Interview with Peter Kriesler

© Peter Kriesler and Figure/Ground
A/Professor Peter Kriesler was interviewed by Judie Cross. October 23, 2017

Peter Kriesler studied at the University of Sydney before completing a PhD at the University of Cambridge in 1987. He is now Associate Professor of Economics at the UNSW Business School, Director of the Society of Heterodox Economists and Deputy Director of the Centre for Applied Economic Research. He is also an Executive Editor of The Economics and Labour Relations Review, on the editorial board of a several academic journals, editor of a book series with Routledge and Palgrave MacMillan with an impressive current list of publications and conference presentations.

How did you become a university professor and, in your experience, how has the role of university professor ‘evolved’ over recent years? Who have been some of the important influences on you, in your work and career?

At school I was a keen debater and had an inspiring economics teacher who motivated me to study economics-law. However, I became progressively disillusioned with law, which I discovered is not about important underlying principles and is often made by people who are out of touch. In contrast, I had some great economics teachers who excited my interest in the subject, particularly the ‘History of Economic Thought’. So, I dropped law and did my honours in economics.There were two Peters who taught me at the University of Sydney and who were very important to me: Peter Saunders and Peter Groenewegen (who introduced me to heterodox economics) as well as Colin Simkin (who was more orthodox but open-minded and brilliant) and Joseph Halevi. I then did a Masters by Research before going on to do my doctoral studies – as well as teaching – in Cambridge (on a scholarship and bursary). Geoff Harcourt was a very encouraging examiner of my Masters eventually became my PhD supervisor.I really enjoyed my economics studies. My Masters thesis was on Kalecki and the relationship between his micro and macro theory. Michal Kalecki was a Polish economist who discovered everything Keynes did, and could demonstrate it in a much more concise and clear manner, in a more suitable analytical structure. Initially my PhD thesis was concerned with the mainstream trade cycle, but my first PhD supervisor reconsidered this and I worked on Marshall for a while. During this time Geoff Harcourt arrived in Cambridge and became my PhD supervisor, encouraging me to change topic and work on adapting my Masters thesis to be published as a book. Geoff tricked me into completing my doctorate by pushing me to present papers at conferences and publish chapters in the book in a series of stages. After graduating, I was offered a position at Cambridge but I wanted to return to Australia.Despite not wishing to remain permanently in Cambridge, it was there that I learned about their wonderful educational system – at least as it was in the eighties. Cambridge undergraduates begin no better nor worse, in terms of ability, than ours. However, because of their system, which allows no more than three students per tutorial, these same undergraduates improve much more than ours here in Australia. In other words, resources, and how you use them, matter.Nonetheless, the dumbing down of Australian universities is also happening partly because we are accepting international students whose English language skills are not sufficiently developed and do nothing to improve them. To give you an example, a support person accompanied a third year student to see me in my role as Ethics Officer. The support person was there to translate for the non-English background international student whose language skills were minimal, despite this being their third year at UNSW. We sometimes have students sitting exams for other students, as the university ID card is not sufficiently robust to deter such instances of contracted cheating. As a result, I worry about the integrity of the degree for a small percentage of students, and I think appropriately set and administered examinations are vital to preserve that integrity.When I started my career things were different, but the organisation of universities is where there have been unwelcome changes. Originally there were three types of tertiary institutions: Technical and Further Education colleges (TAFEs), Colleges of Advanced Education (CAEs) and universities. Each served very important and very different functions. However, Dawkinisation* of universities turned all the CAEs into universities and we suddenly had a surfeit of universities. Since we had too many, they were no longer all able to function as the frontiers of new knowledge – they were spread too broadly. Next came managerialism in universities; that is, universities no longer run by or for academics, but along business principles enrolling clients and customers, not students.

Further, we are no longer educating, but we are selling a product. And what saddens me the most is that the people who have damaged education so much in Australia have come from the Labor Party. With the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) they effectively reduced the room for dissent in universities. Now everything depends on the ranking of your publications which need to be in the top ten. In fact, I doubt I would have been offered a job in universities as they are now. What I write, with my distinguished colleagues (whom you’ve also interviewed for FigureGround) Geoff Harcourt and John Nevile, is very rarely, if ever, considered appropriate for the top ERA ranked journals.

