Deirdre McCloskey celebrates the bourgeois

"I want poor people to be better off. The best way for poor people to prosper is with market-tested innovation. Let the economy work efficiently," says economist and AAAS Fellow Deirdre McCloskey. (Photo: Victor Powell/Powell Photography Inc.)

"I can't distinguish growing older and wiser from becoming a woman," Deirdre McCloskey says with a smile. "Whatever the reason, in recent years, I have come to appreciate the value of cooperation. Life is not a hockey game."

McCloskey, born "Donald," underwent a gender change at 53 and in 1999 wrote a book about the experience, Crossing: A Memoir. The Harvard-trained economist was one of the "Chicago boys" who wrote and taught at the University of Chicago while the influential, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman was there, and helped disseminate the free-market approach Friedman developed. Now McCloskey teaches not only economics but also history, English and communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

McCloskey, a 2012 AAAS fellow, teaches her graduate classes in her loft apartment in downtown Chicago, where she offers her students soup, bread and a lively discussion around the table.

One of her students, Robert Ross, says he is impressed with the "breadth of her knowledge and interest," and with the way she applies what she knows to the study of economics.

Ordinarily, Ross says, "economics students are taught to solve mathematical models and  then apply those to the world. They don't get much grounding in the way people actually live. With Dr. McCloskey, the point is to grapple with real-world situations."

McCloskey still considers herself a free-market economist but adds, "I'm not a dogmatist." More to the point, McCloskey says, she is a libertarian. "I want poor people to be better off. The best way for poor people to prosper is with market-tested innovation. Let the economy work efficiently."

What sets McCloskey apart these days, though, are her celebration of "bourgeois" values — an ethical approach in a commercial society — and her embrace of a more humanistic approach to economics.

"'Screw you, I've got mine' is not an adequate social theory,'" she says.  

McCloskey is in the process of writing a series of books about the importance of actively promoting innovation, both in explaining the economic explosion of the past three hundred years, and in carrying today's world economy forward to a bright new place.

In 1800, the average income per person worldwide was about $3 a day in today's money; life for the average person was "no bag of bluebirds," McCloskey says. Today, that figure is $32; in industrialized nations, it's more like $100, she says. This exponential advance, unprecedented in history, is the result of a "sudden, unique, and gigantic lurch forward" between 1700 and 1900, McCloskey writes in her most recent book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World, from 2010, the second in a planned trilogy.

Only the invention of language and, much later, of agriculture, have changed human life as drastically, McCloskey contends. Historians don't agree on what caused this transformation, but McCloskey's theory is that a drastic shift in how Europeans viewed money, innovation, and progress led to an explosion of new ideas that changed the world.

"Holland was where the modern world began," McCloskey says. The Low Countries were the first Western European nations to throw off a world view of a sinful humanity overseen by a vengeful God, and to develop a tolerant, "business-respecting society."

We have come a long way since then. McCloskey notes that Ivan Boesky, a larger-than-life Wall Street figure who later went to prison for insider trading, drew cheers from the audience when he told business-school graduates in a 1986 speech,  "You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself."

McCloskey says, "'Greed is good' appeals to young people. It's easy to understand. Evil triumphs if we don't write against it. People need to have more in their lives than making money."

Like "greed is good," the famous line from the rapacious, fictional Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street, the ethical theories that appeared during most of the 20th century had an "unmoored quality," in large part in response to abominable events that pocked the era, beginning with World War I, McCloskey says.

Even the harder sciences went off the rails. German chemists enthusiastically turned themselves to the Kaiser's war work during World War I, and the role American physicists played in developing the atom bomb drove some horrified young physics students out of the field altogether, she says.

"Science is ethical all the way down," she says. "How we know things is a deeply ethical procedure."

McCloskey is that rare individual who has been both a man and a woman. In her first year as a woman, at a gathering of economists, "I made a point, and they ignored me. Then a man made the same point, and he was praised. There is a devaluing of women and their ideas." She adds, "Women will ignore women, too."

McCloskey says that she finds it "amazing" at times that she actually undertook a gender change, given what a "career-driven man" she was. Her colleagues were more accepting than she had expected they would be, and hundreds of people came forward to offer support and help during her transition.

Her family's response was more mixed. McCloskey's ex-wife and two children are still estranged today. "It took my mom five minutes to adjust," she says.