Monday, February 3, 2014

Students' questions (after three weeks of economics)

After three weeks of introductory material, essentially a primer in modern economic thinking (delivered as dead-pan as I could, by the way, as if I believe in it -- to some students' discomfort and dismay!), I asked my students in Economics of Resource Conservation and Sustainability to list questions that economics really needed to answer, properly and scientifically. This is the list (below). It's a very good list, one that demands some serious and straight answers, and, if unanswered, amounts to a substantial indictment of our current political economy.

What happens now is that we discuss the ecological economics responses to these questions, comparing them to the mainstream doctrine, as well as any other ways to think about it that students can imagine. 

This is what I call critical economics, or economic criticism, borrowing terminology from academic philosophy. Another term would be old fashioned political economy. It should be more widely taught, but isn't, hence our current and compounded economic inequality, energy, agricultural and climate crises. (Here's an interesting recent related protest.)

The primary result is that mainstream economic thinking often goes unquestioned. For a flavor of this, visit my recent debate with University of Alberta economist and apparent apologist for oil sands exploitation Andrew Leach, below.*

Here are the students' questions. Over the next few weeks I'll be categorizing them and reordering for logical investigation.

The italics and some of the rephrasing is mine, but the questions come from the students without any prompting.

Questions we have about modern economics:
  • Does business really self-regulate?
  • Is competition really fair, egalitarian, and efficient?
  • How do we protect the environment?
  • Is growth compatible with environmental protection?
  • Is ever increasing money wealth good for people, communities, and countries?
  • Does it make sense to worry about sustainability as an individual?
  • What effects does economics, consumerism, and industrialization have on the psyche?
  • Do economies really need to continue to grow exponentially?
  • Will the middle class survive as we know it? And should we actually want it to?
  • Does trickle-down economics really make any sense?
  • If we don't tax the wealthy and can't otherwise control them or use them usefully what do we do with them? 
  • Can/should the government cap wealth?
  • Are corporations overall a political, ethical, criminal, environmental problem?
  • Should money equal power?
  • Citizens United - does it change our ability to regulate corporations and elites?
  • How much of modern economics is scientific? How much is a self-serving mythology?
  • How much does this affect our politics?
  • Where is renewable energy in all this?
  • Leadership - how do we get change?
  • Where is education in all this?
  • Is personal debt a form of social control?
  • Can we change the definition of wealth?
  • Economics: What lies beyond?
*BTW, the debate ended fairly unsatisfactorily with Leach saying we'll have to "agree to disagree" (thereby logically negating the view that economics is at all scientific, since in natural science you'd have to change the theory if new evidence appeared, not agree to disagree). 

I've since heard from activists in the climate movement that they've had other intellectually unsatisfactory run-ins with the good doctor Leach.

Before someone accuses me of character assassination, let's get this straight: I don't think he's a bad person. 

I just think he's not thinking well, and either has a direct conflict of interest, or is in denial. Which is more or less par for the course for economics and economists.

And, after all, he's the one that "put it out there," publishing an article in public discourse in which he used an obtuse bit of economic theory to make is sound as if tar sands exploitation was OK, when it most certainly is not.

No comments: