Letter from the Chair

Walter JohnsonWelcome to the Project on Justice, Welfare, and Economics. In keeping with the vision of Amartya Sen, the project’s founding director, JWE provides a forum for scholars who seek to think creatively and critically about the relationship of economy to ideas about justice. The workshops, lectures, and conferences supported by the project are vital aspects of the intellectual life at Harvard, and useful models for justice-centered approaches to work in the social sciences and humanities both within the university and beyond.

The current moment is a critical one for JWE. It is clear that the current crisis poses a challenge to the idea of “the market” as a self-regulating and naturally unfolding principle of historical development. Along with the end of the era of de-regulation we may have reached the end of the era of “freakonomics.” The idea that a naturally equilibrium-seeking market lies just beneath the surface of all of social life seems likely to lose a good deal of its intellectual capital in the era of re-regulation. Both within universities and outside of them, the times demand serious and sustained attention to the relationship of economic thought and practice to the question of justice.

Several concerns will guide JWE programming over the next few years:

  1. The transparency of financial knowledge. The current financial crisis is often popularly represented as occurring beyond the realm of comprehension. Even those relied upon to regulate these markets, we are told, do not understand them. It seems important to try to convene conversations that, first, focus upon demystifying what has happened by focusing on the political, legal, and economic history which has brought us to this moment, and, second, do so in terms which insistently translate recondite terms (and instruments) into terms susceptible to understanding and governance by an informed citizenry. It is an indication of the uncomprehending awe with which the economy is generally viewed that a set of financial-crisis related terms (e.g. “credit default swap,” “financial derivative”) have recently surpassed words such as “God” as the words most often used in Google searches.
  2. Thinking beyond regulation/deregulation. While it is clear that the current crisis has brought with it a revaluation of the idea of “regulation,” it is not clear whether this revaluation will ultimately embrace questions of justice beyond ensuring that the financial markets return to their formerly robust condition. As well as insisting upon the centrality of considerations of justice to economic governance, the Project supports programming which imagines ways of measuring economic “progress” that stretch beyond efficiency and growth into questions of welfare, equity, and justice. An essential aspect of re-centering this discussion is charting the history of ideas about economy and the rise of Economics as a discipline, indeed, as a science: the codification of one set of ideas about economy as disciplinary knowledge and the sectioning off of other ways of thinking into other disciplines (Psychology, Sociology, Politics, Philosophy, Anthropology) or institutionally stigmatized heterodoxy.
  3. Spaces of economic life. The project seeks to combine thinking about ecological (e.g. resource privatization/nationalization, global warming, environmental racism, trade in pollution credits) and political (e.g. financial and labor market regulation, sovereign wealth funds, transnationalization of finance and production) analysis of economic practice—both in the past and today.
  4. Economic security. Two pathways of inquiry link these terms. The first involves the relationship of economic life to national or global security (e.g. terrorist finance, private security as an emergent sector, the resurgence of piracy). The second involves an effort to use the term “security” (a favored term in contemporary political discourse) as a way to approach the question of economic justice in an era of social and economic upheaval (e.g. ecological degradation and financial deregulation as issues of “national (in)security”).
  5. Labor. Labor, along with justice, was once an indispensible aspect of any conversation about economy. The de-industrialization of the US market, the financialization of everyday life (including the reconstitution of much of “the working class” as an element of corporate ownership through investments and pensions), the focus of the discipline of Economics on markets and exchange, and the ascendance of “culture” and “identity” in the social sciences have combined, at various levels, to push work to the side as an area of intellectual inquiry. Labor and exploitation, however, continue to be primary forms of economic experience of the vast majority of the world's population.
  6. The political economy of race and sex. Economic analysis is sometimes predicated upon the stipulation of economic actors unmarked by race or sex (e.g. buyers and sellers, owners and workers). And yet (or, perhaps, and thus) race and sex remain primary determinants of social inequality—both social inequality as it is objectively measured and social inequality as it is subjectively experienced. Race and sex need to be taken seriously as concrete determinants of human existence without being detached from their material embeddedness in economy and society (e.g. poverty, work, access to social services, vulnerability to violence and incarceration).

Walter Johnson
Chair, Project on Justice, Welfare, and Economics
Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies