Post-Autistic Economics Network
Student Essays on Post-Autistic Economics
posted April 2003
The Student’s Role in Applying Theories to
Becky Clausen (Graduate
student, University of Oregon, USA)
An intellectual movement’s success can be measured by its
access to a large audience, the degree to which offers substance and how much
it inspires others to action. The
Post-Autistic Economics movement has both broad international reach and
content as witnessed by the robust Post Autistic Economics website. This
report describes how the PAE movement has inspired
me to examine my academic institution’s economics department and begin a
process of much needed reform.
Evidence of the Post-Autistic Economics movement achieving
this benchmark of success lies in two criterion that serve to guide students
in their attempt for reform: (1) an
inaugural student body that has initiated the challenge to conventional
academic economics, and (2) principal writers and thinkers who have offered
concrete direction for how to transform economics’ narrowly confined
discipline into a heterodox analysis.
The PAE movement has inspired
and empowered students like myself to begin individual inquiry into their
respective university’s economics departments, and in turn to day-light the
pedagogy, methodology, and safe-guarded channels of conformity that allow
conventional economics to persist and reproduce in the academic setting.
Exposure to the PAE movement has encouraged me to
understand the forces shaping the ideology of my economics department at the
University of Oregon, and to apply the broad PAE
theories to a tangible classroom reality.
It is through this praxis that substantial reform in
academic economics will occur.
It is difficult for students to overcome the stifling
persuasion of conventional economics professors. Well versed in rationalizing
why one must accept certain
economic assumptions as ‘inevitable’, the in-place professoriate presents a
formidable challenge. Examples of
resistance are necessary. The open
letters of discontent from international students and faculty, which serve as
a foundation for the PAE movement, provide those
examples. The powerful messages
offered by international students who challenged economics assumptions, such
as the French Petition for a Debate on the Teaching of Economics, the
Cambridge 27 letter, and the Kansas City Proposal, inspire students in other
universities to question the “scientific facts” that their textbooks espouse. Once I learned of the discontent at leading
institutions of the international student body, I became enthused and engaged
to query the institution to which I was relying on for my economics
Unbridled enthusiasm without a clear understanding of the
economic problems and potential solutions, however, will not elicit support
or achieve results. To sustain the
momentum of intellectual challenge, access to a critical body of knowledge is
essential and serves as a foundation for reform. Critical thinkers within the PAE movement have offered suggestions through debates,
essays, and published literature. The
time has come for students to embrace these theories and apply them to their
own academic classrooms.
By familiarizing myself with the leading critiques of
conventional academic economics and the alternatives for heterodoxy and
pluralism, I was able to assess the status of the University of Oregon’s
economics department. Reform will
occur when students can speak to the specific shortcomings of their
institution's economics department, rather than relying on generalized
characterizations. What follows is the
process I undertook to connect the theories I was learning from the PAE movement with my experience as a student. This report serves as one specific example
of the process a student can begin to engage reform, and thus perhaps inspire
other economics students to follow a similar course.
In Issue 15 of the PAE
newsletter, James K. Galbraith wrote, “We need a replacement for neoclassical
economics. A new curriculum. Let’s build it.1” Galbraith supported his definitive
statements with ten suggestions for how to reform economics. I read this
article as a direct call to action, and began to reflect on the strategy
required to achieve his suggestions. I
chose three of his characterizations to analyze where my school ranked on
their need for reform: (1) the need to
teach economic history, (2) the need for empirical methodology, and (3) the
rejection of disciplinary conformity.
By starting with these topic areas, I used literature searches and my
independent research to evaluate the extent of reform required at the
University of Oregon.
To start, Galbraith suggested, “Our economics should teach
the great thinkers, notably Smith, Marx, Keynes, Veblen
and Schumpeter…the great ideas in these areas, and the history in which they
were embedded, are fundamental. They should be taught, and not as dogma but
rather as a sequence of explorations.2” This statement caused me to ask, “What are
the trends for teaching the history of economics in US institutions and at
the UO?” To
answer this question, I explored how economic pedagogy addresses the history
of economic thought.
McCloskey, a history of economics professor at the University of Illinois, at
Chicago, reports that in the 1970s and 1980s, graduate programs began to cut
the requirement of learning economic history.
She states, “Ph.D.s in economics from the University of Chicago have
joined those at Minnesota, Princeton, Columbia, Harvard, and most American
graduate programs in ignorance of the economic past.3” Steve Keen, an economics professor at the
University of Western Sydney, concurs that
“many economists are simply unaware that the foundations of economics
have even been disputed, let alone that these critiques have motivated
prominent economists to profoundly change their views4.” Lacking an analysis of how economic
thought has evolved leaves an economist with little ability to assess the
assumptions underlying current theories.
Henry Phelps argued this point when he blamed the economists’ “habit
of building make-believe worlds on the failure to train economists in the
study of history5.” These
strong accusations generalize on the state of academic economics, but do they
accurately represent the University of Oregon?
An investigation into UO course
requirements and class listings reveal a definite affirmative. Although one elective is listed at the 400
level titled the History of Economic Thought, there is no requirement for
undergraduate or graduate students to take this course, nor are there any
requirements for incoming graduate students to have any familiarity with
economic history. This typifies the decreasing institutional means for
ensuring that students grasp the critical and tumultuous evolution of their
supposed discipline of expertise. The
result is that current academia is populated with a professoriate that
embraces key economic assumptions as unassailable reality while in fact the
merit of fundamental assumptions is at best dubious and at worst defeated in
the course of a highly controversial birth.
