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Mainstream Economics: Monocultures at the University

The "Plural Economics Network" challenges breaking through the monoculture and intellectual one-sidedness in economics... Instead of viewing our varied social problems from different perspectives, all the answers are derived from very similar models whose validity is rarely critically questioned... The "therapy" leads to even greater unemployment and poverty.

Interview with activist Lena Kaiser

[The methods and contents of economics taught at universities - one-sided, rigid and false - increasingly trigger protest among students. In Germany the "Plural Economics Network" rebels against the dominance of neoclassical models and methods and demands a return to theory diversity. In conversation with Studis Online, activist Lena Kaiser criticizes blind trust in seeming laws, lack of interdisciplinarity and foreignness to the world in the lecture hall. A beginning of improvement is underway. That is her firm conviction. This interview is translated from the German on the Internet.}

Studis Online: The "Plural Economics Network" challenges breaking through the monoculture and intellectual one-sidedness in economics. "Emphasizing the great variety of economic theories" should be the goal, setting the solution of real problems in the foreground and promoting self-criticism, reflection and openness in economics." What do you criticize in how economics is taught at the universities?

Our interview partner Lena Kaiser is studying political theory in Frankfurt after sailing through her Bachelors in economics and philosophy in Mannheim. She is engaged in the "Plural Economics Network." [ http://www.plurale-oekonomik.de] and is a founding member of the "International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics" (ISIPE) [ http://www.isipe.net].

Lena Kaiser: The main problem of economics for us is its one-sidedness. Almost only neoclassical theories and quantitative methods come up at the university. Interdisciplinarity is cut short. Instead of viewing our varied social problems from different perspectives, all the answers are derived from very similar models whose validity is rarely questioned critically. Apart from that, a reflection on the connection of current problems with the theories and models of the lecture hall is blocked. In the best case, current events are moved to a "special session."

Take the so-called Euro-crisis as an example. Is it a theme in German lecture halls?

When I began my study in 2008, the US investment bank Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in the second week of lectures. Since then the economic crisis has been a permanent condition. In the textbooks, deregulated markets, growing economies and balanced state budgets are still stressed. In my interdisciplinary master's study, I enrolled in a seminar on monetary policy in the Eurozone with an Italian co-worker of the European Central Bank. This seminar was excellent. Unfortunately such a seminar is not also offered for undergraduate students.

On the other hand, dealing with the Euro-crisis is a classic example of how the alleged crisis management intensifies economic and social problems more than contributes to their solution. Is there something like a cardinal error of the prevailing theory?

Far be it from me to identify a cardinal error in theory as to the Euro-crisis. The crisis is much too complex. The problem is rather than the economy is only described from a certain perspective. Social phenomena like the economy are multilayered and dependent on the context. For a good analysis, we need many perspectives and not blind trust in inherent universally-applicable laws.

Concretely, the so-called Greece bailout, runs according to the pattern of forcing state indebtedness through enormous cuts in state spending and employment. Wage cuts and limited employee rights should entice investors and get the economy back on its feet. The therapy does not bring any healing but leads to even greater unemployment and poverty. What is the problem in your opinion?

Interests always stand behind political decisions and are often legitimated with scientific studies. If different academic approaches were prominently presented, citizens would hardly think there are no alternatives to current policies.

Many understand what you call neoclassicism under the swearword "neoliberalism." For the political left, the line of thinking exported to Europe by the Chicago school in the 1970s is nothing but a political-economic-cultural regime to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Do you share this interpretation?


Yes. Neoclassicism is not neoliberalism. Neoliberalism as a history of ideas category includes more than the Chicago school. For example, Walter Eucken, the founder of the social market economy, also understood himself as a neoliberal. Our interest turns more on students' opportunity to critically argue with combative political terms rather than identify with them. The great variety in theory in the history of ideas and in political theory in economic courses of study is crucial because power and distribution questions are blind spots in neoclassicism.

What do you think of Marxism? Is Marxism part of the great variety that you urge for economics?

We do not recognize any special approaches, not even for Marxism. As is clear from our call [ http://www.isipe.net/home-de], we stand for pluralism, for a great variety of different approaches. This includes Marxism and its variants as well as neoclassicism, the Austrian school, ecological economics and post-Keynesianism.

Our concerns are non-partisan. What unites us is criticism of the intellectual monoculture in economics and the conviction that a great variety of economic theories and methods would benefit the scholarliness of the discipline and our society.

What theories and methods would you ban from lecture halls?

We would not ban anything. However neoclassical approaches are over-represented in present-day economics. Therefore we would reduce its share in favor of other approaches. In addition economics must be understood again as a social science. To understand complex sociological problems, cooperation with other disciplines is necessary. Political science, philosophy and ethnology are a few examples, not only psychology in behavioral economics.

How promising is that where neoclassicism is practically a one-man show today in universities and economic institutes?

Through the call, the attent6ion of a broad worldwide public is focused on the theme and its social relevance. This is a necessary prerequisite for changing present conditions. In the meantime we are 65 groups from 30 countries. In Germany, the call is supported by German expert conferences of economics and the social sciences representing 700,000 students. The European Student Union that speaks for several million students supports us. A first step has been taken.

Thus the mainstream economics monoculture and the general disappearance of critical thinking are not typical German phenomena.

Students miss great variety in methods and theories everywhere in the world from Chile to India.

Are you supported by teachers? Are there lecturers and professors who embody a different thinking than the dominant approach?

We experience much openness and encouragement in conversations with lecturers and professors. Many scholars use and apply alternative theories and methods. Unfortunately very few successfully survive at prominent universities.

How satisfied are you with the degree of attention given to your theme in the media?

We are glad the media report about us like Spiegel Online and especially the detailed reporting in the Sueddeutschen Zeitung newspaper, DIE ZEIT, the Financial Times and in the Guardian. The debate about the new orientation of mainstream economics is finally carried out in the public.

What will you be doing in the near future? What activities are on the horizon in the coming weeks and months?

We will bring the buoyancy from the global call into our local work in university groups. We have received much encouragement and cooperation offers from institutes, academics and student groups to whom we are now devoted. This continues on the international plane. In the past we only knew activists from other countries from telephone conversations and writer correspondences. We plan conferences in London and Tubingen to come to know one another. We are really beginning.

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