©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Crossing Economics

by Deirdre McCloskey
The International Journal of Transgenderism, (A peer-reviewed electronic journal), 4 (3), July-Sept 2000. Special Issue on "What is Transgender?"
Filed under articles and gender crossing

Deirdre McCloskey, although having transitioned and lived full time as a woman for four years, is still a Chicago-School, quantitative, historical economist who continues to "believe in markets". But the impact of living as a woman and inculcating values more highly prized by the "opposite" sex leads to a reconsideration of what is important and how it ought to be valued. Economics is about value, but those values do not come without political and social considerations. In considering, for example, the classic virtues prudence is the one almost exclusively considered by economists, but it is argued, faith, hope and love must also be brought into the formulation.

Sara Davis Buechner, you know, is a world class concert pianist who until not long ago was "David." Her first concert in her correct gender was in the fall of 1998, accompanied by a spread in the New York Times Sunday magazine. In a bow--or rather curtsey--to the crossgendered community she gave a splendid concert in Provincetown [Oct. 1999]. It was haunting. I could hear the female in the right hand and the male in the left.

Afterwards I joined the line of people congratulating her. When it came to me she said, "Oh, you're Deirdre: do you know that you are my mother's heroine?" I laughed, and she explained: "We musicians often have parents, especially mothers, who wish we had a more regular job. You know, doctor, lawyer, businessperson, professor. She was thrilled to see that someone doing the same thing as her new daughter was in such a straight-arrow job as an economist!"

Economics is not the most progressive discipline one can imagine. Better to change gender among, say, anthropologists, who regard it as socially constructed, or among literary people, who regard it as a postmodern statement. Yet on the whole the reaction to my gender change from economists and calculators has been calm. From the beleaguered women in the profession the reaction has been welcoming, though a welcome tinged with a regret that one of the few men who seemed to support having more women had become one instead. The male economists have on the whole--with some startling exceptions, such as my former colleague at the University of Chicago, Robert Lucas--taken the view that comes naturally to the grandchildren of Adam Smith: laissez faire : "If he . . . I mean she. . . wants to do that, and it doesn't hurt anyone, well, um, OK."

Well, how has it been to be a woman economist?

Can't say yet. I'm hardly qualified after a mere four years full-time to pontificate about being a woman, much less a woman academic. I'm about age 18 qua woman. To be quite serious, I can't ever have had the experience of having been a girl and young woman, facing the blank lack of understanding, and often enough hostility, of a male-dominated profession. Until age 53 I was a guy in a guy's field, a pretty tough and macho guy (alas). I have the advantage of coming into my womanhood in precisely the decade that other women come into their power, my 50s. Up until then I had all the advantages of income and smooth career that men have. Not for me the disruption of motherhood--though I do think that the disrupted careers we women have can make us better as economists, less monomaniacal, more commonsensical, more fully human.

People ask, "Are you treated as seriously?" Well, I think so. The victim will always be the last to know, but my gender change does not on the face of it seem to have spoiled my professional position. For example, I was appointed to the editorial board of the main journal in economics as Deirdre. Or again, I am moving from the University of Iowa after nineteen years--three good years of the nineteen as Deirdre, without a hint of trouble over my gender change--to the University of Illinois at Chicago. I'm getting a new urban life style, more money, and a lot more autonomy to do my work among the disciplines, the sort of intellectual cross dressing I've finally realized is what I most love about my intellectual life. I would not have got the job, even from so swinging a guy as Stanley Fish, if economists and others had somehow lost respect for me. If you want to change gender, get a job at a university, and publish a lot.

I've just started to get the treatment that women get. In a way I expect discrimination, either for being a woman or for not being one, if you see what I mean: Either the discrimination that comes to all women in our culture, or the discrimination against weird people that comes to the crossgendered. I remember well the first time, during a beginning transition year in Holland teaching at Erasmus University of Rotterdam, when I was the sole woman in a group of a half-dozen economists and I made a point and no one took notice and a few minutes later George made the same point and the men said, "That's a great point, George!" I gave myself a mental high-five: "Yes! They're treating me like a woman!" Believe me, the joy has drained out of being dismissed as not speaking: Now like other women I just find the experience extremely annoying.

