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The economy

A force of nature and just as destructive

We are all bound by the vicissitudes and vagaries of our national and global economies. We can’t hide, proclaim ignorance or stamp our feet in rebellion – the economy will still be there as if it were another force of nature like a tornado or a hurricane.

Really, even if one were to adopt an ascetic lifestyle, move oneself into a remote hermit cave somewhere in some tropical remoteness and chuck the old cell phone into the dustbin, one would nonetheless be affected by ‘the economy.’

If it weren’t tourists tromping through your pristine landscape throwing candy wrappers and pop cans everywhere or a mining corporation co-opting your cavern, it’d be global warming drying up your water supply and killing all the banana trees. You cannot escape the e-word.

I haven’t studied anything ‘economic’ in a long time and even then, it was only in relation to economic and transportation geography and the spatial organization of society.

From a theoretical, geographical perspective I found it interesting to see how social groupings tend to organize themselves in a landscape, link communities with transportation routes for better communications and efficiencies, and how those agglomerations form nice neat geometrical structures (well, provided they are on a flat plane without any impediments – stick in a mountain range or a river and you have something quite different).

Studies suggest that economics has come a long way since my university days, but regardless of what I read, I can’t help but think, “what the heck is this thing?”

There is a long-standing debate among academic factions as to whether or not economics is a science. It is pursued by mathematicians (mathematics is not a science), physicists (physics is a science), and, of course, economists. Economics incorporates psychology, sociology and geography, all of which seem to be categorized as sort-of-sciences.

The good folks at the Oxford Dictionary tell us that it is, “the study of how a society organizes its money, trade and industry.” I guess that is okay as far as it goes, which unfortunately isn’t very far. It misses the whole how and why of the thing.

I tend to think that economics, despite the formidable mathematical formulas that underly its theories and hypotheses, is about as far from ‘science’ as is the focus of my graduate studies, psychology.

In fact, when you strip away all of the gobbledegook from the story of economics, it is about human behaviour (read psychology) and all of a sudden all of the formulas are reduced to probabilities that are influenced by so many variables that it makes weather prediction seem child’s play.

In fact, those weather predictions may well be one of those variables that affect how we ‘organize our money, trade and industry.’

Now, any economist reading this is probably apoplectic right now, but think about it for a second or two. If ‘economics’ could predict economic behaviour like simple Newtonian physics can determine how to fly a satellite past Pluto, our solar system’s sort-of-planet that is about 5 billion kilometres and 9 years from earth, well then it might be a ‘science’.

It can’t, and if it could, we wouldn’t have any stock markets, budget debates or economic arguments – what would be the point if it was all perfectly predictable.

Describing economics as a science also gives it an authority it certainly doesn’t deserve. Economists even have a human lab rat they call, homo economicus. It is not a real human, but rather a convenient character who uses rational assessments to “maximize utility as a consumer and economic profit as a producer.”

Well, if you can find a ‘rational human being,’ please introduce me to this strange Mr. Spock. Even if we set aside pathologies like narcissism and psychopathy, we still don’t act rationally.

In fact, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph E. Stieglitz, the U.S. economy is rigged to the benefit of the privileged. If he is right, and his argument is awfully persuading, then there is no level playing field, no rational behaviour and a myth underlying the world’s largest economy.

Rigging any kind of enterprise, be it a sporting event, scientific research or an election, are behaviours that may be of short-term advantage to a few, but in the long run, they invariably are destructive to many. They undermine democratic institutions and cause festering anger among the populace who intuitively understand that their economic lives are not as they should be.

In 2014 billionaire Nick Hanauer wrote to his fellow one-percenters in Politico Magazine warning that: “I see pitchforks,” in the future if the one-percenters don’t “… do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy.” Ominous.

The economy is a human construct – it is not one of the four fundamental forces of nature (gravity, electromagnetism, strong nuclear and weak nuclear).

Since it can be ‘rigged’ it is neither fair nor rational and it certainly does not benefit society as a whole. We certainly need to question why we give it so much authority over our lives.

A one-percenter is a member of the top one percent of a population by wealth and ability, especially in a society with high wealth inequality.

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