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Geography as an Example

from Peter Radford

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 pueblo’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.

  1. October 8, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    An economy is a network of people who transform and exchange things (and sometimes money in the other direction) to achieve diverse needs. It’s primarily a network for discovery and fulfillment of needs, not a price governor. Commodity pricing is a footnote in the phenomenon of an economy. You need to teach economics with graph theory every day, and calculus only occasionally.

  2. October 11, 2017 at 9:48 pm

    “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.”

    Its worse than that. It is like learning geography as if the world were the shopping centre in a city. That’s all most people see. The first lesson which has to be got across in geography is that the world is a globe turning on its axis so the sun shines on it every day, and the next is to explain the seasons in terms of the earth orbiting the sun. The first lesson which needs to be got across in economics is the one Pavlos describes. The second one is how the network can be summarised and portrayed graphically as communication channels interconnecting the four economic functions of consumption, reproduction, distribution and development, this last including management and equitable redistribution of communal storage. Once youngsters are able to visualise what the economy is doing they will become able to question whether the shadow economy of monetary indebtedness, financial assets, asset insurance and derivatives insuring portfolios of anonymous assets is necessary or even desirable.

  3. October 15, 2017 at 11:53 am

    You juxtapose the economy as taught by economists with the “real” economy. I look at this situation differently. I observe several economies operating alongside one another. The banking economy, the industrial economy, the labor economy, the entertainment economy, and of course several economists’ economies. Examining and describing how these economies are made up and interact is what I do as an historian and what social scientists investigate. So, the real problem with the economists’ economies is that economists make the claim that these are superior to and explains all the others. Which simply is not the case. But economists have both access to political power and academic prestige that at times allows them to impose their economy on the government, business, and often large portions of society. Since these economies are incompatible in many aspects, when economists (of any type) attempt to assert control conflict is inevitable. And that conflict is the subject of our dialogues here.

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