Heterodoxy is not my doxy

by John Quiggin on June 1, 2007

Following up on a couple of recent posts, I thought it might be useful for me to explain why I don’t think of myself as a ‘heterodox’ economist or even find the concept particularly useful. Although I’m clearly to the left of most people in the economics profession (including a fair number who would call themselves heterodox) I’m happy to identify myself with the mainstream research program in economics.

The first reason for this is one of personal/political strategy. Starting from broadly social-democratic premises about the way the world works, I’m concerned to identify and advocate policies that will lead to better outcomes for society as a whole and particularly for the working class and the disadvantaged. Mainstream economics provides a set of tools (the theory of public goods, externality and market failure, taxation and income distribution) to do the analysis and a widely-understood language in which to express the results. No existing alternative body of thought in economics comes close to this.

Of course, a lot of economists, maybe a majority (though this isn’t as clear as you might think) don’t use mainstream economics this way. Rather they employ the simplest possible version of the neoclassical model, which leads to the conclusion that the optimal policy is one in which governments do nothing (except perhaps for some limited income redistribution). Sometimes this is because they don’t know anything more than the simple model, and sometimes it’s on the basis of more sophisticated counterarguments against the mainstream case for intervention, based on ideas such as public choice theory.

By attacking the logical foundations of this simple model, heterodox economists may undermine faith in the policy conclusions derived from it. But this doesn’t get you very far. Even if you regard economic arguments for laissez-faire as worthless, this does not establish any positive case for alternative policies. As we discussed in our seminar on Sheri Berman a while back, orthodox Marxism, when faced with the challenge of depression and fascism, produced nothing but the counsel to wait for the revolution.

To give a more concrete illustration, I’ve spent a lot of time working on the implications of the equity premium, which, among other things, gives rise to a strong case for public ownership of certain kinds of infrastructure. If I understand the heterodox side of the famous Cambridge controversy correctly, the terms in which I express my case (relative rates of return to equity and bonds) are logically incoherent. But I have no idea how I would make my case if I were to use, say, the theoretical framework promoted by the late Piero Sraffa. It may be that, if the existing body of economic analysis were replaced by an entirely new theory developed on different premises, we could derive a better analysis. But I only have one life, and I’d rather devote it to promoting better policy outcomes than to relaying foundations.

More generally, I don’t find the whole idea of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, or the related notion of schools of thought, particularly useful. It seems to me to imply a kind of intellectual ancestor-worship which is of no use to anybody. It goes with debates about what Keynes or Commons or Hayek really thought, which seem to me to be almost entirely pointless. In most cases, if their ideas were good ones, they will have been adopted by at least some people in the mainstream, and tracing their intellectual ancestry is of at most second-order interest.

This goes with a judgement that most of the concerns* that are commonly raised against simple-minded versions of economics can be addressed without throwing out the whole system and starting from scratch. If you don’t believe in the perfectly rational economic man (sic), there’s a huge body of work on behavioral economics, bounded rationality, altruism and so on. If you don’t like simplistic competitive models, the shelves are groaning with books on strategic behavior and game theory. To the extent that I have an international reputation, it derives largely from models of choice under uncertainty that go beyond simple expected-utility theory to take account of more realistic representations of risk attitudes, fundamental uncertainty and so on.

I could go on, but this post has already reached Holbonian extent, so I’ll stop and thorw it open for comments.

  • I guess the big exception to this is if you want to discard methodological individualism altogether, but the theoretical enterprises that took this route (such as structuralism) don’t seem to me to be prospering.

{ 1 trackback }

The Economist on Heterodox Economics, FTW! « genericface blog
06.05.07 at 2:20 am

{ 38 comments }

1

ejh 06.01.07 at 8:44 am

orthodox Marxism, when faced with the challenge of depression and fascism, produced nothing but the counsel to wait for the revolution.

That’s a passably tendentious claim, isn’t it?

2

abb1 06.01.07 at 9:05 am

As soon as the dogmatic orthodoxy is debunked, alternative policies are formed by the political process (including political violence). Then they become the new dogmatic orthodoxy. And so it goes. Undermining the faith in orthodoxy is an important function.

