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post-autistic economics newsletter

Issue no. 3, 27 November 2000
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Amartya Sen Enters the Debate
  (Edward Fullbrook)




On October 31st the neoclassical mainstream launched a counter-offensive against the French post-autistic economics movement. The amount of planning and co-ordination that obviously had gone into the surprise attack in Le Monde ended doubts as to the perceived seriousness of the threat posed by the French reform movement. The Paris daily's three-page spread appeared under the headline: The counter-appeal that we publish fuels the debate on the excess of modélisation.  The special section on the debate, which has occupied France since last summer,  included eight articles.  One was a highly ambiguous interview with Amartya Sen.  

These new Le Monde articles are significant for what they reveal about how the neoclassicalists view their position in strategic terms.  Previously one did not known what tactics they would use if forced to come out for a fight.  Now we do.  For their defence they have adopted the strategy of misrepresenting their 
adversaries'  position. This cynicism stunned members of the French student opposition. (See their response below.)  From its inception, the post-autistic challenge to traditionalist practice has been very clear about its two principal points of contention:

    1.  the issue of pluralism versus single-minded dogmatism and the imperative need for the former in economics, and
    2.  the need to liberate economics from its autistic obsession with formal  models that have no obvious empirical reference.

Furthermore, to avoid unnecessary misunderstanding, the reform movement has 
emphasised -- and the French students especially -- that it does not oppose the instrumental use of mathematics in economics any more than it does in the natural sciences, but rather its use as an end in itself.  It is mathematics for science versus mathematics for scientism that is the dividing line.  The traditionalists, however, have seized upon the possibility here for misunderstanding as their main line of defence. Several of the Le Monde articles exploit this possibility as a means of deflecting discussion into a pseudo-debate. Counting on the relative ignorance of their readers, the articles work to convey the false impression that the reform movement wants and only wants to banish all mathematics from economics.   

One Le Monde article goes so far as to use Keynes'  I = S and C = cY as  examples of the sort of mathematical practice being challenged.  Another article, unsigned, leads with the question: "What are the mathematical tools used by economists?"  Answer: statistics and "models without numerals".  The implication given is that the reformers want to banish statistics and all models, e.g., I = S.  A third article, signed by 15 neoclassicalists, repeats this  misrepresentation and then equates criticism of the neoclassical mainstream with attacks on "the scientific approach in economics".  This reliance on tactics  of obfuscation and false representation suggests that the traditionalists themselves regard their position as intellectually indefensible.  

The interview with Amartya Sen is disappointing because the interviewers' questions lead Sen away from the real debate and into the pseudo-debate.  There is no indication, nor reason to expect, that Sen has read the open letters of either the students or the teachers. Nor does he appear to have the issues that they have raised in focus.  

Consequently the interview becomes centred on the non-question of mathematics or not mathematics. Characteristically, Sen takes a diplomatic line.  After expounding magnanimously and learnedly on the French origins of the mathematical tradition, he notes that both it and non-mathematical approaches have their place. This is scarcely controversial.  Nor is it satisfying.  At the end of the interview we are left wondering what are Sen's opinions about the issues that have galvanised the French economics world, and increasingly that of the rest of the world, since June.  

Does Amartya Sen believe that economics and economics teaching should be focused less on axiomatics and empirically empty models and more on  economic realities?  Does he wish to see the influence of scientism in economics reduced?   Does he support pluralism, and, if so, in what context?  Does he believe that students and economists should be encouraged or discouraged from asking difficult questions?  Is he ethically at ease with drives to banish economists and economics that are out of sync with neoclassical doctrines?  These are the questions that were not asked Sen, but whose answers it would be good to hear.  




The Students' Response
  (trans. J. Walter Plinge)  

Des cours d'économie pertinents: chiche

So the economic teachers have acknowledged that something is not quite right in the universities (Le Monde, Tuesday, 31 Oct). We are delighted at this belated awareness. But, even so, we are perplexed at the direction that these events are taking.

