Post-Autistic Economics Network
Student Essays on Post-Autistic Economics
posted April 2003
Bringing the Students Back In
(Graduate student, Roskilde
Economics has recruitment problems. If this is not a global
problem, at least it is a problem in most OECD countries. In a recent article
it is observed that there has been a decline in undergraduate degrees in
economics in Australia, Canada, Germany, and United States throughout the
1990s . In that article it is argued that there appears to be no
convincing explanation for this trend: There seems to be no connection to
changes in gender composition, the "price" of a degree to a
student, marking standards, degree requirements, or pedagogical methods.
However, the reason for the decline in interest might have to be found among
In Denmark, too, there has been a marked decline in the
interest in studying economics over the last decade. This year, as previous
years, the number of students admitted to the 'faculties of economics' is
falling far short of capacity. In the search for an explanation for this
trend, my hypothesis is this: Economics is simply found to be boring and
incomprehensible by education-seekers and therefore they would rather study
I must admit that I find it hard to blame these
education-seekers. They are basically right: Economics is boring because
standard introductory textbooks have been vacuumed-cleaned for all
interesting debates and disagreements. 'There are off-course important
debates and disagreements', young students are told, 'but you must wait. In
order to understand these debates, you have to be able to understand them in
terms of THE model'. Similarly, economics is incomprehensible because of the extensive
use of complicated maths (considering most students' capabilities). It makes
the subject impenetrable and the discipline is therefore considered to be
hard to link to the reality that potential students know and intuitively
understand. In sum, economics must be reformed if students are to return.
This conclusion holds for Denmark – I am sure – and wouldn’t be surprised if
it was true for most other OECD countries too.
Pursuit of Purpose
There are other, albeit closely related, reasons for the students'
deflection of economics too. In choosing an education, matters of identity
and the pursuit of ‘meaning’ are very important. In the words of Veblen, man is a ‘purpose-seeking animal’ – but obviously
it is hard for most Danish education-seekers to see the purpose in studying
economics. One could imagine that the drive was to get access to the large
pool of well-paid jobs that exists for economics-degree holders in Denmark.
Clearly, however, this is not the highest-ranking consideration for education-seekers.
Herein lies an irony: The so-called science of choice – with maximising
behaviour as its most important axiom – is being skipped by students whose
behaviour must seem irrational from that very point view. However, the
discipline of economics, based on models derived from such fallacies, is
simply unattractive to potential students who want to understand real – not
abstract – markets and economic processes, and for whom the choice of
education is one of the most important parts of choosing their personal
'meaning of life'.
lines are economics to be reformed? I tend to think of the need to redo the
economics discipline in Kuhnian terms. Within this
framework, the recognition and acknowledgement of persistent anomalies brings
scientific paradigms into crisis and eventually leads to their collapse.
Neoclassical economics – as other (doomed?) theories – has made many add-on
theories in order to claim empirical validity. However it is the basic
‘anomalies’ – real-life phenomena that cannot be explained adequately by the
core theory – which reflective
students are dissatisfied with. The failures of solving these puzzles are off
course linked with the limited usefulness (sometimes simply uselessness) of
neoclassical axioms. The rational maximising agent, perfect information,
perfect competition, and equilibrating forces ensuring efficiency are all
significant ones. The ‘note but ignore’ warnings accompanying these concepts
in introductory textbooks simply underline the limited usefulness of the
But if a paradigm is to fall, something else must be in
its place. Hodgson argues that the problem is that 'heterodox critics of
neoclassicism have failed to develop a substantial alternative theory that addresses
the question of individual agency and choice that should be part of any
viable analysis’ . However, while one can be basically sympathetic to the
viewpoint that the task of developing a new theory that show superiority to
neoclassical economics is an urgent priority, it also seems unrealistically
ambitious. Who has a unified grand theory these days? One cannot expect a
single unified theoretical alternative to substitute for neoclassical
economics. The reality of economic life in its totality is complex and
probably no single theory can be capable of analysing it. Rather, a
'paradigm' of pluralist economics has to replace the current neo-classical
from the Other Social Sciences
Therefore there is an urgent need to see ‘economics’ as a number of
theories and to acknowledge these theories as a part of the larger family of
social sciences. Clever mainstream economists acknowledge that they cannot
deal with everything that constitutes their models. For example such
economists acknowledge that ‘welfare functions’ must be left to specialists
of social ethics (or politicians). Similarly, as an example, economists
should leave issues of (economic) behaviour to sociologists.
