May 30 2007

The Hegemony of Neo-classical Economics

Two heterodox economists respond to an article I blogged about last week, Hip Heterodoxy, published in the Nation, written by Chris Hayes.

Challenging Orthodox Economics – Part I | TPMCafe by Thomas Palley

Economics Outside the Mainstream | TPMCafe by David Ruccio

As our year winds down and we begin getting our materials and lessons in order for our next batch of AP Econ students, it’s unlikely we’ll pause to ask a rather important question: “Is the economics I’m teaching my students the correct and immutable truth?”

After all, isn’t economics still a young science? It’s only been a few generations since Smith, Riccardo and Locke laid the groundwork for what has become the mainstream, neo-classical/neo-Keynesian theory that makes up every major economics text and principles course out there. Who’s to say that in another one hundred years these views, products of the late 20th century themselves, will still be considered the correct solutions for dealing with the economic problem?

As mentioned in a previous post “Keynesian vs. Neo-classical Economics – and what is Heterodox Economics?”, the field loosely described as “heterodox economics” raises difficult questions of human behavior and thinking that challenges the neo-classical view of perfectly rational actors and the efficiency and perfectibility of free markets (the view that we teach in AP Economics). David Ruccio, econ professor at Notre Dame, laments on mainstream economists:

All reasonable arguments are accepted in the marketplace of ideas. Except they (mainstream economists) never read any heterodox economics, and have no idea how the hegemony of their favorite theory shuts out all other ideas…That’s the situation that heterodox economists are trying to change. By using economic theories other than those of the mainstream… By forming journals and associations apart from those of the mainstream (in which their ideas never get aired). And by challenging the mainstream conception of the discipline itself
(including its notions of what science is, and what it means to “think like an economist”).

We do heterodox economics, or what some refer to as political economy—as against economics (which, as Chris correctly argues, has become identified with a tiny number of theoretical approaches). We write about rates of exploitation and the role of power in increasing inequality and the existence of patriarchy and structural racism. Not only do we want to argue that economic actors are sometimes irrational or guided by norms and values; some of us also want to analyze economic institutions and events without even starting from individual actors. Or efficiency. Or constrained optimization.

So, do you feel guilty yet about teaching only the mainstream view in your course? Don’t fret, even Professor Ruccio has to teach his students the neo-classical approach; here’s how he deals with the status quo in his courses:

In all honesty, I mostly prefer not to read maintream economics these days. Either it says nothing of interest, or it gets me very angry. But I teach it, and I teach it in a way that is more rigorous than my mainstream colleagues. Because I teach its basic assumptions (and not as a kind of common sense) and because I present alternative views, heterodox economics. And then I read and do heterodox economics, independently of the mainstream. Because if we spend all our time worrying about mainstream economics, attempting to do mainstream economics (with a tweak here and a changed assumption there), we’ll never get around to developing alternatives.

Professor Ruccio makes an important point here. Before students can become agents of positive change, aware and capable of making the world a better place (and the field of economics a better science) they must first know what needs fixing. I know as much as any AP Econ teacher how rushed this course is, how little time is really left for discussions beyond the basic principles in the syllabus; but in the future, I think I’ll challenge myself and my students to take a little time and find out what alternative approaches to the economic problem are being researched, published, and put into action out there. Technology, the web, blogs: these are the tools that will enable us to easily connect our students to alternative, heterodox economics despite the hectic pace of our AP course. And if your school has access to online journal databases, here’s a few suggestions for economics publications that give a voice to heterodox economists like Professor Ruccio:

The Review of Income and Wealth, the Cambridge Journal of Economics, the European Journal of Comparative Economics, Research in Economic History, Industrial and Corporate Change, CES Ifo Economic Studies, the Eastern Economic Journal, the BNL Quarterly Review and The Economist’s Voice.

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About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

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    The Hegemony of Neo-classical Economics | Economics in Plain English