speri.comment: the political economy blog

Economics and the gathering storm

Progressives need to stand up and be counted in the struggle against creeping free-market orthodoxy

David Coates, Professor of Anglo-American Studies, Wake Forest University, North Carolina

David CoatesOne lesson that you learn the hard way in American politics is that it is always a mistake to think that, from a progressive point of view, things are so bad that they can’t get any worse. You only have to think it before the ground shifts under your feet again.  I know that because, when Eric Cantor was recently defeated in the Richmond Republican primary, the ground shifted again.

I never thought I would feel pity for Cantor, until his defeat the majority leader in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.  After all, he was the key player in the steadfast resistance of House Republicans to the raising of the minimum wage and to the reform of America’s broken immigration system, not to mention a leading voice in opposition to the modest reforms of the US healthcare system brought by the Affordable Care Act.  No matter that the Act, fully implemented, will still leave 30 million Americans without healthcare cover. Cantor’s Republicans wanted policy changes that would make that number even higher.

But on 10 June Cantor was defeated in the primary election in his Congressional district – the Virginia 7th around the state capital, Richmond – by a conservative who is even more reactionary than he is.  And he was not only beaten. He was trounced. He was trounced so effectively, indeed, as to terrify every sitting Republican Congressman/woman into even greater loyalty to ‘Tea Party’ orthodoxy. He was trounced so effectively that after November the House of Republicans will likely contain at least one striking example of a rising phenomenon in American politics – the fusion of Protestant Christian fundamentalism with neoclassical economics.

David Brat – Cantor’s nemesis – is a professional economist and a committed Calvinist.  He is the kind of economist who publicly favours full market forces at work in American healthcare, arguing that if people have to pay more for their healthcare they would be less tempted to take little Johnny to the doctor’s every time his nose starts to run!  He is the kind of economist who also sees in his election victory the hand of God Almighty – telling his supporters on victory night that ‘God acted through people on my behalf’, adding ‘It’s an unbelievable miracle’.

Brat is also a key example of another trend now firmly established in the United States: the funding by conservative donors of ultra-rightwing think-tanks, academies, candidates and ideas, all wrapped up and legitimated as scientific economics.  We have a local one here in North Carolina – a think-tank called The John Locke Foundation funded by our own home-grown conservative millionaire.  Its president regularly fills the columns of the local press with arguments he insists are grounded firmly in economics: arguments, for example, that public assistance hurts economic growth, or that funding teaching assistants has no measurable effect on student learning, so we can safely do away with both.

When political scientists disagree, the world does not change. When economists do, the world does.  Right-wing ideologues in the United States know this well enough. The Koch brothers and their kind have long funded both libertarian and traditionally conservative think-tanks – Cato and Heritage being the best known –to push free-market ideas into the mass media and the political process on a daily basis.  They are now also actively funding new chairs in economics departments to the same end.

Not all economics departments are yet lost, however. Paul Krugman still splits American ones into freshwater and saltwater departments, pointing to the concentration of conservative economics departments in the American heartland.  But, in far too many such departments, neoclassical orthodoxy and mathematical modelling have come to hold total sway.  To hold sway to such an extent, indeed, that even a free-market-induced crisis of the scale witnessed in 2008 has somehow rapidly been morphed into a crisis proving the superiority of unregulated markets. That is some intellectual conjuring trick, but its effectiveness speaks to the depth of right-wing politics now being underwritten by an increasingly conservative intellectual discipline.

All of which makes so vital the current fight under way to reform the teaching of economics in leading Anglo-American universities.  That reform (involving a widening both of theories taught and methods advocated) is long overdue; and can only help protect the space for, and the building of, a renewed politics of the left.  There is no hiding away in the academy any more for those of us with progressive values and aspirations – no pretending that we can play Pontius Pilate as the policy disputes intensify around us.  The ground is being shifted under our feet (and under the feet of the electorates around us) by conservative ideologues who understand full well the vital role that economics as an academic discipline can play in legitimating or de-legitimating public policy.  By being silent, we simply compound that shift.  But, by speaking out for a more pluralistic economics, we can only help to stop the rot.

That is why, to my mind, SPERI as both an institution and a project has never been more vital than now.  In the United States now (and in the UK tomorrow?) right-wing Christian economists are on the march.  It is time for us to counter-march.  It is time for us to argue that you can worship who/whatever you like – if you must – but don’t turn your altar into a free-market shrine.  We have enough poverty in America already without creating a whole tranche more.

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