The Economics of being ‘Interesting’: Many kinds of exclusions


This post engages with a conversational post titled Non-exemplary lives by Branko Milanovic. He is concerned with the current state of academia being filled with boring economists who have a CV full of publications but no experience of living and no interests outside work. Milanovic thus raises the question of how a lack of these influences impacts the profession of economics. 

While his is an apt observation, I think his questions can be broadened in many ways. For the sake of brevity, I will concentrate on a few. 

Exemplary Lives, but what kind of Examples? 

The notion of an ‘exemplary life’ is fraught with the possibilities of what a ‘non-exemplary life’ could be, and vice versa. To fully appreciate the scope of either, it is useful to question how the negation of the other can be fully gauged.

Put differently, is the ‘exemplary life’ really that exemplary- might there be a difference between the persona and the person? 

Consider what being an émigré has meant for two different economists: the Ukraine born Alexander Gerschenkron who settled in the US and the St-Lucian born Arthur Lewis who lived and worked in the UK.  

Gerschenkron is remembered for his theory of late development and also for being a polymath: he was fluent in different languages, an avid baseball student, a critic of Nabokov’s Russian to English translation and whilst being an economics professor simultaneously held the chair of Italian literature and Slavic studies at Harvard. His writings are generally taken to oppose Marxist theory, but not much has been written about the period in his life when he actively engaged in Marxist activism in Vienna. Gerschenkron’s biography written by his grandson and even McCloskey’s exposition of his ideas has not engaged with this fact. The point is not simply that Gerschenkron later divorced his ideological beliefs from his economics but rather what those influences meant for the entire field of economics.

 Ven der linden’s  quotation on this by the historian Charles Meir is telling:

Gerschenkron did not admit to intellectual debts easily, and it is difficult to reconstruct the influences on his thinking.’ 

As Ven der Linden highlights those who already saw the influence of the theory of uneven and combined development on Gerschenkron’s late development theory could only guess what else was eviscerated from his public persona.  No doubt, that missing link is another point of interest but differs greatly according to the contexts in which professions and professionals are nurtured. 

Take the example of the leading economist Arthur Lewis who is known for the dual sector or lewis model and other contributions to the field of development economics. The choices which led him to the profession of economics were very different to that of Gerschenkron or indeed any other economist of the time. Being born in the colonies, Lewis was a subject of the empire. He wanted to become an engineer but considered it a useless pursuit since a colour ban in the British colonies meant that white firms would not employ black engineers. 

Given the circumstances a practical choice to study commerce eventually led him to study and teach economics facing many hurdles based on his colour including a lack of employment and suitable accommodation.  The practical approach to problem-solving continued to mark his career, even when his scholarly contributions were underlined with the singularity of being the first black economist at the LSE and the University of Manchester

Lewis’ PhD was in industrial economics but his policy and research eventually moved towards development economics closely aligned to his role as a policy advisor to the British government. His vast experience of advising governments in the Caribbean and Africa at a time of the decolonial movement too had a practical turn. He viewed dependency theory as limited in scope and although complex, his political interests as an anti-imperialist economist lay more comfortably with the Fabian movement then the more radical movements in the UK including the socialist liberation of black people. Influences, choices and interests are inter-linked and complicated.

The purpose of illustrating the life histories of two different economists is to make one point. Which is that the prelude to ‘being/becoming interesting’ is based on the options of ‘having interests’. Since the latter is embedded in socio-economic structures, the question of being interesting needs to be examined in light of what was exemplary about the epoch which produced these individuals and also question the convergences between their personas and personhoods. No doubt, that being a maverick who can forego ‘intellectual debts’ and a genius who builds an intellectually rich but carefully constructed academic life have interesting insights to offer. However, these insights are not quite what these economists are celebrated for. 

There are many other ways in which the question of being interesting and having experiences impacts economists and the profession, but for the sake of brevity and to focus on the current state of academia I counter-pose 3 questions which are worth exploring:

Why is the profession currently full of boring economists? Why do they keep publishing instead of taking time to think and produce/pose/philosophise interesting and real solutions? Where are the interesting economists/academics, if not in academia? 

