Sunday, June 14, 2015

Deirdre McCloskey Says Things

Some sadistic person or another referred me to this 51-page Deirdre McCloskey review of Thomas Piketty's book. I must remember to find who that person is and either play a mean prank on them in return, or demand that they buy me an expensive lunch. Fair is fair.

Deirdre McCloskey is the kind of writer who can take a perfectly fine sentence like "Capitalism has made humanity rich," and mutate it into a horror show like this:
Since those founding geniuses of Classical economics, a trade-tested betterment (a locution to be preferred to “capitalism,” with its erroneous implication that capital accumulation, not innovation, is what made us better off) has enormously enriched large parts of a humanity now seven times larger in population than in 1800, and bids fair in the next fifty years or so to enrich everyone on the planet.
I don't know about you, but I bid fair to give up well before page 51 of that locution.

But my main problem with Ms. McCloskey is not the poorly executed flowery baroque writing style, or even the reminder that plenty of people mistake flowery baroque writing for good writing. It's that McCloskey frequently makes declarations that are, to put it politely, in contradiction of the facts. She says these things with utmost confidence but without evidence or support, making it clear that the fact that she has said them is evidence enough. She argues from authority, and the authority is always herself.

This is NOT a post about Piketty or his arguments (of which I already have more than enough reason to be skeptical). It is NOT a post about McCloskey's rebuttal to those arguments. This is a post about McCloskey's style of argumentation.

Reading and critiquing McCloskey's thoughts on Piketty would be a bad move for me. First of all, it would require me to read dozens more pages of McCloskey than I have already read. Second, it would require me to know more about Piketty than I do (I haven't read Capital, nor do I own it). Third, it would turn the discussion political, which would detract from the main point of this post, which is that McCloskey is prone to silly-talk. Fourth, it would get very very very long, and you would get very very very bored.

So instead, I will simply critique the first three pages of the review, which are an introduction to the rest of the piece. McCloskey uses this introduction to praise Piketty, to compare him to physicists, and to insult most of the economics profession.

Here are nine excerpts that made my head explode:

1. p. 2:
[E]conomic history is one of the few scientifically quantitative branches of economics. In economic history, as in experimental economics and a few other fields, the economists confront the evidence (as they do not for example in most macroeconomics or industrial organization or international trade theory nowadays). 
And with a wave of her pen, Deirdre McCloskey dismisses the entire existence of the vast fields of empirical industrial organization, trade empirics, and empirical macro. Such is the power of argumentum ad verecundiam sui.

So I guess it was useless for Liran Einav, a Stanford economist who studies empirical IO, to write this in 2010:
The field of industrial organization has made dramatic advances over the last few decades in developing empirical methods for analyzing imperfect competition and the organization of markets. These new methods have diffused widely: into merger reviews and antitrust litigation, regulatory decision making, price setting by retailers, the design of auctions and marketplaces, and into neighboring fields in economics, marketing, and engineering. Increasing access to firm-level data and in some cases the ability to cooperate with governments in experimental research designs is offering new settings and opportunities to apply these ideas in empirical work.
After all, what does Einav know of his field? Deirdre McCloskey has said that Einav's field does not look at the evidence, and thus it is Truth.

Also, the Gravity Model of trade, often praised (by lesser lights, naturally) as one of the most empirically successful theories of all time, must now sadly be consigned to the graveyard, since Deirdre McCloskey has declared that trade theory fails to confront the evidence.

2. p. 2:
When you think about it, all evidence must be in the past, and some of the most interesting and scientifically relevant is in the more or less remote past... 
[Piketty] does not get entangled as so many economists do in the sole empirical tool they are taught, namely, regression analysis on someone else’s “data” (one of the problems is the very word data, meaning “things given”: scientists should deal in capta, “things seized”). 
Let's forgive the flamboyant vacuousness of the statement "When you think about it, all evidence must be in the past". Let's briefly mention the fact that that trivially true statement in no way implies the second part of the sentence. And then let's move on to the fact that the two halves of the above quote are diametrically opposed to each other.

If scientists should seize "capta" instead of receiving "data", doesn't this make economic history unscientific? I mean, you can't do any experiments on history, can you? Are there any historical capta? McCloskey is barely finished praising her own field for looking at evidence when she scorns other fields for looking at very similar kinds of evidence!

3. p. 2-3:
Piketty constructs or uses statistics of aggregate capital and of inequality and then plots them out for inspection, which is what physicists, for example, also do in dealing with their experiments and observations. 
Physicists make graphs of things! Piketty makes graphs of things! Piketty is just like a physicist!

I wonder what else physicists do in dealing with their experiments and observations. Use computer software programs to display the statistics? Print out their plots on paper sheets for inspection? Sip coffee and check Twitter? I could be like a physicist too! Except I hate coffee, dammit.

4. p. 3:
Nor does [Piketty] commit the other sin, which is to waste scientific time on existence theorems. Physicists, again, don’t. If we economists are going to persist in physics envy let’s at least learn what physicists actually do. 
Wow, I'm glad that I have Deirdre McCloskey to tell me what physicists actually do. I'd hate to rely on an unreliable source like Google Scholar, who sneakily tries to convince me that physicists write papers with titles such as:

"Existence theorem for solitary waves on lattices"

"Vortex condensation in the Chern-Simons Higgs model: an existence theorem"

"General non-existence theorem for phase transitions in one-dimensional systems with short range interactions, and physical examples of such transitions"

"Existence theorem for solutions of Witten's equation and nonnegativity of total mass"

"A global existence theorem for the general coagulation–fragmentation equation with unbounded kernels"

"A Sharp Existence Theorem for Vortices in the Theory of Branes"

etc. etc. etc....

Thanks to Deirdre McCloskey's expansive sentence structure and snappish wit, I can safely assume that the 699,000 results for my Google Scholar search for "physics existence theorem" do not, in fact, exist (while the 417,000 results I get for "economics existence theorem" must be regarded as real). In addition, I can get a partial tuition reimbursement for the portion of my college physics education I spent watching professors prove existence theorems on the board.

5. p. 2:
[Piketty] does not commit one of the two sins of modern economics, the use of meaningless “tests” of statistical significance[.]
Is McCloskey unaware of the fact that physicists regularly use statistical significance testing, of the classic R.A. Fisher type? Why does she praise Piketty for being like a physicist, and then immediately commend him for not doing something that physicists regularly do?

6. p. 3:
Piketty stays close to the facts, and does not, say, wander into the pointless worlds of non-cooperative game theory, long demolished by experimental economics. 
Oh, right. Noncooperative game theory was demolished. Apparently Google and a bunch of other tech companies failed to get the memo when they hired auction theorists to design their online auctions for them.

Or perhaps by "demolished," McCloskey means "embraced by mathematicians, computer scientists, and engineers."


7. p. 3:
True, the book is probably doomed to be one of those more purchased than read...younger readers will remember Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988).
Deirdre McCloskey realizes that A Brief History of Time is only 212 pages long and has a lot of pictures, right?

It's always good to remember that just because you talk about books without having read them doesn't mean that everyone else does the same.

8. p. 4:
To be fair to Piketty, a buyer of the hardback rather than the Kindle edition is probably a more serious reader, and would go further.
This comes immediately after McCloskey claims that people buy books in order to display them on their coffee tables - something that you can't actually do with a Kindle version. Yet McCloskey now claims that hardback readers are more likely to be serious readers (utterly without evidence, of course). Her baseless belittling stereotypes logically contradict her earlier baseless belittling stereotypes! Look, people. When I read snappy put-downs, I at least want a little internal consistency.

9. p. 4:
I shall say some hard things, because they are true and important
Usually I just let people assume that I think the things I'm saying are true and important. McCloskey feels the need to remind us that she endorses her own assertions.

So let me recap: All of these quotes came from the first three pages of a review that is 51 pages long. In three short pages, McCloskey manages to unfairly malign almost every branch of economics, make mutually contradictory assertions about how economists should use evidence, make false statements about physics that could have been corrected with a 5-second Google search, randomly insult a good popular physics book, and randomly insult Kindle readers, all in a mass of tangled, overwrought prose.

Yeah, there's no way I'm going to read 48 more pages of that. In fact, I'm not sure why I clicked on this link at all, given that everything else I've read of McCloskey's has been in the same vein (here's another example). Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me five or six times, and you need a better hobby.

There is a clear lesson in all this: Do not believe things that Deirdre McCloskey says just because she says them. Google them. Find the facts. Do not nod your head in mute, placid agreement. Do not be seduced by the turgid prose style into thinking that here is an Authority.


  1. "As a side note, John Cochrane calls this review "excellent", which makes me wonder if he actually read the introduction..."

    Given that you just wrote an entire post castigating McCloskey for making sweeping statements, did it not dawn on you that, just maybe, Cochrane's encomium was based on having read, you know, beyond the introduction and all the way to the end of the paper?

    1. Sure, but how the hell could you get past that awful intro???

    2. Having read beyond the introduction all the way to the end of the paper, I can say that the writing definitely doesn't get any better.

    3. Akhil, your noble sacrifice shall not be in vain.

    4. Noah - you write with clarity and grace. Would that I had your skill with a pen.

      John Cochrane (and Brad Delong) could learn a lot from you about the effective communication of ideas.

    5. Thank you sir. But I also think those guys are writing for a different audience. I read their stuff and I wish I could write like they do... :-)

    6. Anonymous12:51 PM

      "As a side note, John Cochrane calls this review "excellent", which makes me wonder if he actually read the introduction..."

      Isn't he a washed up inflationista by now? Perhaps it's my ignorance, but I have him classified with 'people who looked smart right up until 2008'.


  2. Sir Smith

    I took Deirdre McCloskey to task long before you (directly) on her rather "bad" review of Piketty's book. However, despite your sweeping snark agaisnt it, it does have some merit. I am generally in agreement with you that her sweeping statements about certain fileds of economics and economists is based on superficiality, but this is not new. McCloskey's objective was to be glib and for those reasons she waxed a bit too silly at times, but she knows her stuff.

    1. Capitalism is great.

      That doesn't mean I need McCloskey to tell me that. If she can't be trusted to even glance at what economists or physicists do before making sweeping declarations about what they do, she's not a trusted source.

  3. Thank you Noah for expressing what I'm sure many economists have felt when confronted with McKloskey's sweeping condemnations of the games we like to play with econometrics, dynamic game theory and other nerdish oddities.
    Though this does not detract from the fact that Piketty has oversold his nice and reasonably informative work (which you can get for free from his tables/charts appendices on his website and skip reading the book) as a grand theory of the future of capitalism (Acemoglu, Krusell and Rognlie are good critiques, and probably worth going through).

    1. Yeah. I've seen a lot of good critiques of Piketty - enough where a McCloskey one really isn't going to add anything for me.

  4. Anonymous6:49 AM

    Although it's understandable that you didn't read Cochrane's overlong review of McCloskey's overlong review, you should probably at least skim it if you're gonna comment. He takes issue with most the stuff you wonder why he doesn't take issue with. (Also his read is that the praise of Piketty's 'physicist-like' methods is McCloskey grasping for nice things to say - which doesn't excuse the epic wrongness.)

    Also, 'physicists regularly use statistical significance testing, of the classic R.A. Fisher type'? Haha, yeah, I guess, in some subfields, with a generous interpretation of 'regularly.' Still, it's never been quite the scourge that it became in other branches of science. However, if Cochrane's is to be believed, McCloskey's criticism of statistical methodology is just as unfair and outdated as the theory bashing.

    I think Cochrane mostly appreciated the 'what, you wanna try socialism? Yeah, that worked out really great in the USSR! Checkmate!' content of the piece (and perhaps also the turgid prose and literary air.)

  5. Anonymous8:32 AM

    Bluto: What? Over? Did you say "over"? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!
    Otter: [to Boon] Germans?
    Boon: Forget it, he's rolling.

    I actually enjoyed (though that might be more a statement about my preferences then anything else) but it's the kind of thing that you have to give a fair amount of rope to.

  6. Anonymous9:00 AM

    Is it ONLY Deirdre McCloskey whose authority we ought to doubt? Or might this be a good general habit?

    1. Good general habit. :-)

      I had thought that was implied...

  7. Anonymous9:12 AM

    I attended a little talk by her at the Humboldt University in Berlin last year. Her baseline statement (which came after half an hour of econ-bashing) was, that the industrial revolution/the great enrichment was caused by a change in virtues. It was not caused by enlightment, technology, institutions, geography, resources etc, she told us. She said that with astounding confidence, as she was absolutely sure, but did not give one explanation how she could refuse all these other theories so easily. It was really fascinating to watch. She also said with incredibly sound confidence that the rest of the world would catch up during the next decades, because of virtues. Let's see how this will work out.

