Home > Uncategorized > Changing the Economics Curriculum

Changing the Economics Curriculum

from Asad Zaman


How does it happen that we have given our quiet assent to a situation where the richest 85 individuals have more money than the bottom 3.5 billion? Where vultures wait for starving children to die, while others eat luxurious meals on private resort islands? Where horrendous military and commercial crimes leading to deaths, misery, and deprivations of millions are routinely committed by highly educated men with multimillion dollar salaries in luxury corporate and government suites?

A core component of the answer to these critical questions is that we have been educated to believe that this is a normal state of affairs, which comes about through the operation of iron laws of economics. Economic theories currently being taught in universities all over the world are an essential pillar which sustains the economic system currently in operation.  These theories state that we (human beings) are cold, callous, and calculating. Microeconomic theory says rational individuals are concerned only with their own consumption. They are callous; completely indifferent to the needs of others. They maximize, calculating personal benefits to the last penny. They are cold – their decisions are not swayed by emotions of any kind. All this theorizing is not without power – it creates the world we live in, and the rules we live by.

We have even been taught that laissez-faire automatically brings about the best possible outcomes. We are told that the rich are efficient wealth producers and deserve their wealth, just as the poor deserve their poverty. To create a labor market to sustain capitalist production processes, we have been trained to believe that our lives are for sale to the highest bidder.  read more

  1. September 3, 2018 at 1:59 am

    Well written, reposted intro at http://www.zerowastenews.org

  2. September 3, 2018 at 3:48 am

    Only two weeks ago, Lars Syll posted a proposal to the reformulation of economics curriculum:

    Reformulating the economics curriculum
    August 23, 2018Lars Syll6 comments

    Today, Asad Zaman posted a new proposal. In my humble opinion, both of these two proposals are wrong as a direction of that of economics curriculum reformulation, or at least are too partial and lack a total understanding of the question.

    The case of Lars Syll is simple. He presents criticism on how the mainstream economics is flawed. What he claims is correct, but criticism alone does not make economics. In curriculum reform, we are requested to answer what we will teach instead of the present curriculum. Criticism of the mainstream economics must be a part of the new curriculum (““detoxification” in Zaman’s terminology), but it cannot be the whole of the new. We are asked to teach how to look economy from a new angle. In Zaman’s words, we should teach (or at least give a hint) “the new ways of looking at the world.” Syll presents no hints on this point.

    Asas Zaman’s proposal is much more radical, but I cannot agree with him. He is preaching a new Moral Philosophy. It is true that economics (or the classical Political Economy) was once a branch of Moral Philosophy and became independent at the time of Adam Smith. We should ask why this independence was necessary. It seems Zaman has no reflection on this point.

    Asad Zaman claims that

    ”A central question that we must face is: what is the good life? Answers to this question determine the nature of the preferred economic system, and also the policies that are required to achieve it. (3. RETHINKING THE NATURE OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE).

    He may be right. The final purpose of economics must be to think about his central question. But, how can we arrive to a good, correct answer? We should know how the economy works. If the present mainstream economics is wrong, we should “acquire the new ways of looking at the world.” Even if we do not like market economy and its consequences, we should know how it works. If not, our plan to remedy it may turn out to be completely wrong. We have a “good” example in the 20th century. The communist plan to change economy by the central planning was a complete failure. In final account, its failure was a derivative of the misunderstanding how the economy works.

    Zaman opposes Modern Positivism and rejects the Metaphor of the Machine (the heading of section 7) as means of understanding the economy. He may be right, or he may be wrong. Only abandoning the metaphor of the machine does not produce no deeper understanding on the working of the economy. The economy is now a huge network which is as big as the world. The economics should be a science that helps us to understand this complex system. Let me repeat again. If the present mainstream economics is wrong, we should “acquire the new ways of looking at the world”. The moral philosophy alone can produce no knowledge of it.

    • September 3, 2018 at 5:06 am

      Excellent Comment. This is PRECISELY the kind of debate that is needed. Certain types of questions have been ruled as being out of BOUNDS of scientific inquiry, due to the positivist proclivity to hide the normative within an apparently objective/positive framework. We have to dig out these assumptions and then debate them in order to create consensus on directions. For an illustration of hidden normative assumptions, see my paper on Normative Foundations of Scarcity in RWER.
      Because Economics PRETENDS to be positive, the Central and Crucial issues that need to be discussed cannot even be brought up for discussion. We need to speak the unspeakable and think the unthinkable, to make progress

      • September 3, 2018 at 7:15 pm

        It seems Asad is thinking that “value” argument is necessary to refute and oust “scarcity” concept from economics. No, it is not necessary. Scarcity is necessary only when one considers the economy as equilibrium. For example, equilibrium economics assumes that all resources are fully employed or used (boundary conditions). In such a framework, all resources are scarce, because it is necessary to use more resources to increase economic activities. But this is not the unique point of view in economics.

