PCES Myth-Busting: One-and-a-Half Cheers for Maths

This is the third edition of our ‘PCES Myth Busting’ series, which will talk  about our view on the use of mathematics in economics (and for this reason may be a bit more technical than the others). The previous myth-busting post, which is about our relationship with the Manchester economics department, is here. You do not have to look hard to find arguments to the effect that criticising mainstream economics makes one anti-mathematics. According to a 2014 Financial Times article by John Kay: “much of the ‘heterodox economics’ the Manchester students suggest including is flaky, the creation of people…who cannot do the mathematics the dominant rational choice paradigm requires.” Blogger Tony Yates similarly quipped that “students wanting to draw the analogy between the financial crash and organic processes had better stop chatting about Austrian economics and start crunching exotic nonlinear ordinary differential equations.” In his review of our book The Econocracy, Michael Ben-Gad implied that we were unable to “master the language of mathematics and engage with the difficult task of understanding economies as complicated dynamic systems”.  There a few claims – implicit or explicit – in these quotes, which need unpacking: Disliking the use of maths in economics is a signal that you don’t understand maths. Disliking the use of maths in economics shows you don’t understand its connection to economic issues. Disliking the type of maths used in economics means that you dislike all types of maths. (1) is petty and shallow, but since it seems to come up so much it’s worth addressing briefly. If it were true that PCES, and more broadly Rethinking Economics, were all bad at maths, then those who champion...

PCES Myth Busting: Overthrowing the Department

This is the second edition of our ‘PCES Myth Busting’ series, which will talk  about our relationship with the Manchester economics department. The first edition, on neoliberalism, is here.  It is a common misconception that PCES, and the entire student movement, are hostile towards the economics department and seek to change absolutely everything that is taught and researched. Headlines about us have characterised us as wanting to ‘tear up [the] syllabus’; economists have said they feel we want to displace them as the mainstream; students have even told us that they feel joining the society might somehow put them in a precarious position with their exam marks! (Note to all freshers: exams are marked anonymously). Firstly, there is the obvious point (though it can’t be repeated enough) that advocating pluralism in teaching theories includes many that are currently taught, so there is no prima facie reason to expect that we would want to ‘overthrow’ the department. Asking for more is very different to rejecting what is on offer. As for students’ concerns about being penalised in exams or somehow disadvantaged by being involved with the PCES movement, surely students can only expect to gain a greater understanding of economics by engaging critically with it. However, it is potentially reasonable to suggest that if many in the department are somehow resistant to pluralism itself, we would have a hostile relationship to those individuals. Nevertheless, we have always maintained a friendly dialogue with the department. We have found lecturers such as Peter Backus, Ralf Becker and Diane Coyle share some of our concerns about teaching, even if we disagree with them on some things. Since the publication...

PCES Myth Busting: Post-Crash and Neoliberalism

This is the first post of our new ‘PCES Myth Busting’ series, which will tackle some popular misconceptions we have encountered about our camapign. This post will discuss our view of neoliberalism or ‘free market’ economics – broadly defined as the ideology in place in Anglo-American economies since the time of Thatcher and Reagan. While PCES has received some support from ‘right wing’ places such as the Institute for Economic Affairs, and former Tory chancellor George Osborne even expressed similar concerns to ours about economics education, we have found it difficult to shed the idea that we are part of a campaign against neoliberalism. Numerous sympathetic articles about PCES have positioned us as anti-free market; we are sometimes thought of as synonymous with the recent surge for Jeremy Corbyn; and people have even criticised us as contradicting our message when we host speakers perceived as too ‘right wing’ or establishment*. To put it plainly, PCES is not inherently for or against ‘neoliberalism’, however defined, and ultimately we find this an unhelpful dichotomy to be placed into. Our project concerns the narrow and abstract nature of economics education, an issue everybody should be concerned about no matter their political affiliation. We advocate pluralism, which would include everything ranging from Austrian economics  – commonly considered right wing – to Marxism, which is of course left wing. In between we have a range of approaches, from politically ambiguous ones such as mainstream economics, evolutionary economics and econophysics; to various strands of Keynesianism which are (loosely) social democratic; and also schools such as ecological and feminist economics which have an obvious focal point. Neither does the other pillar of our...