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On Jean Tirole’s letter to the French Higher Education Minister

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By Peter Swann

The Debate about Professor Jean Tirole’s Letter to the French Higher Education Minister

Over the last year, there has been an online debate about a letter written by Professor Jean Tirole, the Nobel Laureate of 2014, to the French Minister for Higher Education. Some readers will be well aware of this already, but some may not, as most of the debate has been in French.

The magazine Marianne first published the letter, in French, here. The Association Française d’Economie Politique published a translation, in English, here. In his letter, Tirole makes some critical and uncompromising remarks about heterodox economists and their work. This following passage captures the essence of his argument:

“Breaking up the community of French economists by creating a refuge for a disparate group, in trouble with the assessment standards that are internationally acknowledged, is a very bad answer to the failure of this group in its effort to have its works validated by the great scientific journals, that prevail in our discipline.”

Tirole seems to be saying that heterodox economists are unworthy of membership of the economics discipline, but at the same time, they should not be allowed to apply for refuge elsewhere. To put it as mildly as possible, that is a pretty uncompromising position.

The letter provoked a lively debate in French, in the magazine Marianne, here and here, and in the French press more generally: here, for example, in Liberation.

Turning to the debate in English, the Association Française d’Economie Politique published an open letter to Jean Tirole, here. As a specialist in innovation, I strongly agree with their argument that some of the most important innovations originate from the margins of a discipline, or the margins of an industry, and not from the core. The following, inter alia, have also made responses: Jones, Vass and Pocklington, Vernengo, and Tinel. For the most part, these authors do not support Tirole’s views.

One prominent author, however, does support some of Tirole’s views, at least. In an article for the Financial Times, here, John Kay writes:

“… no one would cross a bridge built by a heterodox engineer.”

Personally, I would be just as anxious about crossing a bridge built by entirely orthodox engineers, if I knew that they were reluctant to review their theory of bridge design in the light of recent (and historic) examples of bridge collapse. However, I am informed that a module on, ‘learning from disasters’, is a routine part of degree courses in civil engineering.

Unfortunately, however, it is still not routine for degree courses in economics to include a module in ‘learning from disasters’. A common reason for that is that many orthodox economists are, frankly, reluctant to review – and still less to modify or abandon – their cherished economic theories in the light of contradictory evidence from economic disasters.

Readers of the WEA Newsletter will surely have valuable contributions to make to this debate.

From: p.6 of World Economics Association Newsletter 6(1), February 2016

Download WEA commentaries Volume 6, Issue No. 1, February 2016 ›

2 responses

  • Atanu Sengupta says:

    The main harm that the mainstream economists is doing is the standardization of the process of development/underdevelopment. Couched in their old fashioned world of a solitary Robinson Crusoe who maximizes only what is seen in front of his nose,, the mainstreaming is actually harming the prospects of sustainable and equitable development. A decades before, there were ample heterogeneity here. Now the stream have dried up. The mainstream in the underdeveloped world have become worse. It has become so arrogant as to put a deaf ear on what other says. It believes only in autistic model building or a straitjacketing of live data in the fixed mould of what they called econometrics. The alternative voices are stifled, Even promotions and appointments are withheld for alternative voices however audible they might be. On the other second or even third graded followers of mainstream thoughts are lauded. It is doing a great harm to public policy debates. The mainstream in an underdeveloped world have become enemy of the democracy. They can be easily likened with the fundamentalist Stalinist regimes of erstwhile Soviet blocks, the so-called religious states of Middle East or even the Nazi regime of Hitler. The loss is not only intellectual. People do not get the proper fruits of development. The cost of homogenisation is enormous for the real people. They are losing their right for proper livelihood, or education or health facilities. Everything is homogonised with the urban elites as the role models. Generations are losing their proper right. If we want to have a meaningful dialogue with the mainstream, we have to undermine its dominance.

  • Robert Kowalski says:

    couldn’t agree more. We must take the Socratic positon – either we shall find what we are seeking or else free ourselves from the delusion that we know what we do not know.

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