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Saturday, April 26, 2014


Well, I have now figured out what notes I am supposed to be playing in the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia, so maybe I can spend a few minutes talking about Simon Wren-Lewis' remarks about mainstream and "heterodox" economics.  [I do not mean to suggest, by the way, that I can play the notes.  Just that I have at least managed to figure out what notes I am supposed to be playing.  This is a challenge because substantial portions of the viola part are written in the treble clef, whereas viola music is usually written in the alto clef.  I played violin as a boy, all of the music for which is in the treble clef, and when I took up the viola fifty years later, I worked very hard to stop seeing the notes on the page as in the treble clef, so that my fingers would go in the correct places.  It is really mind-bending suddenly to have to go back to the treble clef.  These are the trials of the not-so-hot amateur violist.]

Wren-Lewis, as I mentioned, is an Oxford Don and a Fellow of Merton College who sounds, from what I have just read by him, to be a likeable and open-minded chap.  But buried in his discussion are some assumptions that I think need to be challenged.  Here are the opening two paragraphs of the post on his blog to which James provided a link.

"I read the Manchester Post-Crash Economics Society’s (PCES) critique of economics education in the UK with a bewildering mixture of emotions. (Claire Jones has a short FT summary here.) It is eloquently and intelligently written, but I believe in some respects fundamentally misguided. It is indicative of a failure of mainstream economics education, but not (as it thinks) a failure of mainstream economics. Yet even after all these years, it is a position I can empathise with.

"At its heart the critique is an appeal for plurality in economics. Rather than pretend that there is one right way to do economics (what the critique calls neoclassical), the critique says we should recognise that there are many alternative perspectives which have significant worth (and which therefore undergraduates should have significant exposure to). These alternative perspectives have become marginalised within economics over the last few decades, and the critique suggests that the financial crisis is evidence that this process should be reversed. This is not an unusual complaint, and I hear it frequently from those working in other social sciences."

After again expressing sympathy for the underlying motivations of the protesting students, Wren-Lewis offers a three-part response.  The heart of his response, to my way of thinking, is this sentence in the statement of the first part of the response:  "I agree with Roger Farmer here: economics is a science."  Wren-Lewis is happy to grant that Economics is not always taught well, especially at the undergraduate level; that its scientific discoveries are sometimes misconstrued as justifications for conservative [or any other ideologically encoded] policies; that it progresses more slowly than we might wish, more slowly indeed than the natural sciences.  But it is science, it is "progressive" [in the sense that it moves forward to new truths], and it is, he thinks, therefore the only intellectually defensible game in town.  Wren-Lewis ends with what I consider an unfortunate ad hominem attack on the defenders of "heterodox" economics:

"At first reading, heterodox writers can seem like a breath of fresh air, because they are more holistic and often less formalist. But while many complain, with some justice, that mainstream economics can be resistant of radical ideas, I have personally found at least as much intolerance on the other side. Some heterodox economists appear to reject almost everything that is mainstream, which is frankly just silly."

First of all, a word about orthodox and heterodox Economics.  This language reeks of theological disputes, and that is not, in my judgment, just an unfortunate faŅ«on de parler.  Would a Physicist or Biochemist or Microbiologist speak in this manner of orthodox and heterodox Physics or Biochemistry or Microbiology?  I think not.  In the very act of denying that there are, or could be, schools or sects or ideologically opposed approaches to the rational study of the economic affairs of a society, Wren-Lewis introduces into the discussion by his choice of language questions of orthodoxy and heresy  [which, after all, is what heterodoxy is.]

I have argued on many occasions on this blog that the study of society is unavoidably ideological, in the sense that every rational analysis of social reality encodes certain fundamental evaluative presuppositions and choices.  It is for this reason that I have argued that the most fundamental decision each of us makes in life is our choice of comrades -- those men and women with whom we stand, and with whom we struggle for justice.  I have devoted several books and much of a lifetime to arguing against the view advanced most powerfully by Kant and echoed in the twentieth century by John Rawls that there is a neutral pou sto from which, by rational deliberation alone, we can decide the appropriate principles of distributive justice on which to base a social order.  I will not repeat my arguments here -- they can be found in The Autonomy of Reason, my commentary on Kant's Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, in Understanding Rawls, my anatomization of A Theory of Justice, in my tutorial "How to Study Society," archived at, and in many of my other writings.