My second investigation was spurred by Galbraith’s
suggestion that, “Mathematics should mainly clarify the complex implications
of simple constructs, not obscure simple ideas behind complex formulae...
Mathematics should lie, in other words, at the essential core of a new
curriculum; it should not be deployed defensively, as the protective belt.6” This statement caused me to question the
methodologies currently being promoted by economics departments. The Methodology
of Economics by Blaug expounds on the ways in
which economists currently justify their theories. Blaug claims that
economists are not inclined to appraise economic theories in terms of their
novel empirical content, but rather to rely solely on mathematical
models. By lacking the ability to
explain current economic conditions with empirical data, it appears that
modern day methodologies depend on whether you can ‘do the math.’ This reflects a species of formalism: the reveling in technique for techniques’ sake7. Leontief
emphasized this claim by stating economists’ “continued preoccupation with
imaginary, hypothetic, rather than with observable reality had gradually led
to a distortion of the informal valuation scale used in our academic
community to assess and to rank the scientific performance of its members.8” The informal scale used to rank academic
economists is often reflected in the number of mainstream, conventional
journal publications they secure each year.
If the top journals espouse the same criteria for admittance, than a
self-selected, methodological conformity is the unavoidable outcome. What methodological trends do the top
economic journals espouse?
In a letter to Science,
Leontief surveyed articles published in the American Economic Review in the last
decade and found that more than 50 percent consisted of mathematical models
without any empirical data9.
Morgan followed up with the survey and found that over half the
articles in Economic Journal do not
contain data of any kind, a ration that vastly exceeds that found in articles
in physics and chemistry journals10. The high esteem placed on publishing in
prestigious journals, and therefore relying heavily on mathematics rather
than empirical data, is indoctrinated into students as well. Colander and Klamer
have shown that American graduate students perceive that analytical ability
is the chief requirement for professionalism, and only 3½ percent of students
chose “knowledge of the economy” as important11. Keen summarizes academic methodological
unreality and conformity by stating “when it comes to safeguarding the
channels of academic advancement, little else matters apart from preserving
the set of assumptions that defines economic orthodoxy.12”
The means for safeguarding orthodoxy led to my final
investigation based on Galbraith’s recommendation:
Nor should we accept the reconstruction of economics as an
amalgam of interest-group politics. This approach …has become a way of
isolating certain dissenters who cannot conveniently be suppressed. But the
fact that race, gender, and the environment are important social constructs
does not mean that economics requires a separate branch for the economics of
race, another for the economics of gender, and another for “sustainable
development.” It should instead mean that the core of what we teach should
handle these questions in a way that is central to the discipline we espouse13.
The question concerning how the sub-disciplines are
treated within the UO economics department led me
discover the narrowly defined reward/advancement system in which economics
professors are evaluated. In an interview with a tenured economics professor
at the UO, I learned that each year, the professors
are evaluated by a weighted point system.
Publication in a prestigious, orthodox journal (such as the American Economic Review) will result
in acquiring the highest weighted point score as compared to getting
published in a more heterodox journal, such as the Journal of Ecological Economics or Feminist Economics, which is given a lower weight. This evaluation system pressures
academic economists to maintain the status quo of a methodology that does not
recognize the current economic conditions, and conveniently suppresses those
who may be dissenters of conventional economics.
What I have presented in this report will undoubtedly come
as no surprise to many of the professionals, professors, and students who embrace
the PAE movement. The emphasis, however, lies in
demonstrating the power of discovery that is enabled through praxis. Capturing the inspiration from the
student-initiated international movement and the wisdom of critical thinkers,
such as Galbraith, has motivated me to ask critical questions. Through this method of inquiry, I am now
able to relay specific concerns that may rally fellow graduate students, or
spark alliances with other disciplines.
I now have initial understanding for reaching out to fellow students,
defining key institutional problems and perhaps presenting detailed requests
that may be forwarded to the appropriate departmental committee. At a
minimum, we must work to reinstate the History of Economics requirement, and
then move address the departmental channels which limit heterodox
methodology. When individual students
accept responsibility and challenge the veiled institutional forces that
dictate the methods and content of their educational environment, meaningful
economic reform becomes a realistic goal.
13.James K. Galbraith, ibid.
1992. The Methodology of Economics. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Colander, D., and A. Klamer,
1987. The making of an economist. Journal
of Economic Perspectives, 1(2), 95-111.
Galbraith, James K., “Can we please move on? A not on the Guerrien
debate”, post-autistic economics review, issue no. 15, September 4
2002, article 2.
Keen, Steve. 2001. Debunking Economics. Australia:
1971. Theoretical assumptions and nonobserved
facts. American Economic Review, 61, 1-7.
1982. Academic economics. Science, 217, 1983, 331-6.
McCloskey, Deidre. 2002.
The Secret Sins of Economics.
Chicago: Prickly Paradigm
Morgan, T. 1988.
Theory versus empiricism in academic economics: update and
comparison. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2(1), 159-64.
Phelps, Harry. 1972. The underdevelopment of
economics. Economic Journal, 82, 1-10.