3

John Quiggin 06.01.07 at 9:07 am

“That’s a passably tendentious claim, isn’t it?”

Well, this is a blog, after all.

Seriously, Berman presents a pretty strong case on this, Exhibit A being Hilferding, the leading theorist of the German SPD.

4

Hidari 06.01.07 at 9:10 am

This seems off topic but isnt: Has anyone read ‘How Economics Forgot History: The Problem of Historical Specificity in Social Science’ by Hodgson? How do his views relate to this particular debate? (Note: I have actually read it and found it highly persuasive, but I’m wondering what other economists made of it).

There’s a review here: http://eh.net/bookreviews/library/0567

Note to economists of a sensitive disposition: this review (and the book) contains not entirely derogatory references to the Historical School and so, therefore, is probably NSFW.

5

ejh 06.01.07 at 9:38 am

Seriously, Berman presents a pretty strong case on this, Exhibit A being Hilferding, the leading theorist of the German SPD

I suppose it depends what you mean by “orthodox Marxism”. If you mean the theorists of Marxism” then it might be possible to make a case. If you mean “people in what was then the Marxist mainstream” then bearing in mind that I’m sitting in a Spanish town that was beseiged by the Republicans – including many, many Communists – for eighteen months or so, there’s some reason to find that case unconvincing…

6

dsquared 06.01.07 at 10:10 am

I’m a little bit troubled by the implied view that “heterodox” is an identity chosen by the heterodox for themselves. Although there certainly a fair few cranks and ancestor-worshippers in the heterodox community, the majority of them would actually agree with John’s view that their insights can be incorporated into the mainstream. It’s just that the mainstream doesn’t want them.

For example, JK Galbraith, who also wanted to influence mainstream policy debates and had a fair amount of success in doing so. The economics profession just sort of collectively decided that they had been mistaken about what “economics” meant for the last two hundred years and that JKG wasn’t part of it. Any institutionalists around today are therefore more or less definitionally heterodox.

If I understand the heterodox side of the famous Cambridge controversy correctly, the terms in which I express my case (relative rates of return to equity and bonds) are logically incoherent

No I don’t think this is right; the rates of return on equity and bonds don’t need a logical basis because they’re just numbers, and financial capital clearly can be aggregated and measured because it’s fungible in exactly the way that physical capital isn’t. The entire problem of reswitching is premised on the existence of a discount rate, so Cambridge UK theory doesn’t have a problem with discount rates per se, just with the interpretation of rates of return on financial capital as measuring the productivity of physical capital. I don’t think your work on the equity risk premium depends on aggregate production functions does it?

Also note, by the way, that the word “heterodox” in the phrase “the heterodox side of the famous Cambridge controversy” could be replaced by “correct”, and that it is surely a bit troubling to see that the intellectual self-defence mechanisms of the profession are so strong.

7

Scott Martens 06.01.07 at 10:12 am

I’m sceptical of this line of argument. First, heterodoxy is defined in purely negative terms: as all criticism of the mainstream without any alternative program. It is somewhat disingenious to say that – for example – Marxism or Keynesianism had no policy implications. It isn’t even clear to me that those policy implications were uniformily negative. It also seems to me clearly false to suggest that your “broadly social-democratic premises about the way the world works” have *no* heterodox roots.

So, I’m not sure that heterodoxy can be so easily dismissed.

Secondly, this Realpolitiek approach to intellectual identification is fine as far as it goes. But if we’re going to start defending schools of economic thought for their instrumental value in producing policy, let’s be honest about it. Just how much progressive public policy has come out of mainstream economics in recent years? A little? None? Does anyone to the left of Margaret Thatcher claim the balance is positive? In contrast, full bore, blunt, stupid, doctrinaire students-peasants-and-workers Marxism contributed to quite a lot of real positive policy changes in many countries simply by scaring the hell out of people. I should think, therefore, that your line of argument in favour of orthodoxy serves equally well as a defense of the most radical forms of heterodoxy. If marching down the streets chanting “fry up the bourgeoisie for breakfast” helps produce public policy, then why not?

