Today marked the end of the 2011 History of Economics Society annual conference, hosted this year at Notre Dame. There were many interesting discussions, and keynote lectures given by journalist John Cassidy and historian of physics David Kaiser. But here I want to focus on this year’s HES presidential address, annually given by the outgoing president of the society.
This year’s HES president, Jerry Evensky of Syracuse University, gave a lecture entitled “What’s Wrong with Economics?” His brief answer to this question is that we ignore what he calls the “Pogo Principle,” that is, that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
As a scholar on Adam Smith, Evensky says that the problem with economics today are models based on “homo economicus” because there is no room for vice or virtue or ethical behavior. Unlike the conception of man that was used by Adam Smith, homo economicus has no norms.
This also relates to the lack of analysis of power and power structures in society. According to Evensky, power can be generated by both political institutions and socially constructed norms such as gender or race. Given the existence of power structures, unfettered competition will NOT be fair competition. Rather, “the powerful win in the race for wealth because they control the race.” But these concepts elude economists who use the standard economics toolkit of utility maximization. For Evensky, the value of a research toolkit is not in the answers it gives, but in the questions it encourages us to ask. By this measure, the neoclassical economics toolkit leaves much to be desired.
Evensky ended his talk on an even more troubling note. He explained how the history of economic thought course that he taught at Syracuse had been part of the core graduate economics curriculum when he went to work there. But, the department decided that HET course had a very high opportunity cost and should not be part of the core; in 2002 the course ended. This is not a trend that will help economists remember the “Pogo principle” in the future.