        If we consider the economy a dissipative structure, most of resources are no more binding. They are slack variables. In other words, they are excessive or abundant. It is even possible that all resources are excessive, because the scale of economic activities are determined by the internal logic of the economy. Imagine the occasion of a deep depression. The scale of all activities are smaller than the normal state of the economy. So, what restricts the economic activities are not the result of resource restriction.

        See, for dissipative structre, my conference paper:
        Economy as a dissipative structure

        Scarcity concept is an ideology, because it sees the economy from a special point of view, but is not aware that other viewpoints are possible.

    • Econoclast
      September 3, 2018 at 4:07 pm

      This is a good debate, but I must chime in with this: it is not necessarily a critic’s job to develop an alternative to the object of criticism. Do we imagine the best movie critics capable of making movies and thus hold them responsible for more? I evaluate the criticism on its own merit and ask the critic only to be honest and, possibly, fair and, dare I suggest, civilized.

      I agree that criticism of economics orthodoxy will not alone produce cultural change, and that the worthy thoughts of such as David Korten, Kate Raworth and E. F. Schumacher are necessary for such change even to have a chance to begin. But let us not forget that the orthodoxy fashions the emperor’s clothes, intentionally dressing the worst of the power of capital in distracting finery. Rendering the emperor naked is always necessary.

      I am not optimistic that we will move to a new culture of economics that puts the matter of mattering people and other life forms first. At least not in my lifetime, nor likely in my childrens’. In American culture we never seem to learn the necessary lessons on war, why should we expect to learn the lessons on economics? Why should we be expected to change as we desperately cling to the plutocratic lies as parasitic finance saps our life blood?

      • September 3, 2018 at 6:57 pm

        Of course, it is not necessary that one person is both a movie critic and a movie director. But, I cannot imagine a world where we have good movie critics but no movie directors.

  3. David Harold Chester
    September 3, 2018 at 10:23 am

    Asad does not confine his opening description to reforming the curriculum, but he also asks about the 85% who have so little compared to the relative few monopolists whose wealth is fabulous by comparison. The reason for this huge difference between the rich and the poor should also be properly included within the “New Curriculum”, only after we can all agree on its cause.

    The reason for this difference is not well understood among most economists, all they can say is that certain monopolists dominate the stock market and the use of money. They fail to distinguish between those capitalists who own buildings and movable property and those who own land or other natural resources. These are not capitalists in the same sense because the value in their land was not created by labor, but came from the ground itself and from the local population density.

    The monopolization of natural resources is particularly strongly the reason for this difference between rich and poor. For the curriculum to properly cover this aspect of our social system it should certainly include the early economists whose writings do separate land from capital goods (before John Bates Clark and company for political reasons muddled it all up) and in particular to include the works of Henry George who was the first to show in his classic work “Progress and Poverty” that the cause for this poverty gap was due to the unfavorable and unethical ownership and rights taken by the privatization of the land.

  4. September 3, 2018 at 3:56 pm

    Before arguing about what needs to go in a new curriculum, it seems to me we first need to be quite clear about what a curriculum is. I have many books on the roles of philosophy and ethics in teaching, but the one most relevant here is Audrey and Howard Nicolls’ “Developing Curriculum: a Practical Guide”, 1972, Unwin Educational Books. Its glossary distinguishes:

    Curriculum: all the opportunities planned for pupils by teachers; and

    Curriculum process: a continuous cycle of activities in which all elements of the curriculum are considered and inter-related.

    The curriculum process, initially considered in Figure 1 as a cycle involving feedback after assessment of the content, has after addition of the inter-relations become a “crossed diamond” in Figure 2: the minimally complex Wheatstone Bridge type circuit which (as Yoshinori ought to be aware) I keep trying to draw attention to. In this there are not one but three types of feedback, as in the “cybernetic” navigational guidance system now characterised as a PID control servo – able in a surface-to-air missile system to take account of a moving objective, just as the Nicholls say we need to:

    “We live in a changing society in which new knowledge is constantly being discovered and in which old knowledge is being proved wrong. … With the realisation that pupils must be prepared to cope with the demands of a society which is changing so quickly, teachers need to [regularly?] reappraise what they are offering to their students”.

    I’ve been pointing this out for several years, and of course Lars won’t have picked up on it if he his ideas are merely posted, i.e. he never reads this blog. Sad. From the PID system point of view the failings of Communist planning and Capitalist price-fixing can this be reduced to the one having no PID feedbacks and the other continuously correcting only short term directional P deviations, assuming this will maintain “equilibrium” with the course (which of course ships rarely do, being drawn off course by winds, tides and currents). The relative success of Keynes’s approach I have always (i.e. since I first read him fifty years ago) attributed to him in effect adding I feedback derived from rising unemployment to correct for long term positional drift. The D feedback is illustrated in economics by producers changing products when markets saturate; in philosophy of science Adam Smith’s mate Hume changed Christian ethics (loving cooperation) into elitist “democratic” morality (hostile competition”). Asad may not be completely clear about a catholic (as against tribal) Christian ethic being the long term aim, but my mate Chesterton was: “We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is easier”. [This in a chapter of “Orthodoxy” called “The Eternal Revolution”].

