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Moving Beyond Capitalism: Assessing the Lack of Intellectual Diversity in Tufts’ Economics Department

Opinion | September 25, 2017

In recent months, we’ve seen professors at universities like Tufts step up to speak about and organize around threats to the safety of marginalized students by the Trump administration. In the weeks after, professors organized a teach-in connecting various struggles against systems of oppression, and since then, many departments have brought speakers to campuses to reflect on decisions or dangers posed by the White House. We’ve turned to the Economics department to ask what potential this discipline holds for engaging, and what the department is already doing to respond to—and prepare students for—our political moment.
To get a sense for the mindset behind the Tufts Economics department as well as its impact, we spoke to several students and professors, including the Head of the Department Professor Daniel Richards. In our conversation, Richards described economics as a subject that teaches “theories of social interaction” and focuses on markets as one of the main sites in which these interactions take place. He said a natural part of this teaching is to bring current events into the classroom, and he believes that every professor in the department ties current events into their lessons. Richards mentioned that many courses include a variety of real-world applications; for example, when government intervention works and when it does not. Specifically, Richards mentioned Obamacare as one intervention many professors “would understand the logic behind,” indicating that a large part of the department is willing to look beyond a purely capitalist system in the US.

 

In contrast to the Economics department’s socially liberal intent, Alex Kowalick-Allen viewed her introductory economics course as focusing on “profit profit profit.” She felt economics was taught not “as a social science, but as hard science. We got so disconnected from the social side of it—that our economic system is supposed to benefit society.”
Kowalick-Allen was among students who expressed concerns around a culture within the Economics department that is simultaneously created and reinforced by a lack of ideological diversity. She recalled her introductory economics professor’s lecture on luxury goods as one event contributing to this mindset; the professor said something along the lines of “any self-respecting woman has a nice handbag,” and proceeded to ask the women in the class for ballpark handbag prices, and the men in the class for the price of the newest Lamborghini. Kowalick-Allen recalls looking around the classroom to see if anyone else was shocked, and instead overhearing a group of guys laughing about “bitches and their handbags.” This incident illustrates how sexism on the part of the professor can reinforce more blatant offenses among students. According to Kowalick-Allen, this was one of many examples that made her feel that a student of economics could have an “entirely different experience at Tufts” than that she was having.

 

Examples used (or avoided) by professors are some of many devices we see as adding up to an inherent and tangible political stance within the Economics department. In our conversation with him, Professor Richards spoke about how “there is not, as of yet, a lot of actual economic policy initiatives to respond to from the Trump administration because, to date, the administration has not gotten any major policy change through Congress.” We are calling for a deepening of intellectual diversity within the Tufts Economics department, so that its lessons can better prepare students to navigate and confront this turbulent time.

 

Most economics classes at Tufts are taught lecture-style—this acts as a device through which capitalist ideologies are subtly made part of not only the course content, but also the way in which that content is taught. Economics students Karl Wilander and Stephanie Chen Schmidt stated that almost all of their economics courses to date have been taught through lecture. In lectures, the professor stands in front of the class—sometimes on a stage—positioned as the holder of the knowledge, and by extension, the truth or the “right answers.” This classroom style leaves little room for questions or for information to come from the students. When it does, this knowledge is often in the form of exam questions, which are then graded on a curve, pushing students to compete for the “right” answers rather than engaging critically with the material—and therefore reinforcing competition with a hierarchy of clear winners and losers.

 

Just as an economics professor may stand on a stage, Braker Hall stands on the academic quad. The departments’ offices and classrooms are almost entirely located in this building; along with the number of economics majors who might be able to donate to Tufts after graduation, this makes Braker a space of concentrated power on campus. To put this power and weight behind an economic system lends legitimacy and power to that system.

 

When a Tufts environmental economics class actively avoids politics, the class is feeding into a larger ideology that the fate of our globe should be controlled by profit. The economic theory in this class teaches us the idea of cost-benefit analysis, and it places a monetary value on the globe and its citizens in order to analyze if an environmental policy decision is economically sound, else the value of lives and the globe will not be accounted for at all. However, this thinking dehumanizes and allows justification for refraining from saving lives in the name of economic efficiency. This thinking is the manifestation of profit over people.

 

This method of teaching economics is not unique to Tufts, but rather is reflective of a larger trend in Economics departments across the country, even though according to a Harvard University study, “only the age group above 50 years old contains a majority that supports capitalism”. Many liberal arts and research universities alike tend to teach neoclassical economics. This approach connects supply and demand to an individual’s “rational” ability to maximize their own utility or profit. Theories like these regard individuals as able to make deliberate, calculated choices to serve their own interests, instead of seeing happiness as communal. In effect, teaching only this economic framework theorizes the way things ought to be and instills it as business as usual, ingraining a sense of ethics into the world by only seeing people as self-serving individuals separate from a larger community.

 

The issue here is that when this neoclassical theory is regarded as the only way to understand economics, these large assumptions about individuals form the way in which we understand not only economics, but also the world at large. Chen Schmidt and Wilander spoke about understanding that the department mainly teaches capitalist theories because they see American capitalism as the guiding global economic force.

 

In the US, free market capitalism has created industries that directly profits off and benefits from the tearing apart of livelihoods and families of color through its legacy of racism. This legacy has manifested through the profitability of prisons and immigration detention. There is an economic incentive for people to be incarcerated if the money used to maintain prisons is lining people’s pockets. And if free market capitalism dictates that people get locked up in order for certain individuals to amass wealth, the prison population will only continue to increase according to economic theory. This is exactly what we have seen, as the US incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation, at almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population.

 

Nicholas Shi, a major in the department, expressed the significance behind pushing and reforming the department, and others. “I think the discipline itself is very valuable,” he said. “You can use economics to evaluate power structures.”

 

One university that is doing a great job of adopting this approach is UMass Amherst, which has been at the forefront of teaching alternative ways of understanding economics, referred to as Heterodox Economics. In their Economics department, they have professors who focus on feminism and queerness in their economic research, teaching topics such as the economic and social benefits of legally recognizing queer marriages and the impacts of fertility decisions and household work on the economy.

 

Additionally, the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE) at Tufts is working on comprehending both the limitations of the mainstream economic paradigm and the wide range of creative efforts that have been and are being made to extend our economic understanding. On GDAE’s website, it claims that “throughout all of its activities, theoretical advances at GDAE are informed by the Institute’s applied and policy work, while its practical applications of economics are enhanced by a growing theoretical understanding of what is required to promote socially and environmentally just and sustainable development.”

 

However, students are not given these resources in Tufts’ environmental economics class, nor are they made aware of the Institute, its presence on campus, and its work on revising economic textbooks. Our hope is that Tufts can integrate this strand of thinking into the Economics department and integrate the materials that GDAE have taken so much labor to create and compile.

 

One class in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, focused on community economic development, introduces the idea of a solidarity economy, which is based on the ideology of a community democratically controlling capital and resources to transform free market capitalism and our political and economic systems into a world rooted in values of democracy, justice, and sustainability.

 

The Economics department has a responsibility to integrate these resources and ways of thinking into its classrooms and ensure an open discourse on economic thought. Imagining and working towards a more socially just Economics department is also in line with the goal of creating a more socially just world. Refusing to teach alternative economic models and centering capitalism perpetuates the current economic system that continues to put so many lives and families at stake. If Tufts is truly seeking to build a better world, it must take a political stance on the flaws within our current economic system, and this means within the Economics department.