Friday, September 10, 2010

engaged with the mainstream but not engaged to it: notes on heterodoxy

I'm going to write briefly about what I see to be a clear division in the state of radical economics, heterodox economics, and the history of these traditions at UMass. The division boils down to something I've observed in the teaching and particular attitude of economists here: either a clear disengagement or engagement with the mainstream approach, depending on your age (roughly greater than or less than 40).

Here's the story: I've noticed that younger economists at radical left departments are overwhelmingly obsessed with the frontiers of research in their field -- whether it's international or labor or whatever. The goal of these economists is to familiarize themselves with the latest research trends ("fashions" is what it boils down to) and produce research according to these trends, asking leftist types of questions along the way.

While it is easy to admit that being successful in academia nowadays requires one to be well-informed of the latest trends and to conform to them whenever possible (essentially, speaking the language of mainstream methodology), a quick look at the tradition of radical economics in academia -- notably the establishment of a radical economics program at UMass in 1973-1974 -- shows how very different the behavior of these young economists is. This, in turn, leads to a more nuanced view of professionalism and careerism for leftist academic economists today. In short, the radical tradition in the 1960s and 1970s was built on really smart people posing really strong oppositional frameworks to the standard view in the mainstream.

Examples include some of the classic papers of the first group of radical economists at Umass: Steve Resnick's 1975 paper on development, or Herb Gintis' 1972 AER paper on the nature of the Outlaw. Whether integrating dialectics into a study of academics and social movements (as with Gintis) or posing a new understanding of development as a relationship between capitalist and non-capitalist economies (one of Resnick's themes), it is clear that these economists were disengaging with the mainstream in order to offer a completely different view of concepts and phenomena which neoclassical economists also try (to this day) to explain. In other words, as I've written in other areas on this blog, mainstream and radical econ can be looking at the same time period, indeed the same issue, and come to two completely different explanations of it.

The result of this strategy, for better or worse, was a set of academics who sought to change the profession's understanding of certain concepts and phenomena fundamentally by posing a new view of them. The younger crowd, being obsessed with research frontiers, is asking very interesting questions, but they are obsessed with the mainstream's recognition and incorporation of these younger economists' ideas into the broad framework. The emphasis is less on imagining a drastically different world view, and more on altering the existing world view to take new questions and variables into account.

Are there young economists out there working in the older tradition? Of course, but the trend is certainly in the opposite direction. What does it all mean? Well, I will leave this short comment with a provocative question: Who got the jobs with automatic tenure at a solid research institution?

Comments and blog responses are very much appreciated!



  2. I think this post is fantastic. A provocative question indeed!

  3. Dear Daniel,

    Although I am one of the few young economists who stick to the old versions of Marxism and Keynesianism, I totally share your views. Most unfortunately, you are right.

    I have discovered your blog, and I like it a lot. I am the author of the "Anti-Mankiw" piece that appeared a while ago in Adbusters. I love your "anti-Mankiw" approach, having had myself for some time the project of writing an anti-Mankiw textbook, but only lacking the energy, the will and possibly the language skills to achieve such a project.

    I wanted to say hello, and maybe see if there was anything we could achieve jointly.


    Gilles Raveaud

    PS: Have you looked at the alternative intro econ class that Pr. Steve Marglin proposed at Harvard, Social Analysis 72? The Crimson reported the debate, in particular how Marglin's course was not given the credits to be a valid prerequisite for upper classes:

  4. Gilles,

    Would you mind sending me an email? I searched for it on your site, but could not find it. You can find mine on the profile page.

    Basically, I'd like to send you some information regarding your comments but would rather send them personally.

    Take care and thanks very much for your interest,