Confessions of a Recovering Economist


Good evening. My name is Jim. And I am an economist. It is seventeen days since I last uttered the phrase “supply and demand.” But the demon still lurks, untamed, within me.


I know it’s wrong that my particular profession hogs so much attention, and is granted so much undeserved credibility. I know it’s wrong to pretend you can forecast complex economic outcomes with three-decimal accuracy. I know it’s wrong to reduce the whole of the human endeavour to the endless pursuit of material prosperity. Yet still I yearn for economics. I hunger for the prestige that comes with being the only social science to regularly make The National. I savour the smug power of belonging to that exclusive sect of financial mystics who understand the magical circuits of money and commodities.


So let’s face it. I’m an economist. I’ll always be an economist. The best I can do is recognize my affliction. Name the hunger that haunts me. Reflect on how to control it, how to keep it at bay. Learn to avoid the events and issues that fan the internal flame.


Every other addiction has a Twelve Step program, laced with tough love and blunt self-honesty. Why not a Twelve Step program for economists?
God knows, they’ve done enough damage with their arrogant, drunken prescriptions. Here’s how each and every economist can face up to their inner demons, and make their own small contribution to setting things right.


*/Step 1: Admit you have a problem./* Like they say at the AA meetings, this is half the solution. Where economists are concerned, however, it’s easier said than done. Getting a substance abuser to face the facts of their addition is nothing compared to convincing an economist that they’re hooked on elegant but useless mathematical models, and authoritative but destructive policy advice. Where economists are concerned, we’re talking denial with a capital ‘D.’


*/Step 2: Accept that all your efforts to explain the world have failed./* The ‘market’ is the holiest symbol in all of economics. It’s magically automatic and efficient. And supply always equals demand. The whole profession of mainstream, ‘neoclassical’ economics is dedicated to the study of markets and how they can be perfected. The problem, however, is that in real life these idealized ‘markets’ don’t explain much at all. Powerful non-market forces determine most of what happens in the economy – things like tradition, demographics, class, gender and race, geography, and institutions. Indeed, what we call the ‘market’ is itself a complex, historically constructed social institution – not some autonomous, inanimate forum. Power and position are at least as important to economics, as supply and demand.


*/Step 3: Turn to your friends in other disciplines for help./* Economists get pretty snobby about the usefulness of other disciplines. After all, when’s the last time you saw the chief sociologist for the Royal Bank interviewed on TV? Five years ago the Canadian Economics Association even decided to hold its annual conferences completely separate from the giant congress of other social science disciplines. This intellectual separatism harms the pursuit of knowledge, and exaggerates the predisposition of economists to a blinkered mode of thinking. A recovering economist can confess – even in public – that they might have something to learn from other disciplines. Turn to your friends, those who haven’t been hypnotized by supply and demand graphs, for help in understanding the world and how it works.


*/Step 4: Make a list of the situations where you are most likely to act like an economist, and avoid those situations./* Recovering alcoholics know they must avoid bars. Recovering economists must similarly avoid any meeting or social gathering where they may be asked to give authoritative views on where the economy is going, explain elegant but counter-intuitive doctrines (like why free trade is always good for everyone, everywhere), or provide personal financial advice. Even if you mean well, the damage to both yourself and to your audience could be incalculable.


*/Step 5: Acknowledge that an expanding GDP will only feed your habit./* The growth rate of Gross Domestic Product is the stuff of newspaper headlines and international comparisons. Yes, it’s true that having more material wealth opens the possibility of using that wealth to improve living standards in a meaningful and sustainable way. But one doesn’t automatically imply the other. GDP leads to human progress only if we make sure it does. If we are concerned with how people live, and how they interact with their environment, we must evaluate and target those things directly, rather than blithely hoping that a rising tide of GDP will lift all our boats.


Inspired by folks like Marilyn Waring, there’s now a determined constituency of activists promoting alternative, more genuine measurements of our economic progress. They believe these measures will guide us to collectively adopt more balanced and genuine economic and environmental policies. They are wrong. It is power, not statistics, that determines how our economy operates – the things we produce, the way we produce them, and how the proceeds are divided. But taking on the mainstream infatuation with gross output indicators, and exposing the failure of growth to solve the real problems of the world and its peoples, is a useful way for recovering economists to start to chip away at that power.


*/Step 6: Stop putting price tags on everything you see./* Economists believe the ‘value’ of something is its monetary price. How, then, do we understand the truly powerful passions and desires and emotions that dominate our lives? Think of how most of us felt during the SARS scare.
Ask Canadians at that point which was more important – tax cuts or public health – and the choice would have been overwhelming. Ask someone who’s just lost a loved one to place a dollar value on their feelings, and you’ll probably get socked in the face. For the things that really determine our ability to lead a good life – family, health, community, peace – there are no price tags. Yet the business pages and the classifieds and the Sears catalogues are full of them.


*/Step 7: Avoid the temptation to run regressions – even “just one.”/* Economics is at its addictive, hyper-positivist worst when it substitutes inscrutable statistical correlations for genuine creative thought. It’s even spawned its own sub-category of statistics: ‘econometrics.’ Certain tenured economists spend all their research time performing computer regressions on randomly paired data sets, searching blindly for strong correlations which they then explain with a theory custom-fit to the data. Quantitative analysis, carefully applied, can play a useful role, both in understanding the world and in seeking to change it. But for a recovering economist, regressions are as dangerous as that infamous glass of wine with dinner for an alcoholic.


