Foundations of Economics: Beginner's Companion

Article excerpt

Foundations of Economics:

Beginner's Companion

by Yanis Varoufakis

Routledge * 1998 * 396 pages * $100.00 cloth;

$32.99 paperback

This is an angry book. The administration of the University of Sydney, Australia, where Varoufakis is a senior lecturer in economics, did something in 1997 that "with a stroke of brilliance destroyed the atmosphere of collegiality and public spiritedness" that had previously characterized efforts to make the introductory economics course "a decent educational experience for the students." The administration thereby released Varoufakis, he writes, "from any moral imperatives, namely teaching introductory economics passionately," and led him to turn this book "into a kind of a testimonial."

The author never discloses exactly what the University of Sydney did. But if he and his colleagues were introducing undergraduates to economics in the manner that this book recommends and exemplifies, I know what it ought to have done: It should have told them to choose between teaching introductory economics in a reasonable way or turning the course over to someone who would.

Varoufakis does not disclose whether he was required to teach general equilibrium theory in the introductory course or whether he (and his colleagues) decided on their own that general equilibrium theory was the best form in which to present it. And there is another possibility. Disliking standard economic theory intensely, they decided to teach it in a form that was most likely to repel college students encountering economics for the first time.

The author tells us that the book was designed to complement conventional introductory economics textbooks and to relieve the "monotony and austerity" that is usually associated with them. If Varoufakis is a charismatic teacher, he may be able to teach this book along with a standard text without inciting a student rebellion. However, for anyone who is not both charismatic and thoroughly committed to the author's views on (1) the nature of economic theory, (2) the history of economics, (3) the insightful and illuminating character of very simple Marxian economic analysis, (4) the ideological nature of all social thought, and (5) the impossibility of testing any theory with reference to facts, I would counsel strongly against the attempt. No sensible economist who reads this book would assign it for an introductory course.

My comments will be directed to the first, third, and last of the views just listed. I have spent a little time in Australian universities and suspect that academic economists in Australia try harder than economists anywhere else to make the undergraduate degree a professional degree. …