Tackling the Crisis of Conformity in Economic Thinking Henry Leveson-Gower

The conformity in economics teaching in many ways is the most damaging aspect of our current economics discipline. Thousands of graduates all round the world enter work each year with the impression that there is only one way of thinking about organising our economies. These are of course the people who dominate the likes of the World Bank, IMF and the Treasuries in countries around the world.  Innovative and critical thinking is crushed just when we need it most given our current social, environmental and economic crises. We believe we can’t wait for the mainstream to change. We want to join with you to build a new international movement for teaching from a pluralist perspective.

Following revelations of the extraordinary inadequacy of economic models, many expected a revolution similar to those in the 1930s and 70s with new ideas flowing in to mainstream economics departments. However as researchers have shown here, this has not happened. Economics thinking and research faces what the Institute of New Economic Thinking (INET) has dubbed “a crisis of conformity”.

Unsurprisingly the same is true of most economics teaching around the world.  After all, broadly the same people are doing the teaching as do the research. With the pervasive use of standard text books, there is even less space for diversity and innovation.

This is in spite of a revolt by students around the world against economics teaching. To them it seemed totally disconnected from their real lived experience of the 2007/8 financial crisis. This revolt started with the Post-Crash Economics Society in the University of Manchester, UK and now through Rethinking Economics has groups in universities around the world. It is members of this movement that has documented the continued conformity in economics teaching in “top ranking” global universities in their book, Econocracy.

There is one innovation, the CORE curriculum. It is certainly more engaging than standard courses and puts economic history back into economics teaching.  However it determinedly and transparently sticks to teaching economics as if there was only one approach to analysing economic phenomena. It does not support critical reflection based on an understanding that there more than one way of thinking about the economy and they don’t give the same answers to policy questions.

Along with this student movement, we believe that supporting critical reflection through recognising different approaches to understanding the economy is critical to good and ethical teaching. Graduates then have the tools to challenge and question thinking on how we organise our economy.  More generally it should help them understand and talk to different perspectives from different cultures, histories, genders and more; to be part of dialogues rather than assert a single perspective that has been drummed into them.

Clearly we need to break out of this conformity of economic thinking that is not only deaf to other perspectives but has ceased to have credibility.  Recent political turbulence has demonstrated that in spades.  We also know, even before the most recent IPCC report – reports which by their nature are always conservative in assessing climate change risks – economic business as usual is not sustainable. The need for reform is more urgent than ever but the continuing sway of economic conformity in governments, finance and business suffocates new thinking.

We have to accept that change is not going to come anytime soon in teaching in mainstream economics departments.  Most economists agree that monopolists will resist competition. Mainstream economists control access to and teaching in top university departments, an effective monopoly. They tend only to be trained in one form of economics precisely due to the crisis of conformity, so their main interest is in maintaining the status quo and the current institutions reinforce this as so well documented by INET.

However this is not of course true of all economics teaching. There are many lecturers who teach different ways of thinking about the economy and encourage critical reflection. I am sure many of them are part of the IDEAs network.

Much of this teaching actually happens outside economics departments – with notable exceptions – in such departments as international relations, environment and geography, psychology, sociology and development, and in interdisciplinary centres all round the world.  This is where pressures to conform have exiled the non-conformers.  You can see many of these departments and their courses here which we have identified so far including many in high ranking universities such as Princeton, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE and UCL. But as you can see our coverage of such courses in the Global South is so far very limited and we need your help to correct this.

These courses have a whole range of labels. For the uninitiated, it is not obvious they take a pluralist approach to economics nor is such assurance provided. We intend to help raise the profile and establish the wider legitimacy of these types of courses so students are encouraged to join them and other universities are encouraged to put them on. We have chosen to start with masters courses as we believe university departments have much more flexibility over what they can teach at this level. Students from these courses will also be entering the ‘real world’ very soon to use their learning.

We will co-create an accreditation system to establish a common international identity and ‘brand’, which is widely understood and supported. We already have some influential supporters in policy, finance and business as you can see here.  They include the Chief of Staff at the OECD, the Chair of the biggest European investment management company and the UK Trade Union General Secretary. They are not just the usual suspects and cross the political spectrum. Of course we could love you to add your support there too.

The point of this is not to determine what economics is ‘right’ or which courses are ‘best’. It is to build a shared sense between those inside and outside of academia, including employers, of what economic teaching looks like that fosters creativity and critical thinking to address real world issues ie prepares students to take on 21st century challenges. Then potential students can easily and confidently find these courses and employers can understand their significance.  We will also of course work closely with Rethinking Economics and the student movement to magnify this effect.

To turn this idea into reality, we want to invite members of IDEAs network to participate in actually co-creating the scheme. We believe that it is crucial that we have a diverse and wide-ranging set of people involved to make this truly an international scheme. Members of IDEAs should bring a very important perspective to counter the normal dominance of the Global North in such standard setting.

This doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to get involved in the detail or devote huge amounts of time to it. We will ensure people can give their views on the principles and broad approach as easily as possible. Please sign-up here to be involved and if you first want to find out more, sign up for an online presentation and discussion here.

I look forward to building this new international institution with your help to support the world in braking out of the crisis of conformity and developing new social innovations to address the huge and growing challenges we face as a species in the 21st century.

(This article was originally published in the website of Promoting Economic Plurlism on December 5, 2018)