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Pluralist gains and losses in Australia

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By Stuart Birks

Economics has a strong pluralist representation in Australia. Inter alia, this is evidenced by recent publications and by the activities of the Society of Heterodox Economists (SHE), which runs annual conferences under the able stewardship of Peter Kreisler.

Prominent on the Australian scene is the still very active Sydney-based octogenarian Geoff Harcourt. He is one of several significant Sydney economists, including Peter Kreisler, who have close links to Cambridge in the UK and who have been heavily involved in alternative economic thinking there. His recent book publications in the area, as author or editor, include:

Harcourt, G. C. (2012a). The making of a post-Keynesian economist: Cambridge harvest. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Harcourt, G. C. (2012b). On Skidelsky’s Keynes and other essays: selected essays of G.C. Harcourt. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Harcourt, G. C., & Kreisler, P. (Eds.). (2013a). The Oxford handbook of post-Keynesian economics, Volume 1: Theory and origins. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harcourt, G. C., & Kreisler, P. (Eds.). (2013b). The Oxford handbook of post-Keynesian economics, Volume 2: Critiques and methodology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pixley, J., & Harcourt, G. C. (Eds.). (2013). Financial crises and the nature of capitalist money: mutual developments from the work of Geoffrey Ingham. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Other recent publications by Australian authors to get a mention at the conference included two by Neil Hart:

Hart, N. (2011). Equilibrium and evolution: Alfred Marshall and the Marshallians. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hart, N. (2013). Alfred Marshall and modern economics: equilibrium theory and evolutionary economics. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

and Paul Frijters’s book written with the assistance of Gigi Foster:

Frijters, P., & Foster, G. (2013) An economic theory of greed, love, groups, and networks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

In addition, a book has just been published based on papers from the April 2013 conference to recognise the notable contribution of University of Sydney political economist Frank Stilwell:

Schroeder, S. K., & Chester, L. (Eds.). (2014). Challenging the Orthodoxy: Reflections on Frank Stilwell’s Contribution to Political Economy. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer.

There will be another conference on 15-16 April 2014, this time in honour of John King, “Heterodoxy in economics: from history to pluralism”, at Victoria University, Melbourne.

Those with concerns about a hegemonic Euro-American perspective may wish to see more grass-roots involvement by policy analysts and practitioners to balance the strong academic focus. Nevertheless, this activity indicates a large, viable group that has strong international connections and is open to a wide range of approaches. However, despite their apparent strength, they are a minority in the Australian economics community, which continues to be dominated by the mainstream.

It has not been an easy road for them. The difficult but ultimately successful struggle to establish political economy at the University of Sydney is described in Butler, G., Jones, E., & Stilwell., F. (2009). Political economy now!: the struggle for alternative economics at the University of Sydney. Sydney: Darlington Press. The outcome of a recent challenge to the strong pluralist economics programme at the University of Western Sydney is less encouraging, though. This has been recently described by John Lodewijks (2013/14, Political economy in Greater Western Sydney, Journal of Australian Political Economy, 72, 80-105).

The reasoning behind the cutting of the successful programme and severe shedding of staff is not clear, although it it likely that it yet another example of the changed leadership and management approach sweeping western countries. This has been described in terms of decision makers who are detached from the activity they are overseeing, along with an overreliance on imperfect output measures (such as journal rankings). Lodewijks suggests two possibly interrelated determinants:

“[First,] corporate managerialism has replaced collegial systems of adrninistration. The ability to enact cuts without collegial discussion or oversight is seen as a prerogative of governing bodies. [Second,] perhaps complementary with the first, is that the modern university has lost its way and poor decision-making by managers, who are often not academics, has led to undesirable consequences.” (p.91)

He does not see this as unique to economics, “The decline of collegiality in favour of executive managerialism is widely lamented in the higher education sector” (p.101).

There was also the impact of low journal rankings for applied and heterodox economics, which resulted in poor results in research assessment exercises. This was part of an international trend, “The imperative was to publish in highly-ranked neoclassical journals; staff were threatened with a loss of professional identity and life as an economist if they did not conform” (p.93).

The overall picture is consistent with one described in a book focusing on the cooperative aspects of modern western societies:

“Changes in modem labour have in another way weakened both the desire and the capacity to cooperate with those who differ. In principle, every modern organization is in favour of Cooperation; in practice, the structure of modern organizations inhibits it – a fact recognized in managerial discussions of the ‘silo effect’, the isolation of individuals and departments in different units, people and groups who share little and who indeed hoard information valuable to others. Changes in the time people spend working together increase this isolation.” (P.7 of Sennett, R. (2012) Together: the rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press)

If such phenomena are widespread, and their impact is significant, as it would appear to be, then it is important that economists incorporate them into their theories. and models. That is not, at present, the case with mainstream economics.

From: p.9 of World Economics Association Newsletter 3(6), December 2013

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