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Why Economics?

For all the thousands of words forming complex observations, theories, and predictions it takes a really simple question to stump Barataria. Buried within just the right blank stare of a few words is often hidden some basic wisdom that questions the assumptions long taken as unprovable facts. Isn’t the Emperor naked after all? Such a question came in response to a recent post, as posed by “kikila”:

Finally (I hope) someone who can explain why the economy is important to me!

It’s less of a question than a question about the fundamental underpinnings of our world. Why does economics matter? He elaborates, “I have a theory that this is intrinsically linked to ideology and the false concept that a free economy = freedom (the mainstay of the neo-liberal line for decades). Moreover, that ideological systems have coopted the notion of democracy, linking the idea of political involvement directly and indelibly with the idea that one day, eventually (you say 2017) the economy will begin to benefit (the) people.”

More like centuries of not-so-neo liberal thought, but let’s dig in. Why should we care?

Don't make those in need have to reach for it.

Don’t make those in need have to reach for it.

The Barataria answer comes with its own basic assumptions. The first is that this thing we call an “economy” is nothing more than the sum total of the values of the people involved expressed through the course of their daily life. “Values” and “value” seem like two very different things, but when it comes to plunking down what you give 40 hours a week to earn people express what they really believe in far more honestly than any pollster could dream of.

The second assumption is that how hard it is for people to make that money has a lot to do with how they express themselves. We all have values, yes, but we also have to eat. There is a huge difference between surviving and thriving when it comes to choices. The more people can think in the long term the more we see who they really are. Add that up over a few hundred million people and the force is tremendous.

You may not care about “the economy” in your daily life. You might have things other than money that you value, digging up the scratch you have to where you can, working as many hours as you have to. You might believe that your future is dependent entirely on your own hard work, keeping your nose to the grindstone. Both have their limits.

We live much closer together than people did even a generation ago, and the choices made by each of us influence our lives.

Progress would be good, yes.

Progress would be good, yes.

Many people believe that whoever is in power has a tremendous influence over the economy. It’s largely not true. The economy does change politics based on this belief as the man in charge (so far, always a man) gets the blame when things go bad. Similarly, people who feel good tend to be more interested in positive social change when they are out of survival mode.

Major social change tends to occur in good times for this reason. Hard times amplify the need for change, but it’s not until people feel flush enough to focus on the world around them that it really sinks in. That’s why the period of time we are entering is a critical one. We know that the systems of the economy are working again, but for whom? Once voters start to ask that question, and expect a good answer, we can expect the fruits of a new economy to start to be shared more equitably.

Then again, getting people to ask that question is the hard part.

Organizers for social change would be wise to understand where we are in history if they want to make a difference. If we are poised for better times ahead then this is a time to organize for the long haul. Don’t expect quick victories and don’t use tactics that burn people out. You need to develop capacity and leadership to build the movement that will lead to change. You have time to make your case, so make it clearly and eloquently.

But is it all a sham, a failed promise brought by the false ideology of a “free market”?

One Big Marketplace

One Big Marketplace

I believe very strongly that the US in particular is not a capitalist nation but a marketist nation. The difference is critical and explained in detail in this post. The problem with the “free market” is that it is an ideal, not a natural order. It takes tradition, social agreement, regulation, and stability in fundamental systems of money and government to work properly.

Politics can influence the economy largely to the extent it can screw everything up. When there is a disconnect, as there is now, stagnation in politics upsets the dynamic needs of a truly market based system that is based on the ultimate value of this or any other nation – the talents of its citizens.

Why does economics matter? It illuminates the values of people in ways that are as revealing as the Emperor called out by a naive little boy in the fairy tale.

A truly free market that genuinely benefits everyone requires active participation on many levels. It is tied to democracy for a very good reason – because without a truly open, democratic system there can be no free market.

Many hands make the work lighter.  Connections make things happen.

Many hands make the work lighter. Connections make things happen.

Those who want to have a more capitalist system, where money makes the rules, will always favor a politics of division along utterly meaningless lines – such as today’s “left” and “right” and the nonsense that comes along with them.

Why should anyone care about economics? Because we all have to eat, and we all have to live with each other. If we want a better world we have to understand where everyone is and when there is an opening for genuine social change.

I happen to think a rare opening is coming. Not now, but very soon. It’s worth organizing for and asking the really dumb questions that get to all of our basic assumptions.

Kikala, thanks for asking!

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16 thoughts on “Why Economics?

  1. I’m still concerned with the mode of economic involvement and interaction that seems to be the underlining form ‘economics’ takes in public perception. I agree that without active participation there is no way to benefit from or even modify a system. However, that policy formulated on economic principles has not, historically, benefit the poor in any long- or sort-term way, and that many continue to vote, think, and or attach themselves to the notion of ‘a strong economy for all’ while the majority are continually denied access to the mechanisms of that economic structure, is by its nature fraught and self-serving.

    I look at it as ‘Orientalist Economics’ in the sense that a coercive system has managed to convince the Orient (here ‘the 99%,’ let alone the world) that what is good for the economy is good for them, allowing for the continued legitimization of political and economic processes that are, by their very nature, exclusionary.

    Thank you very much for the explanation, Erik. You make some really interesting points that are making me re-evaluate some ideas I’ve had!

    • Thanks! The discussion and new perspective is what I care about. Times of change require new ways of doing things, an I think we are in such a time.
      The Asian experience is a troubling one, because capitalism is producing a new middle class. I would argue that they do not typically have very “free markets” yet, and that the real benefits are open to a tiny oligarchy. But that may change, and it’s hard for someone in the US to criticize them when we have been heading in the same direction!
      There will be social change there, too. We’ve already seen it in some places. Brazil is my favorite example of a developing nation going through growing pains that put people out in the street demanding more – and I expect this to happen in Malaysia and Indonesia sooner rather than later. South Korea did a good job of getting through this already, from what I can tell.
      But in the end, I leave it to Lao Tzu like i always do:
      “A great country remains receptive and still,
      as does a rich and fertile land.
      The gentle overcomes the strong
      with stillness and receptivity.”
      Tao Te Ching 61 (Rosenthal)

  2. Brilliant as always. I would only add that it is good to watch sustainability because the economy itself can be an issue. We knew back when everyone had an SUV that it couldn’t last and that was a problem. Cheap gas can’t last now either. We really should have mileage (sp?) standards for cars and a gas tax that goes up when the price goes down, we need the money for bridges anyway.

    • Yes! You gave the environmental example, but we are rarely financially sustainable. We have to watch the budget deficits as well. I think the goal has to be sustainability and resiliency if we want to have a system that benefits everyone. Chaos is beneficial to those with the resources to ride or drive it only.

  3. Good blog. I think we see a lot of pent up demand for change which has to come loose someday. So I guess I agree with a lot of this but whether or not it really has to do with economics we will have to see. There are still a lot of people hurting.

    • That is basically what I’m saying, yes. It has to blow up like the housing market bubble had to blow up. We can see a lot of this first in economics because people have to be out of survival mode and feeling flush before they can cross artificial lines of color, etc.

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