Can a band of rebel economists change economic thought before it’s too late?

Keynes-2

To the uninitiated, Carmen Reinhart’s reaction to our protest at her talk at the American Economic Association conference might seem understandable. After all, our group of rebel economics students with the #KickItOver initiative did crash her sovereign debt workshop. Projecting a quote onto the wall, we criticized her for the harm her epic research errors had inflicted on millions.

Yet, to those who have been inside the trenches of the battle for the soul of economics, Reinhart’s indignant reaction was symptomatic of the profound problems that have been plaguing the profession for decades — problems which our group had traveled to the Boston conference to challenge.

Over the preceding few days of this gathering of “dismal scientists”, we had stoked our fair share of controversy by waging a “meme war” throughout the conference space: we projected billboard-sized witticisms from the likes of John Maynard Keynes and Herman Daly on the side of the Sheraton; plastered the walls, bathroom stalls and elevator cars with subversive posters; distributed our manifesto outside of lectures; and attended panels to speak truth directly to the faces of other orthodox high-priests like Harvard’s Gregory Mankiw. In the hallways and lounges you could overhear scraps of conversations regarding our action — some supportive, some smugly condescending and others utterly bemused at this rare display of activism in the midst of such an otherwise dour professional gabfest.

But nothing we had experienced could compare to Reinhart’s reaction.

Seeing Paul Krugman’s critical words projected on the wall, she stormed out from behind the lectern to patronizingly scold us, exclaiming that “this was an academic forum” where such protests were “out of line.” We reminded her that as students of economics, we felt an obligation to speak truth to power on such issues, especially when she was embarking on an even more complex study of the same subject. Yet, as she had done when the scandal over her paper broke in 2013, she dismissed the disturbance and moved on without a shred of humility.

To those who know the backstory on this dust up, Reinhart’s reaction should be cause for concern, if not surprise. In 2010, Reinhart, a Harvard economist, published a paper with her colleague Ken Rogoff which found a correlation between high levels of public debt and sharply declining economic performance. By the time a graduate student from Amherst discovered egregious flaws in Reinhart’s data and upended the paper’s conclusions, the damage had already been done: conservative austerity hawks had glommed on to the paper’s findings to justify massive cut backs in government spending at a time when stimulus and the social safety net were needed most. Yet despite the firestorm of criticism this ignited, then as now, no mea culpa was forthcoming from Reinhart. Instead she and her colleague dismissed the whole thing as a mere “kerfuffle.”

 

Of course, Reinhart and Rogoff are hardly unique for their dangerous unapologetic arrogance. Unfortunately, their resistance to humility and reflexive critical thought is an endemic trait within the world of mainstream economics, and one that has been on full display in the wake of the most devastating economic crisis in half a century. Though widely condemned in the press and public for their failure to foresee the advent or in many cases even the possibility of the financial meltdown, with few exceptions, in their journals, and lecture halls, mainstream neoclassical economists have continued to toe the same narrow intellectual line that led us into this mess.

Indeed, even where the high priests of the economic orthodoxy have amended their views, they appear to do so with an eye to covering up their epic failures.

Nowhere was this strategy more evident at the AEA than in former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers’ talk on the roots of the continuing economic downturn. Though Summers was one of the primary cheerleaders for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall banking regulations in 1999, and fought derivatives market regulations tooth and nail, his talk entirely omitted any reference to these proximate causes of the 2008 credit crisis, focusing instead on a theory of long term stagnation in investment. When we demanded that Summers speak to his personal role in the crisis, we were met with a contemptuous silence on his part. (One of Summers’ more zealous acolytes in the audience even attempted to intimidate me with a vicious stare that must have lasted half a minute after I’d asked my question.)

Coupled with Reinhart’s “academic forum” remark, the hostility we experienced goes right to the heart of the strategic importance of the type of student activism #KickItOver brought to the AEA. At this conference, as in other high profile professional forums for economics, mainstream elites stifle dissent from outside the upper echelons of the orthodoxy by strictly policing the “legitimate” avenues for expressing dissent. The upshot of the “academic forum” remark is that any challenges that do not come in the form of a research paper are illegitimate. Never mind that the AEA gathering, like the profession in general, is an ideologically segregated space. Here, true academic debate among disparate schools of thought is a rarity. Not only do mainstream panels at the conference tend to exclude perspectives from outside the orthodox neoclassical framework, but the mainstream and heterodox panels take place in entirely different hotels. So good luck directly challenging the likes of Reinhart with your critical research paper. Indeed, good luck getting it aired in any of the influential mainstream publications — particularly, the AEA’s journals which have seen a marked decline in debate between competing schools of thought in recent decades.

To play by the officially sanctioned rules of debate in this milieu is to effectively preempt the possibility of revolution within the profession. It is only by stepping outside the bounds of the discourse of the thought police that rebel economists can hope to regain a voice in the conversation. In a profession where many of the most influential mainstream voices see their work as objective science, being beyond politics or ideology, efforts to re-politicize the discourse as we did at the AEA are inherently subversive. Rethinking economics requires re-politicizing economics. Political disruptions shift the battlefield from a place where the elites hold the advantage (on the field of faux-scientific formalism) to one where revolutionaries hold the advantage (in the field of politics). Indeed, this is precisely the shift that Robert Heilbroner called for in the quote we projected on the side of the Sheraton: “Before economics can progress, it must abandon its suicidal formalism.” Most importantly, politicization opens up a critical space for an important revolutionary demographic to enter the debate: students. No professional letters or publications are required for students to know they deserve a robust, pluralist economics education — one that offers them the breadth of theoretical perspectives and methodologies they need to tackle the great crises of the 21st century.

Though it is hard to get a clear read on the true impact of such guerilla protests, within days it became apparent that our scrappy little group had in fact helped to shift the conversation in some appreciable way. From the Washington Post profile of the initiative, to a critical piece from Bloomberg, to a supportive article in US News & World Report, our actions were very much at the center of the media chatter over the event. Whether they dismissed our actions or praised them, these articles and more emphasized an aura of resurgent debate and controversy around the conference. Politics was creeping back into the discourse of the AEA, went the narrative, exactly as we had intended it.

As we heard again and again from heterodox economists and other supportive voices in Boston, an economic student rebellion has been too long coming, and the AEA Meme War was another hopeful sign that a pluralist spring could be right around the corner. But neoclassicism’s empire of thought is considerable, and breaking its stranglehold over academic free inquiry requires that students take the types of tactics we pioneered in Boston and replicate them on campus after campus and in conference after conference, until the economics discourse is re-politicized and liberated on a massive scale. It is to this broader effort of disruption and transformation that the rebel economists at #KickItOver plan to shift our efforts in the wake of the AEA. From the establishment of a campus network, to calls for national and international student walkout days and pluralist teach-ins, we’ll continue to scale up our efforts until the noise we make is loud enough to wake up the profession from its decades long neoclassical coma.

— Keith Harrington