Telling Stories

One economist finds moving away from "hard" truth may lead to a greater truth

iana Strassmann learned a lot at graduate school, though not always what her professors intended. In one seminar, an eminent economist claimed that the marriage tax was efficient and fair. It encouraged married women to stay home and care for their small children instead of working, he said, and thus prevented "intergenerational disequities."

Strassmann, a lowly first-year grad student, dared to argue with the professor. Hadn't he ever considered the possibility that a man and woman might share the responsibility of childrearing?

He responded with an elaborate cloud of cool economic language: Careers, he said, are subject to economies of scale, which makes sharing such tasks inefficient.

As the semester wore on, Strassmann continued to argue the point, meeting his cool economic language with her own. She believed in objective economic reasoning, believed that in the marketplace of ideas, the better idea would always triumph.

But eventually, she heard that the eminent professor's wife, herself a Ph.D. in economics, was staying at home full-time with their young children. Obviously, the professor had a personal stake in the issue. And obviously, Strassmann's arguments weren't going to change his mind.

It was years before she completely absorbed that lesson.


On almost any college campus, the economics department is the most macho of the social sciences. Economists tend to believe not only that their discipline most tightly grasps The Objective Truth About Humankind, but that the Truth can be described mathematically, rendered with existence theorems and statistics. Economists like to call their work "hard" science, or at least the hardest of the social sciences. By that, they mean to compare their research to something like physics: objective, driven by the scientific method, free of the wifty ditherings of sociologists, linguists and other right-brained members of the faculty. Economists don't intend the obvious sexual meaning of the word "hard." And they don't mean "hard" in the sense of "difficult," as in a claim that economics demands more brains than the squishy disciplines. But often, when an economist says "hard science," those unintended meanings hang in the air. It's that kind of field.

At first, Strassmann fitted in comfortably. Her father was an economist, and she studied the subject at Princeton and Harvard. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on pricing in the airline industry -- empirical, quantitative stuff, as close to hard science as economics gets. She believed in her discipline.

But first in graduate school, and increasingly as a young faculty member at Rice, she felt misgivings. She was genuinely interested in the theoretical issues (and besides, the cost of airline tickets made great cocktail conversation). But her male colleagues were emotionally consumed by transportation, even by the peripheral details that had nothing to do with their work: Grad students sat around discussing Boeing's newest designs; professors displayed little toy airplanes and trains in their offices. It had never occurred to Strassmann to buy herself a toy plane.

She was also annoyed by her field's preference for theory over niggling real-world facts. Another economist might offer a model of airline pricing that assumed companies pay no attention to their competitors' prices -- the kind of model that, to Strassmann, seemed too distant from reality to be of any interest at all. Such "simplifying assumptions" help reduce messy human behavior to math, and economists consider it bad manners to complain much about those assumptions. You're supposed to concoct a better model, not snipe at someone else's.

But it wasn't just individual models that seemed to have shaky foundations; sometimes her field's most basic assumptions seemed dangerously wrong-headed. Classical economics assumes that people are perfectly altruistic in the home but perfectly selfish in the marketplace.

Even in real life, her colleagues often didn't understand other people's constraints. In '86 Strassmann was 30 and pregnant with her first child. She thought she was being a model female professor: She'd even managed to schedule her due date in May, so she'd be able to finish teaching classes for the semester and spend the summer with her baby. But many of her male colleagues construed the pregnancy as a sign that Strassmann was not a serious professional. They incorrectly assumed that the pregnancy was accidental; some argued, out of her earshot, that a responsible, ambitious tenure-track professor would have an abortion.

Life, she decided, was too short to spend on theories that seemed out of sync with her world. She stopped doing much economics research and started trying to figure out what it was that she really wanted to do. She began reading in other fields and talking shop with other brands of academics, people from the social sciences and humanities. She was confused when they'd use the word "theory" to describe an idea that couldn't possibly be expressed mathematically; she told herself that the scholars in those fields hadn't been educated rigorously.

