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Econ4: Changing The Way We Look At Economics

After a few years of getting a bad rap during the recession and the Occupy protests, a group of economics professors are fighting back with an organization devoted to promoting a "reality-based" study of money and markets.

It hasn’t been a great few years for the economic profession. After blithely endorsing policies that led to the recession, the recent protests about income inequality have exposed at least some economic thinking as perhaps not quite focused enough on the well-being of all members of society.

Econ4 is a group of economists pushing for changes in how their subject is taught at U.S. colleges. They argue that the financial crisis proved the fallacy of what they call "market fundamentalism," and that a new type of economics, which emphasizes people and the environment, is needed. The group, which was created in September, endorsed the Occupy Wall Street movement, and supported students who protested "bias" in economics teaching at Harvard. Following is a lightly condensed interview with an Econ4 founder, James Boyce, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Co.Exist: You say there has been "ideological cleansing in the economics profession." How and why has that happened?

James Boyce: Contemporary economics suffers from an unhealthy degree of intellectual monoculture. The Occupy Wall Street statement originated during a conference of a group called the International Confederation of Associations for Pluralism in Economics last November. The fact that such conferences are held, and that more than 400 economists from across the country and around the world have signed the statement, shows that dissident voices have not been wholly purged from the economics profession. On the other hand, the fact that we need a group to advocate for pluralism in the economics profession tells us that at this point this is an aspiration, not the status quo.

You’ve said we need "an economics for the 21st century." What might that look like?

Economics for the 21st century, we hope, will be reality-based and ethically grounded. By reality-based, I mean moving beyond simplistic and abstract theories to better understand how real economies really work. In the 20th century, the central question in economics often was framed as the choice between the government and the market as ways to coordinate economic activity. But when we look at how actually existing economies work, this turns out to be a question of secondary importance. The more fundamental question is whether we are going to have a democracy or an oligarchy.

You’ll have a hard time finding any discussion of this in economics textbooks, but wealth and power are highly correlated. People who wield more purchasing power in the market typically wield more political power in making government policies, too. Your grandmother knows this, even if your economics professor never mentioned it. Thanks to this correlation, any society with a very undemocratic distribution of wealth and power will generate very unhappy economic outcomes for most of its people, no matter what the market-versus-government mix. Without purchasing power, the market doesn’t serve you, and without political power, the government doesn’t serve you.

By ethically grounded, I mean that economics should advance an explicit vision of how the economy should work. We need to upload ethics into the economics profession. The economics of the last century claimed to be a "science" devoted to the value-free goal of "efficiency." Other goals—like economic fairness, environmental sustainability, and political democracy—were swept under the rug. We need an economics that lifts up these other goals, too, not only because they’re important for efficiency but also because they’re important ethical ends in their own right.

How, practically, does Econ4 plan to change the way economics is taught at colleges?

We have both short-run and long-run plans. In the short run, we want to assist teachers and students in advancing an economics that is more reality-based and ethically grounded. For teachers, we’re starting a network for innovative economics teaching—"innovative" here applies to both what’s taught and how it’s taught. The network will be a collaborative venture, a platform for sharing new ideas and resources. For students, our website will include links to the "best of the web" in innovative economics, and we hope this will encourage students to demand more reality-based and ethically grounded economics in their classrooms. We’re economists: we want to promote not only the supply of new economics teaching but also student demand for it.

A centerpiece of our efforts will be production of a series of short, animated videos that introduce key topics in economics. We want to make 25 or 30 of these over the next two years. These will serve as a springboard for classroom discussions, and they’ll have the high-quality production values needed to go viral. In the longer run, we also want to increase the supply of economics PhDs trained in reality-based and ethically grounded economics. To do this, we want to support dissertation fellowships, post-docs, and new journals for publication.

How much support have you had across campuses?

We think there are lots of teachers and students out there who can see that the emperor of orthodox economics has no clothes. With the financial debacle and worldwide economic crisis, more and more of the public are arriving at the same verdict. But the economics profession has been slow to change. We want to speed it up. We want to encourage debate on how to build an economy that works for people, the planet, and the future. We don’t claim to have all the answers. But the first step in solving a problem is to recognize that the problem exists.