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Teaching critical literacy.

That’s what professors do in the classroom. We teach students languages in order to make some sense of the world around them. How to view a film or read a novel. How to think about economics, politics, and culture. How to understand cell biology or the evolution of the universe.

And, of course, how to think critically about those languages—both their conditions and their consequences.

I’ve been thinking about the task of teaching critical literacy as I prepare the syllabi and lectures for my final semester at the University of Notre Dame.

Lately, I’ve been struck by the way mainstream economics is usually taught as a choice between markets and policy. Whenever a problem comes up—say, inequality or climate change—one group of mainstream economists offers the market as a solution, while the other group suggests that markets aren’t enough and need to be supplemented by government policies. Thus, for example, conservative, market-oriented economists teach students that, with free markets, everybody gets what they deserve (so inequality isn’t really a problem) and greenhouse gas emissions will decline over time (by imposing a tax on the burning of carbon-based fuels). Liberal economists generally argue that market outcomes are inadequate and require additional policies—for example, minimum-wage laws (to lower inequality) and stringent regulations on carbon emissions (because allowing the market to work through carbon taxes, or even cap-and-trade schemes, won’t achieve the necessary reductions to avoid global warming).*

That’s the way mainstream economists frame the issues for students—and, for that matter, for the general public. Markets or policies. Either rely on markets or implement new policies. Once someone learns the language, they see the world in a particular way, and they’re permitted to participate in the debate on those terms.

The problem is, something crucial is being left out of those languages, and thus the economic and political debate: institutions. The existing set of institutions are taken as given. Therefore, the possibility of changing existing institutions or creating new institutions to solve economic and social problems is simply taken off the table.

Among those institutions, perhaps the key one is the corporation. The presumption within mainstream economics is that privately owned, publicly traded corporations are simply there, allowed to operate freely within markets or nudged in a better direction by government policies. What mainstream economists never encourage students (or, again the general public) to consider is the possibility that institutions—especially the corporation—might be modified or radically transformed to create the foundation for a different kind of economy.

Consider how strange that is. Corporations are the central institution when it comes to the distribution of income and therefore the obscene, and still-growing, levels of inequality in the U.S. and world economies. It’s how most workers are paid (because that’s where jobs are available) and where the surplus is first appropriated (by the boards of directors) and then distributed (to shareholders and others). And as workers’ wages stagnate, and the surplus grows, economic inequality becomes worse and worse.

The same is true with climate change. The major institution involved in producing and using fossil fuels—and therefore creating the conditions for global warming—is the corporation. Especially gigantic multinational corporations. Some make profits by extracting fossil fuels; others use those fuels to produce commodities and to transport them around the world. They are the basis of the fossil-fuel-intensive Capitalocene.

Within the language of mainstream economists, the corporation is always-already there. They may allow for different kinds of markets and different kinds of policies but never for an alternative to the institution of the corporation —whether a different kind of corporation or a non-corporate way of organizing economic and social life.

If the goal of teaching economic is critical literacy, then we have to teach students the multiple languages of economics—including the possibilities that are foreclosed by some languages and opened up by other languages. One of our tasks, then, is to look beyond the language of markets and policy and to expose students to a language of changing institutions.

Now that I begin to look back on my decades of teaching economics, I guess that’s what I’ve been doing the entire time, exploring and promoting critical literacy. I’ve always taken as one of my responsibilities the teaching of the language of mainstream economists. But I haven’t stopped there. I’ve also always endeavored to expose students to other languages, other ways of making sense of the world around them.

Maybe, as a result, some of them have left knowing that it’s not just a question of markets or policy. Economic institutions are important, too.

Addendum

To complicate matters a bit further, the three elements I’ve focused on in this blog post—markets, policy, and institutions—are not mutually exclusive. Thus, for example, at least some conservative mainstream economists do understand that properly functioning markets do presume certain institutions (such as the rule of law and the protection of private property) and policies (especially not regulating markets), while liberals often advocate policies that allow markets to operate with better outcomes (I’m thinking, in particular, of antitrust legislation) and institutions to be safeguarded (especially when they might be threatened by grotesque levels of inequality and the effects of climate change). As for institutions, I can well imagine noncorporate enterprises—for example, worker cooperatives—operating within markets and relying on government policy. However, such enterprises imply the existence of markets and policies that differ markedly from those that prevail today, which are taken as given and immutable by mainstream economists.

 

*Dani Rodrik summarizes the terms of the debate well in a recent column: when a local factory closes because a firm has decided to outsource production,

Economists’ usual answer is to call for “greater labor market flexibility”: workers should simply leave depressed areas and seek jobs elsewhere. . .

Alternatively, economists might recommend compensating the losers from economic change, through social transfers and other benefits.

Once again, it’s a question of markets (in this case, the labor market) and policy (more generous social transfers to the “losers”).

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