An Undergraduate’s Question about Economic Policy

I received an e-mail from an undergraduate economics student who was curious about economic policy in Washington, DC. His question says a lot about the current state of affairs. Here it is with my reply.

From: Xxxxxxx Xxxxxxx [mailto:xxxxxxxxxxxxxx@xxxx.com]
Sent: Saturday, October 1, 2016 10:56 AM
To: mail
Subject: Question from an undergraduate
Dear Dr. Palley,
I am a first-year undergraduate in economics and political theory, and a longtime admirer of your work.
What are your thoughts on how Keynesian/Post-Keynesian ideas are treated in current political discourse?

I was in Washington D.C. recently and I had conversation with a Brookings fellow who told me that he thought Joseph Stiglitz was an “extremist who isn’t taken seriously by anyone who knows their way around the Beltway.”

Does it worry you that ideas which used to be considered “mainstream” (like social democracy) are now increasingly considered “extreme”?
Deeply grateful for your time and attention
Sincerely
Xxxxxxx Xxxxxxx

From: Thomas Palley [mailto:mail@thomaspalley.com]
Sent: Saturday, October 1, 2016 3:59 PM
To: ‘Xxxxxxx Xxxxxxx’
Subject: RE: Question from an undergraduate

Dear Xxxxxxx,

Thanks for your e-mail.

I am saddened (but not surprised) to hear Joe Stiglitz described in that way. And yes, I worry that ideas which used to be “mainstream” are now considered “extreme”.

Economics, like all social thought, is a contested space. Neoliberals have an interest in controlling economics since control helps them advance their political and economic project by helping them sell their policy ideas.

Brookings is a core neoliberal institution in Washington DC, so it does not surprise me that a Brookings fellow would describe Stiglitz as an extremist. That is how neoliberals perceive him, and it is also a way they try to discredit him.

In my view they are profoundly wrong. Our challenge is to open space (in the academy and public discourse) for all ideas (including neoliberal ideas) that make passable sense of the economy. After that comes political debate about which ideas we will believe and be guided by. That is the function of politics, and different political parties will be guided by different economic ideas.

Neoliberals try to close down the space of political debate and social possibility by excluding all except neoliberal ideas. The tragedy of the past forty years is they have been succeeding. In the academy there is a neoclassical monopoly, and in politics Labor and Social Democratic parties have been captured by the Trojan horse of the Third Way, creating a neoliberal political monopoly.

Reversing this state of affairs is a massive challenge. The academy is a club that will refuse to include those who disagree, and politics has been significantly captured by the one percent owing to the importance of money in politics. That is a toxic combination: the academy delegitimizes ideas opposed to neoliberalism, while the neoliberal political monopoly blocks alternative ideas getting on to the political table.

This noose has been tightening for years, but the inequality and stagnation that neoliberalism has produced is generating a political backlash from below. That is a hopeful opportunity, but it is also dangerous because backlashes are unpredictable and can go horribly wrong.

Lastly, I am a great fan of the student movement for change in economics. Their case is right. However, I fear the club of academic economists will either belittle the students, ignore them, or deceptively disarm them by appointing milquetoast critical economists who produce “gattopardo” change (i.e. change that keeps things the same).

Best wishes with your studies,
Tom Palley

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