#14 movement
Ingrid Rieser / Jasmin Siebold

“Economics Education Lacks Pluralism”

Very few economists anticipated the financial crisis. A new approach is needed, argues Ingrid Reiser who filmed the movement “rethinking economics”.

Economics students in many countries are dissatisfied with how their subject is being taught. They have become increasingly organised at universities throughout Europe and North America, but also in developing countries in Latin America and Asia.

The “International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE)” comprises 65 groups from 30 countries that collaborate internationally to lobby for change in economics education and promote alternatives to mainstream economic theories. These individual groups have not only joined forces under the aegis of the initiative; they are also working in a variety of networks, such as the international “Rethinking Economics” network, or the “Netzwerk Plurale Ökonomik” in Germany and Austria. These initiatives enjoy the support of academics, lecturers and people with a keen interest in the issue.

Digital Development Debates talked to Ingrid Moum Rieser who portrayed the voices, facets, ideas and background of the movement in her documentary film “Oikonomos”.

DDD: You have portrayed a movement critical of the way economics is taught at universities. What is wrong with today’s economics education?

Ingrid M. Rieser: The biggest problem with economics education today is its lack of pluralism. Most undergraduate economics programmes are exclusively based on neoclassical economics, which only represents one school of thought among many. What we need is theoretical pluralism where many schools of thought can co-exist, each offering a window into reality. There is also much that economics students can learn from other disciplines – can we really understand economics without some understanding of sociology or history, for example? Pluralism also means expanding our toolbox of methods, the way we learn about the world. If they cannot be modelled or quantified, variables are often left out of an economic analysis. A greater diversity of methodologies gives us valuable perspectives that may otherwise be missed.

We need a more pluralist approach to economics education.

I began my own economics studies just before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and this event set the tone for my exploration of the discipline. My motivation was to understand how our world works and to learn how to find solutions for big questions in an economic, but also in a social and environmental context. But, like many others, I came to realise that my economics undergraduate degree only offered a limited perspective on these issues. I felt that the underlying models and assumptions did not match reality. This is why we need a more pluralist approach to economics education.

Why did you choose the name “Oikonomos” for your film?

Oikos is Greek for house or household and nomos is the Greek word for management. Oikonomos originally meant a steward or manager, and was the precursor to the term economist. I wanted to bring the conversation back to the basic philosophical questions: What is economics, and what is the role of the economist? Using the original Greek emphasises the original meaning: managing society’s household.

What was your inspiration for producing a film instead of simply writing a paper on the phenomenon?

I believed and still do believe that film is an interesting approach and perspective for a scientific project, but my basic motivations were that my product should be part of the debate and I wanted to extend it beyond the ivory tower. What I mean is that hundreds of people have watched the film and only about five have read my paper. I see it as an academic’s responsibility to make research and information accessible to a wider audience and present it in a way that makes it more interesting and approachable for people who would take a pass on reading a scientific paper. This attempt to find other ways of communicating research is also in the spirit of pluralism. What ways can we find to extend the conversation around economics from the economics journals into society? This was one of my motivations.

We have a lot of potential to do better.

It was a big challenge though to tell a cohesive story when the movement is so diverse. The film itself represents just a small percentage of all the people I met, of all the conversations I had, and a fraction of all the voices in the movement. What I wanted to show was a window on the movement – this was what I could offer.

Why is the movement so important in your view?

We have a lot of potential to do better. And we should start with our economics students in order to equip them with the tools and skills they, as our future economists, need to respond adequately to the very diverse and complex economic, social and environmental challenges that we face as a society. My personal motivation for engaging with economics is the belief that we need new ways of conceptualizing and dealing with economic issues if we want to be able to handle these major challenges.

Research shows that the biggest employers of economics majors in Great Britain say that graduates are adept at mathematics and at solving analytical tasks, but lack the ability to think contextually and speak in a non-technical language.

My hope is that by opening up economics education, students will have more space to grow, to innovate and ultimately tell the new stories of economics that are so desperately needed.

I believe it is a necessity to have economics graduates who are literate in history and critical thinking, with a comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted issues economics must confront – but will it be enough? The pace of change is slow and it may be too little, too late, when we consider the formidable threats of climate change and environmental degradation facing us. Still, by starting to have the important conversations about what economics is and should be in a critical and pluralistic way, I believe we are slowly shifting the baselines of the economic discourse. My hope is that by opening up economics education, students will have more space to grow, to innovate, and ultimately tell the new stories of economics that are so desperately needed.

You currently work as course coordinator for the student-led Centre for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS) at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. Do you regard yourself as part of the movement? And is working at CEMUS also a way for you to personally contribute to change in your sphere of influence?

