Friday, June 17, 2011

On premises

As I read the opening chapters of my new ecological economics texts, I’m occasionally frustrated by a feeling of patronization. When a text asks the student to reflect on whether ever-increasing working hours lead to ever-increasing happiness or whether infinite growth on a finite planet is possible, my initial response is, come on, can we get to the real issues already!?

But, of course, this is precisely the problem. Conventional economics takes as an axiom that increasing consumption is increasing happiness. Conventional economics recognizes no ecological bounds.

Last summer, I took a class called Intermediate Macroeconomic Theory. Before the class started, I was giddy to learn how nation-scale economic philosophy was developed and practiced. For the first two weeks of the class, I was shocked. I wiggled about in my chair, trying to limit my show of disbelief at ridiculous premise after ridiculous premise. I bit my tongue as often as possible, but I couldn’t let all those assumptions slide through unchallenged. To her credit, our teaching assistant, challenged on the fundamental pillars of the subject in which she was becoming an expert, patiently acknowledged that the assumptions were “imperfect.” And then we moved on to the next step, having incorporated yet another blatantly fallacious premise.

Then something unexpected happened. After those first, unbearable classes, I got quiet. Suddenly, there was nothing to question. Once the systems had been defined, it was just pushing variables around, and the math all seemed to check out.

That’s how economics has been able to drive us to this insane situation in which we’re destroying our life support system and growing none-the-happier for it—they have slid their premises in with hand waving and admissions of “imperfect assumptions” in the first chapter. Debate and contention is allowed about the subjects in chapter 24, but never about chapter one. Questioning the premises could mean rewriting everything that comes after them, and then what would all those old PhDs be worth?

It has been said that, “from insane premises to monstrous conclusions, Hitler was relentlessly logical.”1

It’s become clear that we can say the same about neoclassical economics.

So, to return to the topic whence I’ve digressed, of course the opening pages of a subject meant to overthrow an established ideology start by examining the basic premises of the dominant ideology.

Once we’ve accepted the premises, we’ve been had.

If we’re going to define a new economics, we need to examine our premises very carefully.

So I’ll be patient as I read these opening pages and try to enjoy an economics that meshes with common sense and my system of morals and values.


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