[OPE-L:2740] RE: Patrick on Becker and his critics

andrew kliman (Andrew_Kliman@msn.com)
Sun, 28 Jul 1996 23:46:54 -0700 (PDT)

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I appreciated Patrick Mason's post and I'm glad Jerry brought it to the
attention of those, like me, who aren't on pen-l (my hands are more than full
with ope-l).

I've long considered Gary Becker a genius (which doesn't indicate agreement
with him) and have been perplexed by the attitudes of others to his work. Not
only radical economists, but even middle-of-the roaders who may have lots of
respect for Friedman, don't think much of Becker.

I suspect that part of the hostility coming from the left (and middle) has to
do with a more general lack of respect for ideas. I know that what turns my
students off from neoclassical ideas are their lack of "realism"; that's also
what initially turned me off (long before I saw the consistent ideological ax
it grinds) when I was an undergraduate; and I suspect that's what has turned a
lot of folks to heterodoxy. The "assume a can opener" joke was originally a
dig at Becker specifically.

What gives Becker's work its power, in contrast, is his respect for ideas, at
least for one simple idea: constrained optimization. He has tried to work it
out consistently and to take it to its logical conclusion. That means he
pursues it in places in which casual empiricism warns that it is
"unrealistic." What bothered Becker especially (he says so explicitly in the
introduction to a collection of his writings) was the proliferation of ad hoc,
special theories for this phenomenon and that phenomenon. The usual manuever
was to invoke changes in agent's preferences. Becker recognized that this
would enable neoclassicism to explain everything and therefore explain
nothing, and he unflinchingly chose to pursue the opposite path of pure
economic determinism by refusing to acknowledge changes in preferences,
thereby making agent's behaviors determined solely by exogenous factors (with
no *self*-determination).

To make this stuff work, however, Becker also needed to neutralize hostile
empirical work. But Friedman had already seen to that. This was the real
purpose of his essay on the methodology of "positive economics." You can fix
the econometrics to get any results you want, almost, so if you can disqualify
empirical objections to your assumptions, you can always fight the empirical
battle to at least a draw, and *win on the basis of more cogent and coherent
(and ideologically useful) ideas*. (But it took Lucas to deliver the coup de
grace of disqualifying almost all testing of models by evidence.)

These guys were *prepared*; so when the stagflation of the '70s hit and the
political climate changed, they were ready to capitalize.

The left, in contrast, bemoans its fate by complaining that hostile external
circumstances don't allow it to be heard. There's a grain of truth in this,
but what's going on in the world today are precisely the kinds of things that
most of the left had always said would make people more receptive, so it is
mostly apologetics. I think a good deal of the predicament of the left is
due to its lack of development of ideas. Strategies, yes. Tactics, yes.
Demonstration programs, yes. Analyses, yes. But not ideas, at least not
ideas developed with the coherence, patience, comprehensiveness, and courage
with which some folks on the right like Becker have done so. Their superior
command over communications channels and material resources explains this in
part, but only in part.

For instance, Marx had one economic idea matching in elegance and
comprehensiveness (for capitalism) that of constrained optimization, which he
pursued unflinchingly, coherently, painstakingly: every hour of average
labor-time produces the same amount of value, no matter how many use-values it
creates. Time and again, I've seen radical economists flee this when it runs
into complications, or seems belied by empirical evidence, or seems
implausible. So we have theory being developed in a haphazard,
seat-of-the-pants fashion, which means not being *developed*, and everyone has
his/her own "Marxian" theory.

I think the key thing that needs to be done is to create a dialogue around the
lack of respect for ideas on the left: why does it exist and does it need to
be rethought? Ope-l is one place to start.

I was also struck by Patrick's recognition that segmented labor market theory
is Becker's discrimination theory with different labels, which I had never
seen; but he's right. That Michael Reich, a segmented labor market theorist,
has his own, different theory of discrimination, is another indication of ad
hoc explanation and lack of coherence.

(Gary Nickerson, not Nicholson, wrote the paper on crime.)

Thanks, Patrick.

Andrew Kliman