www.nettime.org
Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> The Life of Edward: You're all Post-Autistic Economists
Soenke Zehle on Wed, 12 Jan 2005 17:50:21 +0100 (CET)


[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> The Life of Edward: You're all Post-Autistic Economists


According to a number of ecological economists and post-normal science 
advocates [1], we are about to witness the return of the great social 
science of political economy - with growing grassroots support, as even 
econ students are beginning to rise up against their neoclassical 
masters [2,3,4]. Perhaps it's no suprise that almost everyone - 
including Sen and Spinoza - turns out to be post-autistic one way or the 
other, as the PAE movement picks up speed, sz

[1] Soederbaum, Peter. "Politics and Ideology in Ecological Economics." 
ISEE Internet Encyclopaedia of Ecological Economics (Sept 2004). 
<http://www.ecoeco.org/publica/encyc.htm>

[2] Fullbrook, Edward. "The Post-Autistic Economics Movement: A Brief 
History." JAPE 50 (Dec 2002). <http://www.jape.org/jape50_fulbrook.pdf>, 
<http://www.paecon.net>

[3] Campbell, Deborah. "Post-Autistic Economics." Adbuster (Sept/Oct 
2004. 
<http://www.adbusters.org/metas/eco/truecosteconomics/post-autistic.html>

Here's what economics students in three countries are doing to put their
professors on the defensive

France

The university-aged children of France's ruling class ought to have been
contentedly biding their time. They were, after all, destined to move
into the high-powered positions reserved for graduates of the elite
École Normale Supérieure (ENS). "The ENS is for the very good students,
and the very good students aren't afraid to ask questions," says
Sorbonne economist Bernard Geurrien.

In Spring 2000 he addressed a conference on the disconnect between
mainstream neoclassical economics instruction and reality. Economics has
an ideological function, he told them, to put forth the idea that the
markets will resolve everything. In fact, he added, economic theory
absolutely doesn't show that.

A group of economics students, their worst fears confirmed, approached
Guerrien eager to "do something." A week later, 15 of them gathered in a
classroom to hash out a plan of attack. Someone called the reigning
neoclassical dogma "autistic!" The analogy would stick: like sufferers
of autism, the field of economics was intelligent but obsessive,
narrowly focussed, and cut off from the outside world.

By June, their outrage had coalesced into a petition signed by hundreds
of students demanding reform within economics teaching, which they said
had become enthralled with complex mathematical models that only operate
in conditions that don't exist. "We wish to escape from imaginary
worlds!" they declared. Networking through the internet and reaching the
media through powerful family connections, they made their case.

"Call to teachers: wake up before it's too late!" they demanded. "We no
longer want to have this autistic science imposed on us." They decried
an excessive reliance on mathematics "as an end in itself," and called
for a plurality of approaches.

With that, ‘autisme-économie,' the post-autistic economics (PAE)
movement, was born.

Their revolutionary arguments created an earthquake in the French media,
beginning with a report in Le Monde that sent a chill through the
academic establishment. Several prominent economists voiced support and
a professors' petition followed. The French government, no doubt
recalling the revolutionary moment of May 1968, when students led a
10-day general strike that rocked the republic to its foundations,
promptly set up a special commission to investigate. It was headed by
leading economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi, who also traveled to Madrid to
address Spain's nascent "post-autistic" student movement. Fitoussi's
findings: the rebels had a cause. Most important to the PAE, Fitoussi
agreed to propose new courses oriented to "the big problems" being
ignored by mainstream economics: unemployment, the economy and the
environment.

A backlash was inevitable. Several economists (notably the American
Robert Solow from MIT), launched a return volley. What followed was an
attempt to discredit the PAE by implying that the students were
anti-intellectuals opposed to the "scientificity" of neoclassical
economics. The accusations didn't stick: the dissenters were top
students who had done the math and found it didn't add up.

Gilles Raveaud, a key PAE student leader, along with Emmanuelle
Benicourt and Iona Marinescu, sees today's faith in neoclassical
economics as "an intellectual game" that, like Marxism and the Bible,
purports to explain everything, rather than admitting there are many
issues it hasn't figured out. "We've lost religion," says Raveaud, "so
we've got something else to give meaning to our lives."

Benicourt described her hope for PAE as follows: "We hope it will
trigger concrete transformations of the way economics is taught . . . We
believe that understanding real-world economic phenomena is enormously
important to the future well-being of humankind, but that the current
narrow, antiquated and naive approaches to economics and economics
teaching make this understanding impossible. We therefore hold it to be
extremely important, both ethically and economically, that reforms like
the ones we have proposed are, in the years to come, carried through,
not just in France, but throughout the world."

