The dismal science?

Earlier this week I went along to Professor Robert Dixon’s inaugural lecture because I have been reading some work in political economy and I thought I would see what somebody in mainstream economics chooses to talk about when he can talk about whatever he wants. The catchy name, ‘The dismal science? A random walk through (some) Australian economic policy’ lead me to believe I would be in for a lecture on the significance, role of and methodology of economics. In many ways I was not disappointed.

It was Carlyle who referred to economics as ‘the dismal science’, and this slur was part of Carlyle attacking the agenda of the free-trade economists. Carlyle was not only against abolishing protective tariffs, but was also pro-slavery (or at least pro the sugar cane farmers in Jamaica). Professor Dixon suggested that if any economists have their profession referred to as ‘the dismal science’ they can let the speaker know of the phrase’s racist and abhorrent origins.

To an Australian university student at the moment, free trade economics and a progressive human rights agenda do not seem that closely aligned. However, there are places where main stream university economics and claims of human rights are found together. I would suggest we could include in such a list microfinance and the federal government’s move to give people who require continence aids (and are eligible for assistance) a lump sum payment instead of a certain dollar amount of items per calendar year. I am sure you can trace through the implications for lived experience of both types of programs and see how they fit with a certain conception of ‘the utility maximising individual’ and the importance of ‘free markets’.

Although a lot of the ideological underpinning of mainstream economics is naturalised, its data it still requires interpretation. I was bit disappointed that ‘random walks’ refers stochastic data rather than random sampling. However, it was interesting to see how neatly they can model the data, but how little the speaker was able to link it back to what was happening in Australia and the world. I do not think this can be used as a criticism of the lecture, as the information contained was very interesting and Professor Dixon went to some lengths to suggest reasons and remind his audience that these are suggestions not accounts of reality.

The lecture made me wonder whether or not economics as a discipline is/should be happy with either reductionist accounts that appear in newspapers or simply data without interpretation published in journals. I found out that there is an interdisciplinary focus when it comes to generating accounts of context, but where does that leave something like the Melbourne Model where faculties are ideally self funding? Some may argue that the use of ‘breath subjects’ could increase the willingness of future generations to engage in interdisciplinary projects. However, I have heard that each subject is taught by a mix of lecturers and has to be pitched at a very introductory level, and so I wonder what the value is to students besides from them being able to have sexy sounding subjects on their academic transcripts.

There seems to be something that does no sit well with me, and it is certainly not their use of maths and graphs (while I would never sit down and do that sort of work myself, I do find it interesting to see how people model the world). Is it that certain ideological positions are allowed to remain unquestioned and become goals to be obtained in their own right rather than being put up against the test of ‘what will this mean for lived experience’? Is it that I am frustrated by suggestions that just because an ideological position was used to reduce oppression in the past that it is somehow an answer for the future? Is it that academics can focus on their wedge of work and then outsource any attempts to understand what this means for lived experience? Well, I suppose I am transferring my own intellectual agenda onto others and I am very grateful to get to spend the next few years indulging my own interest in, ‘what does it mean?’


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