17 June 2009

Letter to a Colleague

The following is part of a comment I posted on another blog, Imagining History, but is a topic I will return to in the future here so I wanted to post it.
I feel that those of us outside of mainstream economics spend to much time teaching things we have already rejected. Part of this is necessary to keep our paychecks but part of it we do so we can feel superior to close minded mainstream economists. At the introductory level I think we need to do more of teaching Marxism as what is "right", not as an alternative theory.

Start Letter:

I feel that in many heterodox economics classes that I have taken, my education has suffered because a lot of focus and time has been given to the mainstream. If I thought that a thorough understanding of mainstream economics was worth while for me, then I would take a mainstream class, or attend grad school in a mainstream department for than matter. The more time we spend trying to thoroughly understand the mainstream the less time there is to study alternatives.

As a teacher, you have the power to have studied and rejected the mainstream ahead of time, so your students do not need to take the time to struggle with this in their first semester of economic history. If you believe the heterodox perspective holds more merit then you should teach only that. Otherwise you are placing heterodox theory at a natural disadvantage because mainstream courses do not take the time to go beyond a bare mention of Marx, Keynes, Kafka, etc.

It is within your job, hell it is your duty as an instructor to teach your students what YOU feel is the best course you can offer on economic history, using the best methodological approach, from your point of view that is.

If this means not doing the mainstream justice, so that you can spend the limited time that you have with your students giving a more thorough (non rigorous)course in economic history from a heterodox perspective, I would encourage you to do so. Plurality has many benefits, but within the confines of a single semester, in an undergraduate course, I would think you are better off teaching history from the perspective that you prefer.

That is unless you want the course to be a methodological survey of economic histories....which would a fantastic course but....maybe not at the undergraduate level, and the university may question why you have an s on the end of the word history in your course description.

As non-mainstream economists, beyond a basic understanding of the mainstream, why study in depth something that we think is "wrong"? We have rejected the mainstream without learning its nuances, certainly learning the finer points within the any theory just makes its contradictions come even more to the surface? (To be fair this point is as true regarding Marxism as it is any other theory)

There are only so many hours in the day (even fewer for those of us who blog). I would encourage you to spend the few you have with your students teaching things that they cannot get from any cookie cutter text on economic history.

1 comment:

Daniel MacDonald said...

Hey James,

I guess I would question your right/wrong dichotomy. I agree that simply covering mainstream econ for the sake of covering mainstream econ is not doing anyone any good. On the other hand, if mainstream econ has something insightful to say, why not present it?

Neoclassical economics should be viewed as a benchmark against what actually happens in the real world. For example, we know what markets are all about: supply, demand, a price and quantity, and a host of other institutions (e.g. legal - contracts) and assumptions. We have preferences, technology, endowments, information, efficiency, allocation, distribution, etc. Would you agree that all of these are at least important concepts? Even if they are only important in the sense that we want to study the /lack/ of efficiency or an /unjust/distribution, can we agree that they are nevertheless important?

Now, if we can't agree on that basic point then we should discuss ontological notions of economy. I'm going to assume we do not have to delve into that just yet and go with the above.

Neoclassical economics takes all of these concepts above and asks how they may be idealized. For example, neoclassical economics is constantly searching for Pareto efficient outcomes because it is at the point of Pareto efficiency where distributive justice under the utilitarian criterion is obtained. Now, maybe we want to debate normative criteria. But is that a debate for an economic history classroom? Probably not.

I'm going to return to that point in a bit.

Back to neoclassical econ. It represents an idealized system where we can obtain Pareto efficiency under certain assumptions. The real world shows us that these assumptions are never completely satisfied. But, without the benchmark of the ideal, how can we answer certain questions concerning the workings of the financial markets or the labor markets? One way is to point out how such markets deviate from the efficient outcome. But, we need to understand neoclassical economics in order to do that or else we are not upholding the value of rigor that should be the objective of a good learning experience.

Now, I mentioned earlier something I wanted to come back to: the debate over normative criteria. Of course, neoclassical economics is based on 19th century utilitarian philosophy: that's where most of the language and analysis of neoclassical economics comes from. Marxian theory is founded on a different normative criteria, entailing some notion of distributive "justice" (in the classical notion of the term justice, i.e. equality of transactions, voluntary exchange, etc.). Clearly, by choosing one methodology or the other and declaring it to be "right" in your classroom, you are upholding one criterion over the other. Should you not justify that decision, i.e. should you not actively engage the principles of these two criteria and work out why you are choosing one over the other?

I wonder to what degree this makes sense since I've never run this argument by anyone before, but it seems to me to hold to at least some degree. At any rate, I hope I answered some of your concerns. I really feel like we should talk about this in person, though, since it's hard to work out the ideas in writing. So, let's talk more about this in a few weeks!