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from  post-autistic economics review : issue no. 19, April 2, 2003


Of Textbooks: In Search of Method
Nathaniel N. Chamberland  (graduated 2002 from Trinity College, USA)

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 course catalogs.  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 debate. 

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 fluff. 

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:
        Edward Elgar.
Fleetwood, Steve.  2001.  “Conceptualizing Unemployment in a Period of Atypical Employment: A
        Critical Realist Perspective.”  Review of Social Economy, vol. 59, no. 1.  Pages 45-69.
Kuhn, Thomas S.  1996.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [1962].  3rd edition.  Chicago: Chicago UP.
Lawson, Tony.  Economics & Reality.  London: Routledge.
Mirowski, Philip.  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 527-535.
Setterfield, Mark.  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?” Unpublished manuscript
        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 Bankrolled
        Enron'’ Globalization 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,