How to Dump Economics (i)

Dear Art and Science of Economics,

For a long time I have been feeling uncomfortable. It could be me, not you. However, please understand that I have my reasons.

My decision to include you in my studies originated in a myriad of questions that I considered to be questions you can help me to pursue. I asked myself about poverty, the future of labour, food, trade and climate change. However, after three years of study I need to accept that something is missing in our relationship: You simply do not take them into account. And I have the impression that in a state of normal science, this won’t change.

This letter should explain what let me realize this and what I will try (still in progress, for part ii) to get over you – while keeping my character focussed on my questions. This story should also constitute a warning for others to not get involved with someone like you.

Several weeks ago, some members of the Arbeitskreis Plurale Ökonomik Bayreuth (AK) tried to talk to their economics professors of the University of Bayreuth (UBT). Admittedly, it has been an extremely dissatisfying experience.
Flashback: What in Bayreuth once started as some phenomenological worry of undergraduate students, trying to find help in self-organised circular lectures and plenary sessions, has found its (preliminary) culmination point in the International Student Initiative for Pluralism. Yes, students around the globe share the sceptical doubts about the method and ethical implications of economics. They criticize the disciplinary monism which constitutes an increasing part of thinking in our western culture and goes on to endanger the variety of other (scientific) cultures; see the article on the ISIPE movement.

Asking our nine professors of economics for their personal opinion on the ISIPE Open Letter has been, already in its early moments, an odd thing: They objected to the idea of talking to them person-to-person, e.g., during their office hours. Before that, they had two internal meetings to handle our request and selected three – lets call them – delegate professors. Without any statement of reasons we were then asked how many members of the AK would participate in a round-table; it was not desired that we talk to them privately. I can only guess what internal debate caused this closed-shop reaction.

Once in the round-table, they did not hesitate to haul off directly: They cannot understand that we, as students of the UBT, have appended our signatories under the Open Letter. No good PR, isn’t it? It would merely be the case that the UBT stands out as a positive example of research and training in a pluralistic fashion: Interdisciplinary programs and courses in Behavioural, Experimental and New Institutional Economics – and (!) courses organised by the AK (e.g. on Money and Finance, Evolutionary Economics and the Anthropology of Economics) would make the accusation of merely unreflecting, unhistorical monism in Bayreuth untenable. Surprisingly, one of the professors added in soft voice that the well-covered criticism is grounded in envy, simply due to… success: Economics constitutes the most successful social science, with regard to its young age – I will not raise a historically informed debate about the origins of economics here – and its predictive power. Another professor adds that its not only predictive power that counts but merely the gain of insights when applying the (unificatory) economic method in fields such as development, law, politics, marriage etc. In addition to that, the application of that method in disciplines such as political science (“they do not even have a method”) would even help to create a productive, competitive environment in these areas. Unrealisticness and missing life-experience does not constitute a valid point of criticism; economists apply, that is what they do.

They think in “falling demand curves”, “incentives” and “constraint maximization calculus”. They accused us of the categorical mistake (?) of mixing up “Ökonomik” (economics) with “Wirtschaftswissenschaften” (economics, literally to be translated as “economy studies”?). According to them, economics is defined by its method, not by some subject area, even less by the questions of some undergraduate students: Our ethical worries, e.g. with regard to the economic penetration of our life-world and the life of others, e.g. in Greece, form part of the “discipline” of Ethics. And Ethics has by definition nothing to do with Economics (what would Aristotle or Aquinas say?). Economist simply apply, others are responsible. Entre nous, you never heard of responsibility science?
But seriously, we have simply chosen the wrong discipline of study and, on top of that, do not understand what economics means.

It will not commit the mistake of extending the position of those honourable men to all economists. I have thought that you, economics, can be thought differently, especially (in my early days) in Bayreuth: With regard to its roots, its historical development over the last, say 150 years, with regard to epistemology, global problems and ethical implications. I still think one can – but within a discipline of economics as I experience it in Bayreuth, there is not enough room to think.

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