    1. I am hardly surprised. Where there is smoke, there is fire. Or a smoke machine. Or a giant badly rendered smoke-breathing toad from some massive multiplayer online role-playing game.

    2. Let me tweet this one please!!! :D

    3. As far as I know, she said the Great Enrichment was caused by a dramatic increase in the respect given the bourgeoisie, by which she meant the business classes. While this explanation needs to be combined with the conventional ones and she probably overstated its importance, it seems to me that it is correct and that other civilizations have had enlightenments, improvements in technology, etc. and did not have Great Enrichments.

  8. She does have a trilogy (third one due soon) of books that try to explain, not convincingly, her virtuous argument.

    1. Anonymous10:11 AM

      I know, she promoted those books during her talk. Thats why i actually expected some arguments. But her extremely bold statements on every matter she talked about (and she mainly talked about highly disputed topics) and her lack of intellectual humility made me assume that she is not a good scientist. Every "argument" went like "ahaha those ridiculous maintream samuelsonian economists are so obviously wrong. Let me tell you the truth."

    2. Keep in mind that she has been around for some time now. She is well read and was a first rate price theory economist. She is however dogmatic and prone to over flowery writing and superficiality.

    3. She is however dogmatic and prone to over flowery writing and superficiality.

      Maybe I could have saved myself an hour of angry writing and just tweeted this! Oh well...

  9. Anonymous12:55 PM

    Do you shoot fish in a barrel too?

    1. The real trick is to do it without putting a hole in the barrel...

  10. You need to turn this into an essay about "Wordiness".

    1. I'd love to, except I fear that essay might be self-descriptive...

  11. I had suggested that the Ferguson be the unit of Derp. Now I am considering that the McCloskey is a good candidate.

  12. Anonymous2:36 PM

    Really, Noah? You hate coffee?! What kind of academic are you? How could you possibly have been a graduate student?

    1. Oversteeped Starbucks black tea is about as caffeinated as coffee...

  13. Anonymous3:52 PM


    Comments on comments on comments, without reading what we're actually talking about, often drift away from adult science. It's a chronic problem of blogs.

    Dr. Smith admits---no, positively brags, with apparent satisfaction with his scholarly standards---that he has not read and considered either Piketty's book or even my review. Some of the bloggers defend me, cautiously, for which thanks. But I would much rather have a genuine scientific discussion, either here (which doesn't seem likely) or personally, at Piketty shows on page 6 of the English translation that he does not understand supply response to rising prices. Not so good. Dr. Smith shows in his comments that he does not understand what is wrong (according to, say, Neyman and Pearson, Savage, and scores of other statistical theorists) with null hypothesis significance testing in the absence of a loss function or of a substantive standard in the science at issue about how big is big. Not so good. He also shows that he has not read many physics journals, and set them beside economics journals on the matter of such tests. Not so good, either.

    Anyway, peace be with you. I do invite signed emails to me personally on these important matters of science. Let's have a serious dialogue, and not, as Dr. Smith prefers, of the deaf.


    Deirdre McCloskey

    1. Hallo, Deirdre! Thank you for dropping by!

      Dr. Smith admits---no, positively brags, with apparent satisfaction with his scholarly standards---that he has not read and considered either Piketty's book or even my review.

      Imagine, if you will, the following dialogue:

      Person A: "First of all, up is down, red is blue, sheep have wings, and here is a nice recipe for bruschetta."

      Person B: "I'm not going to comment on the bruschetta recipe, but I am quite annoyed by the baseless assertions that up is down, red is blue, and sheep have wings."

      Person A: "So you admit - no, you positively brag - that you did not even read my bruschetta recipe!"

      This situation seems somewhat akin to the one in which we currently find ourselves...

      Dr. Smith shows in his comments that he does not understand what is wrong (according to, say, Neyman and Pearson, Savage, and scores of other statistical theorists) with null hypothesis significance testing in the absence of a loss function or of a substantive standard in the science at issue about how big is big. Not so good.


      He also shows that he has not read many physics journals, and set them beside economics journals on the matter of such tests. Not so good, either.

      Again, no.

      Noah Smith

    2. Anonymous11:18 PM

      amazing that McCloskey comes by here without responding to your criticism in any substantive way. Not so good.

    3. Anonymous4:04 AM

      Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the post and the comments.


      B.L. Zebub


      I do want to hear the recipe.

