Coming out of the heterodox economist closet
Author: Ben Gallant
Source: Rethinking Economics
Coming out of the heterodox economist closet
Summer of 2019
In the Summer of 2019, I watched a presentation by the economist Marc Lavoie. For those who don’t know, Marc is a highly respected post-Keynesian who has made an enormous contribution to the field. The talk discussed the idea of uniting the heterodox community under a single banner as well as reflecting on the recent success of the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) movement in bringing their talking point into the popular discourse. Bringing these two topics together, Marc concluded that it might be time to rename heterodox economics. By choosing a new name we could both find a banner under which we could all unite and attempt to replicate MMT’s successes. In short – a rebrand.
A bee in my bonnet
I found myself becoming increasing frustrated. All of the names that were suggested in the presentation and the discussion session afterwards sounded like 'economics with caveats’ to me. I imagined a student, who is faced with the choice of an 'Economics’ degree and a 'weird new economics’ degree and picks the course that she thinks employers will trust. There is a legitimacy and status that the title 'economist’ confers, but it can easily be lost if we are not willing to wear the term with confidence.
In my view, it was time we reclaimed 'Economics’. After all, I don’t see the work I am doing as an alternative to the serious 'mainstream’ economics. My position is that the way I approach economics is the way the discipline should be approached. I don’t want to present my work as a fun alternative for guys in military berets to discuss while they cosplay the Soviet Union. I want my work to be taken seriously as 'Economics’.
Part of my impatience comes from the moment in which I have entered the discussion. As environmental crisis, financial crisis and global pandemics lash the shores of modern society the time for complacency feels long past.
Why so heterodox?
I should take a moment to recognise that the creation of an alternative has been of vital importance in pushing back against the narrowing of the discipline. From the 1980s, politicians began presenting 'mainstream’ economics as the only legitimate option. This period was typified by Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement that 'there is no alternative’ (TINA).
In the age of TINA, the simple assertion that there was an alternative was a powerful and important act of protest. It was also very valuable to begin to create an identity and a community around this resistance. So, I do not wish to be dismissive of the people who built the 'heterodox’ economics community. In fact, I believe that the best way to acknowledge and honour the contributions of these pioneers is to treat them seriously and assert their rightful place as the foundations of 'Economics’.
A new day
It is our responsibility as a generation of researchers to take the foundations of heterodox economics forward. To assert ourselves and our findings, not as an alternative to 'Economics’ but as economics as it should be done. While presenting your work as an alternative in the age of TINA was a radical act, in the age of COVID, climate and financial crisis, being seen as an alternative just is not enough.
Reclaiming 'Economics’ is not without risks. For example, Kvangraven and Alves describe the 'we are a big family of economists’ strategy which risks 'heterodox’ economists being friendly and respectful to the 'mainstream’ at the same time as the 'mainstream’ systematically excludes us and our research. While this argument has some merit, I think there is a relatively simple solution to the problem. But before we can address it we need to consider the distinction between 'heterodoxy’ and 'pluralism’.
A place for pluralism?
To be heterodox is to hold unconventional and non-conformist views. Heterodoxy assumes the existence of an orthodoxy, a usual or 'mainstream’ position against which the unusual or heterodox is counterposed. Pluralism on the other hand does not assume a hegemonic orthodoxy, it is multipolar. Pluralism lacks the value judgement inherent to heterodoxy that there is an accepted way of doing things and an unconventional alternative. However, pluralism is not an identity; a single person cannot be pluralist (except for maybe J.M. Keynes).
Winston Churchill is often credited with saying 'if you put two economists in a room, you get two opinions, unless one is Lord Keynes, in which case you get three’. This plurality of opinions is often understood as a weakness. However, economy is complicated and any problem we address will require many perspectives and many different research methods.
At the same time, we need to find ways of presenting a united front against a 'mainstream’ who often lack this level of humility. This is the flip side of the argument I have been making so far and the reason I have been using quotation marks around the word 'mainstream’. I believe it would help our cause significantly if we gave up the word altogether.
Let’s start calling them what they are, new Keynesian, neoclassical or new classical. This will serve as a reminder to ourselves and everyone else that their way of approaching economics is just narrow sub-discipline in a very broad field. This is not 'big family’ economics, this is reclaiming the discipline and reasserting the legitimacy of plurality.
Don’t call me heterodox
Kvangraven and Alves conclude their article by arguing that we ought to come forward, be bold and speak out about our differences with the 'mainstream’. They argue that by coming out of the 'heterodox closet’ we can demonstrate what economics is missing. Again, I do not disagree with the spirit of their argument. But I think encouraging more economists to embrace the heterodox label lacks ambition.
Neoclassical economics has proven to be insufficient to addressing the issues of the day (inequality, ecological crisis, financial collapse, etc.) If our approaches are more appropriate to addressing these questions, and I believe they are, then we have a responsibility to take up the mantel of 'Economics’ and all of the credibility that comes with it. It is my view that now is the time to reclaim economics and assert our right to define our discipline. We can no longer allow such a narrow, limiting perspective on a very small number of questions to occupy the most respected and apparently serious terrain in our discipline. This ground is too important, and we have ceded too much of it, for too long. It is time to reclaim economics. Call me an economist; and don’t call me heterodox!