An Interview with Maeve Cohen: Director of Rethinking Economics

Interview with Maeve Cohen: Director of Rethinking Economics and co-founder of the Post-Crash Economics Society

Conducted by Ola Helmich Borchgrevink Pedersen, DSEP President

O: How did you get involved in economic pluralism?

M: I was a mature student. I’m from the North East of England, County Durham, where there were lots of mines. I’m from a mining village called Langley park, 2.5 miles outside of Durham. I was born 1987 so when I was growing up, it was very obvious the effects that the mining strike and the closure of the mines had on where I grew up. I learned from a very early age how economic policy made in Westminster, by people who had nothing to do with the people they were creating policy for, affected the area I grew up in.

I left school at 16, as I didn’t like it, and I travelled the world a lot: I went to India and Africa and witnessed first-hand how economic policy really does affect the lives of the people they are supposed to save- sometimes negatively, sometimes positively. I became very interested in economics, and decided after 10 years to go to university. As I didn’t have any A-levels I did an access course (an A-level equivalency course) in Gateshead, also in the North East. There was a girl on my social welfare course who worked for the army, so for the state- she was 25 years old and she didn’t know what a Conservative was. I thought to myself, this woman has been through the state education system, who works for the state, doesn’t know who one of the 2 major parties are. I couldn’t get my head round it.

With all this context I went to university- I thought first off we are failing people if we can’t educate them about basic politics. Secondly, I was studying PPE and noticed the stark difference between the politics and philosophy I was learning, and, the economics I was learning. Then I got an email saying ‘are you an econoskeptic?’ and I thought ‘yeah I’m an econoskeptic!’ That email was from Joe Earle and Zack Ward-Perkins. Then we had the very first meeting they were like: “we’ve read this book debunking economics and we think this is ridiculous, do you wanna get involved?” So, me Zack and Joe founded Post-crash Economics Society.

O: You talked a bit about what you studied, and the development of the first pluralism society…

M: It isn’t the first, Cambridge was the first. We didn’t know they existed at the time, so we sprung up independently of each other, but people keep saying Post-Crash were the first, they weren’t.

O: I guess that’s a good sign though- if there’s one idea at one place and all the other organisations just come out of that one..

M: Also, Cambridge was the first in the UK, but there was a German and a French network which had been going on for a lot longer.

O: I think that’s a really cool sign that means that this idea had come up multiple times independently which says that its quite strong.

M: For sure, and we’re not the first wave of students to do this. There’s been two- they did in Sydney with Steve Keen the 70s, and they did it in Paris, I can’t remember when, but before us. It was with the unfortunately-named Post-Autistic Economics Movement, which was not very palatable. This is the 3rd wave of this movement.

O: Hopefully the strongest one!

M: Without a doubt.

O: Who is your favourite economist?

M: I am a staunch feminist economist and I get really excited about social infrastructure and I am a massive fan of the Women’s Budget Group and the work they do, so Diane Elson and Susan Himmelweit.

O: So, what’s the main idea behind economic pluralism?

M: It’s the idea is that nobody knows the answers- there’s no right or wrong answer to what is going on in the world. The problem with the way that we teach economics is that we teach it like there is an answer, but there is not, there’s many different ways of looking at human existence and interaction. What we need is economists that can think critically and have a range of tools to apply to different scenarios. So, something that would fix, say, gender inequality probably will not fix climate change. You may be able to find solutions that will fix both, but there’s different solutions to apply to different problems. So, teaching people one school of thought is never going to resolve all the problems that we have: it will resolve some problems, the ones it is best suited to, but it not all.

O: I agree. So, could you say something about the importance of the economics curriculum?

 M: Obviously the end point is an economy that can solve all the problems that it faces. An economy which can best represent and serve society, whatever that means. But, the vast majority of people who have a big influence over the economy- big banks, big business, government etc.- have economics degrees. So, whatever schools we teach them in these degrees, they are going to take with them into this world, where they are creating the economy we all live in. They are implementing these economic policies and these business practices, so we need to make sure we give them the best education possible. Then, when they go into professional live and make these decisions which effect billions of people, they’re in the best position possible to do so.

