Sunday, February 17, 2013

Economists have good stories

Economists have good stories.  They have theory, math and econometrics, but they also have good stories.  Pietra Rivoli's The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy (2nd ed.; I am late to the party again) is a superb story. It is one thing to mention supply chains, it is another thing to think about them for a few minutes (I, Pencil) but it is still another thing to follow cotton from Texas cotton field to manufacturer (usually abroad) to U.S. stores and consumers and then to the Tanzania rag trade. Along the way Rivoli tries to disabuse some Georgetown University student activists of the morality tales on which they build anti-globalization protests.

Here is the start of Chapter 13, "Where T-shirts go after the Salvation Army bin ... In the wealthy and normally well-mannered Washington suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, the competition is heating up.  It is a Saturday morning and soccer moms are in a race to throw things away." The truck fills up and leaves before the moms are finished.  Rivoli also mentions that the moms shop for new shirts on the same trip at the same mall where they encounter the Salvation Army truck. "It is easy to see the simple dynamic of secondhand T-shirts in a wealthy U.S. suburb, all supply and no demand" (p. 216).

"My T-shirt story, then, is not a tale of Adam Smith's market forces, but instead a tale of Karl Polanyi's double movement, in which market forces on the one hand meet demands for protection on the other" (p. 255).

No theory without data; no data without theory. But included in the data, there must be the good stories too.