Have we centered our critiques on mathematics? No. Have we questioned 
econometrics, an empirical practice that must be distinguished from formal models?   No. On the contrary, as our open letter states clearly, we are disturbed by the continuous construction of imaginary worlds; that is, the intellectual constructs (the famous models) whose relevance remains to be demonstrated. We also have questioned the manifest lack of pluralism.  So also does the petition of the teachers who support us and who contest the  near total domination of "neoclassical" theory, whose limits, as well as  capabilities, should be clearly presented.  One can see then, that the place of
mathematics is secondary in our demands.

But it is true that the excesses of mathematics combined, in the absence
of pluralism, with imaginary worlds is disastrous. Is it, then, a simple
matter of pedagogy as our critics say? No, surely not, since as we all
know, teaching is not just a matter of teaching methods.

What we ask for is simple: to have the empirical and theoretical tools which will permit us to understand the world in which we live. Do economics classes discuss business, the state, or even the market? No. Do they teach us the operation of the French economy; of Europe; of Japan? No. Do the classes offered enable understanding of the recent Asian crises, of the fluctuations of the Euro, or of the reforms in progress for the United Nations Center on Transnational Corporations. No. Etc. 

All this can be achieved, suggest the economists who oppose our call for reform, by using a single and unique "scientific" method. That is to say, 
one which proceeds exclusively by the construction of hypotheses, the development of resulting equations, and then empirical tests which normally lead to refutation of some theories and confirmation of others. But the truth is that this ideal economics is well hidden, since none of us have yet had the good fortune to encounter it. Textbooks and courses are content to repeat the litanies of models without questioning them on an empirical basis.

But beyond that, we are sceptical about the relevance of this approach
that wants for itself exclusivity.  Should the discipline's role really be reduced to one of providing statistics, or should it not equally play a role in the formulations of hypotheses?  Can one abstain from all empirical
observation?  Is the input of other disciplines (law, psychology, sociology, management) really unnecessary for the understanding of the principal problems of economics? As Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winner for
economics in 1998, said, "It is also necessary to recognise that the
over-use of mathematics can be a sad means that deadlocks those subjects which are of ongoing importance, even if one cannot translate them into equations."  We are astonished, therefore, to see some economists 
appealing to the scientific character of  their discipline, given its meagre results on "important subjects" (unemployment, globalisation, fluctuations in the price of oil, etc.).

We desire, then, an end to the pseudo-polemic about mathematics. 
Explained clearly and in terms of convincing theories, mathematics are obviously welcome in the teaching of economics. We are astonished to
have to clarify this point. But what must be taught above all, and which, moreover, some teachers are attempting to do, is the origin of models, their importance and their consequences in terms of the political economy. In short, we have had enough of "economics for children" classes, where
the fundamental limits the theories presented, be they empirical or logical,  are only rarely mentioned. Furthermore, each course should be accompanied by a practical work schedule that allows the manipulation of proposed models. That is, in fact, the only means of understanding their logical operation and evaluating their relevance.

A reform of the pedagogy is no doubt one way to renew the appeal of
economic sciences. But that is not sufficient.  As with all the human
sciences, economics should identify its intellectual origins, its political plans and the ideologies of its scientists. Nor should it close itself off to other human sciences, under the pretext of science.

Therefore one must stop taking the students for imbeciles who don't want
to do math any more. The debate is now in the hands of the economists:
Sirs, Madams, would you like to convince us of the relevance of your
theories, of the appropriateness of your science? We ask only that. . . We
are waiting.    
Movement des étudiants pour la réforme de                                                             l'enseignement de l'économie
45, rue d'Ulm, 75005 Paris




Analysis of the Events in France  (Joseph Halevi)  

France is historically a country were radicalism is deep seated, at the same time it is also a place where power structures around the technocratic élites are extremely well entrenched.  The present movement about reforming economic curricula is a central part of the upswing stage of a new radical sentiment and orientation.  Its roots are in the awareness generated by the struggles for the defense of the public sector in 1995 and 1996, in the activities against homelessness and social exclusion which have regularly criss-crossed the country in the last 5 years.  A very important role has been played by the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique which has articulated an alternative and very well informed perspective on economic and social issues at the world level.  Alternatives Economiques has also contributed to keep open the door of non-conformist thought.  Both journals are widely read by high school (Lycée) teachers and university students.

