Home > Uncategorized > Economics education needs a revolution

Economics education needs a revolution

from Lars Syll

mummyYou ask me what all idiosyncrasy is in philosophers? … For instance their lack of the historical sense, their hatred even of the idea of Becoming, their Egyptianism. They imagine that they do honour to a thing by divorcing it from history sub specie æterni—when they make a mummy of it.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nowadays there is almost no place whatsoever in economics education for courses in the history of economic thought and economic methodology. This is deeply worrying. History and methodology matter! A science that doesn’t self-reflect on its own history and asks important methodological and science-theoretical questions about the own activity, is a science in dire straits.

How did we end up in this sad state?

Already back in 1991, a commission chaired by Anne Krueger and including people like Kenneth Arrow, Edward Leamer, and Joseph Stiglitz, reported from own experience “that it is an underemphasis on the ‘linkages’ between tools, both theory and econometrics, and ‘real world problems’ that is the weakness of graduate education in economics,” and that both students and faculty sensed “the absence of facts, institutional information, data, real-world issues, applications, and policy problems.” And in conclusion, they wrote that “graduate programs may be turning out a generation with too many idiot savants skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues.”

Not much is different today. Economics — and economics education — is still in dire need of a remake.

rethink

More and more young economics students want to see a real change in economics and the way it’s taught. They want something other than the same old mainstream catechism. They don’t want to be force-fed with useless mainstream theories and models.

  1. Yoshinori Shiozawa
    October 13, 2020 at 4:34 pm

    In a blog post by Simon Wren-Lewis on 8 July 2012, he cites a comment by Diane Coyle in her book review of Steve Keen’s wonderful book Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor Dethroned:

    I have a lot of sympathy with the details of Professor Keen’s project, but not its ultimate ambition. For in the end I think the Naked Emperor needs to be reclothed rather than dethroned.

    Criticizing mainstream economics cannot replaces constructing a new economics. Lars Syll’s posts in this blog are full of mainstream economics, but few constructive words for an alternative economics. What do you teach in your methodology course? Do you intend to drive young able students away from economics? It would be disastrous in the long run. We do not need mainstream economics but we need economics.

    • Mr.T
      October 13, 2020 at 8:29 pm

      Hi Yoshinori Shiozawa ,

      you wrote: “Do you intend to drive young able students away from economics? It would be disastrous in the long run.

      That’s exactly what’s happening. Students of economics move to sociology, political science, etc. Some new pluralist professorships are being established outside the economics departments. Beyond that, I don’t see where, for example, the economic history of ideas mentioned by Lars Syll is being promoted and practised.

      Finally, pluralist economics is also dominated by heterodox thinking collectives working in a more formal-mathematical way, which leave little room for what was originally demanded by students of the Pluralist Economics Movement. Originally, students demanded an economics that was less mathematical, less working with models etc.; they wanted more history of ideas, more theories, more methods, more interdisciplinarity, more economic ethics, more epistemology etc. And what do students today get for a Plural Economy? Post-Keynesianism, complexity economics, agent-based modelling… This reinforces the above-mentioned trend that some students prefer to change disciplines: Because they simply realise that even in the pluralist economic scene no significant progress is being made. Sad but true.

      • Meta Capitalism
        October 14, 2020 at 1:54 am

        Finally, pluralist economics is also dominated by heterodox thinking collectives working in a more formal-mathematical way, which leave little room for what was originally demanded by students of the Pluralist Economics Movement. Originally, students demanded an economics that was less mathematical, less working with models etc.; they wanted more history of ideas, more theories, more methods, more interdisciplinarity, more economic ethics, more epistemology etc. And what do students today get for a Plural Economy? Post-Keynesianism, complexity economics, agent-based modelling… This reinforces the above-mentioned trend that some students prefer to change disciplines: Because they simply realise that even in the pluralist economic scene no significant progress is being made. ~ Mr. T

        .
        Thank you for this insight. Can you shed light why the “heterodox thinking collectives” appear to be repeating more of the same?