One of those scholars was Sharon Traweek, then in the Rice anthropology department. In her book Beamtimes and Lifetimes, Traweek described her studies of particle physicists, people who practiced the hardest of hard science. She found that, like any other group of humans, physicists behave in ways that aren't purely objective. The physicists (both male and female) tended to be self-promoters and full of bravado, and many of them said that variety of machismo was necessary to succeed in their field. They also tended to describe their work in an erotic way, casting themselves as the male pursuer of passive Nature; a Nobel laureate, for instance, might write about his "love affair with the electron."

Part of Strassmann was intrigued. In Traweek's physicists, Strassmann recognized something of her economics colleagues: their swagger, their socialization, their near-erotic obsession with their field (those toy planes on the desk!). But another part of Strassmann was troubled: She thought the book seemed "soft" and literary, distressingly free of statistics and certitude. Traweek was a storyteller, and related anecdotes about her physicists; Strassmann thought science had no business mixing with stories. How could you trust something as flimsy as a story? How could you trust a human being to interpret the truth? Whatever happened to objectivity?


Slowly Strassmann began to appreciate Traweek's approach. Eventually, she converted completely, to the point that she published a paper called "The Stories of Economics and the Power of the Storyteller." Economists also tell stories, she'd realized, and mathematics is only a form of notation, only another language for telling a story. And equations can obscure the truth at least as powerfully as words -- or perhaps more powerfully, since we are accustomed to questioning stories. Math gives a story the veneer of science.

American economists tend to be white, middle-class men. Naturally, they tell men's stories. When they write about "human capital," they tend to describe educational improvement in adult workers like themselves -- ignoring the fact that by far the largest investment in human capital is made by parents in their children. When economists study family transfers of wealth, they consider bequests or monetary gifts, but not the parents' investment of time. A stay-at-home mom's contribution to her family is rendered invisible. For similar reasons, women's unpaid work doesn't count in calculations of the United States' Gross National Product. The women disappear.

In some cases, those theoretical assumptions have real-world effects: Women literally disappear. Amartya Sen, a male Indian economist, won the 1998 Nobel Prize for showing that families don't behave with perfect altruism, as classical economics would predict. Men command a larger share of the family's food or medical resources than women, and adults a larger share than children. Female children are the most likely to starve during a famine, and the most likely to die from poor medical care. To save the most lives, an aid organization should target the girls.

But even with Sen's impressive real-world data, it's hard to change the standard economics approach to a family. Hard sciences, the kind that economics likes to mimic, define themselves by the piece of the universe that they hope to understand. Astronomers study stars; geologists study rocks; physicists study matter and energy. But economists define their field not as something to be understood -- the production and exchange of goods and services -- but as a way of understanding those things and the world in general. To be considered an economist, you must think like other economists, using the standard techniques and basic assumptions -- techniques and assumptions rarely tested against real-world experiments and data.

Women, non-Americans and minorities can succeed in economics, but only if they approach the world like mainstream economists. (For all of Sen's radicalism, he also served as the president of the American Econometrics Society, a group so mathematically inclined as to be above reproach.) Ironically, in the marketplace of ideas, established economists formed something like an oligopoly, engaging in something like intellectual protectionism. The feminists were calling for an open market and free competition, and for greater appreciation of ideas that could be tested and applied in the real world. Ironically, they were trying to haul the discipline away from theory-for-theory's-sake, and closer to empirical, testable reality -- closer, in a way, to the ideal of hard science.

In '95 Strassmann launched Feminist Economics, an academic journal intended to air ideas not allowed by other journals in the field. Mainstream, high-prestige economists still regard Strassmann and her feminist ilk as the barbarians at the gate, but the insurgents are making inroads. Strassmann has been careful to make her journal difficult for the mainstream to ignore. The journal's brochure includes warm blurbs from three highly respectable male Nobel laureates: Sen, Robert Solow, and Kenneth Arrow. And articles published in the journal have helped insurgent economists gain tenure -- and thus, a voice -- at some universities.

In January, Strassmann attended the annual conference of the American Economic Association, a prestigious, old-line gathering. Sen had recently won his Nobel, and the association was sponsoring a reception and luncheon in his honor. As Strassmann made her way from the reception to the head table, the association's secretary stopped her: That table was reserved for Sen's invited guests, most of them other Nobel laureates. But Sen had invited Strassmann, probably to signal how important he thought her work is to his field. She'd earned a place at the table.

E-mail Lisa Gray at lisagray@alumni.rice.edu.

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