Is anything worth keeping in microeconomics ?
Open letter from economic students
About game theory
Who are we?
The Fitoussi Report may fail to satisfy some people, especially because it does not acknowledge the existence of a "global alternative" to mainstream economics. Indeed the Report seems to say that nothing really valuable exists outside the "neoclassical-keynesian consensus", a statement with which we of course deeply disagree. But worse, Jean-Paul Fitoussi, being an "old-fashioned" keynesian, has apparently not realised that what he believes in is, regrettably, now largely forgotten in most universities. What is taught today in France is not his kind of economics, but "general equilibrium with rational expectations" - a somewhat different approach, to say the least. There seems to be here a sort of "generation gap". Some members of Fitoussi’s generation have a culture and an approach to economics which they find hard to believe has disappeared. But it has. And this is why we stress the importance of teaching the history of economic thought and economic history.
Nonetheless, the Report contains strong statements regarding the use and misuse of mathematics and regarding neoclassical economics’ oppressive domination. For example:
"One must acknowledge that concerning mathematics and formalisation, some excesses have taken place. We sometimes (often?) see an excess of modelisation and very little concern for its empirical relevance."
"We must avoid using the teaching of mathematics and statistics (and sometimes microeconomics) in undergraduate courses purely as a tool of selection"
The Fitoussi Report does not, it is true, deal directly with the questions we raised. In particular, it fails to deal directly with the lack of pluralism and the intolerant domination of neoclassical economics. But by proposing a "bottom-up" approach, Fitoussi offers a politically adroit answer to these problems. The report’s method is not to dictate what is to be taught, a method neither feasible nor desirable. Instead, Fitoussi’s idea is merely to take teaching seriously, something which in economics too few people do. He proposes three ways - these are the teeth of his report — in which this should be done. They entail reforms in the teaching of economics which if implemented (and the Minister of Education suggests that he will see to it that they are) will have the effect of going a long way toward realizing the demands for reform which our movement in France has been seeking. Fitoussi’s three primary means of reforming economics teaching are as follows.
1. The organisation of a multidisciplinary curriculum for at least the first three years. Within this curriculum students will be allowed to choose between disciplines as they progress, and to intellectually confront them with one another. Economics will then find itself in competition with other subjects: either it turns to sensible courses or remains as it is and loses students. Furthermore, even if it does not reform, the economics students that remain will, because of their exposure to other disciplines and to real debate in their first three years, be in a much stronger intellectual position than they are today
2. Fitoussi wants debate on economic issues to be "integrated" into the structure and content of economics courses, not only through theory and statistics, but also through institutional and historical facts. There should be no "naked tools" (for Fitoussi these include, alas, the history of economic thought). The Report is categorical on this point. For example, it says: "The debates [in economics] are to be taught, not only for the sake of pluralism, but because their understanding allows the students to better grasp the concepts. Economics has always been and will remain, the place of debates. It surprises me that people are surprised by this. Can one imagine that problems like unemployment, inequality and poverty could be treated as physical phenomena ?" (emphasis added)
3. The shift from silly exercises to the production of essays, oral presentations and student debates, things which are very rare in France. Teachers are to be required to give time to helping their students prepare these projects.
Fitoussi also proposes an evaluation of teachers, something that does not exist in the French system. We think that this could be useful for making economics teachers listen to students’ complains, which now, as we know, they usually do not. But we would prefer a system in which students and their representatives would be associated in some way with the evaluation of the curriculum itself, at least as far as teaching methods are concerned.
Apart from this last point, we support the Fitoussi Report, imperfect as it is. We think that if it is implemented, it would make economics in French universities look like VERY different than it does today. The Report’s approach could be summed up as an attempt to squeeze mainstream economics from two directions: one from the top with the introduction of multidisciplinarity, and one from the bottom with the stress on debates and "integrated" courses. If implemented, this strategy could be quite effective as a force for the reform of economics both in and out of the classroom.
These are the reasons why we are currently trying to convince economics teachers to join us in support of the Report. (At present we are working on an article for Le Monde.) In fact, it is only the teachers who can now change things. If they will try to do it and succeed, then our revolt will turn into a peaceful and quiet revolution, but a revolution nonetheless, where economics teachers will teach and students will learn economics at last.