Double trouble in a good way

What Does it Mean to Double Major in College and Should You?
Credit: collegeraptor.com

This post is written by Cristina, one of the students I interviewed this year for my book. Having just finished writing my economics chapter, I was particularly interested to learn about Cristina’s experiences of doing a double degree in Economics and International Development. In this post, Cristina talks about her having grown up in post-crisis Spain as a motivation to study Economics but realizing that it was International Development that gave her the necessary critical perspective on it.

Hello, my name is Cristina, and I am a very recent Economics and International Development graduate from Sussex. This combination of subjects was an option whose implications I did not fully understand, until the very first day I arrived at Sussex from Spain and started the course.

Why study economics?

I knew the reason I wanted to study economics: my whole life had always revolved around it. It presented itself in most of my life experiences, many times with or without explanation, while also happening to most of my generation. The economic financial crisis of 2007 hit Spain very forcefully when we were mere kids, but still mature enough to understand what was happening around.

There was not a friend I knew that any of their family members weren’t unemployed. I recall most of my friends, from the age of 9, were already familiar with terms such as stock market, bank bailouts, and risk premium.

Therefore, while choosing what to study as an undergraduate degree, I immediately decided I wanted to study Economics, as I felt the need to understand the reasons for most of the events I experienced growing up. I also realised that I needed to study something complementary to truly understand the effects economic activity have had worldwide, choosing, therefore, to undertake International Development as a joint honours degree. The need to study both subjects and the clear difference between the two degrees (Economics and ID) started to be significantly noticeable once I started the course.

On one hand, studying Economics was an absolute enjoyment from the start. It was fascinating. Even though it sounds corny, it felt like studying a living and working piece of philosophy. Everything said in class, even though it was obscured with difficult and complicated symbology and terms, once uncovered its meaning, just made sense. Every term, formula or concept formed part of this big system that worked perfectly. No matter what question or part you didn’t fully understand, it was perfectly explainable by economic theory. It was intriguing, interesting, and above all, very satisfying. The greatest example for me of this was being able to understand one day the Taylor’s Rule, represented by the following formula:

 it = r* + π* + β(πt – π*) + γ(yt – yN)

Even though at first it seemed confusing and intimidating, once you understood what each value and concept meant, the formula was easy to read and interpret, and therefore easy to understand its use. The formula simply translates to the notion that nominal interest rate (it) equals the real interest rate (the interest rate of goods and services), inflation, and the difference there is between current inflation and economic activity to the target inflation and full employment level. This makes the interest rate, the most needed, sought and used tool in economic policy to be easily manipulated to the needs of the economy. Once this concept is imparted in class, macroeconomics works as this effective subject which you can tweak and change to make it work inch-perfect.

Why study international development?

Development, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. The course from the start was made of  very different, very complex modules that were difficult to see as interconnected. While one module would focus on British colonialism, the next ones worked on issues such as the Washington Consensus, Palestine, intersectionality, the SDGs, or randomised controlled trials.

Furthermore, each issue uncovered deeply rooted and incredibly painful-to-study societal problems. With each class, you would explore elements that would shake to the core beliefs and concepts that you had never questioned. Understanding the economic, social and political reasons for most of our society’s main problems was a hard and difficult process to undertake.

However, at the end of this learning process, you were able to interpret issues in a deeper, more multifaceted way. Poverty could no longer be interpreted as a sad isolated incident, but the consequence of a confluence of factors, much of which stemmed from race, class, gender, religion, or nationality. Soon enough you were able to see the connection between all the different development modules and the global interconnection of injustice and structural violent systems.

What happens when you combine both subjects?

