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Lattanzi-Silveus ’14: The monopolization of economics

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Economics as it is taught today makes for a very odd social science. In political science, international relations and sociology one studies many different schools of thought. Economics is unique among the social sciences in that it has only one theoretical framework, only one way of understanding how the economy works.

What this means is that there is no room for debate, no room for critical thought and no room for alternate ways of understanding economics. There is only a single set of theories, and these are presented as intuitive “facts.” This particular set of theories is known as “Neoclassical Keynesian Synthesis.” But the economics department simply calls it “Economics,” the only possible way of thinking about the economy. You are expected to learn the ideas and apply them, not question them or learn about alternatives.

This lack of openness for debate is one of the reasons that economics departments do not teach the history of economics at academic institutions like Brown. A history of economics would force them to actually mention that there are alternative theories such as Marx’s theory of economics and tell students what the economists they keep citing actually thought. Adam Smith uses the expression “invisible hand” only twice in “The Wealth of Nations” and actually advocates a highly interventionist state. David Ricardo is not interested in free trade because of “comparative advantage.” That is a side-note to his real reason – the need for capitalist economies to expand into new markets, or in other words, the capitalist need for colonialism and imperialism. Joseph Schumpeter, most famous for the principle of creative destruction, argues that capitalism is doomed to fail and will be replaced by socialism.

Of course, having only one theoretical method is not always a problem. There is only one main method used in the natural sciences – the scientific method – and there is nothing wrong with that. The scientific method works. It has been shown time and time again to be correct and have a near perfect predictive ability.

But the track record of economics is much less sterling. In fact, economists are notoriously unreliable in their predictions. A 20-year study conducted by Philip Tetlock showed that economists are little better at predicting future outcomes than anyone else. In fact, when given three possible choices for the future – increased growth, recession or growth continuing at the same rate – economists actually did worse than if they had just guessed randomly. And yet, even after their utter failure to even hint at the 2008 financial crisis, the fundamental theories of economics as they are taught today remain unquestioned.

Nor are legitimate alternatives being considered. And this is not because none exist. To name just a few major schools, there are the Marxists, the Austrian school and the Neo-Keynesians. While these are not perfect, they have also not been “disproven” as some economics textbooks would have you believe. They all have answers to the classic critiques, and I would argue many of them explain the recent crisis a lot better than the economics department. 

How is it that this very unreliable set of theories is taught at all, let alone uncontested?

The answer lies in the usefulness of economics to the ruling class. In the 1970s, with the rise of corporate power, the capitalist class found itself able to push through an agenda of neoliberal reform. It destroyed unions and workers’ power, cut taxes, reduced spending on welfare programs and lifted restrictions on capital flight. In order to justify this, it promoted a set of ideas that claimed that what members were doing was good for everyone – the Neoclassical “Chicago school,” which elaborated most of the major theories used in economics courses today.

But the use of economics as a justification is much deeper than that. It justifies not only some of the nation’s current policies, but capitalism itself. This is as true for the Neoclassicals as for the Keynesians who preceded them. Capitalism can afford to be criticized as racist, sexist, conducive to social stratification, fundamentally undemocratic, environmentally destructive and whatever else the other social sciences can throw at it. Members of the ruling class can always say they can change, and that the problems we are facing do not come from the capitalist system but from somewhere else. So long as they monopolize the study of the economic process it is very difficult for us to even begin to determine if and how characteristics inherent to capitalism create these problems.

I am trying to study a theory that does this, Marxist economics, and I can tell you that it is almost impossible to get more than a cursory glance at how it works in any class at Brown. The need to make it difficult to blame capitalism for its inherent problems is why economics textbooks often seem more like propaganda for corporations and the wealthy than an account of reality. It is why the study of economics has been monopolized.

 

 

Luke Lattanzi-Silveus ’14 is independently concentrating in Political Economy in order to truly study economics and can be contacted at luke_lattanzi-silveus@brown.edu.

5 Comments

  1. Another marxist attempt to blame policies they don’t agree with on the “monopoly”of a certain institution. Perhaps Marxist economic theory isn’t taught in economics because it isn’t viewed as legitimate among economists. Perhaps it is taught in historical context because it is simply that – history.

    This is kind of ridiculous. Frustrated Marxist who is upset the West isn’t implementing socialism. oh well

  2. Show me a Marxist state that hasn’t moved to Capitalism and I’ll show you a dictatorship.

  3. Reality Check says:

    Anonymous 02:11: this is Brown- you can’t swing a dead cat without knocking over a dozen just like him.

    Anonymous 11:15: what makes you think that isn’t what the end game is?

  4. Other people making comments should speak to some Brown faculty about this topic before they deem Luke’s opinion “ridiculous.” I am a current undergrad and have been warned by professors in other departments about the limited perspective on economics provided by the Principles of Economics (Econ 11) course here. The university must consider the potential implications of founding thousands of Brown students’ understanding of economics in the textbook of Greg Mankiw, the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under Bush (look how well that turned out for the country) and an economic advisor to Romney through his presidential campaign. He clearly provides one important perspective on economic theory but is it necessarily the perspective that we want students to believe is the foundational basis of the social science of economics at large?

  5. Thank you for writing this. I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that even at Brown, with its purported “liberal bias,” the teaching of economics is constrained by the dogmas of neoliberal economics.

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