My Advice to an Aspiring Economist: Don’t Be an Economist

There is a new world that is fast-overtaking us, and it needs to be seen and explained on its own terms.

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By David Bollier

As a non-economist, I have little useful advice to young economists seeking to build a successful career. The typical path forward is to absorb the received wisdom of one’s elders and develop new insights within their frameworks of thought. But what I’d like to suggest is that the upcoming generation of economists needs to help their discipline come to terms with some epochal realities of our times. A number of forces — climate change, collapsing ecosystems (fisheries, coral reefs, soil desertification, loss of water, biodiversity loss), savage wealth inequality, tech monopolies, and their data-surveillance, the growing precarity of livelihoods – are challenging some foundational assumptions of standard economics. 

My advice to an aspiring economist, therefore, is to immerse yourself in disciplines and ways of life that lie outside of the prevailing economic paradigm and typical career paths. The future will require economics to rethink itself in light of what’s happening outside of its aging, self-referential modes of thought. It needs to seriously reexamine its ontological and epistemological premises to take account of the different ways of knowing and being beyond those of the modern, industrialized West. In short, the discipline, as currently taught, desperately needs to get beyond its “One-World World” perspective, as anthropologist Arturo Escobar puts it.  Outside of its narrow, asocial, and transaction-focused way of seeing the world, there is actually a pluriverse of life that intimately conjoins the human with the more-than-human and the individual with social collectives.

It would help, therefore, for economists to open up deeper conversations with the social sciences, especially anthropology and sociology, and with political economy, complexity sciences, and evolutionary sciences. Economists may also want to acknowledge the limits of intellectual inquiry itself. A significant amount of what we know is embodied in our bones, viscera, and flesh, and not necessarily part of anyone’s canon. It is tacit, situated, local, and embodied knowledge.  

Thankfully, the emotional and sociological dimensions of life – including in economic contexts – are beginning to get more serious attention. But generally, these phenomena are regarded as aberrations from the default “rational actor” model – or used as heterodox tools to advance familiar corporate and capitalist goals. Meanwhile, a backlash is brewing against the standard “free-market” narratives because of its limitations. Many critics are seeking a deeper, more structural paradigm shift in mindset that would make economics the servant of larger ethical, social, and ecological goals, and not an end in itself.

I bring some different perspectives about economics because I’ve been an activist/scholar involved with various citizen movements for more than forty years. I learned a great deal from my time with Ralph Nader and the consumer movement and as a (non-academic) scholar of the commons, which is emerging as a new/old paradigm of economics, politics, and culture. I have learned about economics from the outside in, so to speak.  I’ve found that many of its core premises – about the separation of humans from “nature”; about the purported sovereignty of humans as individual rational agents; about the glib conflation of price with value – to be untenable.

Working with Nader and the consumer movement in the late 1970s and 1980s, I learned through countless policy battles (safety design of cars, pesticides in food, workplace toxins, drug safety, etc.) that the narratives of free-market economics work much better as abstract theories and political cover-stories than as realistic accounts of everyday market life. Put more bluntly, by focusing so obsessively on market transactions, economic analysis tends to ignore social, ecological, and intergenerational realities. It tends to marginalize and dismiss them as “externalities.” The misguided presumption is that free markets are self-regulating and don’t really need governance (“market interventions”) – until, of course, the next oil spill, deadly drug, or speculative financial bubble intrudes to show otherwise. 

As various “externalities” from climate change to market abuses disrupt social stability and indeed, confidence in markets themselves, future economists will need to address a gaping hole in standard economic theory: How shall the anti-social, ecologically destructive tendencies of ‘free markets’ be reliably constrained or prevented in the first place? Given the political sabotage and systemic failures of government regulation over the past fifty years, this is a profound question. It’s entirely possible that waning social trust and legitimacy in the market/state system will intensify strongman, authoritarian responses, hastening the corporate neofeudalism underway.  

Are economists prepared to deal with such impending traumas? It’s clear to me that political economy – and the underlying cultural life that informs it – must increasingly be part of an economics education. 

Revisiting the work of economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi, especially his seminal book The Great Transformation, offers a good way to see capitalism in its larger historical dimensions. From there, move on to some contemporary, venturesome schools of economic thought that study complexity, social behavior, social networks, and evolution. Each is opening up fresh, more humanistic ways to understand the deeper logic of economic activity, and in some cases to offer illuminating new frameworks of understanding.   

Future economists should also reflect deeply on their field. If human societies are not simply aggregations of isolated individuals who come together to truck and barter, how then shall we conceptualize society?  It’s also worth questioning the very idea of the self-sovereign individual. We are not born as sovereign individual agents even though of course we have certain capacities and scope for self-determination. We are, rather, creatures whose personal development and flourishing requires that we be nested within social and intergenerational collectives.  We are actually “Nested-I’s.” 

