A broken discipline: Why class matters.
There are many things wrong with economics. There are also some things that economics does well. But, let us be honest, a lot needs to be changed. Be it textbooks that are still teaching out-of-date models and theories as gospel. Be it the gatekeeper atmosphere that is increasingly (here and here to show just a few). Be it the unnecessary jargon that is off-putting to everyday people in thestreet. I could go on forever. Despite the many issues within economics, a running theme is a lack of understanding about class.
Economics can radically transform the lives of those at the bottom if donecorrectly. Yet, they are not acknowledged. Neither seen nor heard in economic thinking. Neither in the research and analysis in academia nor the economic decision-making of the public or private sectors. Without the involvement of the working class in economic decision-making, at the higher levels and the local ones too, the working class will not be able to take control of their livelihoods.
This article will explain why class matters in economics and why it needs to be brought to the front and centre of the discipline. So, grab a cup of tea, buckle up and take notes.
A personal reflection
Growing up in the 90s and early 2000s on council estates in the North of England, economics and politics never crossed my mind, and I do not think they crossed my parents' minds either. Like millions of families, we were just trying to get by. As long we got fed, had clothes and a roof over our heads, we were happy. Economics, class, and being poor weren’t a “thing” to me. To be honest, I had no idea they were. It wasn’t until certain events that I thought things might not be the same for everyone.
One major one, which I think will ring true for many people, was the 2008 financial crisis. Mass unemployment was rife, especially in deprived areas where I grew up. Unfortunately, my father was one of those made redundant from his factory job, which had a long-lasting impact on his future health and career.
I remember being in school, it was one of the first few weeks after the summer break, and we were discussing family life in one of our lessons. Most of my peers seemed to have a reasonably eventful summer. Going on holidays abroad, trips to theme parks, summer schools and using their season tickets at the local rugby league team. I remember thinking, how can their families afford all this? Didn’t everyone’s parents recently lose their jobs? That was my understanding of what was happening in the news.
Anyway, it came around to me, and I was bricking it. I could only think of going to the local workingman’s social club and playing pool with my father. Nothing major, but it was something. Some pop, a Plougman's lunch, some games of pool and that was all I needed and wanted. Laughter erupted from the class. And it wasn’t like I attended a school in an affluent area, it was a standard Roman Catholic high school, but it made me realise we were not all in the same boat.
Fast forward to university and I ventured over to Belfast to study economics. I loved it in college, mainly because of my economics teacher Mr Barlow, and I was excited to learn what economics really offered. Although, I quickly realised two things. First, what is taught within economics education is not representative of the real world. Grand. It might be interesting in an academic sense and mathematically beautiful, but where is this perfectly rational individual we keep talking about? Are you telling me my father’s unemployment wasvoluntary because he was not willing to work? It didn’t click with me. That is not how things worked. Secondly, those who studied economics were primarilyfrom well-off families. Nothing against them. But it was interesting first to wonder why I wasn’t meeting anyone else from a similar background to mine.
Being working class in economics
Nobody talks like that
After spending a while within economics, you begin to see that the lack of individuals from underrepresented backgrounds feeds into the problem of the way we speak in economics.
Whenever there is a discussion or debate in economics by influential economists, who are all usually cut from the same cloth, almost nobody in the conversation has any experience with poverty. That is not to say that they should be made to experience what poverty feels like, performative empathy like that does nobody any good, but they should talk and listen to those for whom poverty is their everyday lives.
Their lack of experience with poverty or even speaking to anyone they are researching leads to incompetence regarding what questions are being asked and how we discussthese issues.
For example, for the past decade, economists have been racking their brains foranswers to why spending has not gone back up since 2008. Go into any economics department and you will hear this explanation from most mainstream economics professors, “it was an exogenous shock to consumption savings preferences.”Yeah, this sounds sophisticated, arguably, but nobody is going around talking like that.
Gointo any council estate in Greater Manchester or into the Caramujo favela in Rio de Janeiro, and nobody will give you this as a reply. “Yeah, I have not been spending any money because I had an exogenous shock to my consumption savings preferences.” Sounds odd, doesn’t it?
