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Andrew Mearman, Sebastian Berger and Danielle Guizzo, What is Heterodox Economics: Conversations with Leading Economists

James K. Galbraith
p. 391-393
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Andrew Mearman, Sebastian Berger and Danielle Guizzo, What is Heterodox Economics: Conversations with Leading Economists, New York: Routledge, 2019, 312 pages, 978-113873195-0

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1This volume is a collection of interviews, in question-and-answer format, conducted in 2017 and 2018 with sixteen economists, mostly senior or emeritus academics, who share a cautious willingness to accept the designation “heterodox” as applied to their theoretical orientations. The interviewees are Sheila Dow, the late Fernando Cardim de Carvalho, William Darity, S Charusheela, Karma Ura, Rolf Steppacher, Julie Nelson, Tony Lawson, Joan Martinez-Alier, Esther-Mirjam Sent, Gary Mongiovi, Anwar Shaikh, Victoria Chick, Edward Fullbrook, David Dequech and Ulrich Witt. The goal of the book, expressed in the title, is to convey the essence of heterodoxy to a readership perplexed by the folk rites of the economics profession.

2The achievement is rather different. What emerges here is a set of intellectual life stories. They tell of how the interviewees entered economics, of their professional trajectories, of what they read and with whom they studied when they were young, of how they teach—and only in very broad and general terms of what they consider heterodox economics to be. The title might have been, What are Heterodox Economists Like?

3In the course of these accounts, certain themes recur. By and large, these scholars stumbled into their field and careers, often by the happenstance of an intellectual encounter or political engagement, notably in the turbulent 1960s. As people, they come across as decent, sensible, honest, critical, curious, observant, open-minded and public-spirited. As scholars, they are modest, conscious of precedent, disinclined to self-promotion. As teachers they are dedicated and enthusiastic. No one in these pages comes across as vain, driven, pretentious, ambitious for status, celebrity, power or even for money. In short, as a sub-class of professional economists they are anomalous.

4As is often true of anomalies, many of these interviewees paid a price. A binding trait of the group is that, somehow, they survived as academics in a discipline determined to ignore them, to marginalize them, and even where possible to purge them. Although several emerged from so-called leading graduate schools, such as William Darity from MIT or Esther-Mirjam Sent from Stanford, that was a half-century back when the filters were not so tight as they have since become. Others came from schools less prestigious and more intellectually elastic. A few have thrived in high academic positions; others found communities at places like the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the New School or the University of Campinas. Still others bounced—or were bounced—from one berth to another.

5And so this group, as a whole, is exceptional in having survived at all. It is a diaspora—the remnants of scattered tribes, formerly known as Institutionalists, Marxians, Cambridge Keynesians, as well as newer formations such as Post Keynesians, ecological and feminist economists. They do not reside in their own departments as the mainstream economists do. They hold together these days, between themselves, through list-serves, conferences (now on Zoom), and specialty journals. The academy does not nourish them. And the traditions they represent will not be reproduced, on present trends and barring major reforms in the academic life of the English-speaking and European worlds.

6A difficulty of this book is that while the community it describes is in important ways cohesive—bound together in part by a common adversity—its intellectual traditions are diverse and not always closely aligned. Heterodoxy is by definition heterogeneous. The interviewers defined their subjects, in the main, by what they are not: they are not “mainstream,” or “orthodox” or “neoclassical.” The focus is therefore more on their relationship to a missing other, to the thing they are not part of, rather than to their connections with each other and to communities they have built.

7What then defines the neoclassical, orthodox mainstream and therefore the heterodoxy that stands outside it? A recurrent theme in these interviews is the insistent use of mathematical modeling for the expression of ideas. There is an element of truth in this focus, and it is not disconnected from philosophical stance; the convenient mathematics of the mainstream aligns with the methodological individualism and equilibrium analysis of the underlying theory. And the leading heterodox economists represented here tend to have a rich understanding of intellectual and economic history and especially of power relationships in society, including those of class, race and gender, which precludes the expression of their arguments in terms of the arid algebra of the mainstream.

8But a focus on the presence or absence of something so broad and general as mathematical technique also plays into the hands of a common conceit, namely that the mainstream is scientific while the heterodox are not. A more precise and accurate view would invert this perception. The mainstream and orthodox in modern economics are a kind of priesthood, whose propositions predate the late 19th century and whose models, however mathematical, defy some of the most basic physical and biological laws known since then, including the second law of thermodynamics and the principle of natural selection. A common feature of the heterodox is that, to one degree or another, they are uncomfortable with a discipline whose highest abstract achievements can be translated into thoughts, in ordinary language, that were long ago satirized by Voltaire in Candide.

9Heterodox economists, including those represented, have the actual practices of actual modern science largely on their side. And yet, over the course of ample careers, they have been largely powerless to reconstruct academic economics as a discipline alive to the intellectual practices of scientific inquiry and thus to the world in which we actually live. They will not, by and large, leave behind a robust legacy of tenured disciples in well-funded departments and research centers, able to carry forward their work. This is a loss. It is a loss not only to these scholars, but to the world at large, which is stuck with burden of a self-perpetuating, largely useless, and in repeated instances actually corrupt and harmful economic mainstream.

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James K. Galbraith, « Andrew Mearman, Sebastian Berger and Danielle Guizzo, What is Heterodox Economics: Conversations with Leading Economists »Œconomia, 11-2 | 2021, 391-393.

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James K. Galbraith, « Andrew Mearman, Sebastian Berger and Danielle Guizzo, What is Heterodox Economics: Conversations with Leading Economists »Œconomia [En ligne], 11-2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2021, consulté le 22 septembre 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/oeconomia/11090 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/oeconomia.11090

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James K. Galbraith

Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Chair in Government/Business Relations at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin. Galbraith@fastmail.com

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