Saturday, October 15, 2011

Indoctrination begins in the principles course and is hard to undo

A new review of The Economics Anti-Textbook, written by John Barry of Queen's University, Belfast, appears here in the Marx & Philosophy Review of Books along with a review of Mary Mellor's The Future of Money: From Financial Crisis to Public Resource (Pluto Press, London, 2010). 

Professor Barry writes: 
What Hill and Myatt reveal in their book is on many levels frightening. The almost ‘full spectrum domination’ of the teaching of economics by the neo-classical paradigm means that every year hundreds of thousands of students across the world who read and learn about ‘economics’ from the many neo-classical economics textbooks that are available and set as required reading are effectively indoctrinated. Students reading these textbooks and taking associated economics courses are systematically denied any exposure to alternative forms of economic analysis ... [S]tudents almost cannot but come to the view that there is only ‘one’ or ‘true’ way of thinking about economics. That is of course that the free-market, capitalist status quo is not just the ‘best’ way to think about and organise the economy, but actually the only way.
He also adds an important comment that prompts the rest of this entry:
A telling and very interesting point raised by Hill and Myatt – though insufficiency explored in my view – is that while more advanced postgraduate texts and monographs within the broad neo-classical economics paradigm (and indeed by some of the same authors of the standard undergraduate textbooks), do acknowledge (some of) the deficiencies of the simplistic textbook presentation of the free market model, these are all routinely absent or downgraded within the textbook presentation. 
 He's quite right that we didn't explore this; the statement was more of an aside, but it does require further exploration and thought. That same assertion of ours prompted this question from a reader in recent correspondence:
If advanced level economics is so different, why are economists happy to engage in the teaching of what they must understand to be pernicious lies? In school chemistry classes they teach you things about electrons that are later revealed to be wrong, but what they teach you at school is not dangerous. It is not going to cause you to decimate your society.
A few years ago, Tony Myatt and I were at a session of a conference where (in response to our paper) someone cheerfully admitted that he lied to his students. We were shocked, but I guess he didn't see the consequences of that as 'pernicious'.

So how are advanced level courses and their texts different? And why, if they're different, doesn't it matter to the indoctrination (to use Professor Barry's term) that students have received earlier in their training? I'll try to briefly set out some preliminary ideas.

Here's an example of what we had in mind: Everyone is familiar with the crude treatment of the gains from free trade set out early in the typical micro principles text. (See pages 28-30 of the Anti-Textbook). As we note in our critique of that (starting on p.43), if one looks in an undergraduate trade text (typically studied in 3rd or 4th year by economics majors) one finds facts about international trade that are tactfully omitted from the principles account because they're inconvenient. Most trade takes place between apparently rather similar countries and often in very similar goods (with countries both importing and exporting cars, for example). The Ricardian comparative advantage story, with its focus on differing production possibilities and trade in different goods looks beside the point.

The trade texts also quickly discard the Ricardian model in favour of models that examine the effects of trade policy on income distribution (in the form of changing factor prices). It becomes easier to see in such models that being in favour of 'free trade' is also being in favour of a particular change in the distribution of income. That might lead one to think about whether that change is desirable in terms of social welfare and to the perennial question of how we judge whether a society is better off or worse off after any policy change.

If one throws into the mix, the effects of changes in the terms of trade (ie. a change in the relative prices of the goods a country exports compared with what it imports), it's even possible that total incomes fall for a country after free trade.

Comic relief
The logo of one of the typical whines of the right-wing propaganda machine that pretends that American universities are full of lefty profs indoctrinating the young.

So do these kinds of analyses reverse whatever 'indoctrination' took place earlier? (For 'indoctrination', you can substitute 'adherence to overly simple models learned early on'.) For some people who have the strength to think for themselves and not run with the herd, it could. Some are undoubtedly less susceptible to indoctrination than I was. But from my own experience as a student, I found that my value judgments about the outcome of 'trade liberalization' were somehow set very early on and I placed undue weight on the possibility of potential Pareto improvements. In other words, it was enough for me that total incomes might be likely to grow. It took a surprisingly long time to shake this off.

What I'm suggesting is that what we learn early on sets the framework for our thinking and that framework can get selectively reinforced by incorporating later learning into it. One more thing before I wind up this overly long note...

A well-known textbook author wrote to us that
One interesting thought that I would like to see checked out is that first year texts have more contact with the real world and less with the imaginary world of perfect competition and optimality than second year books that are usually highly abstract with most real world applications stripped away.
Clearly the abstraction just gets more extreme in senior undergraduate and in graduate level texts. As happens in any cult, the devotees are led step by step into a world of increasing craziness and detachment from reality, with those unable to stomach it leaving the group for other pursuits. 

But it seems to me that the "contact with the real world" in the first year texts is, to some extent, pernicious in itself. Perhaps in a bid to sell the 'relevance' of the theory while glossing over methodology, the micro principles texts try to make that connection too hastily. 

I think student should be told from the beginning that we are studying an "imaginary world" that they should, in no way, confuse with the real world. Instead, they have to think carefully about how or whether any of the imaginary worlds we'll construct on the board has relevance to the real one, and how we make that judgement. 

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