By Kimberly Poff
Social Science. The very way in which we refer to studies attempting to dissect the modes of human experience carries with it a values judgement: that empiricism is better, that social studies should be held to the same standards of numerical certainty as their natural science brethren.
No discipline has suffered from physics envy quite so intensely as economics. As such the prevailing modus operandi of the entire field has been utility maximization. This is a method of distilling the functioning of persons within the economy to “homo economus,” the wholly rational, wholly informed, wholly self-serving person.
If people can be assumed to be entirely logical in, knowledgeable about and self-centered in their decisions, economists can develop carefully calculated models of the economy using complex mathematics.
Several economists throughout history have challenged this: noting that customers can be swayed by advertising, are ill-informed or make decisions based on morals or altruism. Unfortunately their works have been shunted to the sidelines.
One such theorist is Piero Sraffa, an Italian who did a majority of his work at Cambridge. His largest work was the editing of eleven volumes of “The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo.”
His other works include a criticism of Marshallian partial equilibrium, a 99-page monograph which deals with value and distribution. If you think all of this sounds a little obscure, you’re not alone.
Dr. Scott Carter, an economics professor here at TU, is working to bring Sraffa’s work to light. Carter was on sabbatical last semester and was able to spend two months at Trinity College where he was able to collect ten thousand pages of archival material that contributed to Sraffa’s slim book.
In collaboration with Riccardo Bellofiore, an Italian scholar, Carter will be publishing a book of some of Sraffa’s archival work next year. Carter hopes his book will flesh out the discussion in economics today.
“By bringing Sraffa’s archival material to light we can hopefully ‘re-shunt’ economics away from its ideological position of defending so-called ‘free-markets’ and ‘free-enterprise’ as the ‘ideal type,’” Carter said.
One of the largest problems in economics today is it’s inability to describe the world we live and work in. Frequently, in order to maintain standards of precision and numerical rigor, economists must focus on problems too small to be of import. Otherwise their analyses are sufficiently vague to suffice any fortune teller’s needs.
“Much of what is seen as ‘economics’ these days is dismally ineffective in explaining much of the empirical reality of modern capitalistic systems,” said Carter.
Another facet of the importance of this research comes from growing economic inequality in the U.S. economy and in the world.
Economics has found itself in an ideological position which is hard to defend to growing numbers of the world’s poor. Sraffa’s work will help to “move towards a better understanding of the actual system in which we live and work, and the actual mechanism within which they operate,” said Carter, “especially when certain strata of the populace have a more violent experience with the ‘magic of the market’ than others.”
The economics department at TU is known for swimming against the current and encouraging students to explore theories which may not be as mathematically precise, but do a better job of describing the way the economy actually functions. It is one of the only programs in the country requiring a history of economics class which explores the context in which various theories were developed.
Fellow economics professor Bobbie Horn has helped Carter develop his perspective on economics. In conjunction with Michael Lawlora, Horn published a seminal work in the early nineties regarding the theory of money and Sraffa’s conversations with the enigmatic Friederich von Hayek.
“I have greatly benefited from many hours of discussions over the years,” said Carter of Horn’s influence.
Aside from a pocket of interest from students and professors at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, many of the scholars focussed on Sraffa hail from Europe. Dr. Carter is one of the foremost experts on the late economist and presented some of his work last week at a Conference in Kansas City.