Thursday, 27 June 2013

Rethinking for Action

Author: Diana García López

Teaching economics is a political act. What you discuss (or not) in your seminar, what you include (or not) in the syllabus, shapes the minds of generations of economists. Academics create and perpetuate economic theories that inform and ultimately justify policies that affect society as a whole.

The last decades have seen the economics syllabus become narrower and narrower. A student who studied economics in the 60s would have received a much broader education than many UK undergraduates today. Recently, a lecturer in economics at a leading UK university even compared the fading of non-neoclassical schools of thought to the abandonment of treatments like leeches, tobacco smoke enemas and homeopathy by the medical profession. His students are not systematically exposed to the history of economic thought; some of them have never heard of Keynes in their lectures (let alone of Marx), and are frustrated because what they are taught has little relationship to the current real-world economic problems that attracted them to the study of economics in the first place. Critical thinking is not encouraged; prospective young lecturers are valued in terms of how much they have published in ‘the correct’ few mainstream journals.

Meanwhile, the UK (and Europe) has got stuck in a socio-economical and political impasse in which new answers are needed urgently. Suddenly the economics jargon has invaded the news and concerned citizens have become amateur economists, trying to understand what is going on, with the perception that economics can no longer be left exclusively to the supposed experts who “didn’t see it coming”. We have thus seen the development of a broad range of civil-society groups who share a focus on practical solutions and action, while differing in methods, scope and specific objectives (e.g. New Economics Foundation, Positive Money, Jubilee Debt Campaign, World Development Movement, Strike Debt, Robin Hood Tax, City Reform Group, UK Uncut, to name a few).

Successful efforts to increase coordination and exchange have taken place in the last few weeks, for example at the Transforming Finance conference [10 May 2013] that brought together academics, finance professionals and campaigners “to discuss how to make finance work in the long-term interests of the people and planet”. Last Saturday [22 June 2013], after weeks of preparation including an endorsement by 63 economists, Central Hall in Westminster saw 4000 campaigners from different backgrounds historically join forces in a People’s Assembly against austerity.

We are witnessing how the government’s budget cuts target the poor and the weakest in society – e.g. two thirds of people hit by the bedroom tax are disabled (as if it was the poor who had the money to reduce the debt!). The program to dismantle the welfare state is being implemented not only in the UK but all across Europe; entwined with the vicious circle of bad debt it leads to social collapse as the unfolding Greek tragedy shows. The respective ‘opposition’ parties across Europe have also accepted the “they/we deserved it; there is no alternative” belief. Only a few brave black sheep are left, armed with facts that nobody wants to hear.

The UK alone boasts 3 new food banks every week, with 13.5m people under the poverty line, 2.5m unemployed, 1.8m households on council house waiting-lists, and 25000 elderly people freezing to death at home every year because they can’t afford to pay their heating bills, just to mention a few figures. To me and to many this is not what a civilized society looks like.

Answers are needed to overcome this worsening situation, and in my opinion students and academics have a moral responsibility to participate in the production of such practical answers. As with everything we do, there is a whole spectrum of positions, each of which implies some degree of contradiction. The question is what degree of contradiction one is prepared to assume.

The clock of history is ticking; an answer is expected from the economics academics. I reckon it’s time to take a look outside the academic bubble, to descend from the high tower and reconnect the economics discipline with its roots – with the society it was always meant to serve.

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