Wednesday, December 18, 2013

First They Shoot the Doctors, Later They Come for the Patients

Robert Vienneau on his Blog “Thoughts on EconomicsHERE  posts a disturbing piece of news about what seems to be happening across economics faculties worldwide.  The are attempts to downgrade History of Economic Thought courses, journals and research papers in Australia; similar trends in North America and now this in The Netherlands. 
The bias seems to be in favour of mathematic formalism which is less and less about the real world and more and more about ‘lets assume’ we can write the equations for a world that does not exist and call it “science”.  Unfortunately, the real world in which human societies have evolved is messy beyond the imaginations of those whose opening lines include the word “assume”.   Moreover, there is no consensus on how economies actually work and there are many views as to which favoured aspects are relevant.  This makes the history of ideas important, because the people who have made suggestions have a place in evaluating any proposals that may get air-time among politicians who might adopt said ideas and make millions of people unhappy with what happens as a result (net of their fees).
Yes, that’s difficult to contemplate.  But knowing nothing about past ideas that didn’t work or wasn’t tried is just asking to risk repeating them.
I am particularly concerned that Marcel Boumans and Harro Maas are named as being among the victims of the purges in the University of Amsterdam.  I know them and appreciate their work in the history of Economic Thought and the Methodology of Economics (the latter is heavily slanted to quantitative methodology). 
Well first they shoot the doctors and later they come for the patients.
Robert Vienneau has performed a singular good service in posting notice of what went on at Amsterdam.  It is warning to all those working in the field of economics.  I post it below:
"For most of my time over ten years at the University of Amsterdam my research and that of my colleagues was strongly supported. (I taught three courses every second fall term, and took leave from Marquette.) Unfortunately over the last two years people in leadership positions there at the faculty of economics decided that the history and methodology of economics (HME) was not important, and in conditions of a financial emergency associated with chronic budget shortfalls closed down the HME group. That included sacking my very accomplished and, in our field, well-respected colleagues Marcel Boumans and Harro Maas, who had been associate professors there for many years, and ending the chair position in HME, which I held, which had been at the faculty for decades. We had six courses in the history and methodology of economics; engaged and enthusiastic students; a research group of up to a dozen people; a master degree in HME; PhD students; and a required methodology course for bachelor students. I do not think there was a better program in the world in our field. We also had great interaction with the London School of Economics, the history of economics people at Duke University, history of economics people in Paris, and the Erasmus Institute for Philosophy and Economics. The HME group was internationally recognized, and attracted students from across the world. Our financial footprint, in fact, was quite small compared to other groups, and by a number of measures of output per person we were more productive than many other research groups at Amsterdam.
Since I fully believe the faculty financial emergency could have been addressed without eliminating the group, I can only put what happened down to prejudice against our field, plus the usual on-going territorial aggrandizing that has been a key factor in the elimination of history of economics from most American universities. It is interesting to me also, that with a few exceptions, members of the economics faculty at Amsterdam made no effort on the HME group’s behalf to resist what happened or even personally expressed regret or concern to those who lost their jobs. I find this reprehensible.
The loss of this program was a blow to our field. There are now few places in the world training PhD students in history and/or methodology of economics. So in the final analysis the situation for economics and philosophy is mixed: considerable achievement with an uncertain future. Great weight, in my view, should be placed on restoring PhD training in the field, something that is being done, for instance, through generous grants from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Duke University under Bruce Caldwell." -- John B. Davis (2012). Identity Problems: An interview with John B. Davis, Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, V. 5, Iss. 2 (Autumn): pp. 81-103.


Blogger shtove said...

Sad story.

This needs explaining:

"over the last two years people in leadership positions there at the faculty of economics decided that the history and methodology of economics (HME) was not important, and in conditions of a financial emergency associated with chronic budget shortfalls closed down the HME group."

Who appoints the leaders?

2:57 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thanks for your comment.
Appointments in leadership positions in Econ. departments usually go through a University official format, conducted by other professors, sometimes by existing Heads before retirement. Other faculty may be consulted (most appointed by the previous profs. who often agree with the existing leader and seek a new leader they approve of. In time, staff change and minority positions lose influence, exacerbated by squeezed budgets, and are isolated. Competition for new posts increases, factions supporting candidates in their image.
In economics, non-mathematical subjects lose out to "frontier" maths which may have lost contact with the real world but impress profs in the other faculties. In short, departmental politics! Good field geologists lose to model-building geologists, I hear.

9:09 pm  

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