Jamming the economic high priests at the AEA

Photo credit: Kyle Depew, The Illuminator Collective

Last weekend, at the American Economic Association conference, the rebel economists with Kick It Over proved the power of the Meme War. You can read an account of the actions we took in a recent article from the Washington Post.

Besides inspiring the heterodox and pluralist communities with a vision of a refreshingly subversive approach to transforming the profession, we also succeeded in putting the high priests of the orthodoxy on the defensive.

You could hear it in the incredulous mutterings of the neoclassical faithful as they stood, bemusedly staring at the accusations of the Kick It Over manifestos we had taped to walls throughout the conference space. You could see it in the eyes of an audience member who mad-dogged me for a good 30 seconds after I challenged former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to explain his role in fueling the financial meltdown.  We had rattled their academic silos, and the experience of such a direct challenge to their authority was disconcerting.

Why else would Greg Mankiw devote the entirety of his only blog update from the conference to a distorted recounting of the jam we pulled off in his lop-sided panel discussion on Thomas’ Piketty’s Capital? Mankiw, you may recall, is the conservative Harvard economist whose gleeful defense of obscene wealth inequality prompted a mass walkout of students from his own ec 10 introductory economics course at Harvard in 2011. Though we stuck to substantive critiques of Mankiw’s bizarre arguments for inequality (including a claim that the Occupy movement did not oppose wealth concentration!), Mankiw opted to frame our actions as a personal attack, lumping us together with a conspiratorial heckler who allegedly asked him how much the Koch Brothers were paying him. Yet, as shown in the video below, though our critiques may have been provocative, they were never puerile. Leave it to a neoclassical economist to ignore all the data that doesn’t fit his model.

While we clearly struck a nerve among the neoclassical crowd, we also struck a chord among those with a more progressive mindset. From the folks who came up to congratulate and thank us after our session jams, to the steady stream of praise from pluralist luminaries like James Galbraith and Steve Keen, there was a clear sense of excitement that, as one student commented “finally someone has begun to speak straight into the face” of the establishment.

None of this would have been possible were it not for the group of student activists who showed the exceptional courage to attend those sessions, stand up and shout their outrage over the narrowness of the orthodoxy into the faces of its high priests. Thanks to Anirban, Aparna, Dustin, Jess, Kevin, Mike and Sonia for your inspiring example to the ranks of other student rebels who are bound to follow you into this new battle for the soul of economics.

Photos courtesy of Kyle Depew, The Illuminator Collective

Organizing Insurrection

kickitover_notebook_01

“Economics students are in rebellion.”

In May of this year, you could find a version of that headline splashed across the pages of newspapers and other publications in over 18 countries across the globe. That month, a global network of econ students calling ourselves the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE) released our open letter calling for an overhaul of economics education and research. Overall, it was a very diplomatic call for change — demanding a simple widening of the range of schools of thought, methodology and interdisciplinary options offered in the standard econ curriculum. But the headlines read “rebellion!” Why?

Some students might shy away from the rebel label, but given what we’re up against, it’s a fitting one. The world of mainstream economics is a monolithic empire of thought if ever there was one. Any whisper of dissent against its fundamental tenets is bound to incur a crackdown from the thought police, who invariably brand us as misguided, and seek to tame our revolutionary fury with mild reforms.

To be a rebel in such a world is a badge of intellectual valor. It’s a mark of allegiance to free-inquiry. It’s a label we need to embrace and encourage others to embrace. But as economics students from Harvard to Sydney have found out, against the power of empire, rebellions can easily fizzle out.

So how do we build the power and resilience needed to challenge the orthodoxy, dislodge its high priests, topple their ivory towers, and bring reality back into the economics classroom? Speaking out in class is a start. Putting up provocative posters is a start. Issuing manifestos is another step forward. But to overcome the power of the thought police we have to get organized. Individual actions may help stir the waters of rebellion, but to transform our discontent into a relentless, transformative tide requires long-term strategic thinking and collaboration.

Thankfully, for the would be revolutionaries among us, there are some strategic precedents and organizing models to draw upon.

ISIPE provides a great case in point. Where past flare-ups of student discontent were relatively isolated, and insular, ISIPE now provides rebel economists with a global support network to share ideas, best practices, inspirational stories and other resources to keep our insurrections going and growing. Moreover, within the ISIPE community there are dozens of national-level student networks whose experiences can yield lessons for those of us working to launch national networks of our own, as in the United States.

If you’re a budding rebel economist, hopefully you’re wondering: How do I build a student group, get it active on my campus and get connected to the growing global movement? As another school year approaches, this blog series will explore exactly those questions in several more installments over the coming weeks. Drawing on the experiences of ISIPE, national networks, and other campus organizing models, I hope to shed some light on everything from how to recruit your classmates, to how to plan a campaign and keep your rebellion rolling for the long haul. Tune back in for tips on how to turn on the heat needed to beat the thought police and transform our the economic student rebellion into a full on revolution.

Keith Harrington