Location: Providence, RI, U.S.A. My Wednesday began in the social hall of Brown's Hillel building, where the sessions of the "Towards a Critical Global Humanities" BIARI are taking place. Harvard University's Roberto Unger opened the day with his presentation, "Free Trade Re-imagined: the World Division of Labor and the Method of Economics." This initially struck me as an odd topic for a humanities conference, but as it turns out, econ is one of the foci of this BIARI as a whole (from that link, scroll down to "The Global Crisis and the Discipline of Economics"). Indeed, perhaps because of the stated "urgency" of this BIARI's economic days, today's sessions seemed exhaustively but efficiently deep and wide-reaching. Admittedly, though, that may just be a function of variation among faculty from different backgrounds; in any case, today's panelists covered a lot of ground, so bear with me. One more note before I get to the highlights: at all the sessions I attended today, a video camera was also present, recording the presentations and Q&A sessions. If and when I find out that the video has been posted on YouTube or elsewhere online, I will add a link or embed it here.
Unger's main argument was that the world needed to reconsider the role and function of the market in national and international economies. The Global Economic Crisis (GEC) provided an "immense transformative opportunity," he said, which has already been "largely squandered...[but] the opportunity for insight has not yet been." Unger scoffed at the bulk of the responses to the GEC so far, alleging that the crisis was set off by and provided an open door to extraordinary changes in the global economy. Unger said the rise of credit and decline of production in the U.S. left a space for China to swoop in and become the world's manufacturer/supplier, which in turn has inhibited somewhat economic reconstruction stateside. He said the current debate in the aftermath of the GEC (a.k.a. the "Great Recession") is a reevaluation of the relationship between finance and production; most companies in the U.S. have become mostly self-financing. In his view, this had turned the banks and stock markets into organs of a "financial casino," segregated from the national output. The popularization of credit, Unger added, cannot replace the democratization of economic opportunity, something he doesn't see happening even after the exceptional panic of the GEC. Indeed, he suggested that sort of democratization cannot happen within currently entrenched political and economic paradigms (more on that later in my write-up of the lunch panel). The battling reforms proposed by differing leaders in today's society would not "add up to what is necessary" even if all of them were enacted together, he said. In the end, Unger's modest proposal was a total reinvention of industrial policy and major changes to education, directed towards problem-solving and away from encyclopedic mastery of information. "There should be another path," he said, denying that we must choose between the current models found in the United States, Europe, China, or elsewhere. Disavowing the notion of an either-or choice between Marxism and Keynesianism, Unger said that imagining only one form for the market makes variety and change seem "less imperative" than it is. He called on his audience to imagine a new path for the world and reshape its economic institutions on a large scale--in sum, Unger dared them to be brave. "Courage is not the highest virtue, but it is the enabling virtue...Without it, all other virtues are rendered sterile." Following up on such audacious language, even after a 15-minute coffee break, is no easy task. But it became slightly easier for the second morning presenter, Robert Wade from the London School of Economics, thanks to a few brief "bridging" remarks from Brown political science professor Mark Blyth. Blyth reminded the BIARI scholars that economics are deeply imbued with meaning and often become a language of power. This point led gracefully into Wade's lecture about international financial institutions and the rise of "multipolarity" - that is, the trend of new poles of influence emerging in the world economy. Reduced to its simplest conclusion, the theory posits that the U.S. and Europe are no longer the only sites of monetary policy that matter to the world. Wade predicted that "multipolarity," like "globalization" before it, could be the next big buzzword that helps define the changes happening around the world in the 21st century. After breaking down the historical politics of the G7, G8 and G20 (of particular note: the G20 was originally the G13, but the United States uncharacteristically demanded more representation from non-European allies), Wade explored the pragmatic problems with the organizations at present. For instance, the G7 refuses to acknowledge poverty and development as global problems that affect the whole world, preferring instead to label them as "moral issues," he said. Like Unger, Wade criticized the response to the GEC, or lack thereof. He noted that the crisis had greatly benefited some of the other major players on the global scene--namely, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), who suddenly acquired a