Burn The CBE Down

Art by Xuming Du

One faces a lot of understandable stigma for studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE). Truly, the oppression is unimaginable. It began when I told my Dad I wanted to study PPE and he politely told me to fuck off because I was not a Tory (British Conservative) and never would be. I told him PPE wasn’t like that in Australia, it didn’t inculcate a disdain for the poor or a belief in the supremacy of markets.

I thought I was correct. Right up until I had to study the economics courses that form the final, pretentious syllable of PPE. Because there is something seriously flawed both in economics as a field and in how the ANU teaches it.

I do not know how the College of Business and Economics likes to brand the economic ideology of its professors, but I struggle to find how it differs from neoliberalism. I distinctly remember learning in my first Microeconomics class that humans are rational individuals, who always reason through their choices and who always choose the option that maximises their utility. From here, we steadily built up models to show us how markets work most of the time, and when they didn’t, we learnt why government intervention was risky.

Then we studied Macroeconomics. Because my lecturer made reference to Thomas Piketty – a French economist whose writing explores a third economic model between socialism and capitalism – I thought this would be better. Yet, we still fall into similar pitfalls. Climate change was an externality which taxes would internalise, not a reflection of the fundamental problem of an economy that must grow to survive on a planet that cannot ever accommodate it. I lost all hope when we learnt why some countries have different levels of economic growth. The explanation did not stop, nor begin with “Because some (Europe) enslaved and colonised the others” and was instead chalked up to different levels of capital. A neat way of hiding the centuries of plundering, violence and literal exploitation required to build a Eurocentric economy. I asked the lecturer about this once; he said that we had to draw the historical line somewhere. Convenient place.

None of this is new. I have not re-invented the wheel. But when life meets the expectations that everyone and everything set for you, it can still be annoying and disappointing. And I think that while we study at the ANU, it is still worth talking specifically about what we learn. To beat the dead horse, economics matters. Almost every political crisis we face has an economic dimension. From the victories of the far-right to tensions with China or to the ongoing oppression of First Nations Australians, none of these problems can be solved without engaging with the economy. But the teachings of the CBE will draw the line, arguing that, at some point, economics stops even though capitalism insists the world keep on turning. Real economics that puts the person, not their utility, first, can interweave ethics, history, environmental science and politics. It helps us better understand the world we live in, and to solve our distribution and production issues. I am going to go ballistic if I see another supply and demand diagram.

The major problem I see – as a completely unqualified undergraduate – is the inability of the CBE to teach heterodox economics. Heterodox teaching, broadly, means to teach multiple theories and perspectives, not just conforming to one. Eleanor Ostrom is a Nobel laureate economist who pioneered key ideas in the school of institutional economics, arguing that solving collective action problems requires context-dependent solutions, not the blankets of neoliberalism or socialist thought. I learnt about her in a politics class, then again in an environmental studies class. Never did I hear her name in economics. Piketty – the Frenchman mentioned above– has created a statistical hellscape to show that the only other time the world has had so much wealth inequality was on the eve of World War 1. Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated empirically that humans are irrational creatures who cannot compute their own utility, or even straightforward questions of probability. I learnt about him in a politics class as well. The CBE teaches one single vein of economic thought: the simplest.

This neoliberal vein has become a force for the rich and the powerful, an incredible means to stop any true reform of the economy. It does this by creating a theory and a model of the world that renders socio-economic issues inexplicable. The debates had in an economics classroom are locked in the context of the 1980s. Inflation is chalked up to demand in the economy – even though research shows this isn’t true in the modern economy – and that demand is blamed on consumers, even as report after report finds that company profits are driving current inflation. Each new issue, no matter how much it shows that profits are antithetical to human and ecological interests, gets tacked on as another externality. Until you have some lumbering, Frankenstein-like model of the world in which the supposed good of the market is hidden beneath each example of market failure that somehow seems to happen to nearly all markets.  

There are countless other problems with modern economics and the CBE, but heterodoxy is the starting point. It would include embracing the historical nature of economics, allowing students to see how the modern world is built off racism and colonialism. It can also help pull economics away from its physics envy, to talk more about the economy as a system and to talk about the system that underpins the economy: the environment. Its not a silver bullet, but by god its somewhere to start.

It may feel mean and short-sighted to single out the CBE and it probably is. Most Western economics departments have fallen into the same trap, and some have it far worse than the ANU. But I would like to tell my dad that I’m not a Tory, so can we not just talk about something new for once? I would encourage the CBE to think about the ground-breaking researchers they quote, the Pikettys and the Raworths. Understand that what you can start teaching students those concepts now. That students need to learn older concepts before they learn new ones is a lie when those new ones disprove the older ones.

Yet, at the end of the day, the CBE, like all colleges, must produce graduates ready to enter the workforce. What EY partners wants a grad who actually thinks?

For the other PPE students out there, I can only recommend ENVS2007- Economics for the Environment by Beck Pearse. Our current exalted convenor will let it count as economics. It really is a breath of fresh air, before we run out of that too.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.