Post-Autistic Economics Network
Student Essays on Post-Autistic Economics
from post-autistic economics review : issue
no. 19, April 2, 2003
Textbooks: In Search of Method
(graduated 2002 from Trinity
Interestingly, within the social sciences there are hierarchical views
regarding the efficacy or usefulness of certain disciplines. Economics is not only much more predictive
than, say, sociology, but more useful.
The more scientific a discipline, the more valued it apparently
is. The view of science as technology
thus underpins not only the relative valuation of science versus social
science, but also of the disciplines within the social sciences. It is an interesting view of the world: one
that values the means (science) over the ends (society).
—Henrietta More from the Summer 2002 edition of Anthropological Quarterly
With four drafts already in the trash can, Henrietta More’s
(2002) article came to pinpoint (by its ambiguity) a question that sat with
me throughout my undergraduate experience as a student: how does economics relate to other academic disciplines while
assessing and influencing the economy?
According to the quote from More above, economics seems to be a popular,
means driven, predictive science that takes its object of study to be
different than sociology, but is nonetheless termed a social science by
Economics is also, we are told, popularly valued for its predictive
technology. Quite simply, economics is
often identified as a set of tools devoted to determining price (that is,
price knows a unit of measure to which all aspects of life are
reducible). So why then keep up the
charade of broad inquiry and explanation implied by the umbrella of ‘social
science’? Why not discard the chaff,
that is, everything that has little to do with finance? So long as the economy is portrayed as an
incredibly broad, although shallow, entity, economics, as an academic
discipline, remains relatively simplistic. The mindset of financial study is
maintained as a methodology (call it ‘mainstream economic theory’) and
Xeroxed across a burgeoning academic and political territory.
For example, recall the opening pages of any undergraduate textbook. Faced with the task of describing
economics, the author(s) relapse into an ahistorical
account of price theory. Images of swapping apples for oranges,
choosing between the production of pizza and robots, instill
in the student the belief that they can derive the evolution of both society
and economics from that of exchange.
Exchange, here, is a pristine term.
It knows no history, politics, bloodshed, or lie; exchange is marked
simply by numbers and graphs, preferences and supplies. In so doing, economics lacks any kind of deep,
causal realism in its account of the economy.
Shirking this sort of analysis, the discipline has come to muddle its
base terminology (economy and economic).
An economics that reaches for more than financial accounting cannot
proceed without reading its own history, accessing it method of inquiry, and
articulating its object of study.
Undergraduates certainly do not read books, and rarely an article. Although students and professors alike may
confide in these mediums, the thing that drives departments across the USA
and made a fixture of every economics course on the way to a Bachelors degree
is, of course, the textbook. Where
other social sciences have a timeline, economics
has simply a table of contents.
The concepts annunciated in chapters two and
seventeen are of diverse origin and intention, but synthesized; historically
anachronistic, but timeless; the result of numerous debates between authors
and varying fields of study, but codified and distilled into problem
sets. The titles of textbooks are
simple, saying little more than Economics
even though the most popular versions are in constant revision and flux:
economics is presented as a science of grand architecture and vast
consistency. It is not that dissenting
pages have not been authored or that thought has gone stale across the globe,
but rather that economics constructs its place within the college and within
politics by institutionalizing a kind of economics that makes no home for
Now, this paper is written not to implicate ranks of teachers and cow their
students, but rather to motion toward the divide between a teachers’ own
research and seminars with colleagues or small groups of students and the
classes required by the department.
Caught up in a ‘non-profit’ institution driven by the market and
pride, departments and professors alike reserve endowed chairs and research
monies for socioeconomically conservative and
conciliatory personages and projects.
And perhaps more importantly, the jump from academia to politics is of
varying length: that is, one page devoted to the mainstream economic project
is not equalized by another directed toward critical realism or
institutionalism or what-have-you.
Liberalism and critical thought is cast as entertainment, a fantasy
kept to one side of reality: Michael More tops book lists and box office
ratings, and Martin Sheen plays a president from the left on the smash
television program, The West Wing.
It seems to me that these inequalities are propagated by the discipline’s
ineffectual articulation of the economy
and the economic—the facet of life
that has (and has had) to do with production and exchange and the thing which
comes to both observe and participate in its unfolding. The ‘mainstream’ economic project retains
its title by restraining the political and educative salience of ideologies
(as well as techniques) that impugn the discipline’s ‘science envy’ and,
secondarily, a neoconservative allegiance.
