Category Archives: economics

The virus and the economy

The coronavirus pandemic highlights fundamental shortcomings in the way the economic system is set up.

What is the best way to respond to covid-19? There is commonly assumed to be a trade-off between lives and the economy: precautions and controls are needed to save lives but they cause damage to the economy.

There’s an unstated assumption in this thinking, namely that “the economy” is vital to people’s wellbeing. This needs to be questioned. It has been long known that the Gross Domestic Product or GDP is not an accurate reflection of people’s wellbeing. GDP is boosted by negatives such as traffic accidents, environmental destruction and ill health.

A deeper problem is that people’s happiness levels are not very sensitive to increases in average income, at least above some basic level. Happiness depends more strongly on things like close personal relationships, having a purpose in life, physical activity, expressing gratitude and helping others. In countries with a high GDP per capita, average happiness levels have been mostly stable for decades despite continuing economic growth.

            Another problem is inequality. GDP per capita might be high but hide inequality: the average income might be rising but mainly to benefit the top 10% or top 1%. The more unequal the distribution of income and wealth in a country, the worse off it is in lots of ways, such as more illness, crime and mental disorders.

The economic system

Pandemic control measures have highlighted the problem of thinking of the economy as a universally beneficial entity that needs to be protected and enhanced. The economic system is better understood as a particular way of organising two things: production and distribution.

First think of the production of goods and services, which involves people, skills and technology. Food production, for example, involves growing and harvesting crops and getting them to consumers. We see the results of production around us all the time: streets, hairdressers, schools and mobile devices.


Do you deserve to own a luxury villa?

The second part of the system is distribution, which refers to who gets what. Some people have palatial homes; others are homeless. Some people have access to expensive entertainment; others do not. The assumption underlying the distribution system is that it is based on merit in some way, so those who contribute the most receive the most. This assumption is deeply flawed.

Suppose you were born with a serious brain impairment and your parents abandon you. It will be pretty difficult for you to learn to read and write, much less obtain a high-level job. Do you deserve less than someone born unimpaired into a wealthy family?


Do you deserve to be homeless?

            You may feel that you’ve worked very hard in your life, so you deserve a good salary. But what about someone who worked just as hard but had a bit of bad luck and ended up in an also-ran category? The difference between a sports star and one who didn’t make the grade may be a matter of a few seconds in a race or being injury-free or getting a lucky break. The difference between a CEO and lower-level manager may be only a matter of who you know or of having just the right style and conformity to rise in the organisational hierarchy. The role of luck in success is often neglected.

The way the economic system distributes goods and services to people depends on a whole range of arbitrary arrangements, including laws on inheritance, occupational barriers, and the sorts of employment that receive compensation. Being a parent is usually unpaid, yet it is vital to the operation of the system.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the arbitrariness of the distribution system. Entire industries, such as tourism and hospitality, have been devastated. The idea that workers get what they deserve is shown up as misguided. It was misguided before, but now this is more obvious.

Universal basic income?

What is the alternative? One option is a guaranteed annual income, also known as a universal basic income or UBI. Everyone, from newborns to the elderly, would receive a regular income, no strings attached. Anything earned would be in addition.

            Many people respond to the idea of a UBI with a series of objections. How will it be paid for? Who will do the undesirable jobs? Won’t lots of people just decide not to work? There’s a body of research and writing addressing such objections. The calculations about how to pay for a UBI have been carried out. If no one wants to do undesirable jobs, then increase wages. There have been experiments showing that when poor people are given cash, nearly all use it “responsibly.”

The objection that people can’t be trusted to use money responsibly is always used against the poor, not the rich. If people can’t be trusted receiving money they didn’t work for, then inheritance should be abolished. After all, someone inheriting a lot of money can’t be trusted to use it responsibly.

The other side of the UBI issue is its benefits. Millions of workers would be liberated — if they so wished — from what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs.” These are jobs that benefit no one and could be gotten rid of with no loss of productivity.

            Decades ago, J. W. Smith wrote The World’s Wasted Wealth, documenting the massive amount of production in excess of needs in industrial and post-industrial societies. Smith showed that a large percentage of work in many occupations serves only to redistribute wealth to those occupations, with case studies of insurance, law, transport, agriculture, medicine and welfare. Smith also argued that property rights, by being too great, take wealth from the community, with case studies of land, finance capital, intellectual property and communications. His overall conclusion is that organisation of society is highly wasteful and destructive, all to ensure that privileged groups retain their privilege.