United Kingdom

Raveaud and Marinescu, key French PAE student leaders, visited the
Cambridge Workshop on Realism and Economics in the UK in spring 2001.
"It must have been the right time," says Phil Faulkner, a PhD student at
Cambridge University. That June he and 26 other disgruntled PhD students
issued their own reform manifesto, called "Opening Up Economics," that
soon attracted 750 signatures. Economics students at Oxford University,
who had been at the same workshop, followed with their own
"post-autistic" manifesto and website. Similar groups linked to
heterodox (as opposed to orthodox) economics began emerging elsewhere in
Europe and South America.

The Cambridge rebellion "was prompted by frustration," says Faulkner,
but they hadn't expected such a positive reception from fellow students.
"If anyone were to be happy about the way economics had gone, we'd
expect it to be PhD students, because if they were unhappy with it, they
simply wouldn't be here. In fact, that wasn't the case."

As expected, Cambridge ignored them. Their efforts, Faulkner explains,
were meant to show support for the French students and to use their
privileged position at the esteemed economics department to demonstrate
to the rest of the world their discontent. Some of the signatories
worried that speaking out could have dire consequences, and the original
letter was unsigned. "I think it's more future possibilities, getting
jobs, etc., that [made them think] it might not be smart to be
associated with this stuff," says Faulkner. He says he already knew that
his research interests meant he would have to work outside of the
mainstream: "There was nothing to lose really."

Edward Fullbrook, a research fellow at the University of the West of
England, had already launched the first post-autistic economics
newsletter in September 2000. Inspired by the French student revolt and
outraged by stories emerging from American campuses that courses on the
history of economic thought were being eradicated (which he viewed as an
effort to facilitate complete indoctrination of students), Fullbrook
battled hate mail and virus attacks to get the newsletter off the
ground. Soon, prominent economists such as James Galbraith stepped up to
offer encouragement and hard copy. The subscriber list ballooned from
several dozen to 7,500 around the world.

Fullbrook edited The Crisis in Economics, a book based on PAE
contributions, now being translated into Chinese. Textbook publishers,
always hunting for the next big thing, have been inquiring about PAE
textbooks. It makes sense, says Fullbrook, since enrollments in standard
economics classes have been dropping, cutting into textbook revenues. In
other words, students just aren't buying it. Ironically, says Fullbrook,
"Market forces are working against neoclassical economics."

One of his contributors is Australian economist Steve Keen, who led a
student rebellion in 1973 that led to the formation of the political
economy department at Sydney University. "Neoclassical economics has
become a religion," says Keen. "Because it has a mathematical veneer,
and I emphasize the word veneer, they actually believe it's true. Once
you believe something is true, you're locked into its way of thinking
unless there's something that can break in from the outside and destroy
that confidence."

But the neoclassical model still reigns supreme at Cambridge. Phil
Faulkner now teaches at a university college, but is limited to
mainstream economics, the only game in town. "If you're into math, it's
a fun thing to do," he says. "It's little problems, little puzzles, so
it's an enjoyable occupation. But I don't think it's insightful. I don't
think it tells these kids about the things it claims to describe,
markets or individuals."

United States

Sitting in an overcrowded café near Harvard Square, talking over the din
of full-volume Fleetwood Mac and espresso fueled chatter, Gabe Katsh
describes his disillusionment with economics teaching at Harvard
University. The red-haired 21-year-old makes it clear that not all of
Harvard's elite student body, who pay close to $40,000 a year, are the
"rationally" self-interested beings that Harvard's most influential
economics course pegs them as.

"I was disgusted with the way ideas were being presented in this class
and I saw it as hypocritical -- given that Harvard values critical
thinking and the free marketplace of ideas -- that they were then having
this course which was extremely doctrinaire," says Katsh. "It only
presented one side of the story when there are obviously others to be
presented."

For two decades, Harvard's introductory economics class has been
dominated by one man: Martin Feldstein. It was a New York Times article
on Feldstein titled "Scholarly Mentor To Bush's Team," that lit the fire
under the Harvard activist. Calling the Bush economic team a "Feldstein
alumni club," the article declared that he had "built an empire of
influence that is probably unmatched in his field." Not only that, but
thousands of Harvard students "who have taken his, and only his,
economics class during their Harvard years have gone on to become
policy-makers and corporate executives," the article noted. "I really
like it; I've been doing it for 18 years," Feldstein told the Times. "I
think it changes the way they see the world."

