Arnold Kling  

Chapters for a book on Masonomics

Paragraphs to Ponder... Adjective-Coefficient Disconne...

Should I write it? I do have other projects, but Tyler believes in multitasking. Possible chapters (not necessarily in this order):

1. The love-hate relationship with Austrian economics. Pete Boettke (note that he has co-bloggers) is relatively gung-ho Austrian, but he is not as dogmatic as some non-Mason Austrians. Meanwhile, Tyler Cowen and Bryan Caplan have written explicit essays about where they disagree with the Austrians. My sense is that where Masonomics follows Austrian economics is in taking seriously the fact that individuals lack knowledge, and that much learning takes place in a decentralized way through trial and error.

2. Down with democracy. Classics in the Masonomic canon include Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter and Daniel Klein's "The People's Romance." Both works take a dim view of representative democracy. My sense is that Tyler Cowen might offer a more nuanced perspective, based on a belief in the fragility of the norms and institutions that support free markets. I can imagine Tyler (or perhaps Tyrone) arguing that property rights can persist only if people's sense of fairness is satisfied, which in turn may require democratic institutions. That is, democratic institutions help convince people of the fairness of the system under which they live, which in turn encourages them to support property rights.

3. IQ and other politically-incorrect thoughts. Garrett Jones on IQ. Peter Leeson on pirates may fit here, although it may also fit under (2).

4. Signaling and deception. This would be one of the longest chapters. Caplan on education, Hanson on health care, Cowen on self-deception, Cowen and Hanson on sociobiology--unless that falls under (3).

5. Disagreement. Hanson on disagreement and overcoming bias. Caplan vs. his colleagues. Tyrone vs. his colleagues.

6. Trade and immigration. Don Boudreaux gags on the notion of "our" trade deficit. Many Masonomists are open-borders types, and they ardently defend free trade.

7. Economic education. Bryan Caplan is a passionate advocate and Russ Roberts is an innovative practitioner.

[update: 8. Public choice. This is a core Masonomic view, that people in government are merely people, as opposed to assuming benevolence and omniscience. One commenter rightly excoriated me for leaving this out in the original post. I had it on my mental list, but forgot it when I wrote it down.]

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COMMENTS (36 to date)
Zac writes:

Write a book on the most interesting economics department in the world? Yes, yes you should, if you think you can do it justice.

I don't know that anyone in the department "hates" Austrian economics. I think most would agree with Bryan that "Austrians do some good economics, but most good economics is not Austrian." Also note that a good chunk of graduate students come to GMU specifically to study Austrian economics (conjecture: the average Mason PhD student/graduate identifies significantly more with the Austrian school than the average Mason professor).

In your chapter on education, you should talk about GMU's comparative advantage in blogging and writing for the "intellectual public" (and the relationship between GMU and IHS / Mercatus).

Looking forward to the book.

Student writes:

Institutionally, can you write about Masonomics and mainstream academia? Is Masonomics just for the masses, or is there a push-back on the professional level as well? What are the successes, what are the failures, and where do you see all this going?

Bryan Caplan writes:

You've sold me, Arnold. Sounds like a great book project with the potential to sell a lot of copies. And the egomania of the subjects (or at least mine) ensures a steady stream of publicity. :-)

Scott Wentland writes:

I'm surprised you didn't list a chapter on your definition of Masonomics, stemming from some core public choice arguments. That is, "markets fail, governments fail, so let's use markets."

Though Buchanan and Tullock are retired, their legacy (and others') has clearly permeated the department and what you call Masonomics. Public choice shapes much of GMU's perspective about the real world implementation of macro policy (engineering) and how government works.

I think this would be a very interesting book, but I am biased. I think a wider audience would enjoy it if you begin each chapter with a brief discussion about the topic in question and the "mainstream views," and then integrate amd contrast the Masonomist viewpoints. That is, you might consider making it a book about 1) topics that Masonomists write/feel strongly about and 2) explaining their interesting perspectives.

I only say this because Masonomics may not be enticing in and of itself to lure readers in (though it would certainly lure me in). The sexy topics can do that.

Good luck!

Fenn writes:

All I can guarantee is that I would both purchase a copy for myself and request that the 4 library systems (I live in L.A.) I hold cards with purchase it as well.