            Work is a vital part of many people’s lives. It gives meaning, provides a connection to others and, bullshit jobs aside, provides some satisfaction for contributing to society. There’s evidence that people gladly accept lower pay if their work helps those with the greatest need. Indeed, research shows that helping other people is a powerful way of increasing happiness.

A UBI would also address the curse of the contemporary economy, job insecurity. In the economic approach called neoliberalism, workers are treated as free agents who have to sell themselves to employers, without guarantees of security. This is supposed to boost “the economy” but sacrifices the wellbeing of a large number of the people who are supposed to be served by the economy.

Job insecurity contributes to the spread of the coronavirus when people who have disease symptoms feel they must show up for their jobs to survive. A UBI would reduce the incentive to work while ill and thus save lives.

Industrial and post-industrial societies have an enormous productive capacity, far greater than necessary to provide necessities to every individual and to provide extra support for those who need it the most. Yet these societies are stuck in economic arrangements that assume scarcity, protect and reward the wealthy and stigmatise the poor and marginalised. Logically, it would make much more sense to celebrate abundance and spread it around. In part, this can be done by expanding the commons, those resources that are available to all. In part, it can be done by designing work around the needs of people rather than fitting people into slots in “the economy.”

What level for society?

In their pioneering book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett gathered a range of evidence about the links between economic inequality and the quality of life. They found a remarkable consistency in these links: in just about every way, inequality was associated with bad outcomes for people. When societies are more unequal in income and wealth, they are likely to have more crime, shorter life spans, higher prison populations, more mental illness, worse health and poorer educational performance.

           It is important to note that inequality is not the sole causative factor. For example, a range of socio-cultural factors can affect people’s wellbeing.

A decade later, Wilkinson and Pickett wrote another book, The Inner Level, in which they canvass a wide range of research on the ways that inequality affects people’s behaviour and thinking. Inequality, they argue, makes people more status-sensitive, fosters materialism and makes relationships more difficult. Wilkinson and Pickett write,

“The reality is that inequality causes real suffering, regardless of how we choose to label such distress. Greater inequality heightens social threat and status anxiety, evoking feelings of shame which feed into our instincts for withdrawal, submission and subordination: when the social pyramid gets higher and steeper and status insecurity increases, there are widespread psychological costs. Status competition and anxiety increase, people become less friendly, less altruistic and more likely to put others down.” (p. 56).

Wilkinson and Pickett say that inequality leads to pressure to present yourself to others in a flattering light. It leads to more narcissism, more business psychopaths, less empathy and altruism. Yet there is some hope. Studies show that when rich people think about egalitarian values, they become more ethical. Wilkinson and Pickett cite surveys showing most people would prefer their societies to be more equal economically.

Research on inequality suggests that everyone, including the rich, would be better off if societies were more equal, yet the driving forces pushing for ever greater economic inequality seem relentless, at least since the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s. How to help counter these forces is a great unanswered question. Suffice it to say that groups are doing what they can to raise awareness, promote alternatives and encourage action.

            In this context, the pandemic is a wildcard. It offers an incentive for communities to pull together and make sacrifices to protect those who are most vulnerable. It sends a message that there is more to life than money and status. Indeed, life itself is at stake. Furthermore, pandemic control measures, by requiring greater distancing between people, have highlighted the importance of personal relationships in wellbeing. By forcing some people to slow down, the control measures have the potential to encourage people to reflect on their lives and priorities.

On the other hand, pandemic control measures are having some disastrous effects, increasing the risk of domestic violence and suicide, while enabling governments to justify draconian powers for surveillance and control of movement. It is possible to lapse into despair at the prospect of a terrible choice between control measures of indefinite duration and a continuing health crisis. A more positive agenda comes from looking at the way the pandemic opens the door to greater thinking of ways to improve people’s lives. It does not come from thinking of a choice between covid-19 and “the economy.” The emphasis needs to be on people’s needs, especially those that come from relationships of mutual support, meaningful work and helping others.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Lyn Carson and Richard Eckersley for helpful comments.

 

 

 

Understanding global conflict

To get a handle on what’s happening in the world, read books like Paul Rogers’ Losing Control.

