Changing the Economics Curriculum

Introduction of my article Challenging the Current Economics Curriculum: Creating Challengers and Change.”  Chapter 2 of edited volume: “Challenging the Current Economics Curriculum” editors Maria Alejandra Madi and Jack Reardon


How does it happen that we have given our quiet assent to a situation where the richest 85 individuals have more money than the bottom 3.5 billion? Where vultures wait for starving children to die, while others eat luxurious meals on private resort islands? Where horrendous military and commercial crimes leading to deaths, misery, and deprivations of millions are routinely committed by highly educated men with multimillion dollar salaries in luxury corporate suites and government offices?

A core component of the answer to these critical questions is that we have been educated to believe that this is a normal state of affairs, which comes about through the operation of iron laws of economics. Economic theories currently being taught in universities all over the world are an essential pillar which sustains the economic system currently in operation.  These theories state that we (human beings) are cold, callous, and calculating. Microeconomic theory says rational individuals are concerned only with their own consumption. They are callous; completely indifferent to the needs of others. They maximize, calculating personal benefits to the last penny. They are cold – their decisions are not swayed by emotions of any kind. All this theorizing is not without power – it creates the world we live in, and the rules we live by.

We have even been taught that laissez-faire automatically brings about the best possible outcomes. We are told that the rich are efficient wealth producers and deserve their wealth, just as the poor deserve their poverty. To create a labor market to sustain capitalist production processes, we have been trained to believe that our lives are for sale to the highest bidder.

Besides, we have been educated to believe that we are powerless to change things. We have been trained to laugh at the idea that human lives are infinitely precious. We have been made to forget that each moment of our lives is unique – each moment contains potentials which never existed before, and will never come into being again. Only by re-defining what is worth living for, and what is worth dying for, can we strike at the heart of the capitalist process of production.

When we talk about curriculum change, we are talking about creating new theoretical foundations to observe and intervene in the world we live in. This is not a project for the faint-of-heart, especially because the rich and powerful spend huge amounts of wealth and energy in preserving this status-quo, and resist efforts to change these social realities with all their might. The project of speaking truth to power is severely handicapped by our education which conditions our vision of the truth.Our theories of knowledge state that good and evil do not exist. We have been taught rules of intellectual discourse which forbid appeals to the heart and soul. We have thereby been deprived of our most powerful weapons in the eternal battle against evil. Modern education has turned us into soulless zombies, consumption and sex machines, human resources, and inputs into the production function for wealth. The vast majority of the populace has been paralyzed with poisonous ways of thinking, and the small minority which retains the capacity for thought and action has also been badly damaged by these same poisons.

Before talking about curriculum change, we must redeem our souls. How can this be done?The first step in curriculum change requires the creation of teachers who have a clear understanding of the challenge that we face. These teachers must de-program themselves to cleanse their hearts. Given that we battle against overwhelming odds, our teachers must be rocks of courage, fortitude, and stamina. Also essential is a sense of humor to enable us to laugh at the massive forces arrayed against us – without this, we would die of despair. Also required is a deep commitment to the cause, which is giving hope to and enriching the lives of billions living, entirely un-necessarily, in abject conditions. Our hearts must be full of compassion, and feel the sharp pangs of the pain felt by the parents who have to choose between buying expensive medicines for the sick child, or food for the family. We have to empower ourselves, and believe that we can make a difference.

The world we live in is constructed from structures of thought that we have internalized, far more than bricks and concrete. Unfortunately, many of these dominant structures are poisonous to our own happiness as well as general welfare of mankind. Changing our ways of thinking is not just a matter of reading and understanding. Rather, the process involves acquiring new ways of looking at the world and new tools for manipulating reality – eerily parallel to the taking of a reality pill in a popular movie. Healing ourselves requires time, effort and cooperation of like minded friends.  A first step in creating a new curriculum must be detoxification of our own minds and hearts. In terms of the Gandhian precept, we have to  ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world.’  This requires analyzing the nature of the toxins we have ingested, and their removal. Some of the broad areas which require work are listed below:

[For the full article, see pre-publication draft Chapter 2: Creating Challengers & Change of edited volume: “Challenging the Current Economics Curriculum” editors Maria Alejandra Madi and Jack Reardon]

Table of Contents (Section Headings:)

  1. Rethinking the human being: Redeeming the Heart and Soul 3
  2. Rethinking the Nature of Human Knowledge 5
  3. Goals and perspectives for human existence 6
  4. Rescuing Morality in Economics 7
  5. Overcoming Market Mentality 8
  6. The Metaphor of the Machine 10
  7. Conclusions 11
  1. Prof Dr James Beckman, Germany said:

    Historically, there certainly were times when 85 or fewer individuals, representing tribes or clans, controlled most of what was taken for wealth in that era: Genghis Khan, morphing into China according to my Chinese friends. The Roman Empire. Alexander the Great for a moment. Perhaps if we use “control” as with governments/warlords & drop “ownership” we more easily enter the world of the Donald Trump’s, where government over places/people, is the cow milked for what today is taken for wealth provides a useful image. Thus, the wealthy have learned to visit “the well” of government when necessary. Otherwise, the media provide an informational tool to mold public sentiment, it seems to me.

