Reflections on Popular Economics: An Interview with Juliet Schor
Juliet Schor was a founding member of the Center for Popular Economics. After earning her Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, she taught in the Economics Department at Harvard University for 17 years. In 2001 she joined the Sociology Department at Boston College. Her books include The Overworked American, The Overspent American, and Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. We asked her about her work with the Center for Popular Economics (CPE), the need for a “people’s economics”, and how the Left and the economics discipline have changed over the years.
Anders Fremstad: How did your work with the Center for Popular Economics (CPE) begin?
Juliet Schor: We founded CPE at a time when the corporate backlash to the gains from the 60s and 70s was building. We heard a lot of discussion from progressive activists about their inability to fight back against the economic discourse that was coming from the corporate sector. This was a moment when corporations were really on the offensive — taking out ads on the op-ed page of the New York Times with their point of view. It was the corporate backlash and business’ attempts to create a new regime of accumulation, which eventually came about after 1979 with the move to neoliberalism. We were seeing that happen, and we were trying to counter it with an alternative view of economics for people.
CPE’s work began with the Summer Institute. The Summer Institute was the only thing we did at first, and then we began to get requests to run institutes and workshops in other places. The philosophy was to bring people together who were coming from disparate backgrounds and perspectives, and put them in a very non-instrumental setting, so that there was no agenda other than to learn. The canonical example would be an environmentalist and a trade unionist. We bring these people together, they spend a week together, they get to know each other better, to try to build bridges across some of the divides in the left.
Why was economics central to this fight?
Corporations were using economics a lot, because you had a bad economy, you had stagflation, you had profit squeeze, you had unemployment. The economy itself was in chaos. The Keynesian regime of accumulation was clearly faltering, so this was a concerted effort with a big PR campaign by corporate America to reclaim the agenda. CPE created materials like “Up Against the Wall Street Journal” where we would teach people how to counter corporate arguments.
Do you think that there is more solidarity among anti-capitalist movements today than when CPE began?
I think there is more solidarity now. One reason is that there is more commonality of experience as the economy is harming all of these groups. Take something like labor unions — they had a much more privileged position in comparison to, say, queer activists back then. Now the privileges of some parts of the Left have really eroded, and I think there are also worse outcomes from the economy so that the same dynamics are affecting the groups more. In some sense what is happening today is not really that different than what was happening then, it is just a more extreme version. Some things have changed, but the sort of degradation of working people that was really starting then is much more extreme now.
You know at that time when we started in 1979, the Left had gone through a lot of fractious battles in the 1970s. We had just gone through the emergence of those movements.
The trade unionists we got were the more progressive trade unionists. They were prized. We wanted them. And we did get some, but we had really a wide mix of people — we had welfare rights activists, we had phenomenal participants, especially in the first few years because this was something new and very interesting to activists. There were some professional, radical economists who were going to help activists with something that was proving to be a real problem in their work. And UMass had become known by that time, so we were able to get some great people — really effective leaders in their own sectors.
Did you come to do you graduate work in economics because you thought studying economics was necessary for people on the Left?
I did a lot of political stuff before I came to graduate school. The semester before I came to UMass I was working as a volunteer, putting in lots of hours at Dollars and Sense. When I arrived at UMass we founded the Red Cent Collective. It was a journalist collective and we were writing popular economics articles together. Then South End Press. Then CPE. They were all of the same piece — popularizing these alternative economic theories. What today we might call heterodox economics. But basically we were doing Marxian and left-Keynesian economics.
I got interested in economics early. I was a Marxist, and if you were a Marxist you studied economics, you studied history, you studied philosophy. I was studying all those things. Economics happened to be the field that most captivated me intellectually. And then as the economy became so prominent in the discourse in national politics, I was lucky to be there. It was a very exciting time from the point of view of doing radical economics — and that is pretty much what we called it. If you’d asked me what I did at that time, I would have said I was a radical economist. It was a growing and vibrant paradigm and intellectual community that was connecting with stuff that was happening all over the world.
Has mainstream economics changed since you first started studying it?
When I first went to the London School of Economics in 1975 — that’s when I started graduate school — the profession had already been moving to the right with the rise of Chicago Economics. But it wasn’t so obvious yet, because of all the political ferment. Those of us that were in radical economics felt that ours was the rising paradigm. The failures of liberal Keynesianism were not yet so obvious in 1975 as they would be in 1980 or 1985, but when you look back you can see that it was already starting to happen. So I would say that the years I was in graduate school, our paradigm was thriving, but the discipline was moving rightward.
