How to improve pluralism

Ostensibly simple, this section nevertheless raises several difficulties. For starters: If we are asked to improve, does this mean that pluralism is teleological, that is, after arduous improvements, will we reach a perfected ideal form, satisfying all? A nirvana, if you will? No, of course not. Our working definition of pluralism must be directly tied to the underlying conditions of our economy. Alfred Marshall wrote, in his best-selling Principles of Economics,

that ‘economic conditions are constantly changing, and each generation looks at its own problems in its own way’ (1890 [1946], p. v). As conditions change, so must the definition and outreach of pluralism. As Earle et al. (2017) noted earlier, today we need a new set of skills, especially if we are to solve our problems democratically. And, given today’s urgency of climate change, we need social scientists who can work well together; thus, pluralism must recognize and encourage the ability to listen and dialogue, and the existence of alternative viewpoints.

A defining feature of the new economy is the existence of platforms that are superseding the markets, which used to characterize the Old Economy. Pluralism is a platform, and as more people use it, the more positive externalities are generated for all. Unfortunately, not all economists are cognizant of the need for pluralism, especially those exclusively trained in neoclassical economics, whose training blinds them to the possibility of other viewpoints. This explains why pluralism has been resisted and why it has not been snowballing on its own. And this is why, in order to implement pluralism, we reconceptualize economics education, to which we now turn.

Radically reconceptualize economics education

A preponderant lesson learned in my 13 years as IJPEE editor is that no simple ready-made recipe to implement pluralism exists. Instead, there are multiple angles, or entry points if you will, none of which is preponderant, and all must be used. More specifically, all pluralism stakeholders must be recognized: the public, alumni, businesses, the economics profession, students, and teachers. And various entry points acknowledged: the department, the university, the national level, assessors, the discipline of economics (along with its various tribes), the overall curriculum in economics, individual teachers, and students. Brevity necessitates only a brief overview here.

If we are to reconceptualize economics so that it is once again useful in solving our problems we have to radically reform the curriculum from top to bottom. An immediate and frequent objection is the opportunity cost: if I teach this, I have to jettison this, which we must teach if students are to learn economics. Two comments. First, there is a lot of repetition in neoclassical pedagogy with upper division courses repeating and reinforcing what was learned in earlier courses (which to me smacks of proselytization),

the essence of what is taught in most applied field courses is the same regardless of the specific questions and institutional context of the subject matter covered in the course. Economists teach the basic principles of economics—opportunity cost, marginal analysis, the role of prices as signals, incentives, specialization, unintended consequences—regardless of the name of the course to which they are assigned. The ideas are the same whether the applied field course focuses on factor markets or product markets.

(Siegfried 2009, p. 219)

Improving pluralism in economics education 291

Needless to say, this statement is remarkable for its complete ignorance of competing schools of thought in economics and their pedagogical focus!

And, second, there is lot of deadwood in the economics curriculum, and if this means ‘scrapping theories because they no longer work, or because underlying conditions have changed, so be it—this is how the discipline progresses’ (Reardon 2017b, p. 328, thesis #89). I know of no other discipline that insists on teaching deadwood. But, of course, changing an existing curriculum to make it more pluralist,

is a complicated process similar to that of changing institutions in general: the path is full of lock-ins, of interests of specific groups and individuals, of information asymmetry, strategic behavior, of power, and the like. The issue of how the economics curriculum should be designed and who decides on changing the curriculum is a matter of academic power.

(Groenewegen 2007, p. 14)

Thus the necessity for multiple entry points recognizing all stakeholders. Easier said than done!

If economics is to become pluralist whereby our students are aware of alternative views, and can effectively listen and dialogue then, during the first year of the curriculum, students should not take any economics courses. Instead, given the emphasis on listening and dialogue, abetted by climate change, a prerequisite course for the economics major is ‘listening and dialogue.’ But given a paucity of economists who have been educated in pluralism, our instructors must come from outside the discipline—perhaps even team-teaching. Nothing wrong with this.

Additional courses to be taken as prerequisites for the economics major during the first year include: world literature, history of capitalism, and quantum physics. Briefly, the rationale for each:

  • World Literature—There is no better primer on the diversity of the human condition than fiction. Properly taught, fiction can explain the myriad forms of behavior and human predicaments as good as, or even better than, any individual academic discipline.
  • History of Capitalism—It is essential for economics majors to understand how the present system of capitalism has evolved, the role of government, and how people respond to contemporary problems by constructing appropriate institutions. There is nothing natural or inevitable about capitalism or any economic system.
  • Quantum Physics—not only are many of the accoutrements of today’s economy, such as the CD, laser, computer, MRIs, and traffic lights, the result of the intellectual achievements of quantum physics, but no better example exists of the scientific willingness to test and experiment, and the openness to reform theory if necessary, than quantum physics.

