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Has economic theory changed in the last 50 years? How can we incorporate notions of social justice and culture into economic thinking? What does economics teach us about governance? In this episode of the Governance Podcast, Professor Herbert Gintis joins Professor Shaun Hargreaves Heap for a conversation about his contributions to key debates in economics since the 1970s.

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The Guest

Herbert Gintis is an American economistbehavioral scientist, and educator known for his theoretical contributions to sociobiology, especially altruism,  cooperation, epistemic game theorygene-culture coevolutionefficiency wagesstrong reciprocity, and human capital theory. Throughout his career, he has worked extensively with economist Samuel Bowles. Their landmark book, Schooling in Capitalist America, has had multiple editions in five languages since it was first published in 1976. Their most recent book, A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and its Evolution was published by Princeton University Press in 2011.

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1:30: How did you get into academia?

4:40: You mentioned your political engagement with the SDS and the civil rights movement. Have you maintained that engagement throughout your life?

8:00: One way we can think about Marx and Mill is perhaps that Marx was the materialist, and Mill was the idealist. Has Marx’s materialism stuck with you?

10:53: My understanding of Schooling in Capitalist America is that the book has enjoyed a kind of revival because of the work of people like Heckman, who have discovered that education isn’t important in the traditional ‘human capital’ sense. Is your argument consistent with that?

13:50: How is it that your argument about schooling has become a version of received wisdom today?

15:21: Is the diffusion of ideas so slow in the social sciences because it’s a closed shop—it’s not very competitive?

16:27: What’s the difference between the social sciences and natural sciences in the way that ideas get diffused?

19:24: The maintenance of theory without evidence in economics: how did that tradition survive?

22:30: I’m going to take you to the QJE article on ‘Contested Exchange’ and Walrasian general equilibrium theory. A group of economists in the 70s was discussing these ideas a decade before they went mainstream…

33:30: How is it that you weren’t interested in the Keynesian point about uncertainty in your critique of general equilibrium theory?

36:42: There is the problem of calculation when you have complexity and then there’s the fact that we don’t know the future. Aren’t these separate issues?

39:05: I suppose there is an a-theoretical space that Keynes opened up—to license ‘animal spirits.’

40:20: In your view, our cultural values owe much to the evolutionary selection advantage they give to groups. What’s interesting about the ‘co-evolutionary’ part of this is that once we have co-evolution taking place, culture itself… can contribute to the evaluation of fitness.

44:40: If you think about our contemporary cultural values in the US and UK, you might say that two very important cultural values are a belief in liberal freedoms and a belief in democracy. Could you sketch how each of those cultural values gave this evolutionary selection advantage?

47:40: Hayek has a very similar evolutionary view of cultural values to yours… For Hayek, the great virtue of liberal freedoms is that they are an appropriate response to the problem of knowledge. Would you buy that?

55:15: If the ideas of democracy flourished for the reasons you mentioned, historically and evolutionarily, and if we actually buy into democracy for an entirely different set of reasons, which may have to do with egalitarian foundations, how does that tension get played out?

57:45: How did a generation of the best minds in economics spend so much of their time on Walrasian general equilibrium theory?