September 7, 2021

The First Student Uprising (PT. 1)

There’s a word for people who are obsessively focused only on what matters to them, in such granular detail that they lose sight of the big picture, and forget that what they do affects other people and other things, and that not everything needs to happen right now.

That word is autistic.
It’s the word 15 economics students used at Paris’s École Normale Supérieure when they stormed out of their classes in the summer of 2000 and organized protests and teach-ins. They were talking about a cultural disorder, not a neurological one.

The reigning neoclassical model of economics is autistic, they said. It’s so rational it’s irrational. They demanded reform within economics teaching, which they claimed had become enthralled with complex mathematical models that operate only in conditions that don’t exist.

The students were rebelling against the straw man at the center of economic science — a pathetic parody of a human being called the “Rational Utility Maximizer.” This guy runs around making perfectly predictable choices within perfectly functioning markets. He’s never depressed, never sickened by pollution, never emotional, never a dreamy wanderer, never in love.

But of course real humans are not like that. We fly off on wild tangents, have altruistic impulses, do crazy things. We feel guilty when we overindulge, get depressed when we lose our jobs, seek revenge when people do us wrong, and we often refuse to buy something just because our values don’t jibe with those of a corporation. And we routinely thwart our “rational self-interest” by pulling off remarkable feats of compassion and teamwork.

Neoclassical economics cannot handle this truth. It has achieved its coherence as a “science” by amputating most of human nature.

Three Nobel Laureates — Wassily Leontief, Ronald Close and Milton Friedman — had expressed similar concerns. “Existing economics is a theoretical system which floats in the air and which bears little relation to what happens in the real world,” complained Ronald Close. And near the end of his life, Milton Friedman conceded that the discipline had “become increasingly an arcane branch of mathematics rather than dealing with real economic problems.” The only thing that matters in science is predictive power, he said. Your models need to get better and better, in a tightening circle of accuracy. If they don’t, it’s not science. Economists roundly failed that test.

None of these warnings had any impact whatsoever on economics curriculums. Wrote Mark Blaug: “We have created a monster that is very difficult to stop.”

But the students tried. They called their movement autisme-économie — “post-autistic economics.” These were some of the brightest students at one of the top schools in Europe. They’d done their homework — so they were equipped to handle the blowback from the old guard (like Robert Solow from MIT, who called them “children”).

Networking over the still-budding Internet, the students spread their message: that economics has narrowed to the point where it cannot contend with real-world challenges like inequality, financial instability
and climate change.

Their rebellion surged after an open letter signed by a thousand of them was published in Le Monde. In class and in the corridors, they waved signs: “We wish to escape from imaginary worlds!” They mocked their professors’ “uncontrolled use of mathematics,” number-crunching as an end in itself. Where in our curriculum, they asked, are the alternative perspectives — the hundreds of credible intellectuals and freethinkers who offer fresh ways to explain the world, through the lens of feminism, socialism, behaviorism, even Buddhism? Where is the syncretism that’s the sign of an actual grown-up mind?

“Wake up before it’s too late!” the students shouted.

Their rebel spirit spread to Cambridge and Harvard and dozens of universities around the world. A slogan splashed on a wall on a Madrid campus summed it all up: “¡La economía es de gente, no de curvas!” — “Economics is about people, not curves!”

The post-autistic movement had its shining moment … and then, like other movements before it, it faded away. But it left an indelible mark in the minds of a generation of students. It was a seed that could grow.

Read Part 2

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