O: I think it’s fair to say that some social sciences go beyond pluralism and into relativism. there is no right answer, and you could argue everything is allowed as an academic theory.  If you imagine there is a scale: at one end is objective-one-truth-theory, a natural science inspired view (one truth), on other side all types of theories are legitimate (relativism), I think the answer is somewhere in-between. A balance where you have a lot of really credible and important economic theories which follow certain scientific/academic methodology. Do you think that it is a good criticism when someone says that economic pluralism really is economic relativism? And do you agree there is a difference between pluralists and almost post-modern relativists view on social sciences and economics?

 M: So, of course it is not a free-for all. I am a pragmatist and ultimately a structuralist; I see the world in big structures and systems and I think that some theories are of course more credible than others. But, I think that rigorous academic research and practise can sort the wheat from the chaff. Of course not all theories are credible- that’s ridiculous. But, equally ridiculous is to say just one theory is the right one. The two are extremes. And I agree there is a middle ground and we progress in knowledge by debating. We can progress to a point that we leave behind the idea that all theories are as credible as each other e.g. as you dig down deeper into fascism, it’s not based on any credible theory of the world or how people behave. Yet, for Post-Keynsiansism, there is rigorous academic research into the theory and applying it to the world, and we can see that in many, many cases it is valid. Likewise with Feminist theory and Neoclassical economics- they have got rigorous history, rigorous research and they should be debated in an equal setting.

O: To comment on that, is it fair to say it is hard to precisely specify the criteria for a school of thought i.e.  what methodology do they need to have to become legitimate?

M: But we should never be precise, we should always welcome new ideas and debate them, and then when we recognise their flaws, we either let them go or adapt them. And this is like the basis of science: you can never falsify a theory, you can never falsify anything. What we can do is further verify it. So, if we can continually make some more and more verifiable, then it becomes a stronger and stronger theory. If we can’t then we either leave it or we adapt it. This is standard practice in other sciences and social sciences, so I don’t see why it should be any different in economics.

O: I think we’ re on the same page here

M: which is unsurprising

O: Yeah, maybe we need more pluralism…

M: Yeah, in the pluralist movement itself (laughing)

O: I think that’s a legitimate point actually, but moving on to how we are organising this movement. Rethinking Economics is the main organisation for this idea, at least here in the UK, and you are spreading it out all over the world as well. Could you say the 3 most important focuses now for rethinking economics, in terms of developing as a movement?

M: In the UK or globally?

O: As a movement, so globally

M: I am confident that we have the knowledge in terms of creating student demand and students campaigning for reform at the universities, we just need to implement that better. So I am cool with that.

But, there is a vast range of institutional barriers which stop us from being able to achieve the things we need to achieve, and these are out of the hands of students. So, in the UK it’s things like the Research Excellence Framework. More globally it’s academic journals, it’s economic policy and hiring practices, and bigger than all of those things it’s cultural norms: how we talk about economics understand economics as a society. There needs to be a shift within the population and what they demand of economists. That shift is underway- economists are not held in high regard by the vast majority of people; the policies they implement are not held in high regard. We are in this crux in history where we can push it our way or it will get pushed another way. So, this is a tipping point and which is why it’s such a vital time; if we don’t act fast and we don’t act now, we will not succeed.

So, it’s very time dependent; it’s about understanding how and why people behave; it’s about getting our message across in an accessible and relatable way; and it’s about tackling those institutional barriers that we face.

O: Any main sub-goals for the movement?

M: Basically, breaking down those institutional barriers, ensuring we have political and public support for what we are doing and building momentum overseas. This is particularly in the US, as most of the 4-star journals in economics are American journals, so cracking the US is a big priority of ours

O: For local organisations such as DSEP, what kind of role can we have and any tips for us?