So I have not had enough experience to generalize about treatment as a woman economist. "Then what about your thinking," people ask, "Do you view economics and the economy differently now?"

The answer is yes, though the journalists who have looked into this (Lou Uchitelle in a sweet and accurate piece in the New York Times of June 15, 1999, for example) have wanted to exaggerate it. They want a brain switch. I'm still a Chicago-School, quantitative, historical economist. I still "believe in markets," as the shorthand for ideology goes in the field. I still think a lot of social questions are matters of How Much. I still think that economics has become silly in its lack of serious engagement with what's happening.

It's hard to tell whether what has changed in my thinking is a result of the gender change or just a result of getting older. I had written books tending to show how silly economics had become, though I must say that a woman's perspective, such as I can achieve, has made me less patient with the silliness. I now call the two dominant techniques in economics (existence theorems and statistical significance) "a boy's game in the sandbox" (see The Vices of Economists, University of Michigan Press, 1997). In my vexation with my inability to get these points across I tried for a while the persona of "Aunt Deirdre," a trifle campy, I admit, but it's hard to convey to you how tired I am of saying the obvious and not being believed. As I said in a recent short essay, I should have chosen the name "Cassandra," because she, too, was cursed to be correct but not to be believed.

And I had started before my gender change to make what I now regard as my main break with the main (i.e., male,) stream in economics. It is to admit, indeed welcome, the role of love in the economy. I have another former colleague at the University of Chicago, Gary Becker, who won the Nobel Prize for saying that love is not important. According to Gary what matters is Prudence alone. In Gary's theoretical family (though not, I am glad to report, his actual family,) the point is all exchange and specialization. People don't love each other, says Gary; they make deals. A woman specializes (at any rate before birth control) in child raising and cooking and her husband specializes in being the big, brave man going into the marketplace. No woman would deny that any marriage has got some of that. Carrie Miles has recently argued that specialization arising from carrying a fetus to birth, especially in the days of large families, kept women at home. Of course. But what is missing is love, and other human motivations besides merely getting the most bread and children that one can possibly get--pure Prudence.

In the course of my transition I became a Christian, at age 55. I've been an academic economist since I was 20. Is it possible to be a Christian and an economist at the same time? What I can at least say, and say with more confidence as a novice woman, is that the conventional opposition of Christianity and economics is not necessary. I realize that a progressive Christian feels that God and Mammon are necessarily opposed. She feels guilty if her Sunday-morning identity doesn't chide her business Monday through Friday (Saturday is too busy for chiding). The marketplace is dirty, or at any rate the opposite of sacred. The feeling is I think a trace of the ancient Christian (and Buddhist and some Jewish) conviction that we do best when alone with I and Thou. Should a Christian woman shine as a light unto the world or retreat into a desert hermitage? Should a Jewish man stick to his cobbler's last or spend his waking hours at the House of Study?

My reply is the conventional one, that on the contrary the virtues should balance and interpenetrate, that we should be charitable on the job and businesslike at Vestry Meetings, at least if we have resolved to be in the world (and "being in the world" happens even in a nunnery). But I go a little further than is common. I say we already are charitable on the job and businesslike in the Vestry Meeting. Not perfectly so, but more than is commonly thought. The two worlds already balance and interpenetrate.I myself think of the matter in terms of the seven virtues St. Thomas Aquinas catalogued, the four "pagan" ones, of courage, temperance, prudence [or wisdom], and justice, plus the three "theological" ones, of faith, hope, and love. The first four, the pagan virtues, glow in wily Odysseus or in the hero Gunnar of Njal's Saga, men showing the virtues of a military aristocracy; the last three in the life and words of St. Paul, "Faith, hope, and charity, these three. But the greatest is charity" (1 Cor 13:13; of course "charity" is not merely giving to the poor but caritas, from carus, "caring," and is the Latin translation of the Greek agapê, or spiritual love). The theological virtues, notice, have a stereotypically feminine air, or at any rate are not the virtues of the soldier.

