Economic Culture Wars
| Peter Klein |
Mark Thoma points us to an old Paul Krugman column on the “economic culture wars.” There Krugman laments the hostility towards economic analysis expressed by many “literary” or “humanist” intellectuals. Invoking C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” distinction, Krugman tries to explain why a magazine editor added (over Krugman’s strenuous objections) the subtitle “deconstructing the income distribution controversy” to one of Krugman’s articles:
[T]here is a continuing struggle between two ideas of what it means to be an intellectual. One culture is humanist and literary; the other mathematical and scientific. The editor of my article, I now believe, was perhaps unconsciously using the language of critical theory as a way of declaring his allegiance in that struggle; he was saying: “I may write about quantitative stuff like GDP and real wages, but my sensibility is literary.”
I think Krugman’s diagnosis is largely on target, with one important caveat. What Krugman describes as the essentially “mathematical” character of economic analysis I would instead call “logical” or “analytical.” The opposite of literary/humanist, in the cultural divide, is logical/analytical (of which mathematical is a subset). Contrary to Krugman, economics did not become a rigorous, technical subject only after World War II, when verbal economics was systematically replaced by mathematical economics; it had always been so.