Some economists say that while economics is all about
choice, sociology is about how actors have no choices to make! However this
is only true for poor economics and poor sociology. Good sociology (and good
economics) avoid both pitfalls. Unfortunately too few economists adopt
similarly sophisticated views of social actors – if they did, their models
would be useless. It is evident, however, that for economic actors – as for
example education-seekers – price and quality considerations (in the narrow
sense) is not the highest-ranking priority.
Economics must learn from the other social sciences, not
only in how for example to perceive of actors, but also in how to approach
their field of analysis. The theories constituting other social science
disciplines are often mostly tailor-made for the problems and issues chosen
for analysis. Introductory textbooks and courses in politics are often
structured around the political problems within different spheres of units
and institutions: internationally, nationally, parliamentary etc. Likewise
standard textbooks in sociology are structured around social process and
human behaviour affiliated with different institutions: family, class,
workplace, religion, organisations, education etc. To analyse these processes
students of sociology and political sciences are introduced to the rival
strands of theories and approaches within their respective disciplines and to
the ‘grand old men’ from which these strands of theories originate.
a Problem-Oriented, Pluralist Discipline
Economics should move from a doctrine-centred to a problem-centred
discipline . Students will begin to return when introductory economics
evolves around empirical problems that can be interpreted and explained from
the competing theoretical standpoints. Problems must be divided into those
that exist globally, nationally, within financial communities, in labour
relations etc. Also they are to be divided into those problems that are
affiliated with different issues such the environment, gender, economic
crises, innovation etc. Economic problems must come first and the theories
and approaches second . Theoretically, students should be introduced to
the main agenda-setting beast and creatures within the zoo of economics. And
the history of economic thought should be taken seriously .
conclusion there is hope for a post-autistic economics, but this hope will
not realised without the conscious effort of those involved with the teaching
of the discipline. Agenda setting journals and other key institutions
controlling the discipline are hard places to start. Auditoriums, on the
other hand, will not be filled again until something is done about the
curriculum. If the discipline of economics has ambitions of attracting
students, it needs rethinking along the lines introduced above. If students
could be educated in this manner, broad minded, more sophisticated economists
could slowly begin to 'capture' and reform the key economics institutions. In
this way, the move towards a post-autistic economics must start with
countries ‘experienced a substantial decline in undergraduate degrees in
economics from 1992 through 1996, followed immediately by a modest recovery’,
although this recovery did not bring numbers back to 1992 levels. John J.
Siegfried and David K. Round, "International Trends in Economics Degrees During
the 1990s", Journal of Economic Education, Summer 2001: 203-218.
M. Hodgson, "Theoretical substance should take priority over
technique", post-autistic economics review, issue no. 14, June 21, 2002,
article 5. http://www.btinternet.com/~pae_news/review/issue14.htm.
Peter Dorman, "Doctrine-centered versus
problem-centered economics", post-autistic
economics review, issue no. 14, June 21, 2002, article 3. http://www.btinternet.com/~pae_news/review/issue14.htm.
economics professors from my own university have expressed similar views in
the Danish media. However, just as progressive as they must seem to the
outside world, just as conservative they are, when it comes to reforming
economics teaching at our own university. Protests from students (and
progressive teachers) are either ignored or brushed off as 'misunderstandings'.
See also http://www.rucnyt.ruc.dk/0102/rucnyt07.pdf, p. 12f
curriculum for ‘Economics as Social Science’ (ECOP1001), Department of Political
Economy, University of Sydney shows beautifully how such a pluralist
economics course can be constructed. Marxian, Neoclassical, Institutional and
Keynesian economics are introduced and these theoretical viewpoints are then
used to discuss issues of the state, gender, race, class, the environment,
post-industrial society, alternative political economic systems as well as
different methodologies and ideologies attached to each theoretical strand.
Unfortunately the elaborate course outline has been removed from their
homepage. A short description can be seen at http://www.econ.usyd.edu.au/subject/ECOP1001.