Double Brainstorm With Clouds And Lightning Stock Illustration ...
Credit: Dreamstime.com

This began to impact my Economics learning. Suddenly, the perfect functioning of the economy wasn’t real anymore. How can something that is proclaimed to be the exact and perfect solution to our problems sustain a world with such imperfections? How can these two realities co-exist? I then realised the Economics we were being taught was neither real, neither perfect, neither moral. Taking it back to the Taylor’s Rule, the cornerstone of economic policy, it wasn’t anymore this understand-able element. What does a natural rate of unemployment mean? Why is Economic theory based on a natural rate of unemployment (apart from the one needed to account for people trying to change jobs)? Does it mean that some people need to be unemployed so the economy sustains itself? This can further be associated with the neoliberal Walrasian Equilibrium notion where the market is in itself efficient and self-sufficient. When studying Macroeconomics 2 you learn the natural rate of unemployment is the rate at which the real wage in wage setting equals the real wage implied by price setting. This directly translates to the notion that if the market is to be sustained by supply and demand rules, people are going to be left out of having a job, a salary, and the means necessary to uphold a decent life. It further continues with the principle ‘The lower the unemployment rate is, the higher are the wages’. This, if analysed just translates to the notion ‘that the larger the unemployed pool is, the more desperate they are, and hence, the lower we can pay them.’

These premises were taught in class as notions that cannot be discussed or put to question, as they are the basis to our economic science, and taught as fixed theories as if it were Physics or Chemistry. Neoliberal economics are elements that need to be challenged, as most of these principles, based on perfect ideals, can, and do cause irreparable harm if put into practice.

I have only started to question these beliefs due to my International Development modules and the knowledge they imparted. Being able to study the effects of economic policy made me able to question economic policy, and the effects it caused in not only developing, but also developed countries, all over the World. The necessity to impart different academic aspects into University is crucial if wanting to acquire students with a critical and thorough vision of what they have studied.

Reclaiming economies

image shows a card for the currency lab game
An example of a game used for reclaiming the economy (developed by a group of researchers in the Netherlands)

Today’s economics students will be among the influential citizens and policy makers shaping human society in 2050. But the economic mindset that they are being taught is rooted in the textbooks of 1950, which, in turn are grounded in the theories of 1850. Given the challenges of the 21st century this is shaping up to be a disaster.

Kate Raworth

This post is the first part of a summary of the economics chapter of my book, which I recently finished. Even though the chapter does not focus on teaching economics students per se, but rather explores how economics-focused teaching in the social sciences can help students to better imagine and creative alternative futures, it was in part inspired by the above observation. The chapter therefore spends little time presenting the neoclassical status quo, while most of it explores a number of compelling heterodox alternatives, such as including marginalized perspectives in keeping with decolonizing pedagogy initiatives, emphasizing the teaching of inequality and exploring plural and diverse economies inside and outside the classroom. The chapter’s two teaching activities are the creation of student individual diverse economy portfolios and a group activity to design a plan for establishing a recycling cooperative. You can read this post together with a guest post by Cristina Cano, a student who recently finished a joint Economics/International Development degree at Sussex to get a student perspective on the matter.

Development Economics

The chapter begins with a brief summary of neoclassical economic thought that is still dominant in many university classrooms, noting in particular the dominance of white men teaching at elite universities whose texts as regarded as authoritative in the discipline. By comparison, the field of development economics, which is particularly relevant for challenges in the Global South, is more diverse and presents a good opportunity for students to learn how economic (and other) scholarship arises from personal biographies and institutional locations, shows a dynamic field shaped by diverse voices, many of which are still located at elite UK or US universities but maintain strong ties to Latin America, the Caribbean and India. The field’s founding figure provides a good example of this.

Arthur Lewis, who, born in the then British colony of St Lucia, was the first-ever black student to be admitted to the London School of Economics in 1933, where he met many anti-colonial advocates who shaped his economic thinking, together with his studies of the British empire and 19th century England. He became Britain’s first Black professor when he was appointed at the University of Manchester, where he developed his well-known dual economy model, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1979. Like so  many academic economists, Lewis was also a policy advisor, first for the British colonial office and then to several newly independent governments in Africa and the Caribbean, where he served as Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, before taking up a professorship at Princeton. Teaching students about the live and work of this complex founding figure shows how in economics, theory/academia and practice/policy as well as empire and post-colony are entangled in complex ways that defy easy categorization and  ideological pigeon-holing. Other influential development economists include Walt Rostow and his 5 stages of economic growth, Raúl Prebisch and his work with the Latin American dependency school, Amartya Sen and his capabilities approach which informed the UN’s Human Development Index, Diane Elson and Naila Kabeer‘s groundbreaking with in gender and feminist economics, Ha Joon Chang‘s arguments about kicking away the ladder and Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee‘s work on Poor Economics. Through this diversity of perspectives and academic biographies, students can understand the importance of a more pluralistic approach to economics-focused teaching.