Economics, since its invention as a system of thought in the eighteenth century, has spoken mainly of that middle virtue of the seven, prudence, an androgynous virtue counted good in both men and women as stereotypically viewed. You can call it practical wisdom or ratio or know-how or self-interest or competence or rationality. The word "prudence" is a useful, long-period compromise among the wisdom-words from phronêsis in Aristotle to "maximization" in the modern economist.

Prudence is a virtue. In the last two centuries prudence has come to be seen as mere selfishness, the sort of behavior one could assume as lamentably normal in a commercial society, hardly a "virtue." But the ancients I think had it right. We want to have people around us who are prudent, who can take care of themselves - every parent knows that. Of course we also want our children or our friends and fellows to be courageous, temperate, just, loving, faithful, and hopeful. The main point anyway is that ethics cannot be reduced without grave loss to The One, to an essential juice of goodness in the style of Plato. And among the Aristotelian Many, I say, the virtue of prudence is not to be scorned.

The way most economists do their job is to ask, Where's the prudence? Adam Smith asserted in 1776 that "what is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom." A splendidly useful principle. The blessed Smith, however, understood that we want people to have a balanced set of virtues, not merely prudence. He was not a particularly religious man, it seems, but was a professor of moral philosophy, and took his job seriously. I believe he was forming in all his works, especially in his two published books, an ethic for a commercial society. But his ethic was not Prudence Über Alles. After Smith's death his followers came to believe precisely that: Prudence, or Utility, rules. Their single-mindedness was part of a wider rhetorical development since around 1700 in some circles that has elevated prudence to the master virtue, the Platonic juice.(At the same time in other circles prudence was being reduced to the master vice, drummed out of the virtue corps.) You will find people in business schools arguing that the reason to be loving or just is that it is prudent - virtue makes money, doing well by doing good. When some years ago the Harvard Business School was given $20,000,000 to study ethics it started courses that collapsed the virtues into the one good of prudence, all the virtue that money could buy.

My point is that Smith was right and the later economists and calculators have been wrong. You can't run on prudence alone a family or a church or a community or even - and this is the surprising point -a capitalist economy. Courage and love and the rest figure in any human group. Right away, though, I must make the parallel point, equally true-that you can't run human groups on love alone, either. Or on courage alone. It's the aloneness that's the problem. As Mary Midgley observes in her book, Wickedness, evil comes from excesses in the virtues. George Bernard Shaw said a similar thing in Man and Superman. Think of how dangerous it would be to be a soldier in a platoon filled with Medal-of-Honor types; or how tiresome to be in a nunnery filled with Mother-Teresa types. Love alone is no excuse for an imprudent and unjust and intemperate act. At the first of two sanity hearings which my sister arranged by telling fibs to judges and prosecutors about my proposed gender change she said to me, "You know, Donny, I had you committed to the madhouse for love. For love." "Yes, Sis," I replied, "and Hitler loved Germany."

What I'm saying is that prudent, economical, capitalist, market-oriented behavior within a balanced set of virtues is not merely harmless-it is virtuous. Even, I am bold to say, in God's eyes. By contrast, the prudence-only behavior celebrated in economic fable is bad. Bad for business. Bad for life. Bad for the soul. We call it avarice.

So as a novice woman and a novice Christian I have come to think that the economic emperor has no clothes. People usually say it was a little boy in the Andersen story who made this observation. I have checked, and report that the gender of the child is not actually specified. I prefer to think of it as a little girl, since females are more apt to see through male illusions than males are. And economics, that glorious conversation since 1776, has been too often a guy thing. At least that much has become completely clear to this woman.

Hannah Arendt tells of what her mother taught her as a girl to do if people made anti-semitic remarks at school: get up and walk out, and think, as Arendt put it, "Nicht für meiner Mutters Tochter," not for my mother's daughter. Right. I've come to that in my beloved field of economics: no more, guys; let's stop the nonsense and get back to science.