Monday, April 14, 2008

Economics at Notre Dame: An Open Letter

As quoted from the mission statement of The University of Notre Dame:

“The University is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake. As a Catholic university, one of its distinctive goals is to provide a forum where, through free inquiry and open discussion, the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions, and every other area of human scholarship and creativity. The intellectual interchange essential to a university requires, and is enriched by, the presence and voices of diverse scholars and students…The University is committed to constructive and critical engagement with the whole of human culture.”

As members of the University of Notre Dame, we have a special obligation to engage our learning, our teaching, and our world with integrity. Additionally, students deserve an education that explores the “full range of ideas.” Therefore, the University, if it hopes to fulfill its mission, must teach its students to think critically and provide opportunities for students to intellectually engage their discipline. It is our contention that the current situation of economics at Notre Dame often stifles debate, impedes student learning, and undermines the Catholic character of our University.

At Notre Dame, economics is divided into two separate departments: “The Department of Economics and Econometrics, which is a neoclassical economics department committed to rigorous theoretical and quantitative analysis in teaching and research,” and The Department of Economics and Policy studies, which is committed to “issues relating to socioeconomic justice and ethics,” “openness to alternative methodological approaches,” and the “roles of history and institutions” in the “broader political economy.” It is our fear that, in pursuit of higher department rankings, Notre Dame will sacrifice the latter department in favor of the former.

In other words, we oppose a situation in which neoclassical economic theory is taught to the exclusion of other theories. This tendency is already apparent in the one-sidedness of economics majors at our University. The required courses – introductory/intermediate microeconomics and macroeconomics, statistics, and econometrics – are all typically taught using only mainstream theory. It is alarming that a student could easily graduate from Notre Dame with a degree in Economics, having never questioned the basic assumptions of or been presented with plausible alternatives to neoclassical economics.

Neoclassical economic theory, because of its dominance in the academy, has become widely known as “mainstream” economics. Currently, introductory and intermediate micro and macro theory courses teach mainstream economics from an ahistorical perspective. These courses foster a narrow and incomplete view of economics, because they exclude teaching about the social and historical forces that shape economic theory and avoid sincerely questioning the underlying assumptions vital to the models. Furthermore, most professors present only neoclassical models to their students. This exclusive presentation implies that neoclassical theory itself is “economics.” This system of education, insulated from critical dissent, produces the next generation of economists with a fixed toolkit of models and prescriptions that assume an unchanging economic reality. As a result, students fail to contextualize neoclassical theory in the broader discourse of the social sciences.

In addition, mainstream economics is often presented as analogous to a natural science, such that economic laws are attributed the same character of universality as the laws of physics. As such, many faculty members teach mainstream neoclassical theory as a series of straight-forward mathematical concepts. This causes students to believe that economics is merely a matter of fine-tuning a particular model and thus void of ethical implications. Many faculty promote this inaccurate notion in their courses by arguing that mainstream economics furthers a “positive analysis” of the world, a value-neutral agenda of “efficiency” in the process of allocating scarce resources. They argue that their economic models do not contain or render value judgments. However, this perspective ignores the reality that neoclassical theory’s starting assumptions and supporting logic carry an embedded ethics and have serious social implications. This misrepresentation of a value-laden theory seriously misleads students and inhibits their ability to morally engage current trends. Today’s simultaneously increasing wealth and growing inequality affirm a desperate need for models critical of the mainstream.

To prevent this tendency toward a one-sided education, some economics students take courses where heterodox theories are introduced. These students are empowered to think about and critically engage both neoclassical models and alternative approaches. Unfortunately, the number of these courses at Notre Dame has dwindled in recent years. The deeper understanding afforded by these courses reveals that the current stunted education in economics is one of mostly memorization and unchallenging acceptance rather than a critical examination of assumptions, logic, and implications. With a more sophisticated teaching of economics, which includes a plurality of ideas, students better learn mainstream neoclassical theory and, in the process, are exposed to a variety of instructive alternatives.

In conclusion, the preponderance of economics courses which exclusively teach neoclassical theory impedes students from entering into the kind of flourishing intellectual life that is supposed to be fostered here at Notre Dame. This represents a failure to provide Notre Dame’s economics students with a truly liberal education. Therefore, we recommend the implementation of required courses for majors in both political economy and economic history. We also recommend that economics faculty strive to contextualize mainstream neoclassical economics within its historical development, thus placing it in the broader discourse of diverse economic thought. We further ask all professors who include economics content in their courses to present economics not as a set of hard-and-fast models befitting a natural science, but, more appropriately, as an evolving and dynamic social science.

