It’s a rare day when an economist plays the key role in a novel, and even rarer when one of the supporting players is John Maynard Keynes himself. So, spurred on by enthusiastic reviews, I sailed through Martin Riker’s The Guest Lecture this week, a novel in which a woman, just denied tenure by the all-male economics department at her university, lies awake at night in a hotel room, rehearsing a lecture she’ll be giving the next day while re-evaluating the twists and turns of her life’s trajectory. Maybe it’s a risk to read insomnia fiction at bedtime, but I definitely enjoyed myself, laughing out loud several times and rereading especially zingy paragraphs.
Yet I was disappointed, and I’ll use this post to explore how and why. The first part of the disappointment is obvious and straightforward: this is supposed to be an expression of the inner thoughts of an economist, but it shows close to zero understanding of the world of academic economics. Yes, there is some name-dropping, and yes the great Keynes shows up to guide Abby, the unsleeping economist, through her long night of the Deep CV. Superficially it’s all there; in substance not.
First, why is Abby an economist? Where does she fit in that world? The only explanation we’re given is that she found herself to be “good at math”, and she took a course in experimental economics as an undergrad from a female professor who served as a role model. Well, OK, that may be part of it, but did she think that being an economist would be a way to change the world for the better, or to understand a complex and puzzling aspect of it, or what? Other than the paycheck, what did she think she would be getting? Without that piece, it’s difficult to relate her deep struggles of self-meaning to her career crisis.
Second, so what did she write her dissertation on? The novel parades scenes from her academic coming of age—her undergrad course with her mentor, following her to grad school, her departure from the expected path of a junior professor when she wrote about about Keynes and the rhetoric of economics a few years in—but there is a blank space in between where the core formation-of-an-economist ought to be. Grad school in econ is very demanding and, except for a few renegade departments, strongly pushes a market-centered view of the world; how did that go down with Abby? And a dissertation is the culmination of this process, where the economist-to-be both draws on and finds breathing room from the methodological onslaught to which they’ve been subjected. This is a very big gap in the record.
Third, while Martin Riker is an academic himself (with a degree in English, no surprise), he misunderstands the tenure expectations for junior faculty to a degree that Abby wouldn’t. We’re told she was hired by an R1(ish) research university, where it’s considered enough to publish one article a year in second-tier journals. No way! Six articles won’t get you tenure unless, just perhaps, most are in top-ranked outlets (AER, QJE, etc.). Moreover, books don’t count. Economists regard book-writing as a sort of indulgence, best saved until the choice morsels of science have been parceled out in article form. The Journal of Economic Literature, the main review outlet in the profession, has steadily reduced the number of books for which it publishes reviews; the latest quarterly issue reviewed just two books. I’m sure many economists make an entire career in the field without reading a single economics book post grad school.
And, to get tenure at an R1, the candidate’s research has to use formal modeling, either theoretical (as in game theory) or empirical (econometrics). There is no ambiguity about this. If Abby spends half her tenure period on a book without a single equation, she should be looking for another job sooner rather than later. I’m not saying this is justified—quite the contrary—but it’s central to the culture of the discipline. Making it all seem like an unexpected shock and personal crisis when Abby is denied tenure leaves someone like me wondering whether she had much reality contact all along.
Finally, there just isn’t any economics thinking of any sort in Abby’s nighttime ruminations. She is steeped in rhetoric, its history and current relationship to philosophy and critical theory, but no thoughts from the economic realm arise to make sense of her predicament. For instance, she thinks a lot about ideology, but economists for whom this concept matters use it to connect belief systems to social structures and the incentives they produce; they think of ideological beliefs as in the economy, not as forces lying outside it. On a couple of occasions, in listing the horrors of the modern world, Abby mentions the menace of “endless growth”, a term that has entered the canon of at least part of the left, but rubs nearly all economists, including those on the left end of the spectrum, the wrong way. Economists inclined to criticize capitalism usually see it as a system that places the gain of the few ahead of the well-being of the many, an important part of which is the repeated demand of the rich for tight money and austerity—not growth. (The classic statement of this position is by Michael Kalecki in 1943, “Political Aspects of Full Employment”. This may be the most cited paper by a left wing economist, ever.) Obviously, anyone who admired Keynes would be reluctant to criticize economic growth in a general way. Even the word “endless” would annoy economists who think of the world as a tangle of differential equations, not as a rigid arrow forever trending in the same direction. To be blunt: a mindless reference to the evils of “endless” economic growth, to an economist, simply looks like ignorance.
Even putting aside all those complaints, I didn’t see anything illuminating about Abby’s analysis of Keynes’ essay on the “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. Of course, the value of this essay doesn’t depend on whether the people of today, or those of 100 years from now, inhabit a world in which economic necessity has disappeared. I’ve heard many discussions of it, and none of them have been about its timing. So what is Abby adding to the mix? Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t find anything new.
Granted, it’s not easy making an economist, much less an economist’s nighttime brain, an engaging subject for fiction. I’m not saying Riker’s job was easy, only that I wish it had actually given us someone with human depth and complexity who also manages to be an economist. With few exceptions, novels on academic themes are about literature professors; there’s an obvious reason for that. I’ve enjoyed them, but I was hoping for something different this time, and not a lit prof who wandered into the economics department by accident.
ps: One more thought occurred to me. In the book, Abby is concerned that her insight about Keynes and rhetoric was anticipated by Deirdre McCloskey, although she (Abby) came to it independently. This greatly understates the importance of what McCloskey did. It is no great insight that Keynes, the author of Essays in Persuasion, was a rhetorician. Showing that would make no one’s career. What McCloskey argued, however, is not just that the language of economics follows rhetorical tropes, but that the math does too. This is an immensely important point. To establish, apply or simply argue in parallel with it, you have to deconstruct the architecture of modeling in theoretical and empirical economics. A great example of this is the joint work of McCloskey and Ziliak on statistical significance as rhetoric (and its corresponding scientific shortcomings). If Abby is on the same plane, she should be writing and talking about the role of “mathiness” in economics, not on the rhetorical status of a narrative essay. Maybe you need to have actually grappled with mathematical models in order to appreciate what this entails.