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.

Women In Economics: An interview with female Economics students at Durham

In honour of International Women’s day, we’ve spoken to a couple of female Durham Economics students about why they choose Economics, the women that have inspired them the most, and the barriers they expect to face in the future.

Laura Hosford, 2nd year Economics student:

Why did you choose to study Economics? Economics is always in the news, so I wanted to understand why it’s so prevalent in everything we, businesses or governments do. I also felt that if it’s so important in shaping everyone’s lives, studying it would allow me to help towards that.

Do you think your reasons differ to the majority of males? I’m not sure really- a lot of people go into Economics to do banking, and that seems to be more prevalent among males studying Economics, so I guess so.

Only 26% of Economics students in the UK are female- why do you think there are so few women applying to Economics? I think women generally see it as a very male-dominated subject, so are put off from applying. This is especially so when you look at how male-dominated the job sectors that follow from an Economics degree are- e.g. banking, businesses (particularly top positions), parliament etc.

Do you think your education experience so far has been different because you are women? I think as a woman you sometimes feel as if you have to prove yourself more in the discipline- the only difference that has made is for me to work harder though!

What women most inspires you and why? Women like Karen Brady- she’s an absolute inspiration as she conquered two male dominated sectors at the same time- business and football- by becoming the managing director of Birmingham City. She is an example to girls everywhere that you can still get to the top of your profession whether or not it is male-dominated!

What do you think will be the biggest challenger for you once you have graduated? Being able to break through the glass ceiling and show that whatever gender you are, you can still be successful, no matter what the level of position.

What do you think the most significant barrier for female leadership is? Changing the mindset of the white men who often appoint the female leaders- until the culture changes it is impossible for there to be gender parity amongst our leaders.

 

Emily Morrish, a 2nd year Economics and Management student:

Why did you choose to study Economics? I had an inspiring teacher and also high job and earnings prospects.

Do you think your reasons differ to the majority of males? Probably not, I think everyone’s motivated by career to an extent?

 Only 26% of Economics students in the UK are female- why do you think there are so few women applying to Economics? I think Economics is seen as pretty maths-based which often puts girls off, and it’s quite a male dominated environment in some places which can be intimidating.

Do you think your education experience so far has been different because you are women?  At university no, but at school yes- a big deal was made of the fact that I was female and good at Economics.

What women most inspires you and why? JK Rowling – she overcame and now speaks out about depression and mental health, she has an amazing imagination, and was able to create something that took over a whole generation. She was also super persistent in getting her first book published even when people kept turning her away.

What do you think will be the biggest challenger for you once you have graduated? I want to go into HR which is quite a female-dominated field so standing out in the applicant pool might be a challenge – everyone will be from a good uni and study Business and Economics etc.

What do you think the most significant barrier for female leadership is? Girls not having enough faith in themselves – often we take a backseat because we don’t see leadership as ever being an option for us

 

An Economics student, who wishes to remain anonymous:

Why did you choose to study Economics? I’m very interested in how people’s behaviour can be modelled and how we developed the economic systems we use now. Coming from a developing country where there is a lot of corruption and low growth, I also really wanted to understand what went wrong and how to try to fix it.

Do you think your reasons differ to the majority of males? I don’t think they differ that much, I’ve met a lot of males who have similar reasons to mine. However, although it might be a coincidence, I think I’ve met more males than females who chose Economics because they want to work in finance/investment banking after they graduate.

Only 26% of Economics students in the UK are female- why do you think there are so few women applying to Economics? I’m not very sure why the percentage is so low, my guess would be that it’s due to the stereotypes related to Economics as a degree. When I mention that I study Economics, most people assume I want to go into finance or business, which isn’t true. Therefore women might be deterred from applying due to the somewhat narrow career prospects.

Do you think your education experience so far has been different because you are women? I think I’ve had the same opportunities so far in terms of education.

What women most inspires you and why? Although she’s not internationally famous, the woman who probably inspires me the most is Maia Sandu, a Moldovan politician who after studying at Harvard and working for the World Bank, came back to Moldova and made some significant and needed changes. I think that what inspires me the most is that although people were against and were criticising what she was doing in the beginning, she was determined and confident enough to keep going and therefore managed to improve things significantly.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge for you once you have graduated? I think the biggest challenge for me will be deciding what exactly I want to do after I graduate, as I have a lot of ideas of things I’d like to get involved with, like technology, economic development and mental health (especially in developing countries).