Yes, I would definitely describe myself as part of the movement and yes, I see my function at CEMUS as a possibility for promoting change. CEMUS, a student-run, staff-supported education centre, is quite unique and a vibrant place for this endeavour, because students take the lead in shaping their curricula. Our course, “The Global Economy”, is one rare example of a student-made attempt to design an alternative – or a complementary – curriculum to mainstream economics education. It is what happens when you give students the power to change their own educations. But this is just one piece of the puzzle; it is not enough. We still have a lot of work to do in order to complete the picture.

Is there a broader relevance to the movement other than just reforming undergraduate degrees? Or do you think that transforming economics education can be seen as a driver of a wider economic reform process?

There are two groups shaping the movement: The first group maintains that there are no major issues with the field of economics as such; the problem is how economics is taught, especially at the undergraduate level where important subjects or new developments are ignored, teaching lacks relevance, and there is an excessive focus on mathematics.

The potential of the movement lies in the critical examination of our current way of doing economics and its implications.

The second group counters that the major problems are the shortcomings in the field of mainstream economics itself, and that these ‘flawed models’ are being perpetuated through the education of new economists. According to the latter, theories and methodologies from outside mainstream economics must be included in order to appropriately educate future economists. Many, maybe even most critics fall somewhere in between both groups.

For me personally, the potential of the movement lies in the critical examination of our current way of doing economics and its implications. We have to start working very hard on figuring out how to create an environmentally safe and socially equitable economy. Economics should help us get there and reworking economics education can be a step along the way.

Why is focusing on economics students – a relatively small segment of society – so promising?

It is the debate itself initiated by the idea of reforming economics education that is so important. We need to have this critical debate about how we are going to meet our needs in the future. For this reason, it is a lot better to see a broadening of perspective, of critical thinking and pluralism in teaching and learning, which also means a broader conversation.

Over the long term, this could also result in a broader change. If there is anything all economists have in common, it is that they were all economics students at some point. So if we make economics education more open, pluralist and critical, future economists will be different from today’s economists.

Is the movement relevant for developing countries?

Yes, I think it is in several ways. There are groups in developing countries that are part of the movement and its networks, in India and Brazil for instance, who are working to change their economics education. In Chile, they have already had some success in implementing more pluralist curriculums.

A lack of pluralism in economic theory can also lead to simplistic conclusions for developing countries.

A broader issue is that the economics curriculum in many developing countries is often imported from industrialised countries, and the economists in many developing countries have been educated at schools in the global North. This can lead to a mismatch between the needs of local economies, and the theories and tools for dealing with them. It can also reproduce several of the economic problems we have in the North, instead of ‘leapfrogging’ to better solutions so as to avoid past mistakes.

A lack of pluralism in economic theory can also lead to simplistic conclusions for developing countries. For instance, according to neoclassical theory, trade always benefits everyone. Intuitively this makes sense, because we should do what we are comparatively best at, and then exchange the results with each other – we do not all have to be experts at making shoes. And often trade does benefit everyone! However, we need to look at each economy and understand its context. If we use neoclassical theory to argue that poor countries should focus on agricultural staples, such as bananas, coffee or sugar, because this is what they are good at, we also need to look at the drawbacks: Agricultural goods usually have a much lower added value than manufactured goods; they are highly vulnerable to fluctuations in world market prices and natural disasters; and there is less potential for technological development. Inappropriately applied economic theory can have devastating effects.

The trade example clearly demonstrates that the economic theory currently being taught needs to be complemented by a pluralism of theories and methods that give us a better understanding of how economies really work. Ultimately, a pluralist and critical economics education will help us to scrutinise the value system we live in – our beliefs about the world and our resulting actions are always based on theoretical and conceptual assumptions. And there are a lot of underlying assumptions we never talk about, but simply take as given.

You mentioned before that the movement is very diverse. How heterogeneous can a movement be without becoming something different – a network of groups, for instance?

It is more than a network – it was and still is a movement. There are so many people involved who want to change the ways things are, so many people who have one common issue, a common goal that they are fighting for. The movement might be less visible in the media than it was a year ago, but this is also because all these individual groups are actively working towards their goals through concrete projects. There is a lot going on. In autumn 2014, Rethinking Economics held a large conference in New York attended by influential economists, such as Paul Krugman. The Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) has launched its first curriculum. There is also one project I am working on at the moment called “The Generation of the New Economy”. It is an economics festival where we try to bring young people together. But these are only examples of how people are trying to effect change.

All these local groups give each other support through their international connections. The backing of 65 organisations worldwide, all allied in support of your stance, is a really strong statement. For individual groups, this international collaboration means the power to lobby their individual university and approach the dean with remarkable background support.

Photo: “What” by Véronique Debord-Lazaro
2010 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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