The dismal science
Source Louis Proyect
Date 06/03/30/20:45

Dismal news about the dismal science
A new piece of economics research suggests economists are more ruthless
than others.
Richard Adams
March 30, 2006 04:32 PM

WHEN THE CAMBRIDGE economist Piero Sraffa heard the US had dropped atomic
bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he went out and bought Japanese government
bonds, on the grounds that they could only go up in value. They did so,
spectacularly, and Sraffa later made a substantial sum. Hard-headed it may
have been, Sraffa was being perfectly rational. But his is the sort of
attitude that gives economists a bad reputation among the public, of
knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, confirming the
label attributed to Thomas Carlyle (actually coined to describe liberals)
of economics as "the dismal science".

Lately, however, economists are in danger of becoming likeable: the booming
sales of Steven Levitt's book Freakonomics and the "economics-lite" of Tim
Harford suggests there is a market for user-friendly economics. Harford has
a TV series coming up in which he at pains to point out that economists are
cuddly, fun-loving guys and gals. And about time too.

But before Meghnad Desai is recruited for the next edition of Celebrity Big
Brother (actually, that's not such a crazy idea), have a look at this
research just published in the Economic Journal by Ariel Rubinstein. He
surveyed different groups of university students, including those studying
economics, philosophy law, maths, and business administration. The survey
asked how many workers the students would advise sacking from a notional
company in some financial difficulty (I won't go into the details). By a
substantial margin the economics students were prepared to sack more people
than their opposite numbers in other disciplines. More in fact, than even
the MBA students.

Although this is not the first research to suggest economists might be
selfish, the result still depressed Rubinstein, who concludes: "I believe
that we actually do harm to our students in only teaching them the
intricacies of mathematical models and that we are unintentionally
distorting their economic views." He hopes that his research will "confront
readers, especially the economists among them, with the results of how
economics is taught and encourage them to consider changing our teaching

On that basis, Rubinstein himself has an unusual attitude for an economist
when it comes to maximising profits. His personal web page has a foul
colour, but has this very unusual link. In his list of publications he
mentions one he edited, Game Theory in Economics, alongside a link entitled
"My sincere opinions about buying this book", which takes you a comment: "I
think that the book is outrageously priced (I am afraid I was very very
naive when I signed the contract...) and thus, unfortunately, I cannot
recommend buying it."

In the meantime, it may be worth remembering that Sraffa, when he wasn't
profiting from nuclear war, was also a friend and supporter of Antonio Gramsci.

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