slew of new borrowers. The IMF and WB are reforming, he said, but those reforms are modest to the point of being almost insubstantial. "The World Bank is going forward into the new century with business as usual," Wade said. Likewise, he expressed skepticism that the international organizations are changing their tune in response to the new world order (as it relates to multipolarization and otherwise). Although many economists claim the one-size-fits-all prescriptions of the Washington Consensus are no longer the M.O. at the WB, Wade said the organization has not yet found a larger vision beyond recommending generic liberalization strategies for all. After Wade's presentation had finished, I joined the attendees of both BIARIs for lunch at the Faculty Club on Magee Street. During the second half of the meal, Roberto Unger and Robert Wade came to the front of the room once more, this time joined by a fellow economics professor, Barnard College's Sanjay Reddy. Reddy had contributed briefly to some of the morning panels, but he played a much more active role here. Reddy began the panel by reiterating that the GEC had been answered by "poverty of the imagination and the intellect," reiterating Unger's sentiment that the status quo of "economics has been complicit in" the recent crisis and stagnation. Unger jumped in to suggest that wide-ranging "programmatic arguments" like his are labeled "utopian" or "trivial" in the present cultural/political climate. He said these labels are irrelevant to the ambitious nature of his argument, and serve only to aggravate "that paralyzing dilemma that I described [earlier in the morning]...The programmatic ideas that we develop today must be the ideas for the entire world." Brown lecturer Vasuki Nesiah, a convening faculty member of the Global Humanities BIARI, was quick to tell the crowd that Unger had taught President Barack Obama at Harvard--but Unger nevertheless bitterly attacked American progressives for failing for over 50 years to provide a sequel to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. He said they lacked a program of their own, preferring instead to copy the conservative platform with a half-hearted message of compassion added on. Rather than opposing the forces that aided the economic crisis, today's progressives "are allies in disarming the transformative imagination," Unger said. "They are therefore our enemies." He continued: "What we need is a third style of progressivism, or leftism, that is reconstructive...[and] that proposes to reorganize the economy...in the interest of social and economic growth." As with some of the other BIARI sessions, the obligatory pressures of time constrained the discussion in some areas where it clearly still had room to expand. For example, Wade enumerated the problems with professional for-profit journalism in the developed world, arguing that it had no future except in a retooled "low-profit" format. He then asked the audience if such a destiny awaited other everyday elements of the global economy--but new questions from the crowd quickly took the panel in another direction. However, I do not fault the BIARI scholars in the slightest in this regard. Other sessions, panels and lectures had been characterized by long-winded arguments as preludes to peoples' questions; this lunch was different. I was sharing a room with some of the brightest young minds in the world, a fact validated in my mind by their unflinching willingness to ask deceptively simple questions like "How do we learn from this crisis?" In response to a different question about the 2008 crash, Reddy noted that the GEC was not just a financial crisis, but also "an epistemic crisis." Incredibly sophisticated financial institutions worldwide were seemingly unable "to do the elementary task of determining their net asset position on any given day," he said. The complexity of the Great Recession and the fact that "it may take years to clarify" made it all the more appropriate for an interdisciplinary approach, Reddy added. As for those "entrenched political paradigms" I mentioned in my recap of Unger's lecture, the panel lingered upon the same theme at lunch. Reddy discouraged the BIARI scholars from looking to Marx and Keynes alone for answers to their big questions. Likewise, Wade criticized the response to the GEC from some leading economic educators like Greg Mankiw and former Harvard president Larry Summers (now working in the White House). Wade quoted Summers as saying, 'the laws of economics are like the laws of engineering; they apply in all places at all times.' He predicted that the economics profession would continue to hold back from considering any wide-ranging changes like Unger's. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to issue any such predictions of my own here--that sort of speculation is best left to the experts. But spending a significant chunk of my day with these thorough and well-spoken economists was an eye-opening experience. I didn't just title this post "Uncommon Cents" because Unger, Wade and Reddy delivered novel ideas at today's BIARI. The only prediction I feel comfortable making is that their at-times politicized arguments will remain uncommon, even among other economics professors.