Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Economic Cynicism and the Possibility of Another Economics

Nancy Folbre, a feminist economist, writes regularly for the New York Times’ Economix Blog, and her latest article asks “Is Another Economics Possible?”

The title’s play on the Social Forum’s slogan is fitting because, whereas social justice organizers hopefully assert that another world is possible, Prof. Folbre describes the ways that “conventional economics” undermine the imagining of the possibility of another world; turning assertion into question.

As Prof. Folbre puts it, the economics we’re taught in school reinforce “cynical views of human nature” and discourage “efforts to develop cooperative enterprises.” This link-rich article goes on to give an over-view of some of the new research and experiments in a more just and cooperative (and commons-based) economics.

It’s interesting that Prof. Folbre identifies economic cynicism -- which “treats individuals as selfish optimizers, unconcerned with the welfare of others” -- as one of the reasons alternative economic models and theories are disregarded and ignored by traditional economics. That cynicism isn’t just at the level of economic theory, but we see it in real life in the recent political posturing about unemployment benefits. Conservatives resorted to calling people “spoiled”, “hobos”, and “leeches” to justify blocking the UI extension (watch this TRMS clip for a run-down on the unbelievable insults leveled against the unemployed). The extension finally passed the senate yesterday, but the conveniently revived “deficit ploy” will certainly continue to be a core part of the conservative narrative through the elections, at which point they’ll flip-flop back to increasing deficits for the sake of tax cuts for the rich. So we know that cynical political posturing and disregard for the welfare of others extends beyond textbook economics to policymaking, having real impacts on people’s lives.

Therefore, the challenges we face to making another economics possible go far beyond economic textbooks, because economic cynicism and selfishness is real and all around us. That’s why it’s critical to have the work of progressive economists like Prof. Folbre to prove that cooperative and just economics are not just possible but happening. But the scale of the change that’s needed in terms of policy and our own mindset is so enormous that nothing short of a movement and new politics will make it possible (Gus Speth’s “Towards a New Economy and a New Politics" is essential reading on this point).

We’ve got a ways to go. Let’s hope that economic cynicism and disregard for the welfare of others doesn’t win elections in November.

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