What you will hear, though, is, “I lost my job”, “my benefits were cut”, “how can I spend if my rent has gone through the roof?”, “We are spending, spending enough just to get by”, etc. Nobody talks like the professors, and it leads us to focus on the wrong things. Economists need to get out of their ivory towers, speak to the public in a way they can relate and above all else, listen.
Your experience of the economy matters. Your experience if you are poor is fundamentally different from that of a wealthy or comfortable middle-class individual. We need to listen to the working class, in all its diversity, to have economics which is for the working class with them at the heart of it. And even more importantly, economics written and spoken by them.
“That is not our reality!”
As already briefly noted, when what is being taught in economics is so far removed from the everyday experience of millions of people, it makes you wonder, what is the point?
Since the days of Reagan and Thatcher, trickle-down economics has been the dominant mantra. If you are not familiar with the concept, it is the idea that economic gains first start off with the wealthy and the elite and then dribble down tothe rest of us lowly paupers. In a nutshell, claiming the bourgeoisie are the drivers of growth. But unfortunately, despite what the proponents proclaim it does, this is not the case.
Yet, the point and reality are simple to those in the top echelons of business and politics. It justifies a concentration of power and wealth to a select few. What is taught is for the haves and not the have-nots. Of course, many economists, especially those from comfortable backgrounds, will read this and sneer. Yet, this is glaringly obvious to those who have broken through to makeit to university and beyond. The economics taught today doesn’t reflect thereality of most people, especially those from deprived and marginalised backgrounds.
Since the shift from political economy to the realm of economics, class has largely been shunned to the backrooms with the creation of homo economicus. With the “everyday man”, economics was announcing to the world that class no longer matters. We are all the same now. Forever rational, forever perfect. The vast array of tastes, wants, likes, and nuances of society are forgotten about an dreduced to a particular representative type.
Why is it like this?
This begs the question, why is this the experience of working-class people within economics? I think it is mainly down to two things—the first coming from the origin of economics as a discipline. In the late 1800s, we moved away from political economy to economics. The focus shifted away from class relations to the mythical representative individual. And with this change, the questions being asked changed.
Class is fundamentally a relation. A power relation between various groups and howthis relation manifests itself. Therefore, once class was cast asunder, discussion of power was also thrown to the side. We were suddenly all the same,and there was no difference between us.
The second main element is that the pipeline from high school to university andbeyond is extremely narrow. As Advani, Griffith and Smith (2019) have shown, economics has a diversity problem, and this starts way before getting to university. Looking at Britain, 1 in 5 students at independentschools study economics, whereas for comprehensive schools it is 1 in 12. Economists mainly coming from the same background is not just a British phenomenon. It is also happening in the US; see the work of Stansbury &Schultz (2021) onthe socioeconomic background of economics PhDs in the US.
Yet, behind this shift of focus is what I like to call the carrot-and-stick mechanism of economics.
Carrot and stick economics
As much as economics portrays itself as a field of objectivity and discovery, it is one of obedience and discipline. Attempt to stray from the fixed path, and you will be quickly put back into place.
From your first economics lesson, you are moulded into a perfect, ideal, obedient econ, and the further you go into the labyrinth, the harder it is to get out. Firstly, since, as an individual, you have put so much time and effort into praying into one perspective that you refuse to let it go. Sunk costs are too high, some may say. Secondly, a sense of Stockholm syndrome. You despiseorthodox economics and everything that comes with it, but you develop a bondwith it that you cannot let go of. You are comfortable, and you want to stick to what you know. Heck, humans are afraid of change; indeed, the hyperrational econ is just the same. Mainstream economics has gripped you, and you are now acog in the machine. Sure, this does not mean you cannot leave the mainstream. It just becomes more challenging to do so.
