“What would you do if money were no object?”
Nonsense. Money is always an object. We always have to deal with it.
And now, more than ever, we need to deal with it from a fresh perspective, says University of Connecticut law professor James Kwak, whose book Economism warns against “the pernicious influence of economism in contemporary society.” He defines “economism” as “a distorted worldview based on a misleading caricature of economic knowledge.” Most of us learned what we know about economics in Econ 101, he says, and haven’t moved on since then, while the world of economics has.
“The competitive market model can be a powerful tool, but it is only starting point in illuminating complex real-world issues, not the final word. In the real world, many other factors complicate the picture, sometimes beyond recognition.
“Still, the answer to econonism is not to reject economics altogether. Rather, the immediate antidote to economism’s simplistic model of reality is more and better economic analysis, which can help identify the fundamental drivers of social phenomena or select the most effective solutions to difficult problems.”
His fresh take on “more and better economic analysis” exposes the limitations of theoretical models, statistical analysis, empirical research, laments the academic turf wars fought over them, and acknowledges that the study of economics “does not provide a single, simple answer to all questions.” Still, he says, taking a fresh look at economics “ is a crucial step in throwing off the blinders of economism.”
We’ll hear more from Prof. Kwak in subsequent posts, but first we might consider where we stand on this perspective from Albert Camus:
“There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral: namely, that a man is always prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something.”
From The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1955)
Who am I to disagree with Albert Camus? But on this point I do: I believe that exposing our truths is a critical first step to getting free from them. And I agree with James Kwak that it’s time we reckoned with the truths we hold about economics.
“Reckon” comes from Old English (ge)recenian — “to recount or relate” — and from Dutch rekenen and German rechnen, meaning “to count.” To reckon with our attitudes about money and work, happiness and meaning, means to bring our truths about those topics out into the open where we can evaluate whether they’re making us prey or setting us free. If we don’t do that, we’ll just keep mindlessly paying the price of holding them — wishing we could be Richard Cory, keeping ourselves in a state of meaningless malaise that sometimes — in the case of suicide — literally threatens our existence.
Lots more on economics coming up.
James Kwak is one of those guys: before graduating from Yale law School, he earned a Ph.D. in Intellectual history from UC Berkeley and had a career as a management consultant and software entrepreneur. For a sense of his perspective, check out his article The Curse of Econ 101 from earlier this year.
Alan Watts bridged the East/West philosophical divide. Today, many of his quotes read like a treasure trove of pop psychology advice. The title of his book The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety is certainly as relevant for our time as it was when first published it in 1951.