How economics is taught has been the subject of a lot of debate recently. Although there have been a lot of good points made, in my opinion Andrew Lainton‘s recent blog post hits the nail on the head: we need to begin economics education with a discussion of key, contested ideas.
Starting with contested ideas has a few major benefits. First, it immediately shows students what economics is: a subject where there is a lot of disagreement, and where key ideas are often not well understood, even by the best. Second, it allows students to grapple with the kinds of critical questions that, in my experience, people generally have in mind when they think of ‘economics': where do growth, profits come from? How do things ‘work’? Third, it allows us to intertwine the teaching of these concepts with economic history and the history of thought.
Lainton’s key contested idea is savings: how naive national accounting might make you believe that saving instantly create investment; how Kalecki and Keynes showed that it’s closer to the other way around; and onto modern debates that add nuances to these simplified expositions. Naturally, this would also tie in with debates about the banking system, loanable funds and endogenous versus exogenous money. On top of ‘savings’, I can think of quite a few other important economic ideas that are not agreed upon, but are central to the discipline:
Decision making and expectations
How do people make decisions? This question is clearly central to economics, as any economic model that explicitly includes agents must make some assumption about what drives these agents’ decisions. In modern economics, an agent’s decision rule generally rests on seeking some form of ‘gain’, whether subjective satisfaction or simply units of money. Economists themselves have also, to their credit, pushed behavioural and even neurological investigations into decision making. However, much of this has yet to filter down to the main models/courses, even though it should really be at the forefront of economic modelling.
All too often, the most mathematically tractable models such as utility maximisation and rational expectations are simply assumed, perhaps with caveats, but not with any real discussion of whether they represent human behaviour. Well established psychological characteristics and behavioural heuristics/biases are ignored, even though they may alter the analysis of choice in fundamental ways. Public officials are often assumed to follow behaviour that creates their personally preferred outcome, despite important evidence to the contrary. It is assumed the public understands the fundamentals of the economy, even though a lot of evidence suggests this is way, way off. Decisions in the workplace that concern morale, hierarchy and norms are often disregarded, despite evidence that they are of utmost importance.
However, my point isn’t necessarily about which models are right or wrong. It’s that these debates about how people act, and based on which motives and expectations, are not only incredibly interesting but are incredibly important. Such debates could also tie in with a comprehensive discussion of the Lucas Critique – not as a binary phenomenon that can be solved with microfoundations, but as an ongoing problem that requires us to evaluate the way the parameters of the economy change over time and with policy, culture and so forth. This would allow students to see how the economy evolves, and how its behaviour depends on fundamental questions about human behaviour.
Theories of value underlie economic theories, whether economists like it or not – in fact, it’s pretty difficult (impossible?) to judge the “performance” of the economy without a theory of value. Classical economics was built on the Labour Theory of Value (LTV), and distinguished between the price of an object (exchange-value) and its value to whomever used it (use-value). Marginalist economics is built on the Subjective Theory of Value (STV), which tends to combine use and exchange value into mathematically ordered preferences. GDP calculations simply measure ‘value added’ as a monetary quantity. There are also other, albeit less popular, theories of value, such as those based on agriculture and energy.
A crucial point here is that the concept of ‘value’ is not necessarily well-defined, and each theory of value generally has something slightly different in mind when they use it. For the (Marxist) LTV,value refers to an objective quality: the total productive ‘value’ in the economy, which is expressed as an exchange relationship between commodities, and originates solely from labour. For the STV , value refers to the subjective ‘surplus’ gained from transactions, which neoclassical theory seeks to optimise to maximise social welfare. For theories of value based on the natural sciences, value refers to more physical qualities, such as how energy is transformed in production and the limits to this process. However, the common ground between theories is the question of how we create more than we had – and what to do about it.
I expect a lot of economists would regard the STV as largely obvious and not up for debate, but if it’s so obvious and important that’s even more reason to study it explicitly – after all, Newton’s Law’s are not tucked away underneath classical physics: they are explicit, and their empirical relevance is frequently demonstrated to students. Clearly, we can’t demonstrate the empirical relevance of a theory of value (hey, it’s almost as if economics is not a science!) but we can discuss it in depth and how it is a relevant and necessary backdrop to formulating theories about utility, surplus and profit.
What is economics?
It’s a testament to how contested the field of economics is that even the definition is not agreed upon. Open a ‘pop‘ economics book and you’ll find a definition such as “the study of how people respond to incentives”. Another popular mainstream definition is “the allocation of scarce resources” or even “satisfying unlimited wants with scarce resources“. Classical economics – and more recently, Sraffians – considers economics the study of how society reproduces itself. Austrians might give you a definition that says something about human action and the market system. The definition given by Wikipedia is “the study of production, distribution and consumption”. I’m sure there are many more out there.
Agreeing on a definition of economics would put the discipline on surer footing. Right now it occupies a space where it is simultaneously used as an all encompassing worldview, and as a very narrow toolkit that only investigates one or two things at a time (I expect many economists would basically consider themselves applied statisticians or econometricians). I sometimes even find that economists fall back on defining economics by “what economists do”, which is a rather weak (and circular) definition. Given that we are not even sure which problems economic theories are designed to understand and solve, is it any wonder people can’t agree on which ones to use?
This post is by no means exhaustive. Off the top of my head, some other relevant contested ideas might be: capital; money; how to measure the economy; different economic systems; institutions; policy and economists’ relationship with it. This kind of approach is surely better for furthering students’ understanding than simply teaching a set of abstract theories which are labelled ‘economics’, often with little critical engagement. It would open students’ minds to the kinds of difficult and relevant questions that are currently either shied away from, or only open to those who have completed an Economics PHD. I expect many would also leave with an understanding of economics closer to what students currently expect (and do not really get) from an economics education.