Delving deeper into an economics Reformation | Letters

In the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which challenged a single dominant belief system, we agree it is time for the reformation of another all-embracing and powerful set of beliefs: that of mainstream economics (Larry Elliott: Economics needs a Reformation of its own, 18 December). Neoclassical theories currently dominate the university teaching of economics, as well as public debate, policy and decision making. Yet we believe they have assumed this level of influence not as the result of open debate, challenge and the scientific method, but as a belief system whose founding principles now pass unquestioned. Its proponents claim special authority to pronounce on all matters and its teaching has taken on the characteristics of indoctrination: students being asked to memorise and repeat rather than to criticise and evaluate.

The world faces poverty, inequality, ecological crises and financial instability that mainstream economics, apparently incapable of self-correction, seems powerless to understand, let alone help address. We support the call made last week in the publication of “33 theses for an economics reformation” for radically greater pluralism, and believe this necessary if we are to reverse these problems. It must begin with reform of the way economics research is funded in universities, which under the present system perpetuates the monopoly of a single narrow perspective. Ending the unhealthy intellectual monopoly within economics is not just about making the discipline more effective and democratic, it is essential to raise our collective chances of surviving and thriving.

Victoria Chick Emeritus professor of Economics, University College London, Professor Stephany Griffith-Jones Financial markets director, Columbia University, Frances Stewart Professor emeritus, University of Oxford, Jayati Ghosh Professor of economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, Steve Keen Professor of economics, author Debunking Economics, Andrew Simms New Weather Institute, research associate, University of Sussex, Prof Danny Dorling Oxford University, Dr Ha-Joon Chang Reader in economics, University of Cambridge, Sir David King Emeritus professor, University of Cambridge, Ian Gough Visiting professor, London School of Economics, Kate E Pickett Professor of epidemiology, University of York, Tim Jackson Professor of sustainable development, University of Surrey, Kate Raworth Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University, Richard Wilkinson Emeritus professor of social epidemiology, University of Nottingham, Professor Adam David Morton Department of political economy, University of Sydney, Peter Newell Professor of international relations, University of Sussex, Mario Seccareccia Professor of economics, University of Ottawa, Mehmet Ugur Professor of economics and institutions, University of Greenwich, Richard Murphy Professor of international political economy, City, University of London, Alan Cibils Professor of political economy, Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento, Argentina, Professor Rebecca Malby London South Bank University, Mike Danson Professor of enterprise policy, Heriot-Watt University, Prof Tim Lang City, University of London, Prof Christine Cooper University of Strathclyde, Bill McGuire Professor emeritus of geophysical and climate hazards, University College London, Cyrus Bina Distinguished research professor of economics, University of Minnesota, Marc Lavoie Senior research chair, Université Sorbonne Paris Cité, Emeritus professor, Department of Economics, University of Ottawa, Louis Philippe Rochon Full professor, economics, Laurentian University, Professor Alfredo Saad Filho Department of Development Studies, Soas, University of London, Professor Lyla Mehta Institute of Development Studies, UK, Pritam Singh Professor of economics, Oxford Brookes Business School, John Weeks Professor emeritus of economics, Soas, University of London, Professor Rhys Jenkins School of International Development, University of East Anglia, Professor Aled Jones Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University, Professor Howard Stein Department of Epidemiology, University of Michigan, Michael Lipton Emeritus professor, economics, Sussex University, Professor Emeritus Geoffrey C Harcourt Adelaide, Emeritus reader in the history of economic theory, Cambridge, Peter Taylor-Gooby Professor of social policy, University of Kent, Tony Greenham Director of economics, Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, Victor Anderson Visiting professor, Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University, Philip Daniel Honorary professor, University of Dundee, Judith Heyer Emeritus fellow, economics, Somerville College, Oxford, Dr Suzanne J Konzelmann Reader in management, Birkbeck, University of London; Co-executive editor, Cambridge Journal of Economics, Dr Andrew Denis Department of Economics, City, University of London, Dr Steven Hail School of Economics, University of Adelaide, Dr Daniela Senkl University of Strathclyde Business School, Dr Kalim Siddiqui The Business School, University of Huddersfield, Dr Charlie Dannreuther School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds, Dr Andreas Antoniades Senior lecturer in global political economy, University of Sussex, Dr David Ockwell University of Sussex, Dr Josh Ryan-Collins Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, University College London, Dr Michael Joffe Imperial College London, Dr Mary M Cleveland School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, Dr Emanuele Lobina Public Services International Research Unit, University of Greenwich, Dr Eugenia Correa Mexico National University, Stewart Lansley Fellow, City, University of London, Gareth Dale Brunel University, Lynsey Hanley Lancaster University, Neal Lawson Chair of Compass, Ann Pettifor Director, Prime Economics, Anna Coote Principal fellow, New Economics Foundation, Dr Mark S Freeland (retired) Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, US Department of Health & Human Services, Jennifer Castañeda-Navarrete Institute of Development Studies, UK, Tim Crabtree Senior lecturer in economics, Schumacher College, Will Straw (Personal capacity)

