The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery: Social Learning in a Post-Disaster Environment

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The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery: Social Learning in a Post-Disaster Environment by Emily Chamlee-Wright Routledge * 2010 * 240 pages * $145

Reviewed by Daniel J. D'Amico

Emily Chamlee-Wright's latest book, The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery, has been awarded the F. A. Hayek Prize from the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, and rightly so.

A professor of economics at Beloit College, Chamlee-Wright draws insights from a variety of disciplines to explain the processes of recovery endured in the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina. She synthesizes insights from social network theory, Austrian economics, cultural economics, and the growing literature on natural disasters to make meaningful this complex mix of human decisions and social behaviors that will forever be a part of American history. In the process she makes a valuable contribution to refocusing the social sciences on their proper object of inquiry: people as individuals and in groups.

In The Counter Revolution of Science, Hayek described why and how the physical sciences purged humanism from their disciplines. Presuming that physical phenomena operate like people acting intentionally can lead to serious error. Thunder does not result from the anger of the gods.

Hayek explained that this purging unfortunately also affected the social sciences. Positivism, scientism, formal modeling, and empirical measurement became the dominant techniques to assure objectivity in economics and most other social disciplines. But to purge the human element from social science is to ignore the essence of the very subject matter we seek to understand - real human behavior and decisionmaking.

Nobel laureate Vernon Smith coined the term "contextual rationality" to describe behaviors that, although seemingly costly and/or irrational, are on closer reflection effective reactions to unique environmental constraints. The ability of outside observers to recognize rationality is restricted by their own limitations in recognizing the incentives, knowledge, and constraints faced by an actor.

Chamlee-Wright's version of social science, like those surveyed above, is one that recognizes the reasons so many people since Katrina have endured extreme costs, forgone significant alternatives, and in many cases have carried significant risk to return and rebuild the city of New Orleans. Though an imperfect paraphrase, she describes the recovery as a symbiotic relationship amid flux. The citizens contribute to a stock of social knowledge and social value that feeds their community's identity, culture, and economic welfare. Vice versa, the city provides a navigable network of social, pecuniary, and intangible benefits to those who returned to her. …