Is this a quixotic attempt at haphazard reform? No, not at all. Such courses should be part of a university curriculum, and the university must impart today’s students with the skills necessary to actively participate in a democracy. The difference here is that for the economics major these courses must be taken as prerequisites. This will prepare students for the inevitable economics course that isn’t pluralist in any form, with the material presented dogmatically. It also recognizes the student as a stakeholder in improving pluralism without undue burden.6

Improving pluralism: Sooner or later?

An oft-asked question is: given that we accept the need for pluralism and that we have decided to implement it, should this be done at the beginning of the economics curriculum or in later courses? I feel this is an artificially constructed either/or dilemma; instead, the curriculum should be pluralist and infused with the necessary skills from the beginning. To wait until later in the curriculum runs the risk of students either becoming ossified in their views or dropping out of economics altogether. Offering prerequisites in the first year renders this question moot, since the student is equipped to recognize alternative views.

Whose responsibility is it to teach alternative views?

The department’s. Each economics department must take ownership for its graduates. While the urgency of climate change dictates immediate focus on developing listening and dialoguing skills, this does not mean that we ignore the other strand of developing pluralism, that of imparting and developing knowledge of alternative views. Every department should offer in the second year of study a required course on alternative economic views. If the department lacks the required personnel to teach such a course, then it must hire someone. To insist that every teacher crash-learn every school of thought so that every course is taught from every perspective is a recipe for madness for both teacher and student. Collectively, it becomes the responsibility of the department to impart the requisite knowledge, given, of course, that it has endorsed pluralism as a curriculum objective.

What can the individual teacher do?

What about the situation where no changes have been made in the curriculum, no prerequisites have been offered, and the rest of one’s department is peopled by neoclassical, blissfully unaware of alternative viewpoints, and thus even the need for pedagogical pluralism? Unfortunately, such a situation is not atypical, at least here in the US. What can the individual teacher do? Although certainly not ideal, it isn’t as constricting as it ostensibly appears. Most of us have had teachers that have positively influenced us, setting us on a path that we might not have obtained otherwise. I wrote my first

Improving pluralism in economics education 293 book on pluralism with exactly this type of teacher in mind, offering specific suggestions for courses at all levels ranging from principles, intermediate micro/macro to upper division courses such as international economics, monetary economics, and labor economics (Reardon 2009). And, in addition, at the 1JPEE we have published dozens of specific articles containing both a ‘hands-on’ and a ‘how-to’ for teaching just about every course from a pluralist perspective. So, for the individual teacher interested in making a difference, despite a constricting environment, there is a plethora of resources.

Active learning

Among all schools of economics, there has been an active movement away from the traditional chalk and talk lecture to more active learning, which includes hands-on activities and learning by doing. While not 100 percent guaranteed, such an approach is much more amenable to pluralism than the traditional chalk and talk. This is because the material forces invite different approaches and different points of view. Many aspects of active learning require conversing and dialoguing with the public, which, if efficacious, must be done non-dogmatically.

Learning and teaching the UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals

In September 2015 the UN promulgated its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an urgent recipe for living sustainably and saving the planet. This is a game changer, not just for economics and how we provision as a society, but also for economics education. Taken together the SDGs,

underscore the point that sustainability involves a lot more than concern with the environment. [They use the words] all, inclusive, and urgent; and the active verbs: end, ensure, achieve, promote, reduce, conserve, revitalize. This is the language of the SDGs, this is the language of urgency ...

(Reardon et al., 2018, p. 18)

And this should be the language of economics, but it isn’t. Neoclassical economics was founded during the mid/late nineteenth century ‘when economists thought, wrote, and prescribed as if nature did not exist’ (McNeil, 2000, p. 335). If its founders were living today, they would embrace climate change as an opportunity to radically change the trajectory of economics, perhaps even moving away from the staid deductive track launched by David Ricardo. Instead the disciples have steadfastly clung to the original tenets as dogma.

My colleagues and I published a book that serves both as a primer for the general public and as a textbook for economics students on a new economics to comport with the 17 UN SDGs (Reardon et al. 2018). Instead of the usual chapters in the usual order found in every neoclassical textbook, we offerchapters on power, ethics, sustainability, resources and the environment, poverty, justice, empowerment, work, economic democracy, cooperatives, trade; along with more familiar topics (albeit with a sustainability twist) firms, markets, money, consumption, investment, growth, and recessions.

It is absolutely impossible to discuss sustainability from one perspective. It is absolutely impossible to discuss sustainability without discussing justice, ethics, and power. And it is absolutely impossible to discuss justice and power without developing the skills to listen and dialogue. It simply cannot be done. Start teaching the UN 17 SDGs, and pluralism with its myriad benefits becomes inevitable. This is why it is a game changer.

