Home > Uncategorized > Where’s the Barefoot Revolution in economics?

Where’s the Barefoot Revolution in economics?

from Blair Fix

Yesterday I was reminded of what got me interested in economics. I’ll preface this by saying that I make my living as a substitute teacher in Toronto. It’s not glamorous, but it pays the bills. It gives me time to do research from outside academia.

When I’m in high school classrooms, I always browse the posters on the wall. It’s funny what you see. You find things (both good and bad) that you’d never see in institutions of ‘higher learning’. It’s a daily source of amusement for me.

Yesterday, while browsing the posters on a classroom wall, I came across a copy of the ‘Barefoot Economics Manifesto’. I was delighted to rediscover this document, and surprised that it was sitting quietly in an otherwise normal classroom.

If you don’t know, the ‘Barefoot Economics Manifesto’ was a clarion call to reject neoclassical economics. I’m not sure when it was first published, but it seems to have come from Adbusters. (I can’t find the original document. If you know more about it, leave a comment.)

The manifesto goes by several names. Some call it the The True Cost Economics Manifesto. Others call it the Kick It Over Manifesto. Regardless of what you call it, here’s what the manifesto says:

BAREFOOT ECONOMICS MANIFESTO

WE, THE UNDERSIGNED, make this accusation: that you, the teachers of neoclassical economics and the students that you graduate, have perpetuated a gigantic fraud upon the world.

You claim to work in a pure science of formula and law, but yours is a social science, with all the fragility and uncertainty that this entails. We accuse you of pretending to be what you are not.

You hide in your offices, protected by your mathematical jargon, while in the real world, forests vanish, species perish and human lives are callously destroyed. We accuse you of gross negligence in the management of our planetary household.

You have known since its inception that one of your measures of economic progress, the Gross Domestic Product, is fundamentally flawed and incomplete, and yet you have allowed it to become a global standard, reported day in, day out in every form of media. We accuse you of recklessly projecting an illusion of progress.

You have done great harm, but your time is coming to a close. Your systems are crumbling, your flaws increasingly laid bare. An economic revolution has begun, as hopeful and determined as any in history. We will have our clash of economic paradigms, we will have our moment of truth, and out of each will come a new economics – open, holistic, human scale.

On campus after campus, we will chase you old goats out of power. Then, in the months and years that follow, we will begin the work of reprogramming your doomsday machine.

When I reread this manifesto yesterday, it gave me shivers. It made me recall the exhilaration I felt, some 10 years ago, when I first read these words. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something euphoric about calling bullshit on an entire discipline.

But my initial wave of nostalgia soon gave way to (I’m ashamed to say) bitterness. Or maybe a better word is cynical realism. You see, I still believe every word of the Barefoot Economics Manifesto. But I’m no longer hopeful that we’re on the verge of kicking the old neoclassical goats out of power.

The problem is that I’ve seen inside the sausage of academia (I’m quoting my colleague Troy Cochrane here). Ten years ago, I thought the truth was all that mattered. Bad ideas would die, I thought, simply because they were untrue. But now I’m less naive. I’ve seen inside the academic sausage, and I know that bad ideas live for a long time.

The problem is that being a good academic has little to do with being a good scientist. A good scientist questions authority. A good scientist ridicules bad ideas, even when these ideas come from peers. A good scientist changes their mind when the evidence changes. A good scientist admits to being wrong. A good scientist is filled with doubt.

Being a good academic is, in many ways, the opposite of these things. A good academic praises authority. (It’s people in authority who grant tenure and dole out grant money — it’s career savvy to kiss their asses). A good academic ridicules the ideas of the ‘out group’. (Ridiculing the bad ideas of ‘in group’ members is how you kill your career). A good academic is selective about evidence. (Your ideas look best on grant proposals when you ignore inconvenient facts). A good academic never admits to being wrong. (When you’re wrong, people tend to think you’ve wasted your grant money). A good academic is filled with confidence, or at least pretends to be. (Confident people are more persuasive, and being a good academic requires persuading those in power to fund your work).

In short, academia is the perfect place to institutionalize bad ideas. The people at the top of the academic hierarchy hold bad ideas. These people decide who gets hired, and they control the grant money that funds research. Naturally, these powerful people hire and fund academics whose ideas are consistent with the prevailing paradigm. And so the bad ideas get perpetuated.

