The Economics Anti-Textbook: A Critical Thinker's Guide to Microeconomics Paperback – 11 Mar 2010
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'Every honest economics teacher absolutely must make this book a compulsory reading for their students.' Samir Amin, United Nations African Institute for Planning 'What humankind needs second most (first is a cure for global warming), is a means of defusing the lethal ideological superstitions implanted in the educated masses by Samuelson/Mankiw type economics textbooks. Hill and Myatt’s "anti-textbook" goes a long way toward providing it.' Edward Fullbrook 'I highly recommend Hill and Myatt’s "anti-textbook." It is not so much an outright rejection of traditional treatments of introductory microeconomics as it is an exercise in laying bare the premises on which they are based and then suggesting alternative assumptions and methodologies. This approach leaves the student with a much deeper understanding of economic theory and it shows our discipline for what it truly is: an ongoing conversation among competing paradigms. I urge instructors to amend their courses so that time can be made for this important critique.' John. T. Harvey, author of Currencies, Capital Flows and Crises 'Hill and Myatt's timely book should be compulsory reading for every student of economics.' Alan Freeman, UK Association for Heterodox Economics 'Rod Hill and Tony Myatt have written one of the best critical texts of neoclassical microeconomics that I have ever seen. It is a great text to assign along with an introductory or intermediate microeconomics text.' Frederic S. Lee, American Journal of Economics and Sociology
About the Author
Rod Hill has taught at the University of Windsor, University of Regina and the University of New Brunswick, where he has been a Professor of Economics since 2003. He's a member of Economists for Peace and Security and the Progressive Economics Forum. Tony Myatt has taught at McMaster University, Western University, Nipissing University College, the University of Toronto, and the University of New Brunswick, where he has been Professor of Economics since 1992. He has developed several different introductory courses as vehicles for teaching principles of economics, including Economics of Everyday Life, Economics in the Real World, and Economics Through Film. Professor Myatt was the recipient of UNB's Arts Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2008.
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It is very easy to knock the type of economics which is routinely carried out by people working in both Government and academia. Indeed, many people have tried to do just that. However, the results are often unconvincing and this is especially so when the authors are seeking to capitalise on the recent credit crunch or where their own background is not in economics. Thus the adage ‘set a thief to catch a thief’ applies to the critique of mainstream economic theory. And, as the authors are both professors of economics, they are well qualified for this purpose.
The problem with the critiques of economics written by non-economists or populists is that they rarely understand the issues that they seek to undermine. Thus caricature rather than critique emerges. This usually takes the form of claims that economists assume that everyone is selfish or that they advocate market solutions to all problems regardless of the problems. Few of these critiques realise that micro economics only makes the minimal assumption that people are rational and that this can include both selfish and altruistic behaviour. Likewise, discussions of ‘market failure’ and distributional issues are common place in the mainstream literature, as any review of current textbooks will reveal.
However, such discussions tend to remain within certain analytical limits. One reason for this is that for any discipline to retain a distinctive area of knowledge requires some demarcation from those close to it. Economics is no exception and a similar point could be made about much sociology. But the real problem with economics has been the ease with which the central tenets of microeconomic theory can be transformed into mathematical notation. This has led, over time, to the replacement of an inherently ‘social’ science by one with pretensions to natural science and a tendency for universities and governmental organisations to give preference to individuals who are able to service this. This process becomes reinforcing as mathematically and statistically-minded people fill economics jobs in such bodies and recruit those like themselves. This has the effect of squeezing-out sociological and philosophical issues. The imprecision of reality also has a tendency to be given the backseat in such circumstances, especially when in competition with pure theory or when new and more complicated econometric tendencies emerge. Thus technical skill has a tendency to replace considered judgement.
But showing all of this cannot be done without getting the basics of the discipline right in the first place. Thus each chapter of the book begins with a short discussion of the relevant area of micro economic theory. These are then followed by a critique of the central propositions and assumptions in each of the selected areas. Yet these are neither wild nor unbalanced with most emanating from economists who work at the centre or the margins of the discipline or who have made a transition to one close by. This allows the authors to show that much of the elementary and intermediate economics that is currently taught to undergraduates (especially those on single-honours courses), while useful, is limited in scope and shot through with implicit ideological claims and methodological assumptions which are not always justified. This done through chapters on the underlying assumptions and tenets of microeconomics (e.g., the gains from trade), methodological issues, how markets work, consumption, firms, market structure, market failure, the role of governments and international trade and the rise of globalisation.
