Outta control political incorrectness

Tyler Cowen points to an interview with economists Ronald Coase and Ning Wang:

We are now working with the University of Chicago Press to launch a new journal, Man and the Economy. We chose our title carefully to signal the mission of the new journal, which is to restore economics to a study of man as he is and of the economy as it actually exists.

“We chose our title carefully,” indeed.

I’m reminded of a bizarrely-retro remark from a couple years ago by Colin (“at age 22”) Camerer. In response to the question, “Any free riding in your household?”, Camerer said:

No. Here’s why: I am one of the world’s leading experts on psychology, the brain and strategic game theory. But my wife is a woman. So it’s a tie.

One thing about being an economist, it gives you the ability to describe yourself as “one of the world’s leading experts on psychology.”

What’s with these guys? My guess is that their social circle has a bit of a country-club locker-room feel, and they find it amusing to be gratuitously politically incorrect.

Stage 1 of political incorrectness is to say rude things because you can’t be bothered to sugarcoat the truth. Stage 2 is to say rude things just for the thrill of being rude. These guys seem to be deep into stage 2.

Coase and Wang’s new journal might be great, but I bet it won’t be called “Man and the Economy.” At least, not if they want people other than Colin Camerer to contribute papers to it!

Just to be clear, I don’t think there’s anything particularly horrible about Coase and Wang’s joke; it just seems pretty silly to me, the kind of thing that could be amusingly dry in conversation but doesn’t work so well in print. Similarly for Camerer’s remark: it could be the perfect sardonic remark in the right context. Intonation is notoriously difficult to capture in typed speech.

34 thoughts on “Outta control political incorrectness

  1. What happens if someone mistakes “Man” for “Mankind” and includes women in their data sets? Will they refuse to publish the paper?

    It could happen. I’m ashamed to say I’m not sufficiently politically correct, because I didn’t realize “Man” referred to those testosterone laden barbarians I see oppressing us helpless women folk. As a woman, I’m getting the vapors just thinking about all the stereotypes involved here. What men need to realize is that words can hurt and if everyone keeps hurting me with words, then I’m going to stop being an Economist.

  2. What joke are you referring to? Isn’t there a long tradition of using ‘man’ to refer to ‘humans’ in the social sciences? I’m not saying it’s good, but I don’t quite understand the focused outrage.

    • Jsalvatier:

      I don’t see any outrage here. Some of Tyler’s commenters seem pretty annoyed, one way or another, but you’ll have to ask them what’s going on. I could see how a woman who’s personally experienced bias could be outraged. But I haven’t experienced this myself, so I’m just amused.

      Also, I can’t be sure, but I was assuming that by using the word “man” and then saying “we chose our title carefully,” that Coase and Wang were making a joke in the sense of being purposefully provocative, they’re making the point that it’s a free country and they can be as “politically incorrect” as they want.

      Regarding the long tradition: sure, but if it’s a new journal, you might as well use current terminology, no? Nowadays we usually use the term “people” to refer to people and the term “man” to refer to a male person. They can call their journal whatever they want, it just seems like a odd title.

    • Hi John! Now that the use of the word man has been recognized as exclusionary (basically because women somehow were allowed into academia), has now been mostly abandoned by academia at large. Except for these guys, who decided to put it in the name of a journal.

      I dunno about outrage, I think it’s just rude, which is what Andrew said as well.

  3. The first step in the PC revolution should be to work on the dictionary writers—they still seem to think “man” can refer to the whole human race.

    Think of the children (sorry, “growing persons”)! I can’t even get my 7 and 8 year-old nephews to replace the perjorative term “girl” with “growing woman” when referring to their cooties-laden classmates. Doonesbury was way out in front of the pack with this 1973 strip.

    Thinking of the children brings to mind science fiction, which depicts a future “peopled” with aliens and robots. They might take offense to being compared to biological hominids from Earth. So how about cutting out the biocentric and Ptolemaic biases and settling on “sentientkind”.

    And scratch sense 7, e.g., “he’s a Columbia man”. I suggest the gender-, sex-, species-, and bio-neutral form “that sentient being’s a Columbian”. I always envied Cambridge their adjectival form, “Cantabrigian” (though following its Latin etymology, we should be “Nyorkians”, not “Columbians”, unless of course, you’re Puerto Rican, in which case you already have “Nuyorican”).