      • Craig
        October 14, 2020 at 3:00 am

        “Because they simply realise that even in the pluralist economic scene no significant progress is being made. Sad but true.”

        True. And why might that be?

        I would suggest that to a great degree it is the lack of any studies of the signatures of historical paradigm changes and hence virtually no analysis on that level at all. And such failure leaves them with only piecemeal, palliative reforms with only facile or no policy suggestions at all.

        The leading economists and economic pundits know that the problem lies in money, banks and debt, but they apparently don’t know what the definition of a paradigm actually is (a singular concept that is such a deep simplicity that it describes a current pattern, and such new concept applied, transforms the entire current/old pattern).

        Hence they can’t perceive that the current paradigm is the monopoly concept of Debt Only, and they don’t know that conceptual opposition and integration of the particles of truth in seeming opposites via a new insight and/or tool to the point of thirdness greater oneness are major signatures of historical paradigm changes….and so Direct and Reciprocal Monetary Gifting fits and fulfills as the new monetary and financial paradigm.

    • Yoshinori Shiozawa
      October 14, 2020 at 2:21 am

      Errata in my post on October 13, 2020 at 4:34 pm.

      replaces > replace

      :full of mainstream economics > full of criticisms of mainstream economics

    • Meta Capitalism
      October 14, 2020 at 2:29 am

      Do you intend to drive young able students away from economics? It would be disastrous in the long run. ~ Shiozawa Yoshinori
      .
      On campus after campus, we will chase you old goats out of power. Then, in the months and years that follow, we will begin the work of reprogramming your doomsday machine. ~ Kickitover Manifesto
      .
      That’s exactly what’s happening. Students of economics move to sociology, political science, etc. Some new pluralist professorships are being established outside the economics departments. ~ Mr. T

      .
      Imagine a workd where “young able students” walk away from economic departments filled with old goats and by their able and wise decisions refuse to support or sit silent any longer or to participate or further such destructive theories rooted in antiquated scientism that such deaf, dumb, and blind literature-only old goats push as economic science while the world burns, inequalities grow, and the world suffers from their ideological stanglehold upon popular culture.
      .
      When there are no more students leaft to teach then real the real science of economics can progress on funeral at a time.

  2. Yoshinori Shiozawa
    October 14, 2020 at 4:13 am

    Thank you, Meta, for suggesting economics students’ Kickitover movement. In one of articles there (posted on January 27, 2015 by Keith Harrington), I found an interesting but awful fact:

    This narcissistic exceptionalism and dogmatic thought-policing not only severs cross-disciplinary connections to other social sciences but stifles debate within the profession itself. That’s the finding of the other recent study by Welsh researcher Joe Francis. Francis tracked the incidence of debate over a ninety-year period between scholars in the “big five” economic journals – two of which are American Economic Association publications. Using search terms such as “comment” “reply” or “rejoinder,” Francis found that the number of articles containing such terms declined dramatically since the 1960s – from over 20% in 1968 to just 2% in 2010. Unsurprisingly, Francis traces this decline to the marginalization Marxian and Keynesian thought by the mainstream during the neoclassical and neoliberal counterrevolution of the 1970s.

    What happened after 2015?

    But, I cannot support Meta’s Après moi, le déluge attitude. The real science of economics cannot emerge at once.

    • Meta Capitalism
      October 14, 2020 at 5:47 am

      Au contraire, pas de déluge juste le printemps et une vraie science sociale avec l’humanité!

    • Robert Locke
      October 14, 2020 at 8:55 am

      Communism failed, my Polish-Russian wife says (and she lived decades in Russia and Poland) because under it “people felt they were living in a big jail.” The yearning for freedom brought it down, inexperiene with democracy and nationalism, let the finance capitalists take over.