You're the right guy for the job. Masonomics could use a summing-up. You may be the best writer of the bunch---gift for analogies & droll humor.

Chris writes:

Wouldn't it be a mistake to omit blogging/pocasting/new media as a key chapter?

It seems to be a major factor in Masonomic influence. Also the 'Moneyball' theory of how Mason gathered its academics thus creating Masonomics.

Michael writes:

As a long time reader of the GMU econ blogs, I would love to see this book become reality.

In fact, if it weren't for all of your early adoption of blogging, I would never have ended up studying economics in school. This book would be a big cherry on top.

ionides writes:

I hope you make it a real book, and not a collection of columns from the blog.

Greg Ransom writes:

"Tyler Cowen and Bryan Caplan have written explicit essays about where they disagree with the Austrians."

No. Tyler and Bryan have written essays explaining where they disagree with Murray Rothbard -- e.g. why they are no longer Rothbard fan boys.

Their essays really don't engage the work of Hayek in any intelligent way.

Greg Ransom writes:

How dogmatic of you to believe this:

"where Masonomics follows Austrian economics is in taking seriously the fact that individuals lack knowledge, and that much learning takes place in a decentralized way through trial and error."

Greg Ransom writes:

So your telling us Steve Horwitz is dogmatic?

Your telling us that Larry White is dogmatic?

Your telling us that Bruce Caldwell is dogmatic?

Your telling us that George Selgin is dogmatic?


Zac writes:

@Greg- He's probably referring to the contingent in Auburn. And yes, they are pretty dogmatic.

Mike writes:

I'm certainly no expert on Masonomics, but I don't think it's fair to say they don't engage Hayek. If anything, Hayek and James Buchanan seem to be the intellectual parents of Masonomics.

I believe that it was Pete Bottke on his blog had a list of rankings of various departments by subdisciplines that showed GMU ranked quite well in some areas and not so well in others. I'd be interested in why it doesn't stack up better in those areas where it didn't rank well.

Barkley Rosser writes:

And Tyrone holds what position? The Chair of Annoying Economics?

Jonathan Bydlak writes:

What about the other great people in the department who have made fabulous contributions to economics?

Buchanan fits under public choice, but Vernon Smith and experimental economics?

Tabarrok and Dan Klein on the FDA?

David Levy's contributions to the history of economic thought and (gasp) econometrics?

And let's not forget Walter Williams on discrimination (I guess that fits into #3).

Joe Marier writes:

I'd include a chapter on the intellectual history of the department, and how it grew.

Mike writes:

If piling on is the motivational and inspirational need then please, please write this book. You recently said that you were basically getting bored with the dialogue on the credit crisis. Here is your outlet to re-direct the conversation in a meaningful way. Go for it! Or as they say "out of spite", "right arm", "farm out." Your the man. Do it!!

Grant writes:

I think we are arguing over the semantics of "Austrian" as it applies to economics. The guys over at seem to want to resurrect (or preserve?) the Austrian label as a sensible academic position. Others are trying to bury it as crankish nonsense. Both of these groups seem to hold similar economic beliefs.

I am persuaded greatly by Mises and Hayek, but often find LvMI difficult to read (probably due to how heavily Rothbard influenced it). Nonetheless, they do still have some great articles, which often seem to be ignored by more mainstream economists.

I was very pleased at the debate which occurred from Bob Murphy's paper on the paradox of thrift.

Tom writes:

"2. Down with democracy."

What does Bryan think about what Vaclav Klaus calls the "democratic deficit" in the EU, where more and more decisions are taken out of the hands of the individual countries and their elected representatives and are being transfer to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels? Is this a move that he favors?

I have not read Bryans book but does down with democracy mean up with centralized unelected government?

Any thoughts on the Lisbon Treaty?

Credential holder writes:

Signaling would be a good chapter. Here's an article on using a degree to signal commitment in computer science:

"There's plenty of articles about the shortage of skilled IT workers [1], and the difficulty experienced by companies in finding qualified software developers. The whining would be far more credible if the Want Ads didn't have a silly, arbitrary qualification: a college degree."

