Friday, 26 February 2016

The Curse of the Heterodoxy

Yesterday I picked up the reader for one of my courses this semester, the Political Economy unit of Money and Finance. Having a brief look through the topics and reading materials, I'm sure it'll be an equally provocative and interesting course.

It quickly reminded me of what I like to call The Curse of the Heterodoxy, that I have mentioned before on this blog. It simply means that economists that take heterodox views, be them Post-Keynesian, Marxists or Austrian, have a much wider range of reading to do. Consider the amount of reading, vital contributions and academic exchanges in journals that a student has to master to understand the mainstream logic, turning points and vital ideas. We can safely ignore the details of a lot of page-by-page econometric equations, but there are nevertheless a lot of important theoretical and conceptual and practical resources and disputes to go through. At least enough to offer undergraduate students wishing to excel a great many things to read.

Enter the heterodoxy. A student with Post-Keynesian (PKE) leanings must also read all the publications and contributions that the mainstream ignores; Minsky, Kalecki, Robinson, the misinterpretation of Keynes' theory, Lavoie's massive textbook, the modern anti-Neoliberal themes, the anti-austerity etc. And puzzle a whole bunch of things together, since the mainstream largely ignores any and every charge laid against it.

Enter even more sophisticated heterodoxy. A student with Austrian leanings must do the exact same thing for that schools: the Mises, the Rothbard, the Kirzner, Hayek, Menger. Not to mention the modern divide between hardcore Misesians like Thornton, Garrison and Salerno vs. the more "soft" Hayekians like Horwitz, Selgin or Caldwell. Or the George Mason Uni camp of semi-Austrians like Caplan, Cowen, Boettke and Boudreaux. Additionally, a well-read student of any of these schools must, in addition to the regular mainstream texts, also read competing heterodox scholars, meaning the reading load multiplies exponentially.

In practice, however, Austrians rarely have the patience to take notice of other schools (characterising them all as 'Keynesians'), and PKE scholars persistently lump Austrians into the mainstream (or believe they are the same). Since I think both these position are mistaken, and serious scholars need to know the inner teachings and controversies of competing heterodoxy as well as mainstream teachings, I have about 3x the reading material my fellow students have, and in practice a bit more than most of my friends in the heterodoxy.

As I noted the other week, massive reading lists are the price to pay for expanding your horizons beyond the narrow strait of economic perspectives your average Econ Department provides you with. Good thing that even Roger Farmer, distinguished macroeconomist at UCLA, in his response to the Manchester Students, sort of agrees with me:
"He who knows only his own side of the case doesn’t know much about it. His reasons may be good, and no-one may have been able to refute them; but if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, and doesn’t even know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.”  - John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
My advice to students is this. Continue to question everything you are taught. Lobby for classes on alternative approaches: But also take the time to absorb those ideas that are in the mainstream. The very best mainstream economists were the radical students who questioned authority when they were undergraduates. It is those economists who you must engage if you are to make meaningful changes that will advance our understanding. That takes hard work, perseverance, and patience
All in all, my post the other day hinted at this:
Taking non-mainstream positions requires you to read significantly more than your student friends. Massive reading lists really is the curse of the heterodoxy. But I'm Gonna Master 'em All!
To master them all I have to read and to understand. Then read some more. And even more. Nobody ever said the future would be easy.

Current Academic Backlog (excluding dissertation material):
58 journal articles

42 published books

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