Now, obviously change does happen. There are revolutions in science, however infrequent. So the academy is not impermeable to new ideas. But what I didn’t realize, going into this journey, is the sacrifice needed to fight for new ideas. Those with new ideas are not greeted with praise and admiration. Instead, the academic machine usually greets new ideas with ridicule … or worse yet, silence.

I’ve come to realize that I’ll never have a job in an economics department. I’m okay with this, but I still find it hard to communicate it with friends. “What do you study?” they ask. “Economics,” I reply. “But I’ll never work in an economics department,” I continue. My friends look puzzled as I try to explain.

I’ve come to accept this puzzled look. It’s like if I met a physicist who said: “I do physics, but a physics department will never hire me.” “You see,” the physicist continues, “everything you think you know about physics is is wrong. Mainstream physicists don’t believe me, so I can’t get a job.” My first reaction would be to label this person a crank. Rejecting a discipline wholesale is admittedly crazy. It’s a good bet that the person doing so is wrong, not everyone else.

But sometimes the ‘crank’ is correct. When this happens, the ‘crank’ becomes a ‘revolutionary scientist’. Take Einstein. Poor Albert was a crank for the first half of his career. He couldn’t find a job in academia. He couldn’t get good references from his teachers. But then as crank working in a Swiss patent office, he revolutionized physics. Suddenly Einstein was a ‘genius’.

I look forward to the day when the ‘cranks’ in economics — the people challenging neoclassical orthodoxy — are called revolutionary scientists. But my expectations are more reserved than they used to be. Rereading the ‘Barefoot Economics Manifesto’ made me realize that I have lowered my expectations.

Ten years ago I thought neoclassical economics was on its death bed. How naive of me. Yes, neoclassical economics will probably die. But it will be a long and slow process. And those dealing the death blows will live outside the church. The hard truth is this: killing bad ideas often means torching your career in academia.

  1. Helen Sakho
    January 13, 2020 at 10:22 pm

    Thank you very much for this lovely, truthful contribution. It says it all really. Every time I remember my own intensive training in Economics and the disbelief that I felt as we went through the models and the calculations and the formulae and ended up wondering if there was any truth in it at all, I wish the reactionary teachers (barring a couple) had had the decency to come clean and shake up the discipline a little. But they never did. And the story still continues. Whenever I did teach economics (never in a mainstream institution or in a tenured position) I related it to political economy and urged students to think critically. Your last paragraph is particularly truthful. But, honestly, it is worth paying the bills the honest way than earning a lot according to criteria that change so frequently to please the funding regimes of institutions.

  2. January 13, 2020 at 11:50 pm

    These fundamental critiques of economics , have continued since the 1970s when I called economics ” a form of brain damage ” and “politics in disguise ” ! MY earliest book, Creating Alternative Futures: The End of Economics,Foreword by E.F. Schumacher ( 1978), re-published by the U. of Florida Press ( 2014) and a free download from www. ethicalmarkets.com
    my The Politics of the Solar Age ,Doubleday, (1981) also now in 800 libraries worldwide in over 20 languages.

  3. Meta Capitalism
    January 14, 2020 at 12:13 am

    This is a collective problem and it requires a collective action. (Shoshana Zuboff on surveillance capitalism)”

    • Yoshinori Shiozawa
      January 14, 2020 at 10:34 am

      MetaCapitalism
      Have you read my comment on January 13, 2020 at 6:34 am to Lars Syll’s post What went wrong with economics??

  4. January 14, 2020 at 12:40 am

    Blair, this is a great piece of writing. Can I suggest that you submit it to Henry Leveson-Gower at The Mint Magazine for publication? https://www.themintmagazine.com

  5. January 14, 2020 at 12:15 pm

    “Politicians are ripping out the backbone of our civilisation. [Bec. of Neoliberal Ideology] Because debt. Because insolvency. Because inflation. Because Phillips curve. Because “the government is like a household +has to balance its books”. Politicians do destructive things, because you [the economic profession] gave them permission. Then we discover the work of Warren Mosler, Bill Mitchell, L. Randall Wray, Stephanie Kelton, Pavlina Tcherneva, Steven Hail… Economists who are actually bothered about changing public consciousness around economics.