We went through a period of increasing dominance of the Right in economics, with national policy and elite opinion. I very much believe that economics is a discipline that follows national politics. That continued for a long time. I think it began to change a few years ago. I think the crash was the most important aspect of this. Now it does feel like the discipline has opened up a bit. Consider something like behavioral economics, which has been chugging along since the 1970s, with less impact that it might have had because it was moving against the political headwinds. Until the movement to the right stopped, it was hard for behavioral economics to make as much headway as I think it has more recently, now that the Chicago model or neoliberalism has had the wind taken out of its sails. That happened because of the crash, and it is easier for other things to come up. So I do think you have greater openness today than we had twenty years ago.
How has radical economics evolved over this time?
With the fall of the Soviet Union, radical economics lost its confidence. This was despite the fact that very few radical economists looked to the Soviet Union as a model of anything — we were extremely critical of it, and we did not advocate anything like it. But ideas like “there is no alternative” and “the end of history” really had an impact on the confidence of people articulating a different point of view. Many people began doing work that was mainly a critique of neoclassical economics — often empirical critiques showing that neoclassicals are wrong on this or that — all of which is great important work but it is different from building an alternative paradigm.
What are the popular movements that you think are the most promising today?
Well I personally am most excited about what is going on around climate and climate justice. My own transformation was around environmental issues. The climate movement has really taken off in recent years, and that is exciting.
The inequality agenda has also taken off. One of my good friends from college, Danny Cantor, founded the Working Families Party in New York. They have had incredible success with a coalition of community organizations and labor unions. That was the sort of alliance we were thinking of in the summer institute — poor people, people of color, with organized labor. At that time those groups were at each other’s throats. The labor unions at that time tended to be very different — they were not against the Vietnam War, many unionists were Reagan Democrats, and unions were much more backward then on issues of race. So this is an exciting movement, along with the whole Occupy movement. Basically this is all happening at the local level, and I think it will bubble up.
Are there any other issues that you think progressive economics gets wrong? Are academics and movements on the Left making mistakes?
A few things. The first thing that I really came to be critical about in terms of the way I had been approaching the world is around the question of economic growth in rich countries. In the 70s when I was in graduate school, we were experiencing slow growth, stagflation, and high unemployment. We took a pretty social-democratic view that growth is good and that jobs trickle down. I became more critical of that from an environmental point of view originally, and then from all the work on happiness. We always thought that inequality was bad, but it is now less clear that the expansion of GDP is going to yield widespread benefits. To be fair, if you look at the indicators of wellbeing and their relationship to GDP, they move pretty closely with GDP until the 1970s, so the fact we felt that way in the 1970s was pretty justified. But this is when you begin to get the big divergence. And I would say I sort of peeled off from that pro-growth point of view by the mid- to late-1980s. My research on working hours was part of it. And my husband also showed that the rest of the world cannot live like Americans. I now have much more ecological consciousness than I had in 1982. So that’s one thing.
I would say the other thing is that I had a simplistic idea of the relationship between economic interests and political action or action in general. I was too economistic. Back in the day, I thought that if the unemployment rate goes up to such-and-such a level, people are going to be in the streets. And then here we had the Great Recession and hardly anyone took to the streets. I thought that if inequality gets bad, there would be political organization against it. In retrospect, I think it’s unclear that action follows economic interests. This is also coming from sociology, since sociologists understand human actions differently than economists. They are thinking about “what is it that makes people act?” and so forth. Not that I have a good model of what makes people politically active — I’m not sure that anyone does. But we know that economic interest is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for people getting active. So what is it that creates activism? I’ve done a little bit of work on that in relation to consumption values and their relationship to political activism, but it is not my specialty. But I do think that is something we got wrong. Like the rest of economics, we were too economistic.
Personally, I’ve worked a lot on consumer culture — are preferences independent and so forth — that’s a big thing. I would also say that we learned a lot from the political movements that had a range of critiques of capitalism: not just from the Marxian point that workers were being exploited, but also environmental, gender, and cultural critiques of consumerism. There are ways in which, when you start doing radical economics, the paradigm went in a more economistic direction. I think that popular movements have really opened up since then. CPE is much broader now in the kinds of things it does, the sorts of issues that it deals with, compared to that time when we were much more focused on growth and class conflict.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with young activists or current members of the Center for Popular Economics?
I’ve always thought that CPE was a really unique and important institution because economics has been a weak point on the Left for some time. For the last many decades, the Left has been on the defensive in terms of economic analysis. So what CPE does, which is economic analysis for the people, is incredibly important.
The occupy movement was a recognition of how little progressive and radical economic teaching is going on and how hungry activists were for it. It was amazing to me to go to Occupy sites and be asked the kinds of basic economic questions people were asking me. There was real hunger for an alternative economic analysis. We’ve lost a lot of time by generating cohorts of students who haven’t been exposed to it because there are so few radical economists. So CPE is important because it is one of the few institutions in the country that is actually teaching people a different way of thinking about what is going on in the economy. So kudos to all the contemporary CPEers.
My pleasure. Its fun to go down memory lane