*/Step 8: Get off your pedestal./* Economists place themselves at the top of an assumed hierarchy of knowledge. So it should be no surprise that they enforce a rigid hierarchy within their own ranks. And at the peak of that hierarchy, of course, stands one economist above all others: the legendary ‘Chief.’ Reporters are always trying to call me the ‘Chief Economist’ of the CAW. “Wrong,” I tell them. “I am just the economist. There is no ‘chief’ economist.” But often as not, the adjective still slips into their stories. It’s as if they would undermine the authority of their own reportage by admitting in print that they only talked to a run-of-the-mill economist – not to the chief.


Chances are, most ‘Chief Economists’ work just the same way I do: solo, with no little “junior” economists beavering away under their tutelage. But the adjective is invoked nonetheless, to promote an aura of gratuitous importance. Recovering economists know their inherent worth comes from inside – so they can lose the phony titles.


*/Step 9: Learn from those who went before you. /* Mainstream economics is arrogantly ahistorical. In most cases, capitalism is presented as a natural, eternal state of human affairs. Even the term ‘capitalism’ is rarely used: naming the system, after all, might imply that there are others. The preferred euphemism is ‘market economy,’ which implies that the economy is like some big flea market where anybody can set up a card table on Saturday mornings and sell their wares. It’s just coincidence that General Electric has $575 billion (U.S.) worth of capital assets sitting on its card table, while you and I have only our brains and our brawn to offer.


Modern economics was not actually invented until the early days of capitalism. So the very discipline is historically relative – not to mention the economies it purports to study. And the roots of neoclassical economics were always inherently ideological: to justify, in the guise of explaining, the perverse distribution of power and wealth that emerged under this new social order. Studying economic history, and the history of economics, is the best way to critique this knee-jerk determinism, and to place the whole profession in a healthier, more contingent context. In economics, history itself is subversive.


*/Step 10: Make a list of the countries and people you have harmed./* Billions of human beings, entire continents, even the planet itself – all have been devastated by the glaringly misguided dictates of economists. Even some of the most orthodox practitioners at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund will now quietly admit that their domineering advice to developing countries in recent decades – liberalize trade, liberalize finance, downsize government, and wait for the invisible hand of the market to work its magic – was completely and devastatingly wrong. Of course, these institutions still actively perpetuate the poverty and hardship which their own false recipe books did so much to create. But large cracks are appearing in the intellectual dominance and self-confidence of orthodox economics.
Cataloguing the damage is an effective and damning first step in tearing down the edifice.


*/Step 11: Make amends to those countries and people./* Every Twelve Step program requires the recovering addict to humbly commit to fix up their own mess. Economists are no different. This is the time for recovering economists to step to the front of the room and make personal pledges to undo the damage that has been wrought in the name of supply and demand. Commit to studying what’s wrong with markets, as opposed to how beautifully perfect they are. Work to empower rank-and-file folk, instead of dominating them with your apparent but phony expertise. Start to imagine economic ideas that could change the world, rather than invoking economic mumbo-jumbo to justify inequality and explain why it’s inevitable.


*/Step 12: Help other economists who come your way./* Perhaps the scariest thing about the economics profession is that it seems to be becoming more homogeneous with time, not less. Economics departments at Canadian universities, by and large, will only hire entry-level faculty who demonstrate requisite acceptance of the free-market assumptions supporting their elaborate but fragile intellectual scaffolding. At least twenty years ago there was a token radical or two in each department, around whom critical-minded students could congregate. Today even that is rare. Most progressive-thinking students flee in panic from economics after their first mind-numbing encounter.


Recovering economists of any age need help to rediscover their latent humanity and rededicate their energies to the pursuit of things that really matter. But none need our assistance and solidarity more than economics students. Most are motivated by a gut-level conviction that learning economics should allow us to do great things for people and the planet. (Needless to say, they didn’t go into the field because of the snappy dress or witty humour of their professors!) Yet they are left to flounder in a curriculum that tests mathematical aptitude more than ability to think, and in which the urgent crises of the real world are made invisible. If you encounter someone like this, put your hand on their shoulder. Tell them you know how it feels. Help them find alternative sources of economic inspiration, and places where they can befriend other recovering economists-in-training. Show them they’re not alone.


* * * * *


Don’t get me wrong. Personally, I’m very happy to be an economist. I still believe that there is a material basis to most of the problems humanity faces. I think economics is the best way for me to make a contribution to human progress and social change, and I’ve enjoyed great personal opportunities because of my career choice. But lurking in my brain is a nagging awareness that my own success was built at least partly on the pseudo-rationalist coattails of the whole arrogant discipline – even as I espouse a twisted, and hopefully insidious, version of that pseudo-rationalism.


So collectively, my profession must come to grips with its elitist addiction. I do it every morning when I wake up, look myself in the mirror, and say out loud: “I am an economist.”


/A version of this article appears in the current edition of This Magazine. On-line help for recovering economists is provided by the Progressive Economics Forum (www.web.ca/~pef)./

Leave a comment