      • Meta Capitalism
        October 14, 2020 at 9:12 am

        Communism failed, my Polish-Russian wife says (and she lived decades in Russia and Poland) because under it “people felt they were living in a big jail.” The yearning for freedom brought it down, inexperiene with democracy and nationalism, let the finance capitalists take over. ~ Robert Locke

        .
        Today we are witnessing in America the failure of capitalism and its corrosive impact on democracy and representative government which may well end the American experiment in self-rule.
        .
        I don’t think communism (nor do I think it is the right solution) has any chance of success in America. The real questions is can we humanize and socialize and democratize capitalism (i.e., democratic socialism with modified and regulated capitalism as we see in the Nordic countries). Right now capitalism as practiced by Trump and ilk and GOP is a race to the bottom and tearing the social fabric asunder. We will soon see if America has enough basic human decency to revers this slide into the abyss of anti-science and religious-market fundamentalisms.
        .
        I think we need to re-think the Enlightenment, bring back the humanities and history, re-center social theory in a human context, and create a new version of Enlightenment 2.0 for political and economic philosophy and practice.

      • Meta Capitalism
        October 14, 2020 at 9:14 am

        I include Germany and your research and knowledge Robert as part of the answer for moving foreword.

  3. Ikonoclast
    October 14, 2020 at 6:52 am

    Any real science of economics cannot emerge until capitalism fails or is overthrown. The essence of capitalism is that it is anti-science, anti-humanity and anti-ecology. It’s a machine of destruction and extinction.

    • Craig
      October 14, 2020 at 7:43 am

      Ikonoclast,

      You’re right except it has been failing for a long time now. Socialism came along and it has failed also, not because it didn’t have good intentions and not because it wasn’t a more humane concept, but because it didn’t deal with the one thing, namely the monetary and financial paradigm, that will enable us to move on from capitalism to Direct Monetary Distributism. You’re Australian, right? You must be aware of him, and he has said for quite sometime that neo-classicism’s biggest problem is it ignores money, debt and banks.

      An American political advisor for Bill Clinton coined the phrase in 1992, “It’s the economy stupid!” as the guiding slogan that won Clinton the presidency. Well, “It’s the monetary and financial paradigm, stupid!” is exactly what is necessary focus on in order to transcend capitalism and socialism by integrating the particles of truth in both in a way that will create the thirdness greater oneness of Direct Monetary Distributism.

      • Craig
        October 14, 2020 at 7:44 am

        That is you must be aware of Steve Keen.

  4. Mr.T
    October 14, 2020 at 8:43 am

    Hi Meta,

    >> Thank you for this insight. Can you shed light why the “heterodox thinking collectives” appear to be repeating more of the same?<<

    The problem, in my opinion, is simply the different proportions of the 'plural' schools of thought and a lack of true plurality: there are simply still enough Keynesians etc.; more recent, more mathematical approaches (agent-based modelling etc.) are simply more compatible with a mathematically working mainstream. And these 'schools' seem to me to be better institutionalised and represented in the pluralist economic scene – at least in the German-speaking area – than, say, feminist economics or social economics. Finally, approaches that are methodologically not quite so far removed from the mainstream face the same problems for which the mainstream is criticised: there is simply little room for alternative approaches, methods and considerations. What is seen and reproduced is what is institutionalised and visible.

    Finally, there are still 'old' paradigm warriors, who in turn fight their old warfare from the 1970s. This also explains why we still criticise a 'neoclassical' mainstream, which, with the New Institutional Economics, for example, differs significantly from the neoclassical. In this way, old criticism etc. is simply reproduced.

    • Meta Capitalism
      October 14, 2020 at 10:30 am

      Thank you Mr. T. Much appreciated. If you would share a few resources that I might pursue on New Institutional Economics (NIE), Social Economics (SE), and Feminist Economics (FE) it would be appreciated. It seems we must change the institutional inertia that leads to stagnation. This takes time and a steady awaking of the younger generation to the dead wood in the “institutionalised” ‘old’ paradigm warriors.

