I retired as a professor of English in early 2008, just in time to be run over by the financial crisis. My response has been to read economics, follow blogs, and dig into the data in order to replicate charts––all as a means to find my way into the practice of economic analysis. A lot of my university research and teaching in the last fifteen years has been in the field of science studies, particularly with colleagues in the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts (SLSA), where C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” have found inspiring ways to talk with one another. Working with physicists and mathematicians, historians and philosophers, literary and media theorists, artists and art historians, has been a core experience for me and made reading economics the natural next step.
Part of what moved me to read economics is an incident from almost twenty years ago. I was once an associate dean and served on the Graduate School Executive Committee. Whenever there was an outside review of a graduate program, the Committee reviewed the review. We invited the department chair, the graduate program director, maybe a dean, to sit down with us and discuss the review, to see what might be the most useful response. When it was a review of the program in Economics, I asked the chair to comment on the absence in his program of any courses in economic history, and of any requirement that students know something about economic history. His response was one of the smoothest brush-offs I ever got. With a casual wave of the hand, he said, “Oh, we do economics without history.” I have remembered these words. Surely the thinking they represent had a lot to do with how we got to where we are today.
Now, after two and half years of reading economics, I am still a non-economist and don’t expect to be anything more. Or, at best, I will always be an outsider among economists. But there is no “outside” to the economy––we’re all inside it together, one way or another. Or, in the terms of philosopher W. V. O. Quine’s favorite metaphor of the ship at sea, in this case the S. S. Economy: we live on it as it carries us along, and there is no landfall, no dock or dry dock, where we can lay up to do maintenance or repair. Yet we must do it, and we can only do it at sea. Government regulation and government spending, the two modes of official care for the economy, are functions we cannot do without. The financial crisis has shown us that. The so-called “free” market has, in fact, always relied on institutions to keep it on course, at least since the time of Léon Walras and his auctioneer (Éléments d’économie politique pure, 1874, rev. 1899). His market, his economy, could not function without such a regulating institution (hat tip: economic historian Michel De Vroey).