UMass Amherst Economics Professors James Boyce, Gerald Epstein and Nancy Folbre and Econ4, a collaborative organization which originated at UMass Amherst earlier this year, are featured in a Chronicle of Higher Education article which discusses the effort to expand viewpoints and teaching methods in the field of economics. Boyce, Epstein and Folbre argue alternatives to the orthodox approach. (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/13/11)
The founders of Econ4 want the economy, and the study of economics, to pay more attention to such issues as the fair distribution of opportunities; to emphasize minimizing vulnerability in the economic system instead of maximizing efficiency; and to strive to give a fuller accounting of the costs and benefits of market and government decisions, including consequences for the environment and the value of caring for dependents.
“Our basic aim is to try to produce a change in economics in the United States,” said James K. Boyce, professor of economics at UMass-Amherst, and a founder of the group. “We see a connection in how the economy is such a mess and what has happened in the economics profession over the last two decades.”
The continuing political debate over whether the government should intervene in the markets, or whether they should be left to themselves, also needs to be reframed, Mr. Boyce said. “The central question is the distribution of wealth and power,” because the two are increasingly correlated.
“If you don’t have purchasing power, you lose when markets operate. If you don’t have political power, you lose when it comes to how governments operate,” he said. “Do we live in a democracy or an oligarchy?”
Higher education is no stranger to complaints of ideological dominance in certain disciplines, but they regularly come from conservative scholars who see a bias against their viewpoints. The irony is not lost on those who want economics to be more intellectually inclusive.
While he acknowledged that political bias probably does sometimes exist in such departments as gender or ethnic studies, the difference in economics is that the bias is not just one of perspective but also of methods, said Gerald A. Epstein, a professor of economics at UMass-Amherst and a founder of Econ4.
“The problem is that their view of how to think like an economist is extremely narrow to the point of being cut off from some of the major questions affecting society,” Mr. Epstein said. “In the end it is a form of indoctrination.”
While every discipline is resistant to unorthodox ideas, said Ms. Folbre of UMass-Amherst, this tendency is amplified in economics departments because its scholars study how economic power is deployed. “Whether you favor the current deployment of power has big implications for what kind of resources you can get,” she said. “It’s more subject to ideological bias than sciences that aren’t so embedded in realpolitik.”
Ms. Folbre pointed to the pay that economists earn as proof of the perceived value of the discipline.
Over the past 30 years, economics and business professors have seen their salaries soar in comparison with their colleagues, according to a recent analysis published in The Chronicle. In 1980, a full professor of economics earned 13.9 percent more than a full professor of English. Thirty years later, the economics professor earns 41 percent more. Similarly, business faculty were paid 11 percent more than the typical full professor of English in 1980. Business professors now earn 50.9 percent more. The only gap larger was for law professors.
“The closer you are to the center of power, the better you’re paid,” Ms. Folbre said. The stakes and penalty for acting out, she added, also increase.