Arts & Life

The undergrad years, or how I learnt that economics is not the devil

When I was a second year English major at McGill, I’d often return home to find one of my roommates – a razor sharp economics student – ready for some intellectual jousting. Over many a late evening stir-fry we would discuss local ‘n global events by applying our particular academic lenses onto them. Every now and then we’d get stuck. At the time each thought the other just didn’t ‘get it,’ but looking back we were merely lost in translation. 

Many humanities majors can’t stand economics. They see the dismal science as truly dismal, as something that diminishes the human experience to mere transactions. It is only after achieving a decent temporal distance from my English degree that I really understand why so many of us history, philosophy, anthropology, etc. undergraduate majors tended to view economics with such contempt. And why we secretly wanted to kick them out of the Bachelor of Arts camp entirely. Such understanding has yielded one conclusion (here I may as well hand in my tweed jacket and Jane Austen hardcover set): our contempt was fundamentally misguided.

In the last two years of my undergrad degree I picked up political science. From there I moved to a Masters in Public Policy and Administration, during which I dabbled in my first straight-up econ classes.  It was clear within the first few weeks that us non-econ BA kids at McGill had forgotten BA Tenet 101 whenever we assessed econ: critically interrogate your assumptions. What were we assuming about econ that we were not honestly interrogating? Well, a few things.

First, many humanities folks equated economics with a.) capitalism, b.) business, or c.) both. Economics on its surface sounded like it was about money, and – as any good Fight-The-Man humanities undergrad would tell ya – ‘money sucks.’ Ergo, economics suck. Us humanities people would have benefitted from reading the basic definition of economics: it is the study of  how society allocates resources under conditions of scarcity. Not money; resources. Not business; society. Not capitalism; every theory that posits particular ways of allocating resources.

Second, many non-econ BAers assumed that economics prescribed for the world a particular framework of wealth creation and distribution, and that this framework was a neoliberal, uber-capitalist, trickle-down melting pot stirred by Thatcher and Reagan’s evil love child. This is not the case. Every economics textbook worth its salt will state early on that econ makes a very clear distinction between positive and normative analysis. The former being the attempt at understanding the effects of allocating resources in a specific way (independent of whether it is considered morally good or bad) and the latter being arguments on how resources should be allocated, and what society shouldlook like.

All academic disciplines struggle with conflating and distinguishing positive and normative analysis. And while it may not be possible to truly separate them, it is incumbent on honest thinkers to try and state when they are doing which. There may always be disagreement on what the facts are (never mind on the ‘right’ direction to pursue), but we should at least note when we are disagreeing about the facts and when we are disagreeing about the direction we should take given the facts. Economics is not particularly bad at making such a distinction compared to any other discipline. It is no more intellectually honest or dishonest than the rest of ‘em.

Third, non-econ BAers rejected econ for relying on a fundamentally problematic interpretation of human motivation: rational self-interest. And let me just say that economics relies on a fundamentally problematic interpretation of human behavior, which is rational self-interest. But this assumption of rational self-interest holds greater capacity for nuance than the humanities often give it credit for (ie. one’s ‘rational self-interest’ can be informed by values, beliefs, relationships, etc.), and it is necessary for the particular lens that econ applies to the allocation of resources under conditions of scarcity. This lens does, in fact, often accurately predict results and usefully illuminates particular mechanisms at play in some social phenomena.

Now many economists are rather notorious for attempting to explain all social phenomena with their set of ‘rational self-interest’-based tools, but this is no different from other academic disciplines. Gender theorists have flirted with understanding all social behavior as constructed along gender lines and all oppression as the result of a pervasive patriarchy. Marxists see most problems in terms of class conflict. Political scientists more broadly understand the world as a set of power relationships that determine who gets what. Furthermore, economics has been thoroughly challenged by the rest of  the academic community. Indeed, branches of political science has forced much of econ to acknowledge the role institutions play in how resources are allocated; that unique rules of the game, historical contexts, and values-entrenching symbols matter. And  econ textbook chapters often come with disclaimers stating that its conclusions only work under specific conditions, and that other variables – which may be informed by social phenomena beyond the grasp of econ – may alter such conditions.

The biggest tragedy of our misguided dismissal of economics was that through making it a straw-man of a discipline we created a sham study set up to be defeated. And this inhibited us from really unveiling its weak points and from using its strengths. It meant a bunch of undergrads with Aristotle and/or Judith Butler in their pockets pointing self-righteously at the 2008 recession crisis and saying “See?! I told you economics was wrong.” They could have instead tried to analyze what, exactly, did go wrong, an analysis which they would have come to see includes a rigorous economic lens.

Is this lament still relevant, or is it merely a nostalgic look at the often insightful, fiery, and at times shockingly narrow and reactionary intellectula that can be the undergrad experience? After dipping my toes even deeper into the academic well (as a graduating Masters student and  a prospective PhD student), I think it is still profoundly relevant. Academic disciplines can often be the fully fleshed out and rigorously (overly?) articulated perspectives found in the ‘rest of the world,’ and so can manifest in particularly incendiary versions of the conflicts between those perspectives. I don’t expect and ask for that to change. But I do ask that those conflicts do not make strawmen of counter perspectives.

Once the nuances of a discipline’s particular lenses are understood – which can only be done by working within them for a bit – the debate can ensue. And ensue heartily. Being a young McGill undergrad was fun. I’ll fondly remember those years forever. But let’s not be undergrads for the rest of our lives. We can only truly criticize what we truly understand.


Johanu Botha straddles the academic–practitioner divide by simultaneously studying and working in the field of public policy and administration. He will be pursuing a PhD in public policy at Carleton’s School of Public Policy in Fall 2014.