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Hip Heterodoxy

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"They wanted a more highly ranked economics department as part of a more highly ranked university, and as long as we were eclectic we wouldn't do that," David Ruccio told me recently. Ruccio is one of the department's stars, a wildly popular professor who has been teaching intro economics to undergrads for twenty years. He specializes in postmodern economics and Latin American political economy. With his curly white hair and goatee, working-class inflection and ubiquitous Marlboros, he's the very model of the cool, rebellious professor. When I asked him if his wife was an economist, he was horrified: "Oh, God no!" he said. "She's an anthropologist."

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Christopher Hayes
Christopher Hayes
Chris Hayes, Editor-at-Large of The Nation, hosts “All In with Chris Hayes” at 8 p.m. ET Monday...

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Ruccio emerged as de facto spokesperson for his heterodox brethren at Notre Dame. The administration "made a number of threats to close down the program unless we published in the top five journals," he says. "We resisted that. They brought in an outside chair to punish us and then they...decided to create a new 'real department of economics' and make us the department of 'flaky economics.'" One department, which would focus on neoclassical economics, would get the name Department of Economics and Econometrics, as well as the money to hire several new tenure-track professors and the bulk of grad students, and the other, called the Department of Economics and Policy Studies, would be the home of the heterodox economists (who, it should be noted, constituted the majority of the department). Crucially, though, the heterodox department would be frozen out of the graduate student admissions process: Of the five-person graduate committee, four of the seats went to the neoclassical department.

"We opposed the split," Ruccio says with wearied agitation, "the college council opposed the split. Then through a series of machinations, the chair and the president of the university got the academic council to support it. It was very ugly. We know of no other situation in the world where this exists."

And how did they justify the split? "The official line was, These were--let me see if I get this right--'separate but equal.'"

Richard Jensen, the neoclassical chair of the department, defended the split as solely an issue of "standards." But it's precisely the validity of those standards that's at issue. "They don't see themselves as cleansing alternative approaches," says Frederic Lee. "They simply see themselves as saying, This is good economics, and that's bad economics."

Of course, all disciplines set up boundaries, basic methodologies and ways of knowing and deny membership and recognition to those practitioners who work outside those boundaries. Doctors will say faith healers--or midwives, or acupuncturists--aren't engaging in medicine, and biologists routinely point out that intelligent design theorists aren't engaging in science. But at the same time some mainstream economists dismiss heterodox work as quackery, others claim that the mainstream has actually assimilated many of the heterodox critiques. (You'll note that these two responses, both fairly common, are also logically incompatible.) Economist and author Diane Coyle devotes much of her new book, The Soulful Science, to defending the field against charges of autism. "My years as a graduate student, 1981-85, saw the high water mark of neoclassical economics of the kind which is still the target of critics," she writes. "One of the reasons the tide turned is that the kind of models which became popular (especially among impressionable graduate students) in the late 1970s and the early '80s acted as a kind of reductio ad absurdum. The attempt to explain business-cycle fluctuations in growth and inflation as the equilibrium outcome of a model with identical, perfectly informed rational agents was, on just a little reflection, pretty silly."

In his keynote talk to the Association of Social Economists, environmental economist John Gowdy referred to this as the "Clint Eastwood defense: 'We ain't like that no more.'" But he then added that in some respects it was true. The mainstream, he said, has "gone beyond the free-market ideology. There's a wide variety of empirical work being published." The empirical work that Gowdy and other heterodox economists tend to cite most is that of behavioral economists, those who study how humans actually reason about economic decisions, calculate risk and respond to incentives. What they routinely find is that the rational utility maximizer of the neoclassical model is a convenient fiction. A growing literature shows humans to be systematically biased in their calculations of risk, disposed to punish antisocial behavior, even at a cost to themselves. By creating a framework for empirically testing one of the founding axioms of the field, behavioral economics has opened a space for dissenters that can get a hearing from the mainstream. If you were to draw an intellectual Venn diagram of mainstream and heterodox economics, the behavioral economists would be in the intersecting section.

But despite the fact that much of their work is devoted to upending Homo economicus, the behavioralists have achieved widespread mainstream acceptance. Daniel Kahneman, who helped establish the field along with his late colleague Amos Tversky, won the Nobel Prize for his work in 2002. So then one has to ask, Just what set of characteristics defines what gets to be called "mainstream economics"? And the answer can seem maddeningly circular: Mainstream economics isn't defined so much by some limited set of ideas or approaches. Mainstream economics is that work done by mainstream economists and published in mainstream journals.

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