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On economics, funerals and digital Taylorism

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By Stuart Birks

Max Plank famously said “Science advances one funeral at a time.” His use of the word “advances” suggests forward progress, rather than just change. Power struggles for dominance of ideas do have a generational dimension, but the path of history is not monotonically upward. In fact, there are some very worrying signs in the experience of economics in recent decades.

Fifty years ago the second edition of Lipsey’s famous text was published. Some thought that An Introduction to Positive Economics gave too narrow a representation of society, but there was still a heavy emphasis on the nature of analysis. In his introduction Lipsey wrote:

“There are three major themes to this text-book which should be mentioned here: first, an attempt to explain what economic theory is about and how one can go about criticising it effectively and hence improving it; second, an attempt to elaborate, in so far as is possible within the confines of an introduction to economic theory, the relation between theory and real-world observations; and third, a consideration of the relation between economic theory and economic policy.” (P.xiii)

On p.8, in footnote 1, he also wrote: “It is often thought that scientific procedure consists of grinding out answers with reference to blind rules of calculation and that it is only in the arts that the exercise of real imagination is required. This view is misguided…”

Students at that time saw clearly the distinction between theory and the real world, recognising that theory may be a useful tool, but requiring care and imagination in its application.

Many of those who now call themselves heterodox economists are the product of such an education. For much of their working lives they identified simply as economists, but the term no longer reflects their modes of thought. It has become necessary to distinguish between economics as broadly based enquiry drawing on a wide range of tools and perspectives and the current dominant representation of economics. Many see the latter as seriously limited, it being based on unrealistic postulates and using as narrow range of questionable research techniques while making inflated claims about its power to explain the real world.

Change may come in the near future through retirements and funerals, but it will be the retirements and funerals of those who came from the broader tradition and had the means to challenge the mainstream.

Hugh Lauder and Phillip Brown have publicised the term “Digital Taylorism”. Stated briefly they describe this as, “translating knowledge work into working knowledge through the extraction, codification and digitalization of knowledge into software prescripts that can be transmitted and manipulated by others regardless of location.” See here. This is a serious obstacle to anyone who would attempt to bring more thought and imagination into economic analysis. While they are referring to a widespread phenomenon, we can see its relevance for economics. Large numbers of students are trained in a relatively mechanical approach to economics, with research being heavily focused on routine techniques as in econometrics packages. This has become the new norm and has set the criteria for appointments and career progression.

Assisting in this trend is the move to the new managerialism. Johnson and Bröms (2000) write critically of the MBA culture where detached managers run organisations based on abstract models and quantitative reporting methods. In Catch-22 Heller satirises this approach in a military context:

“Without realizing how it had come about, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long by one after the other.” (Heller, 1996, p.113)

Desirable change in economics cannot be expected as a natural progression over time. It is in this difficult environment that the current generation of student protestors will have to find a strategy whereby a more realistic economics can arise.

Heller, J. (1996). Catch-22: New York: Simon & Schuster

Johnson, H. T., & Bröms, A. (2000). Profit beyond measure: extraordinary results through attention to work and people. New York: Free Press.

Lipsey, R. G. (1966). An introduction to positive economics (2nd ed.). London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

From: pp.13-14 of World Economics Association Newsletter 6(1), February 2016



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2 responses

  • Peter Swann says:

    Nice piece, Stuart. So many of us were brought up on Lipsey’s 2nd Edition, and it really was different and more enlightened than the mainstream texts.

    And, while we are celebrating great Canadian economists, who challenged the orthodoxy, I would like to say a word of appreciation for the great work of Edward Safarian (University of Toronto) who died recently. There is a very nice obituary here:

  • Stuart Birks says:

    Richard Lipsey suggests some further reading:
    Lipsey, R. G. (2001) Successes and failures in the transformation of economics, Journal of Economic Methodology, 8(2), 169-201
    Lipsey, R. G. Some Contentious Issues in Theory and Policy in Memory of Mark Blaug, Chapter 6 of Boumans M and Klaes M (eds) (2013) Mark Blaug: Rebel with Many Causes, Edward Elgar

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