Economic Council of Tribal Elders

This is a self-explanatory letter I have written to Professor Richard Lipsey. It was a Saturday afternoon, my most whimsical moment of the week. I have re-read it now on Monday morning, my least whimsical moment, and it still works for me. While my proposal for encouraging change was not intended to be taken literally, something really does need to be done.

Dear Professor Lipsey

I hope you won’t mind my invading your email account but following your posting on the SHOE website, I wanted to continue that conversation because I think this is an issue of no small importance. I have posted the correspondence up on my blog so you can look at my more considered thoughts here.

About myself, I will mention only four things: (1) Canadian born and educated though living in Australia for the past forty years, I have learned and taught from your Positive Economics; (2) I have been trying in my own way to save the history of economic thought from oblivion an outcome it seems destined to achieve [see my Defending the History of Economic Thought (Elgar 2013)]; (3) I am in the smallest of all current heterodox groups – the John Stuart Mill Classical School of Economic Theory for which I have written the textbook: Free Market Economics: an Introduction for the General Reader (Elgar 2nd ed 2014); and (4) virtually all of my career was spent in politics as the Chief Economist for Australia’s national organisation of employers which has warped my approach to issues, both economic and academic (see below).

I think there is a crisis in economics at the moment that no one is facing up to. The Queen supposedly put her finger on it by asking why no one had forecast the GFC. I think the crisis comes from no one being able to guide us out of the recession. You will have seen that I think that is because of the Keynesian models we have embedded, on which I may be right or wrong. But what troubles me is that no one has made a serious effort to revisit economic theory and worry over where the problem is. If I were to be classified using any of the modern schools, I would probably find myself, like you, within the Evolutionary Economics camp (my close associate at RMIT is Jason Potts who I understand is well known in this area). But whatever fuss has been made seems very muted, so muted I have been unable to detect anything at all.

In fact, until I read your post, I had no idea that you had these views. There may be many others who hold views similar to your own, who are, like yourself, individuals with genuine stature who are concerned about the way things are going. The minute I saw your post, I knew whatever thoughts others may have had to take potshots at me – and there may well have been none – they would be instantly suppressed. I am also very conscious of how narrow economic theory is, but as presently designed, it is both seductive and empty. The MC=MR diagram drives me crazy, and I won’t teach it, and in fact, instruct anyone who has ever come across it, to do all they can to forget it. Yet everyone who has learned it, cannot be lured away from its seductive grasp. I make the notion of equilibrium something that should be shunned and a concept devoid of serious economic content but on it goes even though economies are absolutely open ended and with so many cross-currents, the very notion is pointless. I think the stimulus was as deranged as anything I have ever seen inflicted on a peacetime population in my life but seriously, aside from myself, no one seems to be taking up arms against the underlying theory that has led to these policy outcomes. But my point is that although everyone can understand what is in my text, their careers would be cut dead if any of them ventured into this kind of territory, enemy territory to the mainstream (although a couple of them have, brave souls).

The nature of what we teach and the way we restrict what is in and what is not in, so far as a mainstream department goes, is astonishing. For whatever reason, the latitude given is near zero. You could drop your first edition into any course today and it would hardly make a difference compared with the latest, most up-to-date text just off the press. I came back to teaching after 35 years away and I didn’t have to learn a single new thing.

I don’t know whether there is something that can be done. But an Economic Council of Tribal Elders made up of people like yourself seems to me to be the only answer. A student uprising, as at Manchester and discussed by Hugh Goodacre, can only go so far but must stop. No one will pay attention, and I’m afraid, no one should either. But persons such as yourself in league with others of a similar stature, people who are no longer worried about contract renewals and finding their next job, can make the difference that I think needs to be made.

You must know others like yourself who are dissatisfied with the mainstream plod. Perhaps it is too hard, but perhaps it is also not too late.

With kindest best wishes.