As firm believers in the mission of the University and our ability to fulfill it, we hope that this letter begins a dialogue for change. The University of Notre Dame should reconsider its current teaching of economics, affirm the courses that currently offer heterodox approaches, and create more opportunities for challenging intellectual engagement if it hopes to provide its students with the truly premiere education it espouses.

24 comments:

cubaenergy said...

In June of 2007, I travelled to Brazil to study the economics and net energy balance of sugarcane-based ethanol production. During my trip I encountered complexities of all sorts. The inseparable social and environmental issues spoiled my hopes for a quantitative analysis that proved sugarcane-based ethanol to be a sustainable fuel source. I returned to the University with more questions about the social and environmental implications of ethanol production.
Since my return to Notre Dame, I’ve been searching for explanations. But none has captured the complexity of my experience with ethanol in Brazil. Over time, classes began to frustrate me. Economics classes were the worst. My environmental economics professor kept trying to convince me that economics did not make value judgments; it just indicated the most efficient allocation of scarce resources. While I liked the elegance and simplicity of such argument, it didn’t jive with what the Brazilians I met told me about the development of sugarcane-based ethanol.
The neat equilibrium models in my intermediate macro theory class also did not reflect my experience with the many and varied forces that drive energy and sustainability issues, nor my new questions about the slave-like working conditions. The ahistorical reduction of economics to graphs that end in the harmonious unity of equilibrium didn’t capture the layers of depth behind what I had seen. The history, politics, and power dynamics were inseparable parts of the economic and technical development of ethanol in Brazil.
As I continued to ask questions of my economics professors, the simplicity of their responses aggravated me more and more. Slowly, I began to see that I wasn’t the only one struggling with economics. It was a meta-problem scourging the academy. The entire discipline was divided and nowhere was the division more apparent than at Notre Dame.
“Efforts to open the field to diverse views are smothered by an orthodoxy -- neoclassical economics and its derivatives,” wrote Peter Monaghan in the January 24, 2003 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Monaghan described the orthodoxy as “indulgently theoretical and mathematical in its aspiration to be more ‘scientific’ than any other social science.”
Having learned more about neoclassical theory in my one political economy course taught by a heterodox economist than all of my previous four economics courses, I was infuriated to find out that: “The University of Notre Dame’s economics department… split into two separate but unequal bodies” and the strictly orthodox department got the upper hand.
Since the neoclassical brand of economics dominates the discipline, its practitioners decide what work deserves notice by controlling what is published in the field’s prestigious journals. This becomes a problem when the National Research Council ranks institutions accordingly, such that Notre Dame as a University is 18th (U.S. News & World Reports) and our economics department is 84th (NRC). In this regard perhaps a division makes sense so that one department can be more highly ranked amongst peer institutions because it publishes in the foremost neoclassical journals. But does the pursuit of high rankings for one department merit the effective starvation of the other department? Why should only one department be allowed to hire new faculty and administer a graduate program?
I agree that neoclassical economics should be taught well at Notre Dame. Much academic and government research is based on neoclassical analyses exploring the effects on the economy. Thus students should know the mainstream theory. But where do students really learn it?
Most of the core required economics courses at Notre Dame are taught pretty close to the book. Lectures, assignments, exams all draw heavily from the text. Occasionally, a clever YouTube video poking fun at Ben Bernanke is shared. Class discussion is nonexistent. Even more rare is a students who questions the assumptions or logic of the theory. The classes simply are not designed to encourage critical thinking about the material being learned and its relationship to the real world. At best, a professor may incorporate current events into his or her introductory remarks for the class. For most students, however, the introductory and intermediate micro- and macroeconomic theory courses are an exercise in memorization and regurgitation. It’s more about endurance than excitement or engagement.
