The post-autistic economics movement is one of the great early eruptions of student anger against a dry, mathematical and statistics-based science that seems to have no soul. Make a few copies of this article and hand them out.
The university-aged children of France’s ruling class ought to have been contentedly biding their time. They were, after all, destined to move into high-powered positions reserved for graduates of the elite École Normale Supérieure (ENS). “The ENS is for very good students, and very good students aren’t afraid to ask questions,” says Sorbonne economist Bernard Guerrien.
He was addressing a conference on the disconnect between mainstream neoclassical economics instruction and reality. Economics has an ideological function, he told them, to put forth the idea that the markets will resolve everything. In fact, he added, economic theory absolutely doesn’t show that.
A group of economics students, their worst fears confirmed, approached Guerrien eager to “do something.” A week later 15 of them gathered in a classroom to hash out a plan of attack. Someone called the reigning neoclassical dogma “autistic!” The analogy would stick: like sufferers of autism, the field of economics was intelligent but obsessive, narrowly focused and cut off from the outside world.
By June their outrage had coalesced into a petition signed by hundreds of students demanding reform within the teaching of economics, which, they said, had become enthralled with complex mathematical models that only operate in conditions that don’t exist. “We wish to escape from imaginary worlds!” they declared. Networking through the Internet and reaching the media through powerful family connections, they made their case.
“Call to teachers: Wake up before it’s too late!” they demanded. “We no longer want to have this autistic science imposed on us.” They decried an excessive reliance on mathematics “as an end in itself” and called for a plurality of approaches.
With that, autisme-économie, the post-autistic economics (PAE) movement, was born.
Their revolutionary arguments created an earthquake in the French media, beginning with a report in Le Monde that sent a chill through the academic establishment. Several prominent economists voiced support, and a professors’ petition followed. The French government, no doubt recalling the revolutionary moment of May 1968, when students led a ten-day general strike that rocked the republic to its foundations, promptly set up a special commission to investigate. It was headed by leading economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi, who also traveled to Madrid to address Spain’s nascent “post-autistic” student movement. Fitoussi’s findings: the rebels had a cause. Most important to the PAE, Fitoussi agreed to propose new courses oriented to “the big problems” being ignored by mainstream economics: unemployment, the economy and the environment.
A backlash was inevitable. Several economists (notably the American Robert Solow from MIT), launched a return volley. What followed was an attempt to discredit the pae by implying that the students were anti-intellectuals opposed to the “scientificity” of neoclassical economics. The accusations didn’t stick: the dissenters were top students who had done the math and found it didn’t add up.
Gilles Raveaud, a key PAE student leader, along with Emmanuelle Benicourt and Ioana Marinescu, sees today’s faith in neoclassical economics as “an intellectual game” that, like Marxism and the Bible, purports to explain everything, rather than admitting there are many issues it hasn’t figured out. “We’ve lost religion,” says Raveaud, “so we’ve got something else to give meaning to our lives.”
Benicourt described his hope for PAE as follows: “We hope it will trigger concrete transformations of the way economics is taught … We believe that understanding real-world economic phenomena is enormously important to the future well-being of humankind, but that the current narrow, antiquated and naive approaches to economics and economics teaching make this understanding impossible … We therefore hold it to be extremely important, both ethically and economically, that reforms like the ones we have proposed are, in the years to come, carried through, not just in France but throughout the world.”
Cambridge, United Kingdom
Raveaud and Marinescu, key French PAE student leaders, visited the Cambridge Workshop on Realism and Economics in the UK. “It must have been the right time,” says Phil Faulkner, a PhD student at Cambridge University. That June he and 26 other disgruntled PhD students issued their own reform manifesto, called “Opening Up Economics,” that soon attracted 750 signatures. Economics students at Oxford University who had been at the same workshop followed with their own “post-autistic” manifesto and website. Similar groups linked to heterodox (as opposed to orthodox) economics began emerging elsewhere in Europe and South America.