Interests as embellishments of Class Mobility 

As anyone following the backlash against white volunteerism in Africa and Asia would know, the experience of undertaking the ethnography of poverty is one-dimensional. Most people living in developing countries including those living in extreme poverty as well as the working class would love to experience a year of backpacking in Europe, some might offer free volunteering in food shelters if it means their flight and living expenses are covered. For obvious reasons that is not the case. Their immobility and limitation of means has multiple consequences. A narrow view of the world might be one of them. The propensity to become quite boring comes with the niggle of spending all of your energy on surviving. 

This extreme example is of course not simply limited to the North-South gap but also includes stark variations within developed countries. Academia has traditionally been an elite profession. A lot of academics from working class profession today are proud of breaking the ceiling but the possibility of others joining them is quite bleak. The divide between permanent and non-permanent academic economists is now huge and both groups face different challenges. 

The prospects of non-permanent academics and more so the generations of doctoral candidates in the making are bleak.  The growing chasm between classes has forced some to consider if being middle class was infact a myth. Although that question still hangs for some, the trappings of being better-off through achieving social markers such as college education, mortgages, insurance etc, are no longer a possibility for this generation. While social mobility in the past had a thin margin which allowed for certain people to jump classes (self-made Calvinism etc), the majority of people who have the luxury of jobs are consistently engrossed in the banality of retaining their employment, being proactive or ‘hustling’.  As with everything else certain etiquettes, and even the capacity to be knowledgeable, have interests and possess independent thought have increasingly become concentrated in the hands of a few. Infact, the luxury of being yourself is much harder since the self either does not exist beyond the workplace or is too impoverished to afford the possibility thereof. Given these circumstances, cultivating the risk of interesting ideas is not even a fantasy harboured by those beyond the nirvana of tenured employment. 

Having said that, let’s also consider how the tenured-half lives.

The labyrinth of Career Academia 

Is there a faint pulse of novel ideas and interesting people in the body of economics, held together by secure employment? The state of public universities around the world could be a starting point of observation. 

Truth is, for academics, thinking originally is a valour lost in living metric-worthy lives. The Research Excellence Framework (REF), in the UK, is a holy grail of success, which quantifies productivity through the number of publications. Working towards the REF day in and day out, combined with administrative, teaching preparation and grant application has great potential of producing spineless academics (both literally and metaphorically). To be then asked to interesting is such a tall order. 

Importantly, if all these academics are now a caricature of Marcuse’ One-Dimensional-Man, where are the Joan Robinsons, Thandikas  and the Minskys of today? 

Many are structurally barred from the system based on the demands of paper-pushing guised as productivity, additionally there are issues of class and race. Emphasis on ‘best method’ and the superiority complex attached to being an ‘economist ‘are also self-devouring challenges of the profession. 

All these factors mean that economics is less exposed to other ideas, and a dull profession to teach and learn from. In the spirit of discovery, we should all consider the CVs of some very interesting economists/scholars who didn’t even receive rejection emails. The fact that they will never be known eliminates entertaining the very possibility of what could have been. 

The profession of economics has also been falling behind in absorbing and taking forward many important messages because it continues to regurgitate individuated meritocratic exceptionalism; what exactly is the purpose of being ‘exemplary’ otherwise? In a brief conversation I was reminded by a friend that ‘intellectual labour is a universal right’. Expertise is foremost based on a history of opportunity. Everyone works hard: academics, brick kiln labourers, plumbers and carers.  It’s true that every livelihood is not honed to translate thinking into policy, a privilege linked to academia. This privilege should come with the capacity to implement an economic model which concentrates on ensuring that everyone has the ability and time to think and have interests, no matter ‘non-exemplary’.  If Existence precedes essence, the fading of interesting ideas and people from a system based on exclusion is simply part of the contemporary economic reality.

In the meantime, considering the multiple restraints faced by academics in different tiers of the profession, it is fair to say that everyone is actually quite equally boring (and exhausted). 

Farwa Sial is a post-doctoral researcher working on the ESID Project at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester. She tweets at @farwasial.

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