The Elephant in the Room
Frank Roosevelt, a member of the Sarah Lawrence economics faculty since 1977, likens his field to the elephant a group of blind scholars famously tried to describe. Each felt a different part of the animal, and so described a different beast.
“There is no objective truth in economics,” says Roosevelt. “Nobody understands the whole picture. Everybody gets a piece of it.”
In February, Oxford University Press published the third edition of the introductory economics textbook Understanding Capitalism: Competition, Command, and Change, Roosevelt’s six-and-a-half-year project of rewriting and revision. It’s an untraditional book. Roosevelt is an untraditional economist.
“I’m not like ninety-nine percent of economists in the world—I’m in the one percent that is self-styled ‘radical,’” he says. “‘Alternative’ is a more sanitized word.”
Each year, about a million college students take introductory economics courses; their textbooks are selected from among some two dozen on the market. But this apparent magnitude of choices, Roosevelt says, belies the sameness in their explanation of economics. “Class,” for example, is not an independent entry in the index of the most popular traditional textbook. “In our book,” says Roosevelt, “class is not only in the index, but it has more references to it than almost any other word.
”There are power groups, power interests, and much of the world is made up of power relationships. Class is about power relations. We think introductory courses should educate people about the economic system in which we live. This concept is central to this book, and that’s what makes it different.”
As a student in the 60’s, Roosevelt was involved in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, and co-founded a group called the Union for Radical Political Economics. The first edition of Understanding Capitalism (1985) was written by two friends from the Union’s early days, Samuel Bowles and Richard Edwards. Roosevelt began using it right away, giving it equal course time with more traditional textbooks and introducing, he concedes, “a lot of cognitive dissonance” into his classes.
“The greatest benefit is if teachers are willing to present different interpretations or points of view. Students figure out for themselves what they want to take away; they put together their own understanding of the economy.” In the late 1990’s Understanding Capitalism went out of print and became unavailable. “I called Sam [Bowles] and said, ‘Sam, I need another edition. I can’t teach without this book.’ He threw it back at me and said, ‘Frank, you do it.’ I said, ‘Oh… let me think about that.’”
But Roosevelt took it on. “I rewrote nearly every paragraph in the book. It took over my life. I gave up everything I could reasonably give up, except eating, sleeping and some sort of family life. It became my top priority.”
He persuaded Bowles, one of the world’s foremost economists, to submit new text, while a former student, Jillian Porter ’02, read drafts and offered editorial criticism. “I’d get back something twice as long with her comments,” Roosevelt says.
The third edition of Understanding Capitalism is a “much fuller book,” he believes, as well as less confrontational and overtly Marxist. Where earlier editions used terms like “capitalist” and “worker,” the new edition replaces them with “employer” and “employee.” Roosevelt will use it in class this fall.
Economists of all stripes have lighter sides, too, even deep into a labor of love: Among the things Roosevelt didn’t give up during the revision of Understanding Capitalism was his barbershop quartet, where he sings baritone with three friends. Last winter they celebrated 20 years together in straw hats.