Mainstream economists on the defensive

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

An academic meritocracy?

But that was of little concern to most mainstream economists, who claimed that history has already performed the evaluation process for them.

Grossman, for example, said that one of the primary jobs of the academy has always been to foster the “competition of ideas.” The result of that competition, he said, was that some ideas achieve dominance while others are shifted to the side.

The appeal to a kind of academic meritocracy, in which the best ideas rise “naturally” to the top, was common among mainstream economists. John Campbell, the chair of the economics department at Harvard University, for example, said in an email message that he was “not particularly sympathetic” to the pluralist argument because genuine change in the field has historically come about when good new ideas replace the older ones. “There will always be fringe views that do not have such success,” he wrote. “I do not think it is productive to devote much time to such views in the early stages of economics education.”

The problem with that narrative, according to several historians of economic thought, is that is fails to take account of the ways that heterodox economic theories have been systematically expelled from the academy, not because they did not meet standards of rigor and coherence, but because they were associated with political and social orientations that were deemed “un-American.”

Notre Dame: Separate and unequal

David Ruccio of University of Notre Dame, has personally experienced the exclusion of alternative perspectives from the economics curriculum. For many years, Notre Dame’s economics department prided itself on being diverse and inclusive of approaches to economics that fell outside of the mainstream.

Then, in 2003, the University decided to split the economics department into two. The mainstream economists were place in a new department called Economics and Econometrics, while the more heterodox faculty, like Ruccio, were moved into the Department of Economics and Policy Studies.

“The idea was that it would allow both approaches to flourish,” Ruccio said. “The rationale was ‘separate but equal.’ But Economics and Econometrics got the PhD program, and we were prohibited from hiring any new faculty.”

Ultimately, in 2010, “the other shoe dropped” and Notre Dame dissolved the Department of Economics and Policy Studies entirely.

“The historical evidence is pretty clear on this point,” said David Colander, a professor of economics at Middlebury College. Colander is the author of a textbook on the history of economic thought and has written widely about economics education. The McCarthy era, according to Colander, was just one of a number of periods where those deviating from the economics mainstream were uprooted from the academy because they were seen as “radical.” 

When asked in a follow-up email whether the historical context changed his view on academic meritocracy, Campbell acknowledged that there have been periods of academic repression in the United States, but said he didn’t believe that “the limited success of Marxian, institutionalist, or neo-Keynesian economics over the longer run (specifically, in the half century 1960-2010) has anything much to do with external threats or self-censorship by academia in response to such threats.”

While Colander and other historians acknowledged that the last fifty years have not seen the same kind of direct assault on alternative perspectives as in the McCarthy period, they emphasized the many ways that decisions from decades ago can have continue to have implications in the present, because those decisions have become “institutionalized.”

The most obvious example, according to Frederic Lee of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is that because graduate programs stopped teaching the other schools of thought, a whole generation of economists did not learn them and could not, therefore, pass them on to their own students.

Another example is how the textbook market has evolved, Colander said. The textbooks that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, he said, continue to be the basis on which today’s textbooks are written. “Something was set in motion,” Colander said. “The result has been that a one-dimensional working definition of what an economist is and does has became locked in and is continually reproduced through teaching.”


“We’re leaving out the essence, the big questions”

Not every mainstream economist interviewed for this article displayed the same level of resistance to incorporating alternative perspectives into the undergraduate curriculum.

Ben Polak, the chair of the economics department at Yale University, for example, agreed that there was inherent value in presenting contending viewpoints to students.

“You always want students to be aware of the assumptions that they’re making,” Polak said. “One of our goals needs to be to get students to think carefully about the limitations and the consequences of the assumptions they’re making.”

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