What do you think the most significant barrier for female leadership is? I think my answer to this question is biased, due to the fact that I was born in a developing country, where there is not a lot of gender equality. Therefore, in my opinion, the most significant barrier is the things girls are told when they are young, like that they shouldn’t be too confident or that their priority needs to always be starting a family etc. I think this is a barrier to leadership, as it affects women’s confidence and attitudes.

 

Charly Bushen

Energy in Economics

Modern lifestyles are reliant on an abundant supply of energy. We use electricity to charge our phones (and so access the DSEP Facebook group, or anything else online), boil the kettle, light our houses, etc. To travel further than lectures, we almost always use some form of oil for transport, as does your Amazon delivery, or the food driven to Tesco so that we can buy it. Yet energy plays no role in the capital/labour obsessed models of neoclassical economics. Pluralism is crucial to understanding the role and issues of this too-often overlooked factor of society.

Another way to understand the importance of energy in the world is to picture the work it does. The energy contained in one single gallon of oil is roughly equivalent to 47 days of human labour; our daily use of it is equivalent to the work of billions of unpaid, invisible workers. Market forces are what enabled the development of cheap fossil fuels which facilitate modern lifestyles. Work by a physicist and an ecological economist in 2009 proposed a new model of economic growth, including energy as a third factor of production. Using this model, they found a Solow residual which attributed only a tiny amount of growth in 20th century US, UK, Japan and Australia to technological shocks. A far larger fraction of the growth was instead the result of increasingly efficient use of energy in production.

Yet, despite its paramount importance to production and the modern economy, energy doesn’t get much attention in neoclassical economics. When it is considered, it is treated more or less as any regular commodity, like pizza or lattes. However, the use of fossil fuel resources, which account for the vast majority of our energy, has considerable externalities- a concept which is in itself flawed. Externalities suggest emissions and the resulting global warming, which is already causing climate disasters, should be treated as a sort of afterthought to the main act of fossil fuel energy consumption. There are many other issues too, such as energy poverty and the role of fossil fuels in global geopolitics, to name just as few.

Orthodox economics has some major blind spots when it comes to energy and so, to acknowledge this, should only be used in conjunction with alternative schools. Ecological Economics incorporates the dependence of economic activity on biophysical systems at its heart, attempting to capture the full picture when analysing the relationships between them. It also begins from the perspective that in economics, as a social science, “facts” are inseparable from the values under which the economy works; choosing to use finite gas resources now means we are valuing our consumption of it over leaving it for future generations. That isn’t a criticism, but it should be acknowledged as a common understanding.  Bringing some of Ecological Economics’ insight to the mainstream would be a very good start to properly understanding energy in society and shaping policy appropriately.

Behavioural and Experimental Economics can also play an important role in analysing and developing the existing economic institutions for energy. In the UK, a particular type of auction is run for developers of renewable electricity: each firm bids a level of government-backed “strike price” for their generation- effectively they bid for lower and lower subsidies. Once a given amount of electricity generation has been allocated from the lowest bid upwards, each bidder receives the highest strike price that was accepted. Behavioural Economics has contributed extensive work on auctions and helped explain versions of strategic bidding which can be applied in this situation. This is a pluralist success story; these behavioural theories have been used for tweaking electricity markets across Europe.

Nobody wants to surrender convenient transport, the internet, cups of tea or mass manufactured goods. Growing populations mean our energy demands are likely to continue to grow this century. In the face of climate change, a rapid transformation of our energy inputs, from fossil fuels to renewables, is desperately needed. It is already gathering considerable steam. Add to this electric vehicles, battery storage and a whole host of other changes, and it appears it has never been more necessary to understand the incentives at play in Energy Economics. It’s time to use all the tools we’ve got.

Want to know more? Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth and Student Energy Durham are good starting points.

 

Tom Hinson

 

The Importance of the Academic Strikes

The importance of the academic strikes, and why economics students need to support our lecturers:

As a student, staring down the barrel of deadlines, knowing exams march ever closer, the idea of losing access to important lecturers (if only briefly) can be deeply frustrating. We pay large sums of money to the university, incur huge amounts of debt and dedicate countless hours to study. Losing access to part of our education, through no fault of our own, might seem truly unfair. The academic strikes planned for this term will affect your degree, that is an unfortunate fact.

I’m a student too; I have these same exact concerns. Despite this, I think it’s incredibly important that we, as a student body, support our lecturers in this. Our academia and our education system can only suffer if we don’t take a stand to respect our lecturers’ labour.

