GOAT. The role of personality in economics.
Surely the economist should at be required to explain something in the life of an individual
“If there is one method that economists are reluctant to embrace,” Tyler Cowen wrote in 2009, “it is that of biography.” Economics ought to be sympathetic to biography, he said, because of the long-standing idea that “economic outcomes can and should be explained by relating them back to the plans and preferences of individual human beings.” And yet, economists work with data and see individuals as part of a group. “I think of the biographer as standing up and demanding that economists take their own method seriously,” Cowen wrote. “Surely the economist should at some point be required to explain something in the life of an individual.”
Cowen is now putting his ideas into practice in his new book GOAT: Who is the Greatest Economist of all Time and Why Does it Matter? GOAT has a Plutarchan structure, with each chapter assessing one economist individually. Importantly, Cowen closely relates the life and personality of the economist to their work and ideas. He sees that the personal and the impersonal are more closely related than we often admit. Even many historians believe biography to be “not real history.” But when we leave human personality out of our account of events and ideas, we leave out the one thing we all know matters most when we have been in the room.
And so, in amongst his discussion of various economic papers and ideas, Cowen will say something like this:
Overall it is hard to avoid the impression that, for all his brilliance, there was something small-minded about Samuelson’s vision of the world.
Cowen doesn’t start from there. But there’s something compelling about being able to link Samuelson’s narrowness as an economist with his narrowness as a person, however great he may have been. You cannot effectively separate personality from the analytical mind: the person making the calculations, assessing the evidence, choosing the problems to work on, and so forth, is still a person. Their personality might even be the most important part of them as an analytic thinker.
GOAT is an interactive book. You can read it in pdf or kindle, but you can also talk to an AI about it. Cowen calls it a generative book. I asked the AI to tell me about the role of bildungsroman in GOAT,—bildungsroman being a story that charts the personal maturity of its protagonist and their moral development. This is the answer I got.
…these are journeys in theories and ideas, in clarifying an economist’s potential for the title of “GOAT.” So while you won’t find a narrative of young Adam Smith rebelling against his strict parents or Hayek experiencing first love, you’ll definitely gain insight into how they grew and matured intellectually. It’s like a bildungsroman for their brains, so to speak. Or a theory-to-praxis-to-legacy trip for each economist—not as conventional as a Dickens tale, but equally thrilling—if you’re into economics that is. Tyler himself might refer to this as an “intellectual bildungsroman” of sorts.
I have heard Cowen say that a good blog is a bildungsroman of sorts, which is one way of thinking about his blog MarginalRevolution. He is now bringing that spirit to economic history. As he said in 2009, writing about John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, “We as researchers like to think we evaluate ideas in objective terms, but biographies and autobiographies reveal this view to be a convenient self-deception.”
This is an excellent book about the plans and preferences of human beings.