A New Program: Political Economy

By Richard J. Alley

The past academic year saw a new interdisciplinary program in the Rhodes catalogue with the introduction of Political Economy, a major that explores important ideas that are the foundations of economic and political systems throughout the world. It is, basically, the study of economics without the math. It brings a more philosophical approach to how and why markets work—or don’t work.

Political Economy is the perfect storm of five different departments coming together: Economics, Political Science, History, Philosophy and International Studies. Others, such as Psychology and Greek and Roman Studies, contribute courses as well. According to the catalogue, “The program and the associated major will study the many ways that politics, principles and economics interact in the formation of policy choices and actual policies. It will further look at the impact of political and economic choices on the prosperity and well-being of those who organize their society under various systems.”

The program is supported by program founders Thomas Garrott, chairman and CEO emeritus of National Commerce Bancorporation; Fred Smith, president and CEO of FedEx Corporation; and founder of AutoZone, J.R. (Pitt) Hyde III. 

There were already a number of professors from Economics and Political Science in place sharing an interest in the intersection of economics, philosophy and institutions. So when program visionary, Thomas Garrott, agreed to help secure the funding to support the development of the program, Teresa Beckham Gramm, program chair, said, “We jumped on it.” A program proposal, along with a Political Economy major, was developed and put in front of the faculty at large for approval, and eventual acceptance, in fall 2010.

A Political Economy major is one who is “interested in coming at economics from a direction that was much truer to the field’s original existence, which is political economy, and of coming at it from the institutional, political, philosophical side as opposed to the mathematical side,” says Gramm.

One such student is senior Ian Engdahl, who switched from a Political Science major because “something about it just didn’t feel right,” he says. He gave one last look through the Rhodes catalogue, stumbled upon Political Economy and reorganized his plan. “It looked like a really good synthesis of the kinds of courses I like to take … Econ, Political Science, International Studies courses; and they all fit into my major.”

Engdahl also takes History courses and is on a History track within his major of Political Economy. He relishes the challenge for “not just number crunching, but how we organize society efficiently, and we look at the moral questions under economic analysis.” 

The program, at inception, hit the ground running by welcoming respected speakers to campus such as Amity Shlaes, author of The Forgotten Man, and Pulitzer Prize winner Gordon Wood, professor emeritus of History at Brown University and author of Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, among others. These are lectures that have been very well attended, Gramm says, because “this is a very interdisciplinary field where we’ve been able to draw quite a number of speakers from individual departments.” 

Adam Smith, the 18th-century social philosopher and author (The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations) from Scotland, is regarded as a founder of political economy. He is taught and read widely in many disciplines, and studied extensively within the Political Economy program. His writings and teaching set the foundations for what would be free market economics. “The Political Economy program is broad and, at the same time, ideologically open to the idea that market economies are very effective at making people better off,” says John Murray, the first Joseph R. Hyde III Professor of Political Economy. “Economic growth is really the only way to make poor people better off, and that’s a big issue.” 

Murray moved here last year from the University of Toledo in Ohio to take the position, and has found “a real community” at Rhodes. He made the decision to come here because of this sense of community, and because he believes so strongly in the philosophy and vision behind the new program. 

“One thing I really want to see is students coming out of the Political Economy program familiar with the notion that, not just people and not just firms, but also governments act in their own best interests as well,” he says in explaining the sort of philosophical thought carried on within his classroom. He is quick to point out that government is a neutral arbiter in judicial settings, but that “the executive and legislative functions of governments often are motivated by people who want to get the government to act in their own self-interest or their agency’s self-interest. So I would define the government’s self-interest more broadly. That’s the political aspect that I would want to introduce into a study of economics.”

“We try to get into some of the deeper questions than in Economics, where ethical, moral questions aren’t always central to class discussion,” Gramm says. “I think the Political Economy major will ask, ‘What is the morality of capitalism? What are the ethics involved in some of these institutions that we have, or that we lack?’ Those questions are going to be more central to the Political Economy program.” 

They are questions with local, national and international implications, certainly, and Rhodes draws on a worldwide view and student body to delve into such thinking. Sameer Warraich is a senior from Islamabad, Pakistan, who was on a track for a degree in Economics when, as a sophomore, he proposed a major called Public Policy and Economics, which was ultimately not approved. “Even though I was studying Economics at that time, I was still inclined toward public policy and how politics interacts with economics in general,” he says. Warraich, it seemed, was a natural for the program that would come about a year later. 

The shift from the hard numbers of Economics into studying the philosophies of Aristotle, John Rawls and Karl Marx as they apply to the field has been a satisfying approach to Warraich’s interests. This approach, coupled with the work he’s done in banking in Pakistan and with the Illinois Policy Institute in Chicago, may well lead him to a career in public policy after graduation. 

The interdisciplinary nature of Political Economy may be where the success will lie for the program. By working together, departments will ensure their students gain the well-rounded education that a liberal arts institution promises. As Marshall Gramm, department chair of Economics says, “Part of our goal, and part of our charge, with the Political Economy program and the funding we received was to increase economic literacy at Rhodes and across Memphis.”