Dissident economists fight to be heard

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jan 20 07:38:28 MST 2003

Chronicle of Higher Education, issue dated January 24, 2003

Taking On 'Rational Man'
Dissident economists fight for a niche in the discipline


How do you start a fire under a huge wet blanket? A faction of disgruntled
economists says that is their predicament.

Their efforts to open the field to diverse views are smothered, they say,
by an orthodoxy -- neoclassical economics and its derivatives -- that is
indulgently theoretical and mathematical in its aspiration to be more
"scientific" than any other social science.

Although it is inadequate to explain human behavior, they say, that brand
of economics dominates the discipline. Its practitioners decide what work
deserves notice by controlling what is published in the field's prestigious
journals. And with strongholds at leading research universities and a Nobel
awarded in the field, most mainstream economists are too proud of their
profession to even notice these puny insurgents.

Many say that the rebels are challenging a straw man -- that neoclassical
economics, which is based on such concepts as rational choice, the market,
and economies' tendency to move toward equilibrium, is much roomier than
portrayed. But others have a more belligerent response: Like us or leave us
for other departments and disciplines, such as political science, history,
or sociology.

This month, for example, the University of Notre Dame's economics
department, long renowned as unusually diverse, is likely to split in two.

A new department of economics, with a graduate program and several new
hires, would focus on orthodox approaches.

Dissident economists would be consigned to a department focusing on
economic thought, social justice, and public policy. But with no graduate
program, that would amount to exile and slow death, say the Marxist, labor,
and development economists and historians of economic thought who make up a
large minority of the 21-member department.

The "tensions" that are forcing the split, says a report by a committee of
Notre Dame administrators and professors from other departments, "are not
the fault of the current faculty" members. They were hired years ago, under
"a clear mandate from the administration," to help build an alternative to
the neoclassical bastions: Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, MIT,
Princeton, Yale.

It is not that Notre Dame wants to abandon the subjects that its heterodox
researchers study, ones "appropriate to a Catholic institution," such as
poverty and inequality, says Mark W. Roche, dean of the College of Arts and
Letters. It is just, he says, that Notre Dame wants attention from the
mainstream and realizes that that requires satisfying the field's
"evaluative norms."

Moreover, says the committee's report, "We regard the differences between
the heterodox and orthodox economists to be so great that reconciliation
within a single cohesive department is wholly unrealistic."

full: http://chronicle.com/free/v49/i20/20a01201.htm

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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