The Cambridge rebellion “was prompted by frustration,” says Faulkner, but they hadn’t expected such a positive reception from fellow students. “If anyone were to be happy about the way economics had gone, we’d expect it to be PhD students, because if they were unhappy with it, they simply wouldn’t be here. In fact, that wasn’t the case.”
As expected, Cambridge ignored them. Their efforts, Faulkner explains, were meant to show support for the French students and to use their privileged position at the esteemed economics department to demonstrate to the rest of the world their discontent. Some of the signatories worried that speaking out could have dire consequences, and the original letter was unsigned. “I think it’s more future possibilities, getting jobs, etc., that [made them think] it might not be smart to be associated with this stuff,” says Faulkner. He says he already knew that his research interests meant he would have to work outside of the mainstream: “There was nothing to lose really.”
Edward Fullbrook, a research fellow at the University of the West of England, had already launched the first Post-Autistic Economics Newsletter in September 2000. Inspired by the French student revolt and outraged by stories emerging from American campuses that courses on the history of economic thought were being eradicated (which he viewed as an effort to facilitate complete indoctrination of students), Fullbrook battled hate mail and virus attacks to get the newsletter off the ground. Soon prominent economists such as James Galbraith stepped up to offer encouragement and hard copy. The subscriber list ballooned from several dozen to 7,500 people around the world.
Fullbrook edited The Crisis in Economics, a book based on PAE contributions and now being translated into Chinese. Textbook publishers, always hunting for the next big thing, have been inquiring about PAE textbooks. It makes sense, says Fullbrook, since enrollments in standard economics classes have been dropping, cutting into textbook revenues. In other words, students just aren’t buying it. Ironically, says Fullbrook, “Market forces are working against neoclassical economics.”
One of his contributors is Australian economist Steve Keen, who led a student rebellion in 1973 that led to the formation of a political economy department at Sydney University. “Neoclassical economics has become a religion,” says Keen. “Because it has a mathematical veneer, and I emphasize the word veneer, they actually believe it’s true. Once you believe something is true, you’re locked into its way of thinking unless there’s something that can break in from the outside and destroy that confidence.”
But the neoclassical model still reigns supreme at Cambridge. Faulkner now teaches at a university college, but is limited to mainstream economics – the only game in town. “If you’re into math, it’s a fun thing to do,” he says. “It’s little problems, little puzzles, so it’s an enjoyable occupation. But I don’t think it’s insightful. I don’t think it tells these kids about the things it claims to describe: markets or individuals.”
Sitting in an overcrowded café near Harvard Square, talking over the din of full-volume Fleetwood Mac and espresso-fueled chatter, Gabe Katsh describes his disillusionment with economics teaching at Harvard University. The red-haired 21-year-old makes it clear that not all of Harvard’s elite student body, who pay close to $40,000 a year, are the “rationally” self-interested beings that Harvard’s most influential economics course pegs them as.
“I was disgusted with the way ideas were being presented in this class, and I saw it as hypocritical – given that Harvard values critical thinking and the free marketplace of ideas – that they were then having this course which was extremely doctrinaire,” says Katsh. “It only presented one side of the story when there are obviously others to be presented.”
For two decades Harvard’s introductory economics class has been dominated by one man: Martin Feldstein. It was a New York Times article on Feldstein titled “Scholarly Mentor to Bush’s Team,” that lit the fire under the Harvard activist. Calling the Bush economic team a “Feldstein alumni club,” the article declared that he had “built an empire of influence that is probably unmatched in his field.” Not only that, but thousands of Harvard students “who have taken his, and only his, economics class during their Harvard years have gone on to become policy makers and corporate executives,” the article noted. “I really like it; I’ve been doing it for 18 years,” Feldstein told the Times. “I think it changes the way they see the world.”
