Finally got around to reading the PCES report on economics education at Manchester. The Francis Urquhart half of my dual selves was duty bound to dislike it. My Urquhart self, would urge the authors to switch subjects and find fulfilling careers in one of the caring professions, like, personal incontinence counselor. My milquetoast self prevailed and I buckled down to read it.
The report raises two issues and its writers have made the mistake of conflating them or at least not separating them clearly enough. The first is the effectiveness with which economics is taught. The second is what is to be taught.
On the first, the report makes for depressing reading. It summarizes an economics education as dull as ice fishing. For those unfamiliar with ice fishing, it is a sport (and thats being charitable) practiced by the inhabitants of Minnesota and the remoter parts of Wisconsin. In dead of winter, one drives a large vehicle over a frozen lake. If that were insufficient to tempt fate, one then cuts a hole in the ice for the ostensible purpose of catching fish. In practice one sits around the hole drinking prodigously while trying not to fall in. Beans, flatulance and an absence of sanitation figure prominently.
On the second, the report’s authors write
Our economics education has raised one paradigm, often referred to as neoclassical economics, to the sole object of study. Alternative perspectives have been marginalised. This stifles innovation, damages creativity and suppresses constructive criticisms that are so vital for economic understanding. Furthermore, the study of ethics, politics and history are almost completely absent from the syllabus. We propose that economics cannot be understood with all these aspects excluded; the discipline must be redefined.
Exposure to history, psychology and politics? Of course, yes. Within the US system this happens naturally as a function of breadth requirements. Students are not shy about trying to reconcile what they have learnt in Psychology and what they are mastering in Economics. It makes for a lively classroom.
What about these alternative perspectives? In for a penny in for a pound, so I decided to read a paper by Steven Keen. Keen, as far as I can gather is one of the leading lights of these alternative perspectives. The paper I read (co-authored with Russell Standish) appeared in Physica A and can be found here. If you’ve not heard of it, there is a good reason for that. Continue to ignore it. Pauli might have described it thus:
“Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!“
Reading it lowered my IQ, something I can scarce afford to do. If this is representative of what passes for alternative perspectives, the writers of the PCES should leave economics and find fulfilling careers as incontinence counselors. Finally, for those who think my description of Keen and Standish uncharitable, I refer them to the following by Chris Auld. Stamping out ignorance is a thankless task and one is cheered to see there are some who take it on.
The urge to promote these alternative perspectives is to be found across the Channel as well. There, a sub group of scholars and nescafe society currently wished to form a separate group so that they may be evaluated by different norms. Jean Tirole, in a letter to the State secretary in charge of Higher education and Research in France, argued against this. A response can be found here.