31 January 2009

keynes' cambridge

I'm not usually prone to thinking that it might have been cool to be alive for another era of history. I know that my brother Casey (yes, the one recently pictured with the giant bee) considers himself to have been born a couple centuries past the time that might have suited him best. I guess I just like 80-year life expectancies, affordable long-distance travel, and instantaneous communication too much.

Yet being here occasionally makes me pine a little bit for the Cambridge of the first half of the 20th century. To be sure, lots of nasty stuff was happening in the world -- wars, the Great Depression, etc. -- and this university town, while somewhat removed from the real world, has never been completely insulated from it. I probably would have eaten at the soup kitchens that served the students of the day, and I certainly would have seen lots of my classmates forced to interrupt their studies and never come back. Still, I have gotten a few tantalizing glimpes into the kind of ferment that was going on here in that era, when the intellectual giants of the day rubbed shoulders and students followed their preferred gurus around to pubs and fireside seminars. Cambridge just isn't like that anymore, and I'll get to why I think that is in a minute.

The figure I most associate with that era is John Maynard Keynes, the economist I mentioned in my post about walking to Grantchester. In case you aren't familiar with Keynes, he's best known for the view that an increase in government spending is sometimes needed to get national economies unstuck from a self-reinforcing trap of high unemployment and low demand for goods and services. It sounds like common sense today (witness a Republican president's declaration that "we're all Keynesians now"), but it was revolutionary at the time, when it was believed that the appropriate government response to a depression was to balance the budget by cutting spending and/or raising taxes. You can also see why Keynes, who has always been controversial and a source of deranged anger on the political right, is suddenly a very popular thinker again.

What I'm thinking about here, though, is less the content of Keynes' theories than the kind of intellectual he was. Here was an economist who associated with philosophers and novelists and biologists, who concerned himself with the big issues of the time. He was a bon vivant, married a Russian ballerina, and was compared to God with some regularity with colleagues. (Interestingly, Keynes himself regarded the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein as "God.") It seems to me that academia was both more personal and more connected with the real world then. I am always struck when I hear lectures from some of the older economists at Cambridge, who are not old enough to have known Keynes (he died in 1946), but who did know many of the people in his circle early in their academic careers. I get the sense that they are talking about old friends; there is a spirit of collaboration, camaraderie, and purpose that comes though the nostalgia of these old Cambridge dons.

Don't get me wrong -- there is still plenty of that at Cambridge today. For a lot of reasons, though, this no longer feels like the place for heroic intellectual inquiry followed by a trip to the pub with friends. For one thing, Cambridge has seen the same kind of explosion in clubs, activities, sports, and whatnot that most campuses have seen in the last few decades, combined with the parallel entertainment explosion in TVs, computer and video games, movies, iPods, etc. All very, very good things in and of themselves, but as a byproduct we seem to have developed a variant of the "Bowling Alone" problem. Life here is fragmented. I heard one of those old Keynesians observe, a little wistfully, that "it's hard to get people to come to evening seminars these days." Why talk about the pressing issues of the day when movie theaters, salsa dancing, and Nintendo Wii beckon? Again, I would rather have my technology than not have it, thank you very much-- but all of this progress is not cost-free.

But there's another reason why I think there are no more Bloomsbury Groups, and it also has to do with fragmentation of a different kind. My perception of academia is a long-term trend toward hyperspecialization: the rewards and prestige accrue to people who make their name in smaller and smaller slices of human knowledge. Whether or not a particular line of inquiry has any relevance in the real world doesn't necessarily matter. Interdisciplinary programs like Development Studies are chronically under-resourced, and often have to fight for survival, in this kind of environment.

This trend plays out differently in different disciplines, but I think economics is one of the worst affected. Economics seems to be on a one-way track toward increasing levels of abstraction and mathematization. Methodology trumps content, conceptual innovation trumps social value. I enjoyed Freakonomics, but I think it has helped unleash a monster. The decision procedure for economics grad students is no longer "think of an important/interesting thing to study --> figure out how to gather and process data," now it's "find some data --> think of something sexy to do with it." Keynes pondered how to end the Great Depression; a Freakonomist thinks about how to spot cheaters from sumo wrestling scores.

So there aren't many Keyneses anymore; Amartya Sen might be the best we have today. (I have mentioned him before in my description of formal hall at Trinity College and hopefully will write more about him at another time.) I have all but ruled out an academic career for myself, and the thought of getting a PhD fills me with consternation. It wouldn't have been such a hard question in Keynes' Cambridge.


Bob said...

As a former graduate economics student and not a current PhD graduate student for many of the reasons you describe, I think you're spot on (that British enough?) with you assessment of Economics and its trends towards hyper-specialization and hyper-methodologization (if I may take some libery with the English language). I wonder, though, are other social science fields, or even natural science fields, any different in this regard.

Want to start Generalist University and join the faculty with me?

Keep up the blogging.

Uncle Kevin said...

You left out the irrelevant but interesting biographical fact that Keynes was openly gay at Cambridge and did not marry the Russian ballerina until later in life. I think that adds a dimension to the man.

Anonymous said...

Well, for most of us it would be good enough to be taught by Ha-Joon Chang at your program. I don't know how much he knows about biology, but he certainly combines knowledge from a few disciplines, such as history, economy, politics...
On top of that, you have access to the internet, cheaper travel expenses, and many other sources of knowledge for which you would have been envied back at Keynes' times.
So enjoy man... And be sure 50 years later you will also be envied.