Rising Arrogance and Declining Debate in Economics

o-DUCT-TAPE-MOUTH-facebook

Two recently released studies have highlighted very dangerous trends in mainstream economics that shield the profession from the kind of reflexive critical thinking that’s needed to keep it honest and relevant to the real world. The first, entitled “The Superiority of Economists” highlights the idiosyncratic arrogance that’s taken hold of the profession. Alan Harvey with IDEA Economics provides a synopsis:

[The] study finds that, compared to other social scientists, economists consider themselves elites, smarter than others, not needing to explore outside their discipline, worthy of being listened to first when it comes time to fix things; and this view may actually be accepted those other social scientists, who place themselves and their disciplines at the fringe looking in. Other findings suggest that a dominant view, or party line, is more widely shared within Economics than in other social sciences. It is enforced by a more strict hierarchy and by a narrower control group, associated with elite institutions. Prestige and compensation may ratify economists’ standing in the profession as much as competence or demonstrable results.

This narcissistic exceptionalism and dogmatic thought-policing not only severs cross-disciplinary connections to other social sciences but stifles debate within the profession itself. That’s the finding of the other recent study by Welsh researcher Joe Francis. Francis tracked the incidence of debate over a ninety-year period between scholars in the “big five” economic journals – two of which are American Economic Association publications. Using search terms such as “comment” “reply” or “rejoinder,” Francis found that the number of articles containing such terms declined dramatically since the 1960s – from over 20% in 1968 to just 2% in 2010. Unsurprisingly, Francis traces this decline to the marginalization Marxian and Keynesian thought by the mainstream during the neoclassical and neoliberal counterrevolution of the 1970s.

Q: Homo Economicus and Perfect Competition

If the rational, selfish “economic man” of mainstream theory does not exist in the real world, why do we study that model at all? After all, would it make sense for medical students to study unrealistic models of the human body for their training in anatomy? The same could be asked of the model of perfectly competitive businesses. Why should we cloud our understanding with such unrealistic models as economists?

Q: Is it moral to value the present more than the future?

Why should we use “discounting” to decide how much to spend to avert future catastrophes like climate change? Given the high uncertainty around climate impacts, as well as high uncertainty about future economic stability, doesn’t inter-generational justice demand that we follow the precautionary principle and take the strongest action possible while we are able?

Kick It Over on Al Jazeera

KIO on Al Jazeera

Ask your economics professor this: If you support academic free inquiry, why don’t we have a pluralist economics curriculum? Why aren’t multiple schools of economic thought (Marxian, Post-Keynesian, Ecological and so forth) taught in our program instead of this dogmatic focus on the neoclassical canon?

That’s essentially the question that heterodox economics professor Julie Matthaei and I put to a lecturer from the infamous University of Chicago economics program and a libertarian professor from the Koch-funded George Mason University during a debate on Al Jazeera’s program The Stream yesterday. Their answer — that we in fact should open our economics programs and journals up to pluralist debate — might surprise you. Then again, it might not. After all, it’s hard to sound reasonable while arguing against intellectual openness, and its even harder to pose as a supporter of the “free market” when you oppose a free market of ideas in your very own classroom.

Of course without action it’s all empty rhetoric. So who’s down to help us make some real headway at these bastions of right-wing thought and bring the Battle for the Soul of Economics to Friedman and Koch territory?

Meanwhile check out and share the video of the show. (NOTE: Viewers in the United States must add the free and trusted Hola plugin to their browsers and choose a country such as the UK to bypass a regional viewing restriction.)

Jamming the economic high priests at the AEA

Photo credit: Kyle Depew, The Illuminator Collective

Last weekend, at the American Economic Association conference, the rebel economists with Kick It Over proved the power of the Meme War. You can read an account of the actions we took in a recent article from the Washington Post.

Besides inspiring the heterodox and pluralist communities with a vision of a refreshingly subversive approach to transforming the profession, we also succeeded in putting the high priests of the orthodoxy on the defensive.

You could hear it in the incredulous mutterings of the neoclassical faithful as they stood, bemusedly staring at the accusations of the Kick It Over manifestos we had taped to walls throughout the conference space. You could see it in the eyes of an audience member who mad-dogged me for a good 30 seconds after I challenged former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to explain his role in fueling the financial meltdown.  We had rattled their academic silos, and the experience of such a direct challenge to their authority was disconcerting.

