“I could have read the Financial Times and the Economist for the past 100 hundred [sic] years and I wouldn’t have got a single extra point” (54). So laments a British undergraduate student forced to take economics courses and exams that seem to have less to do with elucidating what she experiences and reads about every day than with regurgitating overly abstract mathematical models. The student in question was interviewed by the authors of this book—Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins—as part of a broader survey of economics curricula in six UK universities, and epitomises what they see as one of the central problems plaguing the discipline today, namely its disconnection from what happens in the real world.
Economics as a profession has never been more powerful, for it has created a specialized, inaccessible and purportedly objective system of knowledge that encourages delegation of public policy-making to a restricted caste of initiated experts acting in insulation from the control of voters and their elected representatives. An “econocracy”, in one word.
This disconnection in turn gives rises to a strange paradox: on the one hand, economics—and more precisely the neoclassical brand that has dominated the discipline for decades—appears less and less socially relevant, as it is struggles to respond to, and sometimes even correctly comprehend, some of humanity’s most pressing problems, such as environmental degradation, inequality and the occurrence of crises. On the other hand, however, economics as a profession has never been more powerful, for it has created a specialized, inaccessible and purportedly objective system of knowledge that encourages delegation of public policy-making to a restricted caste of initiated experts acting in virtual (sometimes even legal, as in the case of central banking) insulation from the control of voters and their elected representatives. An “econocracy”, in one word.
Scholarship and action
This volume is at the same time a scholarly analysis and a manifesto for social action. It aims to examine the features and roots of the econocratic system, while presenting solutions (including very concrete ones) to fix its many faults. The three authors are among the leaders of the Post-Crash Economics Society, a student organisation based at the University of Manchester, which in turn has joined similar groups around the world in an international network for the reform of academic economics called Rethinking Economics. The Econocracy contains the reflections, principles and recipes of these organisations.
Universities, the authors argue, should reverse the trend of homogeneisation and allow heterodox approaches back into economics programmes. Higher education as a whole should revert to a liberal model.
In six chapters the volume takes us through a range of issues: from the tenets and philosophy of the econocracy—grounded on economists’ self-perception as detached technical experts—to its historical rise after WWII, which proceeded hand in hand with the emergence of “the economy” as a concept describing an autonomous arena populated by uber-rational actors constantly calculating costs and benefits. From the description of the econocracy’s modes of self-reproduction in British and other universities, where neoclassical models are taught uncritically as “the only game in town”, to an account of how different scholarly perspectives have gradually been ejected from economics departments, through the tyranny of public funding rules (most notably the UK’s Research Excellence Framework) and peer review.
If the problem of econocracy involves society, politics and academia, so must the solution. Universities, the authors argue, should reverse the trend of homogeneisation and allow heterodox approaches back into economics programmes. Higher education as a whole should revert to a liberal model, in which students are not trained mechanically into an artificially narrow field of study but are instead educated as well-rounded citizens and experts, fully aware of the embeddedness of economic forces into their social and political contexts, and of the fact that some economic questions may have more than one acceptable answer. Finally, economic policy-making should become a more accountable and democratic activity, in which the role of experts is not that of deciding for the citizens but that of engaging them in non-patronising, comprehensible and fruitful discussions of public problems and alternative solutions, ultimately allowing citizens to take back control over the fate of their communities, be they local or national. To achieve all this, the authors propose a number of concrete recipes not only relating to the reform of curricula and teaching methods (e.g. increasing peer-to-peer and problem-based learning), but also in the areas of politics and institutions, such as the creation of lay councils charged with providing advice and feedback to policy-makers.
Hunters in the morning, economists by night?
The originality of this book is not so much in its contents—much, though by no means all, of what the authors say is not particularly new—as in the packaging of it all. In both its analytical and political aspects, The Econocracy moves through a number of different spheres and planes: this is a book about epistemology and the sociology of knowledge as much as it is about public policy and pedagogy. And yet, the volume’s eclecticism is also its main weakness. This is so, first, in a very physical sense, since the authors do not have the space to fully dissect any of the parts of their argument. Their analysis of the influence of mainstream economic ideas on policy-making, for instance, does not compare to other books devoted to similar topics, such as Mark Blyth’s Austerity, or Johan Christensen’s more recent The Power of Economists within the State (Moreover, being a tad too UK-centric in its analysis does not do the book any favour in this respect).
There is a fine line between improving democracy by promoting a better informed citizenry and endorsing the sort of devaluation of expertise promoted by current populism, and greatly enabled by social media.
Related to the above, the links between the various foci of the book is at times unclear to the reader. Technocracy, theoretical homogeneisation, and the inaccessibility of economics to the masses are all equal culprits in the authors’ narrative. But the three problems are quite distinct and largely independent on one another. Quite often the authors jump from one to the other (or even conflate them) without problematising the relationship between them. Just to mention an example, it is not at all self-evident that disseminating economic ideas outside the walls of academia would be easier in a context of greater theoretical pluralism.
Finally, the authors could have devoted more space to some of their more ambitious proposals for action, above all those aimed to make economics and expert decision-making more “accountable”, a notion that this reviewer finds somewhat problematic. There is a fine line between improving democracy by promoting a better informed citizenry and endorsing the sort of devaluation of expertise promoted by current populism, and greatly enabled by social media. Despite the authors’ claims to the contrary, it not always obvious on what side of this line their concept of “citizen economist” rests.
That said, The Econocracy remains a welcome addition to the critical literature in the field of economics, and the social sciences more generally, and a good reminder that, to put it bluntly, economics is not physics. In particular, the empirical analyses carried out by the authors through their survey of economic literacy and their systematic curricula review, are an interesting and original complement to a scholarly debate that is itself often framed in overly abstract terms.
An Italian version of this review was published by Il Mulino.
Photo Credits CC shanelevi
Also published on Medium.