The books general approach is well-summarised by the title ‘The Economics Anti-Textbook’: it is not a book which is ‘anti-economics’ as such, but simply one which simply places far greater emphasis on alternative approaches to the subject than is usual and those which are not yet taught fully in the main undergraduate texts. This is made even clearer by the subtitle – ‘A Critical Thinkers Guide to Micro-Economics’ – which is exactly what it is. But its appeal is not simply to current economics students: many practicing economists would benefit from reading it and, because it makes both the variety and interest of contemporary economic debates far more accessible, it would be useful to those considering its study and for those members of the public who take an interest in economic issues. And, for those who find themselves, like me, enjoying themselves I can recommend Jonathon Aldred’s The Skeptical Economist which provides a critique of more mainstream approaches from an ethical perspective by a Cambridge economics don.
It is similar to, but more direct and simpler to read than Steve Keen's Debunking Economics second edition, which taken overall is more comprehensive and a deeper more cogent critique. Both are essential to help grasp the weakness of positivist economics.
But, I would like to recommend a book that penetrates more deeply into the political and economic philosophy behind the modern "science" of economics by examining Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Marshall, Keynes, Hayek, Myrdal, and Rational Expectations Economics. That book is "Deductive Irrationality. A Commonsense Critique of Economic Rationalism" 073911624X) by Stephen McCarthy and David Kehl based on the teaching and writings of Dr. Richard W. Staveley here in Brisbane, Australia from the 1960s to the end of the last century.
Other books of interest reviewing economics include:
1. Debunking Economics 2nd ed. by Steve Keen;
2. The Skeptical Economist by J. Aldred;
3. Economics for the Rest of Us by Moshe Adler;
Hill and Myatt subject the standard economics textbook to a thoroughgoing critical examination, in search not merely of its obvious simplifications - the crucial importance of the over-idealised supply-and-demand-model of competitive markets, for example - but with a view to identifying the pervasive ideological assumptions that underlie what is presented as objective fact. They establish beyond reasonable doubt that economics is necessarily a form of rhetoric - a way of speaking about economic activity - rather than a true science, and that economics teaching obfuscates this fact by excluding from consideration dimensions of economic activity that cannot be reduced to mathematical expression.
In particular, in the authors' view, standard textbooks often ignore - or confine to footnotes, addenda and late chapters - the difficult and inconvenient themes of differences of power between economic actors, the positive role of regulation, the legal framework governing economic activity, and the observable facts of imperfect information, negative externalities and irrational and non-economic motives - all the things that characterise economic activity in the real world.
This systematic marginalisation of important themes and perspectives means that the typical student of economics forms an early and persistent view of his or her subject that serves an underlying rhetorical purpose: to normalise capitalist free-market economics as the indisputable authority on the subject of human economic behaviour. Drawing on the resources of sociology and behavioural economics, Hill and Myatt demonstrate that the theoretical models of neoclassical economic theory, too often presented as objective truth, are in dispute, and that even where coherent these models are habitually held to apply to real-world situations in which their governing assumptions and simplifications are not operative. The authors demonstrate that truth in economics often takes a back seat to the profession's need to validate its own authority in a context of pervasive pro-capitalist political rhetoric - and that this has led to a damaging continued dependence on exploded economic models that work only in the classroom (and sometimes not even there).
This book is not a simplistic anti-capitalist, redistributionist rant. It is never suggested that the study of economics - even neoclassical micro-economics - is pointless: only that the teaching of economics needs reform. The ideal use for the 'Anti-Textbook' would be alongside a standard text, as an introduction to the idea of a normative economics for students who may already suspect that the positive, supposedly neutrally descriptive economics taught in schools and colleges is not the whole story. The authors' argument is carefully made and reinforced with a wealth of suggestions for further reading and classroom questions. Matters are clearly explained with a minimum of mathematics, although some acquaintance with basic economic concepts will undoubtedly help the reader with the more complex and less intuitive ideas.
'The Economics Anti-Textbook' should be readable by an intelligent A-level student. I also recommend it for anyone who has ever wondered why so much seems to be missing from the standard economics textbook, why core economic models seem so unrealistic, why economists so often shy away from questions of values - or how it is possible for highly educated professional economists to be so often and so catastrophically wrong in economic matters.
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