If you’re interested in a purely descriptive article on the strikes, the Palatinate have a good one here:

https://www.palatinate.org.uk/durham-academics-vote-strike-two-weeks-pensions-dispute/

 

Why should I care?

If you are negatively impacted by this strike, that should immediately tell you something: the labour of your lecturers is valuable to you. For students to have a functional education, we need hard-working and clever people to teach us. They need to be trained, qualified, and understand the subject matter at a high level. If nothing else, for our degree to impress employers, we need to be able to demonstrate that we learned from some truly bright people.

Unfortunately, things like the proposed pension fund changes means being an academic is increasingly an unforgiving role. While the tremendous rise in higher education enrolment should be celebrated, funding and support for lecturers and tutors has not risen commensurably. Our lecturers and tutors are increasingly expected to shoulder more and more work without any proportional compensation. If you’ve ever had a lecturer take too long to answer an email, it’s not because they want you to suffer; but because they are overworked and answering your email is just one of a hundred other things they need to do.

This in turn reduces the quality of our education. If you’ve ever gotten an assignment back with minimal feedback, again it’s not because your tutors don’t care, it’s probably because they had 200 essays to grade in a week. It would be impossible to give you the kind of feedback you need given their time constraint. Time crunches mean that they have less time for office hours or to respond to emails. These conditions matter because most academics earn far less at university than they otherwise would in the private sector, given their skills and qualifications. If we continue to degrade their labour and compensation, the ability of universities to attract and keep good talent will continue to decline. For our universities to provide a good education, we must respect and support the labour of our lecturers. That means supporting actions like the UCU strike and voicing our support.

 

Why does it matter for economics education?

Personally, one of the criticisms of economics education I think is most important is the role of textbook learning in curriculums. Students are expected to blindly operate models, using rote memorization and abstract maths over critical thinking and analysis. The models we’re taught are by no means invalid, but when we are never asked to examine them thoroughly we don’t do them justice. We are insufficiently trained in real-world analysis. These same modules often teach exclusively from one or two textbooks, where the only criticisms are those the author is willing to include.

These problems exist for a reason, often related directly to the constrained resources of academics. Exams which purely require students to operate models or mathematical formulas are far less time consuming to mark than long essays. Multiple choice questions take a few seconds to check, but assessing critical analysis takes a great deal more time and mental effort. When lecturers know that 350+ students will take the compulsory economics modules there is incredible pressure to write exams which never require you to be critical. When academics are simultaneously under pressure to be working on their own research, designing a curriculum around a single textbook frees up much needed time to work on other obligations.

If we want reform in the way that economics is taught, it will inevitably require more labour from our lecturers and tutors. More time spent marking, designing curriculums and responding to students in a meaningful way. We need to show them that we support and stand with them, that we do respect the work and value they contribute towards our education. If the pressure on our academics worsens, as it will under the UUK proposal, the factors which contribute to the stagnation of education will only get worse.

 

What can I do to help?

As a student your time is understandably limited, but even a little bit of support can help. Feel free to check out this list of ways you can support the strike, written by one of the teaching staff at University of Edinburgh:

https://www.timsquirrell.com/blog/2018/2/16/how-students-can-support-the-ucu-strike-for-uss-pensions

 

Responding to Common Objections:

“My tuition fees pay for an education, it isn’t fair that I’m being denied what I pay for”

This is a fair objection- a university education is in many ways an investment. What’s important though is that you shouldn’t place too much blame on your lecturers, it also falls to a certain extent on the Universities UK (UUK) council. Strikes are happening because negotiations came to a deadlock. The UUK council is taking steps to actively harm the livelihoods of academics, but refuses to compromise even when faced with strike action; they are just as much to blame. Your lecturers are simply trying to protect a financial guarantee which they had already been promised.

 

“Barely a majority turned out to vote for the strike, what about my lecturers who didn’t vote or voted against?”

It’s true that turnout was 57% with 93% approval for industrial action of some form, but that number is likely skewed against action- given the barriers lecturers face. Striking means that the workload I mentioned earlier would get even worse. More importantly many lecturers are on casualised contracts meaning they can’t claim the hours striking, and so they risk substantial financial resources by doing so. Many academics have to worry about their career prospects and job security as well, younger staff often can’t risk taking such action even if they want to. Finally, most lecturers love what they do and truly don’t want to disrupt your education, this is just an unfortunate last resort. In light of these barriers the fact that this level of support exists is impressive in itself. Those who support the strike are likely in a far greater majority than the initial poll would suggests.

