(…)”Academic economics, the stuff that is in the textbooks, is largely based on mathematical reasoning. I hope you think that I am an acceptable writer, but when it comes to economics I speak English as a second language: I think in equations and diagrams, then translate. The opponents of mainstream economics dislike people like me not so much for our conclusions as for our style: They want economics to be what it once was, a field that was comfortable for the basically literary intellectual.
This should sound familiar. More than 40 years ago, the scientist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow wrote his famous essay about the war between the “two cultures,” between the essentially literary sensibility that we expect of a card-carrying intellectual and the scientific/mathematical outlook that is arguably the true glory of our civilization. That war goes on; and economics is on the front line. Or to be more precise, it is territory that the literati definitively lost to the nerds only about 30 years ago–and they want it back.
That is what explains the lit-crit style so oddly favored by the leftist critics of mainstream economics. Kuttner and Galbraith know that the quantitative, algebraic reasoning that lies behind modern economics is very difficult to challenge on its own ground. To oppose it they must invoke alternative standards of intellectual authority and legitimacy. In effect, they are saying, “You have Paul Samuelson on your team? Well, we’ve got Jacques Derrida on ours.”
There are important ideas in both fields that can be expressed in plain English, and there are plenty of fools doing fancy mathematical models. But there are also important ideas that are crystal clear if you can stand algebra, and very difficult to grasp if you can’t. International trade in particular happens to be a subject in which a page or two of algebra and diagrams is worth 10 volumes of mere words. That is why it is the particular subfield of economics in which the views of those who understand the subject and those who do not diverge most sharply.
Alas, there is probably no way to resolve this conflict peacefully. It is possible for a very skillful writer to convey in plain English a sense of what serious economics is about, to hide the algebraic skeleton behind a more appealing facade. But that won’t appease the critics; they don’t want economics with a literary facade, they want economics with a literary core. And so people like me and people like Kuttner will never be able to make peace, because we are engaged in a zero-sum conflict–not over policy, but over intellectual boundaries.
The literati truly cannot be satisfied unless they get economics back from the nerds. But they can’t have it, because we nerds have the better claim.“