    Because it’s a matter of life and death. We learn MMT. We learn that monetarily sovereign governments can never “run out of money” – the very fallacy that policies of austerity were founded on, which persist to this day. We learn MMT. We learn that monetarily sovereign governments can never “run out of money” – the very fallacy that policies of austerity were founded on, which persist to this day. We come to you [econ. profession] and call you out on your complicity with orthodoxy. Your response to MMT: “Oh yeah, what you’re saying is nothing new, we knew this all along…” Oh did you? Our response to you is: Where. The. Fuck. Were. You? Because we looked, and we found bullshit, and then we found MMT.” Dear non-MMT economists, I’m sorry that your feelings are getting hurt lately, Oct. 2018, by Christian Reilly

    From my resource page on MMT: https://homosociologicus.com/neoliberalism-3

    • Craig
      January 15, 2020 at 6:08 pm

      MMT, while being only the fiscal/governmental part of the overall paradigmatic analysis, indeed IS aligned with the new financial and monetary paradigm.

  6. Jorge Buzaglo
    January 14, 2020 at 1:41 pm

    “There’s class warfare in economics, all right, but it’s the rich class that’s making war, and they’re winning.”

    (A variation on Warren Buffet’s famous quote)

  7. January 15, 2020 at 2:09 am

    I dare to recommend that a simple, easy, even perfect solution has been made for 15 years, please see https://goingdigital2019.weaconferences.net/papers/how-could-the-cognitive-revolution-happen-to-economics-an-introduction-to-the-algorithm-framework-theory/ Any comment or question are very welcome! Thanks!

  8. Edward Opton
    January 15, 2020 at 5:15 am

    The analogy to Einstein is valid only up to, and not beyond, a critical juncture. Einstein’s reformulation of physics at the sub-atomic level threatened no millionaires. His revolution in theoretical physics threatened the bank accounts of no one of any importance.

  9. January 15, 2020 at 3:42 pm

    Great piece! Keep up the fight – and keep writing like this. E.F. Schumacher had a nice line when people called him a ‘crank’. “What’s wrong with a crank?” he would say with his heavy German accent, “A crank is a wonderful, simple tool – and it causes revolutions!”

  10. Keith Morton
    January 15, 2020 at 11:29 pm

    I just finished reading an editorial about “Why the foundations of physics have not progressed for 40 years” https://iai.tv/articles/why-physics-has-made-no-progress-in-50-years-auid-1292 and then I read this! John Quiggin wrote a book called “Zombie Economics.” Maybe the topic should have been broader and called “Zombie Science.”

    • Ken Zimmerman
      January 19, 2020 at 3:04 pm

      Keith, the article is correct that physics has not moved at the speed it did in the first half of the 20th century in the latter half. That’s not surprising. The development of relativity required over 50 years. Testing of its theorems is still ongoing. The question debated presently in physics is what direction should it take now? Lot’s of conjecture but no consensus thus far. But it appears physics is stuck due to limited imagination of physicists while economics is stuck due to sheer laziness and cowardice. Zombie economics is a catchy term. But the book really doesn’t add much to the discussion that is new. Some of the physical sciences may be stagnating, but engineering and the social sciences (minus economics) are adding new areas of study regularly. Finally, the social studies of science has been shaking up physics, chemistry, geology, and even engineering since the 1970s. Many are doing what Dr. Hossenfelder claims is needed. Forcing physical scientists to think about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. And many of those in the social studies of science are former or even present physical scientists who’ve taken on this job to help the physical sciences improve their work. No volunteers thus far for this work for economics.

    • Meta Capitalism
      January 19, 2020 at 11:15 pm

      Keith, Quiggin’s “Zombie Economics” is a fine book; especially for young aspiring students in poli-sci and economics. Combine it with Michael Hudson’s “J is for Junk Economics” and they have ready resources to cut through the pile-of-jargon-junk the dismal pseudo-science has created. To complete the trilogy add Rod Hill’s “The Economic Anti-textbook” and you have all any young aspiring intellectual needs to cut through the fog of jargon and obscurantism of Mainstream Economics and Literature-Only economics. And just to top off the collection add Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut Economics” and they are well equipped to contribute to future (of course this list could go on, i.e., Geoff Davies, etc.)

      • Keith Morton
        January 20, 2020 at 9:22 pm

        I studied astronomy in school and tended to follow that field even after a career change into financial services. I still remember listening to a podcast by an astronomer lamenting the persistence of string theory despite little evidence to support it and no good suggestions for a means of testing it.