  5. October 28, 2020 at 8:12 pm

    Says Yoshinori: “Criticizing mainstream economics cannot replaces constructing a new economics. Lars Syll’s posts in this blog are full of mainstream economics, but few constructive words for an alternative economics”.

    But Lars had said: “Already back in 1991, a commission chaired by Anne Krueger and including people like Kenneth Arrow, Edward Leamer, and Joseph Stiglitz, reported from own experience “that it is an under-emphasis on the ‘linkages’ between tools, both theory and econometrics, and ‘real world problems’ that is the weakness of graduate education in economics,” and that both students and faculty sensed “the absence of facts, institutional information, data, real-world issues, applications, and policy problems.” And in conclusion, they wrote that “graduate programs may be turning out a generation with too many idiot savants skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues.”

    Is that not constructive? It is saying to me that economics is being taught as if it were a science when in fact it is more like engineering: needing knowledge of a range of possible solutions made intelligible and reliable by relevant theory. And the ‘idiots savants’ may be “skilled in techniques”, but are they the appropriate techniques?

    I am all for improving institutional knowledge, but the primary institution is the family, and that is comprised of biological animals who need feeding and have enabled themselves to do so by evolving specialised split brains and becoming skilled in techniques of communication. Where do the theories of ecology, personality and communication occur in the present day curriculum? Since the units of mathematics in communication are waves and circulation on different time-scales, and the problem detecting and correcting making allowance for noise, why are economists not studying information systems analysis and ‘give and take’ between the individuals in families as well as optimisation? Since government of companies is by directors, why are they studying equilibrium instead of navigation?

    One can only construct an alternative if one has a choice. That’s why Tony Lawson got to the heart of the matter when in “Reorienting Economics” (2003) he drew attention to the need for “contrastive explanations”. The way money has changed from being a physical valuable to an empty abstraction (a mere number) gives rise to four different interpretations of the same economic system structure, with a paradigm change thrown in when the flow of money is included. The choice then is between banks creating money as debt and our giving credit where it is needed, which includes caring for ourselves and the environmental regeneration we have been stupidly taking for granted.

    Mr. T says: “What is seen and reproduced is what is institutionalised and visible”.

    I agree. That is why the choice between bank debt and credit-worthiness is in practical terms between two existing institutions: debit cards and credit cards. We can and do use either, but now ‘money’ is created by banks entering numbers in an account, it has become evident that ‘debt’ sends the wrong message: i.e. ‘bank debt’ is a con. As users we simply need to opt for interest-free credit cards, but economic students need to understand why.

  6. Yoshinori Shiozawa
    October 29, 2020 at 3:19 am

    Dave, what Lars has cited is a statement of “self-review” by some conscientious mainstream economists. It may modify some styles of economics teaching and research but has a small probability to create any alternative economics. The trouble with economics is so deep. Relaxations of some individual assumptions of neoclassical economics have been made in various ways, but they remain within neoclassical economics framework as a whole.

    New economics needs a conscious and deep recognition of why actual economics went wrong. In this respect, methodology matters, but criticizing alone does not produce new economics. To get a new economics requires constructive works. Lars lacks experience and insight on this point and does not understand the difficulties in constructing new economics.

    By the way, I have corrected my post on October 13, 2020 at 4:34 pm. The last paragraph must have been written:

    Criticizing mainstream economics cannot replaces constructing a new economics. Lars Syll’s posts in this blog are full of criticisms of mainstream economics, but few constructive words for an alternative economics. What do you teach in your methodology course? Do you intend to drive young able students away from economics? It would be disastrous in the long run. We do not need mainstream economics but we need economics.

    • October 29, 2020 at 2:54 pm

      “Do you intend to drive young able students away from economics? … We do not need mainstream economics but we need economics”. Yoshinori.

      I agree with what you are trying to say in your last sentence, though I would have said we don’t need mainstream chrematism, we need honest economics.

      In answer to your rhetorical question: No!

