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18 September 2007

Hooray for so-called post-autistic economics

They have a website:

I must start by indicating my objection to the moniker. It plays into the stereotype of autistic people as lacking in empathy, sense of humor, and interests other than mathematics. It is unfortunate that an incipient school that has attracted feminist and afrocentric economists has a name that is a not-so-subtle jab at a demographic group. Ironically, the interests of some of the characteristic varieties of autistics are likely better served by the civil service exams of yesterday's mixed economy than the video resumes of today's neoclassical economy.

On June 21, 2000, so the story goes, economics students at the École Normale Supérieure circulated the petition against autism in economics. Perhaps a perception of political incorrectness in talk of autistic economists, like of autoerotic Buddhists, is due to things getting lost in translation. In any case, I think the nomenclature is unfortunate, but the concerns are worthy.

A "second economics department" has been established at the University of Notre Dame, and has of course been hailed as a mixed blessing for the heterodox or post-autistic economics communities. The post-autistic movement appears at this point not to be a school of economics but a movement. For now, it seems to have become a catch-all term for "schools other than neoclassical." Perhaps the terms "post-autistic economics" and "heterodox economics" are synonymous. The Notre Dame situation seems reminiscent of the treatment of computer programming in college catalogs in the 1980's: Typically there would be a department of Management Science teaching COBOL, and a department of Computer Science teaching "languages other than COBOL."

Consider the following sentence: "The autism of orthodoxy stems from its treatment of the human agent, who is mindless and does not interact with other agents." This seems more than mildly offensive to autistic people, and I don't think it's even a fair characterization of orthodox economics. For example, one of the orthodox teachings that troubles me the most is the strong efficiency hypothesis. This is used as the basis for the claim that prices incorporate all information. The implication is that people can and do convey information to the price mechanism without conveying it to other people. Autistic people tend to be outside the informational loop for reasons that include both disability issues and social exclusion by others. If anything, they have the most to lose under an economic order in which information access is not an entitlement. Ironically, they also possess firsthand knowledge of the fact that prices don't incorporate all information, e.g. the amount of "insider information" inherent in career "networking." Undoubtedly there are autistics working in the economics field, but they are surely are not representative of professional economists. Research careers, like careers in general, aggressively filter out those whose social "networking" skills are not above average.

So, don't blame autism for what's wrong with orthodox or neoclassical economics. But I'm so glad that there is finally some organized resistance within the economics community that I'm inclined to forgive as perhaps innocently naïve the packaging of their program.

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