ARCHIVED: Alternative View of Capitalism

Frank Roosevelt

The third edition of an alternative economics textbook, Understanding Capitalism: Competition, Command, and Change, has recently been published by Oxford University Press. Frank Roosevelt, a professor of economics at Sarah Lawrence College, has joined with the book’s original coauthors, Samuel Bowles and Richard Edwards, to produce an expanded and updated edition of the text.

Understanding Capitalism takes a three-dimensional approach to economics, incorporating but going beyond the singular focus on market relationships commonly found in conventional textbooks. Applying its unique approach in a highly readable style, the book adds a thorough analysis of the relationships of command – the exercise of power – within firms, among nations, and between social groups. In a further departure from convention, the book also offers an account of the historical development and current evolution of capitalism.

Understanding Capitalism provides an introduction to economics with extensive attention to the global economy, inequality, and the information revolution. The process of incessant change, driven by technical innovation and conflict over the distribution of income, is viewed as a permanent feature of a capitalist economy.

Roosevelt notes that the word “class” is not in the index of a conventional economics textbook. In his view the absence of any reference to class is a major shortcoming. “In the real world there are power groups, power interests, and much of the world is made up of power relationships,” he argues. “The term ‘class’ is a shorthand way of getting at power relations – and our index has numerous entries beside this word. We think introductory courses should educate people about the economic system in which we live, so we make the concept of class central to our book. That’s what makes it different.”

Although Frank Roosevelt defines himself as a “radical economist” with an alternative way of teaching economics, he strongly believes that “teachers need to present various perspectives in the classroom.” His own approach is to begin a course with extensive readings in the works of both Adam Smith and Karl Marx. In the remainder of the course he allots equal amounts of time to teaching and discussing two different textbooks. He first introduces the accepted principles of economics using a “mainstream” textbook, and only after that does he offer his own book as an alternative perspective on the economy. In this way, he says, students can determine which ideas to appropriate from one book, and which from the other. “Students can figure out for themselves what they want to take away from the course. They can put together their own understandings of the economy.”

Roosevelt has been teaching the concepts in Understanding Capitalism for more than three decades. Sarah Lawrence dean Barbara Kaplan said, when awarding him the College’s Lipkin Family Prize for Inspirational Teaching in 2004, “Frank helps students to see that economic systems are an expression of moral principles, of ideals about how we want to live, what we want to be as people. And in doing that he helps them to understand that they can posses the tools to change the way things are, to help in an endless struggle for a better world.” Roosevelt will start using the new edition of Understanding Capitalism in the fall.