Why else would Greg Mankiw devote the entirety of his only blog update from the conference to a distorted recounting of the jam we pulled off in his lop-sided panel discussion on Thomas’ Piketty’s Capital? Mankiw, you may recall, is the conservative Harvard economist whose gleeful defense of obscene wealth inequality prompted a mass walkout of students from his own ec 10 introductory economics course at Harvard in 2011. Though we stuck to substantive critiques of Mankiw’s bizarre arguments for inequality (including a claim that the Occupy movement did not oppose wealth concentration!), Mankiw opted to frame our actions as a personal attack, lumping us together with a conspiratorial heckler who allegedly asked him how much the Koch Brothers were paying him. Yet, as shown in the video below, though our critiques may have been provocative, they were never puerile. Leave it to a neoclassical economist to ignore all the data that doesn’t fit his model.

While we clearly struck a nerve among the neoclassical crowd, we also struck a chord among those with a more progressive mindset. From the folks who came up to congratulate and thank us after our session jams, to the steady stream of praise from pluralist luminaries like James Galbraith and Steve Keen, there was a clear sense of excitement that, as one student commented “finally someone has begun to speak straight into the face” of the establishment.

None of this would have been possible were it not for the group of student activists who showed the exceptional courage to attend those sessions, stand up and shout their outrage over the narrowness of the orthodoxy into the faces of its high priests. Thanks to Anirban, Aparna, Dustin, Jess, Kevin, Mike and Sonia for your inspiring example to the ranks of other student rebels who are bound to follow you into this new battle for the soul of economics.

Photos courtesy of Kyle Depew, The Illuminator Collective

Declaring a Meme War at the American Economic Association Conference

Keynes small - w text

Let the Meme Wars begin! The high priests of mainstream economics received a feisty welcome to the American Economic Association conference in Boston on Friday as a group of intrepid rebel economists with the Kick It Over campaign distributed copies of the Kick It Over manifesto and projected billboard-sized critiques of the orthodoxy outside of the opening event. Support the Rebel Economists as they continue to shake things up and promote pluralism throughout the weekend by sharing these posts and following/using the #kickitover tag.

Killing Planet small

 

Photo credit: Kyle Depew
Projection by The Illuminator 

 

Calling all Rebel Economists!

Join us at the American Economics Association Annual Conference in Boston, January 3-5 2015

After smothering progress for decades, the mainstream stranglehold on economic thought is finally slipping. With the recent rise of student protest movements like the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE), the demand for real-real world economics is at an all-time high, and a strategic spark may be all it takes for this growing discontent to explode into a global campus revolution.

This January, the rebel economists at Adbusters will head to the American Economic Association conference in Boston to throw off some much-needed sparks. As the largest annual gathering of economists in the U.S., and a magnet for media attention, the AEA conference is the perfect location to light brush fires in people’s minds, stoke debate, and inspire new flare ups of campus activism. From the workshops to the hallways, we’ll shake things up and challenge the dead-end status-quo with the subversive memes and mind-bombs of a new pluralist economics for the 21st century. We’re looking for a few good rebel economists – from students, to educators and beyond – to join in the fun!

Here are the details:

WHAT: Meme Wars at the AEA Conference
WHEN
Saturday, January 3 – Monday, January 5, 2015
WHERE: Sheraton Hotel, Boston, MA
WHO: Economics students, educators, researchers and rabble-rousers. This will be a economic student-led action, but you don’t need economic credentials to participate; you should have a passion for economic thought and the drive to liberate it from the mainstream stranglehold.
REGISTRATIONVisit the conference website to register, and then sign up below to join the Adbusters contingent.

  • Students with college/university IDs: $45
  • Regular attendees:  $115

SCHOLARSHIPS: Adbusters will provide a limited number of needs-based registration stipends for students who require it, as well as travel stipends for participants travelling from points in the mid-Atlantic, New England, and Southeast Canada. We will also help to find free housing for those who require accommodation assistance. 
RSVP: For more information, or to sign up to join the Adbusters contingent, contact Keith Harrington: keith@adbusters.org. To ensure smooth planning and preparation, please register for the conference and check in with Keith no later than 12/23/14.

——

Piketty Puts Capital in the Crosshairs [VIDEO]

blackboard---inequality

Ask your economics professor this:

If economic growth is supposed supposed to make everyone better off, how do you explain the dramatic rise in income and wealth inequality over the last 30 years?

