Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Non-conformism in academia

In economics, there is the mainstream and various heterodox fractions that do not identify with the mainstream or each other. Too many, the heterodox seem like annoying and useless chatter. But they fulfill an important role, which is to keep those in the mainstream on their toes. This is part of the scientific process: challenge long and widely held views to check whether they are still valid. And even if the challenge is wrong, it makes those in the mainstream think about the axioms the build their theories on.

Vela Velupillai makes the case that dissenters are typically silenced by the mainstream, but may prevail in the long-run, citing many examples of mathematical economics, in particular the work of Pietro Sraffa. And this is really what tenure is good for: a dissenter will have much trouble publishing but may ultimately still contribute a lot to scientific advances.

We are in times were dissenters seems to have a more receptive audience. Indeed, the current crisis is seen by some as a failure of Economics, thus it is easy to criticize it. But it also highlights that dissenting can be very distracting if it is poorly focused, uniformed and populist. In this regard the recent dissenting by Colander, Krugman and Stiglitz has, I think been counterproductive, as I have occasionally discussed here. It is good to criticize the fundamental assumptions of the mainstream. It is better, but not necessary to offer alternatives. But it is counterproductive to dissent on the basis of a old read of the literature, and a literature that has in the meanwhile evolved to address these supposedly new criticisms.

Heterodox Economics has thus gained a fresh wind, simply because it is different from the mainstream. But what does it have to offer? Peter Skott, a heterodox economist himself, argues that it is still far from being an viable alternative. While heterodox approaches usually reject microeconomic foundations in macroeconomics, they should not throw out the baby with the bath water, i.e., ignore microeconomics altogether. And while the heterodox analysis for income distribution has focused on the labor income share, the large changes in income inequality happened within labor income. Finally, the heterodox literature is just as guilty of ignoring many of the suddenly relevant intricacies of the world of finance.

There is still a lot of work to do, and instead of pursuing an excess of mutual accusations and claiming Economics is useless, it seems much more appropriate to put more resources into making it better, heterodox or mainstream. After all, medical research was not defunded when the HIV/AIDS epidemic made ravages.

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