Mainstream economists on the defensive

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Astrology? Creationism?

Economists who argued that “crowding out” is the primary reason for not including alternative perspectives on economics agreed that, in making their decisions about staffing and curricular structure, they were inherently making decisions about what topics and perspectives to prioritize. When asked why incorporating other economic perspectives was not a high-enough priority to include in their course offerings, many of them responded by questioning the validity of those competing schools of thought, such as Marxian, Post-Keynesian, and institutional economics.

“I wouldn’t think that science departments ought to give equal weight to flat-earth theories or creationist approaches.” — Gene Grossman, Princeton University

John Siegfried, an emeritus professor of economics at Vanderbilt University and the secretary-treasurer of the American Economics Association (AEA), who has written widely on economics education from a neoclassical perspective, emphasized that the difficulty facing economics departments was determining the basis on which to evaluate various perspectives for inclusion in the curriculum.

“The commentators on Fox News have an alternative,” he said. “Should we include that? If you’re going to present alternatives, who gets to decide which alternatives?”

Harald Uhlig, chair of the economics department at the University of Chicago, agreed that this is a problem. “As a teacher, you want to get your students to think critically, of course,” he said. “You want to expose them to ideas but also question these ideas to some extent. But to do that you have to make a choice of bringing what you think are the most relevant criticisms into the classroom.”

For Uhlig, the “most relevant” criticisms came from within the neoclassical school itself. Several mainstream economists implied that heterodox perspectives were akin to unscientific theories, like astrology, or to outdated theories in the natural sciences.

“If my son were taking a course on astrophysics, I would expect him to learn the modern astrophysicist’s perspective, not be taken through six centuries of theological doctrine,” Uhlig said. “The Mayans have thought about the origins of the universe, but I don’t think he needs to learn what they thought.”

“I wouldn’t think that science departments ought to give equal weight to flat-earth theories or creationist approaches,” said Gene Grossman, the chair of the economics department at Princeton University.


A methodological catch-22

The alignment of neoclassical economics with the natural sciences by many mainstream economists is not a coincidence. Methodologically, neoclassical economics has attempted to model itself as closely to the natural sciences as possible, leading heterodox economists to accuse mainstream economists of having “physics-envy.”

“The social realm is much more contested than the physical realm,” said Frederic Lee of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “To say that there’s only one valid viewpoint on social issues is obviously problematical.”

Mainstream economists usually see this as a strength. Indeed, when presented with the argument that the education a typical student receives in economics is likely to be narrower than in the other social sciences, several mainstream economists acknowledged as much, but viewed the methodological diversity of other departments as a weakness.

“I think we’re beginning to see a lot of the other social sciences growing more like economics in that regard,” Grossman said, “which proves there’s a value in trying to develop theories just like a science.”

But critics argue that teaching economics as if the foundational knowledge of the discipline was on ground as solid as in the natural sciences discourages students from thoughtfully examining their assumptions.

“The social realm is much more contested than the physical world, and students need to understand that,” said Frederic Lee, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “To say that there’s only one valid viewpoint on social issues is obviously problematical.”

And, importantly, it is questionable whether the validity or relevance of alternative perspectives can be effectively judged using the neoclassical methodology, because many alternate perspectives do not employ the same methodology.

“Econometric modeling is just one of the techniques that we use,” Lee said. “Heterodox theories are much more grounded in empirical observations, so we’ll also use things like archival research, participant observation, and ethnographic studies. We want to find out not only how things might work logically, but also how they actually work, how organizations really function, how people actually make decisions.”

Observations and insights on the economy attained through these methods, Lee said, will obviously be at a clear disadvantage when judged using the neoclassical methods of deductive reasoning and mathematical modeling.

“This is another way of saying, ‘what you people are doing is not economics. To be an economist you have to be like me,’” Lee said. “It would be like a Baptist looking at a Catholic and saying, ‘what you’re doing is not religion.’”

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