Economics has evolved to reward those who repeat and do not question, putting these economists into significant influence and esteem positions. If they dare to go against the tide, the stick takes over. You get shocked by the electric fence. For example, being publicly lambasted by their peers, covertly being removed from jobs, having their platform/voice taken away etc. Not in the way that somemainstream economists think they are being "cancelled", which to them is having others call them out on their nonsense ideas and takes but still gaining a more considerable following, yet being actively hushed up not to cause any hassle. Because if you do, good luck, see you later.
Mainstream economists repeat the line of the mainstream narrative because of the incentives to do so. Economics as a discipline filters out those they deem nota good fit or the wrong type of economist. So, with those who end up in the upper echelons of economics, the voices, the "leaders", are precisely where they are because they do as they are told. If they believed in anything different, which some may claim to do, they would not be sitting in the positions they are currently occupying. They are the obedient ones.
Grand,they might say, "We are only going along with the flow due to career progression, then, and only then, once we get tenure, can we begin to go against the grain". Of course, we all want progression. Of course, we do. Yet, by the time they reach this point in their lives, they are so accustomed to how they have been doing things, shifting demand and supply graphs, utility functions, etc.; what is the chance of them changing now? Slim to none. Even if they do, they will have hardly deviated from the norm. The positive reinforcements are that beset now, financial and/or prestige. They are hardlygoing to budge now.
Now the stick. Make even a little bit of noise for more diversity in the field, be it of economists or what economists teach and learn, then the intimidation tactics set in. EJMR goes into overdrive. Catty tweets and blog posts are written. Words are had on the phone and behind closed doors. The consequences start rolling, some more public, others not. But they both become part of thesame broader campaign to drag you back on board, actively asserting its conservative dominance.
A ramification of this carry-and-stick mechanism is that we see those at the top of the discipline working closely with governments and multinational corporations. Not because they believe they are doing something good, albeit some may, but because the individual benefit they get from doing so, be it financial and/or prestige, outweighs what they perceive to be the public costof undertaking the work. Although, they do not realise that the small remuneration they get for repeating government and MNC talking points isminuscule to the benefit of what governments and MNCs get.
So, the continuous reinforcement of anti-class based thought in academia reverberates into positions of power and back again. The field of economics has conditioned itself to disregard class analysis, and from this, it has a knock-on effect on policies that are put into place.
The effects on policy and society
One policy for all, different responses for many
Why does all this matter?
Th egeneral belief in the representative agent has been strikingly evident with the furlough scheme that came out of the halls of Westminster here in Britain. The scheme was introduced as a buffer to stop impending mass unemployment due to COVID-19 spreading through the population. The aim was to keep the economy in a state of suspension, where people can still spend, and therefore the economy does not implode on itself. Yet, the impact of this has been different from one person to the next.
Imagine two individuals. One who has a comfortable life. Owns their own house,a few cars, a stable job, and maybe even a skiing trip to the Alps in the winter each year. Then think of another. An individual in precarious employment, behind on their rent, unsure where the next meal is coming from, would be lucky to get out of the city for a day trip. Now, how has the furlough scheme impacted them both?
The latter has likely taken a pay cut, with no corresponding cut in their expenditures. An even higher percentage of their income is now on rent and food. They were struggling before; they are even more so now. The former is doing relatively okay. They can work from home, have enough savings in the bank for times like this, and even be saving more money than before. Their trip tothe Alps might have been cancelled this year, but all is good. They can cope.
One blanket policy for all has different impacts on all. Could a focus of class in economics teaching and policy make a difference? A 100% yes. A better understanding could have led to more targeted support for those most in need, leading to a better outcome.
Building those ladders
The number of individuals involved in economics, at all levels, from deprived backgrounds is extremely low. From university lecturers to central bankers to media economists, financial traders, policy wonks, and everything in between. Economists are plucked from the same school of fish. There is a chance you might get one or two that breakthrough, yet the hurdles they will have had to jump to get the smallest of opportunities are massive.
