Inconsistent Criticism: A response to Tony Yates

The morning after Aditya Chakrabortty’s BBC Radio 4 programme Teaching Economics after the Crash, ex Bank of England macroeconomist Tony Yates wrote a piece on his blog calling it “a distorting dramatization”, which allowed “multiple silly, uninformed critiques to go unchallenged”. He suggested that the BBC documentary was selective and biased and amounted to an abuse of trust of its listeners who expect Radio 4 “to explain things how they really are”.

Yates is good at finding bias in things that don’t conform to his point of view. When the FT covered our Bubbles, Panics and Crashes module, he attacked their economics reporter as “one-sided”. Nevertheless, he provided useful ammunition for our critics who held his blog aloft to illustrate the shortcomings of the student pluralist economics movement. For those who want to discredit the documentary and especially the debate it highlights, his footnoted ex Bank of Englander critique was perfectly timed. We have no interest in rebutting his blog point by point, but we do wish to set a few facts straight.

Crucially, Yates would like to make out the radio programme was a head to head between heterodox and mainstream economics. But as was suggested by the title, the programme was actually about students at eight universities in the UK and over fifty groups around the world calling for more pluralism and critical thinking in our economics education. It was therefore a study of an international protest movement, rather than a survey of all economics or even of financial crises. It deliberately gave students chunks of airtime alongside professors, of whatever persuasion.

Yates insinuates that the University of Manchester werent offered a chance to explain why they didn’t run the Bubbles, Panics and Crashes module or the lecturer’s contract. Actually, the programme gives right of reply to Diane Coyle in her new role as economics professor here. She is, we understand, the sole candidate put forward by the university. The trouble is that she was only appointed this September to teach at Manchester one day a week and wasn’t even at the University when we ran the course. Certainly, we would have preferred to hear from one of the faculty members who was involved in the decision to pull our module. We even asked some of our Manchester professors to appear on the programme and represent their point of view but they declined.

Yates was also unhappy about being given “Steve Keen’s revelations as unchallenged fact even though this is exactly how economics is taught at universities across the UK, only with mainstream economics in place of Keen’s. The important difference is that this is a short programme covering student campaigns for reform and its academic supporters; and there is far less space than in an economics degree to cover multiple perspectives. Our campaign is based on introducing alternative perspectives like Steve Keen’s alongside mainstream economic theory, so that students can develop the tools to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and make reasoned judgements about which are best suited to analysing particular economic questions. The crucial point of our argument is that no economic theory should be taught as unchallenged fact. Yates on the other hand appears to think that that privilege should be granted solely to his traditions.

Perhaps in another world – one where Steve Keenonomics was dominant – Yates would be a member of the Post-Crash Economics Society. However, in this world Yates’ calls for more contestation in the radio show while rejecting it in economics education are hypocritical. Yates believes that his way of doing economics is the only valid approach and as a result does not need to be contested. In contrast, Karl Whelan’s response, whilst we ultimately do not agree with it, gives a much more humble, balanced and we would argue better reasoned rebuttal of our criticisms of economics education.

Yates then goes after our former lecturer, Devrim Yilmaz, arguing that the syllabus of the course he wanted to put on (which is available online) shows that he clearly isn’t familiar with modern literature of mainstream economics on financial crises. Similar claims were made in an earlier blog piece from Yates exclusively about the Bubbles, Panics and Crashes course. These claims do not stand up to scrutiny. Our lecturer has a PhD from the University of Manchester, an institution that is well regarded for mainstream economic research. He also taught a version of this course at the University of York.

There is an obvious inconsistency between Yates defending the University of Manchester at length elsewhere, yet suggesting one of its relatively recent alumni is unaware of modern mainstream macroeconomics. It is much more reasonable to suggest that our lecturer has learnt about multiple theories and come to different conclusions about the best way to study macroeconomics. We applaud the Post-Crash ethos that is present in this way of thinking.

Yates’ criticisms of the other participants are similarly uncharitable. He fails to recognise that in a 38 minute radio programme for the general public, shortish excerpts from much more extensive interviews are necessary. Given that format, anyone would struggle to convey all the nuances and qualifications to statements about the use of rational choice in mainstream economic theory or the implications of General Equilibrium Theory – let alone the likes of Andy Haldane, George Soros, and Steve Keen, all of whom Yates appears to judge as being inferior economists.

Then again, Yates himself could be accused of inaccurate and misleading oversimplifications in his blog. For example, he claims that “papers in top journals are literally drenched in Keynes” but he doesn’t acknowledge that this is mostly ‘new-Keynesian’ economics. This approach typically retains a similar methodological framework to new classical models, adding frictions such as sticky prices or borrowing constraints but often losing some of Keynes’ key insights such as the importance of fundamental uncertainty, liquidity preference and the volatility of financial markets.

We agree that the things Soros, Haldane, Keen and Chang say on the programme are only the beginning of the conversation and not the end, which is why we want critical perspectives such as these on the syllabus. Yet economics students only get served up the side of the story Yates supports for all three years of their undergraduate education, with little critical evaluation and virtually no alternative perspectives. Unlike Yates, we do not claim to know that the theories others support are completely wrong and unworthy of a place on the curriculum. We are simply challenging the right of anyone to define by fiat what is good and bad economics. Calling 38 minutes coverage on Radio 4 (which is shorter than one lecture) of students asking for a broader economics education “propaganda”, while ignoring the lack of contestation in economics education is surely inconsistent and misguided.

Running through this argument about economics education is another theme: the right to democratic debate about a subject vital not just to salaried academics or students but to society at large. On the basis of his blogs, Yates would like to shut down debate, whether it is started by the BBC, by students or by the Bank of England’s Andy Haldane, by dismissing them all as wrong. This cannot be right.

In fact, we invited Yates up to Manchester to come and have a debate about macroeconomics with Steve Keen and George Cooper and he declined, suggesting he didn’t have the time. Perfectly understandable, yet Yates spends an awful lot of time rubbishing our campaign on the internet. So let us again extend our invitation to you Dr Yates to come to Manchester to have a proper, reasoned academic debate with us. We have read some of your other blog posts and we know that you can contribute constructively to our economics education.

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