I’m desperately hoping my two very intelligent and capable children will not wish to follow in the footsteps of their father career-wise. Unfortunately, I no longer think academia is about educating young people and pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge and ideas. It’s about running through the right hoops, it’s about employment and teaching techniques, it’s about publishing in the right journals (at least for promotional purposes) regardless of what the content is. None of these things are what an academic should be focussing on. For example, although I love research and publish constantly, my research is not considered serious enough by the university because I do not publish in the right journals. My area of heterodox economics is considered a disaster as it’s not neo-liberal, in which incidentally I don’t believe and which I do not want to pursue. However, the latter area is what all the A-star journals want to publish and these journals are the most esoteric and removed from reality.

Can you walk us through how Heterodox economics mainly differs from more orthodox approaches and how has it evolved since the 1980s?

Orthodox economics models itself on the physical sciences, particularly early twentieth century physics and maths and uses deductive logic from axioms (usually unrealistic assumptions that reflect mathematical properties such as ‘I have continuity in my preferences’ or ‘My preference functions form a perfect shape’ or ‘I maximise my (expected) utility and the utility of others doesn’t affect mine’) that really don’t have much to do with human behaviour. Most significantly it undertakes a static analysis asking how we can maximise something at a certain point in time; it doesn’t consider important dynamic processes such as growth and accumulation that occur over time. Neoclassical economics considers and compares the factors determining price – like ‘the price of tea’, which it deems will be ‘optimal’ if left to market forces. Price is at the centre of everything and neoclassical economists try to show that if we leave market forces alone the resulting prices will be ‘optimal’. However, this is problematic as the criterion for ‘optimal’ is maximising ‘utility’ and we can’t make interpersonal utility comparisons. In short, it’s a pretty miserable definition that deems ‘optimal’ when I can’t make any one person better off without making someone else worse off and so, in effect, cannot make any real world change – there will always be someone who is made worse off as a result of by any policy, no matter how large the gains.

Heterodox economics, on the other hand, doesn’t consider these issues, but looks at growth, distribution and unemployment as the main concerns as well as the importance of sustainability and the environment. Gender is another concern as ‘heterodox’ refers to ‘other than orthodox’ – there are several schools ranging from Feminist to Environmental and Post Keynesian etc. What all these schools have in common is that history matters, society and institutions as well as their evolution matter and affect the economy while equilibrium is rarely if ever attainable. Heterodox economics demands an approach beyond or wider than economics as it recognises that many factors are involved and therefore, acknowledges its limitations; the complexity of each process is analysed. For example, there are so many theories of inflation because inflation is so complex with many causes; still, at any point in time and place, one theory may prove to be more useful than others and it is the job of economists to work that out.

When I first came to UNSW I wasn’t the only heterodox (i.e. political) economist but I am now and I fear that when I go, so will all my courses. Within mainstream economics, political economy relates to game theory analysis of political processes and hence, I had to rename my heterodox economic course because Political Economy is not acceptable; so, it’s now called Political Economy and Modern Capitalism.

You have been working on integrating critical thinking in many of your courses. How do you encourage students to develop this skill and disposition and how do you assess it?

I don’t think we encourage critical thinking in general in our students anymore. With the increasing commercialisation of degrees, the main and probably only focus is on the knowledge base, along with some fundamental learning and techniques.

In the courses I deliver, I discuss ideas students can learn from elsewhere and then critically evaluate those same ideas by explaining their shortcomings and how students might go beyond them. I then expect students to reflect this type of thinking in their tutorial papers and debates.Debates are especially effective since students often have to argue for and defend a position which they do not really support. I often say to my students how valuable this experience is in debates and tutorials, as it enables them to gain an understanding and appreciation of alternative viewpoints. Sometimes students become worried when they think there is ‘no correct answer’ because no matter what they say, I always play ‘devil’s advocate’ – I just respond that ‘you’re learning’.

