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Interview with Frank Stillwell

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Frank Stillwell, Professor Emeritus in Political Economy at the University of Sydney,  interviewed by David Primrose on 8th January 2013.

Frank Stilwell is a leading Australian political economist. He is well known, both in that country’s universities and in the broader public sphere, as a critic of mainstream economics and a proponent of alternative economic ideas. Together with colleagues and students, he has made the University of Sydney one of the best places in the world to study political economy. He has written a dozen books, including the textbook Political Economy: the Contest of Economic Ideas [Oxford University Press, Third edition, 2012], and co-edited six others. He is the coordinating editor for the Journal of Australian Political Economy. This year he has become Professor Emeritus at the University of Sydney, after having taught and researched there for 42 years.

Q.1 Do you see political economy as an alternative to economics?

Political economy certainly addresses economic issues, but it does so in a more useful way. It emphasises the social and political context within which economic issues need to be considered. Mainstream economics is notably deficient in this regard. Ever since the so-called marginalist revolution of the 1870s, economists have defined their concerns in terms of a particular analytical orientation, emphasising individual choice, competitive markets, equilibrium and efficiency of resource allocation. Concern with broader questions about historical change, the evolution of institutions and capital-labour-state relationships have been largely neglected in this neoclassical tradition. This is tragic, both for economics as a discipline and for the broader society that requires more enlightened judgements and advice about economic issues.

So the challenge for modern political economists is to try to redress this situation. That requires a thoroughgoing critique of mainstream economics. It requires the development of alternative analytical approaches. It requires reintegration of economic inquiry into the broader corpus of social sciences, alongside sociology, politics, geography and history. It requires development of educational approaches that introduce students to more insightful ways of understanding economic phenomena. It also requires vigorous participation in the public arena, so that more progressive public policies and strategies for change can be considered.

The mainstream economists resist all of these challenges because they regard political economy as undermining their claim to monopoly of the truth. Not all are so personally dogmatic, of course. Indeed, some evidently welcome dialogue and controversy, while others are engaged in some degree of product differentiation, exploring behavioural and experimental economics, game theory and other avenues of theoretical innovation. However, as a profession, mainstream economics is dominant, exclusive and discriminatory. It is very difficult for people who fundamentally challenge the orthodoxy to get a hearing, or a tenured academic position.  And the core university courses, almost universally, continue to emphasise the seemingly tireless neoclassical principles in standard programs of micro theory, macroeconomics and econometrics. It is a process of professional socialisation and reproduction, seemingly regardless of the use-value of the knowledge.

That is why, here at the University of Sydney, we sought to develop a separate and coherent political economy program that students could take as an alternative to mainstream economics. It was a massive struggle to establish this program but, having done so, it has gone from strength to strength. Teaching political economy from a pluralist and heterodox perspective creates more interest in the classroom and the students develop a more actively engaged approach to their learning. Our graduates are active in many walks of life, applying their critically constructive capacities in ways that contribute to a better understanding of the economy and the potential for progressive political economic change.

Q.2 How does political economy, as you understand it, therefore differ from more contemporary developments in mainstream economics, such as those labelled as ‘economics imperialism’ by political economists such as Ben Fine and Geoff Harcourt?

Some mainstream economists have vigorously pursued an imperialist agenda, seeking to invade neighbouring social science territories by using neoclassical economic theory to analyse topics such as gender relations in the household, crime and punishment and environmental management. If you believe, as Jack Hirschleifer once claimed, that neoclassical theory provides the ‘universal grammar of social science’, this expansionary inclination is quite understandable. It is an approach to social issues that emphasises individualism and so-called ‘rational choice’, leading typically to market-oriented ways of dealing with social phenomena. In the extreme, as in the tradition pioneered by Gary Becker, it is the negation of enlightened social policy, seeing individual choice and incentives as the be-all-and-end-all of economy and society. So-called ‘Freakonomics’ also shares some of these characteristics, mixing a strong emphasis on selective empirical data about various forms of personal behaviour with a continual reassertion that ‘it is all about individual incentives’.

For political economists, by contrast, linking economic concerns with a broader array of social concerns is a two-way process. It involves learning from sociology, politics, geography, environmental science and history, in order to enrich our understanding of processes of economic development and social change. This approach is less arrogant and less assertive of the universality of rationalist economic principles. It results in a richer, more nuanced view of economy and society. It also leads, typically, to a more green, social democratic or socialist view of public policy and politics rather than to neoliberal prescriptions. Concerns about economic inequality and social justice loom large in this genuinely political economic alternative. So too do concerns about balancing economic, social and environmental goals rather than maximising GDP or any particular social welfare function.

Q.3 What led you to become a political economist rather than following mainstream economics?

