SPERI Spotlight: Introducing Professor Michael Jacobs

Our monthly ‘SPERI Spotlight’ series showcases the work of a researcher at SPERI to give an insight into their research. This month we talk to Professor Michael Jacobs, Professorial Fellow at SPERI.

What does your research focus on?

My research explores ideas around paradigm shifts in terms of economic theory, discourse and policy. As an economist, I am struck by the extent to which the discipline is in ferment. The neoclassical economics tradition is under attack for failures of analysis and inadequate policy prescriptions; which has been illuminated in particular since the financial crisis. Yet, there is no emerging consensus on alternative schools of thought- despite the fact that there are many options to explore (including post-Keynesian, feminist, ecological and political economy approaches). Through political economy analysis, I want to move beyond neoliberalism- and to explore how economic theory and policy prescriptions can inform a radical new political project. I’m interested in exploring what that might look like in reality.

What led to your interest in this particular topic?

In analysing the failures of economic policy since the financial crisis- not just financial regulatory failures, but also labour market failures (alongside growing inequality and environmental degradation) I have been struck by the extent to which orthodox economics needs to be challenged at a fundamental level. There are many resources to draw upon from non-orthodox schools of economic thought, but they have little currency both in public policy debates as well as inside mainstream academic departments. This has led me back once again to ecological economics; a sub-set of economics which has been heavily involved in critiques of neoclassical doctrine. There are some interesting parallels between the two, and given the urgent political need to do something about the current failures, I am interested in exploring the creation of alternative models.

What are the challenges involved in conducting research in this area?

Well, this is admittedly an enormous field of inquiry, and I am interested in the whole field of economics and public policy as well as the theoretical underpinnings which implicitly drive various assumptions. Whilst this is almost too large to be manageable as a research project, it is only by looking at the bigger picture that can we address the deep questions of economic thinking which have underpinned neoclassical economics and which will allow us to explore any viable alternative to it. Exploring these questions requires engagement with an enormous academic literature, and seeing the wood for the trees is a challenge.

What have you been most surprised by during your research?

I have been struck by the level of disagreement amongst economists who sit in the progressive tradition of public policy and who are otherwise united in their belief that neoliberal economic policy is wrong. The tension rests in the fact that their analysis of the theoretical problem is different. Some feel that a fundamental paradigm shift from the neoclassical model is needed, while others feel that this isn’t required and that you can develop different public policy options out of a more sophisticated, yet still neoclassical approach. My original assumption that we needed something entirely new has been challenged by economists I respect. Bearing this in mind, part of my work will now be to explore and consider how far these two positions represent fundamental differences, and how far they might be reconcilable. I am interested in exploring this both at the theoretical and public policy levels and I am very interested in bringing economists together to answer these questions.

What does being a member of SPERI mean to you?

At an intellectual level, the breadth of SPERI’s interests across all aspects of political economy makes it a very stimulating place to work. I’ve learnt a lot simply by talking to people here, as well as by attending our regular seminars and engaging with other peoples research. At the same time, I am pleased to work at a research institute which is committed to taking research outside of the academy, and which seeks to influence policy makers. SPERI’s aims and ambitions therefore fit my own ethos. I also find SPERI a friendly and supportive place to work.

Michael Jacobs held his inaugural lecture at the University of Sheffield on the 22nd May this year.

Read recent blogs written by Michael, including his latest set of blogs on the Green New Deal here and here.