Lastly, I fail to see how what Marx, Keynes, Hayek *really* thought – which is something unknowable anyway – has anything to do with the fundamentally simple and productive orthodox/heterodox distinction. Such distinctions are present in a wide variety of disciplines and they are there for a good reason. If the measure of a school of thought is its impact on the world, every form of orthodoxy was once heterodox, as abb points out. This alone serves as an excellent argument in favour even of the purely negative formulation of heterodoxy you provide. The present orthodoxy will inevitably one day be seen as hopelessly flawed. This is accepted in the physical sciences – well, in physics anyway – as a simple fact of life, and along with it at least some physical scientists accept that it means encouraging sceptics and their purely negative criticisms.

As a non-economist, it seems entirely reasonable to me to consider it a good thing for there to exist an orthodoxy *and* its dissenters, and to treat the choice of one over the other as a personal characteristic of no more moral significance than the choice between boxers and briefs.

8

ejh 06.01.07 at 10:20 am

No difference at all between Henry Cooper and Peter Carter-Ruck?

9

Robert 06.01.07 at 10:23 am

Shouldn’t the post be titled, “Longer Brad DeLong”? (See http://bookclub.tpmcafe.com/blog/bookclub/2007/may/31/its_different_for_lefties_and_righties).

10

Ingrid Robeyns 06.01.07 at 12:15 pm

I agree that it would be much better if we didn’t have to speak in terms of heterodoxy-orthodoxy or schools of thought. But if I am right in my observation that people who do their work differently , whether based on different foudnations assumptions or based on different methodologies, are de facto marginalised in the profession, or have their lives made so difficult that they (have to) leave, then there IS a heterodoxy, in the way the mainstream treats these economists. Many of the heterodox feminist economists that I know have not actively chosen to become heterodox – what happened was that the insights that their work was generating was marginalised or not accepted as ‘economics’ (often on methodological grounds) by the profession, and this repeated process marginalised them.

I also agree with scott martens that you are depicting heterodox economics in entirely negative terms, which is not fair to at least some of the heterodox work. Perhaps this is because you and I each have knowledge of different parts of heterodox work. I’ll leave it to the ones you’re critizing in your post to defend themselves. One thing I can firmly say is that lots of feminist heterodox work has not just been critizing policies, but rather making proposals for how they could be turned into better policies which would also take account of aspects that are excluded by mainstream analysis.

11

djw 06.01.07 at 12:20 pm

The case you make here is a highly personal one about why you prefer to work in the mainstream. It seems to me one of the primary heterodox complaints isn’t that some people choose to work in the mainstream, but that they passively or actively structure the profession to marginalize those who don’t.

12

Henry 06.01.07 at 12:22 pm

_Shouldn’t the post be titled, “Longer Brad DeLong”?_

No, it’s a rather different argument to the one Brad is making, if I interpret him correctly. [the below is slightly adapted from an email I’ve sent to someone about this] My read is that Brad is saying is that if you are left wing, neo-classical economics is a highly useful corrective to certain biases of thought you are likely to have. Lots of lefty arguments assume from the start that humans are more or less benign, sociable and inclined to cooperate. These arguments may sometimes be right – but their underlying assumptions allow lefties to load the dice in ways that are favourable to their arguments, and to cover over weak points in their arguments. In contrast, if lefties are forced to think, say, in terms of the stark clashes of interest often modeled in game theory, the assumptions that humans are rational, self-interested etc, then they will have to consider whether their proposals for the reform of society will work even if people aren’t as nice as left-wing reformers might wish they were. If they understand the circumstances under which markets _do_ work, they will have to be more careful in making grand proposals to get rid of them, and your arguments about their defects will be more nuanced and thoughtful. At the least this is a useful mental exercise.

Thus, precisely because the assumptions of neo-classical economics are not very hospitable to left wingers’ ideological druthers, it is very useful for them to be able to think in neo-classical terms. It forces them to work against their innate cognitive biases, and their proposals and arguments will be the sharper for it. Exactly the opposite is true for right wingers – neo-classical assumptions not only don’t work against right-wing biases, but they reinforce them. They allow right-wingers to be intellectually lazy, to make sloppy arguments about how magical market-competition fairy dust will dissolve all sorts of problems, and so on.

