Thomas Carlyle looked askance at the increasing application of scientific thinking to economic questions, and traditional wisdom has it that he labeled economics the “Dismal Science” in reference to Malthus and his propensity for doom and gloom. Perhaps not so, because the first use of “Dismal Science” appeared in an 1849 article by Carlyle in which he tackled the West Indies’ planters’ complaint that freed workers were less apt to take direct orders from the plantation owners than enslaved ones. [Dixon] However, the epithet stuck, and we’re all paying for it. Both the subject and the teaching of it are mired in misunderstandings.
Political Economy, as it was once known, was a narrative, a very human description of economic behavior, now the pendulum has reached the other side and we’re awash in esoteric mathematical models comprehensible only to those initiated into the tender mysteries of calculus and statistics. There is hope, a group of economists have now re-discovered the pleasant fact that human behavior plays a big role in human economics, and they are appropriately labeled the “Behaviorists.” The variance in the narratives helps explain why we’re not getting very much real economic news in a period in which we need it most.
Let’s take a leap of faith and assume that one of the reasons we’re not getting a very good dose of economic news amid the tales of truck wrecks, the latest Really Big Crime, and political horse races, is that the reporters may have had the same experience with economics the rest of us endured.
Most public school curricula in economics tends to run toward a jingo-istic presentation of the Greatness of the Wonderful Free Market School of Chamber of Commerce ballyhoo. That, or it’s the result of pressure from Econ 101 professors who would like secondary teachers to send students to the Ivied Halls who are ready to pass the course with at least a B. Neither of these presentations is necessarily conducive to implanting a lifelong interest in the subject.
If we ever do manage to focus our attention on basic economics instruction, we’re still at the mercy of those who dispense information on a daily basis. One quick gander at what passes for “Business News” in broadcasting quickly reveals that it is little more than stock pumping, stock picking, stock dumping, and stock gossip. In short, we’re getting FINANCIAL not ECONOMIC news. Our eyes either glaze over — or worse, we’re convinced that the stock exchange is the central point of the economic universe. It isn’t. We are.
Since this little essay is on the Internet, it’s safe to assume that a reader already possesses one skill essential to a better understanding of our economic world — bookmarking. Have you bookmarked sources for information about consumer commodity price trends? Or, about labor issues? Or, about women in the workforce? Wages? Or, about the relationship between education and employment, or unemployment?
Once information about economic subjects comes from a wider range of sources, the TV viewer need not become glazed over, in fact a TV viewer may in some instances have a better background than the talent on the screen reading the teleprompter.
Here are some of my favorite bookmarks. There’s the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Or, the Economic Policy Institute. Labor news? The AFL-CIO has a site. Labor Notes is another informative source. The Center for American Progress has an economics page. Once having amassed information from the bookmarked sites, “economics” becomes much more entertaining — especially if part of the entertainment comes from talking back to the screen (throwing objects, even soft ones, is not advised, it won’t make them stop and it will only produce yet another household clean up chore). A little self-education, a few “interactive” sessions with the television set, and economics is no longer just a Dismal Science.
A really eye-opening view of the field of economics is in Naomi Klein’s _The Shock Doctrine_, where she talks about how right-wing economist Milton Friedman and the Chicago School helped wreck several Latin American economies with their “free market” advice to post-colonial nations. This made me understand why Harvard students were so right to #OccupyEconomics in the fall of 2011 — maybe an eggheaded move but definitely a rebellion against free market fundamentalism and a misplaced faith in statistics/data.