I did a PhD in sustainable development that was designed and taught almost exclusively by economists. I received about 2 and a half years of doctoral-level economics and found myself coming to similar conclusions about the discipline as Kate (and I was supposed to be learning from the good guys!). I would attempt to challenge some of the more ridiculous assumptions in my classes, but quickly found myself out of my depth as I came up against what appeared to be impenetrable brick walls of Pareto optimality when wanting to raise questions of redistribution, for example.
A few years on I feel like I’m better equipped to challenge conventional thinking in the discipline now that I think I have a better sense of the terrain and have heard certain arguments recycled a few times so I can anticipate them. But I just spent the last week deciding to exercise my confidence and tried to engage two different economist friends in a critique of the discipline. They both adamantly refused to yield on any front. “You think economists are still talking about a growth imperative?” (Yes, I spent the first 6 months of my doctoral coursework having to study the evolution of growth theory as the basic introduction to development economics!) “You think that redistribution is still largely a no-go area? You must not know what’s really going on in the discipline. You can’t look at what World Bank economists do or say because they aren’t real economists, you know.” I then proceed to tell them that no, I have actually studied economics at the doctoral level and the most cited economist in history who happens to be a Nobel winner sat on my dissertation committee. Still, neither yielded and it felt like they kept moving the bar of what kind of qualifications or credentials you must possess to even have this conversation - “oh, he’s a policy guy, he doesn’t really represent what’s going on.” Frustrating since I chose my PhD specifically so that I could critique economic theory with credibility.
One of them then said, oh, you should listen to Oriana Bandiera really sticking it to Kate Raworth at LSE - it will do a good job of showing you why you’re wrong. I did listen to the podcast and still can’t make heads or tails of why someone would think this is a complete takedown apart from the same kind of facile arguments - oh, if you only knew what we’ve been doing over the last 25 years you would know we are now enlightened.
So I suppose I have the following questions:
Am I really wrong and my feeble-mindedness as a non-economist still means I can’t possibly be sophisticated enough to be properly annoyed by the harmful and unexamined assumptions the discipline touts?
What the heck is conventional or mainstream economics now anyway? Everyone who is defending the discipline seems to imply the heterodox is now orthodox, but just because there is a feminist economics does not mean economics is now feminist. It strikes me that there is a kind of systematic misrepresentation going on - there are critical voices out there that we want to point to when it’s convenient, but we never assign their work in our classes and we relegate them to the margins of our field and put a heterodox label on them.
Why aren’t successful economists willing to say, “this is old thinking and I’m frustrated with its persistence as well. I subscribe to new thinking and we as an academic community need to reject these antiquated assumptions”? They all act like something has really changed but they can’t or are unwilling to say these 10 things are what we said 30 years ago but we can no longer say them.
Anyone have any tips for how to get thoughtful, mainstream economists on the side of recognizing the problems the discipline has created and commit to being outspoken and disciplined (!) about challenging any of their remaining traces? You’d think they would all be jumping at the chance since they fancy themselves quasi-hard scientists and insist that they have it all figured out and we are still reading from an old textbook.