Economics in Crisis: What Do We Tell the Students?
The profession of economics requires a revolution in thinking if it is to play a constructive role in solving the multiple and multi-dimensional crises that so engulf our world, our species, and the fabric of human community. We are running out of time
The recent global crisis has led to questions about whether the kind of economics that is taught in universities was responsible for the crisis itself, or indeed for its widespread failure to predict the timing and magnitude of the events that unfolded in 2008. There are many reasons for such failure. However, whatever the reasons might be, we strongly believe that now is the time for us all to begin to debate this issue and to discover what it is that we should now teach our students.
At the core of the social attitudes which are engendering the crises of the environment and increasing inequality are both market fundamentalism and standard economics. While standard economics in and of itself is distinct from the rigid ideology of market fundamentalism, too often the profession as a whole has failed to draw the sharp distinctions between standard theory and the claims of market fundamentalists. The silence of much of the economics profession in the face of the political ascendancy of this ‘market knows all' ideology has enabled and assisted it.
Now is the time to acknowledge the failures of standard theory and the narrowness of market fundamentalism. The times demand a revolution in economic thought, as well as new ways of teaching economics. In many respects this means a return to the soil in which economics was initially born, moral philosophy amid issues and questions of broad significance involving the fullness of human existence.
To begin this process, we suggest the following:
1. Begin a Journey to Wisdom
We should acknowledge that economics and business should be all about human well-being in society and that this cannot be separated from moral, ethical and spiritual considerations. The idea of an economics which is value-free is totally false. Nothing in life is morally neutral. In the end, economics cannot be separated from a vision of what it is to be a human being in society.
A necessary step in this journey of self-discovery is to discover, promote and live for the common good. The principle of the common good reminds us that we are all really responsible for each other - we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers - and must work for social conditions which ensure that every person and every group in society is able to meet their needs and realize their potential. It follows that every group in society must take into account the rights and aspirations of other groups, and the well-being of the whole human family.
2. Now is the Time for a Revolution in Economic Thought
The focus of economics should be on the benefit and bounty that the economy produces, on how to let this bounty increase, and how to share the benefits justly among the people for the common good, removing the obstacles that hinder this process. Above all else the purpose of the economy is to provide basic human needs as well as the means of establishing, maintaining, and nurturing human relationships while dealing justly with future generations (sustainability) and ethically with all life on earth (ecological balance).
Moreover, economic investigation should be accompanied by research into subjects such as anthropology, philosophy, politics, ecology, environmental ethics, and theology, to give insight into our own human mystery, as no economic theory or no economist can say who we are, where have we come from or where we are going to. All human beings and all species must be respected as part of the web of life and not relegated to narrow short term economic interests, commodification, or exploitation, as has been the case for the past few centuries.
In addition, the so called modern world (both East and West) has much to learn from the spiritual and cultural values of the worlds many indigenous peoples, both past and present. There exists much wisdom among indigenous communities, containing lessons in sharing, equality and justice which can help draw ‘modern' people into engagement with the deeper realities of their own dominant religions. Also, people who live close to the earth, who possess an earth-based spirituality typically view themselves as part of nature, part of the earth, part of a community of species as well as being part of the human community.
In a nut-shell, we believe that we should change our narrow economic obsessive and human centric language, terminology and values, to more inclusive ones.
3. Now is the Time for a Revolution in the Teaching of Economics
In order to ensure that our economic and business education produce graduates and the MBAs capable of rising to the challenges the world faces today, we propose an ongoing comprehensive examination and study of the major attempts to integrate economics with ethics and spirituality, along with an exploration of the theoretical underpinnings of these activities.
