Heterodox Economics at John Jay College

Authors: Richard D. Wolff and Ian J. Seda-Irizarry

Richard D. Wolff (RDW): As a professor of economics, all my adult life I’ve had to struggle with a difficult sad fact about economics education in colleges and universities in the United States for the last half century. Because of the Cold-war, because of the years of struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the previous way of teaching of economics, which included the presentation of alternative theories, were repressed. Instead economics got narrowed to a very simple orthodoxy that excluded everything basically critical of capitalism. Capitalism, “economics” taught, was the greatest economic system since sliced bread, indeed the “optimum” imaginable. There were no alternatives worth studying from which one could learn. For example, Marxism, as the most developed critique of capitalism in the world, was simply excluded from 99% of all economics curriculum, as it remains today. It is an extraordinarily narrow orthodoxy.

Today there are many brave souls who don’t want this orthodoxy to go on, they want to open up the discipline to alternative perspectives, having students learn what is good and bad about capitalism, and what alternative ways there are for organizing our socio-economic system.

The Economics Department at John Jay College is one of those places were an attempt is currently being made to open up the discipline to students who are eager to get a better hold of the complex system that capitalism is. 

Ian, you and your colleagues at John Jay represent one of those places that is part of the struggle against a mainstream that, for example, was incapable of providing a plausible explanation for the latest and second- worst crash of the capitalist system. 

Can you explain what is meant by the expression "heterodox economics" that you and your colleagues represent?

Ian J. Seda-Irizarry (IJSI): Heterodox economics can be seen as an umbrella term that captures various alternatives to the mainstream of economics, to the orthodoxy of the discipline that you mentioned. 

As a social science, like any other, economics is populated by the ideas of various thinkers, schools of thought, traditions, with these ideas being the product of historical circumstances, political outlooks, social projects, etc. This has obviously implied different interpretations with different purposes of a reality that is sought by many to be examined, understood, and shaped.

Historically, this initial recognition of the diversity of the contents of the ideological spectrum has been accompanied by a process of ordering, that is, the setting of a hierarchy, of adjudicating among alternative claims about reality. The criteria is based, we are told, on how well the theory accommodates to the facts, how well does the theory explains reality, how theory can give us a peek into the future. A mainstream is then established supposedly based on its “superior” ability to meet the above mentioned criteria.  

What is interesting is the relationship some systems of thought have had with maintaining the status quo. You see it historically, for example, in political theory with Thomas Hobbes and his appeal to the preservation of the monarchy in the turbulent British 17th century. You see it in philosophy in the 19th century with Hegel and his celebration of the Prussian monarchy. In economics, you see it in the present with the celebration of capitalism and its institutions as the best social scaffold that can accomodate and match what we are told is an innate self-interested human nature.

This celebration of the status quo in terms of big things, in this case social systems, is usually upheld by a positivist notion of how science in general progresses. This positivism was captured by the expression of American economist Paul Samuelson, paraphrasing the German theoretical physicist Max Planck, where “funeral by funeral economics does make progress.” That is to say, the present state of economics as a science is the best one we have so far, i.e. the false pretensions of alternative paradigms have been supposedly exposed and refuted.   

Going back to the original question, the outside of this orthodoxy is what is known as heterodoxy. To use a fashionable expression, it is the other. It’s what has been refuted according to positivist criteria. Not surprisingly, questions like “who refutes?”, “how?”, “when/why?”, and “who benefits from this outcome?” are all important in tracing where we are now with regards to the discipline. To seek an answer to these questions usually implies an interest in the history of thought, economic history, political economy, philosophy/methodology, etc. Do notice that these interests, which are sometimes subdisciplines within economics, are usually not required to obtain a Ph.D. in economics, especially in the top departments around the United States. These are the same departments that set the agenda for research and publishing, and which produce the “experts” en masse that occupy most media spaces, advise political parties and private enterprises, and contribute to the development and establishment of a generalized and uncritical “common sense” for people to digest.  

What makes this label of heterodox economics a bit problematic is that, for example, certain schools of thought are not part or do not consider themselves part of the mainstream, and yet they share very important elements with it. For example, you can celebrate capitalism and not like how mathematical formalization is used to make arguments about the system, and not like the certainty implied which many neoclassical economic models embrace. Austrian economics, which has a long history in for example opposing anything that smells marxist, fits this description and shows why the concept of “heterodox economics” is a convoluted one with pros and cons. Austrian economics celebrates capitalism like neoclassical economics, it has points of convergence with Keynesian economics on topics dealing with uncertainty, and like Marxian economics, it can be considered a heterodox school of thought because its not part of the mainstream. 

In our case at John Jay College, we like to specify that what we do, within heterodoxy, is radical political economy. That is, we are critical of the mainstream of economics, we believe that the survival of capitalism implies the demise of humanity, and we also recognize that in the here and now there are institutions and practices, some developed during the capitalist era, others predating it, that point towards the possibility and need of transcending this catastrophic system. It’s also important to highlight that basically all of our faculty are connected in one way or another to groups and organizations that, in their own ways, actively pursue paths towards an alternative post-capitalist world. 

RDW: Why did your department make that the focus of your bachelors program and also now of the new masters program?

IJSI: Our sense of these catastrophic times is that there was an increasing demand for alternative viewpoints to try and comprehend the current economic mess. This general dissatisfaction with the discipline took an important twist around the turn of the century when students in various universities around the world were asking for an overhaul of the curriculum. I remember that around the year 2003, when I was studying a masters degree in economics in the University of Puerto Rico, we convened the professors to demand that they offer us courses in history of economic thought, economic history, post-keynesian macro-models, etc. We were inspired by  initiatives in countries like France, England, and then the U.S. Later we learned similar calls from students were also happening in Latin America.

Now, with the latest downturn of capitalism, you saw students marching out of courses taught by renowned faculty, like Gregory Mankiw at Harvard, who was the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors for George W. Bush, and is the author of the current standard textbook that most students get exposed to. Again, this just shows you that when in crisis, the ideological scaffold of capitalism is as fragile as the system it tries to uncritically celebrate by describing it as the greatest feat in the history of humanity. Simply put, crisis has made the ideological and practico-political terrain very fertile.

Finally, it was a natural move for our department define itself in such a way. The strength of our faculty resides precisely in knowing the ins and outs of mainstream economics, while also being trained in the alternatives. We know what they do, they don’t know, understand, or accept what we do. Add to that the activism and political participation outside of academia that many of us have had and I think it makes a good combination to struggle within the belly of the beast.

RDW: Apart from your undergraduate program, your department recently opened a masters program. Will it also teach mainstream or conventional economics?

IJSI: Yes, we opened a Masters program two years ago. As you can guess there is a debate within the department, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, related to the question you ask. Specifically, is there a need to criticize the mainstream and if so, how? At the undergraduate level this is a pressing issue. Some of us have had the experience of teaching a standard introductory course in the undergraduate level, to then provide a criticism of the theory provided, to then be confronted by a simple but acute question by our students: “Why did you first teach me all of this if its wrong? Why not simply teach me how the world works?.” I guess I would rephrase these questions with “why do you waste my time with this?”

I hate to use this expression, but I guess there is a tradeoff, and more in the case of the majority of our students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, who work full-time. It’s a tightrope that has to be walked and there are many potential ways of achieving this. Our faculty is conscious about it and is in constant conversation about things that worked or didn’t work. We do spend a lot of time discussing and writing about teaching.

Either way, it's clear that to make a criticism of a body of thought, especially one that is hegemonic, one has to know it in and out. The question becomes to what extent this body of thought is the axis around which everything revolves or if the starting point is a different set of fundamentals. My guess, based on the continuous conversations with my colleagues, is that many of us tend to view the latter as the correct way to proceed.  

RDW: Do colleges and universities in the US not offer heterodox economics and if not, why not?

IJSI: I think that right now, in the year 2019, it's fair to say that a substantial amount of economists still have neither heard the term “heterodox” economics, or, if they have, they have no clue about what it means, even though the term has been around for some decades. So you can imagine that most U.S. universities do not have a heterodox component in their curriculum, let alone a heterodox faculty. member. On the other hand, I think it's accurate to state that right now there are more heterodox economists in academia than at any other historical moment, at least in the case of the U.S. Take for example one school of thought within heterodoxy, Marxism. Right now there are many tenured Marxist economists teaching throughout the U.S. In the 1960s there was only one tenured Marxist professor in all of the U.S., Paul Baran at Stanford, who you knew very well because you were probably his last and only student before he passed away in March of 1964. And before that, attempts by Marxist economists in the US to gain tenure track positions in universities had been thwarted, like of example, the case of Paul Sweezy who you also knew very well. Sweezy was denied a full teaching post in Harvard in the 1940s (Paul Samuelson took a class with him) even though he had the support of such luminaries within the discipline such as Wassily Leontief and Joseph Schumpeter. In retrospect this was a great outcome for Marxism in the U.S. and beyond, i.e. Sweezy ended up founding Monthly Review Magazine which, for example, helped many within the U.S. connect their struggles with those of the third world. It’s like when the great purge of Hegelian thought in Germany in the early 1840s happened. I suspect Marx wouldn’t have been Marx, and you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation, if he had gotten a job teaching theology with Bruno Bauer right after he finished his Ph.D. dissertation.. 

RDW: I remember those times at Stanford during the 60s. The administration basically made life for Paul (Baran) impossible. And with Sweezy, some years before, you had him directly confront McCarthy’s witch hunts when he did not want to hand over some notes from a lecture he gave at the University of New Hampshire. Marxism was the enemy.

What place do you think your department occupies within the economic heterodoxy in the US in the present moment?

IJSI: Our department is part of a long tradition of dissent within the economics discipline, both at the graduate and the undergraduate level. For example, here in in NYC we have the economics program at the NewSchool for Social Research, founded over a hundred years ago and probably more well known because it accepted refugees fleeing Germany after Hitler’s rise in 1933. There is also the University of Massachusetts at Amherst which established  the radical political economy in 1973 that you were part of and which in part could be seen as a result of the turbulent 1960s. Actually most of our faculty at John Jay comes from these and other institutions that have embraced some variants of heterodoxy, especially the variants that have as part of their core a fundamental critique of capitalism.

Also, last year marked the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Union of Radical Political Economics (URPE), an institution that established itself in explicit opposition to the American Economic Association and its uncritical defense of a system that inherently produces instability, inequality, poverty, oppression, exploitation and environmental degradation. Many of our professors in graduate school were precisely some of those that contributed to the foundation of URPE five decades ago.

RDW: Can you tell us a bit about the research interests of your faculty?

Some of the topics our faculty works with concern the evolution of debt through time in different sectors of the US economy, the experience of African-Americans in the labor market during and after the Great Recession, the historical and methodological implications of the “real vs monetary” dualism in economics, the examination of cooperative practices at different sites, the role of mass incarceration in disciplining labor, the historical decline in crime in NYC and its relationship to the drug market, how neoliberalism has financialized social policy in the US, the relevance of Alexander Hamilton for tackling climate change, the causes of the economic depression in Puerto Rico, and many others.  

As you can guess these are not the usual topics that economists work on in most universities.

RDW: How will students benefit from a specifically heterodox curriculum in getting their bachelor's and master's degrees?

IJSI: In terms of our students I think it's important to underline the diversity of their backgrounds and the fact that many come from a working class background. In the case of our undergrads, many of them are the first in their family to go to a university. I stress this last thing because in many cases we are teaching them things directly related to their everyday experiences in, for example, the workplace. In that sense we are not teaching them something out of the blue.

I think the strength of our programs is that we will provide them with organizing principles to make sense of those direct experiences they have so that they can make sense of it and also connect it to phenomenon outside that personal experience, be it in terms of other groups within the US and struggles outside of it. Our wish is that these principles and tools will make themselves felt in their lives as citizens and also when they take jobs in journalism, the public sector, non-governmental organizations, or advising for unions or political parties and movements.

RDW: Finally, how is this department and its various approaches relevant to current political and economic debates within the U.S.?

IJSI: Take for example debates pertaining to climate change and economic inequality, the fossil fuel industry, proposals like the Green New Deal, and how its going to be funded. We have faculty and students writing public pieces and appearing in social media discussing these issues.

We also have faculty and students actively engaging in public debates on Modern Monetary Theory, while others have taken the initiative to produce their own podcast do discuss these and other issues with renowned thinkers and activists.

It’s important for me to stress that we don’t necessarily agree on these and other topics, but the fact that these conversations are happening in our department, and that faculty and students are sought outside the walls of the university, should give you a taste of the dynamics and relevance of what we are doing. There is much work to be done and there are lots of constraints that we have to deal with, but right now we have a rich environment where ideas and projects can be discussed that can hopefully contribute to counter the present trajectory of this collapsing society.

Note: For questions regarding applications to the BS and MA programs at John Jay please contact Ian Seda-Irizarry (iseda@jjay.cuny.edu) or Geert Dhondt at (gdhondt@jjay.cuny.edu).

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