Fortunately, I have taken two courses devoted to heterodox theories – political economy and Marxian economics – and the professor has presented the evolution of economic thought and charged his students with writing assignments that encourage discussion of both the mainstream and alternatives. While pushing students to examine the assumptions, internalize the logic, and explore the implications of economic theory may demand more, most students enjoy the challenge. Consequently, students of these courses gain an appreciation for the assumption, logical structure, and usefulness (as well as the problems and criticisms) of neoclassical economics.
In fact, as I reflect on it, writing and critical thinking are the two most valuable parts of my formal Notre Dame education that I will carry with me. Unfortunately, most mainstream economics courses never teach either of these skills. What is worse, however, these courses almost never carry the theory through to its implications for society. Although growth models may be introduced, and their assumptions and methodologies compared, the differences in terms of their application to the world is never discussed. Deirdre N. McCloskey, who made a name for herself as neoclassical economist at the University of Chicago, states, “Probably three-quarters of the scholarly activity in economics is useless, will result in no understanding of the world.”
McCloskey elaborates this point by describing one of the vices of the mainstream as “blackboard economics: endless thinking about imaginary economies that don’t ever have anything to do with the world.” In her view, “that’s not science; that’s just chess problems.” Many Notre Dame economics students aren’t looking for a chess game. They want the messy realities of the world like the ones Brazil introduced me to.
The increasing number of students traveling abroad and the growing population engaged in service with underprivileged communities mean that more students are being exposed to the growing inequalities both in the United States and around the world. Seeking disciplines that can provide them with the skills, knowledge, and credibility they need to analyze and pragmatically address the disparities, more students are turning to economics. Curious about the root causes of inequality, students begin to identify some questionable assumptions and policy implications they disagree with, but for the most part the way the neoclassical theory is taught, it appears as a complete science, no questions asked.
Some students are curious and in fall 2007 about fifteen of them started a group called Questioning and Understanding Economics in Society Today (QUEST ND). We met weekly and tried to apply the theory we had learned in class to real economic issues. With a reading and person responsible for guiding the discussion each week, we explored mainstream and alternative perspectives on issues like poverty, health care, environment, consumption, happiness, and development. Guided by the idea that by engaging a diversity of approaches we were able to more effectively learn mainstream economics, we decided to meet with the Chair and a few faculty members from the strictly neoclassical department. We framed the discussion in this way, but as soon as we started talking about alternative approaches and methodologies they tried to play ignorant and say they didn’t know what we were talking about when we referred to “neoclassical” economics. Upon clarification they tried to respond, “Well, we do teach different [growth] models and alternative accounting methodologies.”
Next, we discussed assumptions: “We do criticize our own assumptions. We even show what will happen if the assumptions are relaxed or changed.”
The meeting evolved to the point that they told us that what the five of us QUEST ND students wanted was for graduate-level classes. Additionally, they dismissed us as a representing a small sliver of economics students – most weren’t as intellectually engaged or interested. If the majority of economics students felt that a political economy course and/or a history of thought course should be added, then they might consider something.
Now, we’re trying to collect that support, to bring attention to the split, and to expose the injustice that is now playing out in the way undergraduate economics majors are being taught. The inadequate and one-sided education of economics students undermines the Catholic character and violates the academic freedom espoused by the University. There is a long road ahead but the gravity of the issue is bringing attention and support to the movement.
At Notre Dame, I believe we are capable of an economics department that educates its students in line with the values our university embraces: diversity of thought and care for the common good. However, my experience as an economics major has hindered my ability to engage the complexity that I experienced in Brazil because my training was so weak and mostly aloof from the real-world issues. Also, equipped with only one lens to view the intimately interwoven social and political issues, I failed to realize my intellectual potential as a student seeking to understand. Last semester in my econometrics course, I was advised to forsake many of the social and political factors that I deemed important, in order to create a more “publishable” regression analysis. Fortunately, a few engaged heterodox economics professors still teach at Notre Dame, but with the starving of their department and the marginalization of their rich teaching, the future looks bleak.

