Life Among the Econ

Via Mark Thoma, I came across the superb anthropological essay Life Among the Econ, by Axel Leijonhufvud. Mark has the full text in easy-reading html, so if you have 5 spare minutes, go to his blog and read it all. If you’re too busy for that, here are a few of my favorite snippets.

The Econ tribe occupies a vast territory in the far North. Their land appears bleak and dismal to the outsider, and travelling through it makes for rough sledding; but the Econ, through a long period of adaptation, have learned to wrest a living of sorts from it. They are not without some genuine and sometimes even fierce attachment to their ancestral grounds, and their young are brought up to feel contempt for the softer living in the warmer lands of their neighbours. such as the Polscis and the Sociogs. …

The status of the adult male is determined by his skill at making the “modl” of his “field.” The facts (a) that the Econ are highly status-motivated, (b) that status is only to be achieved by making ”modls,” and (c) that most of these “modls” seem to be of little or no practical use, probably accounts for the backwardness and abject cultural poverty of the tribe. Both the tight linkage between status in the tribe and modl-making and the trend toward making modls more for ceremonial than for practical purposes appear, moreover, to be fairly recent developments, something which has led many observers to express pessimism for the viability of the Econ culture. …

Thus, while the Micro assert their superiority over the Macro, so do the Macro theirs over the Micro, and third parties are found to have no very determined, or at least no unanimous, opinion on the matter. Thus the perceived prestige of one caste relative to another is a non-reflexive relation. In other instances, however, the ranking is quite clear. The priestly caste (the Math-Econ) for example, is a higher “field” than either Micro or Macro, while the Devlops just as definitely rank lower. …

The Math-Econ make exquisite modls finely carved from bones of walras. Specimens made by their best masters are judged unequalled in both workmanship and raw material by a unanimous Econographic opinion. If some of these are “useful”-and even Econ testimony is divided on this point-it is clear that this is purely coincidental in the motivation for their manufacture. …

As an illustration, Mrs. Robinson’s description of what she terms the “Doctrine of K,” which is found prevalent among the members of the powerful Charles River villages. inevitably brings to mind the debates of the ancient Ionian philosophers over whether water, air, or fire was the “basic stuff” of the universe. …

In some Econ villages, one can still find the occasional elder who takes care of the modls made by some long-gone hero of the tribe and is eager to tell the legends associated with each. But few of the adults or grads, noting what they regard as the crude workmanship of these dusty old relics, care to listen to such rambling fairytales. Among the younger generations, it is now rare to find an individual with any conception of the history of the Econ. Having lost their past, the Econ are without confidence in the present and without purpose and direction for the future.

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12 Responses to Life Among the Econ

  1. Verdurous says:

    Which begs the question:

    Andrew, do you see yourself as part of the tribe, and if so which caste?

  2. Andrew Leigh says:

    Definitely part of the tribe. I’m a Micro, but my Modls are far from exquisite.

  3. Pat says:

    Talking about anthropological studies of economists, this article in the Nation was very interesting

    Hip Heterodoxy (
    Christopher Hayes | A group of economists is challenging the most basic assumptions of neoclassical economic theory, and their influence is growing.

    What is more interesting is the response by various economists (mostly heterdox) who reject the claim that Neo-Clasical economics is opening up. Very good comments from Paul Krugman, James Galbraith, Thomas Palley and David Ruccio (

  4. Verdurous says:

    Funny Pat, I was about to link to that myself. I’ll re-print it and see if it makes a clickable link:

  5. If you enjoyed this piece by Axel Leijonhufvud, then you should also read my post of 16 May on his paper ´The uses of the past´:

  6. christine says:

    A lovely paper, and one that had me cracking up when I first read it, but I think it could do with some updating. It appears to me that the influence of the Math-Econ has declined, as has the influence of the priestly caste in many secular societies. This has been associated with a rejection of notion that status should be accorded only to those with expertise in modl making. Leijonhufvud suggests that this may have been necessary for teh survival of the Econ, an interesting notion. Would be interesting to determine whether this was an evolutionary change in response to changed external conditions in the land of the Econ.

    The emphasis on describing the relative status of the young vs adult male is also a little disturbing. Clearly, reproduction is asexual among the Econ, but still a slight nod in the direction of the female (other than the formidable Mrs Robinson) might be nice.

    Also, I note that the complaint about the lack of knowledge of the History of the Econ amongst its younger members remains a concern now, almost 35 years after this article was published. It was likely a complaint 35 years before then, and 35 years before then, too. At the time of writing the article, the author was already considered an ‘elder’ among the Econ. I surmise that on this point, he was perhaps allowing his own personal involvement to cloud his otherwise excellent analysis.

  7. Andrew Leigh says:

    Was this really written in 1972? Wow.

  8. christine says:

    Published in 1973, I believe.

  9. Andrew Leigh says:

    Embarassingly, now realise that I refereed a paper based on it last year. Brain like sieve…

  10. Sinclair Davidson says:

    This paper was published in the Western Economic Journal (now Economic Inquiry). There is a replication for Finance in the Financial Anlysts Journal in the mid-late 1980s. Unfortunately, it is not in the electronic version.

  11. editha says:

    Andrew, this is fun and funny. But the heart of Econ must currently reside between Galbraith and Friedman. What are your takes here especially that we love to be known as global citizens now?

  12. Damien Eldridge says:

    Butler and Doessel mention the Leijonfvud article in the introduction to a book of Australian readings on health economics which they edited. If I recall correctly, they position health economics among the micro, but note that many health econ choose to reside with other (non-econ) tribes. The publication details for this book are:

    Butler, JRG and DP Doessel (Editors) (1989), Health economics: Australian readings, Australian Professional Publications (?), Sydney (?).

    There was also a thread on Leijonfvud’s article on Catallaxy a while back: .

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