Because Economics is preeminently the study of the distribution of the social product, it is directly and unavoidably ideological.  An Economist's choice of concepts, models, and modes of analysis, his or her decision which facts to foreground and which to leave in the background, cannot help but embody some fundamental and ultimately partisan set of choices of comrades and enemies.  This is not at all a weakness or failing of Economics.  It is the necessary condition of doing Economics at all.  Those like Wren-Lewis who deny this central truth, whether they intend it or not, whether they know it or not, are serving by their denial to further empower the powerful.  To elaborate on a lovely phrase from John Kenneth Galbraith, they thereby afflict the afflicted and comfort the comfortable, instead of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

For this reason, Economics can never be a science, nor should it pretend to that status.  Economists should use mathematics, of course, as much as is useful [but not more!]  And we may surely be permitted to hope that Economists will pay attention to data about the real world [even though that may cost them a certain amount of status in the profession.]  But the world would be a better place if they would recognize and acknowledge that their work is driven by powerful evaluative commitments.

Those who base their work as Economists on different commitments are not heterodox, nor are they heretical, though they may very well be subversive [at least we can hope so.]



dunnettreader said...

Longtime lurker here who has benefitted greatly from your logorrhea - I'd have remained clueless re bloody manifolds, intuitions and Kantian deductions without your book on the First Critique (thank you and Kindle).

Just to clarify, neither Wren-Lewis nor Krugman has chosen to refer to the "non-mainstream" economists as "heterodox" as a slam. Where the terminology first arose is beyond my knowledge but it goes back decades. However, the (non-Austrian) non-mainstream tend to refer to themselves as Heterodox as a badge of honor (when they're not priding themselves on being "post-autistic" economists). So using the label people self-identify with, and don't take as a slur when used by others, seems perfectly appropriate usage. Referring to them as "non-mainstream" or inventing another term, given that the lingo in the profession is "heterodox", would raise eyebrows - was some sort of statement being implied...etc.

Krugman in particular is open to lots of insights from other traditions. As he further explains in his most recent post, he thinks there are lots of good bits to pick up from heterodox research programs e.g. behavioral economics or Minsky's dynamics of finance with business cycles. He also recognizes, more explicitly than Wren-Lewis is willing, that a "science" can regress as well as progress (can anyone say rational expectations microfoundations, Efficient Markets Theorem (Hypothesis), or Real Business Cycles?) His argument is that none of the heterodox theories serve him as well - or allow others to build on his work or vice versa - as using his updated Keynesianism as the starting point. His core model then has to be adjusted with a variety of tools - including some "heterodox" ones - with ad hocery as needed, depending on the combination of question asked and current conjuncture. You may think he's fooling himself and that his attachment to saltwater mainstream is all about power rather than what works best for his goals, but he's not arguing from authority, or "orthodoxy is 'science' and heterodoxy isn't" (again except for the Austrians who are in a class of their own and too inclined to slide off into goldbuggery).

As for the ideological dimensions of economic theory and the unfortunate fact that "political" has been stripped from "economy" (other than as reinterpreted by the Hayekians and Buchananites), he's pretty self-aware - it's The Conscience of a Liberal where he rails against inequality, not the Conscience of a Radical, after all. So it's fair game to take him to task for his liberalism but not for his vocabulary.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Many thanks for that explication. I stand corrected. As should be obvious, I am not really up on developmemts in Economics, certainly not in the manner indicated by your helpful comment. Since I like Krugman [and have started reading his blog regularly], I am happy for any clarification that makes him more sympatico, as it were. As I have observed on occasion on this blog, I am not one of those radicals who spends all his time attqacking those who are a millimeter away while taking a generous view of those who are lightyears away. I am very much a Popular Front kind of guy, and in any better world I can imagine, Krugman [and Wren-Lewis too, I would guess] will be a comrade, not an enemy.