CPE: Demystifying Economics–Interview with Elissa Braunstein

Stephanie Luce

ELISSA BRAUNSTEIN IS a graduate student in economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and has been a staff economist at Center for Popular Economics (CPE) for the past six years. CPE was founded in 1978 by five faculty and graduate students—Sam Bowles, Jim Crotty, Diane Flaherty, David Kotz, and Juliet Schor—to teach basic economics to activists. The collective has published several book, including A Field Guide to the U.S. Economy, Mink Coats Don’t Trickle Down, and Economic Report of the People. Since its founding, thousands of people have attended CPE workshops or courses.

In the past few years, CPE has developed an educational program called “Demystifying Global Economics for women.” Stephanie Luce interviewed Braunstein to find out more about that program, and about CPE in general.

Stephanie Luce: Can you start by giving me the background on CPE?

Elissa Braunstein: This is our 20th anniversary year. CPE was started by a small group of economists and graduate students centered at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1978. It was formed to provide an alternative to the mainstream paradigm in economics for progressive activists.

They started with the Institutes—an intensive course in economics run in the summer. In the beginning the courses were about four or five days, and now they are six days long. The main course is an introduction to domestic, or national, economics. We start with an introduction to surplus and surplus distribution—basically it is an introduction to marxian economics although we don’t call it that. We use those concepts and apply them to micro and macroeconomics.

We cover things like unemployment, inflation, money and banking. The idea embedded in the curriculum is that race, gender and class are the organizing principles behind the economy—we understand the economy systemically through the lens of race, class and gender.

Two things that are different, or special about CPE: First, we started during a time when there was nothing else like this—there were no other major attempts to teach economics from an alternative perspective. Second, CPE gives you a systemic analysis that you can apply to your own activist work.

Other groups give you information —for example, United for a Fair Economy gives you a lot of facts that are useful for you in your activism—but CPE is more about giving you economic theory to empower you as an activist. But, it is also a two-way path, from the activists back to the economists teaching the courses. The information that the activists bring to the courses informs our thinking as economists, and helps us to evaluate the theory. Dissertations get written, and we as economists change our teaching around the country.

We now have added an International Institute, that runs concurrently. This will be its seventh year this summer. We started it for two reasons: First, the participants from the regular Institutes wanted to come back, and wanted an advanced course. Second is the increased importance of the global economy and global issues.

In this class, we also consider the lens of ethnicity and nation, and study concepts such as trade, finance, international production, multinational corporations, labor, development, exchange rates, now the Asian financial crisis. It is an intense course.

SL: Who attends the classes?

EB: People come from around the country and around the world. For example, at our most recent Institutes we had two people from Senegal, one from India, one from South Africa. The international presence is a small percentage, but they are there. Participation is primarily from word-of-mouth—people hear about it from past participants at the Summer Institutes.

SL: How are the teachers selected?

EB: CPE is a collective. We have a set of governance issues as well as the issues dealing directly with teaching. The collective is self-selective: if you are an economist, or can teach economics, and you agree with the principles of the collective than you can be a member.

Teachers go through a training, and then we have a team-teaching approach, pairing up experienced staff with inexperienced people.

It is really an amazing experience—CPE is where I learned to teach. We really emphasize pedagogy, and we try to use a more popular approach. Probably a real cutting-edge popular teacher might have criticisms of how we teach, but I think for economists we do really well! We try to use games and participatory exercises, and non-traditional ways of learning.

SL: Can you give me some examples of these exercises?

For example, we play games. Labor market musical chairs is a game that teaches about labor market segmentation and gender and race. Each participant is given a card with a set of “worker attributes” on it—education, work experience, gender, have kids? race, need childcare? need health insurance? stuff like that.

And then there is the labor market as represented by musical chairs. We play the music and when it stops each participant must find a job that they are qualified for (each chair has a job card affixed to it with the requirements and benefits of the job, so if you need childcare, you have to find a job you’re qualified for that provides childcare).

We play multiple rounds of the game, where each round represents a particular historical period in U.S. labor history as represented by the availability of certain types of jobs. It’s a great way to get talking about how the labor market is segmented into different types of jobs, and how difficult it is for certain groups of people to get out of the secondary labor market.

We also do skits. One skit we often do is about currency trading, where a group of currency traders and a central bank enact how a “run on a currency” happens. It’s a great visual for something that is otherwise difficult to understand. Another exercise is called “Up Against the Wall Street Journal”—this is where participants get to practice their mastery of what they’ve learned by debating a conservative economist, usually played by one of the CPE teachers.

Since CPE started at U-Mass, the heart and administrative center are located here, but as grad students have graduated and moved to other places, they stay affiliated with CPE. We now have members around the country. There are fifty-five members on the roster, but the core who govern and move the collective are more like twelve to fifteen people at any one time.

Then there is an outer ring that are not local, but are active. Sometimes they come back to teach at the Institutes, but we also have travelling workshops that range anywhere from an afternoon to three days.

