Last updated on July 30, 2020
This week I attended (remotely) the Rethinking Economics Festival and encountered challenging pluralist discourses like a platform economy (noting that most of such work is populated by women), decolonizing the Eurocentric position in disciplines, or “fully-automated luxury communism”. I thought I’d share some resource items and make a few observations.
What did I learn… that pluralism still remains important, even if there are so many forces working against it, including those supporting neoliberalism and capitalism. Whether one should be pluralist about economics rather than being more multi-method oriented remains an open, even pluralist question.
- That some of the same balkanized discourses and sub-discourses persist in academe, never to change because of how institutions are hierarchically organized.
- That we are much more globalized than we might admit and that it is for the better, if only because there’s plenty of diversity.
- That we are reproducing, with far too many gaps some discourses which should have been resolved decades ago. For example so much activity still needs decolonizing but we at least are making progress, however slowly, including better critiques of capitalism, even if neoliberalism insists on using pluralism even if it is a euphemism for heterodox views.
- That we still need to appreciate Keynes, even if he was incredibly imprecise, and only if to understand the problems of post-Keynesianism.
- Also, that Austrian economics could use more research and less popularizing.
- That growth is not identical to sustainable prosperity
- That being reminded of happiness as a national index is not a bad thing
- That there could be a social solidarity economy
- That new economies could be imagined that would have a participatory economics
- That there is a “Netflix of Economics”, as if pluralism could be so symmetric (Network for Pluralist Economics (Netzwerk Plurale Ökonomik e.V.).)
Also, we should consider that our impatience for radical social change could be rewarded but it does require severe commitment. Donald Trump in his own bumbling represents hopefully a last gasp of hopes representing a wide range of right-wing accelerationism, aside from its racism, classism, sexism, etc. A.I. might be the cipher for such accelerationism.
The works of left-accelerationists such as Nick Srnicek and Helen Hester
This RWNJ comment is a useful example of false consciousness, calling it “Fully Automated Luxury Hamiltonianism”:
Thus Andrew Yang's candidacy is not at all like Bastani's advocacy — it is an intriguing blend of moderate left and moderate right. Yang bills it as “Human-Centered Capitalism,” and it, too, is fully automated and luxurious, while still free — a commendable continuation of the best of the American economic saga.
As Bruce Springsteen suggests, “if you can inhabit your song, you can communicate”. More needs to be sung, and the music needs to be changed.
Since our launch six months ago, we have been asking ourselves a series of questions about why these very visible failures within economics persist. Why are economists not more concerned about the environmental emergency? Despite the concept of scarcity lying at the heart of the subject, are economists failing to see just how scarce this window of time is and just how scarce our remaining carbon budget is? Perhaps they get the scale of this crisis, but if so, why are their concerns not translating into actions, in the form of curriculum changes, articles in top journals and most importantly, successful climate policies?
How could this be? Our puzzlement, our bafflement, at the insufficiency of the answers that have so far been proffered motivated this report. If, as a community, we are going to even try to push the profession to do more, we had better first understand why it has not yet done enough. A better diagnosis of the reasons will, we think, help the community get closer to the real leverage points for change. The kind of change that could create a multitude of spiraling positive effects and that might just begin to engage in the enormity and urgency of the task that this moment in history asks of the profession.
For this report, we have conducted interviews with nine leading economists about these issues. All nine have, in their own way, been beacons for change. They represent a spectrum of geographies, academic interests and levels of optimism about the changes that are possible. We offer our sincere thanks to the nine interviewees for their invaluable contributions.
E4F: What would a more productive allocation of the profession’s resources look like? And how might that be achieved?
DC: Given most economists teach, a productive allocation of the profession’s resources would include a large majority of the profession being trained in economics that would help them teach better. It would involve far less focus on articles and publications as measures of economists’output. I have no idea how that might be achieved. Institutions, such as the economics profession, create enormous rents for people in them and they are highly resistant to change.Change occurs when technology changes and that may be occurring now with online teaching— depending on how it evolves. I think colleges and universities are in for some radical changes.
E4F: What frustrates you about how the economics profession engages in topics such as development, gender and climate change? What does it get wrong?
JG: Almost everything. They are making mistakes about how to understand and therefore prevent financial crises; reduce and prevent deep inequalities (within and between countries); enable states to meet the social and economic rights of their citizens rather than respond to the supposed needs of finance; deal with the long-term problems rather than the immediate short-term ones.
Economic activity is increasingly directed towards profit and that doesn’t take into account all kinds of externalities, positive and negative.It doesn’t take into account the future. It doesn’t take into account those who are marginalised because they don’t have economic votes —purchasing power. It doesn’t even recognise a huge amount of work: all the unpaid work done by women, for example, within households and communities. These are just some of the many ways in which it is failing to do what it is supposed to be doing — failing to actually improve the welfare of people. There are, of course, some amazing and insightful voices, but they are in the minority.
