insurgents dubbed themselves the "post-autistic economics"
movement, formed to oppose the "autism" - or detachment from
reality - evident in a passion for formal models. In response, French
minister of education Jack Lang set up a commission, headed by Jean-Paul Fitoussi, which in September 2001 acknowledged that there
had indeed been "an excess of modelisation and
very little concern for its empirical relevance".
"Post-autistic" economists argue that
environmental costs cannot be expressed adequately in money terms. What
sterling figure captures the harm of industrially polluted air, soil or
water? The rebels say the use of GDP to calculate prosperity is misleading
since it counts disasters positively: the costs of clean-up raise GDP.
As for the enshrined axiom that demand for labour varies inversely to wages,
Steve Fleetwood of Lancaster University criticises this and other
conventional economic notions as emerging from a closed system of reference
that "ignores trade unions, the introduction or abolition of labour law
and responses to them, government policy, political ideology, management
systems" and other "non-market" factors which are not amenable
Following the French lead, sympathetic Cambridge faculty and students,
centred around Tony Lawson's Realist workshop, devised a reform manifesto
which rapidly attracted 750 signatures. Kindred rebellious spirits in
Oxford's economics department likewise issued a "post-autistic"
manifesto and set up a website.
Considerable inroads have reportedly been made by dissenters at London
universities and at some of the redbricks, but
Edward Fulbrook, editor of the online Post-Autistic
Economics Review, which claims some 5,000 subscribers, complains that, unlike
France, there is "a virtual media blackout" on news about this
vigorous, heretical movement in the UK.
American economics remains fiercely resistant - although Harvard economics
students this year petitioned to change the curriculum - and so the movement
has reverberated instead inside political science, where scholars had adopted
styles of reasoning from economics.
In November 2000, an anonymous firebrand, "Mr Perestroika",
circulated an incendiary email denouncing the domination of political science
by rational choice methods, which derive from an extremely abstract form of
economics analysis. The email stirred an enthusiastic movement which last
month gained a notable success when the presidency of the American Political
Science Association went to one of their number, Susanne Hoeber
Rudolph of the University of Chicago.
"Given that there has been a great deal of disputation in the last two
years about the representative nature of the association, its journals, and
its governance," Rudolph said, "so there may be space for
Some colleagues worry that the new journal, Perspectives on Political Science,
launched to broaden the association's appeal, is fated to be a second-class
ghetto. The association's existing journal, the APSA
Review, has been dominated by quantitative, mathematical research papers, but
is vital for academics seeking jobs and promotion in US universities.
Insurgents in Britain behold Perestroika with envy. "I fear the reform
of economics here will not come overnight. says Post-Autistic Economics (PAE) Review editor Fulbrook,
"Most [economists] are culturally, as well as politically,
ultraconservative. Most, even those who might be sympathetic, appear still
not to have heard of PAE or of the events in
In April, Fulbrook published The Crisis in
Economics (Routledge), a volume explaining and
examining the movement. Meanwhile, in Cambridge next week there will be a
session on mathematical approaches, including papers on whether economics can
be a social and a mathematical science, and one on "the unreasonable
ineffectiveness of maths".