For example, we have something called the Urban Institute, which is a three-day workshop dealing with urban economic issues. We have held that in New York, Boston, Chicago, Springfield (Mass.), and a bunch of other cities. For example, most recently we held one in New York City that focused on issues dealing with young people of color.

SL: How did that come about?

EB: The Children’s Defense Fund sponsored a subdivision called the Black Student Leadership Network. Every year for a few years they funded five or six young (college-aged) people to come to the Summer Institutes. A lot of these young people came from New York, and they wanted to do something there with a group called Azabache—which is a collaboration of progressive youth organizations in New York City.

So we set up a plan for co-teaching, where CPE members spent several months planning with the students who had attended the Institutes. We worked on a curriculum together, did fundraising together, and planned this workshop. It was really great.

For me, CPE has also been where I have learned about race. Coming out of U-Mass as an economist, I never would have been able to teach about race without my experience in CPE.

SL: What about gender? It seems that there is a much higher proportion of women in CPE than in the economics profession in general.

EB: Definitely! I think part of that reflects the composition in the department: U-Mass has more women than other economics departments. But there is a higher proportion of women in CPE than in the department, so it may reflect something about the gender division of labor —how women are more likely to be in service. Racial diversity is a much more difficult issue. The international presence is good among members, but getting U.S. minorities involved is very hard, especially given the percentage in the field. On each teaching team, we strive for racial and gender diversity.

SL: Tell me about the Demystifying Global Economics for Women (DGEW) course.

EB: In response to the surge of women’s international activism sparked by the conferences in Beijing, Radhika Balakrishnan, a CPE staff economist based in New York, organized the first of these Institutes in a two-day event in New York in November 1996.

Taught in a format emphasizing participatory learning, this Institute included sections on gender and international trade, gender and international finance, models of women’s transformative activism around the world, and global economics from a community perspective.

We wanted to make global economics a local women’s issue. You don’t have to be working for some international organization to learn about and understand global economics. You can be working on local welfare reform issues, or even a local living wage campaign, and see how global economics affects you and your work locally.

We are also looking at models of women’s activism around the world—for example, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India. I like the SEWA model because it is about organizing women as workers, about self-organization, rather than about microcredit, or just giving women loans and turning them into entrepreneurs.

Right now we are trying to organize something in Boston. We got funding for five women activists who work on issues from housing to welfare to immigration, one is a minister. These women came to the International Institute for a grounding, so that they can participate to help teach and coordinate the three-day program in Boston. We always get a great mix of activists—they work on a diversity of issues but they see economics as a common link between them.

We have two models of teaching on the road. One is a “parachute model,” where we just drop-in, do the workshop and leave. We don’t prefer that model. Rather, we prefer a more organic, labor-intensive model, where we work with the people there to teach and develop the program. This is what we are trying to do in Boston, and with the Demystifying Global Economics programs in general.

We now want to take this program international. We have connections with women who are active in a Pan-African trade union for women, based in Senegal, and some of them attended the courses last summer. They now would like us to come there and want to do a big training of trainers there. We are trying to fundraise for that now.

SL: What about your personal involvement? How did you get involved in the DGEW program?

EB: I gave a talk on a panel that closed the first day entitled “Community Development from a Feminist Perspective.” As the Program Director for CPE at the time, I was also instrumental in organizing the next phase of the project, which tries to draw global economics more as a local women’s issue, looking at linkages between local issues like welfare reform and the global economy.

My involvement in DGEW is really a natural outgrowth of the kind of work that I do academically, which is focused on issues of gender and international economics in East and Southeast Asia. I am particularly interested in how gender relations shape the international economy and vice versa.

For instance, one of the issues that I’m thinking about these days is how the sexual division of labor shapes women’s labor supply to the globalized market sector. This type of approach introduces gender into our theorizing about the global economy—it “engenders” international economics—so that we can get a better sense of the gendered causes and effects of international economic policies.

This is sort of the whole theme behind DGEW as well—rather than just assess the effects that the global economy has on women, we need to think about the global economy in an entirely different way, which poses women as active participants in globalization and opens previously obscured avenues for activism and solutions.

SL: Does CPE have other projects going on?

EB: CPE also has produced The New Field Guide to the U.S. Economy: A compact and irreverent guide to economic life in America, which also came out of the Summer Institutes. Basically, Nancy [Folbre] had the idea of compiling all the handouts we give out every summer and making a book. That book is now being updated, and it will be out this summer—it will be the third edition.

We also just completed a training manual for the AFL-CIO that is part of their economics education initiative called “Common Sense Economics.”

For the past year we’ve been doing pilots at locals around the country, and the curriculum is set to go into revision and then be made available on a general basis. It’s a seven-session study group manual designed to be facilitated by someone with a lot of interest but not much background in economics. It includes participatory games and background readings, and is really based on our Summer Institute curriculum.

ATC 80, May-June 1999