Pluralist Teachings

According to Frank Stilwell, an early advocate of pluralist economics teaching, ‘a pluralist pedagogy, i.e. a teaching practice that explores a plurality of different ways of understanding how the economy works . . . is the principal antidote to the reproduction of a narrow orthodoxy in the discipline.’ Pluralist teaching includes, alongside neoclassical economics, institutional, environmental, Marxian and feminist economics, among others. Rather than a pick-and-mix approach, it asks students to consider how these different theories have developed and interact with one another. Pluralist teaching converges around a set of principles that include

  • recognizing the role that history, ethics and power play in economic discourse, policy and practice
  • understanding the complexity of economic systems and acknowledging that situated knowledge, value judgements and political ideologies shape economic decision making,
  • embracing more active and student-centered teaching that relates economic theories to students’ own experiences and to real-world examples

Pluralist teaching is therefore an important improvement of orthodox economics-focused teaching and has energized the teachings of students as for example in the global Rethinking Economics student network. A teaching example described in the chapter is the application of Kate Raworth’s 21st century economics principles to students’ understanding of the COVID crisis.

For decolonial scholars, however, the mere addition of different approaches, while keeping neoliberal economics firmly in place, does not go far enough. Their demands are for a more pluriversal economics that acknowledges that the discipline’s claims to universality mask its Euro-centric origins and continue to exclude work from women and scholars from the Global South. To show how such marginalized knowledges can become part of the curriculum, in my chapter I include a teaching example from Jonathan Langdon, who teaches in Canada, that is of particular relevance in the current historic moment in the fight against racial discrimination and injustice.

Decolonial economics teachings

Langdon asks his students to read excerpts from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations alongside the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, published 12 years after Smith’s book,  in which Equiano describes his experiences of enslavement, the middle passage, slave labor on plantations and ships and eventual freedom. For Langdon, such a reading does not only reveal the gulf between Smith’s rational, self-centered mentality and the human experiences of slavery, but also how Equiano himself used Smith’s writings to advocate for the efficiency of wage over slave labour. This shows how (former) slaves were able to appropriate Western arguments for the abolitionist cause, something that is also taught in Sussex’ Colonialism and After course. For Langdon’s students, discussing how both texts were used by proponents and opponents of the slave trade prompts them to ask why they have certainly heard of Smith before but not of Equiano. Langdon argues that ‘it is only by bringing in the voice of those impacted by [the slave] system that the immorality of the economic arrangements stands out in sharp relief.’ Situating both books at the historical emergence of capitalism also provides a fuller historical context and ‘destabilizes the foundational authority of economics to vision of progress.’ It allows for an ontological reframing of capitalism from a structural given to a system produced by particular discourses and practices and that therefore can be changed.

