Geography as an Example

by on October 3, 2017 in Economics

Let me be very quick:

Geography is not taught [if it is taught at all] as if there are no rivers, mountains, plains, valleys, coasts, seas, or oceans. Cities, towns, villages and the networks that connect them exist in even the most elementary geography lesson. Geographers don’t begin their lessons by ignoring reality. They dive right in and use the real world as the backdrop for teaching the processes and forces that result in what we actually see.

So why does economics not start this way?

Why does economics begin with the unreal and then make a sequence of adjustments to get closer to reality? Perhaps it’s because geographers cannot hide reality from their students: its all around us everyday. But economists are dealing with something more abstract, so they can get away with beginning with fantasy.

We can argue back and forth over how close economics ever gets to reality, but few would argue that economics 101 is far too simple a view and is far too riddled with unworldly assumptions to be of much value as a description of real economies.

The problem is that economics 101 is all that a very large number of people ever get to read or be taught. They are mostly oblivious to the adjustments that tend to be taught much later on and only to those who are determined to become economists.

So the simple world of uncluttered supply, demand, and competition, and the wonderland of prices is all most people understand. That’s like learning geography as if the world were flat and without a single blemish on its surface. Pristine utopias may or may not be useful teaching gambits. They are useless as descriptions of reality. That’s obvious. Except to the economists who doggedly deny that their teaching process is responsible for the remarkable ignorance most people have of the realities of actual economies.

Any economist who teaches the subject in this backwards fashion is contributing to the public’s ignorance. Worse: they are contributing to the dominance of the ideology embedded within the purity that does not and cannot exist in the reality.

That’s an ethical problem for economists to grapple with. Until they get it right we all ought to poke as much as we can at them.

Perhaps economics is just too important to leave to economists.

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