E4F: Why is much of economics currently not well-placed to analyse transformational change?
Penny Mealy: The “why” is an interesting question with a multitude of possible answers depending on where you sit. Throughout history,numerous economists — from Thorstein Veblen to Joseph Schumpeter to Brian Arthur — have lamented the field’s limited emphasis on disequilibrium analysis and non-marginal change.
There’s a wonderful quote from Bill Nordhaus and James Tobin that I think sums it up well:
“The steady equilibrium growth of modern neoclassical theory is, it must be acknowledged, a routine process of replication.It is a dull story compared to the convulsive structural, technological and social changes described by historically oriented scholars of development… The theory conceals, either in aggregation or in the abstract generality of the multi-sector models, all the drama of the events— the rise and fall of products, technologies,and industries and the accompanying transformation of the spatial and occupational distributions of the population.”
Encouragingly, there have been significant efforts in the more heterodox fields of economics to develop the analytical apparatus to grapple with the process of transformational change. However, relatively little of this research has infiltrated into the economic mainstream.
E4F: How do you think the profession’s treatment of the climate crisis fits into the criticisms of the profession you have previously made? Do you think it is a testament to your previous criticisms? Does it also unveil new ones too?
Yanis Varoufakis: If you look at the way in which economics is introduced to students to begin with: first, you are introduced to a world in which markets can never fail. The world of perfect competition and efficiency. Once you go through the various hoops as economics students of solving mathematical exercises and geometry, and everything that is involved in proving the fundamental theorems of microeconomics, then later on, your professor says “by the way none of this works if you’ve got externalities.” And the concept of externalities is introduced — which makes a big difference,however, to the well being of everyone. As we know from life, the default position is a very powerful position. We live in a world of externalities, yet it is first presented to students as a world without externalities. Externalities are introduced as an exception, as something external to the model. I think this makes a very big difference.The default matters. Our mindset is such that the default position is taken to be the normal position. Whereas it should be exactly the opposite: markets fail, especially when it comes to climate change, and here are the very crazy assumptions under which it wouldn’t fail. In the end, it makes a very big difference because the default position draws students to think that whatever the default position is, if we don’t do anything, it will probably be what happens.Whereas in the case of environmental damage and climate change, it is precisely the opposite.
Black Lives Matter as a decolonizing discourse is also anti-capitalist. Decolonizing one’s critical practices is important as everyday life changes after the pandemic.
Decolonising is first and foremost a mind-set, a mode of thinking, in which an understanding of race relations and power and privilege are held as fundamental. They form the foundation from which we pursue our inquiries.
So what does that mean? A decolonising mind-set holds the following things as essential:
1: The modern world we live in was built on the basis of the exploitation and enslavement of African, Asian, American and Australasian peoples by Europeans. Colonialism coincided with the development of capitalism, modern economic thought and global financial and state frameworks.
2: In order to successfully exploit these peoples, colonial states developed racism and concepts of racial superiority, which are specific types of bigotry, as justification for this exploitation.
3: The modern globalised economic and political system is built on a colonial and racist legacy and, while some of it has been undone, much (arguably most) of it has not.
4: The colonial and racist systems serve to render invisible the lives and voices of the global majority who are not European/of European descent.
5: A decolonising mind-set rejects the silencing of non-European voices, rejects racist structures, and seeks to redress this imbalance by reframing issues around the experiences of peoples who have traditionally been rendered invisible.
For those of you who might be thinking “How might I decolonise my curriculum?”, there’s a great Decolonising Toolkit from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, which can get you started thinking.
Rethinking Racial Capitalism, by Gargi Bhattacharyya.
Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, is a seminal text on decolonising generally. It speaks to the decolonising mind-set, if not specifically to economics. An excerpt of the first two chapters is available here.
Decolonising the University, eds. Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial, Kerem Nişancıoğlu, is a fresh look at the university and its colonial legacy, and how to change it, and was written in the wake of the successful Rhodes Must Fall campaign by South African students.
For those of you who can’t commit to a whole book right now, check out this article on Open Democracy, Imperialism in a Coffee Cup, which employs a decolonising approach to an economic question: who profits in the coffee industry? Open Democracy has more articles under their Decolonising The Economy series.
If you want a “Global South” economist writing from their perspective, read Ecuadorian economist Alberto Acosta’s chapter on the oil and mining industries and the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. The entire book, Beyond Development: Alternative Visions from Latin America, is well worth a read.
