14 July 2009

Russian Orthodox Economist Runs Amok

I spent the weekend at a proper economics conference, one where people had different views which they discussed heatedly over coffee, where we used the phrase 'crisis of capitalism' rather than 'credit crunch' and where I saw barely any equations. Most economics conferences are halls packed full of socially dysfunctional people who generally sleep through each other's presentation which are incomprehensible and address irrelevant subjects through the medium of mathematics. So much for the neoclassical paradigm.

At the Association of Heterdox Economics conference you find Marxists and Austrians (followers of Hayek) discussing sustainability over lunch, while elsewhere institutionalists (followers of the North American economists who had the temerity to introduce social understanding into economic theories) and Keynsians consider how best to deal with the banks.

In other words there is debate, diversity and a sharing of views. There is exchange and learning. This is not how economics usually functions. Academic economics is not a discipline, far less the science it yearns to be. It is much more akin to a religion, a system of beliefs that are imposed with totalitarian strictness. You may not advance through their hiearchy unless you undergo the scourge of crucifixon by regression.

Some aspects of the conference were disappointingly predictable. Questioners, especially in plenaries, reconfirmed what I call the Cato Inverse Law of Verbosity: the longer it takes you to ask your question the less insightful the question is. I also learned the concept of the 'Microsoft moment' which I've found invaluable since. Analogous to a 'senior moment' it helps to identify the near-clinical sickness of the software we are forced to rely on - and provides an excellent metaphor for the state of the economics profession as a whole.

Green economics is one strand amongst the heterodox, who would do better to call themselves pluralists. In what other discipline do you have to define yourself as heterodox just for daring to ask questions and challenge orthodoxy? It reminds me of an email I received recently letting me know that my book called, unconfusingly, Green Economics, is to be found in the geography rather than economics section of Waterstones.

At one level this introverted, autistic behaviour by economists can provide a source for humour, but it is also desperately serious. The narrow and misguided focus of neoclassical economics has allowed the collapse of the world economy and the destruction of the earth. The call for a public enquiry into the economics profession that was made at the conference should become a campaign to demand that the public money that pays for research into this most important area of life should no be controlled by the cartel of market maniacs.

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