Friday, January 1, 2010

GMU Takes a Page Out of the 'People of Color' Book

A group of George Mason University economists have announced that they are ditching the term, "Austrian Economics".

GMU Professor Peter Boettke explains the problem they see:
As of January 1, 2010, we are changing our name to "Coordination Problem". This name change is symbolic as well as substantive. The term "Austrian economics" has become as much a hindrance to the advancement of thought as a convenient shorthand to signal certain methodological and analytical presumptions. We started this blog with a clear purpose to emphasize ongoing research in the scientific literature, and developments in higher education as related to economics and political economy. As a group we are committed to methodological individualism, market process theory, institutional analysis, and spontaneous order theorizing. And while we do not shy away from policy discussions, we do not identify with any political party or specific political movement.

As an experiment, over the past six months we have been tracking the use of the term Austrian economics in the news and in the blogosphere. Less systematically, we have also been listening carefully to the use of the term among fellow professional economists and what they think the label means. The results do not fit our intention. Google alert, for example, inevitably points to financial advice or libertarian politics, rarely to the research paradigm of F. A. Hayek, never to the scholarship of Israel Kirzner. Mises is often mentioned, but Mises the ideological symbol, not Mises the analytical economist. The "Austrian" theory of the business cycle is mentioned, but only in relationship to anti-fed politics and hard money advocacy, and never as an ongoing research program among professional economists.

These trends are not recent, but have been constant throughout our respective careers. We have always been among those who attempted to offer resistance to this use of the term. It has become evident to us that our efforts have been futile. Rather than resist the pure ideological identification, we are choosing to devote our efforts elsewhere. The name Austrian economics has been lost as a focal point for a tradition of economic scholarship, and is now a focal point for something else. We have to let it go.
This is not the first name change for the GMU crowd. Lew Rockwell points out:
A group of market economists at George Mason University first called themselves Austrians, then, when they took up hermeneutics, Market Process economists. Then they switched back to Austrian. Now they are dubbing themselves Coordination Problem economists.
Since Boettke states that they are doing this because they choose to focus on economic scholarship (presumably in the tradition of what they previously called Austrian Economics), they will find themselves in the awkward position of debating with non-GMU Austrian economists and worldwide mainstream economists by having to use some kind of preface to their arguments, such as: "We argue from the tradition of the Austrian school of economics, i.e. Menger, Bohm-Bwarek, Mises, Hayek, Kirzner etc., but we are no longer using the identifier, Austrian Economics, because it has gotten too popular with the masses."

This kind of awkwardness and frequent name changing brings to mind the comments by the Austrian economist Murray Rothbard, when he wrote on the frequent name changes within the black community:
The PC blacks have been leading us a merry chase for many decades. Every ten or twenty years we have to learn a new term, because the older one has suddenly become "racist" and "Uncle Tom." When I was growing up, the good people of my parents' generation all referred to them as "the colored." (I don't know what the Bad Guys, the racists, called them in those days, since I had never met one: perhaps, after all, "nigger.") But us younger progressives regarded "colored" as racist and Uncle Tom, for some reason that I've never grasped: we used the Good word "Negro." No sooner had "Negro" swept the boards, however, and "colored" been vanquished, when the radical blacks of the late 60s denounced the good old word "Negro" as racist and Uncle Tom and insisted on the word "black." (Although, oddly enough, in older decades, "black" was considered terribly racist and pejorative, referring as it did to color.) Finally, after a sharp but short fight, "black" was triumphant, and "Negro" sent to the brig, beyond the pale of civilized people.

From the point of view of the average American, the word "black" had a great advantage: it has only one syllable. But, a couple of years ago, the black leadership put their heads together and decided that "black" was now racist and Uncle Tom, and that the only satisfactory term is "African-American." No guys, no way. No way that a word of seven syllables "African American" is going to replace a word of one syllable. Never. There are still some verities that the average American holds to with great firmness; and contracting syllables is one of them.

I see signs on the horizon that "African-American" might already be obsolete, and that a new phrase is coming onto the horizon. Get this, it's: "people of color." So: after a hundred years of putting us through the hoops the upshot is almost the same phrase with which we started, oh so long ago. Except that for the two syllable "colored" we now have the five-syllable "people of color." I suppose some would call that "progress."

Perhaps it is a bit unfair to in any way link blacks with the GMU crowd, since at least the blacks were demanding changes based on the perception that the old term had become racist, whereas the GMU crowd is making the change because a term has become popular.

But to really take the GMU crowd's argument to its logical conclusion, I really think they should ditch the term, economist. If they were to conduct the same six month experiment, google alerts and all, for the word "economist", heaven knows what would turn up. Paul Krugman's name may appear, certainly John Maynard Keynes, maybe even Larry Summers. Perhaps international playboy Nouriel Roubini. That the good people of GMU could be associated with such names is unthinkable. There are even consulting groups that use the term "economics" for non-scholarly purposes.

