Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

This is a short(ish) review of the INET Paris Conference (8-11 April 2015 at the OECD).  INET announced that Clive Cowdrey, of the Resolution Foundation, has joined their Governing Board. To get an idea what this means for INET, watch his speech about inequality at the Opening Plenary here (32:45 to 41:50).

My personal opinion is that INET are sucessfully challenging the orthodoxy. At times, however, this can be slow and inward-looking, especially when the grounds of the debate themselves are unchallenged. My conference notes include examples of speakers referring to 'negative equilibrium real rates', the 'Bernanke-Summers debate', 'QE being better than nothing' and 'the transition to markets (as) the challenge ahead' - as if the agenda were only set by the world's media.

However, I didn't go to hear familiar debates, but to hear new ones. Andrew Sheng joked about adding 'tragédie' to the conference title 'liberté, égalité, fraternité'... to spell 'LEFT'. In that vein, he spoke about central banks 'not knowing how to reduce their balance sheets' and the spillover costs of QE to developing economies. He concluded by arguing that central banks have minimal control of 'final settlement' in the markets. Given there is so much media rhethoric about returning to normal, the illusion of central bank control needed to be challenged.

On that same, LEFTish theme, Lord Turner discussed fiscal policy, suggesting we should not accept slow growth but consider 'debt write offs, defaults or monetizations' with explicit and permanent government deficits financed by the central bank. On Greece, Lord Turner thought that 'exit or restructuring are inevitable'. Given almost everyone in the UK talks about balancing the government's books, this puts Lord Turner somewhere alongside the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru.

Gerald Epstein's research strikes me as a little odd, given the general public are in little doubt that central banks have been captured by financial interests. However, the ensuing discussion led me to this post by Rob Parentheau, where he describes Eurozone QE as 'a mutual assisted suicide pact with finanzkapital in the eurozone'. Presumably, there is no Hippocratic Oath to prevent the doctor/economist/finance minister administering long bouts of intolerable pain.

INET finally had a panel on Africa and capital flight. The problem was defined by Vera Mshana: 'Africa loses more from capital flight than it receives in aid'. The chief beneficiaries of these flows are European banks, who are often closely entangled with corrupt regimes according to Léonce Ndikumana. Surprisingly, data on who might, or might not be, considered corrupt is co-ordinated by Reuters via World Check. The panel were passionate about making the system better and, as the discussion reminded us, much of the capital flight from Africa is a consequence of profit-seeking and transfers to an offshore parent company.

In summary, this was a good conference, provided you avoided familiar names and re-hashed debates. With the Resolution Foundation on board, the direction of future research looks promising.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

"We should all be pluralist now"


At the first QAA meeting to discuss the UK economics curriculum, a senior academic said that "we should all be pluralist now". After 15 months, the review of standards against which UK degrees are peer reviewed is drawing to a close. The revised subject benchmark statement for economics (SBSE) will be published this summer, in time for the 2015-16 academic year.

During the consultation, I finished my PhD and took up a Senior Lecturer position at De Montfort University. However, I continued to work with the committee, along with Joe Richards from Rethinking Economics, and to push for a statement that meets academic and student calls for greater pluralism.

Below are my comments after the last meeting, on 1st June 2015. The final decision on wording lies with the committee chair, and RES Executive Committee member, Eric Pentecost. I am broadly in favour of the changes agreed so far, on the basis that it is better to publish than delay another 12 months, and be stuck with the more narrowly defined 2007 SBSE QAA.

I collected a lot of material during this process. Where these are in the public domain, I have added them to an open Mendeley project. I also archived the ISIPE student letter materials and correspondence from their Basecamp project, including the supporters list: this material is available to ISIPE members on request. I have early correspondence from setting up Rethinking Economics, and was given a copy, by Robert Skidelsky, of his correspondence regarding INET and the CORE project. If you are interested in using this material for research, please get in touch.

Although I am no longer a PhD student, I am actively involved as a Trustee for Post-Crash Economics... the campaign for pluralism goes on!

Post-Consultation Draft SBSE Comments
Neil Lancastle
1 June 2015

Nature and context of economics

This section is improved by dropping the word ‘scarce’; re-wording to include ‘phenomena’, ‘past and present’ and ‘evolve’; including finance (‘financial stability and instability’) and distribution as dynamic analyses; adding ‘historical, political, institutional, social and environmental contexts’; ‘evidence-based’ and including 'qualitative data analysis'.

I preferred the previous wording ‘the study of economics requires an understanding of resources, agents, institutions and mechanisms’ to ‘various interpretations of commonly observed economic phenomena exist, due to observational equivalence, and hence explanations many be contested’. The new sentence would be improved without the middle phrase, ie: simply ‘various interpretations of commonly observed economic phenomena exist, and hence explanations may be contested’.

The addition of ‘ethical’ as a context would deal, in part, with consultation suggestions to emphasise ethics.

The additional wording ‘methodology of science’ seems unnecessary.

Section 2.3 is much improved, and suggests interdisciplinary thinking.

The aims of degree programmes in economics

This section is improved with the bullet point ‘to foster an understanding of alternative approaches…’ although I prefer the wording ‘different and frequently contested ways…’

There are other improvements: appreciate ‘the criteria for simplification’; including the word ‘welfare’ and adding the bullet point ‘to develop in students an ability to interpret real world economic events and critically assess a range of types of evidence’.

Subject knowledge and understanding

This section is much improved, in particular dropping the phrases 'core' and ‘a coherent core’; including a study of ‘financial cycles… the role of money creation, banking and the financial system’; and removing the repetition of numeracy skills in multiple paragraphs.

I would prefer ‘understand different methodological approaches’ rather than ‘appreciate different methodological approaches’.

Subject-specific skills and other skills

This is much improved by the addition of Section 5.2 on skills that employers value (evidenced research, communication, economic history and context, pluralism, interdisciplinary synthesis, critical judgment, proportionality and awareness of limitations).

The transferable skills have been improved by the inclusion of ‘psychological biases’; expected re-wording by the chair of the sections around equilibrium, dis-equilibrium and dynamics; inclusion of ‘conflicts of interest’; and a bullet point on markets and market failure.

The subject-specific skills would appear to be common to other subjects (abstraction; analysis, deduction and induction; quantification; and framing)…I don’t think it makes sense to delay publication, but perhaps the QAA can advise on a more appropriate section heading.

The section on numeracy is improved: it is written in simpler English, and includes critical thinking about the sources and selective use of data. The more general wording would seem to address the consultation suggestion to encompass big data and new data sources.

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

This section is improved by including ‘use of practitioners’ as a teaching approach; and by the broadening of 'context' to include historical, political, institutional, international, social and environmental (but see above regarding ethical context).

Benchmark Standards

This section is improved by replacing ‘economic theory and’ with ‘economic theories (and) interpretations’; and by the broadening of 'context' to include historical, political, institutional, international, social and environmental (but see above regarding ethical context).