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Post-Autistic Economics


By Deborah Campbell

The university-aged children of France’s ruling class ought to have been contentedly biding their time.  They were, after all, destined to move into the high-powered positions reserved for graduates of the elite École Normale Supérieure (ENS).  “The ENS is for the very good students, and the very good students aren’t afraid to ask questions,” says Sorbonne economist Bernard Geurrien

Their revolutionary arguments created an earthquake in the French media, beginning with a report in Le Monde that sent a chill through the academic establishment.  Several prominent economists voiced support and a professors’ petition followed.  The French government, no doubt recalling the revolutionary moment of May 1968, when students led a 10-day general strike that rocked the republic to its foundations, promptly set up a special commission to investigate.  It was headed by leading economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi, who also traveled to Madrid to address Spain’s nascent “post-autistic” student movement.  Fitoussi’s findings: the rebels had a cause.  Most important to the PAE, Fitoussi agreed to propose new courses oriented to “the big problems” being ignored by mainstream economics: unemployment, the economy and the environment.

A backlash was inevitable.  Several economists (notably the American Robert Solow from MIT), launched a  return volley.  What followed was an attempt to discredit the PAE by implying that the students were anti-intellectuals opposed to the “scientificity” of neoclassical economics.  The accusations didn’t stick: the dissenters were top students who had done the math and found it didn’t add up.

Gilles Raveaud, a key PAE student leader along with Emmanuelle Benicourt and Iona Marinescu, sees today’s faith in neoclassical economics as “an intellectual game” that, like Marxism and the Bible, purports to explain everything, rather than admitting there are many issues it hasn’t figured out.  “We’ve lost religion,” says Raveaud, “so we’ve got something else to give meaning to our lives.”

One of the attractions of the math-centric curriculum is that it is easy to teach, says Raveaud: “It leaves you plenty of time for research.”  According to Bernard Guerrien, who teaches both mathematics and microeconomics at the Sorbonne, “I can guarantee that teaching math demands the least amount of work.  To touch on reality, however, that’s difficult.”

Raveaud believes that the status quo has far-reaching implications for society.  “I think neoclassical theory in particular and economics in general have managed to get into people’s minds to limit the domain of possibilities for political action,” he says.  “Some people would say this is unjust; we’ve got to resist.  But it’s not only that it’s unjust.  It’s false.”

Fellow PAE leader Emmanuelle Benicourt described his hope for PAE as follows: “We hope it will trigger concrete transformations of the way economics is taught....  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.”

In 2004, their ideas took hold.  As Guerrien explains, greater pluralism has come to the Sorbonne.  “At our university (the leading one for economics in France) we have succeeded in cutting back the programs of micro, macro and mathematics, something that would have been inconceivable a few years ago.  This is in the service of an approach more open, more multidisciplinary.  The ‘orthodox’ have rather easily given way, having, despite everything, internalized the arguments advanced against them.  In the colloquiums and in the press they have felt obliged to justify what they do, thereby admitting at least in part the aptness of the ‘anti autistic’ criticisms.”

United Kingdom
Raveaud and Marinescu, key French PAE student leaders, visited the Cambridge Workshop on Realism and Economics in the UK in spring of 2001.  “It must have been the right time,” says Phil Faulkner, a Ph.D.  student at Cambridge University.  That June he and 26 other disgruntled Ph.D.  students issued their own reform manifesto, called “Opening Up Economics,” that soon attracted 750 signatures.  Economics students at Oxford University, who had attended the same workshop, followed with their own “post-autistic” manifesto and website.  Similar groups linked to heterodox (as opposed to orthodox) economics began emerging elsewhere in Europe and South America.

The Cambridge rebellion “was prompted by frustration,” says Faulkner, but they hadn’t expected such a positive reception from fellow students.  “If anyone were to be happy about the way economics had gone, we’d expect it to be Ph.D. students, because if they were unhappy with it, they simply wouldn’t be here.  In fact, that wasn’t the case.”

The foundations for the Cambridge manifesto were laid down by Professor Tony Lawson, a Cambridge mathematician turned theoretical economist who had established the Cambridge Workshop in 1990 as a space for critical debate of real-world economic issues.  “The real problem in economics is dogmatism: nothing else is allowed,” says Lawson, author of Reorienting Economics and Economics and Reality.  “In economics there are a lot of different approaches, but pick up a textbook and you won’t find any of them mentioned.”