    • I could not understand what you are trying to say

      • Ernesto Vaihinger said:

        I write spanish, sorry. Interpreto que quiso decir que el egoismo humano es anterior a la teoría económica. El ejercicio del poder con el gobierno y con los medios de difusión lo covalidan.

  2. David Harold Chester said:

    The need to change the curriculum is clear, but what is not is the new version for it to take. So much differeing opinion needs to be seriously be taken into account that the problem in making this change seems to be insurmountable. Perhaps we should begin to tackle this problem by the development of a better logical theory of how our social system works. Few macroeconomics experts seem to have done this in a scientific way, yet there is a dire need for this kind of thinking! Does this justify the omission of so much less scientific thinking?

  3. Might be some hints about changing the economics curriculum in these excerpts from one of the popular “Introduction to Sociology” textbooks,

    Economy refers to the ways people use their environment to meet their material needs. It is
    the realized economic system of a country or other area. It includes the production, exchange, distribution, and consumption4 of goods and services of that area. A given economy is the end result of a process that involves its technological evolution6, history and social organization, as well as its geography, natural resource endowment, and ecology, among other factors. These factors give context, content, and set the conditions and parameters in which an economy functions.

    As long as someone has been making and distributing goods or services, there has been some sort of economy; economies grew larger as societies grew and became more complex. The ancient economy was mainly based on subsistence farming8. According to Herodotus, and most modern scholars, the Lydians were the first people to introduce the use of gold and silver coin. It is thought that these first stamped coins were minted around 650-600 BC.
    For most people the exchange of goods occurred through social relationships. There were also traders who bartered in the marketplaces. The Babylonians and their city state neighbors developed economic ideas comparable to those employed today. They developed the first known codified legal and administrative systems, complete with courts, jails, and government records.

    Several centuries after the invention of cuneiform, the use of writing expanded beyond debt/payment certificates and inventory lists to be applied for the first time, about 2600 BC, to messages and mail delivery, history, legend, mathematics, and astronomical records. Ways to divide private property, when it is contended, amounts of interest on debt, rules as to property and monetary compensation concerning property damage or physical damage to a person, fines for ‘wrong doing’, and compensation in money for various infractions of formalized law were standardized for the first time in history. In Medieval times, what we now call economy was not far from the subsistence level. Most exchange occurred within social groups. On top of this, the great conquerors raised venture capital to finance their land captures. The capital investment would be returned to the investor when goods from the newly discovered or captured lands were returned by the conquerors. The discoveries of
    Marco Polo (1254-1324), Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and Vasco de Gama (1469-1524)
    set the foundations for a global economy. The first enterprises were trading establishments. In 1513 the first stock exchange was founded in Antwerpen.

    The European captures became branches of the European states, the so-called “colonies”. The rising nation-states Spain, Portugal, France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands tried to control the trade through custom duties and taxes in order to protect their national economy. Mercantilism was a first approach to intermediate between private wealth and public interest.

    The first economist in the true meaning of the word was the Scotsman Adam Smith (1723-1790). He defined the elements of a national economy: products are offered at a natural price generated by the use of competition – supply and demand – and the division of labour. He maintained that the basic motive for free trade is human self interest. In Europe, capitalism (see below) started to replace the system of mercantilism and led to economic growth. The period today is called the industrial revolution because the system of production and division of labour enabled the mass production of goods.

  4. David Harold Chester said:

    Asad does not confine his opening description to reforming the curriculum, but he also asks about the 85% who have so little compared to the relative few monopolists whose wealth is fabulous by comparison. The reason for this huge difference between the rich and the poor should also be properly included within the “New Curriculum”, only after we can all agree on its cause.

    The reason for this difference is not well understood among most economists, all they can say is that certain monopolists dominate the stock market and the use of money. They fail to distinguish between those capitalists who own buildings and movable property and those who own land or other natural resources. These are not capitalists in the same sense because the value in their land was not created by labor, but came from the ground itself and from the local population density.