 

How can you make sense of world affairs? There are so many countries, politicians and power plays. If you follow the news, you hear about developments concerning tariffs, wars, elections and bombings. But how does it all fit together? The news tells mostly about events, with seldom anything much deeper to help put the events into context.

I’ve found that I learn far more by reading a book by a well-informed author, one that provides a framework for understanding. To aid my comprehension, whenever I read a book I take notes on it, including bibliographic details, a summary of the contents and specific points (with page and paragraph numbers) that are relevant to my interests. Sometimes the notes are just half a page; sometimes they are many pages long.

Going through my files recently, I came across my notes about a book by Paul Rogers titled Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-first Century. Published in 2000, I read the book two years later, and wrote in my notes that Rogers was remarkably prescient: his analysis seemed to have anticipated world events. In particular, between publication in 2000 and when I read the book, there were the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Looking at my notes in 2020, I was again impressed with Rogers’ assessments. Losing Control was a useful guide to understanding world affairs. I decided to read the book again, in the process discovering that there had been a second edition in 2002 and a third in 2010. Conveniently, these new editions were the original book with supplementary chapters.

Nuclear war-fighting

Losing Control starts off with a detailed analysis of nuclear politics during the Cold War. This may now seem irrelevant given that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 as did concern about nuclear war. Actually, though, it is a useful reminder that, for several decades, that the world was worryingly close to devastation. Furthermore, Rogers goes on to point out that, contrary to the impression you might get from the news, the threat of nuclear war has not disappeared. Governments have been “modernising” their arsenals, namely making them more effective.

Rogers says that the major nuclear weapons states — US, Russia, UK, China, France, Israel, India and Pakistan — have no intention of ever relinquishing their arsenals. Instead, hypocritically, political leaders roar with indignation should some other state seek to acquire nuclear weapons. Just think of the attention given to the possibility of Iraqi, North Korean and Iranian weapons.

During the Cold War, the standard theory concerning nuclear weapons was that they served as a deterrent against attack: US and Soviet nuclear forces, by being poised to destroy each other’s population centres, discouraged initiating an attack. This was called mutually assured destruction. However, unbeknownst to most members of the public, both sides had strategic plans and targeting policies that were based on war-fighting: they hoped to be able to destroy their opponent’s communication and weapons systems in a first strike, thus winning a nuclear war.

            Back in the 1980s, I studied the effects of nuclear war and read about plans for nuclear war-fighting. The information was available but not widely known, with the result that most people did not appreciate how dangerous the so-called strategic balance was in those years. Rogers, in recounting these matters, provides a corrective to mistaken ideas about past and present nuclear threats.

Three drivers

Rogers argued that international conflict over the next two or three decades would be driven by three factors. The first is economic inequality, which is exacerbated by neoliberal economic policies. Inequality is a source of tension: some of the have-nots may want to challenge the dominant order violently; others may seek to migrate to more prosperous regions, triggering tensions over immigration.

            The second factor is environmental constraints. The massive expansion of human activity puts strain on land, water and the air. Resources, especially oil, become bones of contention. The wars in the Persian Gulf are partly resource-related. Rogers was initially writing in 2000, after the first Gulf war in 1991 but before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Today the most obvious environmental constraint is climate change. Already in 2000 Rogers identified this as a crucial factor in international conflict. Affluent industrialised countries have generated the most greenhouse gases, yet they want to keep consuming despite the looming dangers. It is at this point that environmental constraints interact with economic inequality.

            The third factor is the commitment by dominant powers to address these issues by attempting to maintain the status quo, if necessary by force. Instead of addressing inequality and environmental constraints, Western governments have tried to subdue challengers, especially those that use force themselves. The context is that groups with relatively little resources and technological expertise have the capacity to wreak havoc in rich developed societies. Putting this another way, industrial societies have developed in ways that make them vulnerable to attack.

Security paradigms

Rogers describes two security paradigms, namely assumptions and ways of thinking that guide action. The first paradigm, which he dubs “old,” is based on attempting to maintain control. This is called “liddism”: the dominant powers attempt to keep a lid on the discontent stimulated by continuing economic inequality and escalating environmental impacts. Rogers’ second paradigm is quite different. Instead of trying to maintain the status quo and keep a lid on discontent, this alternative “new” paradigm involves addressing the roots of conflict: inequality, environmental impacts and military deployments to maintain them.