Anonymous said...

Also being an economics student at ND, but with a decidedly different view of economics, I’d like to defend a bit both the department and the current structure of the major. I don’t want to get into an argument about the structure of economics and the problems with various approaches, but simply to focus on the department and especially the major.
As little as 5 years ago, a student seeking a rigorous education in mainstream economics was simply unable to come by it in this department. This simply should not be the case at top undergraduate institution. Instructors instead focused on teaching alternative theories at the expense of, not in addition to, standard theory. Even now, half the intermediate theory courses don't use calculus, which essentially is an attempt to gloss over the actual theory that is being developed, so the department still has work to do to get the level of its core courses up to a reasonable level. Thus at the most basic level, something needed to be done, as whatever your opinions are about economics, in order to effectively challenge the mainstream, you need to actually understand it. This gets to the current structure of the major, which requires 2 semesters of principles courses, 2 semesters of intermediate theory courses, statistics, and econometrics. These course requirements, as you point out, focus only on mainstream economics; however, to really have an appreciation and understanding for mainstream economics, this is the absolute minimum that you must take. That is exactly the point of these requirements, that anyone who leaves ND with an economics degree, has a basic understanding of modern mainstream economics. To require a course in heterodox approaches (the political economy course as taught at ND) and economic history brings the required courses in the major up to 8, leaving little room for people to pursue their own interests. By locking in 8 or 10 courses, you leave no room for people to explore their own interests within the context of the major. This is not to say these courses aren’t important, as they provide valuable insights into economics, but it is to say that they are not of the same core importance as the previous 6 courses. One with a more mainstream bent, could also argue that game theory should be a required course, as it provides valuable insights the other core courses don’t, but it isn’t necessary for a basic understanding of modern economics. The point is that as structured, the major forces students to reach a certain minimum level of competence in modern economics, and then lets them study whatever else they want as you will never please everyone. Having a close relationship with a number of professors in the department of economics and econometrics, they sought to develop a major (joints with policy studies) that met these basic needs of educating students in the mainstream of economics while giving them opportunities to explore their own interests.

cubaenergy said...

Here is a recent discussion from the PSA Listserv:




From: Amanda

I must say I disagree. As a Political Science/Economics double major, I think
there is a lot of variety within our economics program, and that the curriculum
structure allows you to dabble in both policy and econometrics. In many of my
courses, I have had wide exposure to many different views, and have been able
to take everything from a World Poverty & Inequality course (which highlighted
the flaws of the neoclassical growth strategy) to classes based on hardcore
econometrics to a class on Happiness Economics. It is really about the courses
chosen by economics students, and I have been more than satisfied with my
ability through both departments to be challenged and to receive a balanced
education, not courses simply dominated by one school of thought. For people
who have taken simply introductory level courses this may not seem to be the
case, as there is a lot of groundwork to be laid and basic economics taught,
but there is much more exposure in upper-level courses and even via certain
professors in the department.

To make a difference in the field of economics (whether to challenge or support
norms) and to get into graduate school, a knowledge of econometrics is
essential and can't be dismissed as being too focused on 'mainstream' ideas.
In fact, in many classes we have used econometric techniques to challenge
neoclassical or mainstream discourses. I for one can say I am always
questioning assumptions behind models and think it is incorrect to say other
econ/business students do not do the same, as many professors actually
encourage doing so- from both economics departments. I think people actually
studying economics at this university should continue to discuss this issue,
but must also make more careful course selections that expose them to a wide
range of subjects and schools of thought.


From Mike
> (I'm a POLS major, but...)
>
> The problem with the Economics Departments is that they have now split
> into two different departments. The Economics and Econometrics
> Department gets a lot more funding, more faculty, and control over the
> graduate program. The Economics and Policy Studies program is a shell
> of its former self, and has no control over the graduate program
> anymore. The former Department has its sole focus on neoclassical
> economics and econometrics, while the latter Department challenges the
> assumptions and conclusions neoclassical (mainstream) economics makes
> and reaches by pursuing other economic models/modes of thought.
>
> The Econ majors' (and my) problem with this arrangement is that various
> disciplines of economics aren't being explored by economics majors, or
> even business students. Neoclassical economics is taught as if it is
> scientific fact, human nature embodied in mathematical models and
> functions. My opinion, although I can't speak directly for the people
> that put together the petition, is that this arrangement does not
> reflect the complexities involved in economic thought, or expose people
> to alternative ways of thinking/the problems with neoclassical
> economics. I would like to see econ/business majors grapple with the
> assumptions they make, and I think this is what the writers of this
> petition would like as well.
>

As I see it, the economics we learn at Notre Dame fails to engage the realities
of the world. Our classes are essentially memorizing textbooks and
regurgitating graphs for exams. We don't learn to critically engage the
assumptions, logic or implications of the mainstream neoclassical theory, by
comparing it side by side with other well-developed heterodox theories.