Resuscitating courses in the history of economic thought

It is not coincidental that the call for pluralism has also coincided with the call for the resuscitation of courses in the history of economic thought. They were jettisoned from the economics curriculum partly because it was believed by some that economics develops teleologically and what was best in earlier theories has been embodied in the new; and today’s economics is better than what we had in the past, obviating the need to study the development of thought.

But economics is not teleological. Earlier arguments that failed to win public favor often did not do so due to inferior content; rather, quite likely the vested interests preferred one view over another, while often sweeping the other under the rug, so to speak. But as we try to understand our changing world, it is beneficial to peruse earlier arguments not only for intellectual content, but also to learn how earlier economists conceptualized existing problems and the world around them.7 This reinforces the need for pluralism with its requisite skills of listening, dialoguing, and actively participating:

Meeting essential needs requires not only a new era of economic growth for nations in which the majority are poor, but an assurance that those poor get their fair share of the resources required to sustain that growth. Such equity would be aided by political systems that secure effective citizen participation in decision-making and by greater democracy in international decision-making.

(WCED 1987, p. 16)

Recognize and welcome a pluralism of gender and identity

Earle et al. (2017) lamented that ‘the academic discipline of economics is so unrepresentative of wider society that it cannot hope to understand or engage with many parts of the population’ (p. 161). The profession’s discrimination is widely known in terms of hiring, tenure, promotion, journal publications, journal editorships, etc. Unfortunately, the problem runs deep, stretching back to the inception of modern economics when the discipline was neatly demarcated into the real economy where men wrote books and debated

Improving pluralism in economics education 295 policy intended for male policymakers and male readers, while women were relegated to the domestic economy and charged with raising the family. Given the ubiquity of the dominating power structure, many women felt powerless to protest, but perhaps not surprisingly, many women fought back, protesting, writing tracts and offering policy suggestions to anyone who would listen. It is encouraging to read their work,8 which should be incorporated into the broader economics curriculum, and especially in upper division courses on labor, gender, and the environment. How can the discipline of economics hope to become pluralist when it has jettisoned from its curriculum, the pioneering work of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century female writers?

In addition, economics (especially neoclassical economics) has long discriminated against those on the margin; and at least the economics that I am familiar with has never been outwardly friendly toward non-binary people. Identity for many is not a binary either/or; instead, for some, it is shifting, amorphous, and even elusive. While recent developments are encouraging (i.e., the formation of the American Economic Association’s LGBTQ network) all of economics needs to do more to inclusively recognize and care about the pluralism of identities. Doing so naturally paves the way and opens the front door for pluralism in general, at all levels. A discipline cannot be pluralist if it refuses to recognize the work of non-binary economists (both today and from the past), and if it refuses to welcome and embrace everyone into the discipline of economics.

Renaming economics political economy

Language, and especially the words we use to describe/define an entity, determines how we relate to it. For example, labeling air and water pollution an externality led to the neoclassical theory of the firm devoid of environmental considerations. During the eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth century economics was known as political economy, and as the nineteenth century progressed, an effort was made to constrict the definition of political economy to something empirically verifiable with a concomitant effort to shorten the label (and hence constrict) to economics.

Given the current emphasis that economics is fundamentally about provisioning rather than a means-end game of allocating resources (the most important of which—ideas—is not scarce at all) and that endeavoring to provision is, by definition, multi-disciplinary, many are demanding a widespread return to the older eighteenth-century term political economy since,

... one cannot understand contemporary societies very well unless politics, economics, psychology, and the other social science disciplines are all brought together to study the complexities of modern life. Another way of describing the political economy approach, then, is to say that it is interdisciplinary.

(Bowles et al., 2005, p. 51; emphasis in original)

Frank Stilwell adds that.

this interdisciplinary character of political economy is one of its strengths. Real world-phenomena do not fit neatly into boxes labelled economic, social, political or cultural. These categories have been constructed for academic convenience, and the disciplinary divisions—between economics, sociology, and political science, for example—can impede a full understanding.

(Stillwell 2012, p. 3)

The label political economy embraces pluralism, while opening the door for multi- and interdisciplinary collaboration, and pluralism at each of the different venues. It is quaint to urge our students to think like economists— and neoclassical economists to boot—(Siegfried 2009) when we should be thinking like political economists (qua social scientists) and citizens of the world.

Changing our label becomes easier for the political economists to either split away from neoclassicals and/or join another department or form their own, if need be. Anecdotal evidence suggests this might be best for all, especially improving the education overall for the students (Stillwell 2011; Lavoie 2015).

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