Carlos Lozada is the associate editor of Foreign Policy magazine.
Debates over globalization have reenergized campus activism in the United States, with college students from California to the Carolinas staging well-publicized campaigns against sweatshop labor and environmental degradation. Some of their fellow students across the Atlantic have taken a more intellectual approach. In June 2000, a small group of French economics students published a petition on the World Wide Web, declaring war not simply on the impact of globalization, but rather on what some consider its root cause: neoclassical economics.
The petition sparked what is now known as the "post-autistic economics" (PAE) movement, an academic backlash against traditional economics that is rapidly gaining adherents among disaffected practitioners of the dismal science in developing and advanced economies. In their initial petition, PAE proponents lament the use of mathematics "as an end in itself" in the economics profession, decry the discipline’s dogmatic teaching style that "leaves no place for critical and reflective thought," and insist that their discipline become engaged with the "empirical and concrete economic realities" of the day. They advocate new approaches-including deeper study of the history of economic thought, as opposed to merely economic theory-and call on their colleagues to rescue economics from its "autistic and socially irresponsible state."
The PAE movement is drawing praise from antiglobalization activists and thinkers. Writing in The Independent, Andrew Simms of the United Kingdom-based New Economics Foundation hails the PAE movement as part of an effort to make "the mandarins of the global economy experience a reality check" and protect the environment. The movement’s Web site and its e-journal, the Post-Autistic Economics Newsletter (published every one or two months), showcase PAE’s specific critiques of mainstream economics as well as the movement’s growing influence.
In the July 10, 2001, issue of the newsletter, Professor of Applied Economics Grazia Ietto-Gillies of South Bank University in London deplores the inability of the economics profession to incorporate the unique role of transnational corporations (TNCs) into traditional economic theory. In her essay "Economics and Multinationals," Ietto-Gillies argues that when macroeconomists examine the international economy, they focus mainly on trade and balance-of-payments issues; microeconomists, meanwhile, highlight theories of the firm with little consideration for geography or national origin. Multinationals are relegated to a lecture or two in classes on industrial economics or, worse yet, to business schools.
"The activities of transnational companies should be an integral part of micro and macro theory because they shape both micro and macro realities…. We economists do not seem to have awoken fully to this fact."
Ietto-Gillies maintains that the blinders of traditional economics result in too little systematic thinking by economic theorists on how multinational firms exploit regulatory differences in labor laws, play investment-hungry governments off one another, and manipulate prices across countries. "So far, transnational companies are the only economic actors who can truly plan, organise, [and] control activities internationally," she concludes. "Other actors such as labour, national governments, uninational companies, and consumers are as yet unable to do so. This puts TNCs in a very special and privileged position."
Of course, Ietto-Gillies fails to mention another group that is managing to organize across borders-the PAE movement itself. A different article in the same issue reprints an anonymous letter from 27 Ph.D. candidates in economics at Cambridge University, written after a meeting with PAE representatives. The Cambridge students called for the "opening up" of the economics profession, proposing that the foundations of mainstream economics be widely debated and that competing approaches receive the same degree of critical scrutiny. "Economics is a social science with enormous potential for making a difference through its impact on policy debates …. [P]rogress towards a deeper understanding of many aspects of economic life is being held back."
The newsletter editors encourage concerned economists to e-mail their names and academic affiliations in a show of support. As of July 19, 2001, more than 250 economists from at least 26 countries had written in-a testimony to the PAE movement’s effective public-relations efforts. Indeed, the stated purpose of the group’s Web site is to "facilitate the spread of the post-autistic economics movement to other countries and its eventual globalization." No small irony that a movement linked to antiglobalist thought would be so eager to disseminate its message across national borders.