As Amanda pointed out there are classes like World Poverty and Inequality that
document current trends of widening inequality. And in such classes many
different views are introduced, but these different views are the varying
shades from conservative to progressive to liberal all within the neoclassical
paradigm. For example, we could have Milton Friedman's view that would be very
different from Jeff Sachs perspective on how to end poverty, but they are both
arguing within the mainstream discourse. Tom Friedman or Paul Krugman or Joseph
Stiglitz... all present other liberal perspectives many of which are very
critical of the mainstream its institutions and policies, etc. But none
represents a departure from the neoclassical paradigm. They all talk about the
same capital and labor markets, profit maximizing firms and utility maximizing
individuals.

Have you heard inequality explained in terms of the extraction of surplus value?
What about a class analysis in terms of those who produce and distribute surplus
value? Or discussion of slave, feudal, manorial, hacienda, latifundio,
household, cooperative, or community economies that both exist today and those
of past times?

Have you ever heard poverty as being culturally and historically defined? Or
isn't it always just a biological minimum... or $2 a day? Doesn't it vary
depending on custom both within and between countries?

Have you ever seen an analysis that shows how efficiency or technology can
increase exploitation of wage-laborers?

How and why do some countries develop private capitalisms and others state
capitalisms?

These are questions that I have only heard in two classes -- political economy
and Marxian economics -- both of which exposed me to the many heterodox
theories that economists all over the world are developing but you will almost
never hear discussed at Notre Dame, largely because most our current and new
professors don't know this stuff. And the few that do are in the Policy
Department and have had their graduate students stripped away in order to favor
the neoclassical department.

While I agree we need to learn mainstream neoclassical theory, I feel like the
only way that I've begun to really put all of my 4 theory classes together and
truly understand mainstream economics is when I have seen it in conversation
with Marxian, Institutionalist, Radical Post-Keynesian, Post-colonial,
Feminist, Ecological Economics and other heterodox theories.

Until economics students get exposure and interaction with these other theories,
I don't feel like they can truly reap the benefits from what they have learned
in their neoclassical training. For me, I know that while I knew there were
trends of increasing inequality because of mainstream theory, I couldn't tell
you why and I couldn't even begin to explain the many causes contributing to
it. But now I'm able to look at injustices in the world and employ a more
sophisticated critical thinking that helps me break down the problem into all
the driving forces and begin to see what is driving the heart of the problem.

At Notre Dame, I believe we are capable of an economics department that educates
its students in line with the values our university embraces: diversity of
thought and care for the common good. However, my experience as an economics
major has hindered my ability to engage the complexity that I experience day to
day in the world because my training was so weak and mostly aloof from the
real-world issues.

Equipped with only one lens to view the intimately interwoven social and
political issues, I fail to realize my intellectual potential as a student
seeking to understand. Last semester in my econometrics course, I was advised
to forsake many of the social and political factors that I deemed important, in
order to create a more "publishable" regression analysis.

Fortunately, a few engaged heterodox economics professors still teach at Notre
Dame, but with the starving of their department and the marginalization of
their teaching, the future looks bleak.


Articles about the Split at ND
[1] http://chronicle.com/free/v49/i20/20a01201.htm

[2] http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-115757958.html

cubaenergy said...

To respond to Anonymous:

I agree with your justifying the need to learn mainstream economics. It is vital that we learn neoclassical theory. However, "textbook in" and "graphs out" has not proven an effective method for me to learn the theory. I have learned far more about neoclassical in my non-mainstream courses. While I do think economic history or political economy should be required I understand your reasoning.

My contention therefore would be to have all econ classes framed in a way that students understand they are learning just one of many different economic theories and that the capitalist system of today is not universal and transhistorical. If it were framed this way and if were other theories were introduced along side mainstream micro and macro, then I think all students would be much more curious and engaged to learn both the mainstream and be equipped to better understand its strengths and shortcomings.

Anonymous said...

