The idea that economics as a discipline is narrow, inward-looking or broken is one that has been present for over four decades. Rethinking Economics is the latest generation of trying to change it.
Students and professors at the University of Sydney were the first to highlight the narrowness of their economics education, and partially succeeded by opening a political economy department that still exists today. In 1992 a letter was published in the American Economic Review calling for a broader economics education signed by nine Nobel Laureates including Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow. Between 2000-2003, students in Paris, Cambridge and Harvard argued again for their education to be radically transformed. In France, this led to significant media coverage and an eventual commission ordered by the Minister of Education!
Undeniably, students of Rethinking Economics and similar student movements were influenced heavily by the events of 2007/8 – a global financial crisis that shook not only the global economy, but the foundations of economics itself. “Why did nobody see this coming?” was a question posed by the Queen of England, but the mistrust and scepticism of economists was shared by the wider public.
Today’s Rethinkers went to study economics hoping to understand why the financial crash happened; why was unemployment so high; why were public services being cut? The reality was a narrow, dispassionate exercise in some fairly basic calculus, coupled with a requirement to perform multiple-choice exams twice a year. Theory was not applied to the real-world, students worked with hypothetical apples and oranges rather than real case studies, past economic events were ignored and, perhaps most importantly, the theory that had led to the surrounding economic chaos was being imparted as if it was gospel, with no opportunity to evaluate its validity.