Pluralism in Economics

In recent years the steady narrowing down of economics as a subject in Universities has lead to repeated backlash by students. The rise of heterodox economics is a direct result of the imposition of mathematical formalism, as the defining feature of an economist, and dogmatism in what makes the curriculum.  Students trying to get reform face a hard time. The University can merely wait for students to go away, graduate, get a job, and basically go elsewhere. They then maintain business a usual or better, get rid of anyone who has supported the students. Neoliberalism has also combined with mainstream economics to create a new ideological impasse (for example see Fellner & Spash 2014 (external link) on consumer sovereignty).

There have been several attempts to reform the system coming from the bottom-up.  These have included the Post Autistic student movement started in 2000 by an elite set of French students; I was at Cambridge when they came to drum up support, but were more interested in Oxbridge contacts than my suggested Scottish connections. Nevertheless, the movement spread cross Europe to create Post Autistic Economics with an electronic newsletter that contained short articles.  This fed into the establishment of the Real World Economics Review (external link) that is now a thriving online open access journal.

There were student protests in Austria in 2009 with the occupation of University buildings and mass demonstrations.  The complaints were much broader than economics but driven by perceived injustices, sexism and creeping neoliberalism. This was a major disturbance at the time but led to little fundamental change.  The main outcome for economics students was the establishments of an options course organised by students with heterodox guest lecturers (a course I have taught on myself).

In 2014 students from the SEEP programme at WU joined with others to organise a conference on pluralism in economics in Vienna.  They asked me to contribute a short briefing paper for discussion in an open session. This gave me an opportunity to summarise some of my reflections on the topic in the context of ecological economics (Spash 2015a). The basic issue I see arsing is from the conflation of different uses of the concept of pluralism in different contexts (e.g. pluralism in teaching being essential to good pedagogic practice, in science leading to incoherence and eclecticism, and in value theory being a basic social reality).

In the UK, the Post Crash student group organised at Manchester University.  They were driven by the failure of the curriculum in the Economics Dept. to either address, explain or understand the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and resulting economic collapse.  Their demands for reform resulted in defensive reactions, no substantive change and the dismissal of a lecturer who tried to meet the students’ desire for knowledge beyond the mainstream. In 2014 the students organised a series of lectures by outside speakers, including myself on ecological economics; go to Vimeo for the lecture split into several parts: Part I (external link).

At the same time the mainstream has become sensitised to criticism and has made many superficial responses and claims to pluralism.  One example is the CORE programme in the UK which claims to be reforming the economics curriculum, but looks more like a defense of the mainstream CORE with barricades of rhetoric. In a review Sheehan et al. (2015 p.216) state: “the innate conservatism of the economics profession seems to dominate the CORE project, undermining its otherwise potentially transformative intent”.

A BBC 4 Radio documentary Teaching Economics After the Crash (external link) covered some of these issues. I transcribed a part of it where a newly appointed Manchester University professor, who is part of CORE, defends the economic faith. This is followed by the CORE project being criticised for being like “asking a vegetarian if they fancy McDonalds now it sells salad”; see Spash 2015b (PDF).

Literature Cited

Wolfgang Fellner and Clive L. Spash (2014) The Illusion of Consumer Sovereignty in Economic and Neoliberal Thought (external link)

Sheehan, B., Embery, J. and Morgan, J. (2015). Give them something to think about, don’t tell them what to think: A constructive heterodox alternative to the CORE project. (external link) Journal of Australian Political Economy (75): 211-232.

Spash, Clive L. (2015a) “Reflections on Pluralism in Ecological Economics.” 1st Vienna Conference on Pluralism in Economics. WU, Vienna University of Economics and Business, 10th – 12th April, 2015.

Spash, Clive L. (2015b) “Attacking Students, Denigrating Pedagogic Pluralism and Promoting a CORE Whitewash, a Normal Day in the UK’s Economic Orthodoxy: Some Transcribed Evidence from the BBC.” (PDF)