Home > Uncategorized > Can you think of something snappier than “Understanding the Economy – A Learning System”?

Can you think of something snappier than “Understanding the Economy – A Learning System”?

The 1300 words below are extracted from an email that Neva Goodwin wrote and copied me into.  It outlines a large new project initiated by the World Economics Association, but which will include numerous other organizations opposed to the dominance of traditional economic thinking.  However, the extract’s first sentence is misleading because it is Neva’s and Pratisha’s names that should be mentioned first since they are the project’s primary sources of creative energy.  And then there is the question of the project’s name.  As the project develops it will seek wide attention, and therefore needs a “snappier” name.  Perhaps after reading Neva’s description, you can suggest one. 

The project: “Understanding the Economy – A Learning System”

Edward Fullbrook, Pratistha Rajkarnikar, and Neva Goodwin have been working for several months to conceptualize a project designed to provide a good understanding of how economies work – and how they might work for greater human and planetary well-being – to people who are not economics students.

We start from acknowledging that humanity today is in an unprecedently dangerous situation which has been largely created by our economies.  The situation has two prime dimensions.  One, economies are redistributing wealth and income in a way that lethally threatens our socio-political systems.  And two, human economies are impacting the biosphere and its ecosystems in a way that is rapidly destroying, maybe totally, the Earth’s capacity to sustain human life.

Given that the economies most responsible for this situation have been guided by the teachings of traditional economics, a fundamentally new discipline (and perhaps not to be called “economics”) must be quickly developed and made available to the public, especially to the young, who are increasingly aware of the crisis and have the most to lose.

The first stage of this project has included conversations with a variety of economists, including Jamie Galbraith, Andrew Mearman, Alicia Puyana Mutis, Bertrand Hamaide, John Komlos, Katherine N. Farrell, and Gar Alperovitz.  Sam de Muijnck and Joris Tieleman, the leaders of Rethinking Economics/Our New Economy are involved with similar goals and activities to ours, and we hope to coordinate with them as well as with others similarly motivated, such as Leslie Harroun and Ted Howard at the Democracy Collaborative, to take advantage of our overlapping interests and activities.  Our conversations to date have resulted in the following strategy statements:

1)We believe that strategies for introducing a radically new approach to teaching and learning are altered in the face of severe ecological, social and economic disruption. What might seem very risky in more “normal” times is no more risky now than it would be to assume that old approaches are the safest ones. Hence we propose to proceed without regard for the prospects of adoption in standard economics courses; if our materials are used there, that will be as a by-product. Rather we will focus on two other groups:

  • Students in institutional niches in universities/colleges, e.g. in departments of anthropology, sociology, history, political science, public policy, geography, environmental or ecological economics, etc., as well as in business schools.
  • People who want to learn outside of formal settings, e.g. in trade unions, think tanks, activist groups, online open courses, night-schools, University of Third Age (typically older or retired members of the community), and some yet to be invented (such as the nascent “System Change Studies”).

The first group will normally be organized in more or less traditional classes, with a teacher.  The second may be self-organized groups, or individuals.  Ideally the basic text we produce will make it as easy as possible for users to be self-taught, though they will usually get more from it if they are working with some kind of a leader, or at least in a study group.  We could consider a way of certifying people who have gone through the course to be leaders for others – but our certification would specify that there should not be any exchange of money for this.  Those who find other ways of being certified – i.e., by working for a college – could then charge a fee, and we wouldn’t object, but that’s not what we would support with our certification program.

2) We are increasingly giving less emphasis to creation of a new textbook and more to creating a “learning system”. We still plan to compile a textbook – probably about half the length of a standard one-semester text – but will greatly increase emphasis on web-based supplementary materials. Much of the work that will go into this project will be devoted to searching out and assembling web-based materials that will

  • Provide readings appropriate to a wide variety of geographical as well as social, cultural, etc. settings
  • Enable comparisons from history as well as to a variety of schools of thought
  • Be easy to search, to help students and teachers to follow their own interests.
  • Be relatively easy to update (recognizing that this will require ongoing commitment to research)

The text itself will include numerous “boxes” with, e.g., discussion topics; debates (indicting that there are different schools of thought that will give different explanations of the issue in question – and then telling students where to look in the web resources to see more about the debates); international comparisons and geographically specific realities; and historical context.