I think the biggest problem with economics at ND is exactly what you said, mainstream economics is taught by a decent number of the teachers, especially in my experience those from the policy department, as little more than a series of graphs to memorize and reproduce, which is not at all what mainstream economics is. I too had Professor Ruccio's introductory course, and while it was interesting to see some Marxian economics at the end, the actual presentation and testing of Neoclassical material was sorely lacking. I saw a series of graphs that I had to reproduce on tests. It was true time was spent analyzing the assumptions made in standard neoclassical model and evaluating them critically, but this was at the expense of, not in addition to a rigorous grounding in the theory. My basic point, is that in my experience at ND, the biggest problem is that mainstream economics is taught in less than rigorous manner which fails to truly interest students. I know people, and probably yourself, that would disagree with me, and have had different experiences with professors in each department, this is just how I'd seen it. Concerning the framing of economics courses, rightly or wrongly, neoclassical economics as you point out claims to provide a series of tools and an analytical framework to analyze a wide variety of issues from a "neutral" perspective. This is obviously up for debate, as you rightly point out, but the classes you mention, economic history and heterodox economics provide this context. Given the very nature of mainstream economics, it doesn't make sense to spend a bunch of time to discuss the development of the basic assumptions and the theory, as time is limited. Given this time limit, as I mention before, the most important thing to do is to educate students as effectively as possible as what by mainstream consensus, is economics. Again, this doesn't mean that it is not critical for a university to provide forums and courses that challenge orthodoxy in any field, but at an undergraduate level, the requirements of any major should be to educate students in the standard models of a subject. At the same time, I do agree with you that it is critical for the departments to maintain a heterodox presence, however, I don't think it is the goal of either department to eliminate this presence, rather to ensure that the department is built to the point where it can provide a sufficient undergraduate and graduate education in mainstream economics. If in the future, the department makes no moves to maintain a small core of heterodox economists, then there is a problem, but this has yet to happen. In fact, all that has really happened is that the department of economics and econometrics has hired a large number of new faculty. Nothing has been done to displace older faculty, and no undergraduate course have been cut. I agree with you about the importance of a department such as notre dame's, with its traditional focus on heterodox methods, to not lose this completely, but this has not happened. Rather, the department is seeking to reach a point where it can successfully participate in mainstream economic dialog, in order to better serve the student body. Currently, as evidenced by the classes available at ND, heterodoxy is still alive here, even if it is weaker than it was in the past. (same anonymous as before)

Angie said...

As an economics and theology major, when asked what I study, I get one of two responses. It’s either, “Economics and theology, what do those have in common?” or “Wow, you could do all kinds of social justice work with that combination!” In reaction to the first, I am saddened, because so many people see economics and theology as incompatible. I get this response most often, even at a Catholic school like Notre Dame. But the second is disappointing too, because I don’t see my two majors intersecting as I would like. I wish I could study practical economic solutions to domestic poverty or see the implications of neoclassical theory for the marginalized or see where ethics can influence economic decision-making.

One of the main focuses in theology is how God’s concern for mankind, being created in His own image and cared for throughout redemptive history, gives humanity an inherent dignity. Yet, so many people are unemployed or struggling to make enough to care for their families. Should I really just shrug these off as “market imperfections?” Even a well-functioning free market seems to be increasing inequality in our country and world. If the capitalist market is supposed to best allocate scarce resources, why do some people have more money than they can spend while others, hard-working others, can barely scrape by? Many of my economics classes explained that even the poor in the U.S. are “better off” because they enjoy more luxuries than a century ago. But they live alongside people with iPods, blackberries, luxury cars, and tailored suits. It’s no wonder they feel left behind. There’s no good excuse for such disparity.

My first economics class was Professor Ruccio’s intro to micro-economics. I had never had an economics class before, in high school or anywhere else, but I was fascinated by the way he taught neoclassical theory from the basic assumptions to their logical conclusions. After being able to build the theory from the ground up, he spent the last few weeks questioning those assumptions and seeing what happens to the models when they are modified. He also gave a basic comparison with Marxian theory, showing how completely different theories emerge from having different assumptions and logic. I was hooked! It was okay, even encouraged, to ask critical questions, like “Are humans really always motivated by self-interest?” or “Who sets the prices?” or “What if the environment cannot sustain unlimited growth?” The class convinced me to be an economics major.

However, the more classes I took, the more disillusioned I became with neoclassical theory. It didn’t seem to mesh with the theology I was learning, and I knew that my personal happiness was rarely related to how many possessions I had accumulated. Do we really want an economy based off satisfying unlimited greed? Do we want to celebrate a system where people are often motivated by envy? Is capitalism a Christian way to organize the stewardship of resources? The Bible describes believers as holding possessions in common in the early church (Acts 2:44, 4:32). Maybe free markets aren’t enough to ensure universal flourishing. Maybe something like socialism or communism could work in certain contexts. My mainstream education didn’t answer these types of questions.