      I’ve said economics should be taught like engineering, where in my experience formal theory is taught to satisfy students that what is being taught – largely by means of practical examples (paradigms) – is sound. Those I trained with didn’t opt out. All they did was to gain confidence from the theory and learn their practice from the paradigms. I was the odd-ball, not sharing the confidence of my tutors until I understood the theory. Finding differences of interpretation in that I spent most of my life as an experimental scientist, finding paradoxes in the paradigms and seeking points of view that resolved them, like those of logic language in Algol68, simple complexity in PID control systems, error correction in Shannon’s communication theory and sets of non-composable individuals in SSADM systems analysis. Perhaps only he last of these is immediately applicable to economics, but how economists are able to use and misuse natural and formal languages is very much at the root of our problems.

    • Yoshinori Shiozawa
      October 30, 2020 at 4:10 am

      Three points in short.

      First, the post on October 13, 2020 at 4:34 pm is addressed to Lars Syll, although I know he would not reply. Your answer is appreciated. I hope you will try to persuade Lars instead of me.

      Second, you wrote:

      >> I was the odd-ball, not sharing the confidence of my tutors until I understood the theory.

      It means you were a slow but deep learner like Einstein. Einstein is said to be no very “brilliant” student. That is why he finally succeeded to revolutionize modern physics from its very basis. I do not like (nor highly estimate) fast learners who pretend to know everything but have no deep knowledge. Economics needs (at least for the moment) deep thinkers like Einstein.

      Third, economics has two aspects: one as natural science and another as policy science (the term “natural” here means a study of natural course of economic life). You can argue that economics as policy science should be taught and even thought like engineering, but such policy science should be supported by economics as natural science. In this RWER blog, there are so many participants who consider economics only as policy science. It is a quite precarious attitude.

      • October 30, 2020 at 9:56 am

        Yoshinori, thanks for the appreciation. On supporting policy science by natural science, I think I am saying that engineers learning by studying the paradigm is your ‘natural science’. The problem is that it is now a science of how we went wrong: essentially by seeking one-size-fits-all policies, to be centrally imposed. In the alternative I envisage, agreement on local policy would be merely informed by national advisors: the local being in a functional as well as geographical sense, with government “ministries” becoming groups co-operating in of people doing That, incidentally, is not something I invented myself: it very much combined the line of thought of John Ruskin, G K Chesterton’s Distributists and more recently E F Schumacher, these based on a clergyman being ‘given’ a “living”, property sharing, and accessible technology. What it is NOT is centralised capitalism, communism or the UK’s Fabian socialism; nor like Wikipedia’s article on ‘types of socialism’.

      • October 30, 2020 at 10:07 am

        Sorry. Re government ministries, read “groups of people cooperating in their own type of ministering, rather than administration”.

      • Robert Locke
        October 31, 2020 at 10:09 am

        “Third, economics has two aspects: one as natural science and another as policy science (the term “natural” here means a study of natural course of economic life)”

        You assume too much,there is no “natural course of economic life.” There is great power rivalry.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        October 31, 2020 at 3:25 pm

        Robert,
        power rivalry is included among “natural course of economic life”. It is quite different thing than policy. Of course, policies are influenced by powers. So we must consider power rivalry
        in both aspects: economics as natural science and economics as policy science..

    • Yoshinori Shiozawa
      October 30, 2020 at 3:35 pm

      Are you really thinking of “economics as natural science”? It seems to me that your are always talking about policies and have no interest on studying “mankind in ordinary business of life”. It is quite right to seek where economics went wrong. In order to think of this question, you need to know in depth the history of economics from classical political economy to recent state of economics. I wonder if you have ever learned those things. Can you tell what kind of paradigm shift occurred in the last quarter century of the 19th century?

