HIKONE, SHIGA PREF. – On June 8 last year, the presidents of all 86 national universities received a “notice” from the minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology instructing them to prepare plans for reorganizing their departments of education, the humanities and social sciences, both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. They are to do this by giving due consideration to the decrease in the number of 18-year-olds, a continued demand for human resources, the need to maintain the level of education and research and the roles the national universities have to play, and to endeavor positively to abolish those departments or to shift them to such fields that are facing high demand from society.
A mere mention of abolishing or shifting the humanities and social sciences departments at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels may lead many to think immediately of eliminating their literature department.
To me, though, such thinking is based on a misconception about the true value and usefulness of the humanities and social sciences, which is entertained by those who assert that while those who majored in law, economics and business administration offer useful skills, graduates from the department of literature are useless.
In March 2011, at the launch of the iPad2 tablet computer, Steve Jobs of Apple Inc. said that the begetter of his company’s ability to develop one new product after another is “technology married with the humanities.” What he meant by the humanities were history, philosophy, literature, psychology and the like, and not economics or business administration.
Great economists like Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, Amartya Sen and Thomas Piketty all have outstanding knowledge in the humanities. To borrow Jobs’ phrasing, “economics married with the humanities” is essential for creating revolutionary economic analysis. Apart from that, the humanities, along with mathematics, physics and other segments of the natural sciences, constitute the very foundation of various branches of science.
Some time ago, economics was regarded as an academic discipline indispensable to understanding social phenomena. In Japan until around 1975, pocketbook editions of the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were thought to be must books for university students whether they were majoring in the humanities and social sciences or in natural sciences.
Among those who were also widely read in those days were “Free to Choose” by Milton Friedman and “Affluent Society” and “The Age of Uncertainty” by John Kenneth Galbraith.
When Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” was translated into English in spring 2014, it sold half a million copies in no time at all and the number exceeded 1 million as of January 2015. Its Japanese version, which was published late in 2014, has reportedly sold 140,000 copies. Books by John Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have also been translated into Japanese and sold well.
These trends indicate that there is no end to the desire to learn more about the economy. This is presumably because those who are in corporate management, the executive branch of government or politics cannot afford to be indifferent to economic affairs.
But it would be too much of a challenge for business people not well-versed in mathematics to try to understand economics textbooks filled with mathematical expressions. Even so, possessing basic knowledge of macro- and micro-economics and econometrics is not a sufficient condition but only a necessary condition for making a sharp economic analysis.
Only by combining macro- and micro-economics and econometrics with the knowledge of history, philosophy, literature and other branches of the humanities and social sciences does it become possible to produce penetrating economic analysis.
Both Stiglitz and Krugman have been awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for their outstanding achievements in theoretical analysis using mathematics. All of the aforementioned economists have made excellent achievements in the field of economic theory and at the same time are highly skilled in expressing their thoughts and ideas.
Moreover, these economists make no secret of their political positions, be they conservative or liberal. In stark contrast with Japan, where not only economists but others as well tend to refrain from stating which political party they support, it is only taken for granted in America and Europe that economists make clear their political standpoint.
Thus, in the West, scholars — whether they are economists, political scientists or sociologists — are fully committed to their beliefs and principles, which, though invisible, underpin their “scientific” theories that float on the surface.
Piketty, who was made an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the young age of 22, became fed up with mainstream economics in the U.S., which he thought had become the slave of mathematics, and returned to France two years later to continue his research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (Centre national de la recherche scientifique).
In 1993, Piketty was awarded a doctorate jointly from the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris (Ecole des hautes edudes en sciences sociales) and the London School of Economics and Political Science. His dissertation for that degree dealt with the mathematical analysis of disparities in income and assets.
After traveling to the U.S., Piketty learned that there was a limit to mathematical analysis of economic disparities. He then spent 15 years analyzing tax-related statistics from Britain, Germany, France and the U.S. spanning a period of 100 years or so in order to estimate long-term time-series data on disparities in the distribution of income and assets — that is, how much of aggregate income is grabbed by those in the top 10 percent of income distribution.
He found that even though the imbalances shrank after the end of World War II, the income and asset disparities became greater in and after the latter half of the 1980s, especially in the U.S. and Britain. The outcome of his research is contained in his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”
Stiglitz and Krugman must have given high praise to Piketty’s work not only because they identified with the direction of his thought but also because they admired him as a man with extensive knowledge and a remarkable memory.
Economics, which has broken with the humanities and social sciences and become the slave of mathematics, can no longer accomplish its mission of analyzing the economy in the real world.
It appears that among the humanities and social sciences departments, the department of economics is the top candidate for the abolition or revision as called for by the education minister.
Many of those economics majors who have achieved great success as top business executives studied vivid economics that existed before that branch severed its connections with the humanities and social sciences. Thanks to that, they read much more than people of later generations and cultivated the power to think, judge and express, which is indispensable for corporate management.
The department of economics can regain its raison d’etre only if economics restores its ties with the humanities and social sciences and relativizes mathematics as a tool that is used when necessary.
Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor of Shiga University.
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