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post-autistic economics newsletter

Issue no. 4;  29 January 2000

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                                                   In this issue:

                                                   - James Galbraith replies to Robert Solow 

                                                   - The Franco-American neoclassical alliance

                                                   - Two curricula: Chicago vs. PAE

                                                   - Advice from student organizers
                                                   - What's in the name?


A contribution on the state of economics
in France and the world

James K. Galbraith  (University of Texas at Austin)

(This is an excerpt.  The full text is available in the media archives section of www.paecon.net )

Professor Robert Solow, a distinguished and notably non-autistic economist, has recently
entered the debate in the pages of Le Monde on the questions of economic teaching raised
originally, and now placed before the world community, by the French students.  Permit me
to underline the important points that Professor Solow acknowledges, while at the same
offering a few points of difference where, in my view, the French students have made a
stronger case than Professor Solow is willing to concede.  . . . .

First,  it is worth asking -- since neither Professor Solow nor I have been in French classrooms
lately --  just how strongly supported are the claims put forward in the students' petition.

Are they [the students’ claims of an autistic curriculum] contradicted by any opposing body
of students . . . ?   To my knowledge, they have not been. 

So, are they contradicted by the professors, whose work they so deeply indict?  First, it is
worth noting that while the students are united, the French professors are divided. Some
support the students. Others do not.  The latter group admits to this fact, in its
counter-appeal lately published in Le Monde . . . .

The responding professors . . . raise two issues, the first being the role of mathematics in
economic instruction, and the second being an allegation that the students have launched
une attaque partisane” against the central theories of modern scientific economics.
Professor Solow himself has rightly dismissed the first issue . . .  The students have not
raised an objection to the use of mathematics in economics, and it is beside the point to
rebut their complaint on this ground.
It is therefore the second issue – the question of whether the French students may have
improperly objected to the core propositions and methods of a scientific economics, that is
pertinent, and here Professor Solow expresses his reservations about the movement.  And
it is this issue that is, indeed, the interesting one, the issue that tends also to preoccupy
professional economists who concern themselves in a serious way with methodological

To begin with, Professor Solow points out, rightly and importantly, that applied economics
properly consists of a series of particular models, drawn from a variety of intellectual and
scientific traditions, which help to structure thinking about empirical issues.

Thus, for example: Does the distribution of changes in asset prices or exchange rates follow
a normal curve, or one with fatter tails and hence a higher risk of catastrophic deviations? 
Is the market for low wage labor characterized by monopsony power (so that increasing
minimum wages may raise rather than reduce employment)? Can free international capital
movements be justified when information is not equally available to all sides of the resulting
transactions?  Does economic inequality tend to fall, or rise, with economic growth? Does
unemployment rise when inequality falls, and vice versa (the conventional position), or do
more equal societies have fuller employment, as a rule, than less equal societies (my
position)?  These are issues all of which can be, and are, contestable using tools that
ought to be part of the research training of economists everywhere.

Professor Solow notes that the French students do not make clear that they understand
just how much of the terrain of so-called “neoclassical” economics is under such contest
these days.  But how could they make such a thing clear, if it is not part of their training?

And that brings us to the question, what on earth are the professors teaching?  Nowhere in
the counter-appeal is there the simple acknowledgment that these and similar issues are,
in fact, among the most hotly and openly contested questions in economics today. Indeed,
the professors do not acknowledge that any issues are contested! Instead, they resort to a
characterization of their discipline that is completely at odds with the pragmatic and
practical approach described by Professor Solow.  . . . 

            In other words, the counter-appeal professors appear oblivious to the high controversy on
most important issues of theory, fact and policy into which even neoclassical economics
has descended in recent years. They seem unaware of the heterogeneity of models and
methods breaking out everywhere in economic research. Truly, if this is a correct
perception, then in Professor Solow’s words, “ils ne font pas correctement leur travail.”1

But what about the question of alternative theoretical approaches?  Is there anything
missing even from the hotly contested domains of modern mainstream economics?  I
believe there is, and would point to three large areas that have nearly disappeared from
the teaching of economics even where that activity is otherwise competently carried out,
at very considerable intellectual and social cost. 

