Thursday, January 4, 2007

Bringing Heterodox Economics and Other Disciplinary Perspectives into the Classroom

Although I have no survey data to support my claim, I believe that virtually all of us bring "the economic perspective" on environmental economics explicitly to the attention of our students -- discussing simple microeconomic concepts such as the Tragedy of the Commons and environmental externalities, optimal pollution, the Coase Theorem, the  efficiency of market incentives, and cost-benefit analysis.  We also canvass the critiques of the uncritical use of the classical liberal economic perspective -- from transaction and information costs, the endowment effect and other valuation problems,  the fallacy of endogenous preferences, unequal distribution of wealth, to discount rates for costs and benefits accruing to future generations, and the myth of the self-interested, autonomous individual as the proper unit of analysis and focus.  My question is: what impact does our presentation have upon the values of our students?

There is literature suggesting that the values of economics undergraduates change over time in favor of self-interested behavior to a greater degree than other undergraduates.  I am not familiar with any similar studies of law students -- and if anyone is aware of such studies, I would deeply appreciate a note alleviating my ignorance.  However, I believe it's probable that a similar, though perhaps lesser, value shift occurs as our students encounter environmental economics and other "law and economics" analyses across the spectrum of the law school curriculum.  I assume the degree of change is related to the intellectual maturity of students as well as the skill and balance struck in presenting these materials.  Obviously, a few professors and institutions (such as FREE) present these materials not only to examine neoclassical economics as an analytic tool, but to inculcate free market environmentalism as a norm, and to shift students towards "more realistic" self-interested values.  I suspect most, however, present these materials due to their analytic power and salience in environmental decision-making, not to advocate free market environmentalism and value shifts towards self-interest.

I have become aware of a gap in my presentation of these issues.  Although I follow developments in heterodox schools of economics to some extent, my focus in class remains on the traditional neoclassical model, the welfare economics reform model, and the sustainable economics model.  In many ways, this misrepresents the neoclassical school as the only economic school worthy of study and critique, misrepresents economics as a unitary discipline focused on traditional neoclassical economics, and unduly focuses student attention on economics as the sole social science worthy of discussion.

I discovered some resources to remedy this gap at the AALS conference this week.  I attended the day long seminar sponsored by the Section on Socioeconomics.  In addition to a panel focussed specifically on ecological economics, I came across the table of contents of a textbook by Lynne Dallas, University of San Diego, that supplies not only the traditional critiques of neoclassical economics, but also a variety of other interdisciplinary perspectives including cognitive psychology, behavioral economics, social justice theory, legal socialization, and culture.  While I have not yet reviewed the text itself -- it seems promising -- devoting 200 pages to distill the key literature in these fields. 

Maybe this is the cure for the unsettling feeling that I have been giving unconscious and unbalanced aid and comfort to norms and values that I do not share.   

January 4, 2007 in Economics | Permalink | TrackBack (0)