"There's nothing wrong with a software developer getting a college degree in CompSci, especially when it accompanies an opportunity to learn useful skills. My problem is with hiring managers who think the degree an absolute necessity, and who exclude otherwise-brilliant candidates who didn't spend four extra years in a classroom. If you never graduated from a university, you may discover that getting a programming job without a degree is like trying to get a Teamsters job without a union card. Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, really dumb."

"Frankly, I have always found this attitude unfathomable. But I'm willing to be wrong (really) and to listen to the opposite viewpoint. So I asked for input about the reasons someone might require a college degree as part of their company policy. I hoped to be given an "Oh! Now I understand!" moment in which I whacked myself on the head. So much for that idea."

"A strangely common explanation for requiring a college degree is that it demonstrates "commitment." As a recruiter friend said, "One client described it to me as less about the education or the degree and much more, for them anyway, about the sense of commitment the person shows to starting and finishing something. They indicated that they saw the lack of degree in parallel to the lack of loyalty or dedication to the employer." Or as someone else said, "It helps demonstrate that that person can set a goal and then achieve it. It also shows that the person had the vision to realize that four years spent now will probably pay off in the long run."

Brad Hutchings writes:

I'd start with "Down with Democracy" and "IQ and Other Politically Incorrect Thoughts" then mix the remaining boring and shocking topics. "Austrian Economics" is more boring than shocking. Here's your back cover blurb:

Kling comes out swinging with his first chapter, Down with Democracy and barely lets up with his Masonomist critique of the status quo. Agree or disagree with the premises presented in his essays, you'll find your beliefs and reasoning challenged, and may come around to some of the unorthodox views.

And you need a chapter on Talebian epistemology.

@Tom: Far from it. Bryan knocks the coneption the electorate is a good aggregator of self-interest. Proponents of free trade, for example, do a terrible job of making the popular case for it. Perhaps WalMart changes that.

JH writes:

Whether it's built into each chapter/topic or a chapter of its own, I think it would be nice to compare and contrast Masonomics with other schools of thought (Chicago being one obvious choice).

Also, along with simply defining Masonomics, I'd love to see a Masonomics family tree. Is there someone considered the father of Masonomics? Where did it start? (I remember as an undergrad econ student at GMU hearing a professor say Mason followed what was once known as the Virginia school of thought - maybe from UVA or VT. I could be botching that, though.) Along with the family tree, it would be great to see where former GMU people are now. Where else can one get a Masonomics education other than at GMU? (GMU would be really thrilled if you point out the competition.)

To me, Masonomics is also about having fun with economics. Before Freakonomics, I realized this because I was a student at GMU. Instead of just hearing about stock markets and the exchange rate of the dollar, I learned from professors who used BBQ and beer to explain supply and demand. It made it interesting. I had no idea what degree I wanted until Econ 301 at GMU. It was fun and was taught in a way that made sense to me, so I immediately made it my major. I didn't continue to grad school or get a job directly related to economics, but it made college less of a chore and helped clarify how I view the world today.

As others have said, I'd love to see a book like this.

JS writes:

As a Mason grad student, I highly agree with the dual emphasis on Austrian and Public Choice. Experimental is also influential, but less so since Vernon left. Even outside of these areas there is a strong commitment to free markets and methodological individualism.

I also concur with Jonathan Bydlak's comment. There is a general impression among the grad students that the "quirkiness" of the Mason econ program enables us to get a lot of great professors that are extremely talented but undervalued by mainstream programs because of the content or methodology of their research. It's a great deal for students who care less about the name of the school and more about education.

Under #2 you might also mention research on the positive case for anarchy made by Dr. Leeson and other former Mason students.

Barkley Rosser writes:

The origins of the Austrian side are murkier, and I leave it to others to eluciate, but the origin of the public choice side is clearcut: James Buchanan got his Ph.D. at the Unviersity of Chicago, and in the days when it was the "Virginia School" and based at U.Va., there was a lot of joking that Charlottesville was a "suburb of Chicago."

George writes:

Should you write it? Of course! (Naturally, asking your readers whether you should write is plagued by selection bias; get outside opinions.)

