Crash and learn?

Posted: 4 October 2016 in Uncategorized
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Mark Tansey, “EC 101” (2009)

The case for changing the way we teach economics is—or should be—obvious.

It certainly is apparent to the students of Manchester University’s  Post-Crash Economics Society and to the other 44 student groups, members of Rethinking Economics, pressing for pedagogical changes on campuses from Canada to Italy and from Brazil to Uganda.

But as anyone who teaches or studies economics these days knows full well, the mainstream that has long dominated economics (especially at research universities, in the United States and elsewhere) is not even beginning to let go of their almost-total control over the curriculum of undergraduate and graduate programs.

That’s clear from a recent article in the Financial Times, in which David Pilling asks the question, “should we change the way we teach economics?”

Me, I’ve heard the excuses not to change economics for decades now. But it still jars to see them in print, especially after the spectacular failure of mainstream economics before, during, and after the worst economic crisis since the first Great Depression.

Here’s one—the idea that heterodox economics is like creationism, in disputing the “immutable laws” captured by mainstream theory:

Pontus Rendahl teaches macroeconomic theory at Cambridge. He doesn’t disagree that students should be exposed to economic history and to ideas that challenge neoclassical thinking. (He prefers the word “mainstream”, since neoclassical, like neoliberal, has become a term of near-abuse.) He is wary, however, of moving to a pluralist curriculum in which different schools of thought are given similar weight.

“Pluralism is a nicely chosen word,” he says. “But it’s the same argument as the creationists in the US who say that natural selection is just a theory.” Since mainstream economics has “immutable laws”, he argues, it would be wrong to teach heterodox theories as though they had equal validity. “In the same way, I don’t think heterodox engineering or alternative medicine should be taught.”

Rendahl also argues that students are too critical of the models they encounter as undergraduates:

When we start teaching economics, we have to teach the nuts and bolts.” He introduces first-year students to the Robinson Crusoe model, in which there is only one “representative agent”. Later on, Friday is brought on the scene so the two can start trading, although no money changes hands since transactions are solely by barter. (Money and credit are strangely absent from most economic curricula.)

Somehow, the “simplification” involved in presenting a theory of capitalism without money and credit—and therefore without the mechanisms that, from the start, invalidate Say’s Law—is presumed to be innocent.

Then, of course, there’s the ever-present worry about banishing mathematical modeling, which is taken to be the necessary condition for intellectual rigor:

Angus Deaton, who won the Nobel Prize in economics and teaches at Princeton, says economics is a broad church, but one that needs to be kept rigorous.

He gives the example of Daron Acemoğlu, a “young superstar” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose research includes the study of how institutions foster or inhibit growth. “He’s a very good example of the way things ought to be going, which is you do history but you know enough mathematics to be able to model it too. Banishing mathematics is not the solution,” he says. “The model is the cross-check on whether you actually know what you’re talking about.”

For economists like Deaton, rigor is identified with mathematics, not with knowing the assumptions of a theory or being acquainted with various theories.

And, finally, there’s the idea that part of economics is broken but the rest is just fine:

In Manchester, Diane Coyle also defends the basic methodology of economics. She says there is confusion among critics between microeconomics, the study of the behaviour of individuals and firms, and macroeconomics, the study of whole economies. Macroeconomics, she admits, “is broken”. But microeconomics is both robust and often verifiable with real-world data. What, she asks, can heterodox economists contribute to typical concerns of microeconomics, such as discovering the right mix of policy incentives to discourage obesity?

In Coyle’s case, the assumption is that there’s a set of theory-independent, “real-world data,” against which neoclassical microeconomics has been compared and ultimately verified. That, of course, is news to other economists, who use different theoretical lenses, and see very different data.

The assumptions built into each and every one of these defenses of mainstream economics and attacks on heterodox economic theories as well as any hint of pluralism in the teaching of economics are, at best, outdated—the leftovers from positivism and other forms of post-Enlightenment scientism. They comprise the “spontaneous philosophy” of mainstream economists who have exercised hegemony in the practice and teaching of economics throughout the postwar period.

And, yes, Pilling is right, when that hegemony is challenged, as it has been by economics students and many economists in recent years, “the clash of ideas gets nasty.”

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