What I talk about when I talk about economics

I’m preparing to teach Econ 101 this fall for the first time since 2008. Reviewing textbooks and figuring out what to teach, I find myself right back in that moment. My understanding of what economics is seems to me as far away as it ever did from how we teach it and what it’s perceived as. I feel as tarred and feathered by the field as I ever did.

At that time in 2008, the financial crisis was revving up and I was working out my concept of economics and what I could possibly make of it. I was writing a lot in an anonymous blog, to organize my thoughts, work out my differences of opinion with the field, procrastinate from more mundane work, and figure out what I thought an economist was. The problem was that I was allegedly in the process of becoming an economist, but I didn’t really see myself reflected in what that seemed to mean.

I guess I still don’t. Since I find myself revisiting similar thoughts now, I decided to unseal that part of my record and merge all of those old writings here. So it’s all now in the archives on this site, which you can get to through the widget on the right (the old site is still up at this link). I’m sure there are plenty of things that I wouldn’t write again in retrospect. But I want to be honest about how that process went for me, and how it still goes.

I think I achieved maximal harmony between what I think economics is and what it actually seemed to be during a span of three or four years covering the tail end of my undergraduate degree and the start of my graduate degree.

I had no idea what economics would turn out to be all about when I started taking classes in it. Since I went to university in the UK, I had to decide on my field of study before I arrived. I chose a course called “Economics and Management”. I think I might have thought economics was pretty much a synonym for business or money or something. I think this is pretty much the general layperson’s impression, too.

I guess I thought I was going to be Mr. Business or something? My motivations are—probably mercifully—lost to time. I was quickly relieved of the notion that studying management was for me. The consequences live on, though, in the other bit.

Methodology got me. Luckily! I realized that “economics” wasn’t a way to analyze The System or learn how to work on The Machine, but a way to analyze any system—a way to talk about all machines. I got hooked.

A few things in particular. I learned that economic methodology is built on the model of rational choice; but I learned that rational choice does not mean maximizing financial returns. Economics, then, transformed for me from a way to analyze a toy world in which the toy people cared exclusively about money and wealth, to a way to analyze any toy world. The toy people can care about anything.

I learned about general equilibrium theory. I learned how a tiny toy really can represent something profound about the whole world. I learned what “efficiency” meant—and what it didn’t mean. I learned how to view the output of our machines from different angles and perspectives by translating the normative arguments of the moral philosophers into economics.

I learned about game theory, spinning parables about what how the characters in our methodology might think and interact with each other.

I learned that maybe the field of study that I had stumbled into backwards could live in dialogue with the world. I saw a field in dialogue with politics, philosophy, psychology, literature, history, math, statistics.

Economics is not money, business, finance, stock markets, financial literacy, civics, capitalism, free markets, conservatism, libertarianism, profit, neoliberalism. It’s not a technocracy for organizing the world or a policy rulebook. It’s not an apologia for the way we live now. It’s not the way we should do things if we’d all just be logical and (god help me) rational. I am not a sociopath.

Phew!

All of this I thought I knew. I went to grad school with no foreknowledge at all of what it was going to be like to study economics at that level or what it was like to do research in economics. Everything was surprising about the process (and wow was it ever a rude awakening), but my idea of what economics was survived. I really came to think—I still think—that the methodology of economics is a beautiful achievement, a clever way to deal with the messiness of social science, one that allowed for creativity, flexibility, precision, dissent.

Then in 2008 I started to lose the thread a bit. I was starting to teach and write my own research. Every time I saw economics or economist referenced in the real world, the subtext (hell, actually much of the time the text itself) seemed to be one of the things I thought economics was not. I taught Principles of Economics for the first time and found textbooks that read like instruction manuals for the things I thought economics was not. There were lists of “principles” that simply assumed what things were good and right. I started to go to research seminars at which “rational” was used interchangeably with “maximizing financial return”.

It was ominous.

I could not see how the field of economics could retain a person who was a skeptic of the status quo, or challenge the perspective of a person who was an adherent to the status quo.

Thinking about Econ 101 always sets me off. The “principles” of Econ 101 are not principles in the sense of the primitive foundations of our methodology. I get that. Maybe the methodology really can wait for later. Maybe Econ 101 should be some received wisdom, a sampler platter of what we think we know.

And yet I am worried, the same as I was almost a decade ago. I’m worried that Econ 101 paints us in the wrong light to thousands of students that we’ll never see again. I’m worried that economics will forever be perceived as the things I think it is not. I’m worried that it is those things, that I’m the crazy one, that I got it wrong about our methodology and our job really is to beat the drum for free markets and “efficiency”. I’m worried that economics is perceived to be exclusively right-wing, and I’m worried that we have trouble retaining students who aren’t.

You see how overwrought I get thinking about this stuff?

Well, same old same old! Looks like it’s 2008 all over again for me. Designing this Econ 101 class is going to be a trip!

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2 thoughts on “What I talk about when I talk about economics

  1. Pingback: Methodology, ideology | Jim Campbell

  2. Pingback: Rehabilitating the economist | Jim Campbell

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