Wednesday, 26 June 2013

A global revolt in economics

Author: Ben Waltmann

On the 6th of April this year, students at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), one of France’s foremost higher education institutions in the social sciences, organised a general assembly (Etats Généraux) to discuss alternatives to the current orthodoxy in economics education. In September last year, more than 400 German students participated in apluralist alternative event (Pluralistische Ergänzungsveranstaltung) to the yearly meeting of the German Economic Association (Verein für Socialpolitik), aimed at providing a forum for the discussion of economic ideas outside the mainstream. Next weekend, students, academics, professionals and imaginative citizens will come together in London to rethink economics and economics education at the Rethinking Economics conference. Throughout the world, students of economics are protesting against the way economics is currently taught, and trying to find new and different ways in which economics could be done differently. These are not one-off events: There is a growing global student movement aimed at fundamentally reconsidering the way we look at economics and the economy.
The movement began in June 2000, when a group of students in France published a manifesto in which they called for an end to what they described (in problematic terms) as the “autism” of economics as an academic discipline. In particular, they criticized economics’ “uncontrolled” use of mathematics as if that were an “end in itself”, its failure to engage with economic reality, and the perceived dogmatism of and lack of intellectual pluralism in economics teaching, leaving no room for critical thought in general and alternative approaches to economics in particular. Instead, they demanded a different economics that would use a diverse set of tools to capture the complex reality of actual economies and thus be scientific without being scientistic – that is, without uncritically endorsing methods simply because they are believed to be the methods of the natural sciences.
The student manifesto was soon matched by a petition from economics professors in France, supporting the students’ demands. These protests found a large echo in the French media and found official recognition in the form of a committee instituted by the French culture minister to investigate the students’ and professors’ complaints. Most importantly, however, these events led to the formation of a global movement in favour of ‘post-autistic’ economics comprising both students and academics.
While the label ‘post-autistic’ has by now thankfully been abandoned, the student movement in particular is alive and well, and indeed seems to be becoming larger and more vocal every year. The German Network for a Plural Economics now counts 12 local chapters at universities throughout Germany, and not all German groups of economic rethinkers are even affiliated with the network. Similar student groups exist not only in the UK and France, but also as far afield as Canada or Chile. Furthermore, there is now a global infrastructure in place for networking between rethinkers. The Institute of New Economic Thinking (INET) founded its Young Scholars Initiative (YSI) in the course of its 2012 conference in Berlin, which has now developed into a global network of young economic rethinkers. In the same vein, the World Economics Association (WEA), a network of economists associated with the ‘post-autistic’ movement, has recently launched its Young Economists Network (YEN).
This year, the global student movement for rethinking economics is stronger than ever. On the same day that the French students were holding their general assembly, students on the other side of the world were discussing much the same issues at the New Economy Summit at the University of Vancouver, Canada. Next weekend, at the same time as the Rethinking Economics conference in London, our sister conference with the same theme will be taking place in Tübingen, Germany – the second in a series of yearly conferences organised by the Tübingen team. On July 19-21, young economic rethinkers will be exploring ideas for a new economy and a different economics at ReRoute, a conference in New York City organised by the American New Economics Institute.
The reasons are clear: all the issues highlighted by the French students in their 2000 manifesto remain unresolved. Economics teaching is still often narrow and dogmatic, mathematics still seems to be treated by many in the economics profession as an end in itself, and academic economics still has little to say on what happens in the actual economy. More importantly, however, the global crisis has made it painfully obvious that many orthodox macroeconomic models are woefully inadequate, and that the understanding of the economy offered by mainstream economics has neither enabled economists to predict the crisis nor does it allow us to avoid seemingly interminable recessions.
As students and academics, we can together develop visions and lobby for a more pluralist and less dogmatic economics and economics education. Only in an environment where different approaches can flourish is it possible for an old paradigm to be challenged. Only then is there any chance for academic economics as it is to be turned into a new economics that would be more relevant for economic policy.

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