Much of what students need to learn in economics courses is actually readily found in standard economic theory. The typical course and textbook tends not to emphasize them, however. These concepts include externalities, public goods, imperfect competition, and the absence of information. All of these result in the failure of the market to work well. Theory makes it abundantly clear that externalities such as pollution and waste result in market failure. Yet the typical student comes away from their economics course with the notion that markets usually work quite well. In fact, markets do not actually work so well, as externalities are not only widespread but are quite significant in the production and consumption of most goods and services. Governments usually do not sufficiently tax or otherwise restrict negative externalities and do not sufficiently subsidize or otherwise enlarge positive externalities.
The current financial crises has given us a golden opportunity to ask ourselves some fundamental questions on the role of economic and business education and our possible contributions to these crises. What part have the business schools and business academics played in the implosion of the world's banking system? Lest we forget, hedge funds, private equity, investment banking, venture capital, subprime mortgages, pyramids and more, were the overwhelming preferred job destinations of MBA's.
4. Now is the Time for a New Definition of the "Bottom Line" and Other Specifics in a New Way to Teach Economics
We should acknowledge that the new bottom line must not be all about economic and monetary targets, profit maximization and cost minimization, but it should involve spiritual, social and environmental considerations. When practiced under these values, a business becomes real, viable, sustainable, efficient and profitable.
The new bottom line that we should tell the students now could read as follow:
"Corporations, government policies, our educational, legal and health care practices, every institution, law, social policy and even our private behavior should be judged 'rational', 'efficient', or 'productive' not only to the extent that they maximize money and power (the old bottom line) but ALSO to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological behavior, and contribute to our capacity to respond with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of the universe and all being."
5. Now is the Time for New Economic Text Books
We should acknowledge that economics textbooks, built upon Samuelson's ideology as depicted in his much criticized ‘Foundations', or Friedman's ideology as depicted in his well known book ‘Free To Choose', or Buchanan's Public Choice Theory cannot any longer be the bedrock of economic wisdom that they for so long have disgracefully pretended to be.
Economics is historically a pluralism of many multi-dimensional conversations. Today's textbooks are not sufficiently pluralistic. Economics should not be all about pandering to incompressible mathematical jargon and calculus, as well as unrealistic assumptions, including rationality and market ideology. Economics once was, and is still at its best, far more than these.
Mainstream economics textbooks have so many weaknesses that it is very hard indeed to know where to stop in listing them. But for the sake of context here are a few examples:
- The pretense that people are rational and disciplined.
- The pretense that more things make us happy.
- The pretense that markets are mostly perfectly competitive.
- The pretense that the economy can be studied in isolation from other subjects and disciplines.
- The pretense that history does not matter.
- The pretense that what matters most is to master mathematics and calculus.
- The pretense that there exists in nature resources that are free for the taking or are unlimited.
- The pretense that human welfare is unrelated to the welfare of the planet and other species.
This is an exciting time for our field, for our profession, for our passion. Yet, it is also a troubling time. As we have said, economics is not without blame for the crises which are engulfing the planet, the economy, and our profession. Economics must change. What we teach students must change. It must change if it is to play a constructive role in solving the multiple and multi-dimensional crises that so engulf our world, our species, the fabric of human community, relationship, and the web of life. We are running out of time.
If our field does not change, if the revolution in thinking we have called for does not happen, if we do not revisit the rich and fertile soil in which our field was born, that being moral philosophy amid the broader questions of human existence, meaning, and ecology, then not only will we have retreated from the chance to play a constructive role in solving these crises, we will inherit well deserved scorn and contempt. The opportunity is upon us. Let us seize it. Carpe Diem!
This article is an abridged version of a presentation entitled 'Economics and Economists Engulfed By Crises: What Do We Tell the Students?' that can be accessed here.
Kamran Mofid is the Founder of the Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative (Oxford, 2002), co-founder/editor of Journal of Globalisation for the Common Good and a member of the International Coordinating Committee of the World Public Forum, Dialogue of Civilisations.
Steve Szeghi is Professor of Economics at Wilmington College, Ohio, and co-author of Right Relationship: Building A Whole Earth Economy.
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