13

George W 06.01.07 at 1:37 pm

John Q, can you direct me to your work on the equity premium? To the extent it suggests a model for infrastructure ownership, it may have some implications for my own research. (I’m not an economist, but I know enough to be dangerous.) And where can I find out more about what you call the Cambridge controversy? From your mini description, I’m sort of mystified how anyone could conclude that relative rates of return are “logically incoherent.” Empirically, they’re everywhere.

14

Keely 06.01.07 at 1:46 pm

Lots of lefty arguments assume from the start that humans are more or less benign, sociable and inclined to cooperate.

Henry: Lots? My own introduction to politics included concepts like class conflict and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Not to mention racism and and other popular opiates. That’s exactly what attracted me to economics and political science at university, the notion that not all human impulses were noble and that some definitely needed to be combatted. My education later veered into physics and my politics mellowed, but the socialism that I was first introduced to was hardly benign.

15

stostosto 06.01.07 at 2:03 pm

Quiggin,

good post.

Mainstream economics provides a set of tools (the theory of public goods, externality and market failure, taxation and income distribution) to do the analysis and a widely-understood language in which to express the results. No existing alternative body of thought in economics comes close to this.

This is exactly right, and throwing in behavioural economics, bounded rationality and game theory that you also mention, I don’t see what it is that heterodoxity can do that isn’t already encompassed by mainstream.

Of course, reading I note that behavioural economics is apparently considered heterodox going by Chris Hayes’ article, insomuch as he counts Kahneman to the heterodoxians. Even Akerlof.

I think mainstream economics is often defined and/or perceived much too narrowly. Like Quiggins I think the best solution is to work to broaden the definition and perception rather than branching out.

(I myself was taught mainstream microeconomics by a self-declared Marxist and card-carrying communist. His heroes were people like Debreu and Lindahl. He had little but scorn for the sloppiness of, well, pretty much macroeconomics in general (which he also taught, with withering disdain)).

16

abb1 06.01.07 at 3:12 pm

I think mainstream economics is often defined and/or perceived much too narrowly.

It may be true from an expert’s pov, but not much of the cool stuff finds its way into the pop culture. Down here it’s all about miracle markets and the wonders of free trade.

17

Peter H 06.01.07 at 3:51 pm

I guess the big exception to this is if you want to discard methodological individualism altogether

I don’t believe methodological individualism should be discarded completely, but I do think other approaches to economic phenomena should also be utilized. I’m not really comfortable with lumping the various heterodox schools of thought together, but one unifying element of these schools is “organicism”: in which the various units of economic analysis – individuals & economic institutions: societies, firms, families, governments, etc. – evolve interdependently, changing society & new conventions of behavior.

18

dsquared 06.01.07 at 3:59 pm

Even within a methodological individualist context, orthodox economics tends to be clustered around the stronger claim of methodological atomism, enshrined in the vN/M axiom of independence. There are a few bits and pieces about relative wealth maximisation in the behavioural literature, but more or less nada about the idea that someone’s tastes and preferences could be altered by, say, the entire large industry devoted to that specific purpose. The lack of a remotely convincing theory of advertising is a real embarrassment to economics.

19

Kieran Healy 06.01.07 at 4:12 pm

Cue reference to Becker and Murphy in 5 … 4 … 3 …

20

conchis 06.01.07 at 4:16 pm

dsquared says that: the word “heterodox” in the phrase “the heterodox side of the famous Cambridge controversy” could be replaced by “correct”.

This may depend on what John means by heterodox. From my (extremely limited) understanding of the issue, I thought that the bits of the Cambridge UK view that were obviously correct were basically accepted by Solow, Samuelson, Bliss, Hahn et al. on the other side – and might therefore reasonably be considered part of the orthodoxy.

Is the remaining issue whether aggregate production functions are still empirically useful, despite their theoretical problems? I’m not sure that one side is clearly correct on that (and I suspect it depends a lot on context).

(P.S. I really would like to be enlightened on this. I don’t understand the issues here anywhere as clearly as I should.)

