On September 19, 2015, Fairfax Media Limited and, specifically, the Sydney Morning Herald led with a feature on and tribute to the career of Joseph Halevi, a member of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney who recently retired. The feature, written by Gareth Hutchens, offers a wonderful account of Joseph’s powers as a teacher delivering Economic Theories of Modern Capitalism, one of the core courses in political economy at the University of Sydney. We re-print here the article with the permission of Gareth Hutchens and Fairfax Media Limited and thank them in their support of Progress in Political Economy in doing so. In a previous post, PPE also featured Joseph Halevi’s farewell lecture.
Some of the best economics teachers are genuine storytellers.
Professor Frank Stilwell, at Sydney University and who retired in 2012, was a mesmerising raconteur. He could somehow summon the ghosts of dead economists and set them dancing about the lecture hall like dusty relatives.
He got their bizarre ideas to burst from minds so real and fleshy it was impossible to forget them.
Have you ever heard of Thorstein Veblen, the eccentric American economist who wrote the ground-breaking Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)?
He was so lazy he would let every one of his plates accumulate in the kitchen sink, then he’d blast them all clean at once with a hose.
He was also responsible for the theory of “conspicuous consumption”.
What about Adam Smith, the father of modern economics? He could become so absorbed in his own thoughts that he once caught himself wandering the country roads of Glasgow, late at night in his night gown, more than 20 kilometres from home, without knowing how he got there. Nearby church bells had snapped him out of his reverie.
And Karl Marx? He was so distressed by the excruciating pain of the carbuncles on his arse and thighs, living in London’s slums, that he had to write much of Das Kapital standing up. Can you appreciate now why his language was so bilious?
He also wrote the Communist Manifesto when he didn’t really know what a communist was.
That type of storytelling makes economics fun, not a struggle. It sets economic ideas in a definite time and place, and somehow makes them easier to remember.
In sad news for fans of that teaching style, another master of the technique, also of Sydney University, retired recently.
Joseph Halevi, after a 40-year academic career, gave his farewell lecture on August 3.
Mr Halevi taught one of the political economy department’s most difficult courses, Economic Theories of Modern Capitalism, which ran from the French physiocrats to present-day austerity policies, introducing students to the major attempts by economists to explain how capitalism works.
The major systems of thought it focused on were the classical, Marxian, neoclassical, and Keynesian.
Each system is placed in its historical context so students can understand why the economists who designed them chose to emphasise various aspects of capitalism.
He also tried to explain how each system provided an ideological function for the ruling class of the day.
Halevi said the construction and teaching of the course was the most stimulating experience of his career (a career that began as a semi-unemployed lecturer at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York).
He also said the course might as well be called the Luigi Pasinetti-Piero Sraffa-Paolo Sylos Labini-Michal Kalecki-Paul Sweezy-Peter Kriesler course, because it was based heavily on their writings.
It also relies on the work of Geoff Harcourt.
He taught it in a way that allowed students to fall in love with the material, and he did it by encouraging them to believe that they knew what they were talking about.
He also stressed how important it was to realise that every economist makes mistakes, and that no economic model is impervious to criticism.
In his farewell lecture, there’s an example of this technique where he reminds people that, on the one hand, if it weren’t for Marx, names like Bastiat and Nassau Senior would probably be lost to history, but on the other hand, we have little to thank him for when it came to his mathematical work.
“When [Marx] realised that the Marginal Revolution was taking hold, and becoming important, he started exchanging letters with Engels, and he started to write down mathematical notes,” Halevi said.
“But he did not finish [them] because he filled his mathematical notes with Hegelian dialectics and they were completely [incomprehensible] to him, and to everybody else.”
He also gave some parting advice to the young lecturers and tutors in the room: Make sure you understand the neoclassical model back to front. Find out where its internal contradictions are. Challenge your students, constantly, to think deeply about the assumptions that underpin it. Test those assumptions repeatedly.
Why is that important? Because economic-speak is becoming more prevalent, in politics and business, so it’s important to know what is actually being said.
One needs to understand that that language is based on a particular economic model – the neoclassical model – that has its own logic and inherent contradictions.
It’s good advice.
If you don’t know how to follow the logic of the system, you don’t know if you’re being bamboozled by the politician who is trying to use it.
It’s a point that people like Richard Denniss, the chief economist of the Australia Institute, have been trying to get out there.
Mr Denniss argues that economic-speak can be undemocratic because it locks people unfamiliar with economics out of the discussion, rather than inviting them in.
If you haven’t studied economics, it can make you feel like you have no right to question whether a construction project or a mine expansion ought to go ahead because you can’t say why you don’t trust the economic modelling that says it will create 10,000 jobs.
Any way, good luck Joe. And thank you.