The crises we now face illustrate the limits of neoclassical orthodoxy
In early January I passed out a leaflet to my colleagues at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association in Boston, which brought together more than 11,000 economists and social scientists. The leaflet pointed out the profession’s failure to predict the 2008 financial crisis and challenged economics professors to incorporate new ideas into their teachings. As a self-proclaimed Marxist-feminist-anti-racist-ecological economist and economics professor, I was glad to take this opportunity to protest the lack of pluralism in the profession as well as the weaknesses of mainstream neoclassical economic theory, especially in the currently dominant free-market form.
The leafleting was part of an action organized by the kick-it-over campaign of Adbusters, the anti-consumerist Canadian nonprofit headed by Kalle Lasn, whose call to “occupy Wall Street” sparked the movement that swept the U.S. in the fall of 2011. Just as Occupy Wall Street aimed at exposing the failures of the financial industry, the kick-it-over campaign aims to expose the failures of the economics profession. The recent rise of Rethinking Economics and the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics, with groups in more than 20 countries, is part of this heartening trend.
One of the biggest weaknesses of U.S. economists and economics these days is the inability to think creatively. Almost all introductory economics classes taught in the United States — and core theory courses for economics majors and Ph.D. students — teach a school of economic theory that historians of economic thought call neoclassical economics (opposed to the earlier, classical economics of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx). Neoclassical economists take the capitalist market economy as a given and focus on its allocation of scarce resources among competing individuals. They build models based on assumptions of narrowly self-interested, materialistic utility maximization by consumers and profit maximization by firms. Sharing this foundation, their liberal and conservative camps disagree about the type and extent of government intervention required to respond to market failures. Neoclassical economics provides a wealth of insights into capitalist market economies. The problem is that it represents itself as economics, per se.
The important insights of other forms of economics — which tend to be more historical, critical and visionary — are thereby banished. For example, radical and Marxist economics, which focus on the class inequality and power, bring crucial warnings about economic injustice and the corruption of political power by the wealthy and large corporations as well as visions of possible superior economic systems. And feminist economics, by foregrounding gender difference and inequality, elucidates the problems resulting from the nonpayment of reproductive labor and the banishment of feminine caring values from the goals of capitalist firms. These and other heterodox specialties exist in professional associations and journals, but they are almost never mentioned, let alone represented, in core economics classes at the undergraduate or graduate level. Students who question the narrowness of neoclassical assumptions and models are told to think like an economist — i.e., a neoclassical economist — or else. This narrowness of perspective is reproduced when students who were taught only neoclassical economics become professors who teach only it.
The rise of neoliberalism
The hegemony of neoclassical economics and the relative power of its left (interventionist) and right (free market) wings have varied with the political economic climate of the country and the world…….