This is going to be the first installment of an interview series, in which we at ppe.life will be talking with some of the great visiting professors who have taught courses or workshops in the Cevro MA program in PPE. We have some pretty big name people coming through Prague, and so we thought that this would be a great way to share some of their opinions and insights with everyone interested.
The first to chat with me was professor Mateusz Machaj. For those of you who don’t know him, he is a professor of Economics at the University of Wroclaw and founder of the Polish Mises Institute. He’s been widely published (see his publications here), and has two books coming out soon. “Money, Interest and the Structure of Production: An Attempt at Resolving Some Puzzles in the Theory of Capital” will be coming out this November, and then “Capitalism, Socialism, and Property Rights: Why Market Socialism Cannot Substitute the Market” should be available in early 2018. So without further ado, here is my (Casey Pender – CP) conversation with professor Mateusz Machaj (MM):
CP – A lot of your work had been about market socialism and economic calculation, which is actually the topic of one of your forthcoming books. It is my understanding that this topic was most in the academic spotlight during the socialist calculation debates that took place around the turn of the 20th century. Aside from the intrinsic historical value, why is this debate (and topic more general) still relevant, and what can we continue to learn from it today?
MM – My personal interest in – and the upcoming book on – market socialism was caused by the fact that despite large Austrian literature on the critique of socialism, relatively little space has been devoted to the market socialism model. My take was that there are some additional observations concerning the model, which had not been sufficiently discussed in the debate. Debating socialism nowadays may be seen as a less relevant study of history of thought, which is true to some extent. Nevertheless, discussing socialism requires discussion on entrepreneurship and calculation – and that is very much relevant for understanding the modern world.
CP – You’ve had a number of papers published in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and you founded the Mises Institute of Poland, so I take it you are proud to call yourself an Austrian economist. What do you feel are the hottest most interesting areas currently that scholars in the Austrian tradition are best suited to discuss?
MM – I think one of the promising routes for Austrian economics is to address the topics, frameworks and models developed by other schools of thought. Since most of the core Austrian paradigm seems to be firmly established, the next natural step is to engage into knowing and debating what other paradigms have to say. I do not really want to point to anything specific, but I believe that universal rule is applicable to most cases.
CP – You have a PhD in Economics and you teach Economics at the University of Wroclaw, but at Cevro you are part of the PPE program faculty. Having now been a part of both types of departments, what do you think are the pros and cons of a PPE degree versus a pure economics degree?
MM – I find PPE at Cevro very inspiring, since the people coming to study are genuinely interested in learning something about economics. That is not the case of most students at regular universities. If I manage to get 30 percent of my students interested in the theoretical topics then I deem that successful. At Cevro most of the students are genuinely interested, because they treat this form of education as valuable and they do learn. When analyzing the levels of teaching, there is much emphasis on what teachers do – which of course is sensible. But we should not forget about the other side of education, since teaching is not an autistic exchange, but exchange between two parties. Interested students can significantly boost the levels of education, and also stimulate teachers further to work more on their programs, make them more advanced, and also learn something for themselves.
CP – The course you taught this semester at Cevro was on the Economics of Business Mistakes. I felt it was an interesting mix of microeconomics and entrepreneurship, but also of more applied business and strategic management. What made you come up with this style of class, and would you like to see theoretical economics (and Austrian economics, in particular) play a larger role in strategic management classes and business schools more generally?
MM – Very often economic textbooks are abstracting from actual historical scenarios. That makes discussions in class very sterile and less interesting. While teaching in Poland I noticed that when I discuss topics like the entrepreneur, losses, change in demand, hypothetical company A, bankruptcy, people are just not very interested. When I inject the names of particular companies, and study some of the aspects of their strategies, mentioning Nokia, Kodak, then people are much more interested. Especially when we include the anecdotes and funny stories about business successes and mistakes. When you hear the story of “company A”, you do not visualize it. But when you hear the story of Amazon, things get much more interesting. That is the reason why I decided to do a mix – as I believe studying elements of strategic management and certain entrepreneurial stories are simply helpful to demonstrate a-priori economic theory.
CP – Austrian Economists have a long history of condemning bureaucracy, but there is one bureaucracy in particular that you have been critical of, and that is the Jedi order. Could you explain what it is about the Jedi’s actions that have drawn your criticisms?
MM – Jedi council is basically a collectivist government bureaucracy, relying on mystics, brainwashing small children, denying religious freedom, denying essence of humanity, allowing itself to steal from others, cheating, denying the importance of division of powers and having a dubious moral system. And they also make wrong predictions on top of that – paradoxically they are wrong even when they are dead! Which is a bizarre thing for ghosts apparently living in some sort of heaven. I sincerely hope that is the reason why Luke Skywalker, a hero certainly above the Jedi, (in the upcoming episode) wants the Jedi to end.
CP – Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions! To close this out could you leave us with a recommendation of a book, paper or podcast you’ve been enjoying lately?
MM – I just recently got to know the book “Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment” by Nicolai Foss and Peter Klein (even though it has been out for couple of years), because our Polish Mises Institute is in the process of publishing it. I must say this is one of the best books I have read recently and one of the most important books on the firm and entrepreneurship ever written. Actually, if I were to recommend reading something on the topic, I would say: start with that one. The authors have made a wonderful contribution, combining a small treatise on entrepreneurship and the firm – you have an extensive and impressive overview of all major points about the topics. I highly recommend this one. I also very much recommend Deidre McCloskey’s brilliant “Bourgeois Dignity” – easily the most important book on economic history ever written. I really mean that: ever written. You have to see it for yourself.
Also, check out our next interview – a conversation with Mises’ biographer, professor Jörg Guido Hülsmann.