    4. Is that you, dsquared?

    5. Anonymous9:29 PM

      Noah, your post is about writing, but the substantive issues are regarding Piketty's book. Deirdre is basically telling you that if you want to have a serious discussion it has to be about the substance.

      Dierdre does like flowery language and likes to have tons of interdisciplinary references due to her erudition that few of us can match. The points she makes are generally solid, though you don't have to agree with all of them. The two of you share some characteristics like being gadflies. I would recommend you get to know her stuff a bit more, but start with "How to be Human--Though an Economist," a wonderful collection of her short, pithy articles with much less "baroque prose." The book is a lot of fun to read.

    6. Noah, your post is about writing, but the substantive issues are regarding Piketty's book.

      NO. No no no no NO! It is about the factual assertions she makes in the introduction! Assertions like "Noncooperative game theory has been demolished", and "Physicists don't bother with existence theorems", and "Trade theorists don't pay attention to data". Those things would be blatantly false whether they were said in flowery or plain language!

  14. This is why I stopped reading op-eds. In principle, op-eds could provide accessible introductions to their topics, preparing readers for more rigorous treatments. They could encourage interested readers to engage in further study by pointing them towards these treatments, prioritizing references not for their conclusions, but for the quality of their arguments. They could remind readers that science is really hard, that to come to the right conclusions one must read widely, engage different perspectives, be aware of ones own biases, engage in respectful/charitable discourse, be skeptical, etc.

    Instead, they almost always make bald assertions with no argument, discourage further study, dismiss entire fields of study and countless scholars and scholarly projects, and dress it up in faux-sophistication (usually literary). Blogs are sometimes better, because commenters and other blogs can easily call you on your bullshit and unscientific approach, but the worst offenders on blogs typically ignore such criticism, and this leads critics to ignore these blogs.

  15. Sorry, but I'm not sure you understand McClosky's point about historical "data" being something more than data. History proves its own existence, no "theory" or "theorem" needed. For example, McClosky has "betterment through trade" arising theoretically about two centuries ago spontaneously inventing the idea of feedback to bring about progress. I do love discovery bias, and a clever idea, but sadly, invented about six thousand years before its argued discovery. as those who read cylinder seals tell us. Not to wax philosophical, but I hopped off a few pages after you while McClosky was apparently beginning to argue that the Picketty "old normal" distribution of income was just fine. I guess that's why Cochrane liked it?

    1. Anonymous9:18 AM

      "McCloskey has betterment through trade arising two centuries ago."
      You're reading of McCloskey is 100% incorrect.
      Try again.

  16. I looked her up in Wikipedia. She was educated at Harvard (you know where Niall Ferguson is a professor). Arrogant nonsense is what they do.

  17. RogerFox4:23 AM

    Is McClosky a blond, by any chance?

  18. Anonymous9:13 AM

    Noah has failed to realize that McCloskey's entire oeuvre is an attempt to boost sales of her book on how to write well by extended counter-example.


  19. Anonymous11:00 AM

    My gripe with McCloskey is not the baroque prose -- I have a soft spot for baroque prose -- but the apparent belief that she is one of a small cognoscenti who have discovered that in Noah's non-baroque paraphrase, "Capitalism has made humanity rich," and that said insight is the Law and the Prophets of economic policy making.

    1. Everyone knows capitalism has made humanity rich. Smart people realize that it takes strong government with good institutions and public good provision to make capitalism work.

      I like baroque prose when it doesn't trick people into overlooking massive numbers of blatant factual errors...

    2. Anonymous6:33 AM

      "Everyone knows capitalism has made humanity rich."

      You clearly need to start reading Piketty together with some good model and gadget-free history 101 courses.

      The above statement is true, but capitalism is one, and not necessarily the most important part of the explanation.

  20. Anonymous1:53 PM

    Noah, my brain exploded when you said you hate coffee. How??!??!

    And I will admit that I did not finish a Brief History of Time, although I read around a third of it when it was gifted to me at some point in my teens.

    1. A third is not bad!

      Coffee is a giant trick. It smells so good and then tastes so bad...

  21. My review of a review of Noah's review of McCloskey's review of Piketty's book: I liked it.

  22. Anonymous3:42 PM

    Noah, as far as I know her review was published in "Economics and Philosophy" not exactly the type of journal that tolerates nonsense. So either you're missing the point of the review or some very other smart people are fooled by McCloskey. The smart money is with those whose reputation is on the line. I do realize the irony of posting this as anonymous ;-).

