Interview with Professor Olivier Favereau

by Dr Rachael Kiddey

In the London office of the Independent Social Research Foundation, I had the pleasure of speaking with Professor Olivier Favereau from the University of Paris West. I asked Professor Favereau to tell me about a curious situation in which a comment by French Nobel Prize winner Jean Tirole had the effect of halting the opening of a new academic department of economics. Professor Favereau takes up the story.

The AFEP or French Association for Political Economy, is a very recent association set up in 2009. It competes with a conventional association called the French Association of Economic Sciences, which, without being entirely mainstream, has not addressed the problem of the decrease of pluralism in the teaching and research in economics in France. And as we judged that this association was not defending the interests of pluralism, we thought that another association was needed. That was done in 2009. One of the first things to note is the speed at which the association (AFEP), only set up in 2009, attracted roughly between a quarter and a third of all academic economists in France. As a result of this success, the Department [for National Education, Higher Education and Research] started paying us attention, met us, listened to us and even shared our diagnosis that there was a risk of pluralism disappearing from the teaching and research of economics in France. That’s an important fact.

I asked Professor Favereau to tell me in what ways did that threaten pluralism.

One of the first things the association did was to give more statistical weight to the feeling that pluralism was decreasing in France. That was rather easy. Up until recently, the recruitment of professors was done through a competitive examination so we used these statistics. We are not that many in our field so it is easy to know what the other economists are doing and in which field of economics they are working. So we gathered statistics on the past fifteen years and the result, which was not disputed, is that over the past fifteen years, 85% of new professors have come from mainstream economics. The remaining 15%, or 10% if we exclude the historians of economic thought that are somehow separate, is not from mainstream economics and belongs to pluralism.

We also gathered data for sub-periods and we realised that the number of non-mainstream economists, on average over a fifteen-year period, was decreasing to almost reach zero in the last sub-period. One consequence is that as a result, there are not enough non-mainstream professors to supervise theses, run Masters programmes and lead research teams. There is therefore a risk, in the short run, to see everything that is not mainstream disappear from the teaching and research in economics. A very crucial point is that all this data-gathering was published and was never disputed by our colleagues and opponents and even reached the government. And so, different Secretaries of State for Higher Education have said: “yes, there is a problem that needs solving”. 

I asked Professor Favereau to tell me more about Jean Tirole.

Jean Tirole is a French economist who does not come from academia. It is a specificity of the French system and this carries some importance in the debate. He graduated in mathematics from a ‘Grande Ecole’, then went to the United States to do his PhD and then came back to work at the University of Toulouse. This is perhaps not a typical academic trajectory, at least not in the conventional sense. But the important point is that he received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2014. In a French context where this does not happen that often, this gave him a lot of prestige, a big aura with governmental ministries and politicians. 

So I asked Professor Favereau to describe the drama.

So the drama, it was a bit like in Greek tragedy, with a unity of time, place and even people. The Department [for National Education, Higher Education and Research] agreed that there was a risk in pluralism disappearing. We often worked with advisers of the Secretary of State and the Secretary herself, Madame Vallaud-Belkacem, not only shared our diagnosis but also our suggestion of a solution, which is that a new department needed to be created. A specificity of the French centralised system is that all academic economists are under a National Universities Council which determines who can apply to become a lecturer or a professor.

And as the recruitment process has traditionally favoured mainstream economists, we got to the situation by which the selection panel exclusively favoured mainstream economists in the appointment of lecturers and professors. To unblock a situation that was completely stuck, we suggested setting up a new department that would have been, and this is important, not heterodox but pluralist. This means that the new department could have counted among its ranks – that’s what we actually hoped – mainstream economists interested in the debate in the new department.

So that’s how the drama started. In December 2014, the Secretary of State, in the last meeting with representatives of our association, said: “I have made a decision, the decree is written and ready; I will make it public in January during your general meeting”. But between this meeting and January, the Secretary of State changed her mind, admittedly not entirely, but still decided not to set up the new department.  One of the absolutely crucial reasons behind this change of heart was the intervention of Jean Tirole, a Nobel Prize winner who had just been congratulated by the Secretary of State for receiving the Nobel Prize. Jean Tirole intervened in the debate in an extremely forthright manner and told the Secretary of State, suggested to her, that the new department should absolutely not be created. It would be, he said, a ‘catastrophe’ for economics in France.

Jean Tirole had two major points. I asked Professor Favereau to summarise these.

A fundamental argument of Tirole is to say that economics, at the international level, uses an assessment criterion that is the same everywhere: the publication in renowned international journals. For Tirole, imagining a system which will not use this criterion, and here he uses extremely emphatic terms, would lead to the relativism of knowledge and even obscurantism as he implies that heterodox economists refuse to submit themselves to the assessment criteria of the scientific community of economists worldwide. This is his big argument. He patently forgets to say that being published in big international journals, of which 95% belongs to mainstream economics, means sharing the values, questions and methods of mainstream economics.

So that’s his first big argument. His second argument consists in saying that economics as it is preached, is often criticised for closing itself off from other academic fields. He says that this is not true of mainstream economics. This is an argument we hear a lot. He says: “look at mainstream economics, it is very diverse and varied and in a way pluralist”. He says: “I am interested in psychology and sociology; I have colleagues in Toulouse that do political science”. This is his second argument which is more and rather interesting to look at from a close angle because what he calls pluralism is in fact pluralism within the mainstream’s conception of social sciences, which is to say with all the main hypotheses of mainstream economics. The only change is what Lakatos, in philosophy of science, calls auxiliary hypotheses.

So the pluralism and even the inter-disciplinarity he is talking about are illusory. The core of these hypotheses is that used in mainstream economics. And the pluralism he talks about, which is real from a certain point of view, is in fact very superficial. Here we find again the fact that in mainstream economics – it is called mainstream but we could also use a religious term and talk of orthodoxy like Keynes does – people share extremely strong values on what deserves and what does not deserve being included in economic sciences. So this explains the extremeness of Jean Tirole’s position. Not only does he say that he is right, which after all we all say in our theories and when we write articles, but what is at the core of mainstream economics and orthodoxy and is very clear in Tirole’s attitude and when he speaks with the Secretary of State, is that not only he is right but also that only mainstream economics can claim to have a scientific approach. Essentially he is telling heterodox economists that they are wrong, which in a sense he is entitled to think, but he is also telling them that the way they work is not scientific.

His position, you see, is absolutely extreme, and uses “symbolic violence” as Bourdieu would say. This resulted in a situation that is so stuck that we thought the only way to unblock the situation was to create another department for the study of economics which would be pluralist and would also use publication as a selection criterion but obviously publication in other journals and other medium.

Professor Favereau disagreed with the arguments made by Tirole but I wanted to know, where does that leave things?

So it is very interesting that an intervention from someone – albeit someone that has just received a Nobel Prize – is enough to make a Secretary of State who believes that there is problem and a risk to see pluralism disappear, climb down. The entire mainstream lobby has, it is true, also played its role and backed up Tirole’s position. If anything, this makes you think about how politicians make their decisions. One might have hoped that the Secretary of State and her advisers would have had the intellectual strength to show a little of critical thinking here. In a way, we are faced here with the symbolic efficiency of mainstream economics.  When a Secretary of State is faced with someone saying: “This is what science is and the rest is nothing more than obscurantism”, she is likely to reconsider her position unless she holds very strong views.

So the Secretary of State maintained that there is a problem related to pluralism that needs to be resolved but also said – we were told this very officially and that’s quite surprising – that there was not enough of a consensus around setting up a new department for the Secretary of State to be able to give her permission. As if we needed to wait for the agreement of people that are essentially benefiting from the status-quo to change a system! With that kind of logic, no reforms will ever be made. So the Secretary of State decided not to open a new department but as an acknowledgment of the problem, she said she will monitor the recruitment of professors to see whether academic economists adapt and react to the current situation.

And it was added, such is the caution of politicians, that in a year’s time, which is essentially now, it will have to be seen whether things have spontaneously evolved and whether things are on the right track, or if on the contrary, the only way to unblock the current situation is to set up another department for the study of economics. The idea has therefore not been completely rejected. So our work at the moment is to gather data on new recruitments. It is very interesting to note that the percentage of heterodox professors is now slightly higher – we were close to zero before. But after fifteen years of mainstream recruitment, what we need is to reverse the situation and not only slightly increase the recruitment of heterodox professors.

So we are gathering and analysing data and at the same time, we intervene in the debate to reject wrong arguments, in particular those of Tirole. We have collectively been analysing the arguments from the other side. After all, we are all from academia, mainstream or not and we are here to debate. So we seriously looked at the other side’s arguments and critiqued them. All this work plus the statistics plus the petitions – including petitions signed by colleagues from abroad – has been gathered in a book that we have called our manifesto. The title we have given the manifesto sums up our fight and also probably what the public thinks of economists: “A quoi servent les économistes s’ils disent tous la même chose?”

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