1867. The education of economics.

Provocation #92 The education of economics.

Most of the criticism of current economics comes down to – maybe we are teaching the wrong stuff.   Designing education for economists and for those who rely on understanding economics is hard. The various communities that lean on economics have different needs and motives. These are not resolvable into a small set of correct  beliefs and a large set of wrong ones because the range of needs is very broad – from numerical accuracy for sophisticated computations to policy discussions about the quality of life. There are undergrads, graduate students, the press, public servants,  corporations and finance all needing guidance. To cope with the future they need more practice in conversation and inquiry than indoctrination.  In future careers they will need flexibility in policy and creativity and empathy in management, not rote learning of canned approaches. Too much of economics is like boot camp.We have  sold out both undergrad education and later post degree professional education  (seminars, conferences, on line courses) to academic standards, not real world appreciation. A little like teaching chords without music appreciation.  But as it is, economics is one of the narrowest departments in terms of its outreach to other departments: history, psychology, arts, anthropology, philosophy, politics – and technology.. At its best economics could aspire to being the soul – the “uni” – of  the university because the range of its interests ought to be inclusive.  The economics department often has access to the office of the university president, but come giving only narrow advice on finance,  not broad advice on the relationship of the university to the good society. Economics could be seen as the application of the understanding of all the departments  in the university to the problems of managing the species on the planet.

The economics of economics is not in the economics curricula.The profession itself  is part of an economic structure  of careers that is part of the social mechanism of distributing benefits and opportunities in society.  The psychoanalyst Eric Erikson once said “Mankind prefers enlightenment away from itself.”

Those entering economics are not arriving on a tropical island, a kind of paradise of refinement and nature, but at a fast moving train (Internet sub-network?) that is in rapid motion,  dropping Keynes, picking up complexity theory, and packaging it all under Darwin with differential equations and game theory. Yet it is taught as a kind of steady state tool box of relatively stable methods. The dramas  of society and its interesting economic issues are not discussed. The first job the young economist after  economic education is likely to include  “what do you think we should do?” This question is rarely discussed in the standard courses. Why do some people have capital and others don’t Why are the rich so admired when so many of them don’t work? Why do we talk about labor productivity but not the productivity of the rich?  We are seeing a massive transfer of wealth to trust  fund youth. What will that imply? What are these children being taught about  the meaning of one dollar one vote?

Students are asked to accommodate to and make part of their identity abstract formalistic  thinking that has evolved in a process that is antiseptic: reduced life forces replaced by abstract concepts.   Think of the new student who wants to take economics because her father lost his job and she wants to understand why society is so organized in such a mean spirited and family destroying mode. As soon as we get to emotions economics wants us out of the picture because emotions lead to politics and criticisms of essential things like capitalism. So the emotional side of her quest goes unanswered. 

A more vital economics would start with a vital view of the human as emotional to understand the dramas of life (Kenneth Burke,  Stephen Toulmin) , and mathematical (Piaget, Helmholtz) in order to understand the architecture of things in relation to each other. One cannot replace the other.

Aristotle began with eco-nomics, estate management, a holistic concept embracing everything -people – land – animals – plants – having to do with the well being of the estate. Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations  saw the nation as a place where moral sentiment and  character development, was encouraged and the wealth, not dollars but quality of life for all, of a society was more important than the wealth of those who chose to play finance.

Over time the human has been stripped out of economics in order. [A favorite word of mine is etiolated .  [(of a plant,  pale  due to a lack of light: “etiolated seedlings”. Having lost vigor or substance; feeble: “a tone of etiolated nostalgia.”)]

This reduction of the human has not been innocent, but motivated

1. To keep from raising issues of equity – who gets what, or of caste , assuming the division in to labor and capital is somehow (how was that again?) natural in a two caste society.

2. To make calculation easier and hence appear like science, under the shadow of Newton, and free of value discussions. 

We don’t even get to thermodynamics. Our science education supporting economics is antique. Take for example  a distinction worth making:   In a mechanical system the parts maintain their integrity when they are integrated into a  larger whole, but in an organic system parts do not maintain their integrity when integrated into a larger whole (Manuel De Landa). The goal of economics research and teaching often appears to fit Philip Mirowski’s view that the goal is to turn the world economy to a single giant machine of interconnected parts. Like Kevin Kelley’s What Technology Wants, as though it can move through history without human participation.

One might think that economics is a kind of helpful fix it profession that starts with interesting problems

What is wealth

What is social hierarchy

How does economics affect politics mediated through the 1 % and their lawyer-lobbyists?

What is the relationship between 

  • material quality of life and 
  • aesthetic and relationships?
  • Hey what about the climate
  • And urban ugliness?
  • Does competition demand losers

What if we started with core problems.

  • Energy
  • Making of things
  • Infrastructure
  • Governance needs to embrace externalities whereas business wants to exclude them. 
  • Why does wealth tend to concentrate?
  • Quality of life beyond a basket of utils.
  • The use and ownership of automation
  • Debt and sustainability

And treated economics 

  • As  the appropriate engineering to deal with these problems.
  • As estate management where the estate is the planet and climate is crucial – how should humans and the planet interact?
  • The sophisticated accounting to make sense of it, for transparency (rather than treating profit as good but wages as a cost)
  • The economics of health, education and geolocation as enablers of good living.

There should be some room for model builders and for sophisticated  accounting to help make sense of what is happening.

The  education economists need and society needs from them is an expansion, not contraction, from Aristotle’s management of the whole (in his time the Estate – basically a cattle ranch – was the largest unit for production of life and its support). The marrow of economics is in is breadth and depth, not in the bare bone of formalism.  At time formalism can pry deeper or paddle out to the edges, but mostly it lies inert.

 An amazing thing happened with Christianity. The word economics was extensively used starting in about the second century for “god’s house”, its structure, purpose and management. Even Jesus was seen as part of God’s economy, as the incarnation of its principles so humans could see it. That idea, of human habitation under ethical guidance is still with us – but oh so etiolated. Many people still desire some such pragmatic vision, but it is very weak in articulation. Many economists across generations would be uncomfortable talking or teaching this, but it is real. To some extent an economist is like a doctor and – you gotta take time with the cadaver – and at the same time be more philosophical and cultural.

Rethinking economic education might go under three goals

1. To understand society

2. To understand formal methods appropriate to a dynamic society moving rapidly in history

3. To understand the history, not as triumphalism (ain’t we great) but with a critical understanding of why we have ended up with a system that is killing us – and killed sixty million in the 20th century and is destroying the planet. 

Economics, as global warming continues,  will be called upon to make sense of climate niche breakdowns, migration wars, new approaches to food chains, security, income distribution, use of technologies, land ownership under regime collapse.. We need to keep asking, the core of the education question, what do we need to know?


If you want some serious thinking,  connect the idea of Aristotle’s estate management  through Christianity and seeing the connection between capital – from cap head as new head of cattle, with the birth of Christ (the lamb of God) as a new head of humanity, and  the transition from estate management to homeland security, father land, mother land and the home of the gods.

This is Western civilization. The advanced conversation is to see this depth in the other cultures of world. Quite different, but as deep. Lots to learn. Is this economics? or am I in the wrong classroom?





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