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post-autistic economics newsletter

Issue no. 7;  10 July 2001                                                        back issues at www.paecon.net

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                    In this issue:  
                  

                    - the editor,   A Moderate Proposal

                    - The Cambridge 27,   Opening Up Economics

                    - Paul Ormerod  Beyond Criticism

                    - Steve Keen,   Economists Have No Ears

                    - Grazia Ietto-Gillies,   Economics and Multinationals

                    - Emmanuelle Benicourt ,   A Year in French Economics

                    - Le Movement Autisme-economie  American Textbooks                 

 

 

 

                    
A Moderate Proposal

 

On June 14th, 27 PhD-students at Cambridge University released the open letter that
appears below.  Phil Faulkner, Leon Montes and Ingrid Robeyns wrote the proposal,
following a visit by members of
Le Movement Autisme-Économie.  The French students
“were keen for support from Cambridge, we felt entirely sympathetic with their point of
view, and thought we should express our position.  This was the primary purpose of the
proposal.”

But as with the open letter of the French students a year ago, the impact of the Cambridge
letter may turn out to be greater than its authors’ anticipated.  A canvassing of Cambridge
graduate students in economics generated many more positive replies than negative ones. 
But of the 27 PhD-students who initially expressed support for “Opening Up Economics”,
the majority feel that the likelihood of their being persecuted by the Cambridge Economics
Faculty, if their support were to become known, is such that they feel they must remain
anonymous for the time being.  Of course this climate of fear is not unknown in other
economics departments.   Even so, the present case is shocking because the most
noticeable thing about the graduate students’ proposal is how moderate it is.  It merely
raises three basic questions and encourages economists to discuss them openly.  It is
difficult to imagine how anyone who subscribes to the ethos of science or to the principles
of an open society could find the least objection to this proposal.

However, the facts are such that the Cambridge students need your support. They are
asking for economic students and economists, wherever they are based, who wish
to formally and publicly back their proposal to email them at

cesp@econ.cam.ac.uk  with the following:

"I support the proposal of the Cambridge economics PhD
students...signed"

Please include university/position if you wish these to be noted.  Your name will be posted
on the “Opening Up Economics” page at www.paecon.net  The web page will be regularly
updated with the full list of supporters. Already there are 86 names on the list.  It will only
take you a minute or less to add yours.

 

 

 

 



Opening Up Economics: A Proposal By Cambridge Students
The Cambridge 27  (University of Cambridge, UK)

As students at Cambridge University, we wish to encourage a debate on contemporary
economics. We set out below what we take to be characteristic of today's economics,
what we feel needs to be debated and why: As defined by its teaching and research
practices, we believe that economics is monopolised by a single approach to the
explanation and analysis of economic phenomena. At the heart of this approach lies a
commitment to formal modes of reasoning that must be employed for research to be
considered valid. The evidence for this is not hard to come by. The contents of the
discipline's major journals, of its faculties and its courses all point in this direction.

In our opinion, the general applicability of this formal approach to understanding

economic phenomenon is disputable. This is the debate that needs to take place.
When are these formal methods the best route to generating good explanations? What
makes these methods useful and consequently, what are their limitations? What
other methods could be used in economics? This debate needs to take place within
economics and between economists, rather than on the fringe of the subject or outside
of it all together.

In particular we propose the following:

1. That the foundations of the mainstream approach be openly debated. This requires
    that the bad criticisms be rejected just as firmly as the bad defences. Students,
    teachers and researchers need to know and acknowledge the strengths and
    weaknesses of the mainstream approach to economics.

2. That competing approaches to understanding economic phenomena be subjected

    to the same degree of critical debate. Where these approaches provide significant
    insights into economic life, they should be taught and their research encouraged
    within economics. At the moment this is not happening. Competing approaches
    have little role in economics as it stands simply because they do not conform to the
    mainstream's view of what constitutes economics. It should be clear that such a

    situation is self-enforcing.

