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post-autistic economics newsletter
No. 2, 3 October 2000

  Subscribers in 36 countries
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"It was in the beginning," opens the Le Monde article of September 13th, "a modest initiative, almost confidential.  It has now become a subject of important debate which has put in a state of effervescence the community of economists.  Should not the teaching of economics in universities be rethought?"  (www.lemonde.fr/article/0,2320,93489,00.html )  

The first issue of this newsletter reported on the events leading to this "effervescence".  Briefly, they were as follows.

In June a small group of economics students put on the web ( www.respublica.fr/autisme-economie ) a petition protesting against economics' "uncontrolled use of mathematics".  This indulgence, it said, creates "a true schizophrenia" because the mathematics has "become an end in itself" resulting in an "autistic science".   The petition called for an end both to this and to the repressive domination of neoclassical theory in the curriculum.  The students called instead for a pluralism of approaches with emphasis on engagement with economic realities.   Within two weeks the student petition had 150 signatures, many from France's most prestigious universities.  The students publicized these results.  On the 21st of June Le Monde picked up the story.  It featured a lengthy and sympathetic article on the students' call for reform.  (www.lemonde.fr/article_impression/0,2322,72463,00.html )  Other French newspapers and magazines, as well as TV and radio, soon followed with the result that the number of signatures on the economics students' petition reached 600.    

The perceived seriousness of the controversy increased when at the end of June some professors launched a petition of their own ( www.republica.fr/autisme-economie ), backing the students and offering further analysis and evidence supporting the need for reform.  The French minister of education announced that he was looking into the matter.  Then in July everyone left for "the long vac".  

Now they are returning and Le Monde has reopened the public debate.   So too has the national radio network, "French Culture", which on 21 September carried a program on the controversy, featuring two students and a professor from the post-autistic camp.  Nor has the government forgotten about it.   Le Monde reports that Jack Lang, the minister of education, has informed it that soon he will be announcing "the formation of a commission charged with making an evaluation of the situation and submitting to him some proposals.  An economist of renown has been approached about leading this investigation."  

Meanwhile the students and the reformist academics are regrouping in preparation for the next stage of the campaign.  A meeting of the petition signatories, now 800, is being held at the Sorbonne on October 4th.  Student leaders, Olivier Vaury and Gilles Raveaud, report that following the Paris meeting the pluralists will organize and conduct debates in universities throughout France.  (The movement which began in the capital is now nation-wide.)  These debates will continue through mid-November.  Then in December a big national meeting is being planned for Paris.  This will include both students and teachers committed to reform and will develop detailed, concrete criticism and proposals.  Speaking for the students, Raveaud adds, "and we will claim our place" in the governmental commission that is being set up.

The post-autistic economics movement in France is also looking forward to more coverage in periodicals, including economics journals.  The national newspaper Libération, which featured a full page on the crises in economics in its July 31st issue, is planning another such feature for late October.  Vaury reports that "we will have some important articles in Télérama (2.5 million readers) and there will be articles on this issue in L'Economie Politque (November edition)."  Another article is scheduled to appear in the journal Alternatives Economiques.  

Student leaders report, that when last summer it began to appear that the reform movement in France was not about to go away, some neoclassicists tried to dismiss it as a Trotskyite conspiracy which included Le Monde.   This convinced no one, and since then things seemed to have moved on.  For example, the week before last there was a conference at the Sorbonne, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the mainstream La Revue Economique.  Attendees report that discussions spontaneously diverged to issues that have been raised by the reformists.  

Watch this space for further developments.





French economics students and teachers have found a formula for getting the reform of economics and economics teaching onto public and professional agendas.  Its basic ingredients are two kinds of petition, a website (or sites) on which the petitions are posted for signing, and an email newsletter for co-ordinating and publicizing these.  The pae newsletter wants to encourage and assist people everywhere to apply the "French formula", modified to fit local conditions.  It also wishes to provide the means by which local, regional and national successes can be joined together and globalized.  Toward these ends, it will offer the following.

·         Below, in this issue, is a students' petition and a teachers' petition.  Both are based on the petitions circulated in France.  Both are framed so as to be widely inclusive of groups and individuals seeking reform. 

·         For those wishing to start up petition websites in English, pae_news@hotmail.com offers both the student and the teacher petitions in Microsoft FrontPage format, each with a signing page.  These files can be loaded straight on to your website.  They will be sent to you on request as attached documents.

