The Transgender Libertarian Feminist Economist and “the Blob”

One of the last ways in which I would expect a distinguished University of Chicago economics Professor to describe the economy is as “The Blob”.

“The Blob is watching us,” Deirdre McCloskey said, ominously, during a talk recently at Korbel.

You thought this economy was bad, just wait for....SON OF BLOB!

But then again, Deirdre McCloskey does not tend to be associated with the expected or mundane. Case in point: Deirdre McClosky was Donald McCloskey until the age of 53, and she’s a transgender libertarian feminist economist. She also happens to be a Professor of Economics, English, History AND Communications at one of the country’s top universities, which is evident from her quirky, inclusive style of speaking that allows her to convey complex subject matter to a lay audience in a way that is both entertaining and informative.

McCloskey's intellectual one-two punch: "When was the last time you changed your mind? I changed my mind about my gender...". Hard to argue with that!

McCloskey came to speak at Korbel this week, as part of the “Spectre of Ignorance” Speaker series on the “limits of knowledge in the social sciences” that Korbel professor George DeMartino, a huge fan of McClosky’s despite disagreeing with many of her more extreme libertarian conclusions, has been instrumental in coordinating.

Brought into U of Chicago while neoclassical economic idol, Milton Friedman, was heading up its economics faculty, McCloskey could be considered a surprising candidate to tell an audience of gathered Korbel students and faculty that economists have been getting an awful lot wrong for a very long time. According to McCloskey, this is because they have been failing to realize the limits of knowledge – of what they can know and predict about the world. And that is something that she (then he) was also saying long before it became “fashionable” to do so in recent years, post-crisis.

Ever sat and listened to pundits on the evening news talk about how “inevitable” a series of events was, or how it’s obvious what policy the government should put in place to deal with a particular issue? Well McCloskey says the question we should be asking these and all other people like them – including social scientists proper – is “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”. That is, if the guy on late night TV who is telling you you can make millions by investing in real estate really knew that to legitimately be the case, then he must be able to predict the future, and if so, why is he hawking this all over late night TV rather than retiring at 32?

Same with all of the Dr Dooms who suggested that saw the recent financial and economic crisis coming. “Why didn’t they do the Big Short?” asked McCloskey.

Her underlying point is this: There is too much arrogance and hubris in the social sciences, to the point where societies and economies have been treated like “vending machines” with simple “input/output” mechanisms. You put in one set of variables, you get out another set of outcomes. But this is not only wrong, but dangerous and potentially harmful, says McCloskey.


Making a comparison with weather forecasting, the academic said: “Even with weather forecasting there are theoretical limits. You can predict the weather maybe 2 weeks out. But the slightest disturbance today can change what happens weeks down the line. The difference in economics is that the clouds are listening. Imagine if a hurricane could hear a prediction that it’s going to go to South Carolina, and then decides it can make a fortune if it goes to Savannah…” said McClosky of the way in which economic and social predictions reverberate throughout the economies and societies that come from in ways that then go on to alter behavior and outcomes within those economies and societies, thereby making accurate prediction even less plausible.

“It puts a limit on social engineering,” said McCloskey, who, as a die hard libertarian, finds this particular conclusion about the limits to knowledge supportive of her ideological anti-government intervention stance.

“If the social world was a machine that wasn’t paying attention to our predictions social science would be like mechanical engineering. In fact, you get catastrophes even in mechanical engineering, but it’s even worse in the social world because there’s this conscious blob. The economy is The Blob and The Blob is watching us. It’s listening and it’s reacting. It is people,” said McCloskey.

The answer though, is not paralysis. We must still act, and try to make things better in our social and economic worlds, she concludes. In social research and policy-making, “You’ve got to make yourself wise – not clever,” said McCloskey.

“Clever is to do a calculation quickly. What you need to do is to value judgment. There has been a tremendous pressure to devalue judgment. Practical wisdom is what you must try to accumulate. Read novels, history and think deeply about philosophy and the implications of interfering in other people’s lives and the harm that can do.”

Posted on February 10, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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