A job for everyone: interview with Joan Muysken

“I’m irritated by colleagues who say things in the media about the current crisis with the greatest authority. It’s precisely a crisis like this that shows economists need to be more modest in their pretentions. We can explain with hindsight exactly what went wrong, but making even rough predictions? No, we need to be much more modest in this.” Joan Muysken, economics professor and co-founder of the economics faculty, will deliver his valedictory lecture at UM on 29 November. He looks back on his career.

Muysken was appointed professor in Maastricht at just 35, helped to launch the economics faculty, held managerial positions within the faculty and played a multitude of roles outside it, not to mention raising three children with his wife. “So they were certainly challenging years, but also fantastic ones.” He would have liked a little more time to focus on his research before taking up his chair. “I became a professor too young. I was just starting to publish a lot. And I would have been able to do much more if I’d had a few more years to potter around. But the opportunity just came up, and you’re not going to say no.”

Freedom

Muysken has been head of department around half his working life. “Even when that wasn’t the case officially, it still often was a bit.” He also served as dean, but the role of department head suited him best. “I enjoyed creating a group. I love managing, although you do have to be quite reserved in doing so. For my generation, academic freedom is of paramount importance.”

In addition to his roles within the faculty, Muysken served two terms on the University Council and was president of the Board of Trustees of Observant, the university newspaper. “These roles allow you to look beyond your own faculty, which is especially nice if you’ve been here for some time. It’s important to see that things are run differently elsewhere.” It is a shame, in his view, that today fewer and fewer staff get involved in representative councils. “Power needs a counterweight, preferably from heavyweights who want to serve on the University Council, for example. The idea that this sort of work is a waste of academics’ time is a thorn in my side.”

Vision

Employment has been the common thread throughout his career. “To participate in society, having a job is crucial. Unemployment today is seen as the fault of the jobless. When I was studying, in the 1960s, the state had to ensure that everyone had work, and I stand by that. Even if it means creating workfare jobs. It’s a very bad thing that the thinking about unemployment is so skewed. The Netherlands is regarded as having a low unemployment rate – until recently just 7%. In the 1970s, 2% was already considered high. If inflation rises above 2% now, we all scream bloody murder. What does that say about us? I never used to say that in lectures. Now I do, but I also point out that it’s my vision.”

He explains this vision in the book Full employment abandoned, which he published together with the Australian economist Bill Mitchell in 2008. To his surprise, Wikipedia describes it as “his most notable work so far”. “I stand behind it completely, but it hasn’t been embraced in the academic world. It’s quite far from mainstream economic thought. Try demonstrating scientifically that everyone should have a job, and you’ll have trouble publishing in a journal.” Therefore, Muysken and Mitchell published their papers in book form. “Now it’s out, and I’m proud of it.”

Radical leftist

Co-author and friend Mitchell played an important role in Muysken’s intellectual development. “He’s a radical leftist, and never minces words. Years back, I believed wholeheartedly in many ideas, but I’d just become a professor and didn’t want to pigeonhole myself. We visited each other regularly, and eventually I rediscovered my ideas from the 1960s. In Australia I started to express my opinion, and gradually started to do so in the Netherlands too. But I’m very aware that I speak from my gut feeling, which I then try to justify scientifically.”

Self-flagellation

Muysken is therefore bothered immensely by colleagues who act in the media as though they have all the answers to policy questions. But he gets mad, too, at every new austerity measure. “I don’t believe any economists out there now think cutbacks are a good idea. It’s a sort of Calvinistic self-flagellation: ‘We’ve made our bed and now we have to lie in it.’ But the banks and their regulators did wrong, not us. And they’re certainly not paying for it! Cutbacks only make a bad situation worse, and have more to do with ideology than economics.”

From a purely academic perspective, Muysken finds the current crisis “insanely interesting”. “For decades the idea was: If you let the markets do their work, everything will be okay. The crisis shows that the markets don’t just ‘do their work’ at all.” With this in mind, he wouldn’t dream of slowing down. “Academia is part of my life. This morning at breakfast I said suddenly: ‘Oh God, that’s a problem’. My wife asked, ‘What’s a problem?’ ‘Oh, something with banks and pension funds, it’s not important’, I said. So I’ll just keep on going.”

Joan Muysken (1948) has been Professor of Economics at the UM School of Business and Economics (SBE) since 1984. He studied quantitative economics at the University of Groningen, where he obtained his PhD. He has held many managerial positions within the SBE, including as dean.

 

By Femke Kools

Photo by Sacha Ruland

 

Source: UM Magazine, 12 November 2013

 

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