 

 

Eric Sargent

 

The Competition of Ideas

One of the important lessons to be learned from neoclassical economics is that we should avoid monopoly. This idea is not only crucial in the economy, but also in the realm of theory and ideas.

After taking most of the core modules of economics for two years at Durham, my impression is certainly that this is an issue. This is probably the case for most universities in the UK, if not in most of the world; neoclassical economics is the dominant school in the economics degree.

Before following up this point, this picture for us here at Durham deserves to be nuanced. Our university offers a module in Post-Keynesian Economics, two in History of Economic Thought and there is a Heterodox Economics module in the making. These modules offer important economic insights, encouraging students to understand a broad range of relevant economic approaches. Outsiders trying to challenge the big guy in the market of ideas. Nevertheless, the main tendency is still that the dominance of neoclassical economics continues to prevail.

There are reasons for why this problem is not recognised. The dominant paradigm in economics aims to find natural laws in the economy, in the spirit of natural sciences. Having this starting point, it is not surprising that we are approaching what is believed to be the one truth. Nobel laureate Robert Lucas declared in 2003 that “[the] central problem of depression prevention has been solved, for all practical purposes”. There is no need for competition of ideas when the ‘big guy’ in the market has the ultimate theory to solve all our problems.

Although neoclassical economics provide us with a great deal of important knowledge, we should be sceptical of it’s dominance for at least two reasons.

Firstly, we would have a much better understanding of many more aspects of the economy if we knew more theories and approaches. Arguably, key issues like institutions and financial instability are facets that neoclassical economics does not explain very well. Other issues, like economic growth, innovation, inequality and individual economic behaviour are not necessarily poorly explained by neoclassical economics, but other schools offer interesting alternatives that can increase our understanding. For example, when discussing economic growth and innovation, the neoclassical approach of capital accumulation and the function of savings is important, yet so is the Schumpeterian approach, which emphasises the inherent roles of entrepreneurs and technological innovation.

Secondly, as a consequence of the first point, I think a plurality of theories and a broad understanding will lead to a more dynamic and fruitful discourse in the economics discipline. This is pivotal for a science in the strive for truth. For social sciences, which is what economics really is, ‘the truth’ is very hard to find. It has another nature compared to natural sciences, and the theories will have a somewhat different relevance in different times and societies. Therefore, to keep academic legitimacy, we need very good justification for dismissing most theories and focusing on only one. We need very good reasons, we should be close to certain a theory is right, if we go from competition of ideas to monopoly.

As of today, I do not believe that neoclassical economics deserves such a monopoly of economic understanding. Rather, I think that a diverse competition of theories and ideas is crucial. This is because the nature of disagreement, based on different assumptions, methodological frameworks etc., will create important dynamics within the subject. This will give us a more fruitful, critical and holistic academic discourse, which in turn will give us a better understanding of ‘the truth’.

There are, of course, qualms as to how far this plurality will go. I agree that we must avoid a state of theoretical relativism where no forms of facts or truths can be established, where we cannot give any policy recommendation, and where all forms of theories are accepted. As pointed out by one of my lecturers, such tendency of postmodernism, which is arguably what we see in some social sciences these days, is not what we want. But claiming that this is the mission of economic pluralism is wrong. On the scale between complete relativism and absolute monopoly-one-truth-theory, the answer lies somewhere in the middle – a plurality of legitimate theories that is based on scientific methodologies.

If the goal is for economics to fit the economy, not the economy to fit economics, a more diverse approach is needed. It will increase our understanding and make the discourse in the economics subject more dynamic. In a time of great changes and numerous challenging issues, this is what society needs from economics.

 

Ola Helmich Borchgrevink Pedersen,

DSEP President

 

 

Time’s Up for Androcentric Economics

The tipping point:

The wave of scandals which have dominated the news recently has uncovered the extent to which gender inequality still pervades society, placing the topic at the forefront of conversation, for perhaps the first time. The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have encouraged women to share their stories, exposing the shocking and systematic extent of sexual harassment, assault and discrimination. Well, shocking to half of the world anyway.

 

What has this got to do with economics?

A common theme throughout the stories is a power imbalance: Hollywood powerhouses preying on the young and vulnerable in the industry; members of the British business and political elite attending the President’s Club fundraiser. This has created a culture where such behaviour is normalised and ‘brushed under the carpet’. It is not just a problem of a few ‘rotten apples’, but of the patriarchal nature of our institutions.

