Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

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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May 28 2007

More on Heterodox Economics

NCEE | EconomicsAmerica® | National Standards

A CRITIQUE OF “STANDARDS OF ECONOMICS” from the URPE

What is Heterodox Economics? Perhaps it’s easier to start by saying what it is NOT. Heterodox Economics is NOT what we teach in Advanced Placement Economics. It is not what most major universities and colleges teach in their undergraduate and graduate economics courses. It is not widely accepted as a mainstream view in the field of professional economics. Its economists are not widely published in the top five economic journals. It is not neo-classical in its views that “humans are rational, utility-maximizing agents with fixed preferences, that they make decisions “at the margins” and that the mechanisms of supply and demand (operating free of government interference) will lead to a general equilibrium whereby resources are allocated efficiently.” In other words, heterodox economics challenges the widely accepted view that free markets and free individuals acting in their own self interest will perfectly allocate resources and achieve a general equilibrium where resources are put to their most efficient uses and goods and services are distributed efficiently among individuals in society. Markets are imperfect, and human institutions should offer Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” a helping hand when it comes to allocation of resources and output.

The National Council for Economics Education (NCEE, which publishes the widely used workbook “Advanced Placement Economics”) released in 2000 its National Standards on Economic Education, based on the “essential principles of economics”. High school economics courses, including AP, are rooted in these standards, which themselves are rooted in neo-classical theory originating with Adam Smith and carrying on to Milton Friedman and today’s mainstream economists whose work receives the most acclaim in top economic journals.

On the other end of the spectrum from the NCEE is the Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE), originally founded in the 1960’s by heterodox economics with the following goals:

First, to promote a new interdisciplinary approach to political economy which
includes also relevant themes from political science, sociology and social psychology.
Secondly, to develop new courses and research areas which reflect the urgencies of the day
and a new value premise. Such areas include the economics of the ghetto, poverty,
imperialism, interest groups, and the military-industry complex. And thirdly, political
economics should be sensitive to the needs of the social movements of our day, and have
more group research, with an approach that links all issues to a broad framework of
analysis.

To better understand the differences between heterodox economics and mainstream, neo-classical economics, it may help to examine the heterodox critique of the NCEE’s 20 Standards on Economic Education. The links above will take you to the full critique, but here’s a short excerpt that I think illustrates rather clearly the differing philosophies of these two modern schools of economic thought. The NCEE standards are in bold, the URPE’s critique is italicized:

1 and 2. Resources are limited so people cannot have all they want.
This is the traditional “starting point”
of neo-classical economics which focuses our attention on how to allocate scare resources. The focus is on efficiency, which is understood to mean maximizing total production. Thus the central question is how to CHOOSE – how to trade-off one thing for another. Classical economists, such as Adam Smith, looked not only at total production but at how it was distributed between classes (landlords, capitalists and workers), and Marx viewed the appropriation of surplus production (over and above what was necessary for working people) as “theft” by the ruling classes. A total “disinterest” in distribution is one of the defining characteristics of neoclassical economics. An alternative focus for economics would be how to insure a decent standard of living for the people of the world..

3. People choose different methods of allocation of goods and services.
Note throughout the use of terms
such as “people” and “individuals” with no distinction between capitalists and workers. Thus “people” choose their economic systems. The assumption here is that the “choice” is merely a matter of the level at which government decisions are made rather than any disagreement about a system which relies on profit-making as the motive force behind the private provision of goods and services, Thus the “command economy” (which is implicitly identified with communism) is presented as one in which the market plays no role, and there is absolutely no mention of the communists’ abolition of the capitalism class, and subsequent end to distribution on the basis of ownership of property.

4 and 5. People respond to incentives and voluntary exchange is beneficial.
There is not reference here to
the starting point of this “voluntary exchange. The poverty-stricken will take starvation wages and even sell themselves or their children into slavery – this is, of course, “voluntary” in one sense but a more comprehensive approach recognizes that “they have no choice.”

The list goes on. It’s very interesting to compare the reasonable critique offered by heterodox economists to the “truths” of economics that we teach in our principles courses. It also frustrates me that in our limited time in the AP course we are unable to further explore these alternative, yet very valid and important approaches to understanding economic behavior and policy. I will encourage my students to seek courses in university that challenge the neo-classical view taught in AP Economics. The field of heterodox economic, while it has not yet achieved mainstream status, surely will play a crucial role in the evolution of this science in the decades to come, as social unrest, political turmoil, conflict, scarcity, environmental and social ills continue to plague our ever-changing world.

While adherents of heterodoxy may not yet be widely accepted in the mainstream field, their “human” approach to the “economic problem” will surely gain appeal as growth continues to broaden the divide between rich and poor, haves and have nots, urban and rural. Bright young students who have been exposed first hand to the challenges and downsides of economic growth (such as those faced by the millions o poor migrant workers here in Shanghai) are just the kind of students who can go on to make valuable contributions to heterodox economics.

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May 27 2007

Keynesian vs. Neo-classical Economics – and what is Heterodox Economics?

Hip Heterodoxy

I just found a link to this long and interesting article about a fledgling field called “heterodox” economics. Heterodox is defined as “not in accordance with established or accepted doctrines or opinions, esp. in theology; unorthodox.”

In the case of heterodox economists, what they don’t believe is the
neoclassical model that anchors the economics profession. Classical
economics refers to the theories laid out by Adam Smith and David
Ricardo in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which emphasized
the power of the “invisible hand” of the market to promote the division
of labor and economic growth. Smith famously summed up the recipe for
prosperity as “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of
justice,” with “all the rest being brought about by the natural course
of things.”

There’s a lot to digest in this five page article from the Nation. I think I’ll have to blog it in a few separate posts. This will also be a great article for use in my AP Econ course when we compare the neo-classical version of the vertical Aggregate Supply to the Keynesian horizontal AS curve, and the implications therein regarding use of monetary and fiscal policies to achieve macroeconomic stability.

One line that jumps out at me right now is:

Indeed, the cradle for much of our policy discussions can be found in
the first chapter of just about any introductory economics textbook,
where the basic precepts of the neoclassical framework are described
under the rubric of “thinking like an economist.”

Again, I continue to come across evidence that an education in Economics is absolutely crucial to understanding important issues in all realms of society today. As I continue digesting this important analysis and history of competing economic ideologies, I will continue to think about how to use this in my class next fall, and blog any ideas that come to mind. If you have the time and interest, give this article a read and post your comments here!

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Apr 16 2007

Marco Garofolo on the imperfect science of Economics

Marco’s IB Economics Blog: Class Discussion Continued

Marco, in the above post, brings up some serious questions about the science of economics. Good insights, as always Marco. I tend to agree with him on his main idea, that economics as a science tends to perhaps unwittingly make value-based judgments even as economists claim to be objective observers of some fundamental law or principle.

The risk with broadening economics’ focus to the Aristotelean “metaphysical” level that Marco speaks of is that a science rooted in the law of scarcity is scarcely equipped to deal with metaphysical resources beyond those very physical resources we deem to be finite (land/labor/capital).

Some economists, such as Julian Simon, have explored the idea of the infiniteness of resources due to the creativity and innovation of the human mind, claiming that any physical scarcity that may exist on our finite planet can be overcome as human ingenuity (the “ultimate resource”) constantly develops new and better means of employing those otherwise finite resources. Even this venture beyond classical economic thought runs the risk of shattering the foundations of the basic science, that is the belief, the TRUTH, that “scarcity exists”. If we accept this truth, and we accept that the market mechanism is an effective means of dealing with scarcity, then we have no other choice than to embrace the price mechanism in all its materialistic and dehumanizing, “Machiavellian” glory.

“…as a social study, economics studies society and the world around us. However, that does then not mean that we should only perceive the world in terms of economics, and economics today connotes profit maximization.”

As Marco says, “we should not only perceive the world in terms of economics”. On this point I could not agree with him more. Indeed, economics may not provide you or me with answers to life’s most basic questions, like where I’ll go when I die; but one question this imperfect science will help answer is how will my basic needs be met while I’m here on this earth burdened with the curse of scarcity? The answer? Markets. Alas, the invisible hand of which Smith spoke may not be that of God, rather that of the Almighty Dollar.

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