21

dsquared 06.01.07 at 4:22 pm

Becker and Murphy is actually not a bad theory but a) it’s actually pretty heterodox and would have had a hard time getting published without the Nobel imprimateur, b) it only really works as a theory of above-the-line advertising, which is about 10% of the overall discipline of marketing and c) it doesn’t connect up to the rest of economics; there’s not much of a way of extending the theory of the advertising firm to get some conclusions about the effect of advertising on industry structure for example.

In fact that last one is a bit of a personal crusade of mine; economists these days spend far too much time criticising macro models for not having sufficiently rigorous microfoundations, and nowhere near enough on the fact that a lot of microeconomics these days has no meaningful macroconsequences.

22

dsquared 06.01.07 at 4:35 pm

I thought that the bits of the Cambridge UK view that were obviously correct were basically accepted by Solow, Samuelson, Bliss, Hahn et al. on the other side – and might therefore reasonably be considered part of the orthodoxy.

well this was the scandal; Cambridge US basically accepted that they were wrong, but then continued to go on as if there was no problem. Geoff Harcourt calls this the “time bomb ticking at the heart of neoclassical economics”.

As far as I can see, the psychological self-defence mechanism of “orthodox” economics was to convince itself that the CCC was all about reswitchings, that reswitchings didn’t happen very often and therefore that the problem had no empirical relevance. This isn’t really good enough.

Aggregate production functions are a really good example of this mechanism at work. If you think about it for even a short while, you realise that the reason that aggregate production functions “seem to work” is because of an accounting identity Rob Vienneau sets it out, not because they’re a good approximation to some true, underlying theory of aggregate production. Therefore, policy recommendations based on aggregate production functions (of which there are really quite a lot) just aren’t going to touch base with reality except by purest chance.

23

conchis 06.01.07 at 4:36 pm

Doesn’t B&M ignore the pretty real possibility that people are likely to be myopic in their tastes for advertising – not realising that that it may change their preferences for the worse? If that’s the case then it becomes pretty easy for advertisers to bundle valuable information with rather less valuable taste-shifting, such that consumers may even be willing to pay for things that harm them…

24

conchis 06.01.07 at 4:52 pm

Dsqaured, Thanks for the response.

FWIW everyone I know who does growth accounting stuff is perfectly aware that it’s an just an accounting decomposition, and not a test of the theory. (Though I guess that they do think it can provide a test of the constant shares, and constant returns to scale assumptions, conditional on the rest holding up.)

The interesting question of course, is what actual evidence there is on either side of this issue, of which I’ve seen very little. (Any pointers gratefully received. :))

25

seth edenbaum 06.01.07 at 4:57 pm

“I guess the big exception to this is if you want to discard methodological individualism altogether, but the theoretical enterprises that took this route (such as structuralism) don’t seem to me to be prospering.”

Methodological individualism has very little place in the arts. The avant garde always ends up contextualized within the time of its making, not after; and is seen at its best as exemplary of that period. In the wider culture the fallacy of intention is seen most often for what it is.

It would help to see the arts, literature et al. as philosophical thought on questions of intention and determinism. And of course the arts and very specific forms of the arts are indeed “prospering” these days.

26

Colin Danby 06.01.07 at 7:39 pm

Para 2: The mainstream toolkit is great but it’s possible there are questions for which we need methods that have flourished outside econ as it is now understood. There’s a bit of tautology as methods common in econ become econ methods, and those that aren’t are ruled out as “not econ.” And there’s an obvious circularity in the “widely understood” bit.

Paras 4 and 6: As dsquared and Ingrid say heterodox is a label that gets forced on many of us — at some point we naively imagine we can join a mainstream conversation on some question, but the moment those folks smell skepticism we’re put through a catechism of do you believe this and will you abide by that methodological (which really means ontological) precept. We’ve accepted the term, and it has facilitated some good cross-heterodox conversations. But I’m tired of the assumption that hets have to define themselves in relation to orthodox econ and that their essential contribution consists of critiques of it. It’s somehow our responsibility to convince people who don’t read our work and don’t know the fundamental literatures we draw on. Para 6 ends with the standard “if it were a good idea we would already have adopted it” argument, whose circularity should be obvious.