The Women’s Budget Group, with its long history of uncovering gender biases in economic thinking, very much supports the aim of the call for an Economics Reformation. However, none of the 33 Theses for an Economics Reformation aim to correct the key omissions in mainstream economics that render it gender blind, and therefore powerless to address both current gender inequalities and the unsustainability of care provision around the world. The 33 theses rightly highlight that ecological systems are central to the functioning of the economy and challenge economic models that treat the natural world as somehow external to the economy. The same message should be included about care provision.

To create an economics that works for women as well as men requires recognition of the economic importance of unpaid work in families and communities, the centrality of care to human wellbeing and that the care of people is a necessary component of the way economies reproduce themselves. Without such a recognition, the long overdue Economics Reformation risks being partial and will inevitably let down half the world’s population.

Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson Director, Women’s Budget Group, Dr Angela O’Hagen Convenor, Scottish Women’s Budget Group, Susan Himmelweit Emeritus professor of economics, Open University, Diane Elson Emeritus professor, University of Essex, Dr Kate Maclean Birkbeck, University of London, Rosalind Bragg Director, Maternity Action, Dr Johnna Montgomerie Senior lecturer in economics, Goldsmiths, University of London, Ruth Pearson Emeritus professor, University of Leeds, Annalise Verity Johns, Polly Trenow, Ceri Hughes University of Manchester, Dr Jay Ginn Associate, Centre for Research on Ageing and Gender, Surrey University, Marie Lewis Independent researcher, Dr Jerome De Henau Senior lecturer in economics, Open University, Dr Gill Kirkup Senior lecturer for the Institute of Educational Technology, Open University, Dr Penny Vera-Sanso Birkbeck, University of London, Hilary Land Emeritus professor of family policy and child welfare, University of Bristol, Professor Diane Perrons London School of Economics, Helen Jackson, Dr Sarah Marie Hall Lecturer in human geography, University of Manchester, Fran Bennett

As a former teacher of the history of economic thought I was interested to read Larry Elliott’s article. The problem for me is that economics has forgotten what it once knew. One of the “greats” of the subject, John Stuart Mill, said in the 19th century that economics proceeds under the assumption that humans are “determined by nature, to prefer a greater portion of wealth to a smaller in all cases”. This is what we refer to today as rational economic man. But how many economists today are aware of his qualification? “Not that any political economist was ever so absurd as to suppose mankind are really thus constituted, but because this is the mode in which the science must necessarily proceed”. Mill believed that we could only draw useful conclusions from economics by reintegrating them back into a wider social model. Unfortunately many economists today do seem to suppose mankind is thus constituted and Mill is forgotten.

Dr Pete Clarke

Wallasey, Merseyside

It is excellent that some economists and students of economics are trying to bring about a revolution in the discipline. But Larry Elliott’s account fails to go to the heart of the matter. At root, economics is concerned to help solve a problem of living, having to do with the creation and distribution of wealth – or, better, the sustainable creation and just distribution of wealth. Granted that the task of economics is to improve our attempts at solving this basic, real-life problem, economics needs to give intellectual priority not to theory or the pursuit of knowledge, but to (a) getting clearer what our economic problems are, and (b) proposing and critically assessing policies designed to help solve them. Knowledge needs to be sought as a secondary activity, to support those basic tasks. As I argued in detail in a book called From Knowledge to Wisdom first published in 1984, a revolution is needed in economic thinking so that the central task becomes to develop imaginative and critical thinking about what we need to do to solve our economic problems.

Nicholas Maxwell

Emeritus reader, science and technology studies, University College London