Rogers gave considerable attention to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. A truck filled with explosives was driven into an underground parking station and detonated. However, the plotters had not positioned the location quite right to achieve their goal of bringing down the tower. If they had succeeded, 30,000 people might have been killed. Concerning this possibility, Rogers rhetorically asked “… would it have resulted in any rethinking of security? Probably not. A more likely result would have been a massive and violent military reaction against any groups anywhere in the Middle East that were thought to have had even the slightest connection with the attack.” (p. 118)


Damage from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing

            How’s that for a prediction made in the year 2000? We now know that this is the security trajectory followed after 9/11. There was a declaration of a “war on terror” with no possibility of peace envisioned, the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, a continuation of neoliberalism and economic inequality and a slow and tepid response to climate change. In contrast, the new-paradigm response to 9/11 would have been to treat the attacks as a criminal matter. It didn’t happen.

The 1993 attack highlighted the interaction of the three factors that Rogers identified. Resource factors, namely the location of cheap and abundant oil in the Gulf region, led to US military involvement in the Gulf, including troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. The quest for control over energy supplies aggravated the perception of inequality, with Western affluent countries seeking control. The attack did not lead to any change in ways of thinking about security.

Learning from Rogers

There is a lot to learn from Losing Control. It contains all sorts of information about international security, from nuclear arsenals to political grievances to neoliberalism. The information is presented in a coherent way, enabling an appreciation of trends and impacts.


Paul Rogers

            More important than the information is the framework that Rogers developed to understand the driving forces underlying the security environment: economic inequality, environmental constraints (especially Gulf oil politics and climate change) and the old security paradigm of trying to maintain control. Grasping these three factors and their interactions provides a remarkably powerful way of understanding geopolitical developments.

Reading and digesting Losing Control offers a way of making sense of the crush of current affairs. You could spend years watching or reading current affairs in the news and still have less idea of what it all means than by spending a few hours reading this book. Alternatively, if you prefer shorter treatments, Rogers writes a regular column for openDemocracy.

This speaks to a more general issue. By acquiring an understanding of patterns and driving forces, it’s possible to make sense of the world far more efficiently and accurately than by taking in one event after another. If you can find the right book or article, one that cuts to the core, you can know far more with far less time and effort.

To find works like Losing Control isn’t easy. If you want to acquire powerful conceptual tools for making sense of the world, the initial challenge is to find lucid, insightful expositions. This can take a bit of effort. Then it’s a matter of spending some time reading history, politics, psychology or whatever fascinates you and of keeping doing this despite the temptations to read the latest headlines and social media commentary.

Postscript

How’s this for a prediction made in 2010, in the third edition of Losing Control, before the emergence of Islamic State?

 “Even if US troops are largely in barracks, they can still be readily represented by al-Qaida propagandists and others as ‘ghost’ occupiers of a major Islamic state. Given the decades-long timescale of the al-Qaida movement’s aims, and the potentially decades-long significance of Persian Gulf oil, the value of Iraq to the al-Qaida movement may be far from over.” (p. 168)

There may be a fourth edition in 2021. Stay tuned.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Trusting people and machines

Trust is fundamental to human activities. How is it changing?

Would you trust Sophia, a robot that is a citizen of Saudi Arabia?

On a day-to-day basis, people put a lot of trust in others. As I walk down a suburban street, I trust that a driver will follow the curve of the road rather than drive straight into me. The driver trusts the engineers who designed the car that it will not explode, at least not on purpose. Buying an aspirin is premised on trusting the chemists and manufacturers that produced the drug.

            When trust is betrayed, it is a major issue. When, last year in Australia, a few needles were discovered in strawberries and other fruit, it was national news. People normally assume that fruit purchased from a shop has not been tampered with.

            Paedophilia in the churches was covered up for decades. When it was finally exposed, it destroyed a lot of trust in church leadership and the church as an institution.

            Scientific knowledge is based on observation, experiment and theorising, but also relies heavily on trust between scientists, who need to rely on each other to report their findings truthfully. This helps explain the enormous condemnation of scientific fraud, when scientists manipulate or fake their results.

            In certain areas, public trust has plummeted in recent decades: trust in public institutions including government, corporations and the mass media. Opinion polls show large declines. In Australia, trust in financial institutions had been dropping due to scandals, and that was before the royal commission revealed widespread corruption. When people can’t trust their financial advisers, what should they do?

Public trust in Greek institutions has plummeted.

