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Archive for August 23rd, 2010

No room for reading

I was talking to some English PhD students today, and when the conversation turned to economics they were dismayed to learn that no one in “top” economics departments ever read Marx, much less understood any of his theories. Then I was caught off-guard when I was asked, “so what thinkers do most students in economics programs read?” The student just assumed that we must read someone. But as far as I can tell, and the answer I gave, was “none.” The training of economists in the “top” programs does not entail any reading of books.

This should not be news to anyone familiar with the current state of mainstream economics, which has become a branch of mathematics. But the English PhD students’ surprised reactions to that reality reminded me of how incredibly bizarre this current situation is. Neoclassical economists are trying to completely divorce economic theory from all ethics, philosophy, literary theory, history,  social theory, political theory, etc. But of course that is impossible, and even economists are using certainly philosophical and ethical assumptions, and their theories are historically and socially contingent. For example, we do use some form of utilitarianism, although anyone who actually bothers to read any Jeremy Bentham knows that he would be appalled at the distortion of the ideas attributed to him today.

What is scary to me is that these students of economics, who are trained not to read about anything but mathematics, are the ones who go in to government, business, policy research, and have the authority to shape policies and influence debates. No wonder our economy is in such a mess. I think requiring students of economics to read some books during their training would go a long way. Certainly, they used to. But now, the pressure to take more courses in mathematics, modeling, and statistics has relegated reading to an optional hobby for those students in graduate economics programs and finally earned the discipline the title of “dismal science.”

Update: See the thoughtful response by Maxine Udall.

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When economists talk about inequality and the current economic crisis, things tend to get weird. Discussions of possible mechanisms don’t seem to go anywhere. Empirics generally rely on time-series correlations of aggregate figures. The overriding sentiment is, “but how?”

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the relationship between inequality and the crisis. The right answer, I think, is that the conditions that produce inequality and are reproduced with its help had a major role in the crisis. All of this, though, requires two things- first, abandoning the characterization of this crisis as a financial one; and second, a discussion of class, at which most mainstream economists’ eyes glaze over. Inequality in and of itself did not cause the crisis. However, inequality is endemic to our version of capitalism, which I think did.

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