I learned the models and the math in intermediate micro and macro and took statistics and econometrics as well. These things seemed useful, and I learned from very talented professors, but I still didn’t feel equipped to solve any real-world problems. I didn’t even feel like I had a solid foundation for thinking about them. I looked at neoclassical theory, and I felt trapped. If I had a question, it seemed like it was just a matter of finding the right graph and eliminating market imperfections (unions, minimum wage, tariffs- don’t those prevent poor people and countries from being taken advantage of?). Too much underage drinking? Check the price elasticity of alcohol to see if a tax would help. Too many unemployed? Eliminate the minimum wage, so the wage can fall to equilibrium. The solutions sounded neat and tidy but too good to be true. Where was God in all this? Doesn’t public policy have ethical implications? What happens if the neoclassical solution was tried but failed?

Seeing Professor Ruccio was teaching another class, I signed up for Introduction to Political Economy. I had no idea what “political economy” even was, but at least I’d be encouraged to ask lots of questions. Imagine my surprise when I found out that there was not two economic theories but dozens! We got an overview of 8 alternatives to the neoclassical theory, each with its own unique assumptions and conclusions and each specializing in some concern or problem that the mainstream theory was seen as not adequately addressing. I finally felt free to analyze multiple choices to see which one made the most sense in my overall worldview. I wasn’t constrained by one set of assumptions that only seemed semi-plausible. I could debate and compare and criticize many theories side-by-side. One of the most surprising results was seeing how much better I understood neoclassical theory. By comparing what I had learned in my other classes with the new heterodox material, I began to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each. I had moved beyond memorization and inflexible models to challenging questions and multiple points of view.

Long story short, neoclassical theory left me wondering over and over again, what can I contribute? If I want to help alleviate poverty and serve the poor, is what I’m learning really preparing me for that? If I’m a neoclassical economist, won’t I just have the same set of solutions as everyone else? Where are the lessons learned in the other social sciences? Economics is a social science, right? Why is it presented as so rigid and universally applicable, then? Why haven’t I ever heard of the sociology of economics...or the political science of economics...or the theology of economics?

In summary, I find it outrageous that someone could easily graduate from Notre Dame, with a degree in economics, and not have learned that heterodox economic theories exist, are still debated, and have interesting and diverse answers to complex problems. In what other discipline do majors study just one theory? Even in theology, we study all the major heresies and theological problems from the very first required courses in order to better understand orthodoxy. I was so thirsty for plurality and ethical considerations in economics that I took Professor Ruccio three times. I really debated whether to restrict myself to one professor like that, but there just didn’t seem to be any other courses offered that strived to capture and analyze the diversity in economic discussion. While my foundation in neoclassical economics is surely valuable, the classes where I’ve felt most challenged and empowered to think in new ways are my political economy courses. I’ve met many other majors who feel the same way. Though his classes fill up so fast, I never fail to recommend Professor Ruccio when my peers ask for suggestions around darting time. I just wish there were more heterodox courses and professors available to meet the demand.

Robert Searle said...

TRANSFINANCIAL ECONOMICS.

A more useful, and valuable problem is to try, and understand the value of a new project of great importance called TRANSFINANCIAL ECONOMICS. Click on my name to find more....

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

I am an outsider who has just signed the petition. Back during the period when the new department was being proposed for establishiment and the move was being made to turn over the graduate program to it, the real problem here, I wrote a letter directly to the ND president at the time opposing all that. Given that, I wish to point out that the discussion on this blog has been very unclear about some points, with some of this spilling over into the peition, although not enough so that I could not sign it in good conscience.

First of all I would note that ND actually has three economics departments now, with there being another one in the business school, which has been completely unmentioned so far in any of this discussion. I gather there is no major associated with it, but I argued in my letter to the ND president back then that if somebody wanted a neoclassical grad program in econ at ND, they should just set one up in the already existing econ department in the biz school, without dismantling the important and unique one in the old, regular economics department, now the policy department. There was no need to set up a whole new and thoroughly redundant department (it is my understanding that much of this had to do with egomaniac games being played by ND deans at the time).

The other complication is that it is hard for an outsider to know what is currently the relationship between obtaining an undergrad economics major at ND and the two departments being discussed. Are there two majors, one for each department? If there is one major, can one take equivalent competing courses from either department, such as intermediate micro theory? Would these newly required courses apply to everyone taking a major in either department? Much of the back and forth between students here depends on this.

Needless to say, of course, presumably the new hires would be in the "old" department, and it may well be that at least part of this petition is to simply help avoid having that department completely starved of funds. I fear that as long as the new department is being "built up," that will be hard to achieve.

