Penn State

Charles W. Abdalla - professor of agricultural and environmental economics, Penn State University Park

Book Title: The Rhetoric of Economics

Author: Deirdre N. McCloskey

Book Description:

In The Rhetoric of Economics, McCloskey argues that the words—figures of speech, metaphors, and analogies—that economists use are central to our discipline’s work and impact. In terms of my work in environmental economics and policy, I immediately thought of the phrase “spaceship earth” coined by Kenneth E. Boulding (“The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth” in Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy, H. Jarrett, ed., Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins Press for Resources for the Future, 1966). This phrase articulated the complexities of managing our planet as a closed system in a way that was widely accessible and understood.

According to McCloskey, rhetorical devices can “think for us.” Consequently, their use can do damage as well as good. The example that comes to mind is the policy advice that outcomes obtained through “free” markets are superior. The root of this myth must be laid at the feet of Adam Smith for creating perhaps the most potent economic metaphor: the “invisible hand” (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776). McCloskey reminds us that the use of rhetoric by economists and other scientists entails great responsibility.

McCloskey is hopeful about the prospects for future contributions from economists through examining the language we use and reflecting on our discipline’s evolving role in society. The Rhetoric of Economics also contains some wonderful humor. Perhaps McCloskey is also telling us that humility and a willingness to laugh—even at ourselves at times—are necessary ingredients for healthy growth as a discipline.

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