This debate is important because in our view the status quo is harmful in at least four
respects. Firstly, it is harmful to students who are taught the 'tools' of mainstream
economics without learning their domain of applicability. The source and evolution of
these ideas is ignored, as is the existence and status of competing theories. Secondly,
it disadvantages a society that ought to be benefiting from what economists can tell us
about the world. Economics is a social science with enormous potential for making a
difference through its impact on policy debates. In its present form its effectiveness in
this arena is limited by the uncritical application of mainstream methods. Thirdly,
progress towards a deeper understanding of many important aspects of economic life is
being held back. By restricting research done in economics to that based on one
approach only, the development of competing research programs is seriously hampered
or prevented altogether. Fourth and finally, in the current situation an economist who
does not do economics in the prescribed way finds it very difficult to get recognition for
her research.

The dominance of the mainstream approach creates a social convention in the profession
that only economic knowledge production that fits the mainstream approach can be good
research, and therefore other modes of economic knowledge are all too easily dismissed
as simply being poor, or as not being economics. Many economists therefore face a
choice between using what they consider inappropriate methods to answer economic
questions, or to adopt what they consider the best methods for the question at hand
knowing that their work is unlikely to receive a hearing from economists.

Let us conclude by emphasizing what we are certainly not proposing: we are not arguing
against the mainstream approach per se, but against the fact that its dominance is taken
for granted in the profession. We are not arguing against mainstream methods, but believe
in a pluralism of methods and approaches justified by debate. Pluralism as a default
implies that alternative economic work is not simply tolerated, but that the material and
social conditions for its flourishing are met, to the same extent as is currently the case for
mainstream economics. This is what we mean when we refer to an 'opening up' of economics. 
cesp@econ.cam.ac.uk



 



 

 

 


 

Beyond Criticism
Paul Ormerod

I welcome very much the debate initiated by the PAE community about how economics
is taught and to what extent mathematics is appropriate to the discipline. I sympathise
with many of the aims.  Overall, I stand very firmly by the criticisms which I made of
conventional economics in the Death of Economics in 1994.  Economics needs a awful
lot of special assumptions to apply before it is able to give a good description of how the
world operates. 

Too often, economics loses sight of the fact that formal modelling skills are not the only
thing that matters in the social sciences.  Awareness of the social and institutional setting
in which a problem is being analysed is often essential, as is a knowledge of economic
history.  Social science is harder to do successfully than are the natural sciences. The
idea that people respond to incentives - to prices - is as close to a universal law as we
have got, but the strength of the response to a given set of incentives is emphatically not
universal.  It varies with the social and institutional setting and with the historical context.

We must abandon the wholly unrealistic claim of mainstream economics to have discovered
a general rule of agent behaviour - namely maximising behaviour - which applies in all
circumstances. We know the enormous amount of evidence from the cognitive sciences
about the limited ability of agents to process information, which undermines the concept of
maximisation except in very special circumstances. The appropriate rules of agent behaviour
will be shaped by the institutional setting in which agents operate.

But the excellent debate on economics which has been started is weak on a key issue. The
principal strength of economics is that it trains people to think analytically.  There is great
value in this, and we must now move beyond criticism.   The more effective and widespread
the criticisms are, the greater the responsibility on critics of orthodoxy to produce better
accounts of how the world operates . So far, it is only a distinct minority of critics of
mainstream economics which appreciates that there is a responsibility to provide not just
criticism but better analysis.  As Alan Kirman, a highly innovative economist based in
Marseilles, has remarked 'In the long list of those who have signed the petition, there seem
to be very few who are actually making an attempt to model the economy'.

My own work over the past few years has been concerned with trying to use the new
approaches of complexity theory to produce models which are more general than those of
orthodoxy, which need fewer assumptions to be valid in order to understand the world
better than existing models. I must stress that I am not being in any way prescriptive. 
Other approaches may prove to work as well or even better, but unless we make the effort,
the mainstream will simply ignore us.

To repeat again, to avoid misunderstanding, I am not saying that formal models are the
only thing which matters.  The world is a very complicated place, but an important way
in which we can make sense of it is by using models which are simplifications, often
drastically so, of reality.  The advantage which those of us in the critical community have
over many in the mainstream is that we are constantly aware of the fact that these are
simplifications.  Far too many economists have been socialised into believing that rational
maximisation is the only conceivable way in which agents can operate.     

It seems to me that the most restrictive assumptions of orthodoxy - restrictive in that it
severely limits its capacity to illuminate many real world problems - is the assumption that
the tastes and preferences of agents are fixed.  Individuals and firms in standard economic
theory can process huge amounts of information in exceptionally complicated ways, but
the one thing they are not allowed to do is to alter their behaviour in the light of what others
are doing.  They respond to the decisions of others only in so far as these affect the prices
of the goods and services which the individual buys and/or sells.  They do not want a
Teletubbie, say, or a hula hoop or, much more seriously, a 30 year US government bond
rather than a French one, simply because other people do.  But in the real world this sort
of behaviour is pervasive.  From fashion markets to financial markets to the degree of
optimism or pessimism which firms feel about the future, the opinions and behaviour of
others affects directly how individuals behave.

These are examples of what I believe will be the future of theoretical analysis in economics.
Other examples which I give in Butterfly Economics include the choice of restaurants, the
success and failure of Hollywood films, the evolution of crime, how family structures change,
and the American business cycle.  We are now in the position of being able to create micro
foundations of macro phenomena,  computer-based models in which individual agents
following rules of behaviour interact with each other.  And the macro properties of the system
emerge from these interactions.

Orthodox economics claims to be able to do this already.  Indeed, it can, but only under very
special circumstances. Conventional theory permits the behaviour of others to alter the
behaviour of any given individual only indirectly via the price mechanism.  Agents may convey
information to others, but this does not alter their tastes and preferences.  This assumption
is essential to the mathematics of conventional theory, which remains rooted firmly in the
nineteenth century.  It enables the behaviour of the system as a whole to be characterised by
the 'representative agent', and enables macro properties to be derived from individual
behaviour - the so-called 'micro-foundations of macro', the Holy Grail of conventional theory. 

This has been a powerful stick with which to beat dissidents, from the lowly post-graduate
student right up to Keynes himself - after all, where were the micro-foundations of his
so-called General Theory?  But now I believe the wheel has turned full circle.

Relaxing the assumption of fixed preferences opens up the possibility of a much better
understanding of how the world operates.  Conventional theory can be thought of merely
as a special case of this far more general approach: it has its greatest validity in
circumstances in which fixed preferences offer a reasonable approximation to reality,
like the shopper in the supermarket.

Until recently, it has not been possible to relax this central assumption.  The growing
ability to begin to understand systems in which agents can alter each other's behaviour
directly is, in my view, by far the most important methodological development in
economics for many years.  It will eventually change completely the way in which
economics is done. 

Methodologically, this approach enables a more scientific testing of theories.  The key
properties at the aggregate level of the system being examined are identified.  Time-series
econometrics consists of no more than curve-fitting around such properties.  In this
approach, individual agents are given behavioural rules.  The properties of the system as a
whole emerge from the interaction of these rules.  The macro-properties which emerge
from micro-behavioural rules can then be compared with the actual macro-properties.

So I find this very exciting.  Here is a development which enables orthodox economics to
be undermined on its own terms.  Yes, conventional economics does have micro
foundations of macro behaviour, but these are only applicable in special circumstances, and
the claim of orthodoxy to generality, to general rules, collapses. 

The approach also calls for very careful consideration of the framework in which the model
is set up - the institutional setting.  In trying to understand the possibilities for the exchange
rate, for example, a world of free capital movements implies a different set of behavioural
rules for the micro level agents than a world in which capital is controlled. 

It is not so much that orthodoxy is dead or useless, it's more a case of keeping the whole
construct in a  box to bring out on the occasions when it is relevant.  In the 21st century,
economics really can be re-born and give us a much better understanding of the world.
pormerod@volterra.co.uk

 

 

 

Economists Have No Ears
Steve Keen   (University of Western Sydney, Australia)

 

Thomas Kuhn once famously described textbooks as the vehicle by which students learn
how to do 'normal science' in an academic discipline. Economic textbooks clearly fulfil
this function, but the pity is that what passes for 'normal' in economics barely deserves
the appellation 'science'.

Most introductory economics textbooks present a sanitised, uncritical rendition of
conventional economic theory, and the courses in which these textbooks are used do
little to counter this mendacious presentation. Students might learn, for example, that
'externalities' reduce the efficiency of the market mechanism. However, they will not learn
that the 'proof' that markets are efficient is itself flawed.

Since this textbook rendition of economics is also profoundly boring, the majority of those
exposed to introductory course in economics do no more than this, and instead go on to
careers in accountancy, finance or management - in which, nonetheless, many continue to
harbour the simplistic notions they were taught many years earlier.

The minority which continues on to further academic training is taught the complicated
techniques of economic analysis, with little to no discussion of whether these techniques
are actually intellectually valid. The enormous critical literature is simply left out of
advanced courses, while glaring logical shortcomings are glossed over with specious
assumptions. However, most students accept these assumptions because their training
leaves them both insufficiently literate and insufficiently numerate.

Most modern-day economics students are insufficiently literate because economic
education eschews the study of the history of economic thought. Even a passing
acquaintance with this literature exposes the reader to critical perspectives on
conventional economic theory - but students today receive no such exposure.

They are insufficiently numerate because the material which establishes the intellectual
weaknesses of economics is complex. Understanding this literature in its raw form
requires an appreciation of some quite difficult areas of mathematics-concepts which
require up to two years of undergraduate mathematical training to understand.

Curiously, though economists like to intimidate other social scientists with the
mathematical rigour of their discipline, most economists do not have this level of
mathematical education. Though economics students do attend numerous courses on
mathematics, these are normally given by other economists. The argument for this
approach - the partially sighted leading the partially sighted - is that generalist mathematics
courses don't teach the concepts needed to understand mathematical economics (or the
economic version of statistics, known as econometrics). As any student of econometrics
knows, this is quite often true. However, it has the side effect that economics has
persevered with mathematical methods which professional mathematicians have long ago
transcended. This dated version of mathematics shields students from new developments
in mathematics that, incidentally, undermine much of neoclassical economic theory.

One example of this is the way economists have reacted to 'chaos theory'. Most
economists think that chaos theory has had little or no impact-which is generally true in
economics, but not at all true in most other sciences. This is partially because, to
understand chaos theory, you have to understand an area of mathematics known as
'ordinary differential equations'. Yet this topic is taught in very few courses on

mathematical economics - and where it is taught, it is not covered in sufficient depth.
Students may learn some of the basic techniques for handling linear difference or
differential equations, but chaos and complexity only begin to manifest themselves in
non-linear difference and differential equations'. A student in a conventional 'quantitative
methods in economics' subject will thus acquire the prejudices that 'dynamics is
uninteresting', which is largely true of the behaviour of linear dynamical systems, but not
at all true of non-linear systems. This prejudice then isolates the student from much of
what is new and interesting in mathematical theory and practice, let alone from what
scientists in other sciences are doing.

Economics students therefore graduate from Masters and PhD programs with an
effectively vacuous understanding of economics, no appreciation of the intellectual history
of their discipline, and an approach to mathematics which hobbles both their critical
understanding of economics, and their ability to appreciate the latest advances in
mathematics and other sciences.

A minority of these ill-informed students themselves go on to be academic economists,
and then repeat the process. Ignorance is perpetuated.

The attempt to conduct a critical dialogue within the profession of academic economics
has therefore failed, not because economics has no flaws, but because - figuratively
speaking - conventional economists have no ears. So then, 'No More Mr Nice Guy'.
If economists can't be trusted to follow the Queensberry Rules of intellectual debate,
then we critics have to step out of the boxing ring and into the streets. Hence my book
'Debunking Economics', which describes the many formal academic critiques of
neoclassical economics in a manner which - I hope - is accessible to a the interested
non-economist and non-mathematical readership. But it should also prove very useful to
those who have come to regard conventional economic theory as autistic, since it clearly
and simply explains the source of this endemic autism.

 s.keen@uws.edu.au



 

 

 

 

Economics and Multinationals
Grazia Ietto-Gillies   (South Bank University, London)

Multinationals are everywhere except in economic theories and economics departments.
Transnational companies (as I prefer to call them) or TNCs have been with us for a very long
time, but in recent years they have attracted special – often unwanted – attention. They
inspire street protests and counter-protests, globalisation debates and policy debates -
debates which TNCs often shape behind the scenes.

But the reality of TNCs remains largely absent from economic theory and curricula. In fact,
I come across many young bright economics graduates who have learned nothing about
TNCs and their activities in the course of their studies, though some of them are learning
about TNCs from anti (or pro) globalisation groups. The more prestigious and highly-rated
the university that the graduates come from, the less likely they are to have been taught
about TNCs. 

From the point of view of people in the streets, this situation looks incredible,  However,
in order to analyse it coolly, let us begin by assuming a world with no national barriers
and no frontiers, a single currency and a single tax regime, in other words the whole world
is a single nation state.  In this imaginary world there is no theory of international
production because there is, in effect, no international economic realm.  So here it
suffices to use location theory to explain where production is located and to use theories
of the firm, business governance and market structure to explain the growth of firms, their
boundaries and their behavior vis-à-vis other firms.  Because the international dimensions
to economic reality are assumed away, theories of TNCs and foreign direct investment are
redundant.

This is indeed the tacit approach taken in most traditional economics departments.  They
deal with the international economy at the macro level by teaching and researching issues
of international trade and balance of payments.  At the micro level, theories of the firm and
investment are not usually analyzed in the context of the nationality/transnationality of the
investor. Characteristics of companies other than multi-nationality (such as size or some
strategic behavior) are dealt with in the context of oligopoly theory. On the teaching side,
multinational companies, their existence, growth, and range of activities may be dealt with
in a couple of lectures within a unit on industrial economics.  This traditional approach can
indeed be justified if one takes the view that the nationality of the investor and the
transnationality of operations make no difference to the geographical pattern of investment
and production or to the overall amount of production or to its impact on the country where
the investment takes place.

But the recent development of separate theories of TNCs and their activities shows that a
large number of researchers now think that ‘nationality’ and transnationality do matter. 
The following factors are regarded as especially relevant: impact on host and home
countries; scope for investment; scope for the growth of the firm and the range of its
activities; structure and location of production worldwide; international trade; international
capital movements.

Until recently, research on TNCs has been confined mainly to ‘business schools’ on both
sides of the Atlantic. But the last ten/fifteen years has seen a growing interest in the
multinational company on the part of more traditional economists.  Two factors have led
to this increase. First, there has been a growing interest in “new trade theories” that deal
with location and geography issues.  Second, the modelling techniques used in these
theories can also be applied to the “new trade theories with MNCs” developed by Krugman,
Helpman, Markusen, Venables and others.  This allows economists, for the first time, to
look at MNCs in the context of general equilibrium theories. 

But there are problems with this line of attack, because it is essentially a multi-plant rather
than a multi-nation approach.  As such, it misses out on the main characteristics of TNCs:
their cross- and trans- nationality of operations.  This takes us to the arguments in favor of
putting the TNCs at the centre of economic theory and teaching.

Operating across national borders has three main dimensions. Firstly, there is a spatial
dimension: the geographical distance between (and within) production sites and markets,
and the related transportation costs.  Distance, however, is not a cross-border dimension;
it is not necessarily linked to nation-state frontiers. The geographical distance between
regions/cities of a single nation-state can be as great as the distance between
regions/cities belonging to different nation-states.            

Secondly, there is a cultural – including linguistic – dimension in cross-boundary
operations. Normally, cultural differences tend to be greater between than within
nation-states. But again this is only a crude generalization.  I doubt, for example,
whether Milan is culturally closer to Reggio Calabria than to Paris or Brussels.

Thirdly, there is a regulatory dimension.  Nation-states have different regulatory regimes,
including different laws, regulations and customs governing production, markets and the
use and movements of resources. Operating across national boundaries gives the TNCs
advantages in the following areas, most of them linked to the existence of different
regulatory regimes in different nation-states. (a) They confront a fragmented labour force
because labour has been unable, so far, to organise across nation-states. (b) They can
play national and regional governments against each other in bargaining for incentives.
(c) They can spread risks – particularly political risks - across a spectrum of countries.
(d) They have wide scope for the manipulation of prices for the internal transfer of products
– whether material components or services – between countries.

For all these reasons I believe that operating across national boundaries gives transnational
companies advantages (as well as some extra managerial and organisational costs). In
particular it gives them comparative advantages compared to actors who are unable to do
so. So far, transnational companies are the only economic actors who can truly plan,
organise, control activities internationally.  Other actors such as labour, national
governments, uninational companies and consumers are as yet unable to do so.  This
puts TNCs in a very special and privileged  position.

This special comparative position influences TNCs  decisions on where and how to
produce and sell.  It therefore is at the heart of issues of location of production, trade and
distribution, including the distribution of production and income across boundaries and
between labour and capital, and distribution of the surplus between the private and public
sectors and between different nation-states.

Conclusion
Nation-states and their regulatory regimes do matter for the decisions of the major players
in investment and production worldwide. Theories of transnational companies and of foreign
direct investment are needed because we have nation-states and frontiers. The activities of
transnational companies should be an integral part of both micro and macro theory because
they shape both micro and macro realities.. If we are serious about realism, then let us put
the reality of transnational companies at the forefront of our economics both in terms of
research agendas and teaching. The real world out there is doing so. People in the streets
have understood that the international operations of TNCs matter. We economists do not
seem to have awoken fully to this fact.

These issues are further developed by Grazia Ietto-Gillies in her new book Transnational Corporations:
Fragmentation amidst Integration,  Routledge Nov. 2001.  iettogg@sbu.ac.uk


 



A Year in French Economics
Emmanuelle Benicourt

In May 2000, we – a few  students from Parisian universities and grandes écoles (mainly
l’Ecole Normal Supérieure) – wrote an open letter in which we denounced the way
economics was taught in France. Our criticism included three basic points:

1.     Most courses deal with an “imaginary world”, and have no link whatsoever with
concrete problems. Acquiring a sound understanding of economic phenomena is one
of the reasons why we have chosen to pursue our studies in this field. Teaching,
however, is mainly restricted to presentations of the neoclassical theory (or
approaches derived from it). We are rarely confronted either with empirical studies or
with historical perspectives and analysis.

2.     Formalization dominates our courses. It also is used both to select students and to
give a pseudo-scientific proof to theories. Indeed, rather than being a useful instrument
of comprehension, formalization has become an end in itself (the more complicated the
formulas, the better) and this tends to “eliminate” students with only a basic
mathematical knowledge even if they have a sound understanding of economics.
Furthermore, formalization is almost always biased so that the “appropriate result” is
found, thus “proving” the theory’s relevance.

3.    Finally, we criticize the lack of pluralism in the economics degree. Generally, courses
are limited to teaching –dogmatically – the neoclassical approach, thus excluding other
theories and other social sciences. We believe that a plurality of viewpoints  is useful in
understanding the complexity of the questions we are concerned with (unemployment,
inequality, development, ….).

A few weeks after we wrote our “open letter”, articles about our movement, autisme-économie,
began appearing in French newspapers.   Soon our “open letter” had several hundred
signatures (more than 500 in July 2000). The consequences have exceeded our expectations
and can be grouped into four categories.

First, our letter led to open debate in the academic world about the state of economics and
economics teaching.  Teachers began publicly to take sides on whether they did or did not
support the status quo.  Following our initiative, over 200 teachers – from all over France –
published a text that supported our criticisms of economic studies. On the other hand, a
few economists published a “counter-petition” in which they tried to justify the use of
mathematics in economics (a point which we had never contested), and in which they
expressed their view that it was only mathematical formalism that could make economics
“scientific”.  In addition to this national debate between professors, several famous
economists from abroad (among others, Olivier Blanchard, Robert Solow and Amartya Sen)
entered the discussion.  In doing so, they demonstrated that the issues we raised were
not irrelevant, and that no ‘consensus’ had been reached concerning the way economics
should be taught. 

            Second, the “open-letter” – and the many signatures it gathered – led the French
Minister of Education (Jack Lang) to ask for a national study on how economics was taught in
universities and grandes écoles.  He appointed a prominent French economist, Jean-Paul
Fitoussi, to head up the investigation and whose report is now expected in September. 
Throughout the year we have met with Fitoussi several times and have discussed the
issues we raised in the “open-letter”. He has listened to our complaints and analysis,
and it seems that a certain number of our suggestions (such as more pluralism) will
stand in his conclusions. Although he agrees on the “imaginary” content of most courses,
he seems unwilling to agree to ending of hegemony of neoclassical microeconomics.  
But we have presented him with various texts arguing our case, such as  “What Is the
Use of Microeconomics” (found on our web site:
www.autisme-economie.org ),  and,
notably, he has been unable to give us satisfying answers.

Thirdly and closely linked to the above, we have translated our criticism into constructive
action. Since some universities were about to devise new curricula, we wrote a petition
asking for certain kinds of changes, such as a revamping of the introductory micro and
macro courses, a sound use of mathematics, and more pluralism in the economics
degree.  Concerning this last point, we ask for a plurality of approaches both in economics
(Marxist and Keynesian economics, the French "école de la régulation" of Agliett and
Boyer, etc.), and in other social sciences (such as sociology, history, political philosophy…).
This petition for reform has been signed by over 1550 students.  As a consequence, and in
face of the declining number of students in economics,  some universities administrators
have now agreed  that economics can not continue to be taught the way it has been.
The new curricula are to be decided in June.  We do not yet know if our propositions will
be taken into consideration. 

Finally, we have organized and participated in numerous conferences and debates in
universities across France (among others, Lille, Reims, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Nanterre, and 
Strasbourg). These have not only informed students about the movement, but also
informed us about the state of affairs in other French universities.. For example, at the
debate in Nanterre, three teachers expounded their views on questions we had posed in
advance. Over 300 students attended and some asked the teachers precise questions
concerning their studies. Unsurprisingly, one student asked how microeconomics as
taught  was useful for understanding contemporary economic issues, and got no answer.
On a broader scale, these debates were both very instructive and constructive. By sharing
their points of view, students expressed their main aspirations and criticisms. On our side,
these debates gave us detailed knowledge of how economics was being taught in many
universities, and helped us to formulate on the basis of first-hand experiences more precise
suggestions and requests. Also, as we met students all across France, we invited them to
participate in the movement. 

Since March 2001, we have published a monthly journal. This journal is meant to inform
students on what precisely is being done to change the way economics is taught in France.
The journal also serves as a means for students to express their opinions on economic
issues. Some students have written articles on what was going on in their university;
others have critiqued the mainstream approach in economics. We invite anyone to take
part in this concrete and theoretical discussion (i.e. how to teach economics and why):
either by the means of the journal or by going on our web-site.  

So the originally “Parisian” movement now exists on a much broader scale.  We hope it
will trigger concrete transformations of the way economics is taught in France and abroad.
We believe that understanding real-world economic phenomena is enormously important
to the future well-being of humankind, but that the current narrow, antiquated and naive
approaches to economics and economics teaching make this understanding impossible. 
We therefore hold it to be extremely important, both ethically and economically,  that
reforms like the ones we have proposed are, in the years to come, carried through, not
just in France, but throughout the world.





These ‘wonderful’ US Textbooks…
Le Movement Autisme-Économie

Everyone praises the recent US textbooks on “the principles of economics” written  by
leading authors such as Mankiw and Stiglitz.  People praise them for their clarity, for their
restrained use of formalism, and for their bright colours, pictures and newspaper
articles which make them visually interesting. 

But what is their purpose? It is to convince the student that there is a specific kind of
reasoning, called “economic reasoning”, which is quite simple to grasp and enjoys
universal validity.  It has two central pillars. There is the “law of supply and demand”,
which everyday life supposedly confirms. And there is the proposition that the market is
an “efficient” system
- i.e., a “mechanism” which generally allocates resources in an
optimal way. The efficiency proposition, however, is presented neither as an empirical
truth nor as an a priori belief.  Instead it is offered as a result in the mathematical sense,
but one too demanding to be shown to the readers.  In lieu of a proof, students are offered
various poetic images, including the inescapable “invisible hand”. 

Everyone knows that economists very often disagree with one another. But these textbooks
try to make the student believe that this disagreement concerns only minor points. 
Regarding core issues, a consensus is presumed to exist.  Stiglitz, for example, offers a
list of statements on which all economists supposedly agree. Similarly, Mankiw’s builds
his first chapter around “Ten principles of economics” which he presents as obvious and,
hence, neither needing discussion nor subject to disagreement.  And in his second chapter
“Thinking Like an Economist”, he presents “Ten proposals on which everybody agrees”.
True, both books mention the existence of debates, but they neutralize them
epistemologically by characterizing them as due to different “values” rather than different
explanations.

Mankiw: “the magical invisible hand”
In its first chapter, Mankiw’s book asserts: “in general, competitive markets are an efficient
way to organise economic activity”. To justify this claim,  Mankiw invokes Adam Smith’s
“invisible hand”

“In his book, The Wealth of Nations, the economist Smith remarked (and this is the
most famous remark of all economics) that firms and individuals which participate in
a market behave as if they where guided by an invisible hand which favours positive
results for all. One of the aims of this textbook is to explain how this magical invisible
hand
works. By studying economics, you will learn that prices are the tool through
which the invisible hand organises the economy.” (emphasis added)

Mankiw, however, never explains how this “invisible hand”, for which the prices are supposed
to be the “tools”, works. Perhaps he has in mind the quite visible hand of the walrasian
auctioneer, but, if so, he never says. In the whole textbook one finds not a single reference
to the Arrow-Debreu general equilibrium analysis, although generally it is presented by
neoclassical economists as the mathematised version of the “invisible hand”. Instead, the
student must be satisfied with hyperbolic remarks like “the remarkable capacity of the
invisible hand to organise the economy”. 

The “amazement” of Samuelson and Nordhaus, and Stiglitz’s “spring”
Samuelson and Nordhaus (S&N) also wave the invisible hand when claiming to answer the
question “what’s a market?”. The “actions and goals” of individuals “are coordinated in an
invisible way by a system of prices and markets”.  S&N, however, prefer miracles and
wonderment to Mankiw’s “magic”.  “[T]he true miracle,” they write, “is that the whole
system functions without coercion nor central direction by anybody.” And “most of our
economic life takes place without State intervention; this is the true wonder of our society”.
The market economy may have some “deficiencies”, but it is its miraculous feature which
matters. 

Stiglitz is not so wildly enthusiastic as S&N, but the ideas are the same. His innovation is
in the realm of metaphor.  In explaining how markets work, Stiglitz substitutes for the
invisible hand a “weight attached to a spring”, whose movement progressively decreases
until it reaches equilibrium.  Like Mankiw and S&N, Stiglitz offers no explanation in
economic terms of how markets work.

What is a market?
All of these textbooks fail to explain how prices are determined in “markets”, and thus
how markets work. Where do prices come from? Who determines them? How do they
fluctuate?  These questions are never addressed, even though it is through the price
mechanism that the “invisible hand” is supposed to operate. 

When Mankiw wants to give a “concrete” example, such as “the ice cream market in a
given city”, he can not explain where the prices come from since he has assumed that
buyers and sellers are price takers.  So he is reduced to surreptitiously introducing a
“current price”, through an apparently common sense argument: “a seller has few reasons
to sell under the current price, and if he sells above, then consumers will buy their ice
cream somewhere else.” Isn’t it obvious?  Economics is so simple… But the question of
setting the price, even the current one, remains un-addressed. 

S&N perform basically the same trick but with a different metaphor. They write: “on a
market, prices coordinate producers and consumers decisions… Prices are the driving
belt of the market mechanism.”  But like the other textbooks, S&N's sidesteps the really
big question: how are the prices set? 

Conclusion
These textbooks presuppose that the market is an efficient device guided by the invisible
hand, and then refuse to address the basic questions of how market prices are set and
how individual choices are coordinated.  It is only when these textbooks deal with market
failures (information asymmetries, externalities, public goods, etc.) that they provide a few
interesting insights. When dealing with these problems, the authors recognise that there is
no obvious “solution”. On the contrary, the outcome depends on the factors taken into
account, their relative importance, the forces and interests at stake, as well as, very often,
the norms and values endorsed by the people. It is striking that these discussions and
reflections take place without using any of the famous “tools” of standard microeconomics.
But this is hardly surprising, as these “tools” apply only to imaginary worlds, completely
detached from the world we live in.

 

 

 


EDITOR: Edward Fullbrook
CORRESPONDENTS: Argentina: Iserino;  Australia: Joseph Halevi, Steve Keen:  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 Kingdom: Michael Murphy;  United States: Benjamin Balak,
Daniel Lien, Paul Surlis:  At large: Paddy Quick


Proposals and suggestions for articles should be sent to the editor at pae_news@btinternet.com


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