Another teaching example in the chapter comes from my Sussex colleague Paul Gilbert, who has developed a third year specialist module on Wealth, Inequality and Development, which interrogates the drivers and consequences of inequality and uneven wealth accumulation. The module is constructed around a post-colonial perspective and presents the long history of politics and practices of inequality, from questions of colonial drain and reparations to the colonial origins of contemporary corporate dispute resolution mechanisms to the current work of the Southern Centre for Inequality at Wits University in South Africa, to complement the better-known Thomas Piketty debates around inquality. Where neoclassical assumptions hold that inequality is an inescapable aspect of growth and will eventually be ameliorated by it, heterodox economists advocate for a pro-active redesign of the economy to distribute wealth and resources more equally. In his teaching, Paul focuses on issues such as taxation, land inequality and international law. He also introduces students to the work of advocacy, campaigning and research groups such as the Tax Justice Network, IIED and Debt Resistance UK and follows a problem-focused pedagogy where theoretical discussions are linked to specific challenges. As an example of combining critical reading of academic, policy and activism texts with creative activities, Paul introduces students to interesting data sets such as the Panama Papers to get them thinking about how different actors use and manipulate figures and data. Students then learn some of the practical skills used by NGOs and investigative journalists to read corporate accounts to detect tax avoidance and evasion and try to apply these to reading corporate tax sheets themselves. In this way, students develop a hands-on understanding of corporate tax avoidance and how to find it and think through the implications of both. Subverting the economics 101 skill of reading financial statements, here students learn to read them ‘for difference’ to destabilize mainstream ideas and uncover what is unseen, but also what can be possible when the invisible is brought to light. A brilliant example of critical-creative teaching!

image shows banner heading of the d-econ blog
This is a great blog to which Paul contributes

Diverse economy portfolios

image shows creative economy portfolios
What would students’ economic portfolios look like?
Image from https://www.debtdiaries.net/story/economic-crisis-seen-everyday-0

My last post explored how the COVID crisis might be used in pluralist economic teaching. In this post, I want to get a bit more practical and present another teaching activity: students creating personal diverse economy portfolios. The activity builds on Gibson-Graham’s groundbreaking work on diverse economies and the ontological changes this entails. Through their portfolios, students research and analyze their own economic activities, in order to recognize their diversity and social character and to ultimately realize themselves as interdependent and ethical economic subjects. The activity aims to shift students’ attention from, in GG’s words, ‘the paralyzing question of what is to be done’ to the more productive one of ‘what is already being done,’ with a focus on what students themselves are already doing. It is divided into 4 steps: 1) diary, 2) inventory, 3) questions and 4) iceberg, and could be conducted in an economics-focused social science class as an independent project over the course of a term or as a two-week more intensive exercise.

  1. Economic diaries

The activity begins with students keeping an economic diary over the course of a week to become more aware of their economic lives. In the diary they record all of their economic transactions and exchanges, where they took place, whom they involved, whether money was exchanged etc. Students then start to classify these activities into capitalist, alternative and non-capitalist, by drawing on relevant theoretical readings and class discussions.

2. Economic Inventories

The next step involves translating the diary into an inventory, using a template adapted from the Diverse Economies Framework that consists of three sub-inventories: transactional exchanges, economic organizations and labor practices.

image shows a diverse economy table to categorize economic activities
The inventory template from the Diverse Economies Framework
  • Transactional exchanges are likely to comprise capitalist market transactions, but also alternative ones such as students swapping things with each other or buying a vegetable box from a local farmer, as well as non-market transactions such as sharing household labor, free-cycling, gifting or community gardening.
  • Economic organizations register the diverse economic institutions students deal with, beginning with capitalist firms such as supermarkets or department stores, but quickly expanding to alternative capitalist enterprises such as op-shops, fair trade stores, non-profits, cooperative and community enterprises, food waste apps and shared ownership schemes. Non-capitalist organizations could encompass communal and household groups or independent businesses that might be supported by friends, children or other family members giving their labor for free.
  • Labor practices begin with standard wage work that many students have to engage in to make ends meet. Then there are alternatively paid labor activities such as under-the-table tutoring or baby sitting, self-employed gig work or maybe swapping childcare with other student parents or final thesis drafts with fellow students. Unpaid labor includes housework, household or family physical and emotional care, and maybe volunteer work or self-provisioning through gardening. 