      • October 30, 2020 at 8:30 pm

        Excuse me, I was asking if YOU were thinking of today’s economics as today’s paradigm. If here I am “always talking about policies” that is because I am trying to communicate with others who think that way, ignoring the philosophy and language underpinning their own policies. You have seen my paper on the evolution of economics, which didn’t need to know everything in detail, just the limitations of language. The eighteen century paradigm shift where economics went environmentally wrong had Hume’s individualism combined with Smith’s mass production and transport focussing on enrichment, enhanced by Malthusian birth control rather than local sustainability. Jevons in the late 19th century applied the mathematics of Maxwell’s omni-directional field theory of radiation as a metaphor to justify the doctrine of free trade, conveniently resolving the birth control problem by leaving minimum wages out of his equations. That of course kept out the common sense of those who couldn’t understand the mathematics. One needs PID control theory to see how to resolve the birth control problem intelligently.

    • Yoshinori Shiozawa
      October 31, 2020 at 1:59 am

      Needless to say, PID control theory is a control theory. It is already deeply policy-oriented and you are not aware of it. There are ample facts and theories that teach us the difficulties of controlling economic processes. Economics must ask whether the economy can be controlled in anyway. That is why we investigate economy as complex system. Policy-oriented economists and non-economists are simply assuming that they can control the economy as they think. True economics teaches us how difficult it is to control successfully.

      • October 31, 2020 at 9:08 am

        You say: “PID control theory is … already deeply policy oriented and you are not aware of it”.

        Your second assertion here is false. The first is an example of a paradox that you don’t seem to be aware of: that in order to be free to do anything, we have to be able to control ourselves. Your paradigm is still “my” micro activities being controlled by “your” macro decisions; mine here is the “macro” outcome (sustainable world population) being achieved by “micro” self-control. What you are framing as “policy” I am framing as “method”. The same method will steer the ship but not our reproduction if we are all in the same boat. The method can only work at the personal level when its aim is local, with the necessary information feedback paths provided and used.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        October 31, 2020 at 3:33 pm

        You are joking, again! We have to be able to control ourselves. Do you want to apply your PID to control yourself? That is good. But, the fact that you can control yourself by PID control theory does not prove that you can control an economy by it.

      • October 31, 2020 at 4:32 pm

        I was joking about all being in the same boat, so disorganised that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. More to the point is an earlier phrase I used, about people like you “ignoring the philosophy and language underpinning their own policies”. Your thinking in terms of controlling others says your philosophy is competitive individualism, whereas mine is cooperating with others to help them become individuals rather than “cogs in the machine”. Let us not forget we are here discussing the need for a revolution in economics education. For too long we have been teaching “there is no alternative to competition”. Teaching economists to understand how to do what needs doing – so they can cooperate with each other and enable us to – is precisely the revolution that is needed. You will miss the boat if you don’t stop your carping, Yoshinori.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        November 1, 2020 at 1:40 am

        So, your final proposal is to preach cooperation instead of competition. I found that there is another kind of economics, say economics of human ethics and sympathy. Please return to the world of Moral Sentiments. But, how are they related, your PID control theory and your plea for cooperation? I must confess that I cannot understand your high-level dialectics that transcends formal logic in which I live.

      • November 1, 2020 at 9:06 am

        No, I said teach how to co-operate, instead of preaching the need to compete. And read Asad Zaman’s pedagogy post, on the evolution of the global financial system. “Big government for counter-cyclical budgets and the Central Bank to regulate finance led to a stable capitalist system which worked for decades. As per financial fragility hypothesis of Minsky, stability generated large amounts of savings” and the selfish managerial attitudes Robert Locke has warned us of. I’m warning that that centralisation destroys information feedback loops. Making us responsible for our own IOU’s leaves our accounts keeping us informed of where we stand. The PID theory enables us to relate repayment of short and long-term debts and cooperating with others by giving their aims credit. That’s the “How”; the “Why” comes from Shannon’s analysis of the possibility of reducing error by negative feedback: repaying our debts.