            In order to ensure fairness and good practice, governments set up watchdog bodies such as ombudsmen, environmental protection authorities, anti-corruption commissions and auditor-generals. One of the casualties of the banking royal commission has been the credibility of financial watchdogs such as the Australian Securities & Investment Commission (ASIC). Rather than sniffing out bad practice, they were complacent. Whistleblowers reported problems, but ASIC ignored them. The message is that members of the public cannot rely on watchdog bodies to do their job.

Who can you trust?

Rachel Botsman has written an insightful and engaging book titled Who Can You Trust? She argues that in human history there have been three types of trust.

            First was local trust, based on personal experience in small communities. If someone you know helps, or fails to help, in an hour of need, you can anticipate the same thing in the future. Local trust is still relevant today, in families and friendships. People learn who and when to trust through direct experience.

            Next came institutional trust, in churches, militaries, governments, and professions such as medicine and engineering. People trusted those with greater authority to do the right thing. In the 1950s, high percentages of people in countries such as the US said they had a great deal of trust in their political leaders. However, institutional trust has taken a battering in recent decades.

“So why is trust in so many elite institutions collapsing at the same time? There are three key, somewhat overlapping, reasons: inequality of accountability (certain people are being punished for wrongdoing while others get a leave pass); twilight of elites and authority (the digital age is flattening hierarchies and eroding faith in experts and the rich and powerful); and segregated echo chambers (living in our cultural ghettoes and being deaf to other voices).” (p. 42)

            Botsman writes about the rise of a third type of trust: distributed trust. People trust in systems that involve collective inputs, often anonymous.

Distributed trust

Suppose you want to see a recently released film. If you rely on local trust, you ask your friends what they thought of it. If you rely on institutional trust, you see what the producers say about their own film: read the advertisements. Or you can rely on distributed trust. For example, you can look up the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and see what different film critics have said about the film, see what audience members have said about the film and see the average rating audiences have given the film.

            If you take into account audience ratings from IMDb, you are trusting in two things. First, you’re assuming that audience members have given honest ratings, and that the film’s promoters aren’t gaming the system. Second, you’re assuming that IMDb’s method of collecting and reporting ratings is honest. After all, IMDb might be getting payoffs from movie producers to alter audience ratings.

            Botsman says distributed trust seems to be reliant on technology but, ultimately, human judgement may be required. Of course, people design systems, so it’s necessary to trust the designers. However, after a while, when systems seem to be working, people forget about the designers and trust the technology.

            One of Botsman’s examples is the self-driving car. Developers have put a lot of effort into figuring out what will make passenger/drivers feel safe in such cars. This sounds challenging. It turns out that the main problem is not building trust, because after being in a self-driving car it seems quite safe. The problem is that drivers become too trusting. Botsman thinks her young children will never learn to drive because self-driving cars will become so common.

            Botsman has a fascinating chapters on the darknet, a part of the Internet frequented by buyers and sellers of illegal goods, among other nefarious activities. Suppose you want to buy some illegal drugs. You scroll through the various sellers and select your choice. How can you be sure you’ll receive the drugs you ordered (rather than adulterated goods) or that the seller won’t just run off with your money and not deliver the drugs? Botsman describes the trust-building mechanisms on the darknet. They include a rating service, rather like Amazon’s, and an escrow process: your payment is held by a third party until you’re satisfied with the goods. These darknet trust-enablers aren’t perfect, but they compare favourably with regular services. It turns out that trust is vital even when illegal goods are being bought and sold, and that reliable systems for building and maintaining trust are possible.

            In Sydney, a high-rise apartment building called the Opal Tower had to be evacuated after cracks were found in the construction. Experts debated when it was safe for residents to return to their units. Some commentators blamed the government’s system for checking compliance to building codes. Could trust in builders be improved by learning from the systems used on the darknet?

Blockchain

Botsman’s special interest is in the blockchain. You might have heard about the electronic currency called bitcoin. Used for purchases online, it can provide anonymity, yet embedded in the code is a complete record of every transaction. Furthermore, this record can be made public and inspected by anyone. It’s as if a bank published online every transaction, with amounts and dates, but without identifying who made them.

