Saturday, September 27, 2014

How Piketty's care with language can improve economics

When I was a freshman in college, I read Fogel and Engerman's Time on the Cross.  I loathed the book, because it implicitly endorsed the idea that it is OK, "in the interested of science," to dehumanize those African-Americans that were placed in bondage by viewing them as capital (I loathed it for other reasons as well, but that is for another time.) It also contributed to the broad view currently within much of mainstream economics that it is (1) acceptable to treat human beings as objects, and (2) that it is embarrassing to embrace humanity.  I was embarrassed that the book helped Fogel ultimately won the Nobel Prize in economics.

I thought of Fogel and Engerman again when a recent review in the Economist of Edward Bishop's The Half Has Never Been Told complained that a book based on the perspective of slaves could not be objective.  (To the Economist's credit, it repudiated the review and apologized for allowing it to be printed, but also kept a link to it so that readers could see how misguided it was).  Again, an allegiance to "scientific detachment" led to a bizarre view of an evil institution.  A "detached" view of slavery helps legitimize its practice, and thus is not in any way objective.

And so we come to Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century.  I have some issues with the book, but I love the first third of it.  I particularly like his treatment of "human capital:"
There are many reasons to exclude human capital from our definition of capital.  The most obvious is that human capital cannot be owned by another person or traded on a market.
The language of economics often treats people as commodities: the phrases "representative agent" and "human capital" are examples of this.   Sometimes these phrases are useful abstractions, but they also contribute to the sometimes pernicious indifference of mainstream economics to issues of justice.  Piketty's take on human capital might make us a little less indifferent.


David Barker said...

Hi Richard - sorry I haven't visited in a while, but I still enjoy your blog.

I found your recent posts referencing Robert Fogel and Richard Ely interesting, but I wonder whether you see any inconsistency in your treatment of these two economists.

Fogel was an ardent anti-racist, who married an African-American woman at a time when doing so was very difficult. He argued, to my surprise when I took his course, that the Civil War was justified on the basis of dignity for African-Americans, even if the economics were complicated.

Ely's statements on race (see were far less modern, to put it mildly.

In your posts you express embarrassment about Fogel's Nobel because of his racial insensitivity, but pride over Ely's accomplishments.

Maybe I am overly sensitive because I liked Professor Fogel, and I admit that there is no logical inconsistency in your positions - your pride in Ely may be about academic freedom regardless of his positions, and I'm sure you would have defended Fogel's academic freedom just as enthusiastically.

Even so it seems unfair to be so harsh with Fogel while giving a free pass to Ely.

Anonymous said...

I feel that your take on Fogel is misguided. His view on the economic viability of slavery was conceived in opposition to the smug bromide that the Civil War was unnecessary because slavery, being economically unviable, would have died out anyway.

That's how it was taken by Southern apologists. They raised a storm of objections, which were eventually smashed by Without Consent or Contract.

Thinking of Fogel as justifying slavery is exactly backwards.