“They aren’t laws of nature”

Posted: 2 July 2018 in Uncategorized
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Keynes-2

Nicola Headlam is, I think, right with respect to “how the rules of the economy are set”:

“Somehow, someone, somewhere made these rules up. They aren’t laws of nature.” And they determine “who’s got what and where and why”.

The question is, how do we teach economics so that that message gets through?

Aditya Chakrabortty [ht: ja] reports on one way of doing it—a makeshift classroom in a converted church, with nine “lay people” and two facilitators (Headlam and Anne Hines, who are donating their time), in the Levenshulme area of Manchester, England.

Part of what makes the course interesting, at least to me, are the participants:

Those doing the Levenshulme crash course don’t look like your typical seminar room attendees. Not only are they decades older; all but one is a women. The average undergraduate economics course, according to the Royal Economic Society, is about 67% male and 25% privately educated (compared with 7% of the population). After the class, a charity van pulls up outside, offering three bags of short-dated food for £6. Several “students” collect their groceries for the week.

Everyone here brings their own lived experience of economics. In her motorised wheelchair, Joanne Wilcock notes how “everything is much more expensive when you’re disabled”. Bang on, yet you hardly ever read that in an article on the latest inflation figures. Bhatt knows that Levenshulme is supposed to be gentrifying – “fancy cars, flash weddings” – but notices his neighbours can’t afford to do up their own houses. “All fur coat and no knickers!” he concludes, and the room cracks up.

Another is the pedagogy:

That impulse may now be dressed up in polite euphemism – but it lives on. “So many thinktanks and MPs come up with good ideas to change our economy, but they’re all stuck in their political bubble,” says the head of Economy, Joe Earle. “Ordinary people barely get a say in the thing that rules their lives.”

Contrast that with this class and its polite horizontalism, where no one is presumed to be a total expert and everyone is treated as if they have something valuable to say. . .

At the end of the class, each participant tells the rest the best thing they have learned. There’s a pause when it gets to Aklima Akhter, who only came to this country in 2013 and has been sitting so benignly quiet in her white headscarf. She starts haltingly: “It is difficult for me, you know … the subject, the language.”

All around her are faces pursed in little moues of encouragement, but then Akhter speeds up with fluency. “But my favourite word was ‘nationalisation’. Because when things are privatised it is the rich who get all the benefit.” And for once in this room, no one is laughing.

The contrast to the usual economics classroom couldn’t be more stark—in terms of both the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the students and the commitment on the part of the facilitators to recognizing the “everyday” questions and viewpoints the students bring to learning about economics.

The usual method, at least these days (and outside of for-profit colleges and universities, which tend to attract older students), is to teach mostly young male undergraduates (according to Claudia Goldin [pdf]) in a vertical manner.* What I mean by the latter is the presumption that the ideas students bring to the classroom are probably wrong, and need to be replaced by the “correct” methods and models. And, for the most part, that means pushing students through the chapters of a traditional textbook of economics, and therefore teaching them a narrow version of economics, consisting almost entirely of neoclassical and Keynesian theories, approaches, and policies.

That way of teaching economics has the effect of naturalizing a capitalist economy. First, it reduces the universe of relevant economic thought to contemporary mainstream economics. No other economic theories, now or in the past, need apply. (Nor, for that matter, should knowledges about the economy beyond mainstream economics, from either disciplines or from outside the academy.) Second, the methods and models are taught in a “common sense” manner. As I discussed back in May, markets have a magical, quasi-mystical status within mainstream economics. They are the original starting-point of neoclassical theory—presented as being “just there,” with the requisite price and quantity axes and supply and demand schedules, as the origin and focus of economic analysis. As for macroeconomics, which I discussed this past April, the premise and promise of both Keynesian and neoclassical macroeconomics is that, with the appropriate institutions and policies, capitalism can be characterized by and should be celebrated for achieving full employment and price stability. In both cases, at the micro and macro levels, the rules governing the economy are considered to be natural laws, which are correctly captured within the models of mainstream economics—and then, of course, meant to be respected and obeyed.

As I explained in 2011, after 70 students walked out of Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of Economics class, my approach couldn’t be more different (all of my course syllabi are publicly available here):

For almost 30 years, I have focused on teaching neoclassical economic theory, which I present both as one story about the economy among many and as the hegemonic story among economists inside and outside the academy. I start with economic history and then present neoclassical theory from its basic assumptions (such as the assumptions about human nature) through its most important theoretical conclusions and policy recommendations (such as general equilibrium and Pareto efficiency). Then, after I present some of the extensions of neoclassical theory (such as imperfect competition, game theory, and international trade), I discuss some of the basic criticisms of neoclassical theory (from the endogeneity of preferences through the concept of capital to the distribution of income), a couple of lectures on Marxian economic theory, and the consequences for theory and policy of the differences among economic theories.

Now, I understand, my approach to teaching economics is specific to its context (in an American research university, with full-time undergraduate students, during the past three-plus decades). It might not work in a Levenshulme community center or a labor college or elsewhere. But, even in those circumstances, I would insist on history (and thus highlight the radical changes in both economic thought and economic institutions over time) and a discussion of the differences among economic theories today (neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian, based on different entry points and methods), as well as the different theoretical and social consequences of those theories.

My hope is that students would learn, if nothing else, that the rules of the economy aren’t—and never have been—”laws of nature.”

 

*Chakrabortty refers to the fact that “Not so long ago, a Levenshulme resident could learn economics – or any number of other subjects – through the adult evening classes offered by the University of Manchester. The extramural programme stretched as far afield as Wigan and Burnley, and by the 1970s employed more than 30 academic staff. Then followed decades of cuts, until the entire department was shut down in 2006.” In the United States, students haven been able to study economics in a variety of settings, such as labor colleges (including the Work People’s College [1904-41] in Duluth, Minnesota, Brookwood Labor College [1921-37] in Katonah, New York, and Commonwealth College [1923-41] near Mena, Arkansas, as well as the National Labor College, sponsored by the AFL-CIO, which closed in 2014) and centers of popular education (including, still, the Center for Popular Economics and the Highlander Center).

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