Life Among the Econ

15 February 2007 at 6:21 pm 1 comment

| Peter Klein |

A colleague and I were just discussing Axel Leijonhufvud’s delightful ethnographic satire, “Life Among the Econ” (Western Economic Journal 11, no. 3, September 1973: 327-37). (Can’t find it on JSTOR; here is a scanned PDF version with a few minor errors.) Though slightly dated, Leijonhufvud’s essay remains a treasure trove of wit and wisdom on economics and economists. Here are a few passages dealing with issues recently debated at O&M:

On mathematical economics:

The Math-Econ are in many ways the most fascinating, and certainly the most colorful, of Econ castes. There is today considerable uncertainty whether the “priest” label is really appropriate for this caste, but it is at least easy to understand why the early travellers came to regard them in this way. In addition to the deeply respectful attitude evidenced by the average Econ towards them, the Math-Econ themselves show many cultural patterns that we are wont to associate with religious orders or sects among other peoples. Thus they affect a poverty that is abject even by Econ standards, and it seems clear that this is by choice rather than necessity. It is told that, to harden themselves, they periodically venture stark naked out into the chill winds of abstraction that prevail in those parts. Among the rest of the Econ, who ordinarily perambulate thickly bundled in woolly clothing, they are much admired for this practice. Furthermore, glossolalia — the ability to say the same thing in several different tongues — is a highly esteemed talent among them. [Footnote: “I.e., in several Math tongues — the Indo-European languages, for example, do not count.”]

The Math-Econ make exquisite modls finely carved from bones of walras. Specimens made by their best masters are judged unequalled in both workmanship and raw material by a unanimous Econographic opinion. If some of these are “useful” — and even Econ testimony is divided on this point — it is clear that this is purely coincidental in the motivation for their manufacture.

On the history of economic thought:

In the midst of their troubles, the Econ remain as of old a proud and warlike race. But they seem entirely incapable of “creative response” to their problems. It is plain to see what is in store for them if they do not receive outside aid. . . .

Under circumstances such as these, we expect alienation, disorientation, and a general loss of spiritual values. And this is what we find. A typical phenomenon indicative of the break-up of a culture is the loss of a sense of history and growing disrespect for tradition. Contrary to the normal case in primitive societies, the Econ priesthood does not maintain and teach the history of the tribe. In some Econ villages, one can still find the occasional elder who takes care of the modls made by some long-gone hero of the tribe and is eager to tell the legends associated with each. But few of the adults or grads, noting what they regard as the crude workmanship of these dusty old relics, care to listen to such rambling fairytales. Among the younger generations, it is now rare to find an individual with any conception of the history of the Econ. Having lost their past, the Econ are without confidence in the present and without purpose and direction for the future.

And, perhaps my personal favorite, on macroeconomic theory:

Whether the Macro-modl can be regarded as originally a “useful implement” would seem to hinge in the first place on whether the type of “prospecting” ritualized in the described ceremony produces actual results. The Macro themselves maintain that they strike gold this way. Some travellers and investigators support the contention, others dismiss it as mere folklore. The issues are much the same as those connected with attempts to appraise the divining-rod method of finding water. Numerous people argue that it works — but no scientific explanation of why it would has ever been advanced.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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