Help! Trying to engage economists effectively in a critique of the discipline


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.


Interesting set of questions.

I’m not an economist, though have an increasing interest in the field.

My main fields currently involve healthcare, organisational change, info tech.
I see the same behaviours in the establishment in these fields too… so these are common patterns in a complex adaptive system.

My instinct/view is that change doesn’t primarily come from converting the thinking of the people in charge, they will be amongst the last to make the change. The change required will come from others , the non economists reworking their economies under the nose of the “leaders” in this field.

As Kate points out in her book, “we’re all economists now”, so my instinct is that todays main stream economists will only, belatedly, change their tune, when they see the politics and economic figures showing a shift in action around them?

Are you aware of these movements?



Tony, AKN - much of will be about co-operation and why it seems so hard for co-operatives to co-operate. In my view, that’s all about our dependence on what Douglas Rushkoff has termed “weaponised” money, conventional linear legal tender, and that economists generally are utterly unaware of this - “economics? - what’s money got to do with it?”

This - why not cooperate - is my working script in progress. You’ll see I am much in agreement with your point -

“…the thinking of the people in charge, they will be amongst the last to make the change. The change required will come from others , the non economists reworking their economies under the nose of the “leaders” in this field.”


thanks Michael, interesting paper and the related link to Covestment thinking/community credit commons etc.

Guess that amidst all the blockchain hype some/many forms of more productive “circular” money can be expected to emerge to support new economic models?


“can be expected” is a speculation that may or may not realise. My own speculation is that without new forms of money we’re doomed by the old linear extractive stuff.


What you are facing is the effect of group think. Its effects are very well explained here. It comes down to the fact that economists mainly talk about their field with other economists. More precisely, with economists that have a certain status and who think like them. It is VERY hard to introduce a new idea in a group like this. And on top of that, if everyone in the group agrees on something, then their ideas become more extreme.
I guess the best way to deal with it is to find some progressive thinkers in the group and spread the new idea through them. I agree it can be very frustrating because these people just close their minds to anything that contradicts their dogmas.


I can really appreciate the dilemma you’re up against.

Many mainstream economists especially in academia are sadly ‘locked in’ to existing economic theory and beliefs they studied.

Many resist the idea of ‘limits’ resting on the idea of ‘infinite substitution’ thus the idea of ‘sustainability’ isn’t on their radar.

In any event, I post on social media as @EconomyRealitic and get the type of responses you did while trying to drum up interest in sustainability including referencing Kate’s work often.

There’s no easy path ahead . . . getting folks up to speed base ‘limitless growth’ won’t be an easy task but must be done nevertheless.

Just keep bringing up the issue . . . takes time to ‘sink in’ . . . if you will.

Kate’s doing an excellent job of exposing the issue but lots of work remain ahead.


Nature does not follow human economics, and terrestrial economics has distinct limits as it is a closed system with the exception of inbound solar radiation, and the occasional space boulder on the inbound side, and reflected light, some space vehicles and radio waves on the outbound side.

Human economics is based on continuous growth, which results in us increasing our footprint on the Earth with the problems of over-population, and over-exploitation. Yes, there are virtual goods that are produced, and a growth based economics could occur if the goods produced are largely virtual. However, we would still need to draw back from ecologies that we have disrupted through being and invasive species, and through bringing other invasive species along for the ride.

So what would a sustainable economics - one which would not disrupt and destroy the ecologies of the Earth - be, and what it take to get the buy-in from the rich and powerful who will not easily be displaced from their positions of privilege and power?

In my limited and naive view it would be one in which communities are local and self-sustaining through such means as vertical farming, 3-D printing, and total reuse. (Think about the model of a Martian colony where nothing can afford to be wasted.) There would need to be limits to growth which are never exceeded to keep the local human community in balance with nature. And yes, there would be a need for reserves to address disaster and to create facilities which are too large to be part of a local community. These would be island communities bound and balanced to their local ecology, and there would be some larger communities to house and provide the facilities that are too large to be part of a local community, but from which all local communities benefit.

One of the tricky aspects of the model that I am suggesting is the balance between cultural identity at the level of local communities and growth through sharing of ideas. I think that the best of what we can be is a result of being anchored in a local culture while having sufficient stimulation and novelty from outside to permit growth. Migration is also an issue as one of the major benefits of the island community is the requirement that each person is intimately invested in the success of the community, vesting people with purpose and respect. Still, some individuals and even families may want to migrate, and to do that without putting the community at risk through losing key people is essential.

I know this sounds a bit like science fiction, but in order to get outside of the box that the current economic, political, cultural and religious narratives have placed us within we have to start to get imaginative in determining what is necessary to enable our species and the world ecologies to be well balanced and sustainable. That means we have to put it all on the table, and we have to have a deep and wide understanding of what being human is from a biological and behavioural set of frames. This is not an impossible mission - unless we insist on making it one, but it does meaning grappling intensely and honestly with what we are from every imaginable frame.