Those who read the stuff may be aware of the classic Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. It is one of the few science fiction series that deals with social scientists — the “psychohistorians”, who use their understanding of the mathematics of society to save civilization as the Galactic Empire collapses. I loved Foundation, and in my early teens my secret fantasy was to become a psychohistorian. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing (yet). I was and am fascinated by history, but the craft of history is far better at the what and the when than the why, and I eventually wanted more. As for social sciences other than economics, I am interested in their subjects but cannot get excited about their methods — the power of economic models to show how plausible assumptions yield surprising conclusions, to distill clear insights from seemingly murky issues, has no counterpart yet in political science or sociology. Someday there will exist a unified social science of the kind that Asimov imagined, but for the time being economics is as close to psychohistory as you can get.
In his recent book, The Conscience of a Liberal; however, Krugman seems to have moved slightly away from this pessimistic view of the social sciences. In his book Krugman attempts to understand how America could have gone from relatively low levels of inequality in the 1950s to the outrageous levels of inequality we see today – levels not seen since the twenties. After going through various typical economic explanations, such as “skill-based technological change,” globalization, etc, he comes to the conclusion that it is “largely due to changes in institutions, such as the strength of labor unions, and norms, such as the once powerful but now weak belief that having the boss make vastly more than the workers is bad for morale” (p. 136). He then goes on to argue that these institutional and normative changes were closely tied to America’s changing political structure. In particular he focuses on the Republican party’s “Southern strategy” of appealing to disaffected Southern white men, which was first successfully adopted by Nixon and used with great effect by Regean and both Bush I and Bush II. He uses this to explain how it was that “advocates of a smaller welfare state and regressive tax policies [were] able to win elections, even as growing income inequality should have made the welfare state more popular” (p. 172).
I won’t go into the details of Krugman’s argument, or its merits, instead here I want to focus on the fact that even though Krugman arrived at the questions he asks via his economic models, his answers stray far outside the territory of traditional economic analysis. He hasn’t exactly taken up anthropology here — his arguments read like a combination of Talcott Parsons and Douglas Massey, both sociologists — but it’s a start.
More controversially, at least among my friends and colleagues, I’d also like to suggest that we anthropologists take more seriously “the power of economic models to show how plausible assumptions yield surprising conclusions.” I was shocked by the way in which many anthropologist friends reacted to the bailout bill recently before congress. There seemed to be widespread misunderstanding about the causes and magnitude of the crisis, as well as the importance of acting quickly (historical research on previous economic crises shows that timely intervention is one of the most important factors in averting disaster). Considering how much anthropologists write about globalization and other issues, it might behoove us to read some economists besides Michael Moore and Naomi Klein. Krugman might be a good place to start…