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Op-ed: You must Occupy the Econ Department

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Students of Econ 1A and 1B:

Maybe you are taking introductory economics because of a genuine interest. Maybe you are in one of the three majors that are not economics but that require it. Either way, you will be told that you are learning about a science. You are not. Sciences, even social sciences, are empirical. Instead, you will be indoctrinated into an ideology responsible for much of the inequality, and indeed much of the injustice, we see today, and you must resist it.

Neoclassical economics is an outdated pseudoscience that plays on debunked notions of human nature for the purpose of justifying exploitative practices and has no place at a university whose mission includes charges to “promote the public welfare” and to teach “the rights and advantages of association and cooperation.” Indeed, neoclassical economics is not concerned with whether or not its teachings benefit everyone; it is only concerned with efficiency, and the fate of the public welfare is secondary. Furthermore, at the core of neoclassical economics is the individual utility maximization principle, which is a fancy way of saying “assume everyone in the world is greedy.” This assumption persists despite its debunking through the work of Elinor Ostrom, and the mistrust it fosters runs directly counter to the idea of promoting cooperation.

I know that the Occupy movement has been met with a great deal of derision here at Stanford (I would expect no less at the nerve center for neoliberal capitalism), but the movement for economic justice, like any movement, must extend into the intellectual realm, into the classroom, and there is no place where that extension is more imperative than here. (Fun fact: Did you know that the guy who wrote your economics textbook, John Taylor, is Mitt Romney’s economics adviser? His office is room 248 in the Econ building–Landau not SIEPR. You should drop by and ask him about Mitt Romney’s belief that his election in and of itself will save the economy.) Don’t just challenge your professors; organize, occupy, educate, and agitate, like the students before you who fought for the creation of the CSRE department and who challenged the Western Culture requirements, to bring about the change that needs to happen, to bring about a curriculum that not just teaches but also demonstrates how compassion and cooperation work in interpersonal relations. Obviously, a great struggle lies before you, but any change you make here will be felt the nation, and indeed the world, over.

To be clear, I am not indicting the work of all economists ever. Career economists are not the problem (except for the ones who take lots of money from large banks to produce research of questionable scholarship), nor is the problem the advanced-level courses. The problem are the courses forced upon any student who desires a career in public service, courses whose implications and subtexts will be remembered long after its details fade. It is for that reason that I address this message to the students (past, present and future) of those courses.

Though I have spent the last year doing so, it is increasingly a ridiculous task for me to engage in student activism (having graduated in 2011), though I am here to support your efforts in any way I can; feel free to look me up on Facebook. As I let go, however, I do so with faith–faith in the student body to transcend apathy and the demands of the quarter system, faith in its integrity and faith in its ability to organize in a much more effective fashion than the wimps at Harvard who walked out of their introductory economics class muttering something about Keynes only to walk back in the next day. This is bigger than Keynes. There is a whole host of literature just ripe for the Googling about why we need to do away with neoclassical economics. In fact, when I took Econ 1A, they spent the last week asking exactly that question. Remember, it only takes six people to start a student group, which is five more than it takes to start a revolution.

P.S. Looking for an organizational structure? I suggest direct democracy. It’s done wonders for Quebec.

Peter McDonald ‘11

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