The Economists Radio National 8th July 2021
Re: “The decline of high school economics”
Dear Gigi and Peter,
I just listened to the podcast of this episode of The Economists. One of the issues discussed was why interest in studying economics at school has been declining, particularly among female students and lower socio economic cohorts?
Like you, I can only speculate about the reasons for this trend. However, I suspect that fewer teenage girls are attracted to the subject because they tend to be more intellectually and metaphysically sophisticated than boys. Indeed, my speculation is endorsed on the program by your reference to the greater awareness by girls that economic dogma is largely responsible for the multitude of existential environmental threats this planet faces, consequent to human economic activity.
This widely held perception was casually dismissed as fatuous by “The Economists” because you maintain that the discipline of economics, far from causing these problems, in fact represents the key to resolving them. My response to your simplistic and doctrinaire position is a little more complex, so I invite you to persevere with the musings of an aging farmer.
1969 was a year of epiphanies for me.
On my sixteenth birthday, Neil Armstrong took his one small step. At about the same time, in geography class, I learnt about Climate Change and the existential threat it posed to most species on this planet. It was also the year I began my study of economics.
My favorite subject was Geography, in which I learnt about the complex dynamic systems that determined our existence. It occurred to me that the complexities of human socio-economics were comparable to the ecological systems of nature. Perhaps it was the commonality of “eco” that stimulated my curiosity and subsequently motivated my decision to take up economics in the third term.
I bought a 1st year Uni text book (Samuelson) and spent the September holidays digesting it, by which time it was apparent to me that economics is a faith based discipline.
My studies also confirmed my view that economics and ecology were variations of the same theme, but with a fundamental difference. Whilst ecology is quintessentially economically rational, human economics is, (inevitably) profoundly corrupted by human nature; e.g. its intellectual, emotional and socio-political limitations. These limitations manifest themselves primarily in two fundamental deficiencies:
• First, contemporary economics has become largely driven by ideology, in that it is predicated upon a set of unchallengeable assumptions that are entirely at odds with the real world as defined by science. Primary of these is the belief that human economic activity can and indeed must, grow in perpetuity in a finite environment. In other words, it is based on the mathematical equation: X/infinity, which even I could see was a mathematical absurdity.
• Secondly, that the current manifestation of market economics is essentially a Ponzi scheme, because it myopically cherry picks which costs it includes in its bookkeeping. For example, our most valuable economic asset, which underpins all economic activity, is the biosphere. You can’t buy shiny things if you are dead. Bizarrely, this fundamental asset appears on no balance sheet; nor is its depreciation accounted for in any profit and loss account. Global heating is arguably the most egregious of the many ecological issues our economic activity has created, but it remains just one of the many symptoms of the underlying malaise.
The end of year exams in 1969 posed a dilemma for me; but it was one that I was familiar with. Four years earlier my mother had encouraged me to attend the Confirmation Classes at our local Anglican Church, so that I could partake of the communion ritual. I had no issue with this, as religion was an accepted part of my life. Several months later, to please my mother, I was confirmed. However, by then, consequent to those classes, I was a confirmed atheist.
Four years later, it occurred to me that although the terrain was rather different, I was in very familiar territory, with an identical dilemma. However, now being of a more pragmatic disposition, I chose to regurgitate the economics catechism and so secured a high distinction. I repeated this result in year twelve, which along with geography, provided me with a Commonwealth Scholarship and saved me from the Draft. I have subsequently met some economists who share my heretical views; they have difficulty getting jobs.
This “Magic Pudding” ideology, that defines the global human economy, has had a profound effect upon the rest of my life: environmental activism, via regenerative farming, became my vocation and raison d’être.
Of course, over forty years of restoring a fifty hectare sheep paddock into native forest has no quantifiable economic value, so my decades of hard labour must be considered to be pro bono. But then, I have saved a fortune in gym fees. What price could be put on the estimated 250,000 species of arthropods to be found only in the canopies of eucalypts? Clearly, ecologically, their value is immense; but in the world of human economics such value is not recognised in any meaningful way. In the absence of a market how can we value things like the biosphere? In April 2016 you aired a programme on The Money arguing for putting a monetary value on volunteering for activities like umpiring sports, meals on wheels, working in op-shops etc. However, the concept of valuing the asset upon which all our lives depend is assiduously ignored.
I have always framed my ecological arguments in economic terms. My reasoning is that only by using the lingua franca of that doctrinaire discipline, which holds our society in its vice grip, can any traction be gained among those responsible for public policy. The whimsical goal of my argument is, in essence, to promote awareness that the only difference between an ecological problem and an economic one, is time; and time is rapidly becoming a very finite resource.
The judgement stated in your programme was that people who blame the current discipline of economics for the ecological crisis, are ignorant of the potential of economics to deliver us from the imminent catastrophe. The reality is that the disapprobation directed at economists (by those you deem to be ignorant and/or unable to think outside their “bubble”) is not directed at economics per se; but rather to the refusal of the current practitioners of the “dismal science” to free themselves from the cognitive dissonance of their ideologies and corporate corruption. Only by embracing the complexities of the real world can economics attain the status of empiricism.
To this end I offer one of the large number of polemics I have written over the last 50 yrs. Years that have seen my youthful optimism dwindle to hope; and that hope degrade to deep despair, as it became increasingly evident that our narcissistic society has collectively decided that survival would be just too expensive to seriously consider.
But why should we care about the world we leave to our grandchildren? After all, what have they ever done for us?
I have sent this polemic to a great many economists with a plea that they refute what is, essentially, a very simple but depressing contention. If this argument cannot be easily debunked, the implications for your doctrine of endless growth and consumption are profound.
In forty-five years, none have even attempted to do so. On the other hand, real scientists invariably agree with my perspective; as do a wide range of people who have actually acquired an ability to think outside the ideological bubble in which most economists exist.
“While this is important, the plan also needs to call out and tackle dominant worldviews which equate continuous economic growth with human well-being. The first eight targets cannot realistically be met unless we address the economic causes driving these threats: materialism, unsustainable production and over-consumption.”
“Repeating mistakes: why the plan to protect the world’s wildlife falls short” The Conversation
July 16, 2021 5.08pm AEST Dr Michelle Lim is a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie Law School.
Oh, and then there is that eccentric chap who wrote:
“If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compel them to it”
John Stuart Mill “Principles of Political Economy” – Book IV, Chapter VI (1848)
But what would JSM know about economics? He was just a philosopher. For that matter, what would I know of the real world? I am just a farmer.
Finally, you might find my correspondence with a certain Professor of Economics, salutary:
Prof. Anon – Ferret Farm Forestry