            Botsman says bitcoin is a sideshow. The real innovation is the blockchain, the record-keeping code that enables reliable transactions without a middleman, such as a bank, taking a cut. It sounds remarkable, but blockchain-based operations have pitfalls. Botsman describes some disasters. When a new currency system was set up, someone found a glitch in the code and drained $60 million from the currency fund, one third of the total. The programmers and founders of the system were called in to intervene, which they did, preventing the extraction of currency.

            Blockchain seems not quite ready to provide a totally reliable trust system, one not reliant on human intervention. But lots of people are working to achieve this goal, as Botsman revealingly describes.

Trust and political systems

For me, the value of Who Can You Trust? is in highlighting the role of trust in contemporary life, especially as trust in institutions declines drastically. It made me think in a different direction: political alternatives.

Rachel Botsman

            The political philosophy of anarchism is based on the idea of self-management: people collectively make the crucial decisions affecting their lives without systems of hierarchy, namely without governments, corporations or other systems of domination. The usual idea is that there are assemblies, for example of workers who decide how to organise their work and what to produce. Assemblies elect delegates for coordination by higher-level groups.

            This model of self-management relies on two types of trust. The assemblies have to be small enough for dialogue in a meeting and thus rely on local trust. The delegate structure parallels distributed trust, as long as the delegates remain bound by their assemblies and acquire no independent power

            Another model is demarchy, which also dispenses with governments and corporations. In a local community, decision-making is carried out by citizens panels, with maybe 12 to 24 members each, whose members are selected randomly from volunteers. There could be panels for transport, manufacturing, art, education and a host of other topics. In essence, all the issues addressed by governments today are divided according to topic and allocated to randomly selected groups of citizens.

            Because they are randomly selected, panel members have no mandate, so their terms are limited. For coordination, experienced panel members would be elected or randomly chosen for higher-level panels.

            Demarchy relies on local trust, especially on the panels, and on distributed trust, namely trust in the system itself. This distributed trust is similar to the trust we have today in the jury system for criminal justice, in which randomly selected citizens deliberate together and make judgements. People trust a randomly selected person, who has no personal stake in the outcome, more than they are likely to trust a lawyer or a politician.

            Botsman’s analysis of trust and technology raises a fascinating option: what would it mean to combine distributed trust based on technology with the local/distributed trust in political systems like anarchism and demarchy?

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Supply and demand: think again?

Some of the things we learn in economics classes may not be as simple as they seem.

            One of the basics taught in economics classes is that the price of a good is determined by supply and demand. There’s a curve showing how the supply varies with the price and another curve showing how the demand varies with the price. Where the two curves intersect determines the price.

            This seems plausible, but I must admit I never thought deeply about these curves. So I thought I’d try to figure out what the supply curve might look like for product I know something about: printed books.

            What happens to the supply of a book when the price goes up? Well, most books are sold at the same price until they go out of print: the price doesn’t go up at all. Sometimes remaining print copies are “remaindered”: they are sold off to discount booksellers at a rock-bottom price, maybe $1 each, and the discount booksellers mark them up a bit, maybe to $2 or $5, though they are still a bargain compared to the original retail price.

            When the book goes out of print, then it’s usually possible to buy used copies, for example via booksellers who sell through Amazon. If there’s still a demand, then some suppliers jack up the price. On the other hand, if the demand is great enough, the publisher may do another print run, so then the supply is suddenly increased.

            So what does the supply curve look like? Here’s what the textbooks say.

Whoops. The textbook curve doesn’t seem to fit what happens with printed books. Instead of supply increasing as the price increases, the price stays the same and then, if there’s still a demand for the book as supply dwindles, the price goes up.

Ryan on economics

            If this is as confusing to you as it was to me, then read Michael Ryan’s book The Truth about Economics. Ryan was a high tech executive who decided to become a school teacher in Texas and, after having to teach economics, became sceptical about some of the basics. To him, the claims in the standard textbooks used in the US didn’t make sense. So he wrote a book to explain, in simple terms, what’s going on.

            According to Ryan, the supply and demand curves in textbooks like Paul Samuelson’s Economics and Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of Economics simply don’t apply in many situations. The texts say that the curves apply when other things are equal. The trouble is that other things often aren’t equal.

            Even worse, Ryan shows that some of the data provided in the textbooks to show the operation of supply and demand are made up. Rather than using actual data from markets, the numbers in the texts are chosen to give the right answer, namely the answer that agrees with the theory. In other words, the authors work backwards from the theory to generate data that shows that the theory works.