My background was in the study of mainstream economics. I did a bachelors degree in the UK at the University of Southampton, followed by a PhD at the University of Reading. Like most students, I took the standard economics curriculum as given. However, looking back, I think I sensed at a fairly early stage that ‘there is something rotten in the state of Denmark’. The pure theory and mathematical formulations struck me as more elegant than relevant, and I was personally attracted to some of the ‘applied’ areas, such as industry economics and regional economics, where the institutional and empirical aspects were more prominent.

After coming to Australia in 1970 to teach at the University of Sydney, I came into contact with some challenging and more radicalising influences. One senior colleague at Sydney, Ted Wheelwright, was particularly encouraging of the study of more heterodox perspectives, including Marxian and institutional economics. I also had other good colleagues – appointed at about the same time when there was rapid expansion throughout the Australian tertiary education system – who share my emerging interest in developing the critique of orthodox economic theory. Also highly influential was the influence of dissident students who were starting to speak out critically about their economics education. It was at the time of the Vietnam War when Australian troops were supporting the US in that disastrous military intervention; and campus activism was an established tradition.

So when the economics students started to call for change in what they were being required to study, Wheelwright, I and some other colleagues in the Department of Economics supported them and cooperated in designing an alternative curriculum. The preferred alternative was pluralist in character, looking at central elements of neoclassical theory and Keynesian economics, but also exploring Marxist, institutionalism, feminist, environmentalist and post-Keynesian alternatives. For many of us, this was a driver for re-education, broadening our own horizons and studying currents of political economic thought to which we had not ourselves been previously exposed.

The senior professors of Economics at the University of Sydney resisted our proposals for curricular reform, defending the largely exclusive focus on conventional micro, macro and mathematical economics in the existing core courses. Since they would not agree to reform, we had to become a separatist movement. There were numerous demonstrations, petitions, occupations and a university-wide strike, calling for a political economy undergraduate program to be introduced. The student leaders were active, committed and effective; and they came along in successive waves over a number of years until the University authorities were ‘persuaded’ to allow political economy courses to be taught. The story of the conflict is told in detail in a book called Political Economy Now! The Struggle for Alternative Economics at the University of Sydney (2009), co-written with my colleagues Evan Jones and Gavin Butler.

The successful struggle resulted in new students having a choice between full undergraduate programs in either mainstream economics or political economy. There were also possibilities for individual students to choose to mix parts from each stream. Eventually, we developed a postgraduate political economy program too. Our student enrolments for undergraduate and postgraduate courses together now add to many hundreds annually. Unlike other universities where heterodox economics electives are sometimes available to students after they have been thoroughly schooled in the mainstream ‘core’ courses, our political economy program is available as an alternative sequence right from the first year onwards. This is one reason why, after reviewing the international array of heterodox economics courses, one recent survey described Sydney’s political economy program as ‘the world’s most distinctive undergraduate program in heterodox economics’ (Nesiba 2012, p. 191).

Personally, I’ve never had any regrets about embracing the political economy alternative. It has been a liberating and thoroughly fulfilling lifetime professional commitment. In teaching, it evidently meets a real need among students. Almost without exception, they find it a more engaging and interesting way to understand the economic forces shaping the world in which they live. Also, in respect of research, the political economy approach opens up a more interesting agenda. My own research and publications have focussed on economic inequalities, urban and regional studies, analyses of the state and an array of public policy issues, with particular emphasis in recent times on environmental challenges and the potential for green jobs. Research of this kind is clearly of interest to the labour movement and other progressive NGOs, who have an evident thirst for alternatives to the conservative and class-biased influence of mainstream economics. Editing The Journal of Australian Political Economy (free online at www.jape.org) is one avenue through which political economic research can be disseminated to this broader audience.

Q.4 How is your work received by economists?

Generally, mainstream economists simply ignore the contributions of radical critics. Indeed, almost by definition, people who do not subscribe to the standard principles of the subject are not regarded as ‘economists’. Only rarely do mainstream economic journals allow publication of fundamentally critical alternatives, other than when senior figures in the profession recant or otherwise express doubts about the value or their investments in the discipline – usually at around the time of their retirement. Even the latter seem few and far between these days compared with the 1970s and 1980s, when prominent figures in the profession commonly expressed deep reservations about neoclassical theory and mathematical economics. Stiglitz and Krugman are renowned for their partial criticisms of the orthodoxy and misconceived public policies in more recent times, but their barbs fall a long way short of J.K. Galbraith (senior)’s memorable claim in his Presidential address to the AEA in 1972 that ‘I would judge as well as hope that the current attack [on neoclassical economics] will prove decisive.’ The assault wasn’t decisive, of course, and nor can it be unless there is a ‘root-and-branch’ transformation of how the subject is taught, from the first year undergraduate level onwards.

A personal example of the difficulty of creating fissures in the wall of economic orthodoxy is illustrative. Over many years, my colleagues and I here at the University of Sydney wrote strongly argued explanations of why we were making our challenge to the discipline and what we were seeking to achieve. For example, I remember publishing an article in the 1980s in the Australian journal The Economic Record – when it had an editor open to alternative perspectives – which threw down the gauntlet to the orthodox economists. But none of this generated either response or impact. So, like most political economists, I’ve more recently published my work in books and journals which specialise in heterodox perspectives or in applied fields, such as urban, industry or environmental studies, where adherence to neoclassical orthodoxy is not required.

Q.5 What would it take to make mainstream economists sit up and take notice and change?

My former colleague Ted Wheelwright used to say that progress comes through the death of professors! While I don’t advocate that – certainly not as I move into a senior stage of life myself – it does seem that change has to occur generationally. It must begin at the entry-level. In other words, unless students are opened-up to alternative perspectives and then some of go on into academic careers that allow their teaching and research to develop in open, exploratory and critical ways, there will simply be an ongoing process of professional socialisation and reproduction. The hostility to anything that challenges the hegemony of neoclassical economics will continue. It has sometimes been said that economics is a very ‘taught’ subject, in that what is in the curriculum defines the core beliefs and principles of the profession. That’s why, in my judgement, it is the teaching of the subject that is so fundamentally important. Concurrently, a second avenue through which change also needs to be pursued is in the broader public arena: delegitimizing mainstream economic views in popular journalism and the media can help to create a climate in which more progressive interpretations and alternatives can get a much better hearing.

Q.6 How do you see political economy evolving?

There is much to be done in the further development of heterodox economics – developing alternative forms of analysis that help to explain economic phenomena in the world around us more effectively and pave the way for more progressive political responses. However, if political economy is only non-neoclassical economics – without challenging the methodology and power relations of the economics discipline – then I fear it will remain marginal. Sure, there is good work to be done in extending economic analysis in the various traditions of Marxism, institutionalism and post-Keynesianism, for example, but we need to work towards developing a comprehensive alternative to the mainstream. Pluralism is important in teaching: there is no doubt in my mind about that. Simultaneously, though, it is important to seek a fusion of these heterodox traditions into a thoroughgoing analysis of modern capitalism and the forces for political economic change.

Yes, there is a contest of economic ideas, but there is also a contest of economic interests, and the two are closely related. And the contest takes place in a changing world. As J.K. Galbraith the elder said, it is ultimately the ‘march of circumstances’ that is decisive. That is so evident today. As capitalism stumbles from crisis to crisis, economic inequalities widen and the economy-ecology collision course becomes ever more threatening, we desperately need alternatives to the status quo. If political economy can contribute to developing these alternatives, through teaching, research and public activism, then it has a tremendously valuable role to play.

Q.7 What are the prospects for teaching political economy in universities around the world?

My own experience is limited to the English-speaking countries, and to date it has not been a particularly pretty scene. The University of Sydney Political Economy program is one of very precious few where a coherent alternative to mainstream economic education has been established. There are other places in the US, Canada and UK, for example, where political economy has been strongly advocated and has made inroads into the standard curriculum. However, all too often, change of personnel has meant that the offerings are whittled away and don’t survive hostile attacks from mainstream economics professors and conservative administrators. But electives in political economy commonly flourish elsewhere in other departments – in political science, sociology and geography, for example, even in urban planning, social work and environmental studies. The problem there, though, is that a critical mass is seldom established, and the mainstream economists meanwhile carry on regardless.

As always, however, dialectical processes are at work. Current socio-economic and environmental problems are, in large measure, the consequence of mainstream economic interests and ideologies expressed in practice. These adverse social and environmental circumstances create both opportunities and demands for change. Political economists need to contribute positively. And this is more likely to happen if they share their understandings of these changing real-world conditions, processes and potentials. This is why the World Economics Association, the International Initiative for the Promotion of Political Economy and political economy conferences are so important. They provide key means of communication and bases for solidarity between otherwise isolated individuals who share that uneasy feeling about there being ‘something rotten in the state of Denmark’ (with all-due apologies to Shakespeare and the real Denmark!).

References

Butler. G., E. Jones and F. Stilwell (2009), Political Economy Now! The struggle for an alternative economics at the University of Sydney, Darlington Press, Sydney.

Nesiba, R.F. (2012), ‘What Do Undergraduates Study in Heterodox Economics Programs? An examination of the curricula structure at 36 self-identified programs’, On the Horizon, Vol. 20, No. 3 pp. 182-93

[Editor’s note: A conference, in honour of Frank Stilwell’s contribution to political economy, will be held at the University of Sydney on  April 4 and 5, 2013. The conference will have as its general theme: Australian Political Economy: the State of the Art. The sub-themes, reflecting the principal currents in Frank’s work are: contesting economic ideas, teaching political economy, analyzing economic inequality, developing economic policy, studying cities and regions, and towards a green economy. For further information, visit: www.jape.org]

From: Pp.9-12 of World Economics Association Newsletter 3(1), February 2013 http://www.worldeconomicsassociation.org/files/newsletters/Issue3-1.pdf

 

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