Changing the Subject

by Alvin Birdi, Economics Network and University of Bristol
Published May 2014

The past week has seen the launch of the new Pelican imprint of Penguin. The original and much-loved series began in 1937 with the Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism by George Bernard Shaw, to whom is attributed the assertion that economists, even placed end to end, would fail to reach a conclusion.

If the surge of articles in the press and social media networks in recent months is anything to go by, Shaw’s characterisation of economics as an embarrassing richness of perspectives about its object, the economy, has been replaced by concerns of an increasing homogenisation of views not just about the economy, but the world, the universe and everything besides.

Such is the charge of Ha Joon Chang’s Economics: A User’s Guide which is the first in the new Pelican series launched three-quarters of a century on from the original series and again at a time of heightened and widespread eagerness in the general population to learn about the causes and remedies of serious downturns in economic activity.

If, as the critics hold, there is little challenge to the dominant perspectives from within the profession, there is certainly no shortage of viewpoints about what needs to be done to rectify the situation. In what follows, the Economics Network has compiled its own user’s guide to the ins and outs of the debate with reference mainly to issues of teaching and curriculum.

Early Rumblings

An international conference in London in February 2012 led to Diane Coyle’s What’s the use of economics in 2012, a collection of articles from academics, employers and others on the state of the profession and curriculum. Earlier, in 2009, Fontana and Setterfield’s collection Macroeconomic theory and Macroeconomic pedagogy was more singularly focused on continuing debates about the adequacy of the underlying macroeconomics theoretical framework we teach to students, for some time dominated by the workhorse IS-LM framework, now superseded by the “New Consensus” 3-equation model.

Discontented students

Students themselves have been organised and articulate players in the recent debates. Notably the Rethinking Economics group and the Post-Crash Economics Society (PCES), have articulated their concerns in various forums. The PCES’s report from early April, demanding a ‘rethink of the discipline’, complains that the syllabus is outmoded and monopolised by what it characterises as “neoclassical economics”, a term it relates to the methodological prescription of individuals maximising welfare subject to exogenous constraints and an overriding focus on exchange. Their accusation is that the “mainstream” is devoid of “competing theories” (Report, 55) and says relatively little about matters of distribution and social reproduction.  The report laments the absence of economic history and also “institutional, evolutionary, Austrian, post-Keynesian, Marxist, feminist and ecological” viewpoints. It also criticises a perceived over-formalisation of theoretical approaches and an increasing distance from its empirical object of study, the economy. It is representative of a group of critiques stemming from what might be termed a “schools of thought” or a “heterodox” economics position.

Responses

The PCES report stimulated a number of immediate responses on the blogosphere. Roger Farmer, encouraging the questioning of everything that is taught, nevertheless suggests that the students might ‘take the time to absorb those ideas that are in the mainstream’ as it is engagement with these that will ‘make meaningful changes that will advance our understanding’.

Simon Wren-Lewis seems somewhat nostalgic about the noble pursuit of a value-neutral science but agrees that there may be hidden judgements lurking somewhere in the background of seemingly non-partisan theories. But he takes issue with the schools of thought proponents because, as he puts it, “I would much rather a future Chancellor, Prime Minister, or advisor to either, remembered from their undergraduate degree that mainstream theory said austerity was contractionary, rather than ‘well it all depends on whether you are a Keynesian or an Austrian’.”

Tony Yates, responding to the same report defends economics from a decidedly more “mainstream” position. See his suggestions for a macro course on bubbles and panics.

The substantive debate seems to revolve around whether greater variety of perspective can only come via reference to various “schools” or whether it might be possible within what Wren-Lewis terms the “mainstream”. The debate is summarised by Wren-Lewis, borrowing from Diane Coyle, as a question of whether the “Naked Emperor needs to be reclothed rather than dethroned” .

Meanwhile, Wendy Carlin, a contributor to both the Coyle and Fontana and Setterfield volumes described above has been active with a number of academics based here and abroad in developing the CORE/INET (Curriculum in Open-access Resources in Economics) set of open educational resources. These explicitly seek to reorganise the core theoretical units in economics with a generous dose of history, evidence and a variety of theoretical perspectives, but explicitly eschewing a schools of thought approach. Carlin’s rearticulation of Coyle’s naked emperor is her plea to save the baby when throwing out the bathwater. According to her FT article (17th Nov 2013), economics explains the world but economics degrees do not and it is the gap between the two that the project seeks to close. The CORE project has already developed some prototype tools that are currently being evaluated by a number of parties across the UK and beyond. Some of the evaluation is being supported by the Economics Network which will hold a mini-conference on the issue of curriculum reform in Economics in January 2015.

At the same time as these developments are taking place, the QAA subject benchmark for economics is being reviewed. This is a process that involves a range of interested parties including academic staff, students and employers. What comes out of the recent mix of economic crisis, student discontent efforts to reform the core curriculum and the review of the subject benchmarks remains to be seen. But at least George Bernard Shaw can rest assured that there is as much disagreement amongst economists today as there was in 1937 when his inaugural Pelican text was published.

Useful reading on the curriculum debate

Books

  • George Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, Pelican Books, 1937
  • Ha-Joon Chang, Economics: The User’s Guide: A Pelican Introduction, Pelican Books, 2014 ISBN 9780718197032
  • Diane Coyle, What’s the use of economics: Teaching the dismal science after the crisis, 2012, London Publishing Partnership ISBN 9781907994043
  • Giuseppe Fontana & Mark Setterfield, Macroeconomic theory and macroeconomic pedagogy, 2010, Palgrave Macmillan ISBN 9780230202030

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