Sat, 05 Jul 2003

Economics: Revolts from within the Citadel or 'When might this movement begin in Indonesia?'

B. Herry-Priyono Lecturer Driyarkara School of Philosophy Jakarta

An important historic event is happening right under our noses, but it seems to have escaped the attention of the Indonesian media. The event may not be as riotous as the 60's student revolts around the world, but, in many respects, it may have a long-term and significant impact on the future of our political economy. It is a revolt from within the heart of the economics departments at some of the most prestigious universities in the world.

It started in France in June 2000, then spread to Cambridge (UK), sending intellectual tremors to many economics departments around the world before finally erupting at Harvard University earlier this year. In brief, it has been a revolt by the future generation of economists directed against "unreality and dogmatism in mainstream economics".

Over 700 Harvard students and alumni signed a petition addressed to the Harvard Economics Department, asking it to approve a new introductory economics course proposed by Harvard economics professor, Stephen Marglin, that would cover "a broader spectrum of views", "examine the assumptions of economics", and "challenge students to think critically" (The New York Times, March 4, 2003; Boston Globe, March 9; Harvard Crimson Reports, March 17).

Many observers expected such a revolt would, sooner or later, erupt. Of course, the significance of it should not be overrated, but it should not be underrated either, as what is being demanded is nothing short of a fundamental reassessment of many basic ideas upon which the present global political economy is founded. Here are two crucial points in the "mission statement" of the protesting Harvard students.

First, "we believe that Harvard, by only providing one model of economics, fails to provide critical perspectives or alternative models for analyzing the economy and its social consequences". It is a revolt against both economic ideas and approaches that do not take into account "non-economic" implications. What sort of societal consequences are there? Joseph Stiglitz, that giant economist, seems to have given a good example in his Globalization and Its Discontents when he says: "The typical central bank governor begins his day worrying about inflation statistics, not poverty statistics; the trade minister worries about export numbers, not pollution indices".

Second, "by falsely presenting economics as a positive science devoid of ethical values, we believe Harvard strips students of their intellectual agency and prevents them from being able to make up their own minds". This protest statement simply means that it is plainly wrong to regard economics as having nothing to do with ethical issues, no matter how detached the science of economics pretends to be. Everything under the sun dealing with human activity (as is surely the case with economics) needs also to be understood in relation to ethical evaluations.

Calling bias a fact is not simply a misnomer, but a form of ideological deceit. This is exactly what Daniel DiMaggio, one of the student leaders of the Harvard reform movement, meant when he said that the existing introductory economic course "is fairly ideological, if not completely ideological". What sort of ideological bias is consequentially propagated at the policy level then? Again, Stiglitz may not be too far off when he says of the following neo-liberal vicious twist: "from serving global economic interests to serving the interests of global finance.., [which means] Wall Street."

It is important to see the wave of these revolts by the new generation of economists not as an anarchic movement trying to flatten the noble contribution that economics has given to society. The aim is to bring the increasingly insular science of economics back to the real "joys" and "sorrows" of ordinary citizens, and not merely of a few financial oligarchs who have benefited so handsomely from the autistic character of policies founded upon such an autistic economic ideology.

Moreover, these revolts are not cloaked in the language of "anti" anything, such as anti-capitalism, anti-globalization or anti-market. What seems true is that the revolt from these citadels of economics may be likened to what John Maynard Keynes did around 70 years ago: rescuing capitalism from its own damnation. It is worth observing that this movement has been flourishing amid the many corporate and market scandals in the U.S., France, the Netherlands, Britain, -- all taking place without government help.

Indeed, as the latest survey by The Economist (June 28, 2003) bluntly says, "the main dangers to the success of capitalism are the very people who would consider themselves its most ardent advocates: the bosses of companies, the owners of companies and the politicians who tirelessly insist that they are pro- business". Why? They are defenders who always eschew accountability and tend to be rabid fanatics who are blind to the ambivalent character of capitalism.

While have all these movements been progressing in earnest in the West, many here in this country, who are merely engaged in the marketing of their ideas, seem too busy setting up political parties or jockeying for position in the 2004 general elections. In this way, we always lag behind. And in our attempts to be good students, we fanatically propagate economic ideas taught by our professors, without realizing that these ideas have undergone profound reassessments in other parts of the world. Indeed, unreflective students often become fanatics.

On the other hand, societal censure often greets those who offer alternative understandings here. This reminds me of the lament once shared by a young economics lecturer from a prominent university in Jakarta. As someone trained in economics yet well versed in other social science literature, he knows only too well that there is something not quite right about the way economics is being taught at his university.

A standard textbook is used, but he is barred by his supervisors from teaching his students the subject matter discussed in certain chapters. The reason? The forbidden chapters contain critiques of the chapters upon which the lecturing materials are based. In his own words, "that's why, instead of producing thinkers, our universities only produce fanatical brokers".

When I told him about the reform movement taking place at some of the world's foremost economics institutions, he posed a rhetorical question: "When might this sort of movement start at Indonesian universities?"