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Post-Autistic Economics Review - Issue No. 13

For Guerrien… and beyond

Gilles Raveaud

When reacting to Guerrien’s text (“Is There Anything Worth Keeping in Standard Microeconomics?”), one must not forget that he is among the world’s best (and perhaps the best of all) specialists of neoclassical theory, in particular in all its technical details and difficulties. This is why listening to what he says is, I think, imperative (and why his best-selling French books need to be translated into English). It is mainly due to his work that many French students know that the general equilibrium theory (GET) describes a highly centralised economy, and not a decentralised one as far too many economists, orthodox and not, believe. This is not a trifling detail, but a major point, as it means that GET fails to give an account of how our (decentralised) economies and societies work. The debates on Lange’s thesis in the 1930’s made this point clear, but apparently it has been forgotten.

Now what is Guerrien saying? He is saying that if one starts studying neoclassical economics as it is taught today, one simply never get beyond it. Any economics student can confirm this. Hence the obvious conclusion: one must teach differently. What one is to do precisely remains a matter for debate, as indeed it should because a plurality of viewpoints must be taken into account. But what is certain is that, to start with, one must sharply reduce the amount of time dedicated to neoclassical theories so as to make room for the others. Second, neoclassical theory, like any other theory, should be taught for what it is (a depiction of a perfectly transparent and centralised economy where economic agents do not look at or talk to one another, but look only at the prices indicated by the auctioneer) and not taught for what it seems to be (a "simplified” picture of a decentralised modern market economy). Approached in this way, the place of maths and “technique” is immediately reduced, as the maths not only do not allow such a presentation but, moreover, prevent it.

There is, therefore, a need to break from the very start (i.e., in first year) from current practices. Indeed, it is a shame for all economics teachers that neoclassical economics is taught in the first year. Why? There are two large reasons. Firstly, this particular persuasion in economics developed after many others, and so ought to be taught after them (and surely not in first year, where one should present Smith, Ricardo and Marx). Secondly, by covering neoclassicalism first, teachers send the following message to students: “economics has nothing to do with reality. Here we draw curves and manipulate equations that have no counterpart in reality. And this is not going to change.” So students either do something else (exit) or stay in economics, but do not involve themselves any longer in their studies (passivity). Just ask your students how they make the link between what they are taught and what they read in the newspapers.

So what then? Things being what they are, it is hard to think of ways to bring about such a fundamental change. It requires a total re-direction of current curricula. One step in this direction would be to start with problems, not with theories, which would be presented only in so far as they are able to explain these problems. Isn’t this a very common definition of any “scientific” activity? Doing this, one would of course dramatically reduce the place of neoclassical economics teaching and research, as Guerrien proposes to do.

But we — the students in France who started this now world-wide movement for reform — have frequently pointed out that teachers who define themselves as “heterodox” (in their past or present research) devote most of their teaching time to neoclassical economics, because, as they put it, it is the “core” of the discipline, its “base”, etc. But I appeal to them: please ask yourself and tell us, as we have asked everybody in the economic community for nearly two years now, with not a single answer yet: what is the scope of relevance of this theory for analyzing current problems, such as, say, the crisis in Argentina or the level of unemployment in France? And please devise your curriculum in consequence. Reality is so complex that no time should be lost by teaching again and again those silly stories about Robinson and Friday. Time hurries on, and room has to be made for intelligence to gain ground on the repetition of empty exercises. In fact, as the recent political events in France indicate, your responsibility in devising sensible curricula (i.e., ones that give clues to the students for understanding the society and world they live in) is not merely a pedagogical and “scientific” one. It also is a moral imperative. And I cannot prevent myself from thinking that those who do not give their students a sensible account of the economic and social realities of our time, so that they can make informed individual and collective choices, bear some responsibility for the ills of today and of tomorrow. Please let me believe that this is just a temporary error, due to a stupid fascination for the “great theory” of the general equilibrium. And not the consequence of ignorance of the realities and debates of our time by those who are supposed to light the way for the future adults of our societies.

 
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