M: Durham is a very good Russel Group University, so having a society there is amazing. Having such an active society in Durham is a gift, it’s absolutely wonderful to see what you guys are doing- how enthusiastic you guys are, and how competent you guys are, how much you get it and just want to be a part of it. I’m dreading you guys graduating!

Students are our unique selling points, they are why we are successful. They have this position as insiders and outsiders which is truly unique within academia. You are inside the institutions, you have leverage over the institutions- you literally pay the salaries of the people who are giving you the lectures-  which is a real strength. You’re also outsiders in the sense that you’ve not been indoctrinated into economics yet, and you have leeway to be really creative and cheeky. You can get away with things that other people perhaps cannot. Students are vital- without students demanding change in their departments they would have no reason to even start thinking about pluralism, it’s not going to come from anyone else. No one else credible, no one else they respect and no one else that has leverage over them, is going to say ‘you need to change your curriculum’ and they will listen. So, students are an essential part of it.

On top of that, Durham is a leading university- if Durham changes, other Universities will change. If somebody at a different University can say: ‘well Durham’s teaching economics like this, why can’t you?’, then they will step up and listen as it’s is an incredibly respected university. So, it is so important to us. In fact, as a strategy we are targeting Russel Group Universities, as we understand how important they are. Durham’s the 3rd ranked I think, its huge. That Durham’s doing it is huge, and the fact that Durham’s so good at doing more so. The fact that I’m from Durham is personally even better!

O: To move on to more critical questions, I think that it’s very important that we stay an academic organisation – not that we don’t necessarily use any political means- but that we are first and foremost an academic, not political, movement. Do you agree that we have a problem attracting people from the broad political spectrum- that we are not as diverse and as plural as we should be as an organisation/movement? And, if you agree what do you think we should do about it?

M: Do you mean that we appear left wing?

O: Yes, you could say left wing. Or even just that we have a focus on things like ecological economics, feminist economics- which at least don’t appear to be on the right?

M: Yes, I agree that is how we are perceived, and by in large that is the make-up of our membership.

 O: Is that a problem?

M: I think that it’s unavoidable, but it’s beside the point. We are reacting to the world around us and we are recognising that actually women are getting a bum deal, actually we are living in an incredibly unequal society, which is detrimental not only for the people on the bottom, but also for the people on the top. We are acknowledging that climate change is real, and it’s a genuine existential threat for humanity. I personally don’t care which side of the coin these fall on.

I think left and right politics is pretty much dead. I am as welcoming to an Austrian economic policy which will help me overcome the issues that I have to deal with, as I am to a Keynsian policy that will do the same. I am a pragmatist- if the ideas that are being bandied bout are better than the ones we currently have, then I don’t really care where they come from on the political spectrum. I think were beyond left and right politics now, I think these issues are bigger than that.

O: Okay,  I’ll challenge you a bit more on this. Do you think economic pluralism has inherent value or is it a means to deal with political issues?

M: I don’t see that there’s a distinction between economics and politics- I don’t see how you could practice economics and not practice politics. I will say that I read Marx and then I read the Road to Serfdom by Hayek, and found that a lot of the stuff was quite similar. I was on board with a lot of the stuff that Hayek was saying, which makes perfect sense to me, as much as I was with Marx. And I can critique both of them, and see the flaws in both of them. I can make a political choice about which one I would like to follow, but I can see the value in and have certainly benefited from reading both.

O: I think that as some people tend to be really concerned about certain political issues like gender inequality, environmental problems, inequality and financial instability, etc., they then use economic pluralism as a means to deal with these kind of things. For example by wanting to encourage certain schools, those which focus on that specific issue, more than others. However, you could view pluralism not as a means to an end, but as a framework you are inherently in favour of, in the same way you would be inherently for democracy and will take all your political fights within this frame. You could say the same thing about economic pluralism- we do not care about the political outcomes, we just want it to be the academic framework. All the political things we want to achieve should be within that frame.

