Keith Rankin: Autistic Economics?

Published: Thu 30 Nov 2000 09:42 AM
Keith Rankin: Autistic Economics?
30 November 2000
In June this year, a group of economics students at one of France's leading tertiary institutes, the École Normale Supérieure, revolted. They were objecting to the obsession with abstract mathematical modelling that dominates economics education worldwide. The newspaper Le Monde gave some publicity to their cause, and a surprising number of economics teachers supported them.
The outcome of the revolt was the formation of the post-autistic economics (PAE) network ( which, in a few months, has spread into a number of other countries, including Australia and Canada.
One of the most important initiatives are students' and teachers' petitions to reform the teaching of economics. The 'Ivy League' (American) version of the students' petition is the most interesting, because it has a useful preamble to the standard form. The teachers' petition (eg the Australian version) goes into much more detail about the pedagogical crisis that the hegemony of neoclassical economics has brought about. (In Australia, the PAE movement links back to a huge schism in the 1980s that took place within the Economics Department of the University of Sydney, and that led to the creation of a separate Department of Political Economy which set out to teach a radical programme of alternative economics.)
Before examining what is autistic - or allegedly autistic - about the dominant economic paradigm (neoclassical economics) I should note that the use of 'autism' as a metaphor might be regarded as inappropriate by many of those whose lives are touched by autism, or who are researchers of autism.
Autism is a condition that appears in (mainly) boys from about 18 months of age. It seems to involve an alternative 'wiring' of the brain, and has a number of symptoms, not all of which are necessary to give a diagnosis of autism. Thus persons suffering from autism vary both in the symptoms that they display and in the extent to which their alternative mental traits are disabling. Autism - what could be called a variation of the embryology of the mind - is one of the most baffling (and under-researched) mysteries of medical science.
The particular autistic symptom that the PAE movement has latched onto is "disengagement from reality". The charge is that (neoclassical) economics as a discipline is unduly detached from the real world. Rather than engage in the pursuit of open-minded enquiry that other sciences and social sciences purport to do, economics withdraws into an abstract world defined by its own assumptions. In doing so, it has adopted the language of mathematics (to the exclusion of English, French etc), thereby making its indulgences meaningless (though threatening) to persons who can not or will not adopt its linguistic norms. In other words, economics, it is alleged, suffers from scientism ("the uncritical application of scientific or quasi- scientific methods to inappropriate fields of study or investigation" according to my Collins Dictionary), otherwise known as formalism, apriorism or rationalism. Indeed, it is long accepted within the profession that economics suffers from "physics-envy"; meaning envy of nineteenth century Newtonian physics.
The corollary of 'disengagement' in persons with autism is the absence of socialisation, and in many cases, the absence of language which is the sine qua non of socialisation. Hence autistic traits of neoclassical economics include its individualism, its glorification of the private domain at the expense of the public domain, and its preference to use a private kind of language that has the effect of stifling rather than facilitating conversation. (The promotion of economics as a "conversation" is in fact one of the important reactions in the 1990s to the excessive formalism of 1980s' economics.).
Autistic persons can be intelligent, but that intelligence is usually obsessive and extremely narrow in its focus. Thus the metaphor of autism helps us to gain an insight into the culture that emerged in, for example, the New Zealand Treasury in the 1980s. The use of language that created barriers, the single-mindedness, the lack of any concept of a society that was distinct from an economy, the refusal of the Treasury itself to countenance competition (while advocating competition for everyone else) and the concept of TINA ('there is no alternative') all suggest that ideological neoliberalism is as autistic as the formalist mathematical economic models that pass as research. Autistic children, like closed-minded technocrats, can be control freaks.
It is important to note that the new movement is post-autistic rather than anti-autistic. At least the teachers' petition emphasises the need for economics (and therefore economics education) to move on rather than to turn on itself. Mathematical model-making is a useful intellectual discipline. But it's only a small part of the scientific study of economies and economic phenomena. The problem is that a priori mathematical economics has a way of suppressing enquiry into the ways that economies actually work (and have actually worked in the past). The other problem is that those who derive all their truths from premises rather than from observations understand policy in utopian terms. For them, good policy involves radical re-engineering of humankind, so that our behavior conforms with the rationalist premises of 'economic man'.
Post-autistic economics suggests the opposite. That economics should emphasise the way the world does work, and not how it might work in a private property free market utopia. In this context, policymaking depnends critically on knowledge gleaned from observation rather than from abstraction.
Having expressed my sympathy for the goals of the PAE, I do have reservations about it. First, autism is still too much of a taboo subject to enable it to become an effective metaphor for a protest movement. Second, there is a danger to overreacting to the failings of mathematical economics. Abstract mathematical economics, in its place, has a huge amount to offer humankind, as indeed does pure mathematics.
It is proper that the PAE movement should focus on a broad-based and critical economics' education rather than on the rights and wrongs of neoclassical economics. The most immediate problem is that if advanced economics education is turning off everyone except a few people who come into economics with right-wing political agendas, then we end up with a society that is unable to debate economic issues, and unable to contest polical fait accompli. Without widespread economic literacy, policymaking becomes vulnerable to the machinations of control freaks.
I would like to finish with a quote from two of my colleagues at Unitec (Andrew Codling and Jacqueline Rowarth), from their recent (24 November) Herald article Being educated is a lot more than just knowing things.
Codling and Rowarth conclude: "It is to be hoped that the [TEAC] commission's recommendations take account of the concern about the narrow base of learning that our students have. A revamping of our system, founded on the basic disciplines with inter-disciplinary, problem-based teaching, would give our students a broad education. This would allow us to promote our graduates and eventually our country to the world as an educated one, with all that that implies."
(c) 2000 Keith Rankin
Keith Rankin
Political Economist, Scoop Columnist
Keith Rankin taught economics at Unitec in Mt Albert since 1999. An economic historian by training, his research has included an analysis of labour supply in the Great Depression of the 1930s, and has included estimates of New Zealand's GNP going back to the 1850s.
Keith believes that many of the economic issues that beguile us cannot be understood by relying on the orthodox interpretations of our social science disciplines. Keith favours a critical approach that emphasises new perspectives rather than simply opposing those practices and policies that we don't like.
Keith retired in 2020 and lives with his family in Glen Eden, Auckland.
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