least one of these or another in similar vein and that it helps you assess what is being said about the economic and political state we find ourselves in.



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