By Stanley Bing
July 23, 2009

There’s an interesting article in The Economist this week. It’s called What Went Wrong With Economics. “In the public mind,” the editors write, “an arrogant profession has been humbled. Though economists are still at the centre of the policy debate… their pronouncements are viewed with more skepticism than before. The profession itself is suffering from guilt and rancour.”

You’ll have to excuse the cute misspellings. The Economist is headquartered in London.

The magazine then goes on to offer a spirited defense of the profession for which it is named. There are lengthy critiques of macro-economics and financial economics, with very salient suggestions as to how those disciplines can be rethought and re-established as credible enterprises.

This exercise, ironically, comes straight on the heels of the stunning discovery of an ancient manuscript now on display at the Barfinger Museum in Minneapolis. This document was unearthed during an archeological dig in what was once Crete, and it provides a unique perspective on how a civilization that formed the bedrock of our culture handled similar crises.

The artifact in question contains a rather lengthy discourse, on papyrus. It was written by ancient Cretins whose names are now shrouded in mystery (much as the unnamed editors of The Economist). The article — if one may call something so very old — is entitled, “The Future of Bird Entrails as a Predictive Tool.”  It seems to have been written after a particularly bad harvest that plunged the nation into a protracted famine.

Translation is difficult, since there are now few who speak the antique tongue, but the burden of the argument is clear, and summarized by one interesting passage. “If the study of bird entrails as a broad discipline deserves a robust defense,” it states, “so does the entire oracle paradigm.” It continues:

“Too many people, especially in Greece, Troy, Egypt and the surrounding lesser civilizations,  equate mistakes made by certain oracles with a failure of bird entrails as a predictive tool. Their logic seems to be that if oracles, seers and other supposed soothsayers got things wrong, then civil authorities can do better. That is a false — and dangerous — conclusion.”

The writer then goes on to look at the main types of entrails then in use and both critiques and supports the employment of each, from the macro-entrails of larger carrion birds to the smaller and slightly less messy entrails of doves, sparrows and even junk birds, like pigeons, the latter being most useful in determining the price of hog snouts, which were then in short supply due to the Pelopennesian War.

The article concludes with an evocative statement with which no one in the profession at that time would disagree, I think. “In the end, those who study bird entrails — just like astrologers and bone-casters —  are social scientists, trying to understand the real world. And the current crisis has changed that world.”

Study is now being done to ascertain how that profession faced this crisis in confidence so long ago, and what lessons might be gleaned by their counterparts today.

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