M: I don’t like the analogy with the two- I don’t think they are the same. I’m a pragmatist, I care about the results. The reason why I am such as a fan of pluralism is because I don’t know the answer, I don’t think anyone does, and I think we’re all using our critical faculties to try and come up with the best solutions we possibly can. Sometimes we’ll get it wrong and sometimes we’ll get it right, but we’re more likely to get it right when we have a variety of things to draw upon. There are always shocks which will occur that we didn’t expect, and if we haven’t got the ability to think critically, or that knowledge to draw upon to apply different solutions to these problems (if we’ve only got one solution), then we will not find the right thing.

I’m into pluralism because of the choice that it gives us to pragmatically solve problems, not because of pluralism in itself. The end game is social welfare- a just society that works for people- and that can be interpreted in different ways as well. But for me, none of this is inherently what we should be doing, just because we should be doing it. We should be doing it because we want people to be happy, and we want people to live successful and fulfilling lives.

O: This is so interesting, I could discuss it for a lot longer but let us leave the point there. So, if you were to criticise Rethinking Economics movement and economic pluralism, what are the most legitimate criticisms of each if there are any?

M: I think, so for Rethinking Economics, self-doubt at all times is essential. You should always be thinking ‘have I got this right?’, because as soon as you start thinking you’ve got all the answers, then you haven’t.

O: So, is there any specific self-doubt that you have?

M: Of course, every single day I’ll talk to a Neoclassical economist and they’ll say: ‘well we do, do all of the stuff that you say we don’t do’, and I’ll think: have I got this wrong? Then I’ll talk to a pluralist again and I’ll think, no of course I haven’t got this wrong, of course this is what I think. Every time someone intelligent says something to me I’ll doubt myself, and I think quite rightly so.

For the movement I think that, everything is a means to an end, and at the minute pluralism is the means to the end of what I want to see. If someone can convince me otherwise then I’ll think that. I constantly feel like people do argue with us, and they do give credible points, and then I’ll think oh is pluralism actually the way. Then I’ll obviously realise that it is. I have yet to be convinced otherwise.

Also, with my own personal politics I’ll see things and think ‘oh should I just be campaigning for that thing, because that’s how I personally feel?’ Then I’ll think no, as so many other really intelligent and passionate people care about this other thing, and obviously I should know about that to, and I can’t really be swayed by my own personal politics. So sometimes I just think maybe I’ve got it completely wrong, and the economic orthodoxy got it right. Sometimes I’ll think the hard-core Marxists have got it right, or the Austrians, or the Keynesians, or the Ecological. That’s actually a big one for me- I’ll think should I sack this all in and just be campaigning for environmental sustainability, as that’s something I’m terrified about.

There’s so many different ways I could go with it- this is the curse of pluralism. You read them and you think yeah that sounds sensible, I should probably just campaign for this one thing. But you have to constantly remind yourself every day that actually the point of pluralism is that we can create these critical economists, and the reason why I’m in a position where I can think like this is because I’ve been exposed to pluralism. We should be exposing more people to that. But it is every single day riddled with self-doubt, riddled with doubt in the movement and I think that is the only health way to be.

O: Anything on Rethinking Economics- any good criticisms that we should think more about? Something we should focus more on?

M: I think a really valid critique is that we don’t actually understand how academia works, we don’t actually understand the barriers they face. We’re not academics, we don’t have the resource constraints, or the time constraints, or the sheer exhaustion, or the decades of studying one school of thought then being criticised. We don’t actually understand it from the opposite perspective and obviously that’s a flaw. We need to try to and we never will be able to. As director of Rethinking Economics, I’m never going to know what it’s like to be a professor of economics who has studied Neoclassical economics for 30 years, and that okay- we will be able to survive on that, we will be able to change the world on that, and maybe that’s essential that we don’t know that. But that is the difficulty- where they will always be able to present us with objections that we can’t overcome, as we can’t put ourselves in their shoes. We don’t know what it’s like to be them.

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