Diversifying the Monoculture of Economics

By Helen Scharber

Champ maïs

Like any system, the system of theories and methods known as economics needs diversity.  Diversity is critical, as students of biology know, because it allows systems to adapt to inevitable changes.  While economics has a variety of subfields— from micro and macro to behavioral and monetary— the discipline is mostly a monoculture, in that it rarely looks outside of the theoretical lens known as neoclassical economics, which focuses heavily on individualism and markets.  The effects of the lack of diversity and overreliance on neoclassical theory were made very visible in the failure of the economics discipline to predict and appropriately respond to the most recent global economic crisis.  The Queen of England (and everyone else) rightly wondered why so many clever, well-trained economists failed so miserably.  The economists who responded chocked it up to “a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people,” but perhaps their imaginations would have failed less spectacularly had they not all had the same, narrow training.

Fortunately, a movement is afoot to propagate diversity in economics education.  While the push for pluralism in economics is nothing new— some graduate programs, organizations and networks have been expanding the discipline’s boundaries for years— the recent injection of energy has come largely from students and young people.  The International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE), with member groups from over 30 countries, released an open letter in May decrying the “lack of intellectual diversity” in the discipline that “limits our ability to contend with the multidimensional challenges of the 21st century – from financial stability, to food security and climate change.”  They call on economists to reconsider the way economics is taught, including 1) Hiring instructors and researchers who can bring theoretical and methodological diversity to economics programs; 2) Creating texts and other pedagogical tools needed to support pluralist course offerings; and 3) Formalizing collaborations between social sciences and humanities departments or establishing special departments that could oversee interdisciplinary programs blending economics and other fields.  These are all very good ideas.

Other indications that change is afoot have been bubbling up from other corners.  Rethinking Economics, one of the signatory groups to the ISIPE letter, held their second conference in London on June 28 and 29, to explore “both the problems with the current system” and “alternatives to the way things are done now.”  The group will organize another student-run conference in New York City in September 2014.  The Curriculum in Open-access Resources in Economics (CORE) project, funded by the Institute for New Economic Thinking, is developing curriculum that aims to close the gap between “the questions we are being pressed to answer by the public…and the often-unrelated content of our curriculum.”  Toward this end, the CORE curriculum attempts to introduce tools in response to questions and observations— rather than providing tools and axioms in search of things to explain— though there has been healthy debate around how well it will achieve its goal.

In early June, I was on a panel at the New Economy Coalition’s CommonBound conference called “How to Change the Teaching of Economics.”  The room, filled with eager participants and tangible energy for the topic, was another testament to the interest in making change.  How can we move from a world characterized by the domination of one unified body of economic theory— one in which many powerful people are heavily invested— to a world where different lenses are appreciated and taught?  There is no quick fix, but change will likely involve answering another question, posed (and tweeted) by a participant at the Rethinking Economics conference in June: How do we learn to co-operate in a society that puts individualism on a pedestal?  Indeed, many of the panelists’ ideas involved collective action: organizing students and other activists, creating mentorship networks for sympathetic teachers, sharing resources. Personally, I’ll do what I can to support this movement— with so many economic, social and environmental obstacles to overcome in coming years, we cannot afford another failure of the collective imagination of economists.

 

Saturday Workshop: Capitalism and the K-12 School System

Saturday July 12, 2-5PM
Teachers: David Eisnitz and Kyla Walters

This workshop will examine the role of the K-12 public education system in American
capitalism. We will discuss U.S. public schools as a system for producing worker-citizens and
as a system of social control. Topics will include the role of schools in producing and
reproducing inequality, in regulating youth labor and the labor market, and in teaching
dominant norms and values. We will go on to consider how schools can be a potential site of
liberation, community, and progressive social change.

To register for this event, and for more information, click here.

Mississippi Freedom Summer – A Personal Account

By David Kotz

In the summer of 1964 – fifty years ago this summer – the civil rights movement launched a bold project aimed at defeating racial segregation in its stronghold in the deep south state of Mississippi, a project in which I participated. African-Americans were about a third of the state population. They faced job market segregation that restricted them largely to menial, low-paying jobs, channeling many of them, adults and children, into back-breaking cotton-picking jobs once performed by slaves. The separate schools for their children had little funding and delivered not much education. Only a handful had been able to register to vote. This racial caste system was enforced by official and private violence directed at anyone who challenged it.

