The “model must be presented fully and fairly before its limitations are examined” (peer criticism)

While the article about fighting for my teaching job at UVM (“Hard Lesson: A UVM Econ Prof Fights For His Job,” Seven Days, 3/15/17) was generally fair and balanced, it omitted (probably due to article space and deadline constraints) many of the facts presented to the reporter about why the claims by the chair are, I argue, demonstrably false. For starters, take the so-called “concern” about “fairly” and “fully” presenting the standard model.

Chair Solnick: TRUE?

“The model must be presented fully and fairly before its limitations are examined. Rather than present the merits and weaknesses of both the standard neoclassical model and the alternative model and guide the students to think critically, he [Summa] made provocative assertions that were not questioned or discussed.”

Lecturer Summa: NO, FALSE!

As I have shown in my written rebuttal to the chair (supplied to the Dean), my presentation of standard models and alternative models was mischaracterized by the chair and others, and peer letters failed to reveal that I had already formally presented in previous lectures exclusively the standard model (simply following the textbook) and it was fully rendered and discussed. For example, the chair’s letter fails to note that I had already presented as favorably as possible the standard trade model during previous classes and discussed its importance and merits with students. We went through the mechanics carefully and logically, teasing out the big take away points (this is standard textbook trade modeling). This omission by the chair (who was informed ahead of time about the logic of my sequence of classes) allows her to make a false claim that I am not teaching both standard and non-standard models in a balanced manner. Ironically, because I construct and then deconstruct the standard trade model (through my presentation of the model in several classes, followed by critique), students actually learn the standard model better!

I argue this behavior by the chair masks the real concern – disagreement with the types of alternative models presented (Marxian and radical ecological models students were never exposed to and which offered new ways of thinking about economics). More importantly, what was particularly annoying to the chair (and others), I believe, is that I delivered very effective critiques of the standard (neoclassical trade model) that inspired students to question it. They Chair claimed I negatively portrayed the standard model in a “provocative” and “unbalanced” manner, with discussing its merits. I did logical and empirical critiques that were well developed (mostly from the textbook and questioning key assumptions), which followed very strong presentations of the standard model (the Chair’s biggest “concern” was her claim that I did not present the standard model fully and fairly before criticising it), across several previous lectures in this trade course (EC143) during which I did not criticize it at all. Later, after presenting the standard model, I explained to students that there is an alternative approach to modeling trade with a large empirical database to support it, based on a classical Marxian model, rooted in Adam Smith! I explained that this model sees actual capitalist competition differently (per an alternative theory of competition), challenging the perfect competition assumption embedded in the standard (Hecksher-Ohlin) trade model. I also reviewed many other well-known criticisms of key assumptions made in the H-O modeling framework.

And probably most annoying to the Chair, I presented an “invisible foot” (a challenging look at free markets) model of global trade (systemic and endogenous negative externalities), linked to profit maximization objectives by firms,  given growing inequality and consumer behavior aimed at maximizing individual utility. I showed logically how the traditional model might fail to deliver on its predictions given these dynamics. Again, this is all in a class designed to explore alternatives following full rendering of the standard model. Nobody in the department comes close to doing anything like this, and since there are many true believers in the standard model framework, this makes many of them and their colleagues in the department annoyed (tired of hearing about my heresy from students!) because of the trouble it causes their largely uncritical teaching of the model using exclusively standard (orthodox) model textbooks.  As will be revealed in subsequent posts, there is evidence of a deep resentment of my challenge to the conventional way of thinking about economics. The evidence will be provided in a subsequent post.

In summary, the lecture the chair attended (EC143) was one designed to present alternatives, but was primarily an ecological critique of the standard model, which again followed several classes fully developing the standard model and its merits. This omission by the chair allows for portraying me as unbalanced (and too provocative), which is misleading — a damaging inaccuracy that contributed to the negative vote by the department, as indicated by the chair.  In other words, the chair omits the fact that the standard model was fully taught and discussed over several lectures prior to her visit (with associated homework assignments per the syllabus), and that the class she was attending was announced ahead of time as a standard model critique through presentation of an alternative modeling framework, in which conclusions were drawn showing serious weaknesses and fundamental flaws of the standard model, largely by exposing the unrealistic assumptions underpinning it, and the analytical and empirical inconsistencies that result. Being “provocative,” therefore, should be interpreted to be perhaps too effective at showing students that neoclassical economics is not the end of the story, just the beginning! And a bad beginning at that.

Most alarming, however, is the fact that to date, Chair Solnick and Dean Falls have not answered my criticism of the peer letter comments. Instead, Dean Falls cites uncritically everything stated by the Chair.

Next up will be the so-called “errors” noted by the chair (please note: it was the chair’s peer letters that were particularly negative; some peer letters were actually very positive).