    1. Larf. :-)

      So Economics and Philosophy published a paper that said that physicists don't bother with existence theorems and that noncooperative game theory has been demolished. Apparently they are the kind of journal that tolerates nonsense.

    2. Anonymous8:04 AM

      You probably do know better whether physicists bother with existence theorem, however, is the ratio of empirics to existence theorems not quite a bit higher than in, say, economics? In other words: physicists don't bother with existence theorems compared with economics. Surely, you have noticed that as a difference between economics and physics?

      I don't see McCloskey's statement that physicists don't waste scientific time with existence theorem as contradicting that they do prove existence theorems? I'd just guess that the marginal benefit of existence theorems exceeds that of in economics in terms of what it helps in learning about the world and exceeds the marginal cost in terms of what can be learned about the world through other ways.

    3. An existence theorem in physics is a weak result. It's what you do when you can't actually find the solution to a system of equations, but you want to show that a computer could approximate it in principle.

    4. Anonymous6:37 PM

      Exactly. So physicists barely use in the same manner as economists do and it's of little importance for the actual physics. I do hope you see that your remark vindicates McCloskey.

    5. No way. Econ has a couple big, important old existence theorems, just like physics. And then it has a bunch of small ones buried in theory papers, which people use in lieu of actually finding solutions to things. Looks pretty damn similar to me. So McCloskey is not vindicated in the slightest!

    6. Anonymous4:20 AM

      I would tend to disagree here as you're comparing one body to knowledge to another instead of what its practitioners do. Do physicists not spend far less scientific time, Deirdre's words, on existence theorems than economists do? If they then end up with the same proportion of existence theorem to data in their body of knowledge it seems to me that economists are wasting scientific time, or what am I missing here?

  23. jonathan8:29 PM

    I take it Noah will not be purchasing McCloskey's book on writing?

    1. Anonymous6:22 AM

      Wow, even well received. I guess either she decided to set her own advice aside or perhaps the goal of allegedly economical writing is to obfuscate your argument with excessive decoration.

    2. I get the impression from McCloskey that a big part of her mission to is move people away from empiricism and toward IDEAS; big normative shifts that get people away from one paradigm and toward another. This is the goal of her mostly numbers-free books on rhetoric and virtue, right?

      I can see how this can make one blind to actual facts, at least at a pretty general level.

  24. Anonymous12:21 AM

    Two of a kind.

    McKloskey dismisses economics without making an effort to understand economics.

    (But she has heard enough from historians, hard scientists and other critics of the discipline to know enough.)

    Noah dismisses Capital without ever reading the book.

    (But he has read enough reviews by Acemoglu and DeLong, who of course are his gods and just have to be right).


    1. I don't dismiss Capital. I just have to pick the things that I read and the things that I worry about - I don't have infinite time.

    2. Anonymous4:46 AM

      Yes people do pick and choose. Cochrane does, Krugman does it, you do it.

      Capital might have been a flawed work in places (ie the aggregation of capital, which by the way is a problem with most articles written on growth theory). But it's overall message on long term trends in capitalism was based on empirical evidence that was documented in a novel way. That was its merit. It gave us something truly new. Unlike the findings of Acemoglu, which is essentially a rehash of 'heterodox' economic development theory (and a bad one at that) that has existed, if people bothered to read it, for many decades).

    3. Anonymous8:09 AM

      No it didn't. I don't trust the data one bit. I first was of the same mind until I read the piece by Magness and Murphy. Piketty can be said to be biased towards the left, Magness and Murphy can be said to be biased to the right, but the assertions of both can be verified.

  25. Experimental economics has demolished non-cooperative game theory.

    1. Anonymous4:15 PM

      Only if you think that game theoretic models are empirical - hence 'testable' - in the first place. But there are plenty of good reasons to think otherwise. And, of course, experimental economics is not above criticism - not for this or that foible but as an enterprise writ large.

