Students for Economic Pluralism, Unite! How College Kids Are Taking on the “High Priests” of Money

After years of work as a climate activist, Keith Harrington decided to get a degree in economics. Now, he’s working to transform the field.

Julie Matthaei and Keith Harrington in front of the Sheraton Boston during the Annual Economic Association conference. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Depew.)

For more than 60 years, the United States’ leading professional association of economists has been meeting annually to discuss what’s going on in the field. Attendees can expect to see experts face off over inflation rates, monetary policy, and the capital/income ratio—basically, the underlying forces that make some people rich and others poor.

“We need to expand the concept of economic modeling to include the modeling of alternative systems.”

But one group of students and teachers wants to see more debate within the American Economics Association, and, indeed, within the whole field. And they’re pulling out all the stops to make it happen.

Keith Harrington is an activist with the group Kick It Over, which sent a small group of rabble rousers to the association’s gathering in January. Harrington argues that the field in the United States—and, to some degree, in the world—is dominated by a single school of thought called neoclassical economics, whose followers promote the idea that markets and competition are the best solution to economic problems, and that regulation just gets in the way. According to Harrington, other ways of looking at issues of wealth and money are barely taught at all.

It’s not just an academic dispute. Economists frequently advise or even serve in the government—Larry Summers, anyone?—and neoclassical thinking has had a huge impact on policy. We chatted with Harrington by email to find out more about the actions during the American Economics Association’s annual meeting, the movement for “pluralism” in the teaching of economics, and what’s next for Kick It Over. His answers have been lightly edited.

James Trimarco: Tell me about the actions during the American Economics Association. How do you feel that went over?

Keith Harrington: Over the past five months or so, I’ve collaborated with Adbusters magazine to explore a new form of activism aimed at sparking a revolution in the way that economics is taught. Essentially, we’re working to mobilize students and professors to push the profession to open itself up to a broader array of schools of thought, methodologies, and interdisciplinary ideas than the ones that can currently be found in most mainstream economic departments and research publications.

What makes our approach unique is that it’s action-oriented. It draws on the tactics and strategies of traditional grassroots organizing and movement building to achieve change. Recognizing that real debate between competing schools of thought is deliberately stifled in mainstream economics, we’ve decided to force an opening through the power of protest. Power concedes nothing without a demand, and so students must do more than simply suggest the return of true debate—we need to stand up and demand it, and never back down until we get it.

The actions we staged at the American Economic Association conference in early January of this year exemplify this approach. The conference itself is a perfect example of the kind of silo mentality of the mainstream—with orthodox panels taking place in one hotel and heterodox panels (meaning ones that drew from anything other than neoclassical thought) taking place in another. Our student activists stirred things up by crashing mainstream panels to ask provocative questions and by covering the walls of the conference space with posters and projections criticizing mainstream dogma.

We directly challenged high priests of neoclassical thinking—people like Lawrence Summers, Gregory Mankiw, and Carmen Reinhart—calling them out for the immense damage their ideas have inflicted on our societies. In the process I would say we helped ignite a sense of controversy around the conference, a sense of growing upheaval in the profession, and garnered significant media attention for our message, including an article in The Washington Post and coverage on Al Jazeera English.

Trimarco: What is neoclassical economics?

Harrington: Despite its enormous failings in the face of the financial crash, the mainstream of the profession has by and large failed to embrace self-criticism or open itself up to different approaches. That’s because it remains dominated by the “true believers” of a narrow and dangerous brand of economic thought called neoclassical economics.

The problem with the neoclassical paradigm is that it starts from a series of flawed core assumptions about human behavior and the functioning of the market. Human behavior is seen as motivated primarily by selfish individualism and guided by pure rationality and “perfect information” about the market. The market, then, is all about optimal outcomes and equilibrium achieved by the decisions of those selfish individuals and by profit-maximizing firms.

Given this questionable faith, it’s not hard to understand the danger of allowing such a worldview to dominate the profession. Some mainstream thinkers have added nuance to the core theories with concepts like “bounded rationality”—the idea that the individual's decision-making is limited by how much time and information they have. But with such deeply flawed concepts at its core, neoclassical economics remains unsuited to confront the complex realities and crises of our 21st century world.

Trimarco: In a recent blog post, you connect Kick It Over to the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics, a group that advocates for the teaching of alternatives to neoclassical thought. What are a few of those alternatives?

Harrington: There are perhaps a dozen or so schools of economic thought that exist outside of neoclassical economics. Most students get little if any exposure to them in the classroom. These include Classical, Marxian, Keynesian/Post-Keynesian, Ecological, Feminist, Schumpeterian, Developmental, and Institutional.

All of these have their own unique contributions to offer. Marxian theory brings important insights on class struggle and economics as a social process. The Keynesian traditions offer us valuable observations on the monetary system and the nature of economic crises. Ecological economics draws upon environmental science to address critical issues like ecological limits to growth.

Pluralism also means reaching outside the bounds of the profession to draw upon useful research from other disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, political science, sociology, and physics. There has been an unfortunate trend in the other direction within the profession in recent years, with studies showing that economists are the least likely of their social science peers to seek the guidance of other disciplines.

Trimarco: Here at YES!, we‘ve been doing a series on local economic development called Commonomics since October 2013. Most of these stories are about groups of people working to create institutions that build prosperity in places that have historically been excluded from it. Do you think a more pluralistic approach to economic scholarship would help those people? What would that help look like?

Harrington: A strong new economy movement needs a strong intellectual foundation. Pluralism will help first and foremost by encouraging more research into the types of institutions that local activists are trying to build. Post-Keynesian analysis, for instance, focuses very much on the problems of private debt, overleveraging in the Wall Street casino economy, and the need to transform the financial system into a well-regulated public utility. That has implications for efforts to re-localize and democratize wealth and shift investment toward socially beneficial projects. And Marxian economics offers theoretical justifications for the value of worker-owned and -managed enterprises.

Unfortunately, however, most economic traditions tend to focus on analyzing and interpreting how capitalism works, while neglecting the need to develop ideas for alternative systems. The truth is that we’ve never really seen examples of full-blown systemic alternatives to capitalism—even the “socialist” system of the USSR was effectively just state-run capitalism. To shift to a democratic, just, and sustainable economy, we need to expand the concept of economic modeling to include the modeling of alternative systems.

Trimarco: How did you come to be doing this kind of work?

Harrington: Before studying economics at the New School for Social Research, I was a grassroots organizer for a number of years with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. We had a few local and state victories during my tenure, but I soon realized that the sweeping, transformative policies that we needed to address the crisis would not be attainable without changing the economic system.

I decided to enroll in an economics program to find the tools I needed to be an effective advocate for that revolutionary change. But I was dismayed to learn that only a handful of schools in the U.S. offered alterative, radical or heterodox content in their curricula. It seemed like a logical step from there to focus on fighting to bring much-needed pluralism and debate back into the mainstream of the profession. Now that I’ve graduated from the New School with a Master of Arts, that’s where I’ll be pouring much of my energy.

Trimarco: What‘s next for Kick It Over?

Harrington: I’m currently organizing a steering committee to help brainstorm that very question. Kick It Over will remain an initiative of Adbusters, but I intend to branch out and start a new campaign that will take the type of activism we started with the AEA conference to a whole new level.

Ideally, this would involve establishing and training a network of student activist organizations on campuses across the United States (and possibly beyond) to take action at their schools to push for more pluralist curricula. In a few years, I hope we’ll be ready to organize national days of action, such as a national walkout day or pluralist teach-in day.