3) In terms of content, we will start from descriptions of reality, with theoretic understandings such as S&D curves brought in – or not – only to the extent that they help the reader to understand that reality.  We do realize that this is not simple or obvious: selecting what reality to describe, and how to describe it, is fraught with assumptions and values.  Our descriptions of economic reality as we understand it will support consideration of “if this is how the world is now, how could it be made better?”  For example, descriptions of the world as it is now would not be confined to ravenous private equity firms, capture of governments by for-profit interests, and ecological despoliation; it would also include

  • the strength and value of cooperatives and local economy movements, including community wealth-building practices (as laid out by The Next System Project, e.g. in areas of land and housing, local finance, fair work, progressive procurement, and democratic enterprise),
  • examples of successful government regulation along with expanded principles of democratic public ownership,
  • expanding institutional innovations such as public banking and post-office banks, regional systems (like the Tennessee Valley Authority, with all its warts), participatory planning concepts and applications, and
  • successes of ecological restoration.

How much of the text would be devoted to these, and how much they would be put into the web materials, remains to be decided.

4) More about content: As (unusual) economists we’re equipped to grapple with such questions as:

  • What are labor markets, what different kinds are there, and how do they work?
  • What other kinds of markets are there, and how does their functioning affect people’s lives?
  • What causes markets to crash?
  • What are the different kinds of firms – from the smallest to the largest?
  • How do firms affect people as workers, as consumers, as citizens?
  • How should governments interact with firms – with support, regulation, what else?
  • What role should the government play in the economy? What causes government failure?
  • How can the most destructive kinds of economic activity be curtailed?
  • What does it mean for governments to owe debts to their citizens, or to people outside their boarders?
  • How do economies get richer?  Why does that happen faster in some places than in others?
  • How have the realities of colonialism and decolonization shaped the world and affected economic institutions and outcomes?
  • How has globalization and the relations between the countries of the global North and the global South affected prospects for sustainable development? (This could include discussions on trade, geopolitical relations, and environmental issues)
  • Why is the natural world suffering such degradation? How can that be reversed?
  • What are the causes of rising inequality within and between countries? How can we address the various forms of economic, social and environmental inequalities?
  • What are some ways of organizing the economy? What alternatives are there to market-based capitalist systems or centrally planned systems? What kinds of economic systems might be better able to deal with the challenges of the current century?

A next step will be to sort out topics such as these, thinking in terms of chapters or sections within chapters. As we go along we may want to involve people from other disciplines in these discussions.

5) What we will offer is an understanding of the economy – which is different from the theory of economics as taught in economics departments. Before we go much farther we need to rethink the name. Can we find something snappier than “Understanding the Economy – A Learning System”?   This is an open question; suggestions welcome!

. . . .

Neva, Pratistha and Edward

  1. May 10, 2022 at 2:36 pm

    One option could be “Learning how the economy works”. Admittedly not very snappy, but less wordy than “Understanding the Economy – A Learning System”.

  2. May 10, 2022 at 2:38 pm

    There’s a typo: “boarders” should be “borders”.


  3. May 10, 2022 at 3:04 pm

    “Given that the economies most responsible for this situation have been guided by the teachings of traditional economics”
    Really? By the teachings of traditional economics… or by the forces of the economy, sadly often distorted by economists working from their desks and not walking sufficiently on Main-Street?
    E.g., asset bubbles and large bank exposures that could be dangerous to the economy what are they built-up with? With assets perceived as risky or with assets perceived as safe?
    My proposal?
    “Understanding the Economy – The need for loads of humility”

  4. May 10, 2022 at 5:50 pm

    How about “Understanding the Real Economy” or “The Economics of Reality” or “Shedding the Bullshit: The Economics of Reality”

  5. Meta Capitalism
    May 11, 2022 at 12:38 am

    The situation has two prime dimensions. One, economies are redistributing wealth and income in a way that lethally threatens our socio-political systems. (Tail Wagging the Dog)


    The situation has two prime dimensions. One, socio-political systems are creating economies that are redistributing wealth and income in a way that lethally threatens our very socio-political systems and the survival of our species.