As evolutionary scientists like E.O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson, and Martin Nowak have argued, group selection is a more influential force than individual selection in evolution. Collective social structures profoundly influence and constrain our individuality. Biologically speaking, it is even a bit difficult to talk about “individuals” as if they were separate from “nature.” Human beings could not function without millions of bacteria living in their guts, or without being immersed within a biodiverse ecosystem of living organisms. Yet much of economics remains locked into the mindset of atomistic, acquisitiveness individuals engaged in mechanical, cause-and-effect transactions in the service of capital accumulation. There is relatively little attention to the holistic, dynamic, non-linear dimensions of living systems. The notions of human aliveness and nonmarket values are scanted.

The idea of “rational self-interest” is now so thoroughly embedded in modern life that the ontological frame is considered self-evident. However, as economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis show in their book A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution, human beings have a rich evolutionary history of developing social systems and institutions to support “strong reciprocity” and collective interests. The significant work of the late Elinor Ostrom, too, helped demonstrate the profound importance of social collaboration as a powerful economic force. Alas, despite her receiving the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009 for her pioneering work, the discipline has not really embraced her perspectives more fully.

This is a shame. Ostrom’s work has been a bellwether for many social movements that reject the stunted social vision and imagination of standard economics. In my own work as a commons scholar, I have seen scores of self-organized commons function extremely well. They use peer-governance and -provisioning to give people greater control over their lives, and in more satisfying, humane ways than labor markets. One need only look to such phenomena as open-source software, cosmo-local production (globally shared design knowledge + local physical production), open-access scientific publishing, data commons, WiFi and civic infrastructures managed as commons, cooperatives, community land trusts, community-supported agriculture, agroecology, indigenous land stewardship, cohousing, participatory budgeting in government, and much else. 

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In our recent book, Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons, Silke Helfrich and I identify the success of these various commons models. They propose a very different ideation of what a human being is and does. If we are to understand the cooperation that has animated human affairs for millennia, we must see people’s lives as relational, and not merely transactional. We must start to interrogate the inner lives of participants and not rely on catchall tautologies that people rationally “maximize their utility.” Helfrich and I, therefore, propose a framework of “patterns of commoning” to explicate the salient ethical and social relationships that help produce stable, effective commons:  commons as social systems, and not commons as merely unowned resources.

These sorts of extra-economic departures are going to be vital in the future. Aspiring economists would do well to march boldly into these less familiar intellectual terrains and develop them. Otherwise, some archaic, parochial ideas will exceed their shelf-life, such as the idea that private property, market exchange, and contracts are the only serious regimes for meeting needs. Whether forced by pandemics or the collapsing infrastructures of capitalism, future economists will need to know that cooperation and commoning are pervasive and efficacious, even in “advanced” industrial civilizations. It’s just that they aren’t culturally legible or adequately studied by economics. On the map of economic inquiry, the human activities of commoning, mutual aid, peer provisioning, and care work might as well be labeled, “Dragons lie here!” 

Fortunately, evolutionary sciences are addressing some of these problems by exploring non-market behaviors and values that have marked the human species for eons. The dynamics of cooperation, relational commitments, and nonmaterialistic cosmovisions are getting new attention. Evolutionary sciences are also helping us realize that the premises of libertarian individualism that has long defined market economics, is in fact something of a utopian projection.  

And still, amidst all this tumult, many economists are disinclined to rethink the foundations of their field. It reminds me of the closing joke in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall. A guy has a crazy brother who thinks he is a chicken.  The doctor asks, ‘Why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy replies, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ ” 

Why is the free-market discourse so perdurable despite so many social, ecological, and political realities that call its logic and categories of thought into question?  Because the whole field, despite its flaws, is functional enough and entrenched. It needs the eggs — the certitude of quantitative analysis aping the hard sciences, the credentialed expertise always in demand by powerful institutions, the prestige that comes with proximity to power. 

But behind these factors, there is a new world a-bornin’ that economics needs to engage with and understand. There are brilliant economic thinkers like Kate Raworth, inventor of “doughnut economics” framework; the writings of degrowth economist Jason Hickel and the late anthropologist David Graeber; the thinkers associated with the web journal Real World Economics; and a number of student associations clamoring for new economic paradigms and pedagogy. Beyond reading the right things, I find that it helps a lot to hang out with the right crowd, listen to serious new voices, and bring one’s full humanity to the questions of the moment. 

Economists of all ages – but especially younger ones who have the suppleness and imagination to grow – need to pay attention to these outsider voices. There is a new world that is fast-overtaking us, and it needs to be seen and explained on its own terms. 

Originally published at This View of Life’s Advice for Aspiring Economists series.

31 January, 2021

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