Teaching Radical Economics: The Center for Popular Economics and Its International Institutes

By Carbacho-Burgos, Andres | Radical Teacher, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Teaching Radical Economics: The Center for Popular Economics and Its International Institutes


Carbacho-Burgos, Andres, Radical Teacher


The various groups of protesters I who have demonsrrated at the & World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle, as well as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) annual meetings in Washington D.C. and Prague, have certainly attracted the notice of the mainstream media. However, mainstream publications such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Economist have paid little attention to the economic ideas which lie behind the protesters' actions. When attention is paid, it is usually by op-ed columnists who dismiss the Seattle protesters as economic ignoramuses. (1) This combination of silence and dismissal is a grave disservice to the global community both because it ignores the demonstrators' serious economic critique of the goals adopted by the IMF, World Bank, and WTO, and because it ignores their critique of the ways in which mainstream economic theory is taught to future economists, businessmen, and citizens in general.

That the popular critique of IMF, World Bank, and WTO globalization policies is internally consistent and sound might be disputed, but there is no lack of famous economists who support and have supported such a critique. To rake a single example, examine the following passage:

I sympathize, therefore, with those who would limit rather than increase the economic entanglements between nations. Hospitality, food, culture, it is these things which should be international. But let goods be homespun whenever possible, and above all, let finance be primarily national. (2)

This militant Seattle protester went by the name of John Maynard Keynes, and also wrote these words sixty six years before the actual Seattle protests. It is rather ironic that the popular critique now takes Keynes's position, whereas the economic theorists who are Keynes's inheritors are diametrically opposed to any constraints on globalization. Although the ideological difficulty of abandoning the dogma of free trade and capital flows is part of the reason why the economics mainstream tends to support the World Bank, IMF, and WTO, another of the root causes lies in the pedagogy by which the economics profession reproduces itself and creates a top-level consensus that influences World Bank, IMF and WTO policies.

The pedagogy used in most college and university economics courses serves to reproduce the undemocratic, authoritarian nature of policymaking by the elites who favor globalization in its current form. Both in lectures and in principles textbooks, economics is presented as a hard science similar to physics or chemistry, and as a result a student looking for a good grade must proceed by way of rote memorization of the lectures and textbook in the hopes of accurately regurgitating the material in a standard exam. The type of give-and-take debate and search for contradictions which lies at the heart of most social sciences is missing from economics both at the level of discourse, where most journal articles are based on the scientific method (that is, economic models are mistakenly viewed as closed systems subject to one-way causation in a manner quite similar to lab experiments in the hard sciences), and more importantly at the level of teaching, where insights of a strictly conditional historical nature are el evated to the status of mathematical theorems which must be mastered. For example, the standard argument of the comparative advantage model that countries are better off with open trade is taken as a truism which applies under all conditions, when in fact it completely ignores the historical circumstances that create comparative advantage between different countries, as discussed in the next section.

In contrast, the method used by the Center for Popular Economics (CPE) for its international institutes (held every summer in Amherst College) aims to produce a popular critique of both current globalization policies and of the pedagogy that helps to reproduce such policies. …

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