    To reify economics and economies by ignoring that they are the social creations that exist within political structures, institutions, and power relations is to engage in misplaced concreteness. It is time to put the political science back into economics.

  6. Romar Correa
    May 11, 2022 at 1:48 am

    Here’s my first: The economics of humankind

  7. Romar Correa
    May 11, 2022 at 2:41 am

    My second: The economics of embeddedness

  8. May 11, 2022 at 6:52 am

    Mark Pagel “wired for culture” makes the case that human artifacts like economics follow the same principles as the physical evolution of life forms. We can treat these constructs of the mind as living evolving complex adaptive systems. Economics is an adaptation of our ability to – not held by other life forms on earth – to put oneself into the minds of others. We found that this allowed us to create abstractions so that we can work together as groups of people. Money and Capital are abstractions and we need “mutations” that make them operate more efficiently. Successful mutations do not replace existing systems but operate more efficiently in some circumstances. Perhaps a name could be Evolving Economics and that would encompass many directions of which we are unaware.

    • Romar Correa
      May 11, 2022 at 9:15 am

      A third: Economics as praxis, theory and practice

  9. Econoclast
    May 11, 2022 at 6:55 pm

    Whatever happened to honoring E. F. Schumacher? Cast my vote for cribbing from the subtitle of his classic book: “Economics As If People Mattered.”

  10. Edward Ross
    May 12, 2022 at 12:28 am

    While there has been many good suggestions for a title i think nothing could beet Econoclast’s “Economics As if people mattered” . For two reasons one it draws attention to the need for economist’s to consider people in the real world before creating what amounts to false assumptions on the part people play in economics. Two this title is like an open invitation for all interested people to have their say. Ted

  11. yoshinorishiozawa
    May 14, 2022 at 7:56 am

    In my impression, the best title will be “Learning how the economy works” as evidencebas proposed it.

    The most important thing for economics as science is to know correctly and rightly how the economy works. The main objective of economics, for all people, including young and old, novice and experienced, should be to understand how the economy works.

    In this forum I read many posts which seem to misunderstand that economics is a system of policies. Right and just economic policies are important and they may be the raison-d’être of economics. However, those radical policy fighters should know how the economy works. If he or she does not correctly understand how the economy works, he or she have a great chance to prescribe and recommend a wrong policy from good will. The economy is a large and complex system which is hard to understand and which requires accumulation of experience and high learning or deep study.

    The most conspicuous error of this kind in the 20th century was the recommendation of planned economy. Do not forget that many progressive people were caught in this trap.

    • May 15, 2022 at 12:02 am

      The way I think about this is by analogy with medicine. That too is an area where we are particularly interested in intervention. But the medical intervention is much more likely to work if based on systematic evidence-based causal knowledge of how the system works. It can do a lot of harm if it is based on false theories.

      Around a hundred years ago, there was quite a lot of decent empirical knowledge about how doctors should handle different situations. But the causal ideas were wrong – things like miasma theory, spontaneous generation (of living organisms), etc. Little was known about physiology. It started changing with the germ theory of disease in the late 19th century. Once one gets well into the 20th century, especially from the 1920s onwards, one finds things like the discovery of insulin, of neurotransmitters, etc. Since the mid 20th century, it is taken for granted that medical practice should be based on sound scientific knowledge about how the body works – which was not true in, say, 1850.

      What’s the relevance of this? My take on the situation is that we have quite a lot of pragmatic knowledge about interventions – for example, the evidence on the minimum wage, as well as some practical knowledge about macro policy. But we lack a decent theory about how the economy works, so these are piecemeal bits of information, not a coherent body of knowledge. It’s like medicine in 1850 – when a standard form of treatment was to apply leeches. (Actually, the analogy between austerity as an economic policy and applying leeches is surprising good – but don’t take that too seriously!)

  12. May 16, 2022 at 3:57 pm

    Humanomics? Environomics? Sustainanomics? The mind reaches while the world reels.

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