Also, to the students at ND who are unhappy about how much neoclassical econ you need to take. I would simply note that even now you are in a much better situation than at most US universities. You do have those folks in that old department available to you, even if they are currently in disfavor and being downgraded by the current administration. Most economics departments in the US do not have such folks at all, or maybe only one or two lone ones.

J. Barkley Rosser, Jr.
Professor of Eocnomics
James Madison University

Michael Meeropol said...

I have a modest proposal for the Department of Economics and Econometrics. It appears that the reason for the University's favoritism towards that department is the unexamined assumption that their approach to economics is more scientific, rigorous, and free from political bias. I propose that students at Notre Dame ask the members of that Department to "put their efforts where their words are".

They should conduct an experiment.

Have all the courses in Principles of Economics use one of the "alternative" texts (the Hunt and Sherman text is just being reissued -- ECONOMICS, AN INTRODUCTION TO TRADITIONAL AND PROGRESSIVE VIEWS -- there is also UNDERSTANDING CAPITALISM by Bowles, Edwards and Roosevelt and ECONOMICS: MARXIAN vs. NEO-CLASSICAL by Wolff and Resnick). All three texts give plenty of space to TRADITIONAL approaches to economics. All three texts -- each in its own way -- introduce the students to left-wing political economy.

Have the Department of Economics and Econometrics adopt one of those books for a year and then see how students who use the chosen text do at the intermediate theory level.

My guess is they will do just as well as those who have been taught using conventional texts but they will have left the year-long Principles sequence with a much broader understanding of economics as a social science.

(I am making this suggestion because I just participated in a roundtable as the Western Social Sciences Association related to the re-issue of Hunt and Sherman (together with new collaborators Nesiba, O'Hara and Wiens-Tuers) and I thought this re-issue would make a very useful entry into the Notre Dame debate!

Michael Meeropol
Professor and Chair
Department of Economics
Western New England College
Springfield, MA

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Some checking shows that what was once the "other" economics department at ND, the Department of Economics and Finance, is now simply the Department of Finance. Looking over its faculty shows quite a few who are still mostly, actually economists, but it is clear that the administration made a decision to move that department to being just finance, with some of its former faculty moving into the new Department of Economics and Econometrics.

Angie said...

To clarify about the seperate departments: as an undergraduate, there is only one economics major to choose in which you take a sequence of required courses, all (typically) taught from the NCl perspective. Any major can take courses in either economics department for credit toward the 10 classes total (6 of which are required). I believe the business students take their traditional economics courses through the economics department although there are a few classes (such as managerial economics) that appear to be in the business school. We do not address the business school in our petition, because none of us are a member of it and only know the situation within economics, which is in a seperate liberal arts college (called Arts and Letters) at ND. Furthermore, graduate students are assigned exclusively to the new NCl department.

a curious outsider said...

If I understand you correctly, you are leaving business school students out of it because none of you are business school students.

Just curious: Are any of you graduate students? It seems it would lend a lot of credibility to your opinions if you are.

If not, I suppose one would have to ask why you address the graduate program in your petition.

Economics said...

I guess international investors, or even domestic investors vote with their feet if they can't do some solid research or analysis.

But I've got a better conspiracy theory. Perhaps they have to produce 2 volumes of data, one labelled Truth and the other BS and they just don't have the time

Anonymous said...

Economic laws are not of the same caliber and integrity or universality as laws in the hard sciences. The Law of Supply, Law of Demand, Gresham's Law and Law of Diminishing Returns in scientific terms would have once qualified as hypotheses, but were disproven over the course of experimentation and analysis of natural market business operations, or at very best were proven in a control group or among a certain class of businesses or given extensive conditions needed to be satisfied in order to achieve adherence to these presupposed "laws," which do not qualify as generally applicable theories in mainstream science, but perhaps as case studies or maybe models which can be created with intention to create those results through adherence to a separate method of organization and operation. Economics professors, textbooks and practical business people often share their individual stories of how the "real world" did not match up to expecations from the "theoretical world" or paper-based knowledge set, and as such outliers and exceptions exist which nullify the possibilities that these commonly believed-to-be laws in economics are not, in fact, scientific laws. Economists are difficult to talk to at very best, show signs of dementia, delusion, paranoia, grandeur, narcissism and yet, autism, when asked to defend their beliefs about these "laws," which they can not due to scientific constraints. Bullies!

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