Monday, March 5, 2012

Degrees Are For Donkeys

Lord Keynes has posted an interesting blog piece on the fact that his namesake, John Maynard Keynes, never actually received a formal economics degree. While it is often pointed out that the founders of the formal discipline of economics were often trained in a traditional liberal arts setting, often emphasizing philosophy and the Greek and Roman classics, it is interesting that as late a figure as Keynes did not receive an economics degree.

My own impression of modern academic economics is that it is a very closed system that does not allow for much curiosity on the part of students. It is notoriously diffcult for economists in the so-called heterodox schools to find work in the academy, so they often must teach the neoclassical orthodoxy to make a living, even if they think the orthodox approach is seriosuly flawed.

In a November 7, 2011 blog post, economist Bill Mitchell does a great job discussing the changes in economic course offerings since the end of the Cold War. Economics departments once offered courses in comparative economics, economic history, and even Marxian economics. This broader perspective has been largely jettisoned in favor of a neoclassical orthodoxy that attempts to ape the natural sciences (especially physcis), but ends up looking more like astrology than astronomy.

Finally, the narrowness of focus in most economics departments is especially harmful because it limits the range of public discourse on economic matters as journalists must rely on the "expertise" of orthdoox economists or run the risk of being accused of slumming among "fringe" figures. The result is that the media simply reflects the biases of the academic economic establishment, which is itself dependent upon private businesses and the governments they control for funds and prestige.

1 comment:

  1. Friedman is at most a partial exception. Hayek, in particular, is still looked at askance even by very right-wing "proper" economists, although they realise that they have to be careful to whom they say these things. It is very much like the attitude of even very conservative "proper" theologians when it comes to C S Lewis or G K Chesterton: they are perhaps vaguely glad that anyone has been pointed in the right direction by having been converted to the former's Mere Christianity or to the latter's Orthodoxy, and they might even have been such people when they were very young indeed, but that is strictly as far as it goes. I am not necessarily endorsing such a view, only pointing out that it is there. And that is also the attitude to Hayek even among those who might be regarded as on the same side as he was.

    Hayek was a political philosopher. One of his doctorates was in political science. The other one was not in economics. Economists are not necessarily being complimentary when they call someone a political philosopher, any more than vice versa. And even as one of those, if Reagan and Thatcher really did believe themselves to have been influenced by Hayek, then, as Enoch Powell said of his own alleged influence over Thatcher, they cannot have understood any of it. Powell is another example of this post's main point, since his only academic background was in Classics generally and Ancient Greek specifically.

    But he had overriding and undergirding social, cultural and political reasons why he wanted the economy to be organised in a certain way. He did not see economics as a positive science. That was why he was influential. And that was why he would never have passed muster as a "proper" economist. Nor would Keynes. Nor would Hayek. Nor, really, would Friedman. Nor, even, would Adam Smith. The only figure of any importance to have held that politics ought to be defined in terms of economics, rather than they other way round, was Marx, so that thus to define is precisely to be a Marxist. But Marx, a lover of philosophy and literature whose father had forced him to do law at university but who was never very good at it, had no academic background in economics, either.

    There was no Keynesian closed shop among economists in the 1970s, but those who screamed themselves to prominence on the claim that there was have now created a neoliberal closed shop with the catastrophic consequences that we now experience, and which we shall continue to experience while almost the only economics taught to undergraduates or published in peer-reviewed journals seriously maintains that the way out of recession is the State's contrivance of even more unemployment and of even less spending power. As we nurse our wounds, we shall remember those who pulled the triggers. But we must not forget those who loaded the guns, or those who manufactured the bullets. Nor will we.