As, Thomas Piketty explains in a recent talk on his best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the orthodox response is to chalk the income problem up to shifts in “supply and demand for skills.” In other words, the rise in demand for higher-skilled labor in developed countries has left those without access to top-tier education to languish in economic limbo while skilled workers race further and further ahead. It’s nothing but the market at work.

But before you join the cohorts of those ready to swallow such blatant reductionism, you’d do well to listen to Piketty’s talk at the New School. In the talk as well as the book, Piketty draws on meticulously collected data to provide an unsurprisingly more complex explanation which places the inner workings of capitalism itself squarely in the crosshairs.

It’s hardly the standard textbook take on things. But as Piketty so wisely admonishes his audience, one should “be careful with economic textbooks.”

Take a look at the talk and share your thoughts:

Economics Education: Soft-CORE Reforms or Radical Pluralism?

On campus

Besides outright repression, one of the most predictable establishment responses to a revolutionary challenge is an effort at co-optation. Without ceding any real power, authorities respond to discontent by offering mild reforms couched in the language of opposition movements. This strategy serves to blunt the opposition’s edge and achieve a PR victory by promoting a false sense of unity and resolution. “See, we hear you, we’re on your side, we’ve addressed your concerns,” the message goes; and against such staid reassurances, demands for more transformative action might be brushed off as the rantings of a malcontented minority.

The shrewd rebel economist should immediately spot this mechanism at work in the economics curricular reform effort known as the CORE Project (not to be mistaken for the U.S.’s Common Core). Indeed while the material presented in the CORE authors’ forthcoming textbook The Economy is largely anodyne from a mainstream perspective, the head of the project has hailed it as a “new economics for the #Occupy generation.” Meanwhile a Financial Times editorial has painted the effort as an answer to the global student outcry for a revolution of pluralism in economics education.

But the reality of the CORE Project fails to match the rhetoric both in process and in content. For starters, while the procedural ethos of #Occupy was all about inclusive deliberation and horizontal, democratic decision making, so far CORE has effectively ignored those values in favor of a closed, top-down process where input is only elicited as a kind of pro-forma gesture toward the student advocates whose discontent the project claims to reflect. A truly open, democratic effort would at a minimum involve establishing something like a panel of student contributors whose members had been elected from groups like the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE) and its member networks. But to look at the CORE “contributors” page, you’d think the effort had nothing to do with student advocates whatsoever, given that their presence is relegated to a few names on the “thank-you” list.

Minus serious contributions from students, it’s little surprise that the CORE material bears little resemblance to the pluralist transformation students have been calling for. The ISIPE manifesto, for example, calls for pluralism of theories, methodologies and disciplines in economics education. What this requires is parity between various schools of thought (e.g. Feminist, Marxist, Ecological, Post-Keynesian, Neoclassical etc.) emphasis on analytical tools besides math (epistemology, history of economic thought etc.) and serious cross-training in other relevant disciplines (political science, anthropology, sociology, ecology etc.). But rather than take the plunge into pluralism, CORE merely ventures to dip a cautious toe into those waters. In the first ten chapters of The Economy, major alternative thinkers such as Marx and Schumpeter see their contributions relegated to a smattering of sidebar commentary, while the analytical methodology is strictly limited to standard neoclassical modelling. Seeing as the work was drafted entirely by economists, it’s unsurprisingly also lacking in interdisciplinary content.

At best, with its passing nods to heterodoxy, and the healthy dose of skepticism it heaps on a few neoclassical fallacies such as perfect competition, The Economy is on its face a marginal improvement over the standard introductory economics texts. But given the low bar set by the latter, that’s saying very little. By no stretch of the imagination could this material be considered pluralist and the suggestion that it amounts to a curriculum for the “#Occupy generation” is patently absurd.

Fortunately, The Economy is still a work in progress with only 10 out of 21 chapters seeing a recent release online as a “beta” version. Ten more beta chapters are due to follow by the end of the year with the official roll-out slated for 2016. That leaves rebel economists with some time to push back against co-optation and highlight the gulf separating CORE from the type of pluralist revolution economics truly needs.

There are several easy ways to join the resistance. For one, you can register your disaffection with CORE by posting comments on the website, or setting up an account to offer specific feedback on the material. Better yet, team up with ISIPE and other student networks as they continue to advocate for a curriculum that is truly worthy of the #Occupy generation.