This is why I dislike multiple choice exams because what’s important is a way of thinking, rather than a correct answer. Multiple choice tells us there is a correct answer. There are correct answers to specific technical problems but not for broader questions such as ‘what causes unemployment?’ Similarly, short answers mainly function to display knowledge rather than demonstrate a way of thinking critically. To critically evaluate you have to grasp the logic of an argument, look at various different sides and provide convincing evidence, etc. And so, it is difficult to assess. We need to have more resources put into teaching and evaluation while encouraging critical thinking. Unfortunately, though, many people do not believe in teaching critical thinking and prefer to teach correct techniques and problem solving. Further, the current financial regime does not facilitate us teaching this skill, which requires a lower student-staff ratio. For example, when I studied and taught at Cambridge, where lecture size was similar, supervisions (tutorials) consisted of two or three people at the most with courses continuing for a year. In those tutorials students had to write a paper of approximately two pages every week. I would then discuss what was relevant or not, how the response addressed the question and whether the argument had been developed logically, etc. In other words, we’d spend the whole of first term dissecting and critically thinking and learning how to develop arguments as well as apply them. We’d also read original texts as the small size of classes allowed this.

In the past we used to encourage critical thinking via setting essays, but we can no longer be sure students are writing their own essays; e.g. sites providing essays for students and charging differentially depending on the grade wanted. Being sure the essay we mark has been written by the student who submitted it is, in my opinion, the greatest challenge to assessing critical thinking. I have seen students go into an unseen examination with a grade of 45 out of 50 for coursework including tutorial papers, and then score 2 out of 50 in the final examination. In many cases these students haven’t cheated, but achieved their earlier high marks through being involved in groups, where their teammates have edited their work and given feedback on their contributions. However, at the end of the day, they haven’t learnt that much.

As a result of the rise of the internet, I think we have to consider critical thinking in different ways. I do this, varying my approach depending on the course, by encouraging and insisting students do a tutorial paper every other week; i.e. two pages on a specific topic where there is a specific question asked and students are marked not on what they know, but on their ability to answer that specific question. They then write up their responses and submit via Turnitin. Even then, I don’t mind their discussing and collaborating, but there is still a lot of plagiarism; e.g. copying answers from earlier students’ work even if it is a response to a different question. Non-English background and international students do face considerable language difficulties as well as time constraints, often needing to work to supplement their living expenses. So what often suffers the most is the effort put into studying. Nonetheless, I stress to students that what I am looking for is the way they approach and respond to questions, how they critically analyse questions, rather than their knowledge base. Moreover, I always require them to sit an unseen final examination. For large classes of 1000 or more, however, there is probably no other option than examinations using multiple choice questions, which tend to discriminate against non-English background speakers, but they are conveniently computer marked, as we often do not have the resources to mark that many essay type answers.

What are you currently working on?

I tend to always work on a number of projects at the same time. John Nevile and I are working together on a History of Keynesianism in Australia and another project that is pure theory; i.e. the nature of trade cycles. Joseph Halevi and I are also working together on a number of projects … he taught a subject on political economics at Sydney University and since I taught one here, we are discussing how to put these two courses together with a view to publishing a text book.

In conventional economics, expectations are almost ruled out, yet Keynes argued they permeate nearly all aspects of decision-making. According to Keynes, we can never predict the future, we can’t calculate the probability of something happening and that’s why people rely on rules; rules being one way of coping with uncertainty. Bearing this in mind, I am also working with Geoff Harcourt on a number of projects, including the nature and role of expectations, which play a key part in what actually happens in the economy; for example, in relation to banking rather than inflation. In short, we get self-fulfilling prophesies based on what people and ‘the herd’ believe.

* The Labor Education Minister (1987–91) John Dawkins, whose proposed reforms were published in Higher education: a policy discussion paper (‘the green paper’) in December 1987 and later announced in Higher education: a policy statement (‘the white paper’) that was published in July 1988.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Peter Kriesler, Judie Cross and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:
Cross, J. (2018). “Interview with Peter Kriesler,” Figure/Ground, October 2017.
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