3) Social and ethical questions

The next part of the activity involves students reflecting on two overarching questions: on what basis am I making economic decisions and what kind of social relationships am I entering or creating through my economic activities? The first question is likely to show multiple reasonings, including affordability, convenience and ethical concerns such as fair trade, animal treatment or food miles. Recognizing the plurality of their choices and calculations shows students the limited application of neoclassical theories of self-interested, utility-maximizing individuals and reveals (most) students as ethical consumers who complement their financial calculations with non-financial questions about how their economic activities might be impacting other human beings, animals or the wider environment. Establishing this awareness includes folding the economic into the ethical and and can potentially move students towards an ‘economy of generosity’.

image shows the HISBE supermarket in Brighton
Many Sussex students shop at the alternative HISBE supermarket in Brighton

The second question about social relationships goes to the heart of resocializing economic relations, as it makes students aware of the diversity of relationships on which their economic activities are based. These can range from a standard consumer relationship to parent/child or other kin connections, friend, neighbor, flat mate or mentor. Realizing how socially interconnected and interdependent economic activities are also undermines orthodox notions of autonomous, self-centered individuals and shows the economy as embedded within social systems.

4) Drawing the Iceberg

The last step of the activity involves students creating a visual representation of their diverse economy portfolios in the form of an iceberg or other creative, potentially multimedia, formats. The iceberg is a pedagogical tool developed by Gibson-Graham and colleagues to show that what is usually regarded as ‘the economy’ is but the tip of a huge amount of economic activities that are often invisible, sidelined or ignored. But they constitute the majority of people’s, and students,’ economic lives. The intention of this final part of the activity is therefore to make personal diverse economies visible and to move students from the linearity of writing to experimenting with more creative forms of imagining and expressing themselves as diverse economic subjects.

The aim of the personal diverse economy portfolio activity is for students to learn that capitalism is not as all-encompassing as is usually assumed, or, to use Gibson-Graham’s words, to decenter capitalocentric discourses that naturalize capitalism and assign positive value to capitalist economic activities, while devaluing all others. The activity brings together theoretical texts focusing on diverse, social and solidarity economies with experiential learning based on students’ already existing economic activities. It goes further by inviting students to imagine themselves as more diverse economic subjects and to create future alternative economic actions. Here, the new forms of sociality and mutuality that have emerged under COVID, such as shopping at the local corner store, buying food for those who are self-isolating or sharing with others in need, might provide important openings.

image shows Gibson-Graham's economic iceberg
The iceberg, image from Take Back the Economy
(http://agentsofalternatives.com/?p=2604)

Queuing in the time of COVID-19

The queue at our local supermarket brings back memories of East Germany (minus the mobile phones)

The panic buying at the beginning of the COVID pandemic has long since given way to much more orderly and calm queuing to get into supermarkets, at an appropriate social distance. For me, having grown up in East Germany where there often was scarcity of all kinds of stuff and waiting in line was common practice, especially for special things such as bananas or oranges that were actually orange rather than green (the latter were the so-called Kuba Orangen named after their place of origin), this brings back memories. It also ties in well with the writing I have done over the last month on the economics chapter of my book, in which I explore how to teach social science students about economic alternatives (a summary will come shortly.) In the chapter, I use economic responses to the COVID crisis to show the shortcomings of neoclassical economic theories, and how this might inform critical-creative teaching. In this post, which is the second in my COVID reflections, following the first one on care, I will share some of my theoretical insights, drawing on recent think pieces and publications by various economists and social scientists.

The embedded economy

According to Sanjay Reddy, ‘the pandemic underlines the necessity for a rethinking of our received ideas about economics,’ foremost among them the interdependencies between economics and all other areas of life, the relationship between individual and collective rationality and the importance of public deliberations about the differential impact of the virus on different groups and the trade-offs this calls for. Economic responses to the pandemic have also highlighted the usually more hidden value judgements made by economic policy makers, for example in prioritizing public over economic health concerns. All of this connects to calls to ‘see the big picture’ of economics, which means changing the perspective from a self-contained, efficient market as the mainstay of the economy to embedding the economy in society and nature. For Kate Raworth, for whom seeing the big picture is part of reinventing economics for the 21st century, such a move calls for ‘the creation of new narratives – about the power of the market, the partnership of the state, the core role of the household, and the creativity of the commons.’ The COVID pandemic has indeed resulted in calls for new social contracts between governments, citizens and corporations.

