Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why Do We Need Heterodox Economics Departments?

A comrade writes:

Economics is too important to leave it to the mainstream. Economic ideas and economists are very powerful at shaping and influencing the societies in which we live. We, heterodox economists, are a minority and we need our voice be heard. I’m afraid that the radicalism of “I don’t care the mainstream, I do my own thing” is the most conservative strategy. It leaves us as college professors teaching mainstream stuff with a heterodox twist but without any significant influence in the real world. Please, don’t take this wrong. I respect and admire those who like teaching at colleges as a way of life. I’m just saying that as a collective output is a suicide. Our battle is at research universities, central banks, finance ministries, international institutions and think tanks, where the presence of mainstream economist is overwhelming. We need to challenge and persuade them and for that we need to know their theories and methods.

I disagree.

Of course we don''t want to be cloistered. But there are many possible channels by which our work can reach public policy, social movements and the larger world. Shifting the mainstream of economics is only one possible channel and not, in my judgment, the strongest or most reliable one.

To take a personal example: I recently agreed to do some research work for a couple of state-level minimum-wage campaigns,giving them numbers on the distribution of workers who would be covered by the bills by industry and firm size and the profitability of the major low-wage sectors in those states. The people organizing the campaigns are now using those numbers for position papers, talking points for canvassing, op-eds, etc. I even went down to Maryland a couple weeks ago to testify before the legislature.

Of course you need some basic knowledge of econometrics and the relevant literature to do this kind of work. But do you need the kind of knowledge you'd need to be a cutting-edge labor economist? No, obviously not; I'm not a labor economist of any sort. And yet, I would argue, this kind of direct work with practical political campaigns/organizations is at least as likely -- more likely, IMO -- to produce concrete policy changes and to shift the public debate, than an effort to master the techniques of mainstream labor economics, publish sufficiently on the minimum wage to move the consensus of the profession, and then count on the "official" representatives of the profession to pass the message on to policymakers. Fundamentally, I don't agree that our battle is at research universities, central banks, etc. Our jobs may be at those places. But our battle is with people engaged in practical political work and organizing. This isn't (just) a moral stand; I think the implicit assumption that the consensus of the economics profession is first shaped by the quality of the arguments made on various sides, and then transmitted to politics, is not applicable to the real world. If you want to contribute to political change, you need to be part of a political project; winning debates within the economics profession doesn't help. The recent history of macroeconomics shows that clearly, no?

There's a second point. The idea that we should be orienting our training around learning to persuade the mainstream assumes that "we" already know what we want to persuade them of. But that's not the case. On most of the big questions, we don't have any consensus on what the right answers are, even if we're confident they're not what's taught in most programs. And the project of developing an alternative economics is very different from the project of persuading people of an alternative economics. The second would require talking -- and having the tools to talk -- with others. But the first requires primarily talking among ourselves. And the first has to come first. Economics is hard! And Marxist, post-Keynesian, feminist, institutionalist economics is just as hard as mainstream economics. (Albeit in different ways -- less math, more fieldwork & history.) Unless we -- meaning we heterodox/radical economists -- are systematically building on each others' work, there will never be an alternative view to persuade the mainstream of. Which means there needs to be spaces for conversations within radical economics, where we can critique and develop our own approaches, and for getting the training necessary to take part in those conversations.

All of us tend to exaggerate our own intellectual autonomy. (It's a legacy of the Enlightenment.) We think we're rational beings, who know what we want and choose the best tools to get it. But , means and ends don't always separate so cleanly. You say you want a prestigious position only in order to have a better platform from which to advance progressive ideas, but soon enough the means becomes the ends. (I've seen it happen!) There can't be left ideas without a sociological left -- without a group of people who feel some objective connection with each other, have shared experiences and interests, share a common identity. Because ideas will accomodate to the situation of the person who holds them. (Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral.) We all think, no not me, but yes us too. If there aren't at least a few settings in which specifically radical economics is professionally rewarded, we shouldn't take it for granted that it will continue to exist.

1 comment:

  1. Thought from a non economist:
    I think that mainstream economics evolved by solving problems that were relevant for the institution that hire mainstream economists (for example, since banks hire m.e. the discipline evolved by solving problems that are relevant to banks).
    In my opinion, this is the reason for the bias in maistream economics.
    As a consequence, those istitutions have no reason fo employ "heterodox" economists: for example, what use can a bank have for a marxist economist?