        It was the 2008 financial crisis that turned me to reading economics because I wanted to understand what happened and whether anyone foresaw the event. It turned out, few economists did, such as Michael Hudson and Dean Baker. I do have Hudson’s book on “J is for Junk Economics”.

        I was horrified to find out that most economists are like astronomers in the time of Copernicus insisting that the sun revolves around the sun regardless of the evidence against them. I found a 2011 paper by Paul Krugman called “The Profession and the Crisis” https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/eej.2011.8 that supported my fears.

        So why don’t things change? It seems that it pays to keep your head buried in the sand. You can not advance in the field unless you support the dogma. It really seems that it’s only by setting up independent schools of economic thought away from institutions where the old guard is intrenched is the only way to get a foot in the door. Next, these new schools need to show they can successfully predict future crises or less traumatic
        events by using realistic principles. And perhaps finally, get governments and policy-makers to listen to them.

        I’m not saying anything new. It’s already happening.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        January 21, 2020 at 2:10 pm

        Keith Morton >> It really seems that it’s only by setting up independent schools of economic thought away from institutions where the old guard is intrenched is the only way to get a foot in the door.

        Yes, it is a great idea. The problem is how to realize it. This Real World Economics Review started from a similar idea, after French students wanted to get alternative teaching around 2000 (already 20 years ago). I sincerely support this efforts but it is a shame the idea is not developing as it was imagined.

  11. Ken Zimmerman
    January 16, 2020 at 1:18 am

    I don’t want to bring down this conversation, but none of this is either new or particularly useful. All other areas of life, academic or otherwise as the servant of a dominant ideology has a long history. The particulars vary of course from one culture to another. The US is a particularly stark example for three reasons. First, because it’s a relatively new nation that long-ago lost stabilizing factors such as government from Europe or economic connections. Second, due to its many advantages in terms of resources, security, geography, and workers the US became a world superpower without sufficient maturity to handle that role. Third, ostensibly a democracy, internally as the nation grew so did political and economic authoritarianism often as ways to address issues of political control and economic security. In the end, for many in the US there came to be little difference between bribing a politician or factory owners cheating workers and the richest Americans ‘funding’ universities or ‘endowing’ academic jobs. Money became a, sometimes the only deciding factor. Everything was/is for sale. Certainly, this included economics departments and economists.

    In January 2019, a discussion panel at the Davos World Economic Forum became a sensation after a Dutch historian took billionaires to task for not paying taxes. In a video shared hundreds of thousands of times, Rutger Bregman, author of the book Utopia for Realists, laments the failure of attendees at the recent gathering in Switzerland to address the key issue in the battle for greater equality: the failure of rich people to pay their fair share of taxes. Noting that 1,500 people had traveled to Davos by private jet to hear David Attenborough talk about climate change, Bregman said he is bewildered that no one was talking about raising taxes on the rich. “I hear people talking the language of participation, justice, equality and transparency but almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share,” Bregman tells the Time magazine panel on inequality. “It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.”

    An historian did this. Not an economist! Although among economists it’s common knowledge that tax rates on the rich are low if one’s objective is funding government programs for poverty alleviation, climate change impact mitigation, making enough and affordable housing available, and other ‘public goods.’ But it’s an historian who’s also a journalist from a Nordic nation. Fixing these problems involves much more than fixing economics or economists. And the fixing is going to be painful. Sometimes extremely so.

    • Meta Capitalism
      January 16, 2020 at 1:36 am

      An historian did this. Not an economist! Although among economists it’s common knowledge that tax rates on the rich are low if one’s objective is funding government programs for poverty alleviation, climate change impact mitigation, making enough and affordable housing available, and other ‘public goods.’ But it’s an historian who’s also a journalist from a Nordic nation. Fixing these problems involves much more than fixing economics or economists. And the fixing is going to be painful. Sometimes extremely so. ~ Well Said by Ken

      .
      And I would pair it with Helen Sakho’s observation (here) to round off the point. It is all about power/politics — and economics often little more than a post-hoc rationalization of the status quo. Well, it’s time to change the status quo.

      • Craig
        January 16, 2020 at 4:01 am

        What else would one suppose or expect…when the current zeitgeist is power and the current monetary paradigm is Debt Only?

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.