By Published: March 14, 2024

Nick Romeo’s ‘The Alternative’ uses real-world examples to push back on ‘unempirical dogmas’ of modern economics

Following World War II, economists in the West began to compare their field to natural sciences, physics and chemistry, perpetuating a set of enduring ideas that slowly ossified into the rigid, pessimistic dogma of neoliberal capitalism.

Ideas such as the need for extremely high executive compensation; the inevitability of unemployment and insecure housing; and beliefs that people are inherently selfish, profit should always be maximized, private markets are superior to public ones, harmful externalities are a necessary byproduct of economic growth, and others flourished.

Nick Romeo

CU Boulder alum Nick Romeo argued that modern economics is “misunderstood as analogous to physics or chemistry, when it’s more properly located within political philosophy.”

“These are unempirical dogmas that are treated as laws of the universe,” says journalist, author and University of Colorado Boulder graduate Nick Romeo (MAClassics’14, MFAEngl’12), who teaches journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Modern economics is “misunderstood as analogous to physics or chemistry, when it’s more properly located within political philosophy.”

That technocratic approach to economics washes out critical ethical and political questions that are—or should be—at the center of the discipline, Romeo says. He notes that for most of history, economics was the province of political philosophy, examined and argued by such historical giants as Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes.

“That is a much healthier and accurate way to understand the discipline. … Economists don’t have a monopoly on insight, and political philosophy is potentially in a better position to be more insightful,” he says.

Diverse solutions

Romeo has been honing his own intellectual chops for years, first as an undergraduate at Northwestern University and later as a graduate student at CU Boulder. He’s also spent years living in Greece with his wife, Grace Erny, MA Classics, 2014, an archaeologist he met in Boulder. He’s also become a nationally respected writer, publishing in such publications at The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and The New York Times

In his new book, “The Alternative: How to Build a Just Economy” (PublicAffairs), he explores real-world examples from around the globe that challenge “some of the sacred shibboleths and economic dogmas of neoliberal capitalism.”

“The eight cases studies in ‘The Alternative’ present diverse solutions to the problems of paltry wages, rampant unemployment, unstable housing and exploitative labor practices,” according to a review in The Washington Post, calling it “a brisk and sensible book that details bold and ingenious proposals in measured tones.”

The first chapter zeroes in on the problem of economics education, which was almost exclusively taught through unchallenged dogma until recent decades.

“The American economist Paul Samuelson once  said, ‘I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws, as long as I get to write the economic textbooks,’” Romeo says. “We need to change economics education and what counts as cultural ‘common sense.’”

Book cover for 'The Alternative'

Nick Romeo's The Alternative explores real-world examples from around the globe that challenge “some of the sacred shibboleths and economic dogmas of neoliberal capitalism.”

He goes on to examine a job-guarantee program in Austria; climate-focused budgeting in Norway; the Well-Paid Maids cleaning service in Washington, D.C., which pays its employees $22 an hour and provides generous paid time off and benefits; a cooperative in Spain that restricts executive compensation to no more than six times that of workers and gives every worker a vote; and other examples of innovative, progressive capitalism.

“Everything I am describing already exists. Many times, these problems are presented as an inevitable feature of the universe, or certainly the American economy, that we can’t get rid of without entirely dismantling capitalism and adopting communism,” Romeo says.

Trying new ideas

While he recognizes traditional critiques of such efforts—they can’t scale, for instance—he suggests that that hasn’t been tried, and stranger things have happened.

“Many things we take for granted today once seemed really farfetched and controversial—the 40-hour work week, eliminating child labor, occupational and environmental legislation, worker safety rules,” he says.

When hard-core libertarians argue against such widely accepted adaptations, and even pass laws to undermine them, such as the recent loosening of child-labor laws in some states, they’re not making a good-faith argument, Romeo says.

“I think if you asked a lot of those folks if they would like to have their kids work in dangerous factories or live in a town where the water is unsafe, it would be hard to find someone truly committed to those views when they are directly impacted,” he says.

Romeo continues to write for The New Yorker and other publications on a wide variety of subjects and teach at Berkeley. He says he’s “developing a few ideas” for his next book.

During his time at CU Boulder, Romeo was particularly impressed with the Herbst Program for Engineering, Ethics and Society, which “engages students with the essential questions of human existence, and links those issues with the ethical practices of science and engineering,” noting the work of Hardy Fredricksmeyer and Wayne Ambler.

“It’s a hidden gem, almost like a shadow department, and the teachers are excellent,” he says. “They have to interact with engineers, always bringing their best. They can’t assume everybody is interested, so they have to know a good way to reach them.”


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