Recently, Robert Atkinson and Michael Lind published an insightful article to Salon pinpointing the evils of Econ 101. Overall, I agree: the dumbed down version of Economics that those malignant mainstreamers spew is intended to misdirect (or simplify, w/ev) from a vast, complicated discipline with many shades of grey (an idiom this author hopes will soon stop making people think of sex).
The ability of Econ 101 to ruin our world, however, is somewhat shocking to me. What I most loved about Greg Mankiw’s best selling textbook was how blatant and unapologetic its perspective. Over and over it tried to claim theories as truths that my personal experience easily dismissed. As a freshman at Harvard taking his Ec 10, Introduction to Principles of Economics, I was convinced that if we offered it as a class in all high schools, the U.S. public would quickly understand how ridiculous these principles were and how even more ridiculous were the conclusions they intended to support. At the same time, I performed extremely poorly in my Economics courses precisely because they failed to describe the reality I experienced. For someone interested in their own academic performance, assimilation is necessary and immediate. This is why I am glad the shaky foundation of mainstream economics is of recent being presented to the public in subversive, accessible, and un-graded ways.
And while this article breaks down my discomfort with the mainstream, it was in reading this detailed breakdown of the myths of Econ 101 that the nature of the irksomeness of “mainstream” economists became more clear to me. The loud and righteous assertions of mainstream economists, while obnoxious, are not the ultimate problem with them. The source of the power of Econ 101 is in its inability to name its dark lord, capitalism.
Thus, I shall heretofore describe what I once attempted to describe as “mainstream” or “orthodox” economists as “capitalist economists.”
The work of the capitalist economist is difficult to grapple with by people in other social sciences (or people in general) because they are not interested, really, with development as much as a particular type of development. They’re not interested as much with human well-being as they are with growth. They claim to study Economics when, in fact, they merely advocate the preservation of a particular type of economic system. And they advocate policies to preserve this system with a poorly thought out and ill-founded assertion that growth (capitalist growth) is better for everyone else in the long-run. A capitalist economist seeks to preserve and expand “wealth” or the flow of income. They seek to preserve the ability of capital to seek profit above all. This is the system we call global capitalism.
I do not mean to say that all advocates of capitalism are capitalist economists. Certainly, John Maynard Keynes believed in capitalism. However he was also concerned with inequality (to an extent) and full employment. And certainly there are several varieties of capitalism that put the needs of people over the needs of profits. But supporting capitalism with out investigating its outcomes and consequences is both dishonest and dangerous and fuels its devotion with faith in a discipline that claims to gain its fire from evidence. At any rate, capitalism certainly isn’t the only market system available to us and it makes no sense to try to paint it as such since this forfeits our ability to imagine solutions to the problems we care about most (like gender equality, homelessness, war, or anything that isn’t profit margins).
While there are a few universities who have managed to protect their undergraduate economics departments from the oppression of the death eaters, the preponderance of economics departments have quite a ways to go to catch up to the blogosphere in terms of diversity of methods. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to pick up a discarded copy of Mankiw’s Introduction and a red pen and go to town. Maybe we can start a tumblr.