Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Campaigning for the long-run at the Post-Crash fringe

The fantastic Post-Crash Manchester held a fringe event to the Royal Economic Society (RES) conference. What better than a discussion between Victoria Chick and Diane Coyle? We heard their very different views on pluralism, on the openness of the RES and other institutional barriers to change.

For Diane Coyle, the problems are a 'gap' between between research and the curriculum, and a 'gap' in public understanding. While she accepts that some economists in the US might simply 'add a little bit of financial friction in DSGE models' she thinks it is a mistake to say that UK economics is monolithic.  Her vision of a pluralist curriculum was one motivated by questions and evidence, where history matters, economies are dynamic and we do not have a grand, unified theory that works in all contexts.

For Victoria Chick, the 'castle had been captured' by a scientific model, a 'mechanical elephant' that replaced dialogue between schools. Yet discussing the source of our differences, like the Sufi elephant in the parable, is much more informative. Economists used to agree to differ, and tell their own stories, but we learn less that way and 'the last thing we want to do is bicker and be indecisive'. Victoria said the same principles apply today between heterodox and mainstream economists.

In the workshop sessions, we had already swapped stories about barriers to change. Economics students at LSE take the very good LSE 100 course which asks big questions such as 'how should we manage climate change?' using 'different approaches to evidence, explanation and theory' from across the social sciences, but there are no credits awarded. At Glasgow, a six-week Post-Keynesian course by Alberto Paloni was being supported by undergraduate teachers. At Manchester, the heterodox economist who taught their 'Bubble, Panics and Crashes' course was on a temporary contract and 'let go' when the course was dropped. These are real barriers, with long-term impacts on those involved.

The audience questions about institutional barriers brought very different responses. Diane had already suggested that 'you only get one chance at this' because under the research excellence framework (REF) funding goes towards research, not teaching: she did not know how students could change the REF. Diane also disagreed that the direction of change at Manchester was too narrow, and thought that the RES was 'absolutely open to debate'. Victoria, on the other hand, found these institutional factors to be 'very problematic' with the general impression that the RES did not want to create space for discussion, a 'citation cartel' in economics and an 'invisible college'.

Diana had asked the meeting to 'appreciate efforts to reach out and help when it is there', yet I was left with the sense that other schools are being used but not recognised. If promotion depends on citation levels, yet you were not cited during the era of the 'mechanical elephant', you have already left the profession. Addressing this goes beyond research ethics, much as the RES could learn from the AEA. It requires recognition of key contributions despite their publication in heterodox journals. That requires discussion, humility and intellectual honesty. The system for promoting academics needs to be more flexible, and to reward and encourage innovative research and teaching.  For many in the room, these are campaigns that have, and will continue to take, a lifetime.