The More Things Change...
Back at the AEA, the strange, vexed relationship between the margins and mainstream was everywhere apparent: Heterodox ideas weren't hard to find, but heterodox economists were still consigned to their ghettos. At 10:15 on the second day, I headed down to a dreary and near-hidden room in the sub-basement of the Hyatt for "Plural Agency and Plural Subjects within Economics." There were not many people there. In fact, the only people who'd shown up were the presenters themselves. After waiting a few minutes to "give people a chance to find the room" the event started, and since it would have been a bit awkward for the panelists to sit and face an empty room, they opted instead to sit in the audience and listen while their co-panelist presented. John Davis, a professor of economics at Marquette, gave a talk that laid out a conception of human economic agents not as simple unified selves but as "diverse and heterogeneous."
After Davis's talk I went upstairs to catch a talk from a friend of mine, a bright young mainstream economist named Jesse Shapiro. The room was far easier to find and significantly more populated. Shapiro's co-author was presenting an experiment they'd just done to investigate how people evaluated the trade-offs between getting a certain amount of money immediately and waiting a short time (a week) for more money. In attempting to understand the different preferences, they used a model of agents with two distinct selves: a long-run self and short-run self, and posited that those with more developed "long-run selves" were the ones who'd wait the week for the extra money.
Here were economists with impeccable mainstream credentials, up-and-comers in the field offering an account of human agents with "multiple selves." And while the methodology was quite different from Davis's, the fundamental concept at the heart of both papers was the same: The human economic agent is not the unified entity neoclassical theory has held her to be. Downstairs, there had been no one around to hear Davis deliver his small bit of heresy; two floors above, it seemed to cause no stir at all. Shapiro didn't find this surprising. "The field is getting much more empirical," he tells me matter-of-factly.
A month after the conference, I went to talk more with David Ruccio in his Hyde Park apartment. He'd just returned from Brazil, glowing about a country where you could smoke indoors: "There is no repression here!" one of his hosts had told him when he asked if he could light up. Ruccio laughed and lit a cigarette, sitting next to a fireplace. I laid out for him my impressions of the AEA conference: If the mainstream itself is opening up, molting the restrictive Homo economicus and general equilibrium casing, then is the field changing? And does that mean that the worldview of neoliberalism, and market fetishistic policy prescriptions, are losing the important intellectual bedrock in which they are grounded?
Ruccio wasn't quite buying it. "There's a fracturing taking place," he conceded. "It's very hard to put your thumb on what neoclassical economics is. And yeah, there are new research agendas, but what gets taught at every institution in the country from undergraduate to graduate is the same utility-maximizing story. The teaching remains the same, and the policies remain the same."
He continued, "Some of the critiques, as has always been the case, are integrated in some fashion. They take in the critique in order to change the model but not upset the model." Behavioral economists, for example, don't generally argue for abandoning the general equilibrium model, instead choosing to see their work as adding "frictions" to it. "It's what drives people like me crazy," Ruccio went on. "Because the more disturbing questions are ignored--unequal power or exploitation, those critiques never come in. They say, Look, we've changed. And we look and say, No, you haven't."