I humbly suggest that instead of economists they should call themselves, CordiProblem Scholars.


  1. I posit they adopt the name "The Ridiculous"

  2. "African-American" is bad and laborious to say. Let's give a nod to the anthropological community and go with "negroid."

  3. This is typical Boettke trying to be politically correct. Remember when he bitched about Hulsman's book not being published by a "major journal".

    He's a sell out trying to kiss the mainstream butt.

  4. My fear is that "coordination problem" will eventually be shortened to just "problem".

  5. Their reasoning for the name change seems fake (They "have been tracking the use of the term Austrian economics in the news and in the blogosphere"? Like really, you modify your title according to what google says today?). Like Keynesians or monetarists would give up their title after discovering that it had become associated with politics and gained mainstream popularity and recognition.

    It's also very smug: "is now a focal point for something else" - meaning a layman stupidity, unlike their serious istitution.

    They probably did it to be more respectable, to send the message: "We are not dangerous, we are not political, we are not against government". And most importantly - to get more government money for their "ongoing research".

  6. "Coordination Problem" makes for govt grants to study the solution to coordination problems that arise from malinvestment and misallocation borne of govt policy failures. In a free market, there are no coordination problems. If one does not care for the term "Austrian," why not use "free market?" Free market = no grants. "Coordination problem" advertises "hack for sale."

  7. They should be called the Kochoctopus Players

  8. Just when the ball gets rolling they decide to go back to the starting line with a new ball.

  9. 'I don't know what the Bad Guys, the racists, called them in those days, since I had never met one: perhaps, after all, "nigger."'

    Yes, Rothbard was raised in a closet by his parents. Actually, this would explain a lot.

  10. 'It's also very smug: "is now a focal point for something else" - meaning a layman stupidity, unlike their serious institution.'

    That's called 'accurate,' not 'smug.'

  11. @ Gene Callahan

    Thank you for your observation on Murray Rothbard's possible sheltered childhood.

    Do you have an opinion on the name change by those formerly known as "Austrian Economists"?

  12. Banacek,

    Careful, you're dealing with a rabid animal. I'm not sure how he got out of his cage but, rather than reasoning with him I might suggest you and I find a way to scoot him back in there at which point we can sit around poking him with sticks and taunting him, as every rabid animal deserves.

  13. Yes, I think it was a good idea.

    Re Rothbard: He never met a racist growing up?! Can anyone believe that is true? I grew up many years after Rothbard, and I'd have to say the majority of white people I met growing up were at least mildly racist. But Rothbard never met one?

  14. But Gene, I'm guessing you are Irish. Please do not tar the entire white race with your experiences.

    I believe the Irish tend to be much more ethnic sensitive than other groups. In my experience, no one asks me more often what my ethinic background is than Irish.

    I can't recall a Jew ever asking me.

    You are speaking outside your tribe.

  15. Yes, and being Irish, I absolutely never met anyone from another race!

    In my town, there was a Jewish country club, a WASP country club, a upper class Catholic club, and a middle class Catholic "club" with a pool and a basketball court. (By "Catholic" I mean most of the members were Catholic, not that the club had a religious theme or requirement.) Not one of the four would allow blacks to join.

    At the time Rothbard was growing up, the NYC government itself was systematically racist. The Parks Dept. used to keep the pools just south of Harlem really cold, because "black people don't like cold water" and that would keep them out.

    I guess the Irish must have been in charge of all four country clubs and the city of New York. (Yes, I know we ran NYC fifty years before then, but I'm talking about when the mayor was named LaGuardia and the guy running the pools was named Moses.)

    And Rothbard must never have met any Irishmen. (Probably, his parents told him that all Irishmen were dirty, drunken racists, hey?)

    Banacek, my guess is you are younger than me, and that it's very hard for you to imagine just how racist the US still was even in the 1960s.

  16. Rothbard could have been making a point using verbal irony. Understood that way, it's actually very witty.

    Banacek - "This is typical Boettke trying to be politically correct. Remember when he bitched about Hulsman's book not being published by a "major journal"."

    Could you please link to this? There are a number of reasons why he might have 'bitched' about it, and it would be worth going over it in the original. If I remember it right he was saying that Hulsmann's work was worthwhile and that he should have tried to publish it in a mainstream journal, because he stood a fair chance. I do get that same vibe from Boettke, that he is at least a little too eager to curry favor with the establishment. That probably is more due to me giving short shrift to his approach than anything he may have done wrong. Remember that, name change or no name change, the basic strategic ends that were laid out with the GMU research program are not at all disharmonious with the goals of LvMI as far as education goes. It was along that line that I understood Boettke's point and disagreed with it.