Sunday, May 12, 2013

Peer Review: Economists and the Rhetoric of Groveling

"As a general rule economists are not very good at economics." -- Dean Baker

As a general rule economists are not very good at accountability. The rules of evidence in Anglo-American common law disallow the raising of allegations without a basis in provable fact. The rules of evidence in Anglo-American economics... well, there are no rules of evidence.

It's hard to think of another field (besides advertising) where assertion trumps analysis with such impunity. Perhaps "impunity" is too mild a word, though. Come to think of it, there seems to be a smug self-satisfaction in economists' lack of accountability -- as if being "above" accountability was itself a badge of distinction. Let's follow that intuition...

The expression "peer review" in the title doesn't refer to the niceties of academic publishing. The peers I have in mind are the nobility of 18th century England who, according to Fitzmaurice, seldom had the kind of formal, grammar school education that the sons of clergymen and gentry whom they might patronize did.

So what, pray tell, might these 18th century noble peers and their clients have to do with either the competence or accountability of 21st century economists? In a word, "mannerisms."

To elaborate my hypothesis, I would first like to return to Fitzmaurice and her observations on the rhetoric of late modern English letters (1654-1762):
...the Montagu manuscript collection reflects two fairly distinct groups of letter-writers — namely Montagu’s clients on the one hand and his peers on the other. … [Members of the former group] exhibit acute awareness of and adherence to conventional strategies of linguistic politeness that index the superior rank and greater power of their addressee. So in addition to formal physical indicators of respect such as opening and closing formulae, the rhetorical structures adopted by the men seeking patronage indicate the extent to which epistolary mendicity is conventionalized in humiliative discourse at the time.
Personally, for quite some time I have taken a kind of perverse delight in the subtle, stilted ambivalence of the closing salutation, "I beg to remain, Sir, your most humble and most obedient servant." George Bernard Shaw captured something of this potential for duplicity in his critique of the dramatist, Dion Boucicault's "Stage Irishman":
His vices are the arts by which he accommodates himself to his slavery – the flattery on his lips which hides the curse in his heart; his pleasant readiness to settle disputes by "leaving it all to your honor," in order to make something out of your generosity in addition to exacting the utmost of his legal due from you; his instinctive perception that by pleasing you he can make you serve him; his mendacity and mendicity; his love of a stolen advantage; the superstitious fear of his priest and his Church which does not prevent him from trying to cheat both in the temporal transactions between them; and the parasitism which makes him, in domestic service, that occasionally convenient but on the whole demoralizing human barnacle, the irremovable old retainer of the family.
Dear Officer Krupke! "I'm depraved because I'm deprived!" Or, I'm mendacious because I'm mendicious! In addition to the potential insincerity of the formulaic hyper-humility is what I will call the equilibrium of deference and disdain. That is to say that the necessity of groveling to a social superior might well evoke in the groveler a compulsion to snarl at a social subordinate.

What I'm suggesting, then, is that mannerisms of genuflection and contempt are embedded in post-enlightenment academic discourse -- and particularly in economics -- to a degree that trumps analysis. Perhaps it is not so much that, as a general rule, economists are not good at economics as that the economists who generally rule do so not because they are good at economics but because they have perfected the ritual elements of deference toward those above them and disdain toward those below.

Need I point out that this is worse than feudalism? It is a subaltern feudalism that replaces noblesse oblige with faux aristocratic disdain affected by a self-appointed mendicantocracy.

If we be serfs, let us at least be serfs to Lords and not serfs to the supplicants of Lords!

I beg to remain, Sir or Madam, your most humble and most obedient and most servile servant,


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