Reclaiming Economics For Future Generations – review

5 July 2022

Ed Pemberton - Doctoral Researcher, Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute

In Reclaiming Economics, a group of activists and scholars present a compelling case against mainstream economics education. They highlight the role of this orthodoxy in many societal crises, but may overstate its potential as a domain of radical change.

In 2011, inspired by the Occupy movement, a group of students at Harvard University demonstratively walked out of N. Gregory Mankiw’s first year economics class. Thanks to his best-selling introductory textbook, Mankiw was a touchstone for everything wrong with contemporary economics. 

This simple act, which generated international press attention (NY Times, Daily Mail), heralded a growing struggle over the teaching of a subject that has outsized impact on contemporary society. A movement of economics students seeking to broaden the focus of the discipline emerged in its wake, highlighting their frustrations with the rigid worldview they were being taught.

An occupied lecture theatre
Photo by Dom Fou on Unsplash

The book Reclaiming Economics For Future Generations represents this project’s manifesto, written by a team of campaigners working with the education charity Rethinking Economics. It places the constraints of the neoclassical approach, dominant within mainstream economics education, as a key obstacle to overcoming many of the challenges that society faces today. Their vision for an economics grounded in democracy and a respect for a greater range of perspectives is welcome and convincing. However, it ultimately overstates the role that economic analysis, no matter how diverse, can play in actively shaping the systems it studies.

Neoclassical economics refers to a study of the economy grounded in formal mathematical models and supported by econometric analysis. Whist many of its foundational ideas are relatively simple, such as ‘supply and demand’, much of the work in this tradition now exists behind a veil of complex mathematics. The economy, in all its social complexity, is reduced to a series of equations that can be solved for the optimal outcome.  

As the authors highlight in the book, the dominance of this approach within the field has become so complete that economics is arguably unique among the social sciences in being defined not by the subject of its analysis, but by the methodological toolkit it uses. What has been lost is a pluralism of approaches, capable of viewing the economy from different perspectives and addressing the challenges they face. Perspectives such as Marxist, feminist and post-Keynesian economics have been all but driven out of economics departments, whilst urgently relevant perspectives such as ecological or stratification economics (which studies inequalities around race, gender, and other such social markers) have struggled to gain a foothold.

The book sets out the case against mainstream economics education and establishes how its influence can be overcome, both in the classroom and society at large. The charges arraigned against it include a lack of diversity, a strongly hierarchical culture of esteem, a blindness to realities of history and power and a spotty record of actually delivering successful policy. 

Interviews and focus groups capture experiences of the students and staff from marginalised communities and demonstrate how certain perspectives and viewpoints are pushed out of the mainstream of the discipline. It briskly reviews the key debates between the mainstream and heterodox camps of modern economic thought, and a key chapter on capitalism ties these critiques into an understanding of the social forces at work in sustaining this mainstream hegemony. Yet despite the strength of this analysis, it doesn’t fully penetrate the second half of the book as it develops a positive vision for how economics could be transformed for the benefit of all.

At the heart of the book lies this critique of neoclassical economics and its dominance in the curriculum. Economics’ failure to account for inequalities of gender, race and class are not just a factor of its strikingly undiverse workforce (although as the book shows, this hardly helps), but are instead baked into many of its methodological assumptions. The representative individual agents who populate economic models are free of the stratifying forms of social categorisation that constrain people’s options long before any choice is made. Development economics uses randomised controlled trials in ways that are paternalistic and blind to imbalances of power. Most damningly of all, the climate crisis has implications of a scale far beyond that which is able to be tackled with the neoclassical toolkit.

The latter section of the book sets out a manifesto for reform of both the teaching of economics and its wider role in society, emphasising the need for pluralism and decolonisation. This presents a revolutionary view of how economics could be repurposed to reshape society rather than to just lubricate its institutions. Yet these arguments widen the focus of the book significantly beyond its central critique of economic knowledge. 

At this expanded scope, there is occasionally slippage between the role played by our understanding of the systems of the economy and the impact these systems have in the world. To take an example addressed by the book, are the decisions made by a central bank to perform quantitative easing (with its subsequent distributional consequences) grounded in how we understand the working of the economy, or do they instead reflect the political power structures that surround decision makers in such institutions? It is not a distinction that the book always makes clear.

‘Reclaiming’ economics will help it better address the raft of injustices and inequalities arising from the economy as currently organised. By democratising our knowledge and understanding of the economy, decisions can be made that will work for the benefit of all. Yet this central argument frames the economy as a problem that can ultimately be solved, rather than a manifestation of the social and political struggles out of which it is formed. However plural and representative our account of the economy might be, it is not simply engine that can be fine-tuned to run however we might choose.

It is instead a constantly shifting arena of conflict and contestation, the analysis of which can never be contained to some separate and idealised economic realm but instead reflects the distribution of power and esteem across society as a whole. The book goes much of the way to reflecting this more complex reality, whilst expressing an optimism that greater understanding of these divides could change the very terrain on which decisions are made. Whilst this optimism is heartening, the mainstream is so embedded in existing structures of power that broadening knowledge alone may not be enough to change the systems that confronts us.

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