The posting halfway-acknowledges its last bit of circularity. If you define the mainstream as ontological individualism plus formalization, then yes as long as you abide by that you can do mainstream work. But in feminist econ, for example, a lot of interesting work is being done on households and care-work (e.g. Nancy Folbre, Julie Nelson), which requires thinking about relations, intersubjectivity, and the possibility people might act out of love or responsibility, concepts alien to either individualist or structuralist ontologies. The reason mainstreamers like John Q automatically think of structuralism as the only alternative to individualism is that both are easy to formalize. I have a personal bias here, but Charusheela’s _ Structuralism and Individualism in Economic Analysis: The “Contractionary Devaluation Debate” in Development Economics_ (Routledge 2004) is a useful discussion of the way the individualist-structuralist dichotomy hides agreement on ontological underpinnings.

27

Robin 06.01.07 at 7:48 pm

Anyone else notice the discussion over at Marginal Revolution on the Cambridge debates and on Sraffa, and the discussion of what Keynesianism consists of over at Delong. Seems like an examination of the core of economics is in the zeitgeist.

28

Robin 06.01.07 at 7:52 pm

“[R]elations, intersubjectivity, and the possibility people might act out of love or responsibility” are surely orthogonal to issues of methodological individualism and holism. Freud was a methodological individualist, but his individualism did not entail rationality.

29

Cian 06.01.07 at 9:41 pm

“If I understand the heterodox side of the famous Cambridge controversy correctly, the terms in which I express my case (relative rates of return to equity and bonds) are logically incoherent. But I have no idea how I would make my case if I were to use, say, the theoretical framework promoted by the late Piero Sraffa. It may be that, if the existing body of economic analysis were replaced by an entirely new theory developed on different premises, we could derive a better analysis. But I only have one life, and I’d rather devote it to promoting better policy outcomes than to relaying foundations.”

You realise that you’ve basically conceded here that you don’t care about the scientific/intellectual rigour of economics. It could be that if the terms in which you express your case are logically incoherent, then your argument is completely wrong. For you, neoclassical frameworks have a rhetorical power – they enable you to win arguments, but you don’t know (and seem reasonably okay with this) if they’re actually right, or accurate.

It also seems kind of circular. Neoclassical economics is better, because people believe it and neoclassical economists control the gates. Economists control the gates and people believe it because they were taught it, because well..

30

Cian 06.01.07 at 9:57 pm

#12 Henry.

“if lefties are forced to think, say, in terms of the stark clashes of interest often modeled in game theory, the assumptions that humans are rational, self-interested etc, then they will have to consider whether their proposals for the reform of society will work even if people aren’t as nice as left-wing reformers might wish they were.”

Hell, why stop there. Why not consider if their proposals for the reform of society will work if people are brain eating zombies? Or frontal lobe damaged sociopaths. I mean if it can stand up under those circumstances… Of course there’s always a danger that the optimal model for those circumstances (call it the paranoid schizophrenic model), may not be the best model for human beings who have some vaguely decent characteristics.

“If they understand the circumstances under which markets do work”

Do mainstream economists? I mean seriously, when it comes to dealing with real markets there seems to be very little agreement on what is necessary to improve the functioning of markets (with the agreements having more to do with ideology, than actual analysis). And,hell the basic model of equilibrium is very elegant, but you have to search pretty long and hard for an actual example in the real world.

31

david 06.02.07 at 12:40 am

“In most cases, if their ideas were good ones, they will have been adopted by at least some people in the mainstream, and tracing their intellectual ancestry is of at most second-order interest.”

This is crazy talk.

Historians are bad enough about intellectual history these days, but this is nuts.

32

John Quiggin 06.02.07 at 2:06 am

DD, I guess I never quite got the point of the whole capital controversy. The part that seems clearly established is that there is no general warrant for aggregating disparate physical inputs into a stock called capital, any more than for aggregating lots of different pieces of work effort into a flow called labour, lots of different goods into gross product and so on. And you can’t just use market prices, because these need not give you a well-behaved index number. As you say, in practice, economists keep on using these aggregates regardless, and they should worry more about it (the reification of PPP-adjusted GDP is an instance that concerns me).

But I always got the impression that the UK side of the debate was claiming that there was some way in which this point applied more specially to capital than to anything else, and that any reasoning about notions like returns to capital was automatically suspect.

