The mirage of a pluridisciplinary “science” of economics

This is a translation (by Bénédicte Kibler) of my most recent monthly column in the Economy supplement of the French daily Le Monde: Le mirage de la pluridisciplinarité.

Robert J. Shiller, professor of economics at Yale University, has published recently, along with his wife Virginia, a psychologist, an article entitled “Economists as Worldly Philosophers” (Cowles Foundation Discussion Paper No. 1788, Yale University, March 2011).

In their joint paper, the Shillers suggest that if economists were “Worldly Philosophers”, the double failure they have experienced in recent years could have been avoided: they haven’t been able indeed either to foresee the crisis or to suggest any credible remedies to the ensuing mess since then.

This is due according to the authors to overspecialization which implies economists lack the time needed to broaden their horizons to other fields that would enlighten their views, such as philosophy, history, sociology, psychology, and so on.

The Shillers’ article however falls short of its expectations as it summons the spent mirage of multidisciplinarity: the salvation of the field of economics would reside in knowing more about a larger number of things. Unable to tell precisely what economics is lacking in, they inadvertently transpose a qualitative question into a quantitative one.

In truth, the added value provided by experts belonging to another field is never that they come up with the missing piece borrowed from their own knowledge, but that they identify in a particular instance the blindness deriving from the incestuous cooptation of members that plagues every intellectual field.

No sooner is the framework of economics defined as Homo oeconomicus’ utility maximization, within a framework of methodological individualism which holds that interactions between Homines oeconomici do not lead to any collective “emergent” effect, that the whole approach is stuck in a stalemate, and no amount of open-mindedness will then be able to save it.

Contrary to what the Shillers suggest, the deadlock does not result from excessive specialization but from an epistemological misstep: the true economic players –groups of men and women playing different economic roles (whether these are called “conditions”, “orders” or “classes” matters little) – have been replaced in our explanations by pools of asocial – if not anti-social – Homines economici whose role as investors, company executives or employees, is regarded as fundamentally indifferent.

The quandary of economics is that it ossified within the framework of an emerging late nineteenth century psychology, voluntaristic in principle, where agents are the all-powerful masters of their own fate and capable of making perfect rational decisions based on perfect information. If economics had instead developed as a sociology, as was the case with the political economy of such thinkers as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, there would be no urgent need for replacing today’s narrow-minded economists by “Worldly Philosophers”.


One response to “The mirage of a pluridisciplinary “science” of economics

  1. Thu, 2011-04-14 13:29
    Marcia Ishii-Eiteman

    Tomorrow morning, as you pour milk into your kids’ cereal bowls or buy a latte to get you going, take a moment to think about the dairy and other family farmers who will be braving gusty winds off Lake Michigan to converge on the steps of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. These farmers are demanding an end to the price fixing by commodity speculators that has bankrupted thousands of family farmers across the U.S., while spurring food crises worldwide.

    Led by Wisconsin-based Family Farm Defenders, farmers and allies will be calling out the traders who take home millions of dollars in profits every year, while family farmers continue to see their farms foreclosed and local businesses shuttered. These farmers will also be exposing the hidden links between America’s giant dairy monopolies and the scandalous recent approval of genetically engineered alfalfa by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, designed to boost sales of Monsanto’s flagship weedkiller, Roundup. The action is one of many being taken by family farmers and supporters around the world in celebration of International Peasants Day, April 17. National Family Farm Coalition is compiling a list of related actions around the U.S.

    Something rotten in the Land O’Lakes

    Unbeknownst to many of us, a significant chunk of the dollars we spend on milk and butter are not going to dairy farmers at all, but are being captured by huge corporate dairy giants like Dean Foods and Dairy Farmers of America, an amalgamation of Land O’Lakes and other mega-sized “cooperative corporations.” These folks are anything but cooperative, as far as family farmers are concerned. They have long had a hand in fixing milk prices below cost of production while charging consumers top dollar, driving America’s dairy farmers to bankruptcy. That’s why they have been under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and are the target of recent class-action lawsuits for anti-trust violations, as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders explains.

    Transgenic guns & butter

    But there’s more—these same dairy corporations have also been active in developing genetically engineered (GE) crops like GE alfalfa and in lobbying the U.S. government for deregulation of GE alfalfa. Land O’Lakes has long been an ardent advocate of GMOs since the FDA’s approval of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) in the 1990s.

    [[I can’t believe it’s that butter! – Ariana Velez of the Brooklyn Food Coalition blames Land of Lakes for bringing us GE butter—and vows to go organic]]

    Land O’Lakes’ primary seed research partner is Forage Genetics, which developed GE alfalfa using Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready technology. In the last two years, lobbying by Land O’Lakes has surged, with hefty portions going explicitly towards efforts to deregulate GE alfalfa. With so many corporate interests coming out swinging for GE, no wonder the White House lined up so quickly with industry on this one.

    Three things you can do to support our dairy farmers:

    1. Buy dairy products from independently owned family farms and go organic if you can to avoid GE!

    2. Sign Food & Water Watch’s petition asking the Obama Administration to protect farmers and consumers from Monsanto’s GE crops.

    3. Tell the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to demand a democratic overhaul of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to prevent corporate price fixing.

    Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, PhD
    Senior Scientist
    Pesticide Action Network North America Regional Center (PANNA)
    49 Powell St., Suite 500
    San Francisco, CA 94102 USA
    Tel: (+1) 415 981 6205, ext. 325 (M, Th)
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