            If your mind goes blank at the sight of a table of numbers or a graph, you will find Ryan’s book challenging. Actually, though, it is easier than most economics texts, not to mention econometrics research papers, because Ryan patiently explains what is going on.

            The Truth about Economics made me think for myself about supply and demand. I already knew about some of the abuses involving pharmaceutical drugs. Some companies exploit their patent-protected monopolies over drugs by raising prices unscrupulously, even though it costs no more to make the drug than before. When patients desperately need the drug, the demand is inelastic: it doesn’t change much even when the price goes up.

            Another example Ryan uses is buying a car. He notes that there are different price ranges. You might be in the market for a low-cost Nissan Versa or a top-of-the-range Porsche. Most buyers only want one car, and want it within a particular price range. The result is a very different sort of supply-and-demand diagram.  

          As well as markets for goods and services, there are also markets for labour. Ryan analyses what US textbooks say and is withering in his criticism. He presents arguments showing why raising the minimum wage makes almost no difference to unemployment rates. Instead, raising the minimum wage benefits workers at the expense of owners and managers. Ryan points to the ideological role of conventional economic theory, at least as presented in US textbooks. He quotes from standard texts to show the authors’ hostility to trade unions. This raises the suspicion that some facets of economics texts are more a glorification of capitalism than a neutral presentation.

            Could it be that generations of students have studiously learned about supply and demand curves and never questioned whether they actually described what happens in real markets? That is what Ryan claims. He presents ideas about groupthink to explain the economics profession’s continued commitment to a model based on questionable assumptions and for which there are so many counterexamples — such as book sales. As for students, Ryan believes most are too young and inexperienced to question textbooks, or they just suppress their rebellious thoughts.


Michael Ryan

            I’m not here to endorse Ryan’s critique. Instead, I recommend it as a way to encourage you to think for yourself about markets.

            Ryan argues that high-school students should be given the option of taking courses in financial literacy, learning the basics of bookkeeping and profit-and-loss statements. Financial literacy, he says, is far more relevant to the lives of students when they are in jobs and perhaps running their own businesses. However, Ryan is excessively optimistic to imagine that, based on his analysis, a movement will arise to introduce financial literacy courses throughout the US.

Learning about economics

You may have no interest in economics, but if you do, what’s the best way to learn about it? I’d say there are three things to look at.

            First are expositions of the dominant neoclassical perspective. Currently in the US the most popular textbook is Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of Economics, so you could start there, but just about any basic text would be fine.

            Second, to avoid simply accepting standard ideas without question, you can also look at critiques. Ryan’s The Truth about Economics is one possibility. Steve Keen’s Debunking Economics is a more advanced analysis.

            Contrary perspectives have been put forward for decades. Ryan quotes from early economists like H. L. Moore, who challenged Alfred Marshall’s dominant ideas about supply and demand. That was in the early 1900s.

            You can dip into the large literature on political economy, which is based on the idea that the economic system cannot be understood separately from the political system. John Kenneth Galbraith in a number of books, for example Economics and the Public Purpose, showed the value judgements built into orthodox economics.

Those with a mathematical bent can appreciate John Blatt’s 1983 book Dynamical Economic Systems in which he showed that the assumption of equilibrium in markets, an assumption that underlies a vast body of econometric theory, is untenable. Blatt also wrote a paper, “The utility of being hanged on the gallows,” that challenged the assumptions underlying utility theory, central to much work in economics.

            Third, it is illuminating to look at alternatives to standard economic theory. For example, you can read about local currencies, which provide a radically different way of thinking about markets.

A more radical alternative is the sharing economy based on an expansion of the commons, with production done collaboratively without pay, as with free software. Then there are models or visions of economic systems that avoid reliance on organised violence. Current market systems do not qualify because the power of the state is required to protect private property. I have found only four models or visions of economic systems that could operate without organised violence: Gandhian economics, anarchism, voluntaryism and demarchy.

            If you’re going to study standard views, critiques and alternatives, what’s the best order to approach them? My suggestion would be to look at all three in tandem, because each throws light on the others.

            It is not surprising that the discipline of economics is, to a considerable extent, a reflection and legitimation of the existing economic system. Challenges are needed to orthodox economic theory as part of challenges to the dominant economic system. That means there is still quite a lot worth investigating, indeed entire realms. Most likely, though, improved theory will depend on economic alternatives becoming a reality.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au