The need for a new economics curriculum without the present suicidal formalism

13 November, 2016 at 14:09 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

When the global economy crashed in 2008, the list of culprits was long, including dozy regulators, greedy bankers and feckless subprime borrowers. Now the dismal science itself is in the dock, with much soul-searching over why economists failed to predict the financial crisis. One of the outcomes of this debate is that economics students are demanding the reform of a curriculum they think sustains a selfish strain of capitalism and is dominated by abstract mathematics. It looks like the students will get their way. A new curriculum, designed at the University of Oxford, is being tried out. This is good news. …

heilThe typical economics course starts with the study of how rational agents interact in frictionless markets, producing an outcome that is best for everyone. Only later does it cover those wrinkles and perversities that characterise real economic behaviour, such as anti-competitive practices or unstable financial markets. As students advance, there is a growing bias towards mathematical elegance. When the uglier real world intrudes, it only prompts the question: this is all very well in practice but how does it work in theory? …

Fortunately, the steps needed to bring economics teaching into the real world do not require the invention of anything new or exotic. The curriculum should embrace economic history and pay more attention to unorthodox thinkers such as Joseph Schumpeter, Friedrich Hayek and – yes – even Karl Marx. Faculties need to restore links with other fields such as psychology and anthropology, whose insights can explain phenomena that economics cannot. Economics professors should make the study of imperfect competition – and of how people act in conditions of uncertainty – the starting point of courses, not an afterthought. …

Economics should not be taught as if it were about the discovery of timeless laws. Those who champion the discipline must remember that, at its core, it is about human behaviour, with all the messiness and disorder that this implies.

Financial Times

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