‘Economics basic propositions unrealistic’
attack economic sacred cows
Modern-day, neoclassical economy has become detached from reality and
too much focused on itself. It is, in short: autistic. That is the opinion of
the counter-movement of post-autistic economists, who are getting more and
(translated by Jeroen Vanstiphout)
It started, as often,
with a group of French students. In June 2000 they distributed a petition on the
internet in which they harshly criticised existing economics courses and
called for a different kind of economics education. The group believed (and
believes) that the economics courses are too far removed from reality, use
mathematical models as an end to themselves instead of as a means to an end,
and are far from pluralistic. The students experience contemporary economics
as ‘autistic’, detached from reality and aimed at itself. “We want a
pluralism of approaches, that is adapted to the uncertainties that
characterize most big questions of our time, like unemployment, inequality,
the role of financial markets, free trade, globalisation and economic
development.” What the students want, is, in short, ‘post-autistic
The appeal must have been
responding to a real need – in France and elsewhere – because fairly quickly
a movement started to grow. Le Monde paid
attention to the petition and a real public debate started. Then the French
minister of Education Jack Lang had the problem investigated by a commission
led by the famous economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi.
Less than a year later, the commission recognised the problems and made
suggestions for a more pluralistic economics education.
The Anglo-Saxon world
began to find their feet too. Already in September 2000 in England an
electronic Post-autistic Economics Newsletter was started. The second edition
found readers in 36 countries; nowadays the Post-Autistic Economic review has
5.000 (non-paying) subscribers in a hundred countries.
A counter-reaction from
the neoclassical side failed to halt the movement. On the contrary: 200
French economists signed the student petition and in November 2000 a website
was launched (www.paecon.net).
Early in 2001 James Galbraith
(son of) met the French leaders of the post-autistic economists in Paris, a
sign that a worldwide movement was growing with offshoots in every continent.
In June 2001 a group of Cambridge students sent off a petition, that has
meanwhile gathered some 600 signatures, and in August 2001 economists in
Kansas City wrote an open letter that convinced 300 collegues.
Every time the same desire returns: don’t pigeonhole economics but tie it to
other social disciplines, situate it in an historical-philosophical framework
and aim it at the challenges the world faces these days.
Up until now three
economists who work in Belgium have signed the Cambridge petition. Bert Mosselmans, post-doctoral researcher at the university of
Antwerp, is one of them. “I oppose the one-sidedness that governs now: what
is not neoclassical or econometric, is marginalized. Subjects like the
history of economic thought get pushed into a tight corner. Putting our own
models in perspective happens less frequently.”
see any political motive behind all this. “It’s a self-reinforcing
phenomenon: economists conduct the kind of quantitative and mainstream
research that will get them published in top-class reviews. If they succeed,
they will continue on that same road.”
Professor Robert Scott Gassler, who lectures at the Free University of Brussels
and has signed the Cambridge petition too, does see a clear political
connection: “Neoclassical economics is based on basic presumptions that are
narrow and unrealistic. Like, for instance, that a rational human being is
automatically egocentric, and doesn’t care about the community or others.
Students are taught this, but it simply isn’t right. In that sense,
mainstream economics does have an ideological content. It’s clear: a certain
right-wing view has taken over the whole branch.” So Gassler
sees the rise of post-autistic economics as a reaction against neoliberalism and as favourable to antiglobalism*.
Post-autists believe the economy hasn’t seen such
pressure to change since the 30’s. Gassler thinks
so too: “We have seen other reactions to the neoclassical model in the past,
but now different movements, post-Keynesians, institutionalists,
feminist economists, are coming together – and this will make this countercurrent stronger”.
Picture: a beggar in New York. Contemporary economics is heedless to
the problem of inequality in the world, the post-autists
(*) Note: John Vandaele uses the word ‘andersglobalisten’
here (literally: ‘different globalists’), which is
a term people from the movement itself suggested to oppose the negative
qualification given (basically by the mainstream press) to the word ‘anti-globalists’. This way they want to emphasise they aren’t
necessarily against globalisation in itself (which can have different
meanings) and stress the fact that they do have alternatives to the neoliberal, capitalist kind of globalisation the world is
subjected to. (JV)