What It’s About

Shortly after Syriza’s victory in January 2015, Yanis Varoufakis is traveling around Europe for his first official meetings with various and economics ministers. Here’s an interesting conversation with one of them:

Pier Carlo Padoan, Italy’s finance minister and formerly the OECD’s chief economist, is in many ways a typical European social democrat: sympathetic to the Left but not prepared to rock the boat… Our discussion was friendly and efficient. I explained my proposals, and he signalled that he understood what I was getting at, expressing not an iota of criticism but no support. To his credit, he explained why: when he had been appointed finance minister a few months earlier, Wolfgang Schäuble had made a point of having a go at him at every available opportunity…

I enquired how he had managed to curb Schäuble’s hostility. Pier Carlo said that he had asked Schäuble to tell him the one thing he could do to win his confidence. That turned out to be “labour market reform” – code for weakening workers’ rights, allowing companies to fire them more easily with little or no compensation and to hire people on lower pay with fewer protections. Once Pier Carlo had passed appropriate legislation through Italy’s parliament, at significant political cost to the Renzi government, the German finance minister went easy on him. “Why don’t you try something similar?” he suggested.

“I’ll think about it,” is Varoufakis’ diplomatic reply.

A couple days later, he has a meeting with the German finance minister himself, perhaps the most important single figure in the Euroepan establishment. Schauble brushes off Varoufakis’ suggestions for strengthening the Greek tax authorities, insisting instead on

his theory that the “overgenerous” European social model was no longer sustainable and had to be ditched. Comparing the costs to Europe of maintaining welfare states with the situation in places like India and China, where no social safety net exists at all, he argued that Europe was losing competitiveness and would stagnate unless social benefits were curtailed en masse. It was as if he was telling me that a start had to be made somewhere and that that somewhere might as well be Greece.

I’m supposed to be writing a review of Adults in the Room.That right there is the story, I think. Debates over fiscal arrangements were a pretext, the real agenda has always been restoring the rule of market over society, over labor in particular. And Greece was just a convenient place to start, or to make an example of. Despite the constant framing of Eruope’s divisions in national terms, I think it’s clear that for German conservatives like Schauble, the real target has always been their own working class.

Heterodoxy and the Fly-Bottle

(I have a review in the new Review of Keynesian Economics of a collection of essays on pluralist, or non-mainstream, economics teaching. You can the full review here. Since I doubt most readers of this blog are interested in the book, I’ve posted a shorter version of the review below – just the parts on the broader issues rather than my assessment of these particular essays.)


Wittgenstein famously described his aim in philosophy as “showing the fly the way out of the fly bottle.” The goal, he said, was not to resolve the questions posed by philosophers, but to escape them. As long as the fly is inside the bottle, understanding its contours is essential to getting it wherever it wants to go; but once the fly is outside, the shape of the bottle doesn’t matter at all.

Non-mainstream economists have a similar relationship to dominant theory. Because we’ve been inculcated for years that the best way to think about the economy is in terms of the exchange of goods by rational agents, criticisms of that framework are a necessary step on the way to thinking in other terms. But the logical and empirical shortcomings of thinking about economic life in terms of a perfectly rational representative agent optimizing utility over infinite future time don’t, in themselves, tell us how we should think instead.

The essentially negative character of economic heterodoxy is a special challenge for undergraduate teaching. You can’t teach criticisms of economic orthodoxy without first teaching the ideas to be criticized. Finding our way out of orthodoxy was, for many of us, central to our intellectual development. Naturally we want to reproduce that experience for our students. This leads to a style of teaching that amounts to putting the flies into the bottle so we can show them the way out. But how useful is it to our students to understand the defects of a logical system it would never have occurred to them to adopt in the first place? Having spent so much time looking for a way out, it sometimes seems we don’t know what do in the open air.

This dilemma is on full display in The Handbook of Pluralist Economics Education. In order to present a realistic model of the economy, Steve Keen writes in one of his two chapters, “an essential first is to demonstrate to students that the ostensibly well-developed and coherent traditional model is in fact an empty shell”. Many of the volume’s other contributors make similar claims. This is the spirit of Joan Robinson’s famous quip that the only reason to study economics is to avoid being fooled by economists. But if that is all we can offer, better to send our students to the departments of history, anthropology, engineering, or some other field that offers positive knowledge about social reality.

What then are we to do? Pluralism as such is not a useful guide; carried to an extreme it would, as Sheila Dow says here, amount to “anything goes,” which is not a viable basis for teaching a class (or for any other intellectual endeavor). This is a problem with pluralism as a positive value (and not only in economics teaching): Pluralism implies a number of distinct perspectives, but to be distinct they must be internally coherent, that is, unitary. Carried to an extreme, pluralism is self-undermining. To challenge the mainstream, at some point you must argue not just for the value of diversity in the abstract, but in favor of a particular alternative.

In practice, even economists who completely reject mainstream approaches in their own work often give them a large share of time in the classroom, in part because they feel obligated to prepare students for future academic work and in part, as Keen says, simply because of “the pressure to teach something”. Teaching is hard enough work even when you aren’t reconstructing the curriculum from the ground up. It’s much easier to teach a standard course and then add some critical material.

But pluralism in economics teaching doesn’t have to mean simply presenting orthodoxy and adding some criticisms of it. It could also mean approaching the material from a different angle that avoids — rather than attacks — the dominant formalisms in economics and gives students a useful set of tools for engaging with economic reality. For me, this means a focus on the definition and measurement of macroeconomic aggregates, and on the causal relationships between those aggregates. Concretely, it means reliance on flowcharts where the nodes are some observable variable, as opposed to the normal emphasis on diagrams representing functional relationships — ISLM, AS-AD, etc. — that can’t be directly observed.

A more specific problem in heterodox teaching — and heterodox economics in general — is the weight put on the financial crisis as an argument for alternatives to the mainstream. Many of the authors in this collection present the crisis of 2008 and its aftermath as a decisive refutation of economic orthodoxy. Edward Fullbrook declares that ‘no discipline has ever experienced systemic failure on the scale that economics has today.” David Wheat, less hyperbolically, argues that “the failure to foresee the financial epidemic in 2008” demonstrates a need to shift the focus of economics teaching away from long-run equilibrium. One might push back against this line of argument. It is true that several large financial institutions went bankrupt in 2008, and some financial assets fell steeply in value, to the dismay of their owners; but with the perspective of close to a decade, it’s less clear how much of a base these events offer for critique of either the economics profession or economic institutions. Singleminded focus on “the crisis” risks implying that the problem with our economic system is the rare occasions on which it fails to work well for owners of financial assets, while ignoring the ongoing problems of inequality, hierarchy and privilege; tedious and demeaning work; environmental degradation; and the fundamental disconnect between ever-increasing money wealth and unmet human needs – none of which has much to do with the failure of Lehman Brothers. As people used to say: capitalism is the crisis.

It is true, of course, that the economics profession failed to foresee or explain the 2008 crisis, but that’s nothing special. To make a list of phenomena unexplained by orthodox economics, just open the business pages of a newspaper. In any case, while it might have been reasonable at the time to expect some degree of self-criticism in the economics profession, and some increase in openness to alternatives, seven years later it is clear that there has not been. With a handful of exceptions – Naryana Kocherlakota is probably the most prominent in the US – mainstream economists have not revised their views in the light of the crisis; even those who were initially inclined to soul-searching have mostly decided that they were right all along. The case for heterodoxy must be made on other grounds.