    • Bob,

      I used to use “girl” to refer only to female persons under the age of 18 or so, but as I grow older, I use the term for young women more generally. Also, although I know that technically I am a man, I continue to think of myself as a “guy.”

    • Buried in Bob’s snarky stupidity there is a genuine point worth making, which is that it has been about forty years since the need for, or at least usefulness of, a casual sex-neutral term for a person or a collection of people has been obvious to everyone (except Bob), but we still don’t have one. We have “guys” and “gals” (does anybody say “gals?”) but what do we say for a mixed group?

      And for individuals we are still stuck with awkward constructions like “…he or she…”, “…his/her…”, etc. Sure, we can keep claiming that “his” refers to “his or her” and “man” refers to “women and men”, but fair-minded people realize that that is not really satisfactory, and there are times when it doesn’t work and awkward sentence constructions are necessary.

      What would it take for a new coinage to become established? Maybe if a popular movie or TV show started using one?

      While they’re at it, maybe they can work on a collective plural. All we have to do is make “y’all” socially acceptable outside the South, which doesn’t seem like it should be that hard, but it hasn’t happened, and even in the South it’s not considered technically correct speech: you wouldn’t hear a news anchor say it, or a news reporter write it (except when reporting dialogue). Maybe if we dropped the contraction and just started writing “yall”?

      Yall let me know what you think.

      • Forget “he or she” and just use “they”.
        No different than the current use of “you” for both singular and plural, and after a bit of practice it comes quite naturally. Besides, in many contexts involving “he or she” the number is uncertain as well.

        Think, for example, of what pronoun you would use for a taxpayer, which might be a joint entity (or one of those new corporate-type persons).

        • zbicyclist, how about this: “If someone objects to what Coase and Wang say, he should blog about it.” Changing “he” to “they” doesn’t work, indeed it would be interpreted exactly contrary to the intent. This kind of thing comes up all the time. Of course sometimes it is unavoidable: “if Gelman and Price object to what Coase and Wang say, [ … ] should blog about it”, well, what do you put in the brackets? Still, the fact that there will always be other awkward sentence constructions doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a good way to deal with the most common case.

        • > how about this: “If someone objects to what Coase and Wang say, he should blog about it.” Changing “he” to “they” doesn’t work, indeed it would be interpreted exactly contrary to the intent.

          And that’s why we should keep “he”. Honestly, I don’t see the problem, English dictionaries don’t see the problem, English style guides don’t see the problem, and anyone who has ever attended a basic English class while in elementary school is quite familiar with the generic meaning of “he” and hence shouldn’t see the problem, either.

          Yes, it really is that simple — I think there’s plenty of *actually* important topics in social sciences worth devoting our time to as opposed to wasting it on artificial, manufactured problems.

        • Matt:

          I try to use “he or she” but I don’t have a big problem with the generic “he” (or, for that matter, the generic “she”). But “Man and the Economy” just seems silly to me. As Cowen’s commenters wrote, it sounds very 1970’s, like some filmstrip we might have been shown in elementary school on the life of the caveman. As I said, these guys can call their journal whatever they want, but if they want to make a political point about being boldly traditional (using “man” instead of “people”), they are going to have to accept that a lot of people are going to be struck, not by the brave boldness of their title, but by its retro silliness.

        • Andrew:

          Well, think “man” as in “mankind” (incidentally, same etymological root) — I don’t suppose you see any problem with the latter, do you? CMOS, while noting the generic “he” aspect, makes no note on any controversy associated with using “man” instead of “people” — given this, I wouldn’t call it either “boldly traditional” or “retro silliness” but simply “standard English.” What seems silly to me is getting worked up about it to the point of making it an issue of a dedicated blog post ;-)

        • Matt:

          I’m not worked up about it, I just think it’s bizarrely retro, sort of like Camerer’s joke, which seems to have come in through the window in a 40-year time warp.

        • Matt, if “Mankind” is the same as “Man” then they could call their journal Mankind and the Economy. I wouldn’t object to that. But People and the Economy would still be better.

