Even though I’m in the office working on a Saturday, I had a colleague (and fellow Jazz fan, incidentally) come by and berate me for comparing the great Bill Russell to Paul Millsap. Now, I’m a huge fan of Millsap—look at Game 2 of this series; he was the most valuable player on the floor—so I don’t consider this an insult to Russell. But I realize some people get upset by not giving the greats of the past their due.
My colleague characterized the Millsap/Russell comparison as saying that Adam Smith was not a great economist because he couldn’t compete with economists if he were alive today (at least not without a lot of new training). Certainly one could make the case that Smith, the “father” of the discipline, was a great economist. But what are we to do with him today? My fellow blogger, Jim, is a Smith expert and has written extensively on him, so I have to be careful.
PhD students in economics these days rarely read Smith. In fact a philosopher or political scientist, I would conjecture, is much more likely to have read Smith than an economist . In economics, “history” is anything published more than 20 years ago, and anything published before the great general equilibrium papers (Arrow-Debreu, etc.) in the 1950s is just “history of thought,” and there are like 2 people in the nation that are writing dissertations on the history of thought and probably fewer economics departments who want to hire them.
For better or worse, economics is a cumulative discipline. A big premium exists for being well-schooled in the state of the art, but not much career value in saying, “Jones is really just arguing what Adam Smith said in a less technical way.” Those comments just elicit a collective yawn from the discipline. Paul Samuelson gave a coherent mathematical structure to Marshall and other predecessors, and we have all moved on with that structure . Smith, actually, can still be read today by economists because of the clarity of his writing, but people like Ricardo—immensely influential historically—are impenetrable and a waste of time. Understanding Ricardian Equivalence is key if you are macro guy, but reading Ricardo is not. There are great economists today (though very few under 60, I would guess) who are conversant with the old masters, but most of just fake it. Give us an Adam Smith cheat sheet, and we are good to go. From time to time I have read parts of the classics. But every time I do, I conclude afresh that this is not a good use of my time.
Our philosopher friends and others look at us disdainfully for our ahistorical discipline. But I say, give us some useful answers, or shut up. Some disciplines are not cumulative, and I conjecture that is a mark of the immaturity and lack of progress in those disciplines (though sometimes lack of progress is a function of the inherent difficulty of the field). Economics is a relatively young discipline, but a mature one because we don’t have to start at the beginning all the time. The discipline itself has sifted through the past research and preserves what has utility (though I’m not saying some out-of-fashion ideas don’t deserve being resurrected). The more a discipline looks to its history, the less it has to say of value in today’s world. I don’t think any of the hard scientists are focused on the past.
Now sometimes we look to the past because disciplines have declined. Who can argue that symphonic music, for instance, has improved in the last century? We still listen to the classics not because we are awaiting for good music to be discovered, but because there was so little that was really good in the 20th century.
In social science and the NBA, this is not the case. I’d still take Paul Millsap.