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Maeve Cohen, Director of Rethinking Economics, discusses why the Citizens' Economic Council report should recommend a reform of economics education.

The RSA’s Citizens’ Economic Council (CEC) is a welcome development in the ongoing movement to reform economics. The financial crash of 2008 shone a light on the failings of economics, exposing many of the flaws that have been built into its structures and institutions for decades. The human cost of these failings was vast, and the subsequent response of politicians and economic institutions has failed to address these losses.

We now live in a world of stagnating wages, insecure employment, regional and income inequality and low growth. These are the result of economic decision making, and they all greatly affect the lives of UK citizens. With this in mind, perhaps the most glaring shortcomings of our economic institutions have been their continuing lack of transparency, their inability to communicate messages effectively, and their failure to include citizens in their decision-making processes.

The CEC goes a long way towards showing us what a more inclusive economics looks like. It delivers workable recommendations that spell out how our institutions could practically engage citizens. This is not only done by communicating economic concepts clearly, it’s also about creating spaces in which people can actively contribute, adding the expertise of their lived experiences to the economic expertise of practitioners.

However, the change that the RSA seek and which we so desperately need will be unachievable unless we have economists that can put these recommendations into action. To achieve this it is essential that we not only reform the way in which economic institutions deliberate, but that we also reform the way economists are taught.

Universities across the country continue to teach economics as a value-free science, detached from politics and philosophy and without people at its core. It teaches one school of thought and one methodology as the single and correct way to do economics. It teaches a language that only economists can speak, but fails to equip them with adequate communications skills. It applies reasoning that makes sense in mathematical models but holds little use in the reality of our messy, complicated world. Worst of all, it fails to embed human experience, society and morality in these models.

And so we live in a world of ‘elite’ economic policy-makers who are unable to communicate with the people who their policies affect. This has led to economic policies that aren’t addressing the needs of the population, an economic elite who are not accountable to the public, and a population with an inherent distrust of economists. It should come as no surprise then, that voters ignored the overwhelmingly anti-Brexit message they were bombarded with by economists in the EU referendum campaign last year. The language spoken by economists is no longer trusted by the public nor resonates with the public. This language is learnt during the narrow, overly-mathematical training most economists receive at university. 

Because of this, I would add one last recommendation to the CEC report; reform economics education. The Citizens’ Economic Charter, one of the outcomes of the CEC, addresses many of the shortcomings of our education system. It speaks of ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’, moral values that are not considered in economic degrees. It talks about environmental sustainability, innovation, financial crises and different forms of equality, all of which can be examined through various lenses that are not taught to economic students.

But we should go further. We should teach economics as a social science, with people at its heart. We should make sure that all new economists leave university understanding that their discipline is value-laden and inextricable from history, politics, philosophy and sociology. Students should be taught that economics does not happen in a vacuum, that there is no one-size-fits-all method, that there are different ways to look at the economy and different approaches that apply to different economic problems. We should train economists to understand that clear communication and engagement is essential to a functioning democracy and that economic policies will only be legitimate and successful when understood and endorsed through transparent democratic processes.

Until we have economists that recognise the expertise of citizens and the human costs of their policies, we will remain locked in a stalemate of an untrusting population and a floundering elite. A reformed economics syllabus producing economists that are fit for purpose, alongside economic institutions that are actively engaging the public, are essential steps in the march towards an economy that works for everyone.

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