          Using “he” as the standard term for “he or she” is not the worst thing in the world; it’s not even among the worst million things in the world. It is just a very minor way in which women don’t quite get a fair shake. If you want to say “it’s acceptable the way it is,” well, I can see where you’re coming from. But if you’re arguing “we’re better off without a sex-neutral term,” I don’t get that at all. What would be the harm? And wouldn’t it be a little bit better? I think it would.

        • “If someone objects to what Coase and Wang say, they should blog about it.”

          This does not sound odd to me at all. Maybe it did years ago, but it doesn’t any more.

          This is particularly true in this context, in which “someone” could be “Joe Blow” or “Levitt and Dubner” or “Thelma and Louise” or “Dick and Jane” or “the British Petroleum Company” or “the U.S. State Department”. The point you are making in the snippet isn’t really related to singularity of “someone”.

        • zbicyclist, “If someone objects to what Coase and Wang say, they should blog about it” would mean that “Coase and Wang should blog about it,” or at least would be ambiguous. I think 80% of readers would say it means “Coase and Wang”, and most wouldn’t even say it’s ambiguous.

      • We Southerners have long had a word for this: “folks.” Try it! Unfortunately such Southernisms are considered “folksy” (ha!) and are rarely used by non-Southerners outside of political stump speeches.

  4. Camerer is not a typical economist, having studied Decision Science for his PhD (so technically, not trained as an economist) and teaching at Caltech, an unusual place for economics (very few faculty, more inter-disciplinary work).

    But I agree that economists in general tend to be more aggressively un-PC than researchers from other disciplines (and, many would say, confidently arrogant). I think it is a form of counter-signalling, the same way most economists seem to take pride in dressing down. (By which I mean Econ Dept economists, not B-school economists or finance profs, who are expected to dress neatly.)

  5. “Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis” – Kenneth Neal Waltz

    So economists ain’t alone, but granted this is not a new book.

    It seems to me a better title for their journal would be “Microeconomics”

    • It may not be a new book (1959) but it was published only one year before the Coase theorem and 22 years after “The Nature of the Firm.”

  6. I really had to think for a minute before I understood what author didn’t like about this new journal. I don’t think that people who named this journal even intended to be sexist. You can draw analogy with gender in grammars. In German, for example, there is no logic in correspondance between words and genders, you just have to learn in. And nobody is offended, that word “humanity”(der Mensch) has masculine gender, or that “world”(die Welt) has feminine gender.

    Don’t you get bored to be so agressively politically correct? You know, you are unfairly humiliating some people doing so.

  7. I think you may be the first person in history to use “politically incorrect” as a term of abuse rather than of praise.
    You may want to reflect on that a bit.

    • Jumbo:

      Different social circles. In Coase and Wang’s circles (and maybe yours), it’s perhaps considered admirable to use old-fashioned terms and to not give in to the pressure to use terms such as “people” to describe human beings. In my social circle, it’s considered silly and a bit embarrassingly retro. But that’s ok, it’s good to have some diverse subcultures. Let’s hope that the subculture of proudly politically-incorrect economists never goes away completely!

  8. I know Colin and I’m dismayed at your remarks. You are usually quite thoughtful and so I’m ashamed at your thorough mischaracterization here (and previous mean-spirited “retraction”). He’s always trying to make people laugh (and usually succeeds), and I’m certain this was a throwaway joke in line with every dumb guy/smart woman commercial or sitcom out there. If you ask anyone who knows him, you will find out how nice – and modern – he truly is. It’s unfortunate that you’ve formed such a strong view of someone based on off-the-cuff cracks in a random interview.

    By the way, for a long time he’s been one of the primary drivers in behavioral economics and now neuroeconomics, and, as one commentor noted, received his PhD in behavioral decision theory. He is an expert in the psychology of decision making.

    • Anon:

      Intonation is notoriously difficult to convey in typed speech, so I can see that Camerer may well have been speaking completely ironically, even if that did not come through in the published interview.

      • If you recognize that, then I’m disheartened that you would choose to disrespectfully attack a person over what could so easily be a misperception.

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