Yet the main factor which made the awareness possible is that in France the social sciences are not yet monopolized and colonized by economics and they command intellectual respect.  Students know that history, politics, and 
philosophy are not only important but that they ought to impact upon economics as well.  Hence the view that economics is in the end Political Economy cannot be erased from people's minds.  In this respect Italy is today far more normalized along American lines than France.  If we look back to three decades ago, we see that France's economics was rather pluralistic. There was still a large space for literary-descriptive and historical economics of both left-wing and right-wing orientation (Raymond Barre for instance). There existed, among others, a number of Circuitistes schools, an original French development of Keynes' ideas, as well as a number of Régulation schools, some of which linked up with the U.S. based social structure of accumulation approach.  These contributions are still appreciated among the teachers in the Lycées.  But, except for few places, they rarely feature in the university curricula.

It is with François Mitterrand as President and with Lionel Jospin as Education minister, whom the radicals of the 1960s and 1970s broadly supported, that technocracy took over totally.  This meant giving enormous national importance to those Graduate Schools, programs and research centers that formed economists as ingénieurs.  The neoclassicists, who ended up seeing their own institutions as little MIT cells on French soil, benefited most in terms of funding and of the power over the nationally based procedures of academic recruitment.  Orthodoxy monopolized the social reproduction mechanism. "Economics is not a discourse about society, it is about testing hypotheses", thundered Edmond Malinvaud in his opening address at the Conference Is Economics Becoming a Hard Science? held in Paris at the end of 1992. That was and still is the mindset that the students are confronting.

Their mass movement has frightened the establishment who responded by relying on the faith in scientism which characterizes and unifies French élites, including part of the radical public.  Thus, the clash is being portrayed as revolving around the issue of mathematics rather than around the social and historical significance of what is being taught.  Jean Paul Fitoussi, appointed by the minister of Education to head the committee for the reform of the economic curricula, is himself a high ranking cadre of the technocratic vision.  Only two years ago he published with MIT's Olivier Blanchard a book on unemployment in France where they use a most traditional production function with a natural rate of unemployment as a floor [Croissance et chômage rapport Conseil d'analyse économique; Olivier Blanchard et Jean-Paul Fitoussi, Paris: La Documentation française, 1998].  Furthermore the same co-author Blanchard wrote in the Libération issue of October 16 a rather unsophisticated defense of orthodoxy, claiming even that it helped cope with the Asian crisis!  The technocratic élite is attempting to ride the tiger and, in the process, to remain well entrenched.  It is up to the students' alertness to invalidate the dictum plus ça change plus c'est la même chose.

(Joseph Halevi, University of Sydney, has taught at the Universities of Grenoble and Nice.)




"Top 40 Economists on the Net" www.paecon.net
pages returned on Google
for name plus "economics"

1.   Karl Marx                           56,000
2.   Adam Smith                      32,000
3.   John Maynard Keynes     26,400

4.   David Ricardo                  23,400

5.  Aristotle                              20,600

6.  John Kenneth Galbraith    11,100

7.  Vilfredo Pareto                    9,980
8.  Frederick Engels                 9,950

9.  Milton Friedman                   9,930

10. Thomas Malthus                 7,880

11. Paul Krugman                     7,270

12. Thomas Aquinas                7,100

13. Ludwig von Mises               6,970

14. E.F. Schumacher                6,760

15. Joseph Schumpeter           6,050

For the rest of this list and also the "Top 40 Living Economists on the Net" go to
http://www.paecon.net/  These lists are updated bimonthly.  