Should you write it by yourself? No. At least some of the time spent "writing" a book doesn't require much knowledge about the subject matter and could be done by an English major. Interviews with other GMU faculty could be conducted by a grad student. The book tour could be fobbed off on whoever else gets a byline. Then you can spend your time doing more-valuable things. (I could almost swear there's a name for this idea....)

If you get a journalist for a co-author, you may be able to get an introductory excerpt of the book in a Sunday magazine -- the Washington Post would appreciate the local angle (headline: "Is Fairfax the next Chicago? Maybe, in the world of economics"). That might make up for having to get him or her up to speed on high-school math.

Play to your strengths: consistently good analogies and explanations, the occasional excellent turn of phrase, and your business experience -- both in an apparently competent government-backed enterprise and in a tiny internet startup.

Your book should also include an explanation of "public good" for laymen -- most of us think we know what economists mean by it, and most of us are wrong. But that's because I think every economics book for laymen should include one. (Ditto "market failure" not being synonymous with "market failing to produce an outcome I like".)

Suggested title:
"Markets Fail: Use Markets"

"The Unorthodoxies of Masonomics"
or "What Is Masonomics?"

SheetWise writes:

It wouldn't be complete without a chapter on how Keynes has influenced the group, and how his work influences the school today.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

I would buy a "Freakonomics style" book covering these topics in a heartbeat.

Mike writes:

I'd really be interested in how the school has changed over the years. At one time, there seemed to be a strong UCLA influence there, as well as the Austrian and Virginia influences.

One other thought, I believe it was Pete Boettke on his blog who posted a list of how GMU ranks in a number of subdisciplnes. It would be interesting to see why it ranks more strongly in some fields than others. Is it simply the intellectual interests of the particular individuals there? Or does Masonomics lend itself more to some fields than others?

Barkley Rosser writes:

At about the same time the U.Va. was being labeled a "suburb of Chicago," so was UCLA.

Maximum Liberty writes:

While I'd certainly buy the book, I see Masonomics as part of a grouping that, intellectually, expands economics beyond its traditional inquiries. I don't know if there's a name for that reach. It includes a lot of the experimental economics (especially the forays that economists are making into brain science and how behaviors have evolutionary value). It includes the new institutional economists (Coase etc.) and the new economic history school. It includes the law and economics school (Posner, etc.). It includes the application of economic analysis to things like family formation (Becker, etc.). And, especially at George Mason, it includes the public choice school.

So, to me, Masonomics is one star in a constellation. So, I'd suggest that your book emphasize why Masonomics is part of that constellation. By itself, its just a star.


MikeL writes:

Hmm. It's a weird idea. These guys aren't even dead yet and you're going to write a book about them? Very tacky. What will they say over in Humanities?

johnleemk writes:

The marginal value of this comment is likely minimal, but I will definitely read this book if (hopefully when) it comes out. My only worry is that I think Masonomics is so fascinating and nuanced that no book could ever live up to my expectations in describing it.

Frank writes:

Evidently I am in the minority, but I would like to vote No. The contents would be excessively determined by hobbyhorses of the people who work in that department, and which at least one of your readers finds too trivial (4, 5 and 7) or too implausible (2) to be worth the trouble.
An article or long post on 1 could be very informative--setting out the distinctive claims of Austrian economics and the main factors bearing on the credibility of each of them. Write on 8 if you have something new to say about it or if you can usefully present the most convincing elements of the public choice critique. 6 is important, but how much do you have to add to what's already out there? There is no shortage of presentations of the cases for free trade and open borders (starting with something as accessible as the WSJ).

AR writes:

My undergraduate university choice was based purely on the "free marketness" of each economics department. I will be a fourth year undergraduate this fall and I've been outrageously happy with Mason.

guthrie writes:

I agree with JH on comparing and contrasting different school's approaches. I believe in past blogs you've pointed out the differences between Chicago and MIT, right? And wasn't there a discussion early on in the bailout about how all these Harvard grads want to handle everyone's money?

Perhaps not its own chapter but as an introduction? I think the perspective might be helpful.

And how about an addendum on suits v. geeks?

Let them eat Thomas Paine writes:

What about McCabe's work in neuroeconomics. I don't know much about it but wouldn't mind a nice synopsis.

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