    2. Game theory models are testable if you specify the payoffs.

    3. Game theory models are testable if you specify the payoffs.

  26. Anonymous10:24 AM

    I do not find the paragraph barroque at all. A lot of information there in a few words. First, capitalism can be understood as acummulating capital or as allowing, thanks to for example institutions linked to it, to develop technology. Second, technology (developed just by a bunch of people) was enough to get better conditions for a growing population. Third, this trend will continue.
    Of course, we can agree or not with this. But it seems to me that that paragraph is not that barroque. That said. That.
    Pablo Mira

  27. Alberto1:03 PM

    I understand your frustration. I used to think the same way, about sheep with wings and bruschetta. Now I changed my mind: every person I had written off for crazy statements turned out to be right on something else.

    If McCloskey goes a bit astray in the beginning. I just ignore it and read on. She raises valid points, making the essay worth my time. Same goes for the rest of her work, even more forcefully: if you want a comprehensive review of theories about what made us rich, read "Bourgeois Dignity".

    All this to beg you not to retaliate on the poor soul who referred you to the review. I am sure they were in good faith.

  28. Anonymous1:39 PM

    Noah, they say "never judge a book by its cover."

    Perhaps extend that to, "never judge a book by its introduction", or "never judge a book by what critics have said".

    ie, before pretending to authoritatively judge it, read it.

    1. See my response to Graham Peterson below...

    2. Anonymous4:43 AM

      I think Peterson is right. You are judging this work as an economist who works in a discipline built up for historical and other reasons with a certain, but in many ways totally arbitrary, philosophical foundation (one unfortunately many economists do not even properly understand - and probably that is part of what she is trying to say, and she would not be the first to say it). You are looking for things to fault with those eyes. Perhaps the strength of this book is what her own expertise can add, which outweighs its weaknesses. And perhaps that makes the whole thing worthwhile. You would not know that until you have read the depth of her argument. Also did you read the article Cochrane recommended? Actually, I do not agree with everything in that, but I still think it is brilliant.

  29. Anonymous4:12 PM

    And, of course, Physicists are perhaps not so thorough-goingly empirical as is commonly supposed.

  30. When Graeber published Debt, economists exploded about the silly things he'd said about monetary policy and international trade. Those aren't his fields, so I think the mistakes are forgivable. On the other hand, his first few chapters summarizing the evidence on reciprocal giving is uncontroversial and mainstream in anthropology - his discipline.

    If we want inter-disciplinary dialogue and inter-subfield dialogue we have to be patient about uninformed comments about our home turf. The rational inference when someone from another field says something wrong our field isn't that they can't be trusted to comment on anything in the world. The rational inference is that the portions about their own field will be much stronger.

    We have a lot to gain by reading more widely into other people's fields, and into other people's overlong reviews.

    1. But I think there's such a thing as trust, and McCloskey, by saying a bunch of high-handed false things, has demonstrated that she's not the kind of person who looks up the facts before making assertions. Her review of Piketty will undoubtedly be filled with more assertions. Should I give her the benefit of the doubt when I read them? I think not! And that makes the whole process of reading unacceptably tedious, because I can no longer trust that the person I'm reading has done their homework.

  31. MMMMM??? Do I detect that Deirdre's fanboys have arrived?

  32. As someone who has read the background stuff, I could ramble about large amounts of this. But let me focus on one quote to try to pin this down as someone who thinks both parties here have something to say and offer.

    So, I want to focus on the quote about experimental econ supposedly "demolishing" non-cooperative game theory. Well, that is a strong word, in most usages suggesting complete destruction of that which is being "demolished." So, this is a clear exaggeration by Auntie Deirdre. Without doubt n-c-g-t is alive and well and being used practically in many situations and contexts. There she goes, that eloquent Auntie Deirdre, exaggerating.

    But, while using that word may be an example of hyperbole, the fact is that experimentall economics has substantially undermined Nash-Harsanyi-Selten game theory over the years based on a long series of experiments. Certainly Noah understands and accepts this, even if what should be done about it or how we should proceed after realizing this remains unclear.

    So, I think that Auntie Deirdre knows that there are simple situations where a unique Nash equilibrium in a certain situation may be of some interest, even if it fails to hold much beyond that certain situation.

    But, Noah must recognize that under her overly strong statement is the now well-established reality that simple Nash equliibria rarely hold, with most of these possible outcomes undermined by findings from experimental economics.

    So, kiss and make up you two. This is Uncle Barkley saying so, :-).

    1. Anonymous4:17 AM

      If Barkley is uncle to both Deirdre and Noah, and Deirdre is aunt to both Barkley and Noah, how does this family tree look like? No wonder econ is screwed up. We're an incestuous bunch.

