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Academic unfreedom in economics

from David Ruccio

We forget, at our peril, the extent to which academic unfreedom is enforced in departments of economics across North America.

Most departments of economics offer—in the classroom and in terms of research and policy advice—only mainstream economics. By that I mean they hire economists who only teach, conduct research, and offer policy advice defined by one or another version of mainstream (neoclassical and Keynesian) economics. Other approaches to economics—generally, these days, referred to as heterodox economics—simply aren’t recognized by or represented within those departments. That was true in the decades leading up to the crash of 2007-08 and, perhaps even more startling, it has continued to be the case in the years since.

That’s particularly true in departments that have doctoral programs in economics. While heterodox economists are often hired by undergraduate departments (such as, most famously, the University of Southern Maine), you simply won’t find heterodox economics or heterodox economists at Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale, and Chicago.

Now, there have been a few departments of economics over the years that have been defined in terms of a significant presence (although generally still a minority view) of heterodox economics. The University of Massachusetts Amherst was certainly one of them (which, to offer the appropriate disclaimer, is where I did my doctoral work). The list also includes the New School for Social Research, the University of California-Riverside, American University, and, more recently, the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

I was in fact hired by another of those departments, at the University of Notre Dame, which as readers of this blog know was first split off as a separate department (in 2003) and then (in 2010) simply dissolved by the administration of the university.

What was extraordinary about that episode was the length mainstream economists (and their allies within the university administration) were willing to go to stamp out any and all forms of nonmainstream economics. Not, to be clear, because there was any kind of financial crisis, but simply to first marginalize and then remove entirely the existence of heterodox economics from the curriculum, research profile, and policy recommendations of the department.

I note that history because it was invoked in the extensive investigation of academic freedom in the Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (pdf).* The department at Manitoba is the only place in Canada where doctoral students can receive significant training in nonmainstream or heterodox economics. According to the report,

Prior to 2006,the Department of Economics approached hiring, curriculum and pedagogical issues with an approach that made room for heterodox, as well as mainstream views, although the heterodox group remained a minority of the department. This was achieved through a solid degree of good will that permeated the Department.

After that, the “solid degree of good will that permeated the Department” was undermined by the orthodox or mainstream members of the department who, in various ways, sought to “to change the direction of the Economics Department by moving to a more mainstream/orthodox emphasis.” The problem of academic freedom within the department, according to the student newspaper, has still not been resolved.

What is extraordinary in all of this is how few departments there are in all of North America where doctoral students can be exposed to and learn—not to mention, after they complete their degrees and then find a job, teach, conduct research, offer policy advice—heterodox approaches to economics. And, on top of that, in the few departments where both mainstream and heterodox approaches are in fact represented, the length to which mainstream economists (and, as I wrote above, their allies within university administrations) will go to marginalize or eliminate heterodox approaches to economics.

The University of Manitoba is just the latest example in the long line of attempts to define, impose, and police the rules of academic unfreedom in the discipline of economics in North America.

*Just to correct the historical record, though, the 2003 decision to split the Department of Economics at the University of Notre Dame was opposed by 11 of the 16 members of the department, a group that included both mainstream and heterodox economists. Because they were opposed to the split, they were not invited to join the new Department of Economics and Econometrics, which defined itself from the beginning as a purely neoclassical program.

  1. Lori
    October 31, 2015 at 1:16 am

    I just finished reading the report. It is quite a condemnation of ‘orthodox’ economists at the university and it is also sad. Other ways of thinking should be encouraged. How else do we find new and perhaps better ways. or should we still be using rocks as tools?

  2. October 31, 2015 at 4:16 am

    When I was at graduate school in the University of Texas in the 1970s the coverage of orthodoxy encompassed more than economics. The economics department was removed as an institutionalist program, and a neoclassical program substituted. This same process occurred in my field, psychology (institutionalist to experimental), and the politics department which became the department of political science. I preferred then and still do today the older arrangements. But I was able to complete my psychology PhD in an institutionalist department. Probably one of the last remaining in the US.

  3. October 31, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    What a shame! Freedom of thought is like egalitarian justice for everyone. In an individiual-interest-bassed society, some may have interest to violate the rights and freedom of thought of some others because they have the power over them and he/she who has the power likes to misuse and abuse it. Ideologically speaking, this power of the mainstream economics is obvious but also this kind of abuse reminds that when an ideology has reached its culminating point over society, it becomes autistic and then dislocates because inapt and inable to develop and renew itself in an intelligent manner. That is the end of an ideology. The economics, THE science of this new society, called capitalism, that came into picture some centuries ago and gave people individualism and freedom (positive and progressive values of the Lumières, compared with the Middle Ages), has now reached its degeneration period thanks to the sad obsession of the mainstream economics (it’s life!!).
    Unfortunately, we belong to this generation who lives the end of an epoch and we have to suffer from. Maybe, an international society-wide post-autistic movment must be relaunched and sustained till the things are reframed in an intelligent and freedom-improving way. A society which cannot renew itself and regenerate through free thoughts is a dying society. The mainstream economics results today in the end of the Age of Enlightenment. We do not have to accept it!

  4. Wendy olsen
    October 31, 2015 at 11:52 pm


  5. November 1, 2015 at 4:24 am

    The same pattern is apparent in Mexico, where most universities marginalise heterodox economics in favour of a unique “economic science.”

  6. Blisex
    November 1, 2015 at 10:08 am

    «one or another version of mainstream (neoclassical and Keynesian) economics.»

    That’s funny — Keynesian political economy is rather heterodox too and is quite unwelcome in most anglo-american culture Economics departments. What is welcome is the usual “neoclassical synthesis”.

    «another of those departments, at the University of Notre Dame, which as readers of this blog know was first split off as a separate department (in 2003) and then (in 2010) simply dissolved by the administration of the university.»

    That’s more or less what S Keen reports to his previous department in Sydney being transformed into one of business studies.

    There is nothing new in this: M Gaffney describes how in the 19th century university presidents and boards were careful to ensure that only orthodox Economists were hired and promoted, at the time the main “unorthodox” ones were the georgists (and they are still unorthodox of course), and how JB Clark made strenuous efforts to even change the theoretical approach of Economics to exclude consideration of “land” for that purpose.

    Overall I am surprised by people’s surprise here: it should be well known that most organizations are run along the lines of “don’t bite the hand that feeds us”, including universities, and potential large donors usually come from financial or other lines of business. As an example IIRC Ken Lay endowed 35 (thirty five) chairs at various universities, among them several in accounting and Economics.

    Sometimes “heterodox” political economists forget just how large the *personal* rewards of preaching neoclassical Economics can be, as described by M Ferguson: an Economist that preaches on the right lines can end up with very well compensated consulting, speaking, publishing, business opportunities, and accumulate wealth in the tens (or even hundreds) of millions, like Feldstein, Mankiw, Hubbard. Quite a few others in orthodox Economics can accumulate several millions in wealth too from sponsored work.

    Of course the vast majority don’t get any of those very well compensated consulting, speaking, publishing, business opportunities, because quite appropriately “winners take all”, but the example of the minority who become quite wealthy thanks to the generosity of their sponsors keeps all the others “motivated”. A journalist has described how the same incentives (used to) work in their profession:

    «journalists/columnists of a certain age (meaning ones not much older than me and younger) are coming around to the realization that the economy is screwing them, too. There was a moment when a lot of them (we’re talking ones at elite outlets, not your random small town paper) thought they’d done everything right, would become celebrities, and get Tom Friedman’s speaking fees. The economy sure was working for them, and screw everybody else.»

    Many “heterodox” political economists come from continental Europe and other cultures where academics are mostly content to survive on mediocre middle class professorial civil service salaries, and business interests have not yet learned to make it clear just how large are the benefits of their sponsorship for those Economists that they approve of.

  7. November 1, 2015 at 7:18 pm

    The wider context? Try searching for ‘Myron Fagan exposes the Illuminati’ or ‘The Money Masters’.

  8. November 2, 2015 at 4:31 pm

    Free the academy from economics
    Comment on David Ruccio on ‘Academic unfreedom in economics’

    You say “Most departments of economics [in North America] offer—in the classroom and in terms of research and policy advice — only mainstream economics. By that I mean they hire economists who only teach, conduct research, and offer policy advice defined by one or another version of mainstream (neoclassical and Keynesian) economics. Other approaches to economics — generally, these days, referred to as heterodox economics — simply aren’t recognized by or represented within those departments.” (See intro)

    There is a big problem here. Imagine the followers of Geo-centrism complain that academia is dominated by the followers of Helio-centrism. Or that the Astrologers and Alchemists complain that there is no place for them in academia. Would anyone seriously conclude from these facts that there is unfreedom in physics, astronomy or chemistry?

