Echoes of France’s Post-Autistic Economics movement are resounding. In the New Economics Foundation newsletter: Sept/Oct 2001 we read that 27 Cambridge economics PhD students issued a letter calling for a debate about the way economics is carried out – and an end to the mathematical abstractions that bear no relation to the real world. It was said that most of them were so afraid of the reaction of economics departments that they ‘stayed anonymous’. The website set up then is still active – see www.paecon.net – under the name ‘Real World Economics Review’. Twelve years later, in Manchester, students had no such fears.
In September’s FT, David Pilling describes a gathering of seven undergraduates in the university’s student union who listened to a brief PowerPoint presentation explaining what was wrong with the economics curriculum. The Post-Crash Economics Society was founded.
Pilling continues, “The students had gathered in response to an email which read ‘In the middle of the biggest global recession for 80 years, students across the world are questioning the very foundations of our discipline’. It asked whether the economics they were learning, dominated by mathematical formula and abstract models, was relevant to the real world. “How far can economics be called a real science?” it prodded, an allusion to academic economists’ tendency to present their equations and mathematical identities as iron laws rather than imperfect attempts to model unpredictable human interactions. Isn’t economics, they suggested, really more like politics than physics?”
He comments that it is hardly surprising that after the sharpest economic crisis since the Wall Street crash and an even more prolonged sense of malaise, which has provoked political upheavals across Europe and the US, the economics profession is under profound pressure:
The most glaring failure of mainstream economics, the students argue, is its failure to explain, much less foresee, the financial crash of 2008. Joe Earle, a founder of Post-Crash Economics says this was not mentioned once during his entire first year at Manchester in 2011. Rather, his lecturers appeared to believe in a rational economic system that was largely self-correcting, one that would return naturally to a state of equilibrium.
Pilling mentions similar developments at Cambridge, Goldsmiths College, the University of Greenwich and University College London. He adds that Post-Crash Economics itself has folded into Rethinking Economics, a registered charity that links more than 40 student groups pressing for curriculum changes in campuses from Italy to Canada and from China to Brazil (above and map).
Pilling: “The revolt over the curriculum has implications far beyond academia. Today’s students are, after all, tomorrow’s trained economists, who will be running our economies from their desks in government, banks, multilateral institutions and think tanks. What students learn about how economies work and how governments can influence outcomes will have a profound impact on future policies covering everything from tax and spending to interest rates, minimum wages, greenhouse gas emissions and trade”.