    2. I think non-cooperative game THEORY did as much to demolish non-cooperative game theory as the experiments of games. Sort of in the same way that it was general equilibrium THEORY which did much to demolish general equilibrium theory. Basically, both approaches ran into theoretical dead-ends once pushed far enough. These were two kinds of dead-ends; "anything goes theorems" and "impossibility theorems", which in some ways are the one and the same.

      There's always the drive to make a theoretical approach as general as possible, probably in order to establish its robustness. The problem that arises is that as you make it more and more general so that it can encompass more and more phenomenon after a certain point you get that pretty much any kind of conceivable conclusion can be derived from your very general theory (I think it was Larry Summers who said "any possible policy recommendation can be derived from SOME model of rational behavior"). At one point people really thought that game theoretic approach was going to be THE method to address main theoretical problems in economics, from perfect competition to non-standard preferences. But then it turned out that game theoretic models are extremely sensitive to specification with very small changes in parameters or in the timing of moves delivering completely different predictions. So... "anything goes".

      This was a "theoretical" attack on itself, not an empirical one.

      After a certain point the game has to become pinning down relevant parameters and structures. And that's what makes economics so much harder than physics or engineering.

  33. nice post, thanks for sharing.

  34. Two comments:

    1. Just because something is written poorly doesn't mean it should be ignored. Most of the sentences in Keynes' "General Theory" would make Professor Strunk cry.

    2. Re: "Nor does [Piketty] commit the other sin, which is to waste scientific time on existence theorems. Physicists, again, don’t. If we economists are going to persist in physics envy let’s at least learn what physicists actually do." -- This is good writing in every sense: short clear sentences, clear point, well argued, important conclusion. Physicists almost universally regard existence proofs as a waste of time. Since you have access to Google, look up what Richard Feynman had to say about the value of "theoretical" math to physics.

  35. You are making me feel, as a non-economist, a lot less guilty about giving up on "The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce" two chapters in.

  36. This comment has been removed by the author.

  37. Anonymous12:05 PM

    In my brief reading of what she said, it seems like just a stream of consciousness piece. It brings us all to a point to understand her thoughts on this subject.

    I don't see this as all bad. I think it is important sometimes to understand the stream of consciousness of other people. It becomes easier to recognize why the say crazy thing when the let us in.

    I wouldn't really be too hard on her, and I'm glad you're warning people about how to take it.

  38. This one's good. Very good actually. Just one quibble. This sentence:

    "Physicists make graphs of things! Piketty makes graphs of things! Piketty is just like a physicist!"

    Isn't that more or less the same sin you were committing in your Bloomberg piece when you were comparing "what economists do" to "what engineers do"?

    More broadly, why should economists really care "how physicists do it" or "how engineers do it"? I mean, sure there's something to be learned from how they do it. But then why not "how historians do it" or "how clockmakers do it" or "how circus acrobats do it"?

  39. Anonymous6:09 PM

    Heh. I'm trained as an economic historian and public economist, and I work in empirical macro. I think it's fair to say that taken as a whole, economic history is less theoretical than almost any other field in economics--almost by definition, since most of what economic historians do is take economic questions and apply them to historical experiments. (However, it could be noted that Sargent's work on the state debt crises of the 1840s is in some sense economic history, so there is a role for theory. Or if you define economic history more narrowly, Domar's extremely-racist-in-details-but-incredibly-useful framework on land/labor ratios and labor capture--which, incidentally, Picketty's work greatly suffers from not understanding--is another theoretical counterexample.) But I think that there's a lot to be said for the argument that in some sense economic history should be understood as a method--look at historical experiments as a way of answering economic questions--rather than a field of study (since the vast majority of economic history papers also contribute to other fields, anyway). So in many ways it's a strange comparison to make.

    That aside, what you really need to know is that McCloskey has written a book on academic writing that is often recommended to graduate students in economic history. Just in case you needed to be more infuriated.

  40. Thanks Noah,

    I"ve been wanting to read a review of McCloskey like yours for some time, as well as an unabashed endorsement of NOT reading on when, after a bit of effort, one has not been able to discover signs of intelligent life in the first few pages. For some time I've become more unabashed about this practice myself. If someone hasn't interested me in a few pages, hasn't said an interesting thing - I try to have the discipline to move on.