That's exactly Katsh's problem. As a freshman, he'd taken Ec 10,
Feldstein's course. "I don't think I'm alone in thinking that Ec 10
presents itself as politically neutral, presents itself as a science,
but really espouses a conservative political agenda and the ideas of
this professor, who is a former Reagan advisor, and who is unabashedly
Republican," he says. "I don't think I'm alone in wanting a class that
presents a balanced viewpoint and is not trying to cover up its
conservative political bias with economic jargon."

In his first year at Harvard, Katsh joined a student campaign to bring a
living wage to Harvard support staff. Fellow students were sympathetic,
but many said they couldn't support the campaign because, as they'd
learned in Ec 10, raising wages would increase unemployment and hurt
those it was designed to help. During a three-week sit-in at the Harvard
president's office, students succeeded in raising workers' wages, though
not to "living wage" standards.

After the living wage ‘victory', Harvard activists from Students for a
Humane and Responsible Economics (share) decided to stage an
intervention. This time, they went after the source, leafleting Ec 10
classes with alternative readings. For a lecture on corporations, they
handed out articles on corporate fraud. For a free trade lecture, they
dispensed critiques of the wto and imf. Later, they issued a manifesto
reminiscent of the French post-autistic revolt, and petitioned for an
alternative class. Armed with 800 signatures, they appealed for a
critical alternative to Ec 10. Turned down flat, they succeeded in
introducing the course outside the economics department.

Their actions follow on the Kansas City Proposal, an open letter to
economics departments "in agreement with and in support of the
Post-Autistic Economics Movement and the Cambridge Proposal" that was
signed by economics students and academics from 22 countries.

Harvard President Lawrence Summers illustrates the kind of thinking that
emerges from neoclassical economics. Summers is the same former chief
economist of the World Bank who sparked international outrage after his
infamous memo advocating pollution trading was leaked in the early
1990s. "Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging
MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCS [Less Developed
Countries]?" the memo inquired. "I think the economic logic behind
dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable
and we should face up to that . . . I've always thought that
under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted . . . "

Brazil's then-Secretary of the Environment, Jose Lutzenburger, replied:
"Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane . . . Your
thoughts [provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation,
reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of
many conventional ‘economists' concerning the nature of the world we
live in."

Summers later claimed the memo was intended ironically, while reports
suggested it was written by an aide. In any case, Summers devoted his
2003/2004 prayer address at Harvard to a "moral" defense of sweatshop
labor, calling it the "best alternative" for workers in low-wage countries.

"You can't ignore the academic foundations for what's going on in
politics," says Jessie Marglin, a Harvard sophomore with share. share
didn't want a liberal class with its own hegemony of ideas. It wanted "a
critical class in which you have all the perspectives rather than just
that of the right." Without an academic basis for criticism, other
approaches "aren't legitimized by the institution," she says. "It
becomes their word versus Professor Feldstein, who is very powerful."

Harvard economics professor Stephen Marglin, Jessie's father, teaches
the new course. A faculty member since 1967, Marglin was the tail end of
a generation formed by the Great Depression and World War II. "This
generation," he says, "believed that in some cases markets could be the
solution, but that markets could also be the problem."

His new course still uses the Ec 10 textbook, but includes a critical
evaluation of the underlying assumptions. Marglin wants to provide
balance, rather than bias.

"I'm trying to provide ammunition for people to question what it is
about this economic [system] that makes them want to go out in the
streets to protest it," he says. "I'm responding in part to what's going
on and I think the post-autistic economics group is responding to that.
Economics doesn't lead politics, it follows politics. Until there is a
broadening of the political spectrum beyond a protest in Seattle or a
protest in Washington, there will not be a broader economics. People
like me can plant a few seeds but those seeds won't germinate until the
conditions are a lot more suitable."

The revolution is spreading. A slogan emblazoned on a wall on a Madrid
campus, where the PAE movement has been making inroads, makes its case:
"¡La economia es de gente, no de curvas!" -- "Economics is about people,
not curves!"

[4] Lee, Fredric S. "The Crisis in Economics: The Post-Autistic 
Economics Movement: The First 600 Days (Review)."  Journal of Economic 
Issues 38.3 (Sep 2004).

The Crisis in Economics: The Post-Autistic Economics Movement: The First 
600 Days, edited by Edward Fullbrook, is reviewed.

The Crisis in Economics: The Post-Autistic Economics Movement: The First 
600 Days, edited by Edward Fullbrook. London: Routledge. 2003. Cloth, 
ISBN 0415308976, $110.00. Paper, ISBN 0415308984, $31.95. 226 pages.

