Sunday, October 8, 2017

Prof. Deirdre McCloskey

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey (Ph.D., Harvard University) taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 2000 to 2015 in economics, history, English, and communication. She has written 17 books and around 400 scholarly pieces on topics ranging from technical economics and statistical theory to transgender advocacy and the ethics of the bourgeois virtues. She is known as a “conservative” economist, Chicago-School style (she taught at the University of Chicago from 1968 to 1980), but protests, “I’m a literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive-Episcopalian, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man. Not ‘conservative’! I’m a Christian libertarian.” The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and honorary degrees from universities in five different countries, Prof. McCloskey's latest book is Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (University of Chicago Press, 2016).


In your short article from 1992 titled “The Natural,” you wrote about the difficulty of teaching economics to undergraduates, due to the tendency to treat them as if they learned the subject easily, instead of making them push through all the difficulties of understanding the subject carefully. Has anything happened to change your views in the past 25 years?

No, because it's not about how hard they work, but about certain personality types or family backgrounds grasp the subject easier, naturally. It's like having a good arm for pitching a baseball, the term "a natural" coming from baseball talk. Some people see arguments from self-interest easier because they run their own lives on self-interest. And others, whether or not they have that (rather common) personality, grow up in small business or farms in which they learn the importance of price incentives and the results of chores and so forth in a way that a student does not who grows up in a household detached from the market (Mom and Dad "go to the office" to make their income, which is mysterious in a way that helping your father plow the back 40 is not)​.

You have written seventeen books and hundreds of scholarly articles in your long and productive career. Is there any one thing in your previous writing about economics that you would drastically change?

​Yes. When I was a young professor I was certain that (1) people were motivated by profit only and (2) only quantitative evidence was real evidence. Without throwing out what can be learned from watching the profit and measuring things, I have grown to see that (1) and (2) are mistaken.​


  1. "only quantitative evidence was real evidence" = mistake

    One cannot even begin to explain how this is a crucial issue economists should [at least] keep in mind...

    1. Interesting point. This keeps coming up with many of the economists I've interviewed.