Most of Mississippi’s white population was also poor, as the state came in last on many measures of economic welfare and public health. However, the false promise of racial superiority, played on by politicians, kept low-income whites reliable supporters of the system. Any white person who questioned the system was ostracized, and some who did were driven out of the state. Meanwhile, the real beneficiaries of this system were the rich white plantation owners who were assured cheap labor with no rights on the job. Read more

Democratizing the Sharing Economy

By Anders Fremstad

The internet has sharply reduced the cost of peer-to-peer transactions.  In the 1990s and 2000s, Craigslist and eBay made it much easier to buy and sell secondhand goods, and these sites now facilitate over a million transactions a day.  More recently, online platforms associated with the “sharing economy” are helping friends, neighbors, and even strangers borrow, lend, and rent goods.  Travellers can reserve a spare room through Airbnb or find a free place to crash on Couchsurfing.  People can find a ride on Uber or rent a neighbor’s car on RelayRides.  Neighbors can increasingly borrow tools, gear, and appliances free-of-charge on NeighborGoods, Sharetribe, and similar sites.  Most observers celebrate how the sharing economy lowers the cost of accessing goods, but there is a growing debate over how these online platforms should be regulated.  Unfortunately, this debate ignores how many of the fundamental problems with the sharing economy arise from its corporate nature.  The solution may not be to simply regulate the corporate sharing economy but to also democratize the sharing economy by empowering the people who use these platforms to determine how they work. Read more

This Saturday’s Workshop (June 28th): Local Food, Good Jobs

Local Food, Good Jobs

Teachers: Helen Scharber and Olivia Geiger

Saturday June 28th, 2-5PM

 
In this participatory workshop, participants will develop tools for analyzing how local food
production–from growing to processing to retail–fits into the broader economy. In particular,
we will explore reasons why balancing good paying jobs with competitive and affordable food
prices is so difficult, along with strategies for increasing the quality of jobs in the food sector
and the affordability of local organic food. Appropriate for anyone involved or interested in
local food production.

To register for this event, and for more information, click here.

 

Inequality and the Case for Unions

By Tim Koechlin

 

Across the country, Republican legislatures encouraged and financed, as usual, by corporate money and right wing think tanks have undertaken a stunning array of initiatives designed to weaken unions and otherwise undermine American workers.   Scott Walker of Wisconsin, along with several other Republican governors, has moved aggressively and conspicuously to disempower public sector unions.  Nikki Haley, the Republican Governor of South Carolina, recently declared that unionized businesses are not welcome in South Carolina.

Republicans tell a tired, cynical story about all of this, insisting that union busting is, somehow, good for the economy and good for workers.   It’s the same old trickle down nonsense.

Democrats, on the other hand, have done too little to defend unions and worker rights. Read more

What Does Progressive Urban Planning Look Like? Why Radicals Should Steer Clear of Homeowner Politics

By Matson Boyd

I’m a big supporter of Kshama Sawant, as these pieces will attest, so it is with concern that I read her position on urban planning in Seattle. Sawant voted to lower the height limit on new houses on small lots, and that might be fine within the context of a radical vision for urban policy, but her comments make it clear that she is taking a fairly orthodox position in support of homeowners. Sawant said that “Big developers have been pushing working-class Seattle residents around for years,” as if owners of half-million dollar homes were downtrodden workers. (The median home price in Seattle is $452,000). Homeowners are actually a very powerful group, and they own the greatest stock of capital in most big American cities. And homeowners block the actual working class from moving into their neighborhoods, not to mention fighting to keep homeless shelters from being built nearby. A truly progressive vision of a city — a place that houses the low-income and the homeless, and that provides core amenities to all regardless of income — will never become a reality unless progressives learn to challenge developers and homeowners alike. Read more

Workshop this Saturday (6/21): Higher Education in Neoliberal America

Teachers: Lacey Mower and Anastasia Wilson

Saturday June 21st, 2-5PM

This workshop aims to use CPE’s analysis to understand issues in higher education. We will
address the role of higher education in a capitalist economy, and how colleges and
universities operate as capitalist firms themselves. We will use the analysis to understand
issues of student debt, privatization, precarious academic labor, and alternative models of
education.

To register for this event, and for more information, click here.

 

Workshop on Saturday: 35 Years of Worsening Labor Conditions- What Can We Do About It?

35 Years of Worsening Labor Conditions- What Can We Do About It?
Teachers: David Kotz and Adrian Wilson

Saturday June 14th, 2-5 PM

Reviews the ways in which labor’s conditions have been getting worse since around 1980
and the roots of these trends. These trends include declining real wages and working
conditions; rapidly declining job security; a high average unemployment rate, especially since
2009; loss of reliable retirement pension systems; the expansion of low-wage jobs in which
labor laws are often violated; and the big increase in inequality. A key factor lying behind
these trends has been the long decrease in the percentage of workers represented by
unions. Ways to reverse these trends will be considered, including a rise in the legal
minimum wage.

To register for this event, and for more information, click here.

 

What’s Next, After Seattle’s $15 Minimum Wage Win?

By Matson Boyd

This past week, Seattle’s City Council voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. This move will raise the living standards of thousands of low wage families, and it marks a triumph for Socialist councilor Kshama Sawant and her coalition of $15-Now activists. What’s next around the country in the minimum wage fight? And what can activists learn from the Seattle victory?

Sawant and 15-Now succeeded, not because they elected a slate of politicians, but because they built such a groundswell of grassroots support that no politician could survive by opposing them. The city council vote on Monday was 9 to 0. Raising the minimum wage has popular support almost everywhere around the country, what’s needed is for that support to be organized and articulated into a specific policy proposal. Read more

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