    The real problem is this. Academia is, loosely speaking, committed to science — this is the original idea. And science is well-defined by material and formal consistency (Klant, 1994, p. 31). To recall, when Plato founded the first academy he explicitly excluded what he considered as nonscientists: “Let None But Geometers Enter Here.” (See Wikipedia Platonic Academy)

    The practical problem is that it is not always easy to establish material and formal consistency and this is what the demarcation problem has always been about, that is, how to draw a clear line between science and nonscience. “The problem of finding a criterion which would enable us to distinguish between the empirical sciences on the one hand, and mathematics and logic as well as ‘metaphysical’ systems on the other, I call the problem of demarcation. This problem was known to Hume who attempted to solve it. With Kant it became the central problem in the theory of knowledge.” (Popper, 1980, p. 34)

    As good sophist, McCloskey has given the whole topic a social spin, insinuating that demarcation is the same as discrimination: “In practice methodology serves chiefly to demarcate Us from Them, demarcating science from nonscience. Once the modernist have found a Bantustan for nonscience such as astrology, psychoanalysis, acupuncture, nutritional medicine, Marxist economics, spoonbending, or anything else they do not wish to discuss, they can get on with the business at hand with a clear head. Methodology and its corollary, the Demarcation Problem (What is Science? How is It to be distinguished from nonscience?), are ways at stopping conversation by limiting conversation to people on our side of the demarcation line.” (1998, p. 161)

    Contrary to this subtle redefinition it has to be affirmed that demarcation is not only legitimate but necessary in order to protect the integrity of science, which consists in upholding the distinction between true and false regardless of any other criteria.

    It is pretty clear who should be in and who should be out: “A genuine inquirer aims to find out the truth of some question, whatever the color of that truth. … A pseudo-inquirer seeks to make a case for the truth of some proposition(s) determined in advance. There are two kinds of pseudo-inquirer, the sham and the fake. A sham reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to make a case for some immovably-held preconceived conviction. A fake reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to advance himself by making a case for some proposition to the truth-value of which he is indifferent. (Haack, 1997, p. 1)

    Therefore, it is of utmost importance to distinguish between political and theoretical economics. The main differences are:
    (i) The goal of political economics is to push an agenda, the goal of theoretical economics is to explain how the actual economy works.
    (ii) In political economics anything goes; in theoretical economics scientific standards are observed.

    Theoretical economics has to be judged according to the criteria true/false and nothing else. The history of political economics, on the other hand, can be summarized as the perpetual violation of well-defined scientific standards.

    The fact of the matter is that theoretical economics has from the very beginning been dominated by the agenda pushers of political economics. Smith and Mill fought against the precapitalistic order, Marx and Keynes were agenda pushers, so were Hayek and Friedman, and so are Krugman and Varoufakis.

    Political economics is scientifically worthless. Economics is a failed science. Orthodox economics does not satisfy scientific criteria, neither does Heterodoxy (see for example 2011).

    Theoretical economics has been hijacked by politics and intrumentalized. Political economics in turn has occupied academia. Academic freedom means not only to get rid of Neoclassical economics but of all of economics as far as it is political economics. There can be no freedom and pluralism of false theories. Academic freedom does not include the freedom to push a political agenda, neither to talk plain scientific junk. Both, current Othodoxy and Hetrodoxy has to go the way of astrology.

    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

    Haack, S. (1997). Science, Scientism, and Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism.
    Skeptical Inquirer, 21(6): 1–7. URL http://www.csicop.org/si/show/science_
    Kakarot-Handtke, E. (2011). Why Post Keynesianism is Not Yet a Science. SSRN
    Working Paper Series, 1966438: 1–20. URL http://ssrn.com/abstract=1966438.
    Klant, J. J. (1994). The Nature of Economic Thought. Aldershot, Brookfield, VT: Edward Elgar.
    McCloskey, D. N. (1998). The Rhetoric of Economics. Madison, WI, London: University of Wisconsin, 2nd edition.
    Popper, K. R. (1980). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London, Melbourne, Sydney: Hutchison, 10th edition.

    * See also the related posts ‘The case for pure economics’
    and ‘Time to get rid of political economics’
    and ‘Heterodoxy: promising or hopeless?’

  9. Michel
    November 5, 2015 at 3:29 am

    In Brazil, no different.
    ok, for many it is surprising that there universidades teaching economics here.
    Universities are almost all dedicated to one line only.
    Or is Orthodox or self entitles Heterodox but are actually just a mix of Marxism and Keynesianism updated.
    Ortoxo is very or total liberal market and minus very minus govern.

    Pontificia Catolica Universidade of Rio de Janeiro is absolutely orthodox.
    While the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo is absolutely Keynesian.
    Pontifical Catholic University of Porto Alegre is too orthodox and focuses on teaching economic finances.
    Unicamp is Marxist and Getulio Vargas Foundation of São Paulo is dedicated few that has both new developmental (Neo Keynesian).

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