If emerging economic theory appeals to you, then read the short introduction to Stratification Economics: the Role of Intergroup Inequality which identifies and examines the intentional and cross generational hierarchies which generate income and wealth inequality between social groups e.g. white privilege in the US and the Americas, and high caste privilege in India.
For more, check out the fantastic reading list our friends at D-Econ have put together here.
If you are white, take a moment to examine your bookshelf. What do you see? What books and authors have you allowed to influence your worldview, and how you process the issues of racism and prejudice toward the disenfranchised? Have you considered that, if you identify as white and read only the work of white authors, you are in some ways listening to an extension of your own voice on repeat? While the details and depth of experience may differ, white voices have dominated what has been considered canon for eons. That means non-white readers have had to process stories and historical events through a white author's lens. The problem goes deeper than that, anyway, considering that even now 76% of publishing professionals — the people you might call the gatekeepers — are white.
The Distraction Addition by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is part of some interesting research that might move more economies to a 4-day work week. It is another symptom of the colonizing tendency of economic discourse that are part of its behavioral turn, no different than mathematical turns in various disciplines, or the linguistic turn in philosophy. So much turniIn ng.
A political economy of distraction needs much more articulation.
The academic use of the term attention economy was significantly coined by Michael H. Goldhaber, Georg Franck, and Jonathan Beller to describe a shift starting in the 1990s: with information becoming abundantly available through the internet, they argued, capitalism increasingly turned to monetising interaction by identifying human attention as a currency and thus changed how the public sphere was organised. The concept has entered more popular parlance through Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants, which extends it to include, for example, the invention of newspaper advertising and prime-time television. Most recently, Robert van Krieken pointed out that recognising how various media use attention as a valuable resource can help us understand a number of cultural phenomena of the present day ranging from the popularity of smartphone games to the fetishisation of ‘influencers’ on Instagram, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson’s continued celebrity status, and the conversion of racism and xenophobia into political platforms by the alt-right.
The aim of this panel section is not just to put forward political economy as an important perspective in studying cultural practices and products, but more specifically to consider the implications of an economic and thereby political climate in which continuously producing and marketing a Self translates to cultural, social, economic, and even political capital. The attention economy has brought about forms of distraction and persuasion that go beyond mere advertising into the realm of manipulation or even – to use a term recently re-used by Alan Macleod – propaganda. Persuasion has become industrialised in the form of targeted advertising and opinionated entertainment, and thus contributes to an alleged shift in power to a ‘vectorialist class’ in control of access to information. Business models in the attention economy focus on selling small and ultimately meaningless successes to customers in exchange for the adoption of an approved behaviour, which calls into question their freedom and autonomy.
The entire raison d'être of Trump University as a grift was to sell small and ultimately meaningless successes in knowledge (get-rich techniques) in order to sell another level of even more of them as a pyramid scheme. It was selling the aura of Trumpian status now nearly laid bare to the world.
Distraction. – an activity that you do for pleasure
In the end, while people put their lives on the line in the streets, protesting institutional and state racism, especially anti-Black racism, Rowling, a white super-rich woman, a self-proclaimed feminist, a wannabe lesbian-protector and women’s defender, chose exactly this moment for her tweets because terfism is an activity people do for pleasure. A luxury because there is no need for other politics for them.
And then there’s going beyond losing GDP to other matters not reducible to capitalism.
As the most popular measure of a country's prosperity, GDP has always been subject to some criticism. In recent years, however, doing away with focusing on economic growth altogether is a position which has seen increasing support, both in theory and in practice. As we have been shown again and again, national economic affluence tells us very little (if anything) about life satisfaction of the population, and often entails economic activities which are, in fact, detrimental to quality of life – such as high levels of pollution and inequality.
In this panel session, we will look further into the limitations and drawbacks of focusing on growth, why it's time to move away from it, and what we can learn from the governments that are already choosing to deprioritise it.
I like to think that we’re a Community of Practice, a notion that usually turns into a lead balloon, especially in job talks.
CoPs can exist in physical settings, for example, a lunch room at work, a field setting, a factory floor, or elsewhere in the environment, but members of CoPs do not have to be co-located. They form a “virtual community of practice” (VCoP) (Dubé, Bourhis & Jacob 2005) when they collaborate online, such as within discussion boards, newsgroups, or the various chats on social media, such as #musochat centered on contemporary classical music performance (Sheridan 2015). A “mobile community of practice” (MCoP) (Kietzmann et al. 2013) is when members communicate with one another via mobile phones and participate in community work on the go.
Communities of practice are not new phenomena: this type of learning has existed for as long as people have been learning and sharing their experiences through storytelling. The idea is rooted in American pragmatism, especially C. S. Peirce's concept of the “community of inquiry” (Shields 2003), but also John Dewey's principle of learning through occupation (Wallace 2007).
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