The first is the history of economics itself.  The intellectual roots of our subject – going
back in Anglo-American tradition to Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, Marx, Mill, Veblen (not
Swedish as Le Monde has erroneously reported in passing, but American), Keynes and
Galbraith père, not to mention such great French figures as Quesnay, Say, Walras... is
sorely neglected, and so is the study of the historical relationship between economics and
other disciplines, notably physics and the theory of evolution, as well as the modern
philosophy of science (a vastly more interesting topic than the crude description of method
in the French professors’ statement would make it appear).  As a matter of intellectual
formation, a great deal of potential creativity is lost when students do not have the origins of
their own subject available to them as an object of study.

Second, there is a tradition of macroeconomic and monetary economics that has largely been
submerged by the neoclassical emphasis on market transactions between firms and households. . . .

Third, I would argue from my experience as a teacher of research methods that the French
students are correct in emphasizing the need for instruction in differing institutional contexts,
political, national and international structures, policy histories, and also methods for collecting
economic data and for evaluating the quality of information contained in economic data sets. . . .

A scientific economics, as Professor Solow states with my emphatic agreement, must be a
diverse, pragmatic, applied enterprise with an open discussion of controversial questions.  I
go beyond Professor Solow mainly in emphasizing that the core arrangement of theoretical
propositions in economics also remains among the questions worthy of debate and therefore
of inclusion in the curriculum of economics, since a theoretical framework cannot be debated
unless it is first properly taught.  The pretense that a single axiomatic framework can be, or
has been, built up for all time from first principles and verified by observation -- the stated
contention of the counter-appeal -- merely reveals how far removed from the reality of our
profession that statement is. 

            It also constitutes the best evidence that the French students are correct in their appeal
for fundamental reform.

1  One might add that the remainder of the counter-appeal includes an effort to besmirch the motives of the
professors and students involved in the protest. This section, with its reference to “conspiracy theory,”
unsupported by evidence, does not inspire confidence in the scientific disposition of those who signed
the counter-appeal.

The Franco-American Neoclassical Alliance 
Joseph Halevi (University of Sidney)

Solow's and Blanchard's appearances in the two most intellectually oriented papers
(Le Monde 12 December 2000 and Liberation 13 October) of France is not a random
event. It is the result of the difficulty in which the French neoclassicists find themselves
since the students' movement began in June. At the beginning of Fall a counter-manifesto
appeared in Le Monde. Its impact has been insignificant and, if anything, it strengthened
the students' position in the eyes of public opinion. The counter-manifesto ignored all the
remarks made by the students in their original manifesto and just harkened back on the
scientificity of economics.  The paucity of their arguments was striking.

Hence the French establishment has resorted to the Americans, initially via Blanchard,

who, surprise surprise, writes with Fitoussi on the French economy. Blanchard is French

but he has been with MIT for more than a decade and is now the chairperson of the

economics department. Blanchard was as poor and as dogmatic as the counter-manifesto.

He claimed that modern mathematical economics has solved the Smith-Walras puzzle of

how markets hang together. In this way he highlighted his complete ignorance of Smithian

and classical economics which is a cost of production theory of price and value and not a

supply and demand story. Furthermore, he maintained that present neoclassical theory is

useful to understand, among other things, the Asian crisis. A very bold statement indeed!

Even neoclassically born and bred economists like Joseph Stiglitz would reject such an

absurd assertion.


Finally, Blanchard took a typical comprador posture stating that the research done in the

USA is the best you can possibly get. Indeed this is exactly what the directors of the

neoclassical centers in France, such as in Toulouse (home of Laffont), Marseille, Paris 1,

think. They want their own centers to be just MIT/Stanford cells located on French soil.

And, not insignificantly, they want to use their American connections and France's

establishment inferiority-complex vis a vis the USA, to gain absolute power in matters

concerning certification of doctoral programs, research funds, appointments and

promotions. These are issues that in France are decided at the national level. This is

why the power of these centers is real only if it is mirrorred in the national institutions.


On the whole the Blanchard piece was even more disastrous than the counter-manifesto

Finally, Solow has been brought to the rescue. Behind his pragmatic stance there lay a

very imperialistic attitude, blaming the French for being bad teachers. But MIT itself

nurtured the very individuals who stalinistically endeavoured to enshrine the

monopoly of neoclassicism in France's economics: Laffont and Tirole just to

mention two of them.


These episodes show that the students perception that Le Monde was setting up a straw

or false debate is correct. But the problem does not pertain only to Le Monde. It is the

coordinated reaction of the establishment that the students are facing. Fitoussi, with his

links to MIT and homme de pouvoir in France, is fully part of the establishment. In his

capacity as the head of the Committee entrusted with writing the report he is not without

heavy vested interests. The students are surely aware of this fact.


Two Curricula: Chicago vs. PAE 


Robert Solow's suggestion in Le Monde, that there is not really so much difference
between what the French students are asking for and what North American economics
departments offer, appears wildly erroneous and misleading when the core curriculum
proposed by the French PAE students is juxtaposed to the core economics curriculum
of the University of Chicago, the acknowledged gold standard of American economics

Below you will find first Chicago's core curriculum (as downloaded from the web) and
then the core curriculum put forward by the students in France.  In fact the difference
between the two curricula is even greater than appears.  They have been constructed on
the basis of radically different epistemological and pedagogical principles.  Whereas the
traditional approach lets the theory-generated tool kit determine what aspects of
economic reality are admitted for consideration, the post-autistic approach, in line with
the natural sciences, reverses the order of determination. Gilles Raveaud, one of the
authors of the French PAE core, sums up the new approach as follows.  "Our view is:
courses can no longer focus on TOOLS (maximizing under constraint, finding local and
general extrema), but on PROBLEMS (incomes, poverty, unemployment, monetary
policy, international trade, European Union, developing countries, immigration, new
economy, ecology, etc.).  The tools would then be used only to the limit of their
relevance for analysing such problems, and not for their own sake.




University of Chicago Core Curriculum

Program of Study
The Bachelor of Arts program in economics is intended to equip students with the basic tools
required to understand the operation of a modern economy: the origin and role of prices and
markets, the allocation of goods and services, and the factors that enter into the determination of
income, employment, and the price level.
Program Requirements
 The Bachelor of Arts concentration in economics . . . must include the core curriculum, which
consists of price theory (Economics 200, 201) and macroeconomics (Economics 202 and 203).
One course in economic history (Economics 221, 222, 223, 225, 229, or 254) and two courses in
econometrics are also required; the latter requirement is normally met by Statistics 220 and
Economics 210.  . . . . Students concentrating in economics must also take three mathematics
courses beyond the general education requirement.

Thus Chicago's core curriculum is divided into 10 parts, of which three are pure
mathematics, two are econometrics and statistics, four are analytical "tools", and
one is economic history.  These are listed as follows.


1.  pure mathematics
2.  pure mathematics
3.  pure mathematics

4.  The Elements of Economic Analysis I.   This course develops the economic theory of consumer choice. This theory characterizes optimal choices for consumers given their incomes, their preferences, and the relative prices of different goods. The course develops tools for analyzing how these optimal choices change when relative prices and consumer incomes change. Finally, the course presents several measures of consumer welfare. Students learn how to evaluate the impact of taxes and subsidies using these measures. If time permits, the course examines the determination of market prices and quantities, given primitive assumptions concerning the supply of goods.
5.  The Elements of Economic Analysis II.  This course is continuation of Econ 200. The first part discusses markets with one or a few suppliers. The second part focuses on demand and supply for factors of production and the distribution of income in the economy. The course also includes some elementary general equilibrium theory and welfare economics.
6.  The Elements of Economic Analysis III.  As an introduction to macroeconomic theory and policy, this course covers the determination of aggregate demand (consumption, investment, and the demand for money), aggregate supply, and the interaction between aggregate demand and supply. The course also discusses activist and monetarist views of fiscal and monetary policy.
7.  The Elements of Economic Analysis IV.  This is a course in money and banking, monetary theories, the determinants of the supply and demand for money, the operation of the banking system, monetary policies, financial markets, and portfolio choice. 

8.   Econometrics A.  Econometrics A covers the single and multiple linear regression model, the associated distribution theory, and testing procedures; corrections for heteroskedasticity, autocorrelation, and simultaneous equations; and other extensions as time permits. Students also apply the techniques to a variety of data sets using PCs. Students are encouraged to meet this requirement by the end of the third year.
9.  Statistical Methods and Their Applications.  This course is an introduction to statistical techniques and methods of data analysis, including the use of computers. Examples are drawn from the biological, physical, and social sciences. Students are required to apply the techniques discussed to data drawn from actual research. Topics include data description, graphical techniques, exploratory data analyses, random variation and sampling, one- and two-sample problems, the analysis of variance, linear regression, and analysis of discrete data. One or more sections of Stat 220 use examples drawn from economics and business and a selection of texts and topics that are more appropriate for concentrators in economics.
10.  economic history

French PAE Students' Proposed Core Curriculum 

Proposals for a common core in the curriculum of economics
Three groupings without a predetermined hierarchy

First Group:  « Descriptive economics : history of economic and social phenomena , actors and institutions »
 1.   History of economic and social phenomena (including the history of economic and social policies).
     2.   Actors, organizations, institutions.
                -The State (public administrations, public law, public finance) 
                -Firms (accounting methods for private firms, commercial law, financial analysis…).
                *The financial and the banking system  (The banks and the Central Bank, money and finance).
                *Trade Unions (collective bargaining, labor law).
                *Associations (diversity, the social economy).
                *International economic institutions (international economic relations,
                    the international monetary and  financial system, public law, international law…).
    3.   Descriptive economics (active population, structure of the productive system, household's budgets), 
            national accounting systems, economic geography (studying the areas of economic integration, 
            problems of development..).  
Second Group :
« Theories and issues »
    1.  History of economic theories (The Classics, Marx and Marxism, Marginalism, Keynes and 
            Keynesianism, the Austrians, the Neoclassicalists, the Institutionalists). 
    2.   Political and moral philosophy (thinking about the concepts of justice, equality, distribution, 
             efficiency,…). An important part of this course will have to be assigned to the examination 
             of case studies (such as  « can health care be left to the free interplay of market forces ?, 
             « up to what point should borders be opened ? », should genes be treated as commodities ? 
Third Group : « Applied economics and quantitative methods » 
The quantitative and formal techniques available to the economists (statistics econometrics, matrix
algebra…) are justified only as long as they can be applied to concrete situations. It is necessary
therefore to study those quantitative techniques (operation research, forecasting models, simulation
models..) in relation to questions of current relevance corresponding to political and social issues. This
kind of work can be undertaken only in small groups. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the possible themes.
            -Taxation (should  the petrol tax be lowered ? should the income tax system be reformed ?).
                        -Administered prices and the pricing of public utilities’ services (Electricite de France,
                    the national railways 
                -SNCF, prices, the prices of pharmaceuticals,…)
            -Pollution (the market for the rights to pollute, ecotax,…).
            -The regulation of financial flows (Tobin Tax, prudential regulation).
            -The social minima (the unemployment trap, disincentives..)
            -Economic forecasting (contribution and limits of modelling).
            -Competition (regulation of monopolies, anti trust policies,…). 
            -Insurance (information asymmetries, social insurances such as social security).
In the same vein we include in this group the topic economic and social policies. This inclusion will
allow the study of the IS-LM and Mundell Fleming models etc as tools addressing specific questions
(such as the coordination of budgetary policies in the Euro zone , exchange rate policies…).

Options (such as Law, sociology, psychology, history, microeconomics, game theory) can also be
pursued during the course of studies in order to facilitate interdisciplinary openness
                                                                                                  ( trans. Joseph Halevi )

Advice from Student Organizers

Olivier Vaury, France

When you want to launch a movement like ours, you immediately become aware of three

  1.  the students may not be at all interested: they merely want to pass
     their degrees, no matter what they learn,
  2.  the teachers may be satisfied with the current situation, and,
  3.  last but not least, the journalists may not be at all interested.

I would like to focus on the third obstacle, and to emphasize the fact that it is not that big.

And this is the reason why: nowadays, people who want to change something in the

society they live in are not very numerous. This makes it easy to be heard : less

competition!  Moreover, journalists are happy to get some "ready-made" material: do not

hesitate to provide them with your articles, and other relevant documents, so that they 

can simply "copy and paste". Moreover, some of them are really interested in the reform

of the economics faculties, and may not be convinced by mainstream's purported

"scientificity". You can go and meet them with petitions, with representatives of the

teachers, and show them articles by well-known economists (Leontief, Galbraith,

Simon...). If you come from a major University, they will be impressed and inclined to

take your protest into account.

Gilles Raveaud, France

Our experience is that the very most important point is to focus on TEACHING. Since

there are obviously teaching problems (i.e. lots of maths without much relevance), the

majority of teachers will agree with you on that point, even if they may disagree on other

points. This is even more true now with what is going on in France, because many

teachers fear students' reaction. You just have to prove to them that their misgivings are

justified, and not let them continue "teaching as usual" as if nothing is happening. It is

also a good argument for the press : journalists have absolutely no idea of what is going

on in universities. They are amazed when you tell them what you spend your days at.

So focusing on teaching problems is indeed an excellent starting point: most of the

people will listen to you, understand what you say, and probably agree with you. Larger

consequences (theoretical, or even political in a broad sense) will come afterwards.

But it is very important to keep away from such aspects in the beginning, as students

are always suspected (in France at least) of being politically biased. And never forget

that many social movements have involved students in the past : so when you say that,

as students, you are not pleased with what is going on, lots of people will indeed pay

attention. We can tell you. It is really easier than it seems...

Jorge Fabra, Spain (Economics Student Association, Madrid)

The French student mobilisation has spread to Spain.  Here too it has led to public

debate concerning the future of economics.  But whereas in France the debate has

tended to become focused on the excessive use of mathematics, in Spain we are

focusing it on the absence of pluralism in the study of economics.  But we see both

problems as interrelated.  Both escapeism into formalism and the exclusion of all

analysis that is not broadly neoclassical lead to the same terrifying outcome: economists

unable to deal with, maybe even unaware of, the real economics problems of today and

tomorrow.  Inequalities throughout the world are growing extremely fast; 

economies are ruining environments and the biosphere; the nature of economic

transactions is changing, etc, etc.. The study of economics should prepare students to

be able to analyse the problems of their time, not the time of their great-grandparents.  


Recently two articles supporting the post-autistic economics movement appeared in
El Pais
, Spain's leading newspaper.  Since then other student organizations have been
contacting us.  Some teachers have expressed their support. Here in Madrid, students
from four universities are holding a meeting to coordinate initiatives and to share ideas
for expanding the public debate.  Conferences and assemblies are a good way to
introduce the debate into economic departments.  And we have set up a web site,
www.aee.es.org , to inform through texts and articles. 

What's in the name?

Luigi Pasinetti has convinced me that it would be good idea to include in the newsletter the
following extracts from my emails to him regarding the meaning of "post-autistic economics". 


1.  The English word "autism" and its adjectival form "autistic" come from the Latin "autismus".
In "post-autistic economics" "autistic" is intended in its original and general meaning, rather
than in any specialist or technical sense, as in "infantile autism".  Thus: 
    The American Heritage Dictionary

            AUTISM:  1. Abnormal subjectivity, acceptance of fantasy rather than reality. 
            -autistic, adj.
    Merriam - Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
            AUTISM:  1. absorption in self-centered subjective mental activity (as daydreams,
            fantasies, delusions, and hallucinations) usually accompanied by withdrawal from reality.
            -autistic, adj.


2.  "post" is prepositional, and as such is value-neutral (e.g., post hoc).  It simply means
"after" and in English carries no connotations, either positive or negative.  Because of this
, the compounds in which it is found may carry positive, negative or neutral
connotations regarding the component that follows "post".   For examples, with post-modernism
the connotation is negative, with "post-war" acutely negative, with post-Keynesian acutely
positive, and with post-millennial neutral.


3.  The charge is not that neoclassical economics (marginalism and atomistic agents) is
autistic, but rather the insistence of the economics' establishment that economic reality
should in the main be viewed only to the extent that it is observable through this conceptual
lens. Any economic theory, including post-keynesianism could be turned to autistic ends. 
This is why pluralism figures so large in the French student and teacher petitions. The call
for pluralism is not a rhetorical device or a ploy to substitute one conceptual tyranny for
another, but rather a sincere call for economists to, like natural scientists do with the natural
world, fit their concepts to the multifarious, multidimensional and sometimes structurally
changing realities of the economic realm.  No one, in short, is arguing economics should
give up all neoclassical analysis, but rather that economics' window to reality should bigger
than this, much much bigger.


4.  I think the term "post-autistic" (it began with "autisme-economie" in France) is proving 
extremely useful. Firstly, it is neutral vis a vis the various heterodoxies. It is always difficult
and often impossible to get diverse dissenters to rally together under a common banner,
and yet this seems to have happened spontaneously with "post-autistic economics".  
Secondly, it captures the rhetorical high-ground for our side, in the same way that
"mainstream" does for theirs. Thirdly, it seems to convey a meaning that corresponds with
peoples' general impressions of contemporary economics, so much so, that to a certain
degree the name proves to be self-explanatory. In terms of building public awareness, this is
a valuable feature.  Finally, the name is catchy and memorable, perhaps because it is so ugly.


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;
India: Nitasha Kaul;  Spain: Jorge Fabra;  United States: Benjamin Balak, Daniel Lien, Paul Surlis:  At large: Paddy Quick

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