The post-autistic economics movement, or the PAE movement, is one of the 
most exciting things to have emerged in the past five years with regard 
to heterodoxy in economics. It challenged the status quo in economics 
with the same youthful disgust, vigor, and optimism that was 
characteristic of the movement of the 1960s and its most significant 
offspring (at least for heterodox economists), the Union for Radical 
Political Economics. However, this is not to say that the PAE movement 
started out with heterodoxy in mind. Rather the French students' 
petition that initiated the PAE in June 2000 was primarily concerned 
with narrow, mathematical, nonpluralistic economic lectures they were 
forced to sit through. Picked up by the French press, starting with Le 
Monde on June 21, the students' complaints quickly became a national 
tempest with the media and some French professors supporting them. 
Consequently, Jack Lang, the French Minister of Education, set up a 
commission to investigate the complaints.

Not content with remaining quiet, there was a neoclassical backlash on 
October 31 spearheaded by MlT professors Robert Solow and Olivier 
Blanchard. But their comments came across as condescending and 
imperialistic as well as just plain unconvincing; thus the French 
students and professors of the movement as well as observers became more 
convinced of the legitimacy of the complaints. Hence beginning in 
November and extending into April 2001, the leaders of the PAE went to 
various French universities to build support. Not to be outdone, 
neoclassical economists lobbied the commission investigating the 
complaints, but unsuccessfully. For when the report was published in 
September 2001, it called for "the integration of debate on contemporary 
economic issues into both the structure and content of university 
courses" (p. 5) and for multidisciplinarity to be placed at the heart of 
the teaching of economics. Whether these reforms will be acted upon by 
economic departments at French universities is unknown. But the report 
did coincide with a decline of intensity erf the PAE movement among 
French students. Perhaps it is unfair to say, but it does seem to be the 
case, the PAE movement would have faded away (at least in the awareness 
of heterodox economists outside of France) except for the remarkable 
Edward Fullbrook.

In order to further the movement by making its documents, articles, and 
information available to a wider audience, Fullbrook in September 2000 
started an electronic newsletter, the Post-Autistic Economics Newsletter 
(which later in the tenth-December 7, 2001-issue was changed to Review) 
as a way to further the movement by making its documents, articles, and 
information available to a wider audience through an electronic 
newsletter. Beginning with an initial e-mailing to ninety-nine potential 
subscribers, the Newsletter/Review had over 6,700 subscribers in 145 
countries by January 2004-which is not a bad growth rate. This book, The 
Crisis in Economics, reprints nearly the entire first twelve issues of 
the Newsletter/Review. After a brief history of the PAE movement by 
Fullbrook, the book is divided into three parts. The first has the 
"historical" documents that broadly define the interests, aspirations, 
and ethos of the PAE, including the initial petition by the French 
students and the Cambridge and Kansas City (which I am partial to) 
proposals as well as the first and third newsletters that describe the 
PAE uprising and the neoclassicals striking back. The second and third 
parts of the book include the over forty articles in the fourth through 
twelfth issues divided into teaching, practice, and ethics. It is not 
possible to review each of the articles, but the ones I found 
particularly interesting and thought provoking include Peter Earl's 
confessional and eye-opener article on the perils of teaching 
pluralistic economics; Tony Eawson's plea to bring reality back to 
economics; and Bernard Guerrien's biting and dismissive critique of 
neoclassical microeconomics which I entirely agree with. The ruckus 
Guerrien's article raised among those subscribing to the now Review was 
extensive and instructive of the different attitudes heterodox 
economists have about neoclassical microeconomics. Unfortunately, the 
replies, which extended over the next four issues, are not included in 
the book, but can be found at http://www.paecon.net.

The only drawback to the book is that it would have benefited from a 
more detailed and extensive history of the PAE movement. But this is 
outweighed by the fact that the first twelve issues of the 
Review/Newsletter are now more accessible for reading and for classroom 
use. In fact, I see the book as an excellent tool to introduce 
undergraduate and graduate students to a critical understanding of the 
current state of economics. This is why I have assigned the book in my 
graduate course on microeconomic theory.

If you want an introduction to the PAE movement, start with The Crisis 
in Economics; if you want to keep up to date with the movement, 
subscribe to the Review; and if you want to be active and contribute to 
the movement, write an article for the Review and send it to Fullbrook 
at pae_news {AT} btinternet.com.

Frederic S. Lee
University of Missouri-Kansas City


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net