As Duncan Exeley put it on Twitter,
“ladders should be designed by people who know what it’s like to climb one”
This hymn should be sung from the rooftops of economics, especially from the stale choir of economic policymaking. For example, look at the Universal Credit disaster here in England, Scotland, Wales and the North of Ireland. A policy that, on the face of it, should make sense. Simplifying the welfare system. Yet, its implementation of it is far from what was envisaged. A policy which you can bet your last pound had little to no input from anyone who has been on unemployment benefits. A policy created by individuals so far removed from the reality of ever having to be on it themselves, it was not constructed in theinterests of those who need it—forged as a policy to punish individuals rather than help those who most need it.
A 5-week wait before your first payment. Job “Coaches” do very little to help you find a job. Being called a customer or client. But I am telling you now that if you put a room of working-class economists together with individuals from council estates up and down the country and tasked them to create a welfare system from scratch, the outcome would be very different. I would be that confident to have bet my last pound of Universal Credit on it. Not because they are “smarter” individuals and/or they all think the same, but because they understand what it is like to live on the breadline. These are the people who know best how to build that ladder as it is the reality and experiences of their own, friends and families’ lives.
And not just the best to build one ladder to improve the livelihoods of those from the most deprived areas of society, but a plethora of ladders, going off in every direction. A scaffolding of real progress. Give the people the tools and techniques to build their structures and watch them flourish.
The perception of economics
People understand economics, but it is not in a language most people can grapple with. All you have to do is turn on the news and see who is talking about economics. Full of jargon which is off-putting to most people. And people can’t grapple with it not because they do not understand what is being spoken about, far from it, but because the language is overcomplicated. This feeds into how the public sees economics. As something done to them by “smart” people and something that they have little control over. Economics as a discipline has created its aura of prestige
Why does all this matter?
Well. Each year thousands of students finish their economics degrees with little or no grasp of how different classes interact with themselves and each other in the economy. They see everybody as the “representative agent”, whether they consciously or unconsciously like it or not. This, in turn, affects how they create and implement policies. The consequence is thinking everyone will reactthe same way to whatever is proposed. This is not the case.
Unless we take class seriously within economics, we will be doing a massive injustice to our students, ourselves, our communities and society.
What can be done?
Simply, we need to bring economics and class back to the streets.
The Working Class Economists Group, The WCEG, has been created to connect, empower, and highlight working-class economists worldwide. Our aim as a collective is to increase working-class representation within economics and in the broader society.
The ball is already rolling, and we have some exciting plans lined up for thefuture! So, please get in touch if you want to get involved, collaborate, or learn more. You can find us on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube (also have a look at our wonderful website!). You can also get in touch with us by email at email@example.com.
This is all great and exciting, but one thing must be emphasised. A proper understanding of class is not the only thing that matters if we are to see any real change. We need a better understanding of race, gender, disability and environmental issues as well. So as well as supporting and getting behind The WCEG, you should also get behind the rest of these wonderful organisations pushing for change.
The Black Economists Group
Diversifying and Decolonising Economics
Economists for Future
The Sadie Collective
Class is only one part of the puzzle, with many missing pieces. But, withoutthem all working together, we cannot see the bigger picture.
We are at a critical juncture in economics. If we do not broaden our horizons now, we may never do so. However, with each passing moment we fail to act, the harder it becomes to change down the line. Luckily, there are many more amazing groups than I had the space to list, wanting something different. What is outstanding is that this change is being pushed from those just entering economics, from those early on in their careers and even more importantly, your everday member of your community. This gives me hope. Yet,change does not happen overnight, and it will be a long slog which we all will have to roll up our sleeves for and get stuck in.
Economics is about what is happening in the real world and not some hypothesised ideal scenarios of what ought to be. If we are to understand the real world, we need to understand class relations. That means we need first to get angry. Without that anger and drive, the rest will wither away. Next, we need to organise. Join and support groups pushing for change and have those much-needed conversations. I think many people will be surprised how thousands of other sthink the same. Finally, we need to agitate. Put our anger at the current state of economics and our conversations/debates with other economists into action.There is no point talking about making economics a better place if we do not puteffort into getting it.
Those at the top will have to start noticing the issues at hand. But, of course, a lot of them will be resistant to change. But if they don’t want to give up the space, we will make it ourselves. The horse is about to bolt out of the stables. Will you keep up?