Home > Uncategorized > Thought control in economics

Thought control in economics

from David Ruccio

No matter how many stories I tell them about thought control in economics, students and colleagues in other disciplines simply don’t believe me.

They don’t understand the restrictions on the professors who are hired in many economics departments, the narrow range of methods and perspectives published in the leading economics journals, the limits on economics research projects that actually receive funding, and even the strict surveillance of what can be taught to students in basic undergraduate and graduate economics classes. It’s beyond their imagination that mainstream economists do all they can—within their departments and in the wider discipline—to make sure other approaches (often referred to as heterodox economics and, often, noneconomics) are displaced to (and, in many cases, beyond) the margins.

So, it comes as no surprise to me—but it probably does to everyone outside of economics—that a senior lecture rat the University of Glasgow, Alberto Paloni [ht: sm], an expert in post-Keynesian theory, has been stopped from teaching a core degree module on macroeconomics.

This, after an essay in the Royal Economic Society newsletter specifically cited Paloni’s course as introducing a necessary pluralism into the teaching of economics: 

Examples of courses that successfully incorporate pluralist approaches to teaching economics already exist. For instance, the second year macroeconomics course at Glasgow University acknowledges the existence of alternative perspectives within economics and gives students the tools to contrast the standard macroeconomic theory with post-Keynesian economics. Students are made aware of how different perspectives employ different approaches and reach different conclusions, and asks them to evaluate critically how well theories explain empirical evidence. . .In contrast to Glasgow, most macroeconomics courses teach from a single textbook and teach students to solve problems within models as opposed to comparing different types of models and seeing which generate more credible conclusions.

All Paloni did was teach students some Post Keynesian macroeconomics. Post Keynesian theory, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, focuses on elements of the economic approach inspired by John Maynard Keynes (such as time, radical uncertainty, financial fragility, and so on) that are often domesticated by or simply removed from modern mainstream macroeconomics. Nothing too radical, then—just one among many alternatives to the theory that prevails in economics and, as we now know, the set of approaches and policies got us into the current mess.

Fortunately, the students in the Glasgow University Real World Economics Society decided not to take the decision lying down. So, they initiated a petition that received over 150 signatures and was then passed on to the heads of the Department of Economics and the Adam Smith Business School, respectively, as well as to the Principal of the University of Glasgow.

Here are some excerpts from their petition:

It is with great dismay that we are writing this.

It has recently been decided by the Economics Department at our university to remove Dr Alberto Paloni from teaching the course Economics 2B. . .

Economics 2B is compulsory for undergraduate economists at the University of Glasgow and attended by around 400 students each year. Paloni’s part of the course introduces students to heterodox economics with a focus on post-Keynesian economics. This is often the first, if not only, time that economics students engage with heterodox economics in their academic life. The course receives extraordinary student feedback.

The content of the course will, for now at least, remain unchanged. The teaching of it will be resumed by mainstream economists. Next year, more specifically, it will be taught by Prof Tatiana Kirsanova.

With mainstream economists for half a semester teaching perspectives that are highly critical of what they do, we sincerely fear that the content will be completely removed from the course sooner rather than later. Furthermore, until a potential removal, we fear that the heterodox content will be taught with the attitude that it is irrelevant and/or outright wrong.

The removal of Paloni’s teaching has been decided in the name of promoting research-led teaching. The department wants to (A) have Professors teaching Level 1 and 2 and (B) have the Macroeconomics Research Cluster involved in the course. Paloni belongs to the Finance Research Cluster.

We find these reasons dubious. Firstly, we do not think that it is the case that a professorship leads to a higher teaching quality. Secondly, we do not think that it is necessary to hold a professorship in order to teach the fairly basic content in Economics Level 1 and 2. Thirdly, we think that removing the only post-Keynesian economist in the department from teaching post-Keynesian economics is antithetical to the aim of promoting research-led teaching.

This is another story about thought control in economics I’ll tell in the future—and students and colleagues outside of economics again probably won’t believe me.

  1. May 15, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    There are so many instances of thought control, it is hard to enumerate. One that I read about was very interesting, unfortunately, I searched for it but could not find it. A first Keynesian textbook came out, and became very popular, and had high sales. Then it was severely attacked as being anti-free market. Wealthy and influential donors to universities were enlisted to ensure that this textbook was not taught. Large numbers of orders of the textbook were cancelled due to political pressures, and ultimately the book was destroyed and disappeared. Samuelson LEARNED from this experience, and manage to survive a similar attack. His textbook was also attacked for being anti free market, but he managed to deflect the criticism and eventually his became the bestselling textbook which inspired and set the pattern for the next century. If someone who knows about this can fill in the details — who was the author and what was the book, I will be grateful. I remember reading about it, but no longer remember the details.

    Another lesson from this story is that writing the textbook for the 21st century is not just a question of having great substance. Political warfare also needs to be waged to succeed.

    • RGC
      May 16, 2016 at 12:13 pm

      Author of first U.S. college textbook on Keynesian economics dies

      Economist Lorie Tarshis, who was influential in spreading Keynesian economics in the United States, died Oct. 4 in Toronto after a lengthy illness. He was 82.

      “Lorie was one of the leading Keynesian economists of his day and was author of the first introductory textbook on Keynesian economics in the United States,” said David Starrett, chair of Stanford University’s economics department, who was himself introduced to Keynesian thinking in Tarshis’ graduate class in macroeconomics.

      A member of Stanford’s economics faculty from 1946 to 1971, Tarshis became controversial at Stanford and elsewhere following the 1947 publication of the textbook The Elements of Economics.

      Conservative Stanford alumni who disliked the ideas of British economist John Maynard Keynes tried to get Tarshis fired from Stanford, said Tibor Scitovsky, a Stanford professor emeritus of economics who was Tarshis’ colleague here.

  2. David Chester
    May 15, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    It is obvious why the teaching of economics is being restricted to avoid certain troublesome subjects. The money coming to the universities from the industrial concerns and banks etc., want the students to remain ignorant as to what is REALLY going on in our social system. They want the present monopolistic system of control of not only our purchases but also our minds, to be directed in the ways that are of benefit to the organizations who are in power. Any student or teacher who breaks these rules is likely to fail to qualify or be dismissed from his post, respectively.

    This situation is approaching the scenario of the famous novel “1984”, where mind control over what one thinks is strictly controlled. Heterodox economics will soon become a dirty word.

  3. Jamie Morgan
    May 15, 2016 at 3:59 pm
  4. May 15, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    Hi, I reposted here http://www.zerowastenews.org It’s below the pictures and cartoon until the California primary, sorry.

    I am still hearing the sound of silence from progressives who will not take the balanced budget position away from corporatists who profess respect for balanced budgets yet spend debt money to avoid voter notice and democracy.

    Really. Who convinced Greece to borrow and for what?

  5. May 15, 2016 at 5:56 pm

    Nothing needs creative destruction more than universities. A competing model of education would have an embarrassingly large selection of areas to demonstrate a competitive advantage.

    I’m increasingly convinced that this is the future. In the US, new national universities that teach everything from hair styling to philosophy, no inter-collegiate athletics, no tenure, no requirement to publish, plenty of humanities professors but no humanities PhDs. All applicants would be admitted but certain programs would be selective.

  6. graccibros
    May 15, 2016 at 7:45 pm

    Author Thomas Frank has some insights to help us understand these dynamics of “thought control,” from outside the economics profession, and within. They’re from his new book about what the Democratic Party in the USA has become, dominated by the upper 10-20% “professionals” (some dispute on where that income demographic ought to be drawn – I’m partial to the 20%) who have moved on over from the Republican Party. So this is from Chapter One of his book “Listen Liberal,” the chapter Theory of the Liberal Class, and the subsection is headed “The Pathologies of Professionalism.” He mentions physicist Jeff Schmidt in his book “Disciplined Minds,” that “‘ideological discipline is the master key to the professions.'”

    Frank then says that “the professions are structured to shield insiders from accountability. This is what defines the category: professionals do not have to listen. They are the only occupational group as the sociologist Eliot Freidson put it many years ago, with ‘the recognized right to declare…’outside’ evaluation illegitimate and intolerable.'”

    Frank then declares “Exhibit A of these interlocking pathologies is economics, a discipline that often acts like an ideological cartel set up to silence the heterodox. James K. Galbraith has written a classic description of how it works:

    ‘Leading active members of today’s economics profession…have joined together into a kind of politburo for correct economic thinking. As a general rule – as one might expect from a gentleman’s club – this has placed them on the wrong side of every important policy issue, and not just recently but for decades. They predict disaster where none occurs. They deny the possibility of events that then happen…No one loses face, in this club, for having been wrong. On one is disinvited from presenting papers at later annual meetings. And still less is anyone from the outside invited in.’

    But, as David is telling us, even in Scotland, those “inside” who cross certain lines can be pushed out of the club, including the teaching club for, and this is my sense, that comes from crossing the Rubicon that defines the allowable policy interventions. The fastest way to get in trouble is on macro-fiscal recommendations, and the ultimate sin is “progressive” interventions into labor markets, which are criss-crossed by “one way street signs,” and those streets all are labeled “flexible” labor markets: work longer for less than you are today to restore competitive prices. Even in Germany, home of formerly powerful unions, leaks have shown sly bragging about setting up cheap labor domestic markets to compete with Eastern Europe if not Asia.

    I’ll close by noting that’s still why we need critical sociologists and intellectual historians, and political economists, to step outside the finely tuned post-modern division of labor and see the broader intellectual trends. In this case, some of the shrewdest insights about the economics profession have come from those outside the field, very much so. Reminds us what has been said about Marx: that he was a better sociologist than economist…I’ll leave it at that.

  7. dmf
  8. May 16, 2016 at 5:25 am

    Thank you for your insights. Two points. First, what you call “thought control” has been part of the history of science from the 15th century onward. Just examine the history of astronomy or physics. Controlling who is admitted to the community, what and how they can spread their ideas, and who is and is not a ‘professor” are part of how what we call astronomy and physics today was built. That’s why building a science, any science is always a political act. Second, the fundamental issue with economics and economists can be summed up in two words – care and humility. In making a science those involved must remained committed – connected – to what they build in order to ensure it develops as they want and is not misused or abused. And those involved must not only believe in but must practice humility. Humility defined simply as modesty about one’s intellect, capabilities, rank, and import in the world. Moderation, conservative, circumspect in one’s estimate of oneself. Do I really need to cite examples where economists fail to care or practice humility? In simple terms economists don’t really care about creating a science of economics. Their concerns are about creating a comfortable situation for themselves within both academic and policy settings. And the lack of humility and self-insight among economists is more than commonplace. It’s near legendary.

    • blocke the
      May 16, 2016 at 8:28 am

      This discussion about thought control depends on where you are, as I note in my post Economics and Technik. If you go to Germany today you’ll find it is normal to do work in economics on people shunned in Anglophonia, witness the recent dissertation in economics by Arno Mong Daastøl, (2011). Friedrich List’s Heart, Wit, and Will: Mental Capital as the Productive Forces of Progress. Dissertation Erfurt University. Staatswissenschaftliche Faculty. Document 24133. Doctorate awarded 29 Nov. 2011. And the frequent get-togethers of scholars working in the Listian tradition.

      • May 16, 2016 at 10:58 am

        Bob, your point is well taken. Germans also have six weeks of federally mandated vacation,
        free university tuition, and nursing care. But that does not translate to pure academic freedom. For example, there are few professors or their students doing anti-austerity research or working on ways to reform Deutsche Bank or even the Federal Ministry of Finance. But even with these limitations German economic science is more open than anything in the US or the UK. But then again most American and British economists don’t interact much with German economists.

      • blocke the
        May 16, 2016 at 9:48 pm

        If the center of power and economic prowess is moving outside Anglosaxonia, it behooves American and British economists to interact more with the non-English and American economic thought world or find their science marginalized.

      • May 17, 2016 at 4:09 am

        Wonderful thoughts, Bob. From personal experience I really find little to back them up. In my experience as a regulator I’ve repeatedly recommended that US regulators can improve what they do by considering regulation in Europe and Asia. The response – not just no buy hell no. Regulation is a mix of economics, engineering, social science, and history, politics, and policy. I have never met an American regulator who believed the US was not the best at regulation in the world.

    • blocke the
      May 17, 2016 at 6:42 am

      There are many historical examples of a leadership class clinging to power, even when they know they are headed for destruction unless they change. Then there is the example of German academic business economics (BWL) which was developed before 1940; people in Scandinavia, Spain, Turkey, Eastern Europe, and Japan sent students to study in Germany and hired German professors to develop BWL in their universities (Schmalenbach’s Japanese students did a Festschrift in his honor before his death in 1955 and Keio University gave him an honorary doctorate) In the USA, the UK, and France, nobody heard of BWL in Germany, although in Germany, compared to France, BWL had developed the best management accounting in Europe. Without an ability to read German, no wonder that economists in the UK and the US do not pay attention to what is going on in German. What about the research being done in the House of Finance in Goethe Business School, Frankfurt am Main University. I found many papers about the effects of financialization on increasing the gap between the rich and the poor, when I did my little brochure on Management from Hell in 2012.

      • blocke the
        May 17, 2016 at 9:23 am

        Also the work being done at the Institute for International Political Economy, Berlin School of Economics and Law, e.g., Petra Dünhaupt, “The Effects of Financialization on Labor’s Share of Income” (2013)

      • blocke the
        May 17, 2016 at 10:12 am

        Another Also,

        people are also starting to look a different traditions in business education, Cf

        Beyond the Managerial Utopia of American Schools of Business Administration; Early Emergence of European Management Education in the 18th and 19th centuries

        Special track submitted to the JHMO 2016 – 16th, 17th, 18th March – UTBM Sevenans (Terr. de Belfort)

        Co-organizers: Lise Arena (GREDEG UMR 7321, Université Nice Sophia-Antipolis) & Thomas Durand (CNAM)
        – in collaboration with John-Christopher Spender (Kozminski University, Warsaw, Poland)

        In America, the persistence of the utopian dream of synthesizing social responsibility with capitalist aims led to a stream of articles criticizing the way business knowledge was being delivered – from both a practical and an ethical point of view. Higher aims, critics argued, had been subverted.

        Other scholars began to look behind the utopian message at what business schools were actually doing, at their added-value to the economic and societal system (Locke,
        The Collapse of the American Management Mystique 1996), and at the yawning gap between theory and practice. Today the American model of management education has been fully globalized, yet is increasingly challenged (Locke & Spender, Confronting Managerialism 2011. More histories of European and Asian management education are also providing empirical evidence for different emergence processes.

      • May 17, 2016 at 8:04 pm

        I look at “leadership class” problems just like problem of alcoholism or heroin addition. What are the alternatives before members of the class? Continue with the high and face eventual destruction. Or, stop and face eventual destruction, only more painful. So many decide to continue the high. At least when it ends you will have the pleasure of all the highs leading up to the end. Giving it up doesn’t change the end game. Only the pain and despair associated with getting there. I’m convinced that is why so many “corporate leaders” and their advisers continue to “grow,” “merge,” and “acquire.” What a high! And when it all crumbles you’re only dead. And you’d be that anyway. In the long run we’re all dead.

        In the military the path is similar. Many are frightened by combat when first in it. But most come to love it and suffer PTSD when it’s taken away. This is in my view the normal human course of things. Humans evolved in groups (clans, tribes, nations) focused on survival. They struggle to survive. Taking away that struggle leads to poor health – physical and mental – and to efforts to reenter the struggle. For humans even cooperation is struggle. So how do we make this history (evolution) work for us today? Can we? Can we change it? Should we change it?

      • blocke the
        May 18, 2016 at 6:38 am

        Somebody said, was it Napoleon, that the commander who learns the most from a battle is the one who lost. Some people do change. Perhaps that is why rather than American leaders I think that those who have met the challenge of innovative thinking the most in post WWII history and transformed their thinking are leaders in Japan and China.

  9. May 16, 2016 at 2:44 pm

    in sciences the same sort of thing happens. i studied mathematical biology (used by R Goodwin in his class sturggle model) and the first Math Bio group was at U Chicago under N. Rashevsky. The whole department was evicted/fired because some people didnt feel it was real math orand/ rigorous. I think they were exiled to SUNY buifallo. (I almost studied under one of their graduates, but actually at the time decided he had sort of ‘lost it’ and was doing more like philosophy stuff which i wasn’t sure made any sense. One of his students apparently became quite succesful, though I’m not sure his stuff makes any sense either and it certainly is not mentioned in most theoretical biology i have and do read.

    I did work under a student of that program for a brief period. He wasn’t say ‘top tier’ in the profession as its defined, but he knew his stuff.

    (The people who are seen as being top tier in general in my view basically deserve to be there. I do think sometimes that some of them make their papers as complex and difficult as possiible so most people will be discouraged friom going into the field—-its a ‘barrier to entry’ in the market. . . Its hard for me to know how much of this formalism is neccesary, as opposed to basically irrelevant ‘hoop jumping’ rituals. I knew two other professors—one in econ, and one in logic—who did seem to have some irrelevant rituals —one to put their poorly thought out model on a computer since they didnt want to do programming (but you had to do it if you wanted a job because they wanted more cred in their CV) and the other had some ‘extra academic’ criteria for who would get a job (a form of payola). .

    The prof i worked under told me that keep getting funded i had to get a graduate degree in computer science—i basically disliked computers at the time, and still do quite a bit–its not my style—i prefer math models but nowadays it in general is almost impossible to do just math—to be usable they have to be simulated on a computer–so i walked away.
    (Technology also has to an extent invaded music too. I play basically acoustic music of a certain kind, and its almost impossible to play it anywhere because people want either electric stuff or very narrow kinds of folk or classical music–not my ‘heterodox’ style which is essentially censored. Alot of people who the traditional styles dont want anyone to hear anything that might take away their market share or monopoly, any more than junk food salesman want anyone to put any vegetables in school cafeterias It may be economics education is a bit like this—eg Mankiw’s text).

    That research actually was sort of on communication—how one dimensional information in RNA gets translated into 3 dimensional protein structures. I used information theory; other people used linguistic theory (related to chomsky grammars and logic. People still use this approach, but i thinks its still basically theoretical but havent followed it closely .)

    The issue of curricula is big—in USA there is a big fight over ‘common core’ curricula, versus local control. Some see common core as overly oriented towards business and capitlistic interests; others see it as a way to force local intolerant communities to teach evolution rather than theology, about social problems and slavery rather than ‘american exceptionalism’ and ‘pilgrim’s progress’.

    I don know what curricula should be. I have my own views in econ, math, physics, biology, sociology, psychology etc. I think professionals academics would say half of my curriculum should go in in the trash. (One math ed professor told me something like this.)

    The only way often one can be heterodox is to call it philosophy, or critical theory. Interesting to me is that while i havent formally studied econ, i have read alot, and hadnt heard o Minsky until a few years ago. I didnt realize he had a fair amount of interactions with and influence on people i had read (including R Goodwin, Shumpeter, Richard Day (chaos theory), J B Rosser as well as L Randall Wray , s keen, and maybe P Davidson). I guess I wonder if an average economics student at the undergrad and grad levels would hear of Minsky or not. Paul Samuelson definately heard of Goodwin and wrote papers on his model, but I dont know if its in classic standard econon 101 book. Alot of people I’ve noticed don’t put anything really interesting in their introductory books—it almost seems like they want to bore as many people as possible so they will be prepared for and funneled into unpleasant bt profitable business jobs, and the fun stuff will be reserved only for an elite.
    A few of my textbooks would have some interesting stuff in them—but in the lastt chapter, which we never got to. Feynman’s lectures in physics i think is one of the best introductions to many phyycs topics, but almost noone uses it for anything. The view is they dont want people to be curious about more philosophical issues (like bell’s theorem, second law of thermodynamics, self organization ) . and instead should be trained to be human computers. (I took one of these MOOCs on basic quantum theory just to see what was in it—-its all mostly rigorous calculations of things like the hydrogen atom spectrum and learning Dirac formalism, series approximations, orthonormal polynomials. I think that stuff is neccesary to some extent (as is standard micro and macro econ) but half the physics topics i study (informally since i’m not professioaly employed) is not even mentioned in that course. For the average student to know about these areas, they’d have to read pop science books and magazines where they often are the major topic .
    V I Arnold (famous russian physicist) unlike most people promoted reading pop science books as part of the curriculum since alot of curricula are basically mechanical calculations based on memory.
    Its as if english.was taught to children as just a dictionary and grammar—they wouldn;’t be permitted to write or read a story or poem until they got to grad school. Congradulations! Lucky you. Now that you have memorized the dictionary and apprpriate puntuation, formatting, and spelling, now you get to learn about books which arent english textbooks are and get to read and write some.’ A few people into math and science teaching do encourage students to do some actual research on problems they are interested in while learning the skills and ‘tricks of the trade’ . (One is at JMU, and says his fellow academics dont agree with his approach—their view is people spend all their time training (as in sports) but bever play any games. One of my profs was like this, but the ‘games ‘ he played—his research I dont think was very profound or good—just cranking out another trivial result (basically writing the same paper over and over).

    I could be wrong—its possible or even likely that this sort of research (like alot of econ papers I glance at) is a real and neccesary part of intellectual progress. It will eventually contribute to ‘paradigm change’. Or it may be like ‘junk DNA’ or the redundancy Shannon showed was neccesary for communication. . Similarily all the talk shows I listen to, and the huge number of books such as on ‘self-help’ all have some ‘space filling’ value (lie the spaces between words, which dont say anything). Most students in any field dont contribute to it, and dont really use it in later life. (Andrew Hacker thinks most math subjects should not be part of the curricula, because its not neccesary in the jobs they will get and are trained for, and is partly used to keep people from getting through school so they have to drop out and get a job noone wants.

  10. Jamie Morgan
    May 18, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    Might want also to look at the latest Review of Social Economy which has papers on academic integrity, including one on plagiarism

  11. May 19, 2016 at 5:38 am

    A rich thread. Having struggled to follow German papers even in my own field I agree with Bob about limitations due to not being able to read German, but I’ve also experienced simultaneous translation into many languages in EU settings; the issue surely is a translation service able to recognise what is worthy of translation. I also agree with Ken on the prevalance of “I’m all right, Jack” in a leadership class maybe enjoying the excitement of leading us lemmings over the precipice. What Ken doesn’t mention is all the generations unborn who haven’t yet had the opportunity to enjoy life. And for a historian, Bob seems to have a short memory when he forgets to rank the post-war EEC (as against today’s yankee banker-led EU) alongside the innovations in Japan and China.

    Back on the main thread, bemoaning the control of thought in academia, what’s the point of diagnosing an incurable disease if it isn’t to find ways round it?

    There are, if you like, alternatives to academia above and below. One can try and “convert” the 0.1% who are blindly doing the damage, or one can broadcast to a credit-card-savvy 90% the truth that money is no more than a credit limit, the cost of using it being that it has to be repaid, in the sense that if you don’t regenerate what you consume it won’t be there next year, i.e. those who don’t work won’t eat. Or, of course, we can do nothing (continue to put up with things as they are), and we can do both, in that seeing the same credit card truth that the more you spend, the more you owe, the 0.1% may become more aware of how much they owe others and more willing to dispose of unnecessary income and wealth.

    The crucial point is that repaying (as against accounting for) debt in money is not necessary. What is necessary is that we stop producing the unnecessary to make money, and we start focussing on what we consume and how to apply ourselves to the reproduction of what is necessary, not least the preservation of the seed corn, enjoying knowlege and variation of it, artistic employment of the produce and just playing and partying together.

    • May 19, 2016 at 6:18 am

      Great insights. Thanks. As to the incurable disease, you said it yourself – it’s incurable. You have two options with such diseases. Give up and take the consequences, up to and including death. Or find a cure for the incurable disease. Since I do not to want to follow mainstream economics into oblivion, what options are there for preventing this fate. I frankly see only a couple. I’d really like some help in seeing others.

    • blocke the
      May 19, 2016 at 7:33 am

      I almost added the EEC. What I found remarkable is how, in matters of firm governance like co-determination, social democrats, trade unions, Social Catholics, Christian Democrats, etc. came together immediately after WWII in a broad spectrum to defy the opposition of US neoliberals in passing co-determination legislation.

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