Posts Tagged ‘Reinhart-Rogoff’


Special mention

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Harvard has received quite a battering in recent months.

After the student cheating scandal (and the accompanying investigation scandal), we’ve witnessed the Reinhart-Rogoff error-ridden scandal followed by the Ferguson gay-bashing scandal.

Now, we have the scandal of Jason Richwine’s doctoral dissertation.

All of these scandals involve the production and dissemination of knowledge, and what fascinates me (and a friend with whom I’ve been discussing these issues) is the wide array of arguments that are offered in order to preserve the idea that what happens at Harvard is in fact (to use Louis Althusser’s term) a “knowledge-effect.”*

Consider Zack Beauchamp’s investigation of l’affaire Richwine.

First, of course, Richwine’s dissertation on the genetic intellectual inferiority of immigrants from Latin America must have been legitimate knowledge-work because it was done through the Kennedy School at Harvard and we know that’s a “very serious” place, that has produced “outstanding scholars,” with “kind,” knowledgeable professors (like George Borjas, Richard Zeckhauser, and Christopher “Sandy” Jencks) who, of course, are engaged in their own first-rate knowledge-work.

Second, Richwine successfully went through the “normal” steps for achieving a doctoral degree: courses, comps, prospectus defense, dissertation research, and a dissertation defense. And we all know that each of those steps guarantees that knowledge-work is being done and that, in the end, new knowledge has been created.

Third, Richwine used high-quality (for economists, that is) statistical methods, which are considered impeccable, and therefore the work is unassailable in terms of its economic model. It certainly looks like knowledge, because it is produced by a knowledge-producing machine we call statistics and the econometrician says the work was carefully done and that, in itself, suggests the integrity and validity of the work. And, of course, the statistical techniques and economic model are somehow considered independent of the “other stuff”—the race and IQ connections—such that they stand on their own as criteria of knowledge-production.

So, there we have it, all the pieces that make Richwine’s dissertation resemble of piece of knowledge, to display the appropriate knowledge-effect.

And yet. Richwine is now the Heritage Foundation’s former Senior Policy Analyst in Empirical Studies, because it was politically inconvenient to leave him in his post. But Richwine still has his Ph.D. from Harvard.

While the rest of us are left wondering what it is that constitutes the knowledge-effect that serves as the basis of much contemporary work in the social sciences—which, in the name of “good science,” metes out its rewards and punishments to thousands of scholars whose work is measured according to the scholarly standards set by the Harvards of the world; and which determines the fate of millions of Americans through the public policies suggested by the “best and brightest” whose work is taken as knowledge by think tanks and legislators in Washington.


*The knowledge-effect, for those not familiar with the term, was Althusser’s way (e.g., in Reading Capital) of making sense of what Marx called the “mode of appropriation of the world peculiar to knowledge.” Althusser begins with the important distinction between the real-concrete (the real object) and the thought-concrete (the object of knowledge), which is the basis of his critique of all forms of empiricism. He then argues that the criteria for producing knowledge—the knowledge-effect—are internal to the practices of each particular scientific discourse. In this manner, Althusser shifted the terms of discussion, clearly indebted to Foucault’s focus on “epistemes,” from the presumption of an original ground of knowledge (related in one way or another to some real object) to the contemporary mechanisms within specific knowledge practices whereby knowledges are produced and recognized as so many knowledge-effects.






Mainstream economists often complain the public doesn’t listen to them. The rest of should complain that, sometimes, as in the case of Reinhart-Rogoff, members of the public (including Harvard colleague Niall Ferguson, at the 1m20s mark) actually do. . .


Given the awful track record of the economics departments at Harvard and elsewhere, it’s a bit strange that the economics department at the University of Massachussetts Amherst is referred to as “offbeat” [ht: ke].

Not to mention the fact that the fundamental errors in the now-infamous Reinhart-Rogoff study were first identified by Thomas Herndon, a graduate student at UMass.

It used to be called a radical economics department. In more recent times, it’s often referred to as heterodox economics. Yet, even after the “radical package” was hired back in 1973, the department only ever included a minority of nonmainstream economists. (In the video above, Don Katzner, Sam Bowles, and the late Stephen Resnick discuss some of that history. Matthews’s article also includes links to two other sources: Katzner’s book and a 2007 Nation piece by Chris Hayes.)

But that’s how it is in economics, even now five years into the Second Great Depression, which of course was precipitated by following the policies advocated by mainstream economists: having even a smattering of non-believers is enough to identify the department as something out of the ordinary—whether radical, heterodox, or simply offbeat.


What’s it going to take to finally bury the idea that mainstream economics is a science?

We all know mainstream economics is not a science at the microeconomic level, taking into account something as studied and debated as the minimum wage. And it’s certainly not a science at the macroeconomic level, give the fact that mainstream economists failed to predict the timing, severity, or duration of the current crises, not to mention the “pay-to-play” activities of such luminaries as R. Glenn Hubbard and Larry Summers.

And now we have the sorry spectacle of the Reinhart-Rogoff mistakes (as noted by Mike Konczal [ht: ms] and Dean Baker, based on new research by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin, and then weakly defended by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff), which call into question the much-vaunted 90 percent (debt-to-GDP) threshold.

We might be able to simply dismiss mainstream economists’ claims to scientificity, and then move one, if we didn’t also have to consider the widespread misery—of poverty and unemployment, in the United States and around the world—their work has directly caused and otherwise served to justify.