    The monopolization of natural resources is particularly strongly the reason for this difference between rich and poor. For the curriculum to properly cover this aspect of our social system it should certainly include the early economists whose writings do separate land from capital goods (before John Bates Clark and company for political reasons muddled it all up) and in particular to include the works of Henry George who was the first to show in his classic work “Progress and Poverty” that the cause for this poverty gap was due to the unfavorable and unethical ownership and rights taken by the privatization of the land.

  5. The point of my comment was to show that sociologists seem to know a lot more about economic actions and their history than do economists. I believe the same is the case for historians. This excerpt is from the newest “Introduction to American History” textbook dealing with the US elections of the late 19th and early 20th century.

    The influence of money on politics was demoralizing and often infuriating to ordinary people—some of whom made their unhappiness known through mass demonstrations and violence. The first campaign finance laws were passed under Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, at a moment of outsized business influence, political venality, financial crisis, and great economic inequality. Despite the fact that, in the words of the Washington Post, “Boodle is become an indispensable factor in our elections,” Congress passed campaign finance legislation that prohibited monetary contributions to political campaigns by corporations.

    Congress adjusted the campaign-finance regime six decades later, after Watergate revealed the extent of financial corruption involved in President Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign. For example, in acts that were effectively bribery, donors contributed to Nixon’s campaign in exchange for ambassadorships, and the federal subsidy for milk was raised after the Associated Milk Producers pledged $2 million to the campaign. New laws limited the amount that individuals and corporations could contribute to candidates and regulated the amount they could spend independently to effect a candidate’s election. In 1974, in Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court struck down part of that law, deciding that money spent to influence elections was a form of constitutionally protected free speech. The court upheld limits on contributions to candidates, deciding that government has a substantial interest in avoiding the appearance as well as the reality of corruption and undue influence. But it invalidated the limits on independent expenditures to support a candidate’s election, because the court considered them less likely to have a corrupting effect. In the years between 1974 and 2002, corporations and wealthy donors increasingly found ways to circumvent the line between contributions and independent expenditures in ways that enabled them once again to gain undue influence on the political process. Thus, in 2002,
    Congress enacted the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The act closed a series of loopholes involving such devices as soft money and issue ads that had enabled corporations and wealthy individuals to funnel large amounts of money into the electoral process through independent expenditure groups. In McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, decided in 2003, the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, upheld the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold legislation and concluded that the national interest in avoiding both the reality and the appearance of corruption justified campaign finance regulations.

    My position on economics and economists remains unchanged. Most are pond scum having little interest in either science or honest discourse.

  6. williamandrew said:

    Will you work with humanities departments in “Challenging the Current Economics Curriculum”? The curriculums of great literature and philosophy – moral, science and the like – are those being replaced with courses on economic models of humankind. The shrinking and continuously disappearing requirements to study Homer, Kant and other major thinkers on human behavior (ethics) and the human condition (fallibility), i.e., the humanities, is the major source of toxicity across the social and hard sciences.

    • Williamandrew, I’m with you. One of my PhDs is in history, a humanities discipline. I think the denigration of the humanities is the result of their usefulness, not their irrelevance. The humanities throw so much light into so many dark corners they distress some. For example, the best treatment of inequality among humans is today still Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality Among Mankind” published in 1754. . Before the social sciences were invented. And certainly, before our modern fascination with a machine-oriented economics discipline.

  7. Great question williamandrew

    In recent times we have become disillusioned by how all those economists who predicted the GFC have always used that to sell books and the never seems to occur to anyone of them that if the knowledge they have was imparted on to people like human rights advocates and people of this nature so that ‘they’ and not those who might buy books written by economists, can actually do something with this knowledge, because at least they will have a better idea of why those they are trying to help are in the situation they are to begin with.

    This is why we set up the Economists Challenge*, because it is our contention that no economist will take on the challenge because ultimately, they do not care about the CHUP sector at all, but are only motivated by selling books, financial advice, or pushing some political agenda.

    *The Economists Challenge outlines a model or program which we believe (based on nearly 15 years of research into law, economics, history, philosophy, and many other subjects and also from experience talking to people from this sector) can significantly reduce crime, homelessness, unemployment and poverty (the CHUP sector) without it costing the tax-payers a single cent. Our evidence in support of these claims includes research based on those economists who predicted the GFC. Yet whenever we present this model/program to them (and others), they don’t give it the time of day, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that these economists don’t want the problem solved, otherwise society would no longer have need for economists.

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