Rising Arrogance and Declining Debate in Economics

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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.

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.)

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.