33

Robert 06.02.07 at 1:20 pm

Michael Bérub&eacute has given us a picture of ideal liberal arts teaching. (Yes, I know what thread I am on). One thing that seems clear: mainstream teaching in economics is professional malpractice. Even some doctorates in economics do not seem to be aware of the existence of whole schools of thought and of certain very good journals.

I think the CCC says that the way neoclassical economists attempt to reconcile concepts of financial capital and capital goods is invalid. You cannot validly insert a measure of financial capital into a production function or equate its marginal product to the interest rate. This does not say you cannnot, for some purposes, add up the value of capital goods.

34

seth edenbaum 06.02.07 at 5:49 pm

No reference to any cognitive studies on our response to advertising (the rational actor theory of advertising is a joke.)
No reference to empiricism at all as far as I can tell. (I don’t have access to jstor)

No mention of the recent trend in advertising that renders ads as short films with an advertising tag-line at the end: ads as movie within movie and seen for pleasure. Instead all we get are propositional fictions as “reason.”

It strikes me more and more that philosophy is only a way to think about ideas as concrete and atemporal. One of the commenters at Marginal Revolution (who may or may not be an idiot depending on whether he means it as a compliment of a criticism) put it this way:

The heterodox approach is largely ignored by mainstream economics (re: neoclassical) because most of the insights are situation-dependent — that is, critical insights from the heterodox school lack the generality upon which neoclassical economics is based on. Most economists cannot and will not tolerate ad hoc explanations to human behaviour. One reason is because the math breaks down, and becomes mostly irrelevant.

How many areas of study that delve into the record of human history and behavior deal in or rely upon insights that are not context dependent?
Our notion of justice is context dependent: some trials determine guilt or innocence, others determine only the appropriate name/category for an acknowledged act. History is the study of action in context. The study of literature is the study of descriptions of action in context.
The primary function of this debate is to confirm to all involved that they themselves are rational; everything else is secondary. So it fails in its attempt to describe the world and our behavior in it. But the picture is pretty in a simple kind of way.

And still no one comes out in defense of Tyler Cowen’s context free theory of economics and eugenics.

35

dsquared 06.02.07 at 6:25 pm

critical insights from the heterodox school lack the generality upon which neoclassical economics is based on

in fairness, neoclassical models do have this property of “generality”; they’re wrong all the time.

36

seth edenbaum 06.03.07 at 12:43 am

D2 once again, my second favorite stockbroker.

37

MQ 06.03.07 at 7:06 am

The notion seems to be that because you can argue for a variety of social democratic type policy proposals using the standard econ toolkit (very true!), there is no problem with the way economists view the world. I don’t see how that follows. The criticism of economics as a social science should not be that it is right-wing, but that it is wrong, or at least blinkered in certain respects. That leads you to systematic problems that don’t necessarily align with right or left.

38

Michael Harris 06.03.07 at 10:32 am

D^2

“I’m a little bit troubled by the implied view that “heterodox” is an identity chosen by the heterodox for themselves.”

This depends. Clearly some people doing slightly “not-currently-mainstream” work are eager for the day they can sit within the mainstream. Partly this depends on how we define “heterodox” and “mainstream”. If Chicago is the orthodox mainstream (and it tends to be placed there by default), then luminaries from Keynes to Akerlof and Stiglitz are in a sense heterodox. But even being more broad about what is classed as mainstream, and consequently narrower about what constitutes heterodoxy, there are surely people on the outer who aren’t knowingly and wilfully positioning themselves on the margins.

That being said, I find it hard to interpret the behaviour of some people on the intellectual fringes of the position in any terms other than them wanting to be there and positioning themselves accordingly. One test of this is the extent to which they position themselves against a stylised “straw man” mainstream in their writings, against which they then rail.

This is a feature of the distinction/divide between “environmental economics” and “ecological economics” — one can view these as complementary research programs, with the ecological stuff being more eclectic and interdisciplinary (and that’s a fair reflection of what gets published in the journal Ecological Economics). On the other hand, I’ve sat in a room with a group of self-styled ecological economists, and it felt like a kind of cult meeting, the main aim being to recruit more people who weren’t part of the big orthodox sect.

Comments on this entry are closed.