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Power and the dialect of economics

Blair Fix

If you’ve ever taken Economics 101, then you’re familiar with its jargon. In the course, you probably heard the words ‘supply and demand’ and also ‘marginal utility’ uttered hundreds of times. As you figured out what these words meant, you gradually learned to speak a dialect that I call econospeak.

Like all dialects, econospeak affects how you express ideas. The vocabulary of econospeak makes it easier to express certain ideas (such as ‘market equilibrium’), but harder to express others (like ‘imperialism’, as we will see). This trade-off is a feature of all specialized dialects. Physics-speak, for instance, makes it easy to talk about the dynamics of motion, but difficult to talk about emotion.

While all scientific languages share this kind of trade-off, econospeak is different from natural-science dialects in one key way. The natural sciences have a solid empirical footing, but mainstream (neoclassical) economics does not. As Steve Keen showed in his book Debunking Economics, when the ideas in Econ 101 are subjected to scientific scrutiny, they manifestly fail.

Despite this scientific failure, Econ 101 charges on like a juggernaut, largely unchanged for a half century. Why does this happen? The simplest (and most incendiary) explