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Fired up for battle

An economics conference next week will highlight the rift between the subject's traditionalists and its 'post-autistic' movement. Kurt Jacobsen and Donald MacLeod report

Tuesday September 9, 2003
The Guardian

Next week about 200 economists from around the world will gather in Cambridge - ostensibly to celebrate the centenary of the university's economics degree, but in reality for another skirmish in a war that has split the discipline. Economists have been bitterly divided between an establishment wedded to mathematical models which dominates the journals and many university departments (including Cambridge) and opponents who label them "autistic" and out of touch with reality.

The conference, sponsored by the Cambridge Journal of Economics, has set out to open up the subject to outside influences from geography, history, law, management, philosophy, psychology and sociology, and stop it disappearing into mathematics.

Michael Kitson, an economics lecturer at the university's Judge Institute and a member of the journal's board, denies "parking our tanks on the courtyard of neoclassical economics" but expects debate to be lively. "It's not about a battle, but keeping your eyes open, talking and communicating. We want to try to break out of the narrow silo that economics is becoming. It's becoming somewhat sterile, almost a subset of mathematics, which gives certain insights, but doesn't provide full insights into the way an economy actually operates."

The mathematical approach has a powerful grip on the subject, however, particularly in the top US schools which have, in turn, strongly influenced British universities. The academic uprising against this trend began in June 2000 in Paris, when hundreds of students and lecturers petitioned the government to reform an economics curriculum that they argued was dominated by dogmatic authorities which saw mathematics as an end in itself and whose rote teaching style left "no place for critical and reflective thought".


The 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 to quantification.

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 change."

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 France."

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".