Thursday, February 2, 2012

An example to us all

A comment yesterday below the second half of our interview with Naked Capitalism stood out for me. It was written by Gabe Langton about Professor Douglas Orr of City College of San Francisco and I hope no one will mind if it quote it in full.
I entered San Francisco City College just before the birth of my son in fall 2008, and was fortunate enough to take a microeconomics class taught by Douglas Orr, who spent the first two class sessions warning students to critically challenge the models that we’d be learning. He gave an analogy:  
If you want to learn about an airplane, the cheapest way to do it is with a model airplane. Maybe you go out and get a build-n-paint F-16 from your local hobby shop. It’s a great way to get details about the appearance and dimensions of a real jet fighter. Or maybe you go out and get a little balsa-wood glider, which is a great way to get an intuition for basic aerodynamics. But every kid understands implicitly that F-16s are not built by snapping plastic chunks out of molded frames and gluing them together, just as every kid understands that you don’t go to the airport and get strapped onto a giant balsa wood trojan glidar and hurl [yourself] off a bridge. 
"As you learn about mainstream economics you will be continuously urged by your textbook to apply the models you are learning to the real world, and you will be faced with constant reminders of the predictive power of these models. But the reason I’m standing here talking to you is to remind you, just as constantly, that every single morning, in offices from Wall Street to the IMF, economists are strapping entire populations to wooden planes and launching them off bridges, throwing up their hands in helpless befuddlement at the inevitable grisly results, cashing their checks, and heading out for the golf course by 2pm.” 
I often visited him during office hours to turn in late work due to my son getting sick, or my hours at work overlapping with class time, and as far as I could tell he put in almost every second of his free time writing, consolidating, and refining instructional problems and examples in order to provide alternatives and context to the misleading shit in the text. It appeared to take monumental effort to do this while keeping it digestible enough that us community-college simpletons could still internalize the core concepts of economics. That he did it, year in and year out, and is still pulling it off, is amazing. Hopefully these texts and others like them will enable more of those economics professors like him, who are genuinely concerned with cultivating genuinely critical economic reasoning in future economists, to effectively revitalize the discipline.

Professor Douglas V. Orr, City College of San Francisco

Professor Orr's cautionary story about the dangers of taking a model too literally is a brilliant way to start a course. I envy his students!



  1. I'm glad there are economists out there who realise that the subject is nothing more than an ideological exercise to consolidate the power and act as apologists for the ruling class.

    I'm in my final year as an economics undergraduate and have in every class have had neoliberal propanganda thrown at me. If you believe mainstream economics, the best economic system is a purely free market system, with no minimum wage, no welfare state, only lump sum taxation to fund defence spending (which is the only government intervention allowed), and a wholly privatised education system where only the rich could have access to knowledge.

    Anyone with a single progressive bone in their body will find the system mainstream economists propose is morally and ethically bankrupt, and their justification for why this system is efficient is based on psuedoscientific models based on dodgy mathematics.

    I'm glad you guys have written the textbook that you have. It needs to be read by every student planning on taking economics at degree level to know what they're in for. I had no idea economics was such a neoliberal pseudoscience. If I had critical texts like yours and Yaris Varoufakis' book, I wouldn't have taken this subject.

  2. Thanks for your comment. You must be at a particularly awful place if those kind of policy prescriptions are being pushed as the implications of 'mainstream economics'. They are NOT, after all, implied by even mainstream economics, as we argue in our book. Once one has a proper understanding of the broad range of market failures, even just 'efficiency' arguments can be used to help to justify minimum wages, social insurance (ie the 'welfare state'), intervention in the 'market' for education and so on. But 'mainstream economics' also agrees that equity considerations justify efficiency costs too; one of our beefs with that is that it just typically overstates what those costs are, making improving equity look more expensive than it really is.
    I would urge you to not regret having studied economics, even in the gruesome form to which it seems you've been subjected. Have a listen to the talk by Stephen Marglin that I posted recently. He makes a good case for studying and understanding mainstream economics well as a prelude to (a) making a proper and informed critique of it, and (b) understanding the "language of power" as he puts it. One of our main objectives in writing our book was to help students protect themselves against that language and give students what Noam Chomsky calls 'a course in intellectual self-defense'.


  3. I'd echo what Anonymous wrote just now, at least going on my experience of attempting the Lipsey and Chrystal standard undergrad text a while back - in the preface it just started nauseatingly banging on about how market economies are the best, really whipping up this unhelpful duality between that and completely planned economies, which lends it self to no useful thought whatever - the real thought to be done is on the degree to which an economy should be planned and unplanned - about which L&S seemed to have nothing to say - it was all this false "either-or", i.e. equating any centralised economic stewardship with failed Marxism. Whereas the OUP Gillespie text "Foundations of Economics" (maybe early-to-pre undegrad level) goes straight into talking about mixed economies from the off. So I agree - but wonder if there are other textbooks as well as the Gillespie which are balanced in this respect.

  4. I'm Gabe, quoted above, and I'm pleased as punch that my words stood out to you.

    @anon, I was really lucky to have a critical professor introduce me to
    Econ. As far as I can tell, your experience is the norm these days. But I agree wholeheartedly that understanding the foundations of "mainstream" economics is a must. Even with only the basics under my belt, I suddenly found a huge gap (of which I had been previously unaware) between people who were "in the know" and people who weren't.

    In fact, just being able to quickly distinguish oneself from the mumbling-hippie crowd is a big part of making any progressive voice heard.

    The more people can effectively engage and expose fallacious economic reasoning, even in their day-to-day lives and conversations, the less effective the Right's extra-wide "Marxist-Stalinist-Radical" paintbrush becomes.

    1. Gabe, I studied under Professor Orr at Eastern Washington University. He was my professor for Intro to Micro and Intro to Macro. My only regret from college is that I did not take his "Money and Banking class." I will never be able to re-pay Professor Orr for the impact he had on my life.