Teaching radical economics: the Center for Popular Economics and its international institutes

Teaching radical economics: the Center for Popular Economics and its international institutesThe various groups of protesters I who have demonsrrated at the & World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle, as well as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) annual meetings in Washington D.C. and Prague, have certainly attracted the notice of the mainstream media. However, mainstream publications such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Economist have paid little attention to the economic ideas which lie behind the protesters' actions. When attention is paid, it is usually by op-ed columnists who dismiss the Seattle protesters as economic ignoramuses. (1) This combination of silence and dismissal is a grave disservice to the global community both because it ignores the demonstrators' serious economic critique of the goals adopted by the IMF, World Bank, and WTO, and because it ignores their critique of the ways in which mainstream economic theory is taught to future economists, businessmen, and citizens in general.

That the popular critique of IMF, World Bank, and WTO globalization policies is internally consistent and sound might be disputed, but there is no lack of famous economists who support and have supported such a critique. To rake a single example, examine the following passage:

I sympathize, therefore, with those who would limit rather than increase the economic entanglements between nations. Hospitality, food, culture, it is these things which should be international. But let goods be homespun whenever possible, and above all, let finance be primarily national. (2)

This militant Seattle protester went by the name of John Maynard Keynes, and also wrote these words sixty six years before the actual Seattle protests. It is rather ironic that the popular critique now takes Keynes's position, whereas the economic theorists who are Keynes's inheritors are diametrically opposed to any constraints on globalization. Although the ideological difficulty of abandoning the dogma of free trade and capital flows is part of the reason why the economics mainstream tends to support the World Bank, IMF, and WTO, another of the root causes lies in the pedagogy by which the economics profession reproduces itself and creates a top-level consensus that influences World Bank, IMF and WTO policies.

The pedagogy used in most college and university economics courses serves to reproduce the undemocratic, authoritarian nature of policymaking by the elites who favor globalization in its current form. Both in lectures and in principles textbooks, economics is presented as a hard science similar to physics or chemistry, and as a result a student looking for a good grade must proceed by way of rote memorization of the lectures and textbook in the hopes of accurately regurgitating the material in a standard exam. The type of give-and-take debate and search for contradictions which lies at the heart of most social sciences is missing from economics both at the level of discourse, where most journal articles are based on the scientific method (that is, economic models are mistakenly viewed as closed systems subject to one-way causation in a manner quite similar to lab experiments in the hard sciences), and more importantly at the level of teaching, where insights of a strictly conditional historical nature are el evated to the status of mathematical theorems which must be mastered. For example, the standard argument of the comparative advantage model that countries are better off with open trade is taken as a truism which applies under all conditions, when in fact it completely ignores the historical circumstances that create comparative advantage between different countries, as discussed in the next section.

In contrast, the method used by the Center for Popular Economics (CPE) for its international institutes (held every summer in Amherst College) aims to produce a popular critique of both current globalization policies and of the pedagogy that helps to reproduce such policies. A large part of the difference between the prevailing pedagogy and the CPE approach lies in the very nature of the circumstances under which the teaching takes place: institutes are not academic courses where students are coerced into memorizing and then regurgitating questionable material in order to get a good grade, but voluntary gatherings of social activists who wish to learn about the world economy and debate differences in perceptions with both the institute teachers as well as fellow participants. Nevertheless, CPE consciously tries to adopt a different pedagogical approach in these institutes. As a former institute instructor, I would like to review my experiences there and relate them to the different pedagogical approach that populist critics of mainstream policies should try to adopt.


CPE's international institutes last six days (from Sunday to Saturday morning) and contain plenaries led by selected speakers and brief workshops hosted by activists or researchers in particular fields. But participants spend the largest portion of their time in classes led by two teachers who are CPE staff economists. These classes have no more than 20 participants in order to give everyone room for expressing their views. In setting the structure for these classes, CPE consciously tries to be open to and adopt a variety of pedagogical approaches in order to maintain the participation which is at the core of successful teaching.

To take one example, specific role-playing exercises drive home the effects that corporate capital mobility has on different communities around the globe, and how such capital mobility creates a race to the bottom, where local governments compete with each other to attract corporate investment by lowering wages, cutting or eliminating corporate profit taxes, loosening workplace safety and environmental regulations, and creating an unfriendly climate for labor unions. Some participants take up the roles of workers and city councillors for cities in the northern U.S., the U.S. Sun Belt, and developing countries such as Mexico. Other participants take the role of the corporation whose investment these cities are trying to attract, and often end up getting significant practice in the art of dividing and ruling. When time permits, we repeat the process under different circumstances, including an international minimum wage, international cooperation between labor unions, and a uniform code for environmental and wor kplace safety regulations. Another role playing exercise involves small groups representing different constituencies in a developing country such as organized labor, students, informal sector workers, aboriginal inhabitants, even business elites. Each group gives a brief presentation on how it would be affected by the standard structural adjustment programs of the IMF and World Bank, which the teachers had previously presented in non-technical detail.

Because most CPE institute participants are social activists with outspoken views, generating debate is easy. Often the problem is to make sure each participant leaves enough time for his or her colleagues to express their views, rather than trying to draw out opinions. In this context, free discussion is usually reserved for policy alternatives to the standard World Bank/IMF package, for ways to make political activism in favor of these policies more effective, and for ways by which developing countries and their poorer citizens can obtain a greater voice in the world economy. In these discussions the "teachers' problem," if it can be called that, is to help crystallize areas of agreement and disagreement without raking up too much time themselves.

Of course, there are portions of the institute, such as the sections on exchange rates and international capital flows, in which there are few alternatives to having the class revolve around a lecture format, since both areas are less well-known to laymen than is international trade or foreign investment. Yet even here, the instructors are careful to avoid the technical jargon and graphs which are the bane of most college economics courses. A CPE institute hardly ever uses in-class graphs. Statistical graphs, for example, are relegated to handouts which are used as aids but are not explicitly examined in the class. Also, our emphasis is on presenting the mainstream case for unregulated free trade and capital flows in as non-technical a manner as possible and then letting the participants themselves come up with their own criticisms. Only after the mainstream position has been fully established do the instructors open a debate with and between the participants as to the best policy alternatives to neoliberal g lobalization policies. The next pages will look at the day-by-day institute process in more derail.