I thought that the discussion in this clip from about 7.40 on was extremely interesting. Watson discusses how introductory textbooks — particularly Greg Mankiw’s — ask students to suspend their disbelief in the models that they are being taught. The idea, as Watson says, is to start getting them more and more comfortable with the formal framework — what Mankiw calls “thinking like an economist”.
This, I think, is precisely what an education in mainstream economics is really all about. In a piece I wrote entitled The Ideology to End All Ideologies I wrote,
Marginalism, and consequently modern microeconomics, is all about the ordering of one’s behaviour. It is, like any rigid metaphysical system of morals handed down from on high, about organising one’s desire. What marginalism seeks to do, at a very basic level, is to give a person a rigid worldview that is completely metaphysical and unreal in nature from which they can derive a manner in which they should act and behave.
That is precisely what Watson is referring to in the above clip — and that is precisely what Mankiw means when he asks students to suspend disbelief and start “thinking like an economist”.
What Mankiw and others do is very similar to what Scholastic theologians used to do in the Middle Ages. They would teach doctrines that did not seem at face to have very much to do with reality. But they would cover for this by invoking the supposed fact that these doctrines were a source of Truth because they came from some sort of Divine Beyond. Now that the appeal to Divinity has lost its edge the economists, our modern day theologians, make appeals to something called Science.
In the Western world most of us have been taught from birth — in school but also on television and in popular media — that Science is something sacrosanct and has an access to something called Truth. The effect this has on the vast majority of people is that anything that is labelled ‘science’ — and anything that appears to have certain characteristic formal properties (mostly mathematical) — is then thought of as having some sort of authority.
This shuts down critical thinking just as quickly as any appeal to Divinity in the Middle Ages — for the faith in and reverence for this thing called Science is just as strong today as was the faith in and reverence for Divinity in times past.
The psychology behind this needs to be studied in more detail. Here I can only really give an example from my own life and experience.
I recall when I was about maybe 15 or 16 years old. I was raised Roman Catholic but had not believed in those doctrines for at least 3 or 4 years. When I was in my mid-teens, however, certain questions about who I was and how I should behave and how the world should be organised came to the fore in my mind. I remember thinking clearly that Science must be the answer.
At the time this seemed so obvious as to not beg any questions but now that I look back on it I think that it was the product of years of indoctrination — indoctrination that was far more pervasive and far more penetrating than anything that had come out of the Catholic Church. Science was everywhere. It was in every newspaper article, on every television show and it was always portrayed as having access to some sort of Truth.
(I should also say that I think that the moral structure handed down by the Catholic Church — one which Science does not even pretend to provide — probably has more bearing on how I view politics, human psychology, social problems and proper conduct than anything that Science has ever provided me with. And I would even dare to say, given that Science tries to avoid value judgements, that the same is probably true for the vast majority of people born in this century or last — despite whatever Creation myths they may tell themselves about how they generated their morality ex nihilo or derived them from principles of Science or Enlightenment…).
In my teenage mind I just knew that Science must have answers to my questions. Of course, I did not know what these answers were. For example, it sounds rather nice that science could facilitate the organisation of society — and in my 15 year old mind that was an Absolute Truth — but what that actually means is now, I must admit, very very unclear. I suppose it meant something like “applying the principles of science to social problems will yield results”. But that simply begs the questions as to what these ‘principles of science’ actually are.
It is out of this void that nonsense emerges. I can see that quite clearly now. It is out of an almost identical impulse that Samuelson wrote his famous textbook. And it is just one or two steps from there to Mankiw asking us to “think like economists”.
The rather ironic thing about this is that I think most scientists would quickly suspect that there is something fishy about economics. I think that this is because it lays bare the claim to social authority they have in rather naked form. Mainstream economics is so perverse in its reasoning that it would make most scientists recoil in horror. But the unfortunate fact is that they get their authority from the very same source as the economists.
Yes, modern mainstream economics is far less true — with a small ‘t’ — than, say, certain physical laws that are used daily to tackle engineering problems. But nevertheless those who expound these physical laws do not, as many suppose, have access to any Truths — with capital ‘Ts’. Indeed, many of the physical laws that science actually utilises today are open to doubt or even falsified at the higher levels of the discipline.
Perhaps modern mainstream economics is in the decline today. Then again, perhaps it is not. But there will always be some other wacko, quack-science waiting to fill the gap. And whatever shape it takes it will take advantage of the pretense to Truth on which science today rests in order to declare itself the Rosetta Stone with which we can decode the Meaning of Life. People will then be asked — as they are in any cult or swindle — to suspend their belief and try to see the world through a new lens which will then come to colour every perception they receive and every interpretation they make. That is how you generate a priest caste in an era when religion has lost it’s authority.