Simply put, the economic textbook has its finger on the pulse of the
community and workplace, all else is academic, peace-nic
Now, when an undergraduate reads an article from The Economist or The New
York Times as an assignment for an economics course, he or she gleans in
a particular way. The graphs,
equations, vocabulary, and explanations found in the supported textbook are
to be conjured from the article at hand—if nothing else, they are there. First of
all, the situation depicted is but an excerpt. The institutions, politics, and histories
brought to the fore are relevant only
in so far as they can be drawn into a quantifiable relationship with a
particular monetary or material variable.
The narrative of the article is rewritten or read as immediately
explicable by a concurrently assigned lesson from the economics
textbook. Thus, economics visits the
economy. Imagine an economics student
reading a report detailing Ortega and Associates, an Arthur Anderson
subsidiary, undervaluing the Dominican Republic’s power facilities by 907M
dollars prior to the industries privatization (Enron, et cetera) (Vallette and Whysham 2002).
What hope is there for an economics textbook or free-market ideology
here? Are we to allow a generation of
budding economists to familiarize themselves with the price theory in such a
light? No. Of course not. For here, the economy is contrary, a rogue, and as a field of study, miscast by
economics. At once, the motive for profit is depicted
as coming unlatched from governmental and market regulations while subsisting only in their assistance:
Enron could not have conquered (and fallen) without a number of national and
international organizations. This line
of argumentation is not defeated by the evidence of the criminalization of
the white-collar crimes committed herein, but is rather vanquished by the
solution which has arisen in the aftermath.
As with the IMF and World Bank debacles,
economics suggests measures devoted toward improved transparency. But
what is it that we have come to see?
Harvey Pitt steps down, but can the Securities and Exchange Commission
institutionalize real change?
An economics that seriously attempts to relate to and progressively impact on
the economy, cannot take shape simply by compiling written and jocular
support against mainstream economics.
There has always been debate within the discipline. That debate must be heard and
harnessed. What if undergraduates read
a book like Geoffrey Hodgson’s How
Economics Forgot History: The Problem of Historical Specificity in Social
Science (2001) or Paul Downward’s Pricing Theory in Post Keynesian
Economics: A Realist Approach (1999)?
What if undergraduates engaged with the community, both social and
economic, that surrounds their school?
Again, it is not that high school, college, or graduate-school
teachers necessarily lack the interest or education, but rather the
classroom. Courage must be garnered to
push toward institutionalizing community or academically heterodox
orientations that already exist in students and teachers alike. As economists, we must know both humility
and potency; mainstream economics and a neoconservative economy survives this
article, yet instigates it and
others like it; teachers and students have long been involved
progressively and critically in the economy and in academia, yet examples of
those lives and thoughts seem horribly new.
The economics textbook, both as a medium and by its generally accepted
contents, lacks a grasp of the economy that could be afforded by broad
readings and community participation.
Works Cited or Influential
Bhaskar, Roy. 1993.
Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom. London: Verso.
Downward, Paul. 1999. Pricing
Theory in Post Keynesian Economics: A Realist Approach. Cheltenham:
Fleetwood, Steve. 2001. “Conceptualizing Unemployment in a
Period of Atypical Employment: A
Perspective.” Review of Social Economy, vol. 59, no. 1. Pages 45-69.
Kuhn, Thomas S. 1996. The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions . 3rd edition. Chicago: Chicago UP.
Lawson, Tony. Economics & Reality.
1991. “The philosophical bases of institutional economics.” Lavoie, Don ed.
Economics and Hermeneutics.
Pages 76-112. London: Routledge.
____ 2002. Machine Dreams: Economics
Becomes a Cyborg Science. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Moore, Henrietta L. 2002. “The Business of Funding: Science, Social
Science and Wealth in the
United Kingdom.” Anthropological
Quarterly vol. 75, no. 3. Pages
2000. “Expectations, Endogenous
Money, and the Business Cycle: An Exercise in
Open Systems Modeling.” Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics,
vol. 23, no. 1. Pages 77-105.
____ 2002. “Critical Realism and
Formal Modeling: Incompatible Bedfellows?”
first presented at the Workshop
on Realism and Economics at the University of Cambridge in May 1999.
Vallette, Jim and Whysham,
Daphne. 2002. “Enron’s Pawns: How Public Institutions
Game.” Unpublished report for the
Institute for Policy Studies.
Wolfram, Stephen. 2002. A New Kind of Science. Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media.
Nathaniel Chamberland, “Of Textbooks: In Search of Method“, post-autistic
economics review, issue no. 2 April 2003, article 3, http://www.btinternet.com/~pae_news/review/issue19.htm