Modern economists extol the wisdom of the “free market” in hushed tones typically reserved for glorifying a holy book, or they mumble about the “laws of the marketplace” as if explaining the laws of magnetism or optics or aerodynamics. When my oldest son was in college he took Economics 101 and within a couple of weeks he’d figured it out: if you substituted the word “capitalism” every time the textbooks or the professor said “market,” “economics,” or “industrialism” it made the readings and lectures completely sensible. Economics was simply a metric that reflected political choices and (with more or less accuracy) the social and class relations of society. When he asked why the course wasn’t called Capitalism 101, the professor responded, “Same thing.” Indeed.
Economists quantify everything, disguising their values and their meanings in a mystifying faux-language of objectivity. They advise the rest of us ordinary folks, as the Wizard advised the four seekers skipping down the yellow brick road toward Oz, “Don’t look behind that curtain!”
Let’s look anyway.
It would be more honest to admit that economics—like history or anthropology or political science—is a smashing together of the subjective and the objective, or, more precisely an interpretive look at facts and forces that exist in the world. It’s the gathering of statistics in order to describe and construct the world, and the decision as to what we count is of primary importance. Neither the facts and forces nor the interpretations are beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals. We don’t need to be technical experts to be active citizens engaged in the big questions that impact who we are or what we become as people or as a society. We can know we want clean food and water without being epidemiologists; we can say that we want bridges to hold up and airplanes to stay in the air without degrees in engineering; we can recognize that gross disparities in wealth distort and destroy democracy without spreadsheets that can only be read with a magnifying glass; we can decide that nuclear power plants are a bad idea without PhDs in physics. And we can decide we want a system of production and distribution that is transparent, participatory, and in the service of the general welfare—it’s not rocket science. Oh, and we can decide what kinds of rockets ought to be built, too, and how they should be used as well.