    So Yoshinori says: “It is true that economics (or the classical Political Economy) was once a branch of Moral Philosophy and became independent at the time of Adam Smith. We should ask why this independence was necessary”. It wasn’t. It was just an easier way for Hume to make his fortune than trying to shame the rich. “[A]bandoning the metaphor of the machine does not produce no deeper understanding on the working of the economy”. Perhaps not, but understanding a machine as a special case of a PID system with no information feedbacks does. As I’ve already said, this is sufficient to explain the history of economic failings, and the apparently complete ignorance of information science (including logic and ethics) being about error prevention and correction is in itself enough to explain why economic errors continue.

  5. Paul Davidson
    September 3, 2018 at 9:09 pm

    Winston Churchill once said ” No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of goverrment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

    Keynes’s general theory is based on the same philosophical point. Capitalism is neither perfect or all wise [Despite what mainstream economists profess in class!] : Capitalism is the worst form of economic system except for all others that have been tried historically. But capitalism’s faults can be cured by proper Post Keynesian economic policy as I demonstrate in my book WHO’S AFRAID OF JOHN MAYNRD KEYNES/

  6. Craig
    September 3, 2018 at 9:12 pm

    Changing the curriculum is fine, but if we’d focus on developing new paradigm/pattern perception by attending to the history and signatures of paradigm changes, then changing it would become a straightforward logical process…because all you’d need to do is align policies and structures with the new single concept of the pattern….and then we wouldn’t have to endure another decade or 5000 years to actually “get somewhere”.

    Humanity has become so enamored of and stuck in Science Only for the paradigm of inquiry that they have lost track of the paradigm of Wisdom which includes science, which enables one to discern clearly within complexity like good open minded science aspires to and of the fact that every scientific break through/paradigmatic change is an integration of the scientific method and an aspect of human consciousness via its tool of wisdom.

    Carry on.

    • September 4, 2018 at 8:34 am

      Would that life were so simple, Craig! In order to focus on the pattern of paradigm change we have to articulate it so it can be seen, which is what my crossed diamond diagram is all about. But even with that, though on paper all we have to is redesign policies, in reality every person begins by knowing nothing, and it has to be communicated to him in face of noise from others who have not yet seen it, or are still so committed to the old paradigm that they are unable to see it.

      Another issue I have so far mentioned only in passing is that cybernetic error control is only as good as its feedbacks, but if it gets too good the system becomes something different, ie a system which doesn’t go wrong, so human instances of this become free to do as they like so long as it isn’t economics. What economics has done is turned into chrematism or money-making, and developed a PID control system to control that, which with the automation of the trading of derivatives is now fully controlling money-making, generating yet another level of control in which the financial controllers of chrematism are free to enrich themselves and call what they are doing economics. Let me repeat the reference to the logic of this: helicopter engineer Arthur M Young’s “The Geometry of Meaning”, 1976, Robert Briggs Associates.

      • Craig
        September 4, 2018 at 9:29 am

        The singular concept aspect of a new paradigm is exceedingly simple, the way it fits into the aligned temporal structures of the economy and transforms the entire pattern is the thing that is somewhat more complicated and completes and confirms the single concept’s qualification as a new paradigm.

        There are additional policies, aspects and changes with my Wisdomics-Gracenomics, but the two policies I continually reference here actually accomplish the paradigm change all by themselves because they resolve the two most basic problematic conditions of modern economies, chronic inflation and systemic austerity/scarcity of individual income.

        You’re quite right that people “have to see it” which is why we need to create a grass roots movement to show/play out the temporal universe effects of these two policies at which time they can see that it immediately ends poverty, makes everyone with even a part time job a member of the upper middle class and has many other beneficial economic, political, social and psychological effects.

  7. Craig
    September 4, 2018 at 9:41 am

    I know this is not very humble, but it’s also quite true. It’s easy for me because I’ve always had an integrative perspective, and have studied paradigms, wisdom traditions and economics from the best for the last 10 years which has enabled what I refer to as paradigm perception which is really just an adjunct temporal ability of the consciousness raising and self actualizing tool known as wisdom. 

  8. dmf
  9. September 6, 2018 at 9:40 pm

    Where in the existing economics curriculum are student introduced to balance sheet ideas of Earth’s carrying capacity and logically modeled consequences of various consumption choices? Nowhere.

    Earth is the home. Commercialization of life is destroying Earth. Economics is used to justify destroying Earth so a few oligarchs can hoard more. A Doctoral degree in economics grants the right to spew obfuscation like an ink cloud over the relationship between destruction of Earth and the mental illness of insatiable want that drives people to the power of controlling academic curricula.

    “When I think back on all the crap they tried to teach me in high school; It’s a wonder I can think at all.”

    Simon & Garfunkel on curriculum.

    ps, Lucky me, I was a surfer and could only go to high school three days a week; t, w & th.

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