The semester started as the world's financial crisis escalated. Since the real world is always the best teacher, I accommodated my lesson plan. I asked my students: What should we learn from the volatility of global markets?
Some argued that markets are by definition volatile, so volatility should not concern us. Some said we were just witnessing the down side of the business cycle.Others maintained that markets were simply reflecting the oversupply of goods relative to future demand. And still others claimed the crisis was due to poor management; Russia, Japan, and other nations had adopted sloppy policies that encouraged investors to flee when market yields began to tumble.
But I felt deeply troubled as I listened to them. My students were parroting the conventional economic wisdom of the West - that capitalism can only endure and prosper if it is done the Euro-American way, in a transparent, relatively noninterventionist manner.
No one talked about the human toll of globalization or the impact of austerity measures on the working poor. And no one brought up the political implications of the spreading economic crisis.
As the economies of Asia and Latin America shrink, their citizens lose ground as unemployment increases and prices soar. For example, this year the Indonesian economy will shrink by some 15 percent, while prices have risen over 85 percent and unemployment stands at 13 percent.
I reminded my students that if history teaches us anything it is that people will call on government for solutions. Ultimately, starving or embittered people will take to the streets. They will give their policymakers a choice: Give us relief, or we'll relieve you of your jobs.
The class discussion was a learning experience for me because I recognized that my dismay was not with my students, but with the economics profession.
Since the 1980s and the supposed triumph of markets, most economists have been concerned with efficiency. But they have ignored the fact that when markets fail - and they often do - the poor often pay a heavy cost.
Economists have said relatively little about how to make markets more equitable as well as efficient. For example, Washington is abuzz about what's wrong with the International Monetary Fund and how its programs have benefited the rich and well-connected. And individuals of the left and right have forged a broad coalition to oppose its future funding.
But these IMF opponents have offered few specifics about how to get the world's emerging markets back on track without abandoning the IMF. And they've said even less about how it and other government institutions can work to ensure that the pain of this crisis does not fall disproportionately on the poor. It takes good policies and good economic advice to encourage growth and equity.
I remain hopeful, however, that economists will provide some better guidance to the policymakers of the world. Somewhere, someone - maybe even one of my students - will have a vision so strong it will creatively destroy these old ways of thinking about what government should do and how it should do it.
And government on the national and international level will need to do something. Large numbers of people around the world are hurting.