·         pae will operate (from 15 October) a website at www.paecon.net , featuring the following:            * hyperlinks with all petition websites,             
* a geographical index of petition websites,             
* tables of website results,
* a students' petition and a teachers' petition which can be "signed" by anyone visiting
the site, and lists of the petition signatories,             
* documents related to the post-autistic economics movement,
* back issues of the post-autistic economics newsletter.





standard form student petition,
based on the students' petition circulated in France

open letter from economics students
to professors and others responsible
for the teaching of this discipline

We, economics students in the university(ies) of ________________,
declare ourselves to be generally dissatisfied with the teaching that we receive.

This is so for the following reasons:

1. We wish to escape from imaginary worlds!  

Most of us have chosen to study economics so as to acquire a deep understanding of the economic phenomena with which the citizens of today are confronted.  But the teaching that is offered, that is to say for the most part neoclassical theory or approaches derived from it, does not generally answer this expectation.  Indeed, even when the theory legitimately detaches itself from contingencies in the first instance, it rarely carries out the necessary return to the facts.  The empirical side (historical facts, functioning of institutions , study of the behaviors and strategies of the agents . . . ) is almost nonexistent.  Furthermore, this gap in the teaching, this disregard for concrete realities, poses an enormous problem for those who would like to render themselves useful to economic and social actors.

    2. We oppose the uncontrolled use of mathematics!

The instrumental use of mathematics appears necessary.  But resort to mathematical formalization when it is not an instrument but rather an end in itself, leads to a true schizophrenia in relation to the real world.  Formalization makes it easy to construct exercises and to manipulate models whose significance is limited to finding "the good result" (that is, the logical result following from the initial hypotheses) in order to be able to write "a good paper".  This custom, under the pretence of being scientific, facilitates assessment and selection, but never responds to the question that we are posing regarding contemporary economic debates.

3. We are for a pluralism of approaches in economics!

  Too often the lectures leave no place for reflection.  Out of all the approaches to economic questions that exist, generally only one is presented to us.  This approach is suppose to explain everything by means of a purely axiomatic process, as if this were THE economic truth.  We do not accept this dogmatism.  We want a pluralism of approaches, adapted to the complexity of the objects and to the uncertainty surrounding most of the big questions in economics (unemployment, inequalities, the place of financial markets, the advantages and disadvantages of free-trade, globalization, economic development, etc.)    

4. Call to teachers: wake up before it is too late!  

We appreciate that our professors are themselves subject to some constraints.  Nevertheless, we appeal to all those who understand our claims and who wish for change.  If serious reform does not take place rapidly, the risk is great that economics students, whose numbers are already decreasing, will abandon the field in mass, not because they have lost interest, but because they have been cut off from the realities and debates of the contemporary world.    

We no longer want to have this
autistic science

imposed on us.

We do not ask for the impossible, but only that good sense may prevail.
We hope, therefore, to be heard very soon.    




  pae standard form teachers' petition,
based on the professors' petition circulated in France

Petition for a Debate on the Teaching of Economics  

This petition raises the following problems:

        1.  the exclusion of theory that is not neoclassical from the curriculum,

          2.  the mismatch between economics teaching and economic reality,

          3.  the use of mathematics as an end in itself rather than as a tool,

          4.  teaching methods that exclude or prohibit critical thinking,

        5.  the need for a plurality of approaches adapted to the complexity of objects  analyzed.    

In real sciences, explanation is focused on actual phenomena.  The validity and relevancy of a theory can only be assessed through a confrontation with "facts".  This is why we, along with many students, deplore the development of a pedagogy in economics privileging the presentation of theories and the building and manipulation of models without considering their empirical relevance.  This pedagogy highlights the formal properties of model construction, while largely ignoring the relations of models, if any, to economic realities.  This is scientism.  Under a scientific approach, on the other hand, the first interest is to demonstrate the informative power and efficiency of an abstraction vis à vis sets of empirical phenomena.  This should be the primary task of the economist.  It is not a mathematical issue.

The path for "getting back to the facts", however, is not obvious.  Every science rests on "facts" that are built up and conceptualized.  Different paradigms therefore appear, each of them constituting different families of representation and modalities of interpretation or constructions of reality.  

Acknowledging the existence and role of paradigms should not be used as an argument for setting up different citadels, unquestionable from the outside.  Paradigms should be confronted and discussed.  But this can not be done on the base of a "natural" or immediate representation.  One can not avoid using the tools provided by statistics and econometrics.  But performing a critical assessment of a model should not be approached on an exclusively quantitative base.  No matter how rigorous from a formalistic point of view or tight its statistical fit, any "economic law" or theorem needs always to be assessed for its relevancy and validity regarding the context and type of situation to which it is applied.  One also needs to take into account the institutions, history, environmental and geopolitical realities, strategies of actors and groups, the sociological dimensions including gender relations, as well as more epistemological matters.  However, these dimensions of economics are cruelly missing in the training of our students.  

The situation could be improved by introducing specialized courses.  But it is not so much the addition of new courses that is important, but rather the linking of different areas of knowledge in the same training program.  Students are calling for this linkage, and we consider them right to do so.  The fragmentation of our discipline should be fought against.  For example, macroeconomics should emphasize the importance of institutional and ecological constraints, of structures, and of the role of history.

This leads us to the issue of pluralism.  Pluralism is not just a matter of ideology, that is of different prejudices or visions to which one is committed to expressing.  Instead the existence of different theories is also explained by the nature of the assumed hypotheses, by the questioned asked, by the choice of a temporal spectrum, by the boundaries of problems studied, and, not least, by the institutional and historical context.  

Pluralism must be part of the basic culture of the economist.
  People in their research should be free to develop the type and direction of thinking to which their convictions and field of interest lead them.  In a rapidly evolving and evermore complex world, it is impossible to avoid and dangerous to discourage alternative representations.  

This leads us to question neoclassical theory.  The preponderant space it occupies is, of course, inconsistent with pluralism.  But there is an even more important issue here.  Neoclassicalism's fiction of a "rational" representative agent, its reliance on the notion of equilibrium, and its insistence that prices constitute the main (in not unique) determinant of market behavior are at odds with our own beliefs.  Our conception of economics is based on principles of behavior of another kind.  These include especially the existence and importance of intersubjectivity between agents, the bounded rationality of agents, the heterogeneity of agents, and the importance of economic behaviors based on non-market factors.  Power structures, including organizations, and cultural and social fields should not be a priori excluded.

The fact that in most cases the teaching offered is limited to the neoclassical thesis is questionable also on ethical grounds.  Students are led to hold the false belief that not only is neoclassical theory the only scientific stream, but also that scientificity is simply a matter of axiomatics and/or formalized modeling.

With the students, we denounce the naive and abusive conflation that is often made between scientificity and the use of mathematics.  The debate on the scientific status of economics can not be limited to the question of using mathematics or not.  Furthermore, framing the debate in those terms is actually about deluding people and about avoiding real questions and issues of great importance.  These include questioning the object and nature of modeling itself and considering how economics can be redirected toward exploring reality and away from its current focus on resolving "imaginary" problems.  

Two fundamental features of university education should be the diversity of the student's degree course and the training of the student in critical thinking.  But under the neoclassical regime neither is possible, and often the latter is actively discouraged.  Insistence upon mathematical formalism means that most economic phenomena are out-of-bounds both for research and for the economics curriculum..  The indefensibleness of these restrictions means that evidence of critical thinking  by students is perceived as a dangerous threat.  In free societies, this is an unacceptable state of affairs.

We, economic teachers of _______________________________, give our full support to the claims made by the students.  We are particularly concerned with initiatives that may be taken at the local level in order to provide the beginning of answers to their expectations.  We also hope these issues will be heard by all economics students in universities everywhere.  To facilitate this we are ready to enter a dialogue with students and to be associated with the holding of conferences that will allow the opening of a public debate for all of a public debate for all.


EDITOR: Edward Fullbrook
  CORRESPONDENTS: Argentina: Iserino;  Australia: Joseph Halevi;  Brazil: Wagner Leal Arienti;  France: Gilles Raveaud, Olivier Vaury;  Switzerland: Joseph Weissmahr;  Japan: Susumu Takenaga;  United States: Benjamin Balak, Daniel Lien, Paul Surlis;  At large: Paddy Quick


You are encouraged to post this newsletter to mailing lists and forums, and to pass it on to interested parties,
especially students.  

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