Not Suitable For Use on Real Planets

From adbusters, a piece on the economic indoctrination in freshman economics classes. It reads like the skimmed-down version of Chris Hayes’ (who I’m evidently quoting all the time these days) excellent piece for In These Times What We Learn When We Learn Economics.

The adbusters’ article is by a former Harvard TA, who has co-founded the “Post-Autistic Economics Movement”, and it talks about Greg Mankiw’s intro textbook which is very popular (Mankiw has a popular econ blog; he responds to the adbuster piece here.) The writer was the TA for Mankiw’s class; so it has all the shamelessness of a TA-Tells-All piece. A couple points:

1) I’ve gotten into a heated discussion with an Economics graduate student (libertarian at that) about the article, though we both agreed that freshman textbooks take a neoliberal agenda for granted. My roommate (a scientist through and through) thinks this is just a matter of having to make things very simple for freshman, in the same sense that freshman physics is very simple and concise (and presents a unified theory) compared to later physics.

1.a) I don’t know if I agree with that analogy, since the what gets more complicated in later economics is the math used to prove the ideas, not the conclusions of economics.

2) The term autistic is an unfortunate term, though it does get at the heart of what the complaint is. My step-sister’s son (step-nephew?) is autistic, and reading a lot about it, autistic kids can get difficult in a way in which I’ve seen a few econ grad students get difficult. (I could imagine trying to give certain kids in my econometrics class a hug, and seeing them pushing me away and rocking in place muttering about sub-game equilibrium).

3) The stickers he includes for econ textbooks are really funny. I’ve already glued one to the cover of my copy of this.

4) There’s two point of views here, and clarifying them can make us understand why people are sometimes talking past each other. One is that Economics has lost a lot of what is valuable in it by depending too much on math to get its points across. This is a very common point people make before going on to business as usual. See, for instance, the last two paragraphs of Steve Levitt talking about Game Theory here. The other debate is that economics needs to examine it’s own theorectical assumptions in a more critical way, either it being the instrumental rationality baseline assumption (which pisses off the classical thought, psychology and/or philosophy people I know) to the assumptions made about justice and ‘optimality.’ See this from a manifesto-type article on feminist economics (my underline):

think about the characteristics held in highest esteem within the contemporary hegemony of mathematized rational-choice modeling. You will probably come up with a list that includes characteristics like rigor, precision, detachment, quantitative analysis, abstraction, self-interest, autonomy, rationality,
etc. Next, think about the flip side of each of these terms. You will probably come up with a list something like this: pliability, vagueness, connection, qualitative work, concreteness, generosity, interdependence, emotion. Lastly, consider the gender connotations of each list. Most people raised in Euro-American cultures will immediately recognize that the first list is culturally coded as “masculine” and associated with toughness and power, and the second as “feminine” and associated with softness and powerlessness.

What is at issue, then, for PAE, is not simply changes at the level of methodology, but a sea change in the underlying value system of contemporary economics. A long and intricate history of relations among gender, social organization, science, and conceptions of knowledge formed these values. At the time of the Enlightenment, the world–and the economy–came to be seen as clockwork-like and mechanical. This image of the economy, and an epistemological image of the knower as radically separate from the subject of study, encourages the primacy of mathematical modelling. Feminist scholars have pointed out how this epistemology reflects a fantasy of achieving solid security through the control of nature by our minds, and a denial of all connection, embodiment, vulnerability, or flux.

This is what I believe the PAE movement is about, and it is much different than “there is too much math these days.”

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