[OPE-L:3745] Pluralism in economics

From: Asfilho@aol.com
Date: Mon Sep 04 2000 - 13:07:14 EDT

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Many of you will already have seen this message; apologies for cross-posting.
Perhaps we can contribute to this debate?



The French economics mainstream is in a state of shock and apprehension =
following dramatic and unexpected events late in June.

On the 21st the influential Paris daily, Le Monde, featured a long article =
under the headline "Economics Students Denounce the Lack of Pluralism in =
the Teaching Offered". Economics students at the =C9cole Normale =
Sup=E9rieure, France's premier institution of higher learning, were =
circulating with great success a petition protesting against an excessive =
mathematical formalisation.

The petition notes "a real schizophrenia" created by making modelling "an =
end in itself" and thereby cutting economics off from reality and forcing =
it into a state of "autism". The students, said a sympathetic Le Monde, =
call for an end to the hegemony of neoclassical theory and approaches =
derived from it, in favour of a pluralism that will include other =
approaches, especially those which permit the consideration of "concrete =

Le Monde found French economists of renown, including Michel Verni=E8res, =
Jean-Paul Fitoussi and Daniel Cohen, willing to speak out in support of =
the students. Fitoussi, current head of the jury of the economics' =
agr=E9gation, said that "the students are right to denounce the way =
economics is generally taught" and that the over-use of mathematics "leads =
to a disembodiment of economic discourse". Daniel Cohen, economics =
professor at the =C9cole Normale Sup=E9rieure, spoke of "the pathological =
role" played by mathematics in economics. Meanwhile, The Minister of =
Education, Jack Lang, assured Le Monde that he would study closely the =
appeal from the students.

French radio and television also reported thestudents complaints and =
confirmed their legitimacy. On the 21st, BFM said that it was now =
recognized that "the teaching of economics no longer had any relation with =
the real world" and that "this discipline is going through an undeniable =
crisis". Also on the 21st, L'Humanit=E9 quoted extensively from the =
students' open letter, while noting that in recent years several renown =
economists had expressed similar views.=20

On the 23rd, Les Echos reported that a government report on university =
economics teaching had reached conclusions similar to those of the =
students. In their lengthy article, Les Echos noted that it is increasingl=
y recognized that economics' "malaise is general and of longstanding" and =
that "under the guise of being scientific" it has cultivated an anti-scient=
ific environment "which leaves no room for reflection and debate".

On the 26th, the weekly, Marianne, carried an article about the student =
petition against "dogmatism" in the teaching of economics and for its =
replacement by "a pluralism of explanations". Marianne said that the =
petition, which was now on the Web, had 500 signatures, as well as growing =
support from economics teachers and interest from the highest levels of =
the French government.

On June 30th, Le Nouvel Economiste, referring to the students' petition =
and "mobilisation", declared that economics had succumbed to a "pathologica=
l taste for a-priori ideologies and mathematical formalisation disconnected=
 from reality." Economics, it continued, should give up its false =
emulation of physics and "should instead look to the human sciences".

In July, French media interest continued to fuel the mobilisation. On the =
3rd, La Tribune featured a long article titled "Why a Reform of the =
Teaching of Economics". It began by saying that all concerned parties =
agree that economics is in crisis and that "a debate should be opened on =
this subject" and that the students' initiative aimed to bring this about. =
 Economics, said La Tribune, had become lost in "mondes iaginaires" and =
"l'=E9conomie de Robinson Cruso=E9" and intellectually enfeebled by "the =
dogmatism that reigns in the teaching of the discipline." Alternatives =
Economiques carried an article titled "The Revolt of the Students" which =
noted that French Nobel Prize winner, Maurice Allais had, despite his =
mathematical approach, come to conclusions similar to those of the =
students. =20

L'Express, France's equivalent to Time, carried an article "L'=E9conomie, =
science autiste?", which aired the students' analysis and complaints. It =
also reported that the students' petition now had more than 600 signatures,=
 and that their teachers were now starting a petition of their own in =
support. =20

On the 22nd of July, Politis reported on the students' cause and on the =
"autism" into which economics had fallen in consequence of its "obsession =
to produce a social physics". Politis noted that student support for the =
petition was widespread, including not only students from the most =
prestigious universities, but also from the less celebrated, both in Paris =
and in the provinces. "Pluralism should be part of the cultural base of =
economists." Instead, "neoclassical theory dominates because it rests on =
a simple set of axioms, easily mathematized." The coming academic year, =
concluded Politis, "promises to be agitated."

We have learned that the economics students' petition now has 800 =
signatures and the economists' petition 147. The latter includes some of =
the most illustrious names in French economics, e.g., Robert Boyer, =
Andr=E9 Orl=E9an, Michel Aglietta, Jean-Paul Fitoussi and Daniel Cohen. =
It concludes by calling for "a national conference that will open a public =
debate for all."


At last month's 10th World Congress of Social Economics at the University =
of Cambridge, American participants reported that in the USA the purge of =
non-neoclassical and non-mathematically oriented economists from university=
 faculties continues.

Conferees spoke of the increasing "stalinization" of the professin. =
Unlike in France where the fight-back has begun, in the States there are =
not yet signs of the formation of the critical mass needed to turn =
economics away from 19th century dogmas. It is agreed , however, that the =
number of academic economists in American who are out of sympathy with the =
orthodoxy comprise a sizeable minority. But they are fragmented, often =
intimidated and lack the means of joining together to exert their =
collective weight and moral authority. Meanwhile, it was agreed, the =
American economics' clock runs backwards.

American economists at the World Congress traded horror stories about the =
new wave of neo-classical "stalinization". History of economic thought =
courses are now being targeted as sources of ideas whereby students might =
question or place in perspective orthodoxy. The goal is to create =
"history-free environments" in which students can be indoctrinated "more =
efficiently" into the neo-classical/mainstream belief system. For =
example, it was reported that from this fall the University of North =
Carolina is discontinuing all history of thought courses.

American participants also bemoaned plunging standards of literacy among =
economics graduate students and colleagues as a consequence of the =
mathematics fetish. The illiteracy problem is said to be particularly =
acute among new economics PhDs, many of whom are incapable of reading with =
comprehension a page of complex prose, such as one from The General =


The ideas expressed by the French students will have a familiar ring to =
readers of Tony Lawson's Economics and Reality (1997). But in Lawson's UK =
it is reported that economics students, although restless, are not yet =
rebellious. Meanwhile it is rumoured that a French translation of =
Economics and Reality is imminent.


Interest in the reform campaign launched in France spread quickly to =
Belgium. On June 24th under the heading "Economie autiste", the daily, Le =
Soir, both reported on the events in France and offered its own anlysis of =
neoclassical economics as a quaint political ideology masquerading as =

A week later Le Soir featured a lengthy article on the crisis in economics.=
 It draws on a recent report by Michel Verni=E8res, commissioned by the =
French government to investigate the teaching of economics. Verni=E8res =
emphasises that economic theories are devices for conceptualizing reality. =
 "Pedagogically, it is therefore essential to articulate conceptual =
reflection and empirical investigation. . . . [and] to underline the =
plurality of approaches and the overall coherence of these approaches."

Bernard Paulr=E9, referring especially to neoclassical theory, said that =
mathematics is often used to hide "the emptiness of the propositions and =
the absence of any concern for operational relevance." He said that in =
addition to a-priori axioms, it is necessary for economics "to take =
account of institutions, of history, of the strategies of actors and of =
groups, of sociological dimensions, etc.."

  This newsletter aims to link people wishing to bring sanity, humanity =
and science back to economics. To this end, YOU may help significantly by =
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