That’s exactly Katsh’s problem. As a freshman, he’d taken Ec 10, Feldstein’s course. “I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that Ec 10 presents itself as politically neutral, presents itself as a science, but really espouses a conservative political agenda and the ideas of this professor, who is a former Reagan advisor, and who is unabashedly Republican,” he says. “I don’t think I’m alone in wanting a class that presents a balanced viewpoint and is not trying to cover up its conservative political bias with economic jargon.”
In his first year at Harvard, Katsh joined a student campaign to bring a living wage to Harvard support staff. Fellow students were sympathetic, but many said they couldn’t support the campaign because, as they’d learned in Ec 10, raising wages would increase unemployment and hurt those it was designed to help. During a three-week sit-in at the Harvard president’s office, students succeeded in raising workers’ wages, though not to “living wage” standards.
After the living wage “victory,” Harvard activists from Students for a Humane and Responsible Economics (share) decided to stage an intervention. This time they went after the source, leafleting Ec 10 classes with alternative readings. For a lecture on corporations they handed out articles on corporate fraud. For a free trade lecture they dispensed critiques of the WTO and IMF. Later they issued a manifesto reminiscent of the French post-autistic revolt, and petitioned for an alternative class. Armed with 800 signatures, they appealed for a critical alternative to Ec 10. Turned down flat, they succeeded in introducing the course outside the economics department.
Their actions follow on the Kansas City Proposal, an open letter to economics departments “in agreement with and in support of the Post-Autistic Economics Movement and the Cambridge Proposal” that was signed by economics students and academics from 22 countries.
Harvard’s then-president, Lawrence Summers, illustrates the kind of thinking that emerges from neoclassical economics. Summers is the same former chief economist of the World Bank who sparked international outrage after his infamous memo advocating pollution trading was leaked in the early 1990s. “Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCS [Less Developed Countries]?” the memo inquired. “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable, and we should face up to that … I’ve always thought that underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted …”
Brazil’s then-Secretary of the Environment, José Lutzenburger, replied: “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane … Your thoughts [provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists’ concerning the nature of the world we live in.”
Summers later claimed the memo was intended ironically, while reports suggested that it was written by an aide. In any case, Summers devoted his 2003/2004 prayer address at Harvard to a “moral” defense of sweatshop labor, calling it the “best alternative” for workers in low-wage countries.
“You can’t ignore the academic foundations for what’s going on in politics,” says Jessie Marglin, a Harvard sophomore with share. share didn’t want a liberal class with its own hegemony of ideas. It wanted “a critical class in which you have all the perspectives rather than just that of the right.” Without an academic basis for criticism, other approaches “aren’t legitimized by the institution,” she says. “It becomes their word versus Professor Feldstein, who is very powerful.”
Harvard economics professor Stephen Marglin, Jessie’s father, teaches the new course. A faculty member since 1967, Marglin was at the tail end of a generation formed by the Great Depression and World War II. “This generation,” he says, “believed that in some cases markets could be the solution, but that markets could also be the problem.”
His new course still uses the Ec 10 textbook, but includes a critical evaluation of the underlying assumptions. Marglin wants to provide balance, rather than bias.
“I’m trying to provide ammunition for people to question what it is about this economic [system] that makes them want to go out in the streets to protest it,” he says. “I’m responding in part to what’s going on, and I think the post-autistic economics group is responding to that. Economics doesn’t lead politics, it follows politics. Until there is a broadening of the political spectrum beyond a protest in Seattle or a protest in Washington, there will not be a broader economics. People like me can plant a few seeds, but those seeds won’t germinate until the conditions are a lot more suitable.”
The revolution is spreading. A slogan emblazoned on a wall on a Madrid campus, where the PAE movement has been making inroads, makes its case: “¡La economia es de gente, no de curvas!” – “Economics is about people, not curves!”
Deborah Campbell is an author and journalist who has written on international affairs for numerous publications including Harper's and the Economist. A former associate editor at Adbusters, she teaches nonfiction writing at the University of British Columbia.