        What I’ve not said much about is competition. At 83 I can be satisfied with who I am, but in my youth I had to get to know my capabilities by challenging myself, e.g. by cycling up steep mountains and taking on roles in teams. Less introvert types of personality see themselves relative to others, competing in teams or for who can grow the largest marrow. The dangerous ones are those who don’t grow up but gamble: like infants pursuing aims heedless of dangers or adults feeling financially secure in control of centralised finance. That, anyway, is implied in the PID model: the aim preceding first short term then long-term correction of error, and the occasional need to give way rather than cause chaos by gambling with others doing so.

  7. Robert Locke
    November 1, 2020 at 12:24 pm

    ‘ You can’t stop the surveillance state if you don’t stop the autocratic, plutocratic, kleptocratic state.”

    Revisit the Enlightenment. In America, it had much to do with representative government. In Europe the Enlightened despots fought them to a standstill, but that did not mean that they did not want to modernize their states in order to enhance their power base. Frederdick the Great relied on enlighted civil servants to achieve his goals and so did his successors. This universal class, the Beamtenum, not businessmen, would look after the general interest. It is the state controlled by businessmen that created the plutocracy and kleptocracy. How does on create enlightened bureaucrats? Businessmen hate them. The people follow them.

  8. Ken Zimmerman
    November 11, 2020 at 1:35 pm

    In fall 2006 the Teagle Foundation awarded $75,000 grants to investigate the role of majors from each of six different academic disciplines in promoting undergraduate liberal education. One of the grants was made to the American Economic Association’s Committee on Economic Education (AEA CEE); the other fi ve grants went to the American Academy of Religion, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Center for Hellenic Studies, the Modern Language Association, and the National History Center.

    The AEA’s report was edited by David Colander and KimMarie McGoldrick. One part of the report interests me here. ‘The economics major as illiberal education’ by Stephen A. Marglin. This is the tone of that section.

    David Colander and KimMarie McGoldrick perform a valuable service in the thoughtful way they address the problem of the balance between specialization and general education. I agree with the major thrust of the Teagle Foundation draft report, that the economics major, and other majors as well, do not adequately serve the purposes of a liberal education. And I think the report is right on the money in arguing that the organizational problem is one of incentives. I am perhaps a bit less sanguine than the report’s authors about the possibility of changing those incentives.

    This said, I think there are some issues that, if not peculiar to economics, deserve emphasis in the context of the economics major. I will ruffle few feathers by asserting that a primary goal of a liberal education ought to be to learn to think critically. But my next proposition will perhaps be less agreeable: that the economics major subverts this goal. At best it teaches students to think like economists; it does not teach students the limits of thinking like an economist.

    I think we owe our students both instruction in thinking like an economist and a critical perspective on this type of thinking. Historically, room for critical thinking in economics has been limited by a commitment to the market. If all we cared about was describing the world, we could easily forego much of the framework that I find problematic. Take the most basic tools of economic analysis, demand and supply. If we did not care about drawing conclusions about how well markets work, as distinct from how markets actually work, we would not have to base demand and supply in the choices made by rational, calculating, self-interested individuals. We could start instead directly from demand and supply themselves, as elementary concepts. But we do not take demand and supply as primitives because it would then be impossible to argue that – subject to some fine and not so fine print – a system of markets maximizes welfare. In short, thinking like an economist has facilitated the celebration of the market, indeed thinking like an economist is essential to the logic of the economist’s case for the market.

    Like any ‘multi-armed’ economist (as they all are it seems) Marglin goes on with multiple qualifications about his conclusions. But these do not change his final conclusions. “There remain the questions of how and when to integrate a discussion of the limits of economic thinking into the economics major. There is much to be said for a stand-alone course devoted to critiques, but I would emphasize the need for this course to be integrated into the core of the major rather than being offered as simply one alternative in a grab-bag of electives. And this leaves out the large number of students outside the major, whose only exposure to economics may be the elementary course. So there is a case to be made for building the critique into the teaching of economics from the get-go.”

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