Jane Smiley: “All I need to know about Economics I learned in kindergarten”

Michael Giberson

Or rather, as Smiley explains in a HuffPost piece, in “Mrs. Ticknor’s Social Studies class in 1962, when I did my report on ‘The Communist Manifesto’ and kept misspelling the word ‘bourgeois’.”

She began the essay by complimenting Paul Krugman’s piece in the New York Times Magazine about the sorry state of economics (she “read every word” and “[doesn’t] disagree with any of it”), but feels he is “missing out on some big issues that also need to be discussed and understood before we actually know what is going on in our world.” To wit, how economists are corrupt, soul-less, corporate-teat-sucking, child-sex-favoring fools only concerned with lining their own pockets while they sit in filth chewing the bones of tasty endangered species.

Be that as it may, I fear that she missed out on one of Krugman’s main points: in brief, economists have been seduced by beautiful abstractions and drawn away from the study of the real economy.  Part of the solution, in Krugman’s view, is moving away from a math-model driven science and toward a more empirical, behavioral economics.  To simplify a bit: economists should care more about data.

Smiley, in her essay, said, “If you want to know what’s happened to production in the US in the last generation, I suggest you read Marx.”  She explains how, as Marx had explained so many years ago, employers export jobs to the periphery in order to keep the wages of workers low.  But here is the problem.  Marx, while he didn’t succumb to math-driven modeling, did produce a number of beautiful abstractions that have diverted study away from the real world.

I’d urge Smiley, if she wants to know what’s happened to production in the US in the last generation, to follow Krugman’s words of advice and become a little more real-world oriented.  Perhaps she could start by looking up the change in the real income of workers over the generation or so since she wrote that report on “The Communist Manifesto” in 1962 and kept misspelling “bourgeois.”

If she can produce that single bit of data, then I might think she has half a clue about the economy, economics, or even production in the US in the last generation.


10 thoughts on “Jane Smiley: “All I need to know about Economics I learned in kindergarten”

  1. What’s an “external”?

    Nothing is funnier than watching some dim-witted gasbag expounding at length on a subject they don’t realize they know nothing about.

    Plus, she seems to think that the world would be better if economists were more normative. Why does she want to sweep away the very last bit of positivism and empricism extant in the social sciences?

  2. Smiley was on the faculty of Iowa State University for many years. I have to assume from her column that she never encountered anyone from the economics department while she was there. At least the economists I met when I was at Iowa State last week were nothing at all like the depiction in Smiley’s column.

  3. Her explanation of “externals” and what they mean was too much hilarity for one article. I wish all newspapers employed people this ignorant.

  4. “Smiley, in her essay, said, “If you want to know what’s happened to production in the US in the last generation, I suggest you read Marx.” She explains how, as Marx had explained so many years ago, employers export jobs to the periphery in order to keep the wages of workers low. But here is the problem. Marx, while he didn’t succumb to math-driven modeling, did produce a number of beautiful abstractions that have diverted study away from the real world.”

    What an excellent critique. I mean, no need even to say what those abstractions of Marx’s are. We can chuckle about them darkly. And of course never elaborate on her point. She’d just so ignorant of the economic profession that one shouldn’t explain why she’s wrong, cauas it is all part of “science.” That great “science” of economics – those guys are like physicists. Or like physicists in a Far side cartoon.

    Excellent, too, to use a nice reactionary forum like Forbes to explain her mistakes. I mean, she can’t compare with the genius of Steve Forbes, surely. I’m looking forward to this. It ought to be really funny.

  5. Here’s a beautiful abstraction from Marx for Roger: simple average labor. The representative agent dynamic programming macro model of the 2000s has company in the abstraction department with simple average labor. Oh, and how about A+B/4+C/12+D/52+E/365 ???

    Compared to those abstractions, Marx’s “production of commodities by means of commodities” is downright transparent!

  6. Roger: I’m not sure what you mean by your reference to Forbes. The “I” in the pingback above that refers to “Steve Horwitz and I” having something on Forbes.com is Art Carden, not me.

    Actually, Marx’s notion of a ‘periphery’ is one part of his beautiful abstractions. There didn’t seem to be much need to go deeper in my post, because Smiley doesn’t really go any deeper in her essay. But to provide a hint, much of the version of Marxism that shows up in 1970s-era literary criticism is based on a handful of Marx’s really elegant ideas that happen not to be very good descriptions of the way the world works.

    I agree with you to a point that I’m not trying to engage with Smiley’s economic ideas. Mostly, I don’t think she has thought her ideas through very clearly, so it isn’t worth a lot of my time to do it either. But she had her half-baked ideas displayed publicly, and they were stupid enough to be mocked. By the way, I feel the same way about, say, most of what Rush Limbaugh puts out, but I’ve managed to ignore Limbaugh so don’t bother trying to mock his stupider comments. (Probably it would be a good idea for me to try, since it would require me to think more carefully about my own ideological biases.)

  7. “By the way, I feel the same way about, say, most of what Rush Limbaugh puts out, but I’ve managed to ignore Limbaugh so don’t bother trying to mock his stupider comments. (Probably it would be a good idea for me to try, since it would require me to think more carefully about my own ideological biases.)”

    I suggest that, before you begin your “mock his stupider comments” project, you stop ignoring him and actually listen to his comments in context for a while. The versions available from the HuffPo, Daily Kos, CNN, etc. don’t offer much context. I’d hate to see you “pull a Smiley”. 🙂

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