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Labor Intensive and of Dubious Value
on December 6, 2012
I'm sure that Mary S. Morgan knows an enormous about about the history of the construction and use of economic models. However, she's the sort of author who never thought of an extra word that she didn't like and so proceeded to use. As a result, The World in the Model is the most over-written, tediously wordy, and needlessly long-winded book I've ever read.
Still, it's to the author's credit that a book that might have been conceptually and mathematically unreadable for non-specialists is, given an enormous amount of patience, more or less accessible for most readers. The author works against herself, however, by explaining comparatively simple ideas with two or three pages when one or two paragraphs would have been enough. For example, I was having trouble following her account of some of the concepts that eventually became intrinsic to the Edgeworth Box as it gradually, and with the participation of numerous economics luminaries, became a standard economic tool. In every instance, however, I was able to quickly and easily find reliable, succinct, and easy to understand explanations by going online. I agree that, given her objectives and the audience of professionals for whom I assume she was writing, she has no obligation to compensate for readers' lack of economic knowledge. In this instance, however, that definitely is not the point. Instead, once again, her over-blown prose style is so lacking in economy of language that she often makes things much harder to understand than need be the case.
To make matters worse, in reference to Quesnay's Tableaux Economique, which she characterizes as the first economic model and which she introduces early on, the author acknowledges that for contemporary readers, including economists, the way the model is used cannot be discerned. It's possible that I misunderstood her or missed her point, but this is hardly the way to encourage readers to continue with even a modicum of confidence that they will benefit from reading her unduly long book.
The same holds with regard to Morgan's presentation on page 124 of an extremely complex graphical model from Leontief's "The Pure Theory of the Guaranteed Wage Contract." In contrast to her usual prolixity, she doesn't bother with any sort of explanation for the graph, and it's inclusion seems gratuitous and distracting. Perhaps, as she intimates much farther along, Leontief's model is there just to show us how complex the originally simple and easy to grasp Edgeworth Box can get. An alternative possibility is that the author wants to show us what happens when complementary graphical models are presented in overlay in one diagram rather than singly and sequentially. Who knows?
Whatever the case, a book that is already heavy-laden with material that requires close and careful reading and single-minded attention to detail is, without good reason, made even more demanding. Additional confusion follows from Morgan's failure to make clear if unraveling the more complex models is essential to understanding her presentation. Whether or not to bother figuring out a particular model in a book about models is a decision readers should not have to make.
The author's discussion of the Newlyn-Phillips Machine, a macroeconomic model that uses the flow of water through a complex assortment of tubes, sumps, and valves may be the best written part of the book. A mechanical and hydraulic model that its inventors suggested could resolve difficult questions, such as whether John Maynard Keynes or his adversary, Lionel Roberts, had the right explanation of the determination of interest rates. According to the machine, there is merit in both arguments, but how are we to know? Throughout the book, Morgan makes repeated reference to "the world inside the model" and "the world outside the model." In this instance, however, she completely loses sight of the latter, leaving us to wonder if the conclusion inferred from the Newlyn-Phillips Machine has merit.
Even more troubling is the fact that the machine, in its different versions, is extremely difficult to use. Some might go so far as to characterize it as so close to being unworkable for anyone other than Newlyn and Phillips that it is simply unreliable, roughly analogous to the discrediting of an experiment because it cannot be replicated. What good is it? If I understand Morgan, the most recent research on the Newlyn-Phillips model was reported by David Vines (2000), who based his work on closely examining the machine as it sat idle -- no water flowing! -- and reading its instructional manual. Hardly inspires confidence. It seems incongruous, moreover, that discussion of this manipulable but mindless mechanism occurs immediately after a chapter that deals in part with how human beings as economic actors think and behave.
I have to admit that I don't know what to make of Morgan's repeated judgment that contemporary economists are victims of trained incapacity. Those are not her words, but her meaning is clear when she claims that Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936) would be just about unreadable to an economist trained in the 21st Century. Too many words in Keynes. Too much mixing of words with abstract modeling. And this from an author who argues forcefully that the use of economic models is most fruitful when accompanied by informative narratives!
No, I did not read Morgan's footnotes. They are so numerous and long that they might well constitute another book. I would like to be able to say that there are general statements about models and modeling that I found compelling in Morgan's account, or that I was able to tentatively discern generalizations that are not explicitly stated. But such is not the case. In any event, I don't think that repeating words like "cognition," "intuition," "imagination," and "visualization" qualifies.
I spent a lot of time trying to make the most of The World in the Model. At this point, it's all pretty much a blur. I'm not sure if I'm more disappointed in the book or in my inability to make lasting sense of it.