In Brief  

United Kingdom, Leeds: On Friday December 1st, Gilles Raveaud, Olivier Vaury, Ioana Marinescu and Pierre-Antoine, four of the student leaders of the post-autistic economics movement in France will appear with Tony Lawson in a round table on "The Future of Economics". The occasion is The Fifth Postgraduate Economics Conference at Leeds University Business School.  Details and booking information are at http://www.leeds.ac.uk/cipp/pgc.htm  

Argentina, Buenos Aires: A meeting has been held at the Institute of Economic Research of University of Buenos Aires to discuss this newsletter and to consider establishing a pae movement in Argentina.  

Australia:  Beginning in November a post-autistic economics movement has emerged in Australia.  Its web-site, which features Australian petitions for signing, is http://www.powerup.com.au/~richleon/  

Canada: pae petitions for Canadian economic students and economists are posted at http://www.geocities.com/nathan_nunn/paestudent.htm and http://www.geocities.com/nathan_nunn/paeteacher.htm  

China: F----- X--------, an economist of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is this newsletter's first subscriber in China.  

France: Autisme-économie has put up a new web-site with a new petition at
http://www.autisme-economie.org  They also have organised a month of debates at universities throughout France.  The first was held last week at the University of Lille and attracted more than 100 students and teachers.  These local debates are part of the build-up to the big national meeting of students and teachers for reform to be held in Paris.  The date for that meeting has not yet been set, but it is now expected that it will be in January.  Details for foreign journalists wishing to attend will be posted on the announcements page of www.paecon.net as soon as they are available.  Meanwhile, student leaders expect soon to have their first meeting with Jean-Paul Fitoussi, the head of the government commission now investigating the state of economics in French universities.  

Spain, Madrid: The Asociacion de Estudiantes de Economicas has launched in Spain 
a post-autistic economics movement based on the one in France.  They have translated into Spanish the pae student and teacher petitions, and since mid-November have been  actively circulating them.  They have been pleasantly surprised by the level of support from professors.  The A.e.e. has also put up a web-site at  http://www.aee.es.org/Post%20autistic%20economics%20index.htm  It features the pae petitions in Spanish, a short introduction to the post-autistic economics movement,  back issues of this newsletter, and various documents pertaining to economics and the teaching of economics in Spain.  The Madrid-based movement is hopeful that in the first instance it will be able to introduce "new subjects" into the economics curriculum such as heterodox economics and the history of economic thought.  But its longer-run goal is to introduce pluralism into the introductory and intermediate micro and macro courses, such as is achieved in Hugh Stretton's superb Economics: A new introduction (London & Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press, 1999.  

USA, Boston:
 On October 9 The Boston Globe noted the appearance of this newsletter as a sign of interesting things to come.  

USA, Ivy League: There is a pae student petition for "Ivy League Students" at http://www.geocities.com/ivy_league_student_petition  

USA, San Diego: On October 13, the San Diego Union Tribune featured an editorial essay, "The faux Nobel Prize?", by Michael A. Bernstein, economist and historian at the University of California San Diego. The essay describes how economics has "sought to cloak itself, by use of the Nobel name, in the trappings of an objectivity it did not and could not possess."  Bernstein concludes by citing the revolution now taking place in France as a real cause for hope for a general reform of economics.    

The Web: November 21, Google lists 286 web pages for "post-autistic economics".




EDITOR: Edward Fullbrook
CORRESPONDENTS: Argentina: Iserino;  Australia: Joseph Halevi, Richard Sanders;  Brazil: Wagner Leal Arienti;  France: Gilles Raveaud, Olivier Vaury; J. Walter Plinge; Germany: Helge Peukert;  Japan: Susumu Takenaga;   Spain: Jorge Fabra;  United Kingdom: Nitasha Kaul;  United States: Benjamin Balak, Daniel Lien, Paul Surlis;  At large: Paddy Quick


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