Op-Ed: In defense of critical economics

In “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few” (2015) Robert Reich writes that the concept of a “‘free market’ separate and distinct from government has functioned as a useful cover for those who do not want the market mechanism fully exposed … the mythology is useful precisely because it hides their power.” A September 2017 report indicated that America’s top 1 percent controls 38.6 percent of the nation’s wealth, a record high. Since the benefits of profit accrue so disproportionately, and financial mechanisms are controlled by powerful actors, it is sheer blindness to pretend that the economy operates outside of politics.

A recent opinion piece stated that “criticizing economics courses for not placing enough focus on politics is like demonizing biology for not having enough emphasis on creative writing.” Reich’s statement reveals the falsity of this analogy: the writers of the Tufts Observer article correctly point out that in viewing economics as a hard science, we fail to grapple with practical consequences. In abstraction, it is possible to develop a perfect model for economic development, but in practice, we may be missing critical information regarding history or political asymmetry that could render the model useless. Therefore, in theorizing without a combined approach, we do ourselves a tremendous disservice as both liberal arts students and pre-professionals.

The field of political economy emerged as an acknowledgment that the two fields are intertwined and dynamic. Such an approach is consistent with Tufts’ liberal arts philosophy and general encouragement of interdisciplinary coursework. Grappling with hypotheticals, ethical dilemmas and revisionist histories would not make us less prepared for the real world; it has the potential to do the opposite. Despite the conception that Tufts is overflowing with socialists, critical takes on capitalism are rare in the discipline and teaching of economics, especially with its heavy emphasis on mathematical analysis. While, as a quantitative economics major, I agree that such skills are vital, it is equally important to open up classrooms to discussions of alternative ideologies, whether those of Friedrich Hayek or Vladimir Lenin.

While the opinion piece is correct in saying that “intellectual diversity includes capitalism,” capitalism has dominated economic teachings to the point where alternatives are given cursory, oversimplified attention or none at all. Approaches such as “cultural economics,” or “critical economics,” which exist at some universities, acknowledge the multiplicity of economic ideologies. The Rethinking Economics Network of the U.K. wrote in the Guardian that they desired a pluralist curriculum with “contrasting economic frameworks (feminist, Austrian, post-Keynesian) to give them a range of ways to think about the economy and allow them to judge which are best at answering different economic questions.” Only by closely examining all options, and engaging with the discipline of economics at a philosophical and political level, can one gain the skills to meaningfully defend or criticize a given ideology. A defense of capitalism ought to stem from an independent understanding of it in relation to other theories, not simply because it is entrenched in the status quo.

In the mainstream media, countries that have adopted socialist policies or have a history of communist government are usually shunned or viewed as inherently and universally oppressive. This conception plays out very clearly in my other major, international relations. Perhaps a political reading of economics and economic history could add more nuance to this idea. While introductory economics textbooks make sure to mention the woes of central planning, they rarely discuss the many socialist movements aimed to liberate nations from imperialism, the equalizing ideas of democratic socialism, the debatable morality of embargoes or the rapid medical and technological advances that have been made under certain communist regimes. Similarly, discussions regarding market efficiency are rarely juxtaposed with information regarding labor violations or quality of life. A more comprehensive mindset that treats economics as inherently political would therefore add needed complexity to multiple disciplines.

The argument that ‘unorthodox’ teachings somehow escape tangible reality is a pernicious one. In “Theses on Feuerbach” (1888), Marx himself writes that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” At the heart of Marxism lies the desire to continuously challenge the basic assumptions of material reality, and to unceasingly investigate alternatives just like any rigorous science would. For centuries, marginalized groups have resisted the idea that the status quo is the best alternative, the myth that profit makes life better for all, the misconception that capitalism and its accompanying injustices must be passively accepted because it’s the best we’ve got. Even in the absence of radical revolution, such critical forces are imperative in shaping our current system into a more just world. Although empirical analysis is essential, without discussing power structures, the racism underlying economic inequality, the role of the profit motive in slavery or the structural oppression that denies equal opportunity in practice, data loses its applicability. I have taken five courses in quantitative economics, and yet it is a political science class, Marx’s Critical Legacy, that most shaped my critical thinking and ability to form independent opinions.

Behavioral economics is respected in mainstream economics because psychological factors influence some basic premises of economics. It is universally accepted that we are not perfectly rational actors. Why, then, aren’t Marxist economics accepted as an interrogation of the assumption that labor is not coercive? Why can’t the economics of colonialism dig behind the shaded graphs to show how many black and brown lives have been lost throughout history in the name of profit? Classes that stifle such critical interrogation and reduce economics to a set of mathematical equations devalue the discipline and harm the depth of our understanding as students. We can and should learn about neoclassical economics, but our intellectual and practical scope deserves more enrichment.