Finally, a breakthrough alternative to growth economics – the ...
A representation of the embedded economy. Source: Kate Raworth and Marcia Mihotich

Let’s start with governments, many of whom have taken measures in response to the pandemic that have the potential to address existing economic inequities, if they can transition from emergency stop-gap interventions to more far-reaching structural reforms. This would follow historical precedent, modern welfare state emerged from the Great Depression and WWII. Today, governments in many countries are providing unprecedented support for workers, such as income guarantees, self-employed worker and small business support schemes. It is important to point out that many gaps remain in their coverage and their effects, just as the effects of the virus itself, are highly uneven. Nevertheless, some of these government schemes approximate, and in some places such as Spain are being developed as spring boards to, universal basic income (UBI) schemes which guarantee all citizens of a country a base amount of money to cover basic needs. Calls for UBI, such as the one made by over 500 political figures and academics, recognize and reaffirm the responsibility of governments to guarantee the basic material well-being of residents, displacing the primacy of market-based interventions.

The lines between corporations and governments have also become more blurred, as seen in the requisitioning of private resources for public (health) interest to ensure sufficient hospital spaces, make protective equipment and develop a vaccine. This can lead to the transformation of businesses into more humane institutions and to a decentering of market logics from the many areas of human existence they have infiltrated. To sustain these initiatives and help them transition to a ‘new normal,’ citizens will need to mobilize and press their demands in the face of calls to resume business as usual. This raises the question of the commons.

Revaluing the commons and households

A second element of the big economy picture is revaluing the commons, seen in calls to adequately support public health systems often ravaged by years of austerity and cutbacks. Once again, history can be a guide, since the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic helped create national health services in many European countries. An important part is recognizing who contributes to the common good as essential workers and re-valuing their key contributions to society, including financially. Others argue for a reclaiming of the knowledge commons to ensure that reliable information can lead to an informed debate that takes local values, priorities and needs into account. Against dominant claims to ‘the’ science driving government decisions, it is clear that difficult ethical decisions need to be made by policy makers and that an informed public needs to be involved in these deliberations. For starters, government committees such as the UK’s SAGE committee should include not only behavioral economists, disease experts and modellers, epidemiologists and medics, but also social scientists and humanities scholars such as philosophers, historians of science, theologians and jurists, as is happening in Germany.

Embedding the economy also means recognizing the core role of households, something that has been demanded by feminist economists and their ground-breaking studies of the care economy for many years.  Following the lockdown policies implemented by most countries to stop the virus spreading, households have been reconfirmed as the centres of family lives, as studying and working from home complement daily interactions and family members have to find new ways of co-existing in often confined spaces. A new ethics is emerging where care, albeit a version that is delinked from problematic gendered notions, becomes the basis for connections.

Our assortment of face masks

Interdependent economic subjects

This relates to another 21st century economics principles of ‘nurturing human nature’ by recognizing that individuals are not the calculating, maximizing and self-interested individuals posited by neoclassical economics. Instead, the collective crisis of COVID is showing that humans are interdependent, reciprocating and ethical beings, and is highlighting alternative ways of co-existence based on mutuality and conviviality. The ‘thick, tangled skein of sociality’ is revealed in the shielding of vulnerable family members, the wearing of face masks mainly to protect others and the keeping of spatial distancing. Citizens’ overall compliance with lock down measures that diminish individual freedoms in the name of the social good shows the inadequacy of individual rational choice theories and requires a more expansive view that recognizes that individuals take others into account when making decisions and can align their own choices with collective requirements. The self-organizing neighborhood groups that have sprung up in many cities operate on principles of mutual aid to help those who need to self-isolate or are struggling in other ways. These initiatives show that economic systems are at their heart social systems embedded within interpersonal relations.

Thus, the COVID pandemic is clearly showing that the economy is an integral part of social, political and environmental systems. Some of the current responses to the pandemic can be used to teach students the shortcomings of orthodox economics and the relevance of pluralist ideas within and without the university. It can also encourage them to use their learning to imagine and work towards the alternative futures that can be glimpsed among the bleakness of life under COVID.