Wellesley hired me in 1978 as the college’s first and only radical economist. I was hired in response to student pressure: while doing their junior year studies abroad, students had been exposed to theories other than mainstream American neoclassical economics and they wanted these views represented at school. The department posted a job for someone to teach what they called “competing paradigms of economics.” I was a PhD candidate in economics at Yale, where I studied with David Levine (Yale’s one Marxist economist … he didn’t get tenure). I applied and was hired.
All Wellesley economics faculty were required to teach two of the required “core” courses. I was assigned to introductory and intermediate microeconomics and given the mainstream textbook, but I refused to teach mainstream economics straight. Instead, I presented the material in the textbook, critiqued it and taught the outlines of the alternative, radical view. I remember feeling that by criticizing the economics bible I was engaging in a deeply subversive activity. I used to imagine that a huge arm would reach into the classroom, pick me up and carry me off. Luckily nothing of the sort happened. Instead, based on my popularity with students and the success of my first book, An Economic History of Women in America, I received a permanent, tenured position.
Once tenured, I could relax a bit and take more risks with my teaching. I began to realize that my critiques of mainstream economic theory and advanced capitalist economy seemed to be backfiring. From the very first time I presented the supply and demand framework to my intro econ students, for example, I pointed out that supply and demand curves only determine prices in perfectly competitive markets … which don’t exist. I considered this key to my students’ education, especially since mainstream economists apply the framework inappropriately so often, yet many of them continued to forget this key fact on their tests.
Once tenured, I could relax a bit and take more risks with my teaching.
Teaching about market equilibrium, a situation in which there is neither shortage nor surplus of a product, presented another particularly bothersome failure. I always took care to explore the fact that equilibrium – where the supply and demand curves cross, and quantity supplied equals quantity demanded – does not mean that everyone is happy, or that basic needs are met. Many people could, in fact, be starving because they are too poor to be able to “demand” what they need. Even when no lines or shortages exist, people can still be dying from starvation. Despite my lessons, many of my students were unable to point out the falseness of the statement “everybody is happy in equilibrium” on their tests. They left my class accepting the free market/neoliberal line that government policies which intervene in markets – such as minimum wages or rent control – are inherently bad because they prevent markets from getting to equilibrium. I wanted to pull my hair out. It seemed the more I critiqued mainstream economics, the more I strengthened its hold on most of my students.
At first I tried to heighten my criticism of mainstream economic theory, and to begin it earlier in the course. I would criticize supply and demand curves and marginal utility curves before I even drew them. As I taught the theories, I would interlace critique in virtually every sentence. This approach, however, frustrated my students: why was I teaching it to them if it was wrong? How could they learn the material if I didn’t present it to them completely before attacking it? While some of my students – usually those who were radical themselves – understood and appreciated my criticism, many of them found it confusing, alienating and discouraging.
A similar problem emerged with my radical critique of advanced capitalism. My classes on radical economics presented the neo-Marxist view that large corporations dominated the economic landscape: oppressing workers, brainwashing consumers through advertising to keep them enslaved by the work/spend cycle and manipulating the government to do their bidding through campaign financing and bribes. I juxtaposed this view with that of our mainstream text, which obscured corporate power by focusing on small, helpless firms controlled by sovereign consumers who – when market failures made it necessary – use their votes to get the government to intervene on their behalf. I was amused – and dismayed – to find that many of my students’ exams showed they actually thought I had been teaching them about two different countries!
The students who believed in the radical view were also convinced that large corporations were so powerful that nothing could be done about them.
Even as I adjusted my teaching to make sure my students understood that these were two views of the US economy, however, I realized another problem. The students who believed in the radical view were also convinced that large corporations were so powerful that nothing could be done about them. Instead of inspiring my students to radical activism, I had taught them to be cynical and resigned about the prevailing economic dysfunction and injustice. If they couldn’t do anything about it, they figured, why not at least get rich by becoming an investment banker?
Then I learned about the spiritual principle of non-reaction. When you react to someone, you are letting him determine your behavior rather than choosing it yourself. My teaching was largely reactive: by centering on a critique of the text I was continually “reacting” to the book rather than achieving my goal of demolishing mainstream economics – in my students’ heads and in the world. My radical critiques of large corporations were also a reaction, and only emphasized corporate power to such a degree that it made my students feel helpless.
I began to evolve a new way of teaching that focuses less on mainstream economic theory and powerful, profit-motivated corporations. Now we begin the term identifying both pressing economic problems and the global warming crisis. I point out the problems associated with consumers, workers and firms acting in self-interested and materialistic ways. I present, discuss and give examples of the emerging “solidarity economy,” which is based on socially responsible or “high road” economic values, practices and institutions: ethical consumption, fair trade, socially responsible corporations. This puts materialistic competitive consumerism and traditional profit-motivated corporations on the defensive. From this point of view one wonders why anyone ever believed that a solely profit-motivated corporation, dedicated to serving its owners (the stockholders), would be able to do right by its other stakeholders: consumers, workers, suppliers, government and the environment. Or why anyone would imagine that buying more and more material things would bring true fulfillment.
One of my most successful assignments this term was based on the PBS documentary Affluenza and Me, which analyzes contemporary consumer culture in the us as an illness. The symptoms of this “affluenza” are overwork, time shortage, debt, breakdown of family relationships, ecological destruction, etc. We also read and discussed an excerpt from P.A. Payutto’s book Buddhist Economics, which presents enlightened consumption as building well-being through resistance to advertising and cravings, knowledge of one’s true needs and service to the whole.
I no longer teach the core aspects of mainstream microeconomics as some superpower theory. I now present microeconomics as a theory that understands some aspects of the economy but misses others. It’s a theory whose models can only be used if their limitations are acknowledged, and if they are supplemented by other concepts and understandings. The supply and demand curve framework, for example, can be very helpful in elucidating problems in contemporary labor markets – such as below-subsistence level wages caused by an excess of labor.
I no longer teach my student about corporate power as an overpowering monolithic force but as something which has to be continually constructed through the collaboration of consumers, workers, managers, government officials and laws. I show them that it is something that needs to be radically reconstructed through socially responsible behavior.
I teach my students how to make their microeconomic decisions – as consumers, workers, entrepreneurs, parents and citizens – in ways that create well-being for themselves and their loved ones. I teach them how to use their economic power to express and actualize their deepest values – to repudiate the false god of money and the prevailing economic religion of the market. I teach them that enlightened self-interest involves behaving in a socially responsible manner, since we all depend on each other … and on the whole. We all have to do our part to save both the planet and ourselves – there is plenty that we can do by aligning our economic decisions with our true values.
Julie Matthaei is an economics professor at Wellesley College and a cofounder and board member of the US Solidarity Economy Network (www.ussen.org). She coedited Solidarity Economy: Building Alternatives for People and Planet, available at lulu.com/changemaker.