It is no secret that women lack representation in Economics. The discipline is heavily dominated by white men; thus, our models and theories are misleading, reflecting only the white male experience. This is at least according to Feminist economics, a school of thought attempting to create a more inclusive economics.

Neoclassical theories attempt to explain phenomena such as occupational segregation and the gender pay gap via differing preferences between self-interested men and women. They make different choices, and so have different human capital and productivity. But this explanation is inconsistent with anecdotal evidence, including the numerous cases of pay gaps between male and female co-hosts.

Arguably, the theory fails to take into account the role of institutionalised patriarchal beliefs, systematic sexual harassment and discrimination, which generate a very different workplace experience for men and women. Wage bargaining occurs in the context of an employer yielding power over their employees. Due to male dominance of top positions, this often leads to female employees being disadvantaged- just take the allegation that women in the BBC inquiring about equal pay were met with ‘veiled threats’. In a negative feedback cycle such salary imbalances create even larger power imbalances in the workplace.

Moving on, the economic impact of the harassment culture is huge. Unsurprisingly many who experience harassment are encouraged to stay silent, and a large number end up leaving their job. These women are then often set back on their career trajectory, and so the individual cost of harassment, and its influence on the gender pay gap is obvious.

However, as explained by Nilofer Merchant in an article for the Harvard Business Review, its impact reaches far wider. She notes how a culture where women are intimidated, not respected, or held in as high esteem as their male colleagues, can lead to their ideas not being heard. Whether this is because women are ignored, or reluctant to share in the first place hardly seems to matter. The point is that the institutional, systematic patriarchy limits the flow of ideas: this in turn limits innovation, a key component of growth for Schumpeter and for Endogenous growth theory.

 

What can we do about it?

Firstly, to eliminate the androcentric nature of economics we must open up the discipline to incorporate experiences beyond that of the white male. The idea of the rational homo economicus needs to be extended to take into account societal differences. The institutionalist approach needs to take into account the impact of a systematic patriarchalism. We must encourage diversity in the profession- if it continues to be dominated by white men, then their experiences will continue to dominate orthodox the theories and models. This is a misrepresentation of how the world actually works.

The culture of acceptance, silencing and victim-blaming surrounding sexual harassment needs to change. The movements are encouraging: forcing men to be mindful of their behaviour around women, and encouraging women to speak out. This momentum needs to keep going. Revolutions must begin with shifts in everyday individual behaviour and attitudes. The economic benefits could be substantial for everyone.

 

To think about: https://hbr.org/2017/11/the-insidious-economic-impact-of-sexual-harassment

 

Charly Bushen

Why do we need Economic Pluralism?

What is Economic Pluralism?

Economics is not a science based on concrete laws of nature; it is not physics or chemistry. Human behaviour is at the heart of the subject, and that makes things complicated. There is no singular correct approach, but rather a variety of many different ‘schools of economic thought’, each looking to solve economic. Each has its own different focuses, assumptions, and solutions. Economic pluralism looks to learn something from each one of them, the mainstream and the heterodox: it is not about disregarding the neoclassical paradigm, but considering others as well.

Why does Pluralism matter?

Compulsory economic modules tend to focus predominantly on Neoclassical methods, often without alluding to the existence of alternatives. This presents the idea of a consensus in the field, especially for students who only take compulsory modules. Such a consensus does not exist, and presenting otherwise is misleading at best and disingenuous at worst.

Such a one-dimensional approach to education unsurprisingly produces a plethora of economic graduates, our future policy-makers and business leaders, with a one-dimensional understanding of economic issues. Whilst they may be incredibly well-versed in mainstream theory, they tend to lack the broad, critical and innovative approach necessary to dealing with the complex, multifaceted problems. What use is that to society?

Consider the 2009 financial crisis. The economic experts did not predict it: neoclassical theory does not even render such an event possible. When the discipline so clearly fails we need a new approach to economics.  A synthesis of the different schools of thought will make us to better able to critically assess them all. It will produce future economic graduates who are more informed, open-minded and innovative problem-solvers. The subject can develop without either being confined by the cage of neoclassicism, or outlawed into the taboo land of heterodoxy. We can fit our approaches to understanding the economy, and not the other way around. Maybe then the subject of economics will better reflect the world around us.

 

Charly Bushen