home page


PAE Review index


sanity, humanity and science
post-autistic economics newsletter

No. 1, September 2000 

To subscribe, send a blank email to pae_news@btinternet.com


The French economics mainstream is in a state of shock and apprehension following dramatic and unexpected events late in June.  

On the 21st the influential Paris daily, Le Monde, featured a long article under the headline "Economics Students Denounce the Lack of Pluralism in the Teaching Offered".  Economics students at the École Normale Supérieure, France's premier institution of higher learning, were circulating with great success a petition protesting against an excessive mathematical formalisation.  

The petition notes "a real schizophrenia" created by making modelling "an end in itself" and thereby cutting economics off from reality and forcing it into a state of "autism".  The students, said a sympathetic Le Monde, call for an end to the hegemony of neoclassical theory and approaches derived from it, in favour of a pluralism that will include other approaches, especially those which permit the consideration of "concrete realities".   Le Monde found French economists of renown, including Michel Vernières, Jean-Paul Fitoussi and Daniel Cohen, willing to speak out in support of the students.  Fitoussi, current head of the jury of the economics' agrégation, said that "the students are right to denounce the way economics is generally taught" and that the over-use of mathematics "leads to a disembodiment of economic discourse".  Daniel Cohen, economics professor at the École Normale Supérieure, spoke of "the pathological role" played by mathematics in economics.  Meanwhile, The Minister of Education, Jack Lang, assured Le Monde that he would study closely the appeal from the students.  

French radio and television also reported the students complaints and confirmed their legitimacy. On the 21st, BFM said that it was now recognized that "the teaching of economics no longer had any relation with the real world" and that "this discipline is going through an undeniable crisis".  Also on the 21st,  L'Humanité quoted extensively from the students' open letter, while noting that in recent years several renown economists had expressed similar views.  

On the 23rd, Les Echos reported that a government report on university economics teaching had reached conclusions similar to those of the students.  In their lengthy article, Les Echos noted that it is increasingly recognized that economics' "malaise is general and of longstanding" and that "under the guise of being scientific" it has cultivated an anti-scientific environment "which leaves no room for reflection and debate".  
On the 26th, the weekly, Marianne, carried an article about the student petition against "dogmatism" in the teaching of economics and for its replacement by "a pluralism of explanations".  Marianne said that the petition, which was now on the Web, had 500 signatures, as well as growing support from economics teachers and interest from the highest levels of the French government.  

On June 30th, Le Nouvel Economiste, referring to the students' petition and "mobilisation", declared that economics had succumbed to a "pathological taste for a-priori ideologies and mathematical formalisation disconnected from reality."  Economics, it continued, should give up its false emulation of physics and "should instead look to the human sciences".  

In July, French media interest continued to fuel the mobilisation. On the 3rd, La Tribune featured a long article titled "Why a Reform of the Teaching of Economics".  It began by saying that all concerned parties agree that economics is in crisis and that "a debate should be opened on this subject" and that the students' initiative aimed to bring this about.  Economics, said La Tribune, had become lost in "mondes imaginaires" and "l'économie de Robinson Crusoé" and intellectually enfeebled by "the dogmatism that reigns in the teaching of the discipline."  Alternatives Economiques carried an article titled "The Revolt of the Students" which noted that French Nobel Prize winner, Maurice Allais had, despite his mathematical approach, come to conclusions similar to those of the students.   

France's equivalent to Time, carried an article "L'économie, science autiste?", which aired the students' analysis and complaints.  It also reported that the students' petition now had more than 600 signatures, and that their teachers were now starting a petition of their own in support.   

On the 22nd of July, Politis reported on the students' cause and on the --"autism" into which economics had fallen in consequence of its "obsession to produce a social physics"Politis noted that student support for the petition was widespread, including not only students from the most prestigious universities, but also from the less celebrated, both in Paris and in the provinces.  "Pluralism should be part of the cultural base of economists."  Instead, "neoclassical theory dominates because it rests on a simple set of axioms, easily mathematized."  The coming academic year, concluded Politis, "promises to be agitated."

We have learned that the economics students' petition now has 800 signatures and the economists' petition 147.  The latter includes some of the most illustrious names in French economics, e.g., Robert Boyer, André Orléan, Michel Aglietta, Jean-Paul Fitoussi and Daniel Cohen.  It concludes by calling for "a national conference that will open a public debate for all."    


At last month's 10th World Congress of Social Economics at the University of Cambridge, American participants reported that in the USA the purge of non-neoclassical and non-mathematically oriented economists from university faculties continues.  

Conferees spoke of the increasing "stalinization" of the profession.  Unlike in France where the fight-back has begun, in the States there are not yet signs of the formation of the critical mass needed to turn economics away from 19th century dogmas.  It is agreed , however, that the number of academic economists in American who are out of sympathy with the orthodoxy comprise a sizeable minority.  But they are fragmented, often intimidated and lack the means of joining together to exert their collective weight and moral authority.  Meanwhile, it was agreed, the American economics' clock runs backwards.  

American economists at the World Congress traded horror stories about the new wave of neo-classical "stalinization".  History of economic thought courses are now being targeted as sources of ideas whereby students might question or place in perspective orthodoxy.  The goal is to create "history-free environments" in which students can be indoctrinated "more efficiently" into the neo-classical/mainstream belief system.  For example, it was reported that from this fall the University of North Carolina is discontinuing all history of thought courses.  

American participants also bemoaned plunging standards of literacy among economics graduate students and colleagues as a consequence of the mathematics fetish.  The illiteracy problem is said to be particularly acute among new economics PhDs, many of whom are incapable of reading with comprehension a page of complex prose, such as one from The General Theory.     


The ideas expressed by the French students will have a familiar ring to readers of Tony Lawson's Economics and Reality (1997).  But in Lawson's UK it is reported that economics students, although restless, are not yet rebellious.  Meanwhile it is rumoured that a French translation of Economics and Reality is imminent.    


Interest in the reform campaign launched in France spread quickly to Belgium.  On June 24th under the heading "Economie autiste", the daily, Le Soir, both reported on the events in France and offered its own analysis of neoclassical economics as a quaint political ideology masquerading as science.  

A week later Le Soir featured a lengthy article on the crisis in economics. It draws on a recent report by Michel Vernières, commissioned by the French government to investigate the teaching of economics.  Vernières emphasises that economic theories are devices for conceptualizing reality.  "Pedagogically, it is therefore essential to articulate conceptual reflection and empirical investigation. . . . [and] to underline the plurality of approaches and the overall coherence of these approaches."  

Bernard Paulré, referring especially to neoclassical theory, said that mathematics is often used to hide "the emptiness of the propositions and the absence of any concern for operational relevance."  He said that in addition to a-priori axioms, it is necessary for economics "to take account of institutions, of history, of the strategies of actors and of groups, of sociological dimensions, etc.."  

This newsletter aims to link people wishing to bring sanity, humanity and science back to economics.  To this end, YOU may help significantly by forwarding this issue to 10 sympathetic colleagues and/or students.

 YOU may also help by emailing relevant news items, thoughts and suggestions to: pae_news@btinternet.com

To subscribe to the post-autistic economics newsletter, send a blank email to: pae_news@hotmail.com