To be a heterodox economist: the contested landscape of American economics, 1960s and 1970s.

Author:Lee, Frederic S.

What was it like to be a heterodox economist in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s? First, with the decline of McCarthyism and the rise of the civil rights and anti-war movements, it was now possible to become a heterodox economist and even find a teaching position without being immediately fired. But the possibility of existence brought with it a contested environment in which neoclassical economists attempted to keep the heterodox at bay. So in this contested environment, what was it like? Although there are various reminiscences scattered in books, journals, and biographical dictionaries of heterodox economists and incomplete tales of individual daring and damning are passed around the community of heterodox economists, an overall view of what it was like remains elusive. This article is an attempt to partially answer the question. Thus, it starts with a brief description of the hegemony of neoclassical economics and the general attitude of neoclassical economists toward heterodox economics and economists, a more detailed inquiry follows into the bullying of, harassment of, and discrimination against inquisitive, open-minded graduate students and young heterodox professors by mainstream economists. The first part concludes that "life among the econ tribe" for heterodox economists was often short (for ostracism was widely practiced) and difficult and brutish for the survivors. The second part of the article examines the efforts by heterodox economists to build heterodoxy, focusing on localized efforts to create supportive academic and social environments. In particular, the efforts to make heterodox economics major, minor, or field components in Ph.D. programs are documented.

By 1970 there were over 15,000 American economists, most of whom were neoclassical economists and belonged to the American Economic Association (AEA). Because of the repressive dominance of neoclassical economists and because of the pre- and post-war repression of heterodox economics and economists, neoclassical economists shared membership in a tightly knit community. (1) This community accepted a single, relatively homogeneous body of ideas or theories, shared the same set of standards-theoretical, technical, and empirical-for evaluating research and publications, engaged in a network of interinstitutional and interpersonal ties that promoted communication, reciprocated employment and conference participation opportunities, and rejected or suppressed all else. Indicative of this prior to 1970 was the near total absence of Ph.D.-granting economic departments that offered fields in social economics, institutional economics, or political economy (that is, radical-Marxist economics) or that incorporated heterodox economic theory directly into their core theory courses, with the University of Texas-Austin perhaps being the exception. (2)

The homogeneous nature of the body of theory held by the neoclassical community was clearly revealed in a survey of the present state of economics published in 1970 (Ruggles 1970a). In the survey, the discipline was defined in terms of understanding how the economy operated; and, by completely ignoring the existence of heterodox economic theory, this understanding was conceived solely in terms of the mechanisms by which scarce resources were allocated, prices were determined, income was distributed, and economic growth took place. Moreover, it was argued the economic theory that delineated this understanding provided much of the unity of the discipline. And within economic theory, it was microeconomic theory that was the central core on which economics as a whole was based. Finally, it was argued that

[t]he acquisition of this understanding has been cumulative, and there now exists a well-established core of economic theory and an economic accounting framework which provides the economist with his basic working tools. (Ruggles 1970b, 11) The survey faithfully reported the existing consensus among neoclassical economists as to what constituted economics and the usual standards of honest, unbiased scientific work. Thus, any negative criticism in terms of not examining important and pressing social-economic problems, of the esoteric-irrelevant nature of economic theory and its mathematical models, and of the conservative bias of neoclassical economic theory and neoclassical economists or suggestions that economics needs to be completely rebuilt on a different theoretical foundation was met with forceful, denigrating rebuttals, snide comments (such as that critics rarely seem to do any real research), and the claim that nearly all was right with economics. Although there were individual exceptions, as a community, it is not surprising that neoclassical economists felt that heterodox economists had a faulty understanding of neoclassical economic theory, were technically deficient and had theories technically inferior to neoclassical theory, and held ideologically slanted political and social values that led them to accept outdated and erroneous theories and at the same time prevented them from understanding how markets really worked and from doing any real research.

Of course the irony of this attitude was that the concurrent capital controversy showed that neoclassical economists had a faulty understanding of their own theory. In fact, by the late 1960s, neoclassical economists seemed to be very much on the defensive as graduate students were asking them impolite questions such as "please define capital" and they resented it. Hence, it is also not surprising they would lash out, as did Martin Bronfenbrenner, stating that heterodox theory lacked scientific rigor and was nonquantifiable, while heterodox economists "pandered to the prejudices and abilities of dumbbells, who can't understand any other variety" (1973, 5). But he was not the only economist doing this. For example, in a letter to Joan Robinson informing that her submission on the capital controversy to the Journal of Political Economy was rejected, Harry Johnson stated that the Cambridge England school deliberately or unwittingly did not understand the neoclassical model of general equilibrium. He further claimed that their critique of neoclassical general equilibrium theory and proposed replacement with Piero Sraffa's "production of commodities by means of commodities" help perpetuate the myth that Marxism was a scientific subject and not an emotional religious movement. Finally, he proposed that Robinson should submit her paper to a journal for the amateur intellectual or to an obscure journal whose readers would not have heard of the Cambridge controversies (Heilbroner 1970; Eagley 1974; Ruggles 1970b; Leontief 1971; Schultze 1971; Gurley 1971; Olson and Clague 1971; Tobin 1973; Lindbeck 1977; Bronfenbrenner 1970 and 1973; Solow 1970a, 1970b, 1971; Reder 1982; Lebowitz, personal communication, March 12, 2002; and Johnson 1971).

Thus, if heterodox economists and the mush they called theories were to be taken seriously, neoclassical economists argued, they would have to become more neoclassical in language, technique, theorizing, and style; and if they refused, then their tenure as academic economists should be brought to an end and as a result their theoretical mush would deservedly disappear from economics. Given this intellectual climate, by not accepting the terms offered and, at the same time, persisting in developing an alternative theory, open-minded, inquisitive economic graduate students (heterodox or not) as well as outright heterodox economists faced intellectual bullying, hostility, and rejection, if not outright reprisals in terms of fewer academic appointments, limited tenure and promotion prospects, fewer publications, and denial of access to sessions at the annual conference of the AEA. One well-known case of harassment of radical graduate students occurred at Columbia in 1970 when an uninvited Harold Barger attended a course taught by Lawrence Tharp. In addition, while teaching at MIT as an assistant professor circa 1970, Duncan Foley mentioned to a senior colleague that the Pareto criterion was irrelevant to real political debate, and his colleague's response was that if Foley really believed that he should get out of economics. Then there were also the not-so-well-known cases of Bard College firing Laurence Shute in 1966 for his radicalism and Occidental College not renewing Edward Shaffer's contract because of his opposition to the Vietnam War and the kind of economics he taught.

It should be noted that neoclassical economists often deny that these events took place in the 1960s and early 1970s. However, in the disciplines of history, political science, and sociology the old guard acted precisely the same way toward their radicals, calling them amateurs and intellectually ill prepared and unfit to be teaching in a university. Hence they were denied tenure and/or outright fired. In short, economics was not an isolated case; rather the attitudes and behavior of neoclassical economists was no different from their conservative-mainstream colleagues in other disciplines or from conservative-minded administrators who attempted to fire communist academics or academics involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Finally, it should be noted that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) responded to the rise of radicalism and Marxism in the academic community by investigating the radical academic caucuses and cooperating with universities (such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in matters of faculty appointments and promotions through providing information on the subversive-radical nature of the candidates (Tharp 1970; Arestis and Sawyer 2000; Foley 1999; Shure, personal communication, March 28, 2002; Keen 1999; Newsletter for Intellectual Freedom, November 1969, 93, January 1970, 6, November 1971, 128, March 1973, 37, and July 1975, 111; Shaffer 2004; Edward H. Shaffer, personal communication, May 10, 2002...

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