Over the weekend, Mark Thoma bristled at Stanley Alcorn and Ben Solarz' article, "The Autistic Economist." I liked the article, and was glad both to see that it had been published at the Yale Economic Review and that Thoma daylighted it on his blog. Although I would rather that Thoma had read it a bit differently.
People interested in Ecological Economics should be familiar with the Post-Autistic Economics Network (PAEN), since Ecological Economics plays a prominent role in the makeup of the PAEN. Here is a Snip from Alcorn and Solarz, followed by my comments to Mark on his blog.
The Autistic Economist, by Stanley Alcorn and Ben Solarz, Yale Economic Review, summer 2006: ...The caricature of the economist – bumbling, impractical, disconnected from the object of his work – underpins a set of surprisingly sophisticated criticisms leveled against the discipline, particularly its realism, method, and ideology. None of these critiques is particularly new, nor is any entirely unique to economics. But over the last few years, they have been asserted against the dominant economic pedagogy in general and the neoclassical framework in particular with new force...I was surprised to see Mark Thoma's reaction, taking it all very personally, not realizing (or admitting) that the criticisms were aimed at economists who are more ideologically/methodologically narrow than Thoma. Here is my comment on Mark's blog:
"We wish to escape from imaginary worlds!" proclaimed a group of French economics students in 2000, petitioning for broad changes in their economics curricula. "We no longer want to have this autistic science imposed upon us."
The use of the French term "autisme" harkens back to an older meaning – "abnormal subjectivity, acceptance of fantasy rather than reality" – but it also refers to the continuum of neurological disorders. Steve Keen ... at the University of West Sydney and the author of Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences, sees the aptness of the term as the strongest point of the critique. "It asserts that neoclassical economics has the characteristics of an autistic child," he said, criticizing the manner in which the discipline "hangs on to its preconceptions, when serious analysis shows that they are untenable." ...
I think Mark's reactions to Alcorn and Solarz does a disservice to some very worthwhile aims of the Post-Autistic Economics movement. Although I too admit that some of the criticisms the Post Autistic Economics Network (PAEN) movement's practitioners level against "economics" ought to be more narrowly focused (as is done sometimes on the PAEN website -- see below).
In particular Mark's reaction may cause some not to investigate the PAEN movement, but instead to believe that it is just ramblings from a bunch of crackpots. Maybe it is, but I hope that the movement is not dismissed too easily and for the wrong reasons.
Clearly anyone who has wandered into the Post-Autistic Economics Network website and browsed for a while realizes that the movement doesn't paint all economics with the same negative connotations and caricatures. Otherwise the economists who write there would be painting themselves into a corner.
Go to their website and drawn your own conclusions. http://www.paecon.net/. I recommend that you also subscribe to their quarterly review (free via email, with online archives on the net), then debate the value (or lack of value) of what they are talking about.
Note that The Post-Autistic Economics movement is a student's revolt against, particularly, neo-conservative ideological bias in some economics classrooms. See, e.g. Post-Autistic Economics, By Deborah CampbellSitting in an overcrowded 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 during a conference in Kansas City.
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...."…