Lawson calls the hegemony of neoclassical views within academia a “closed game”: “Promotion is the goal, advancement of career, Nobel prizes, fellowships at scientific academies.  They promote each other and they make up the boards.  It’s a self-perpetuating system.”

As a mathematician, Lawson says he is driven by a love of mathematics and concern over seeing it abused.  “I imagine it would be like a violinist seeing a violin used as a drumstick.  It’s not reason to keep the violin out of the orchestra, but it’s not a drumstick.” He adds, “I don’t want to stop people using mathematical models, I just want to stop them from stopping everyone doing anything else.”

As expected, Cambridge ignored the doctoral students’ petition.  Their efforts, Faulkner explains, were primarily intended to show support for the French students and to use their privileged position at the esteemed economics department to demonstrate to the rest of the world their discontent.  Some of the signatories worried that speaking out could have dire consequences, and the original letter was unsigned.  “I think it’s more future possibilities, getting jobs, etc., that [made them think] it might not be smart to be associated with this stuff,” says Faulkner.  He says he already knew that his research interests meant he would have to work outside of the mainstream: “There was nothing to lose really.”

Edward Fullbrook, a research fellow at the University of the West of England, had already launched the first post-autistic econonmics newsletter in September 2000.  Inspired by the French student revolt and outraged by stories emerging from American campuses that courses on the history of economic thought were being eradicated (which he viewed as an effort to facilitate complete indoctrination of students), Fullbrook battled hate mail and virus attacks to get the newsletter off the ground.  Soon, prominent economists such as James K. Galbraith stepped up to offer encouragement and hard copy.  The subscriber list ballooned from several dozen to 7,500 around the world.

Fullbrook edited The Crisis in Economics, a book based on PAE contributions that is now being translated into Chinese, and more recently A Guide to What’s Wrong with Economics.  He notes that textbook publishers, always hunting for the next big thing, have been inquiring about PAE textbooks.  It makes sense, says Fullbrook, since enrollments in standard economics classes have been dropping, cutting into textbook revenues.  In other words, students just aren’t buying it.  Ironically, says Fullbrook, “Market forces are working against neoclassical economics.”

One of his contributors is Australian economist Steve Keen, an associate professor of economics at the University of Western Sydney and the author of Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences.  In 1973, Keen led a student rebellion that resulted in the formation of the political economy department at Sydney University.  “Neoclassical economics has become a religion,” says Keen.  “Because it has a mathematical veneer, and I emphasize the word veneer, they actually believe it’s true.  Once you believe something is true, you’re locked into its way of thinking unless there’s something that can break in from the outside and destroy that confidence.”

Despite the student revolt, the neoclassical model still reigns supreme at Cambridge.  Phil Faulkner now teaches at a university college, but is limited to mainstream economics, the only game in town.  “If you’re into math, it’s a fun thing to do,” he says.  “It’s little problems, little puzzles, so it’s an enjoyable occupation.  But I don’t think it’s insightful.  I don’t think it tells these kids about the things it claims to describe, markets or individuals.”

United States

Sitting in an overcrowded café near Harvard Square, talking over the din of full-volume Fleetwood Mac and espresso fueled chatter, Gabe Katsh describes his disillusionment with economics teaching at Harvard University.  The red-haired 21-year-old makes it clear that not all of Harvard’s elite student body, who pay close to $40,000 a year, are the “rationally” self-interested beings that Harvard’s most influential economics course pegs them as.

“I was disgusted with the way ideas were being presented in this class and I saw it as hypocritical – given that Harvard values critical thinking and the free marketplace of ideas – that they were then having this course which was extremely doctrinaire,” says Katsh.  “It only presented one side of the story when there are obviously others to be presented.”

For two decades, Harvard’s introductory economics class has been dominated by one man: Martin Feldstein.  It was a New York Times article on Feldstein titled “Scholarly Mentor To Bush’s Team,” that lit the fire under the Harvard activist.  Calling the Bush economic team a “Feldstein alumni club,” the article declared that he had “built an empire of influence that is probably unmatched in his field.”  Not only that, but thousands of Harvard students “who have taken his, and only his, economics class during their Harvard years have gone on to become policy-makers and corporate executives,” the article noted.  “I really like it; I’ve been doing it for 18 years,” Feldstein told the Times.  “I think it changes the way they see the world.”

That’s exactly Katsh’s problem.  As a freshman, he’d taken Ec 10, Feldstein’s course.  “I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that Ec 10 presents itself as politically neutral, presents itself as a science, but really espouses a conservative political agenda and the ideas of this professor, who is a former Reagan advisor, and who is unabashedly Republican,” he says.  “I don’t think I’m alone in wanting a class that presents a balanced viewpoint and is not trying to cover up its conservative political bias with economic jargon.”

In his first year at Harvard, Katsh joined a student campaign to bring a living wage to Harvard support staff.  Fellow students were sympathetic, but many said they couldn’t support the campaign because, as they’d learned in Ec 10, raising wages would increase unemployment and hurt those it was designed to help.  During a three-week sit-in at the Harvard president’s office, students succeeded in raising workers’ wages, though not to “living wage” standards.

After the living wage “victory,” Harvard activists from Students for a Humane and Responsible Economics (SHARE) decided to stage an intervention.  This time, they went after the source, leafleting Ec 10 classes with alternative readings.  For a lecture on corporations, they handed out articles on corporate fraud.  For a free trade lecture, they dispensed critiques of the WTO and IMF.  Later, they issued a manifesto reminiscent of the French post-autistic revolt, and petitioned for an alternative class.  Armed with 800 signatures, they appealed for a critical alternative to Ec 10.  Turned down flat, they succeeded in introducing the course outside the economics department.

Their actions follow on the Kansas City Proposal, an open letter to economics departments “in agreement with and in support of the Post Autistic Economics  Movement and the Cambridge Proposal” that was signed by economics students and academics from 22 countries during a conference in Kansas City.

Harvard President Lawrence Summers illustrates the kind of thinking that emerges from neoclassical economics.  Summers is the same former chief economist of the World Bank who sparked international outrage after his infamous memo advocating pollution trading was leaked in the early 1990s.  “Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCS [Less Developed Countries]?” the memo inquired.  “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that....  I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted....”

Brazil’s then-Secretary of the Environment, José Lutzenburger, replied: “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane....  Your thoughts [provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists’ concerning the nature of the world we live in.”

Summers later claimed the memo was intended ironically, while reports suggested it was written by an aide.  In any case, Summers devoted his 2003/2004 prayer address at Harvard to a “moral” defense of sweatshop labor, calling it the “best alternative” for workers in low-wage countries.

“You can’t ignore the academic foundations for what’s going on in politics,” says Jessie Marglin, a Harvard sophomore with SHARE.  SHARE didn’t want a liberal class with its own hegemony of ideas.  It wanted “a critical class in which you have all the perspectives rather than just that of the right.” Without an academic basis for criticism, other approaches “aren’t legitimized by the institution,” she says.  “It becomes their word versus Professor Feldstein, who is very powerful.”

Harvard economics professor Stephen Marglin, Jessie’s father, teaches the new course outside the Department.  An Economics Department faculty member since 1967, Marglin was the tail end of a generation formed by the Great Depression and World War II.  “This generation,” he says, “believed that in some cases markets could be the solution, but that markets could also be the problem.”

He considers that the Harvard economics department refused to sponsor the new course because “they believe that economics is like physics, it’s like a science [in that] there is a correct version and there is no room for dispute about what the fundamentals are anymore than you would countenance an alternative physics course.” It has often been said that the field of economics suffers from “physics-envy” – the desire to view itself as a hard science rather than the social science that it actually is. 

His new course still uses the Ec 10 textbook, but includes a critical evaluation of the underlying assumptions.  Marglin wants to provide balance, rather than bias.

“I’m trying to provide ammunition for people to question what it is about this economic [system] that makes them want to go out in the streets to protest it,” he says.  “I’m responding in part to what’s going on and I think the post-autistic economics group is responding to that.  Economics doesn’t lead politics, it follows politics.  Until there is a broadening of the political spectrum beyond a protest in Seattle or a protest in Washington, there will not be a broader economics.  People like me can plant a few seeds but those seeds won’t germinate until the conditions are a lot more suitable.”

The revolution is spreading.  A slogan emblazoned on a wall on a Madrid campus, where the PAE movement has been making inroads, makes its case: “¡La economía es de gente, no de curvas!” – “Economics is about people, not curves!”

Deborah Campbell is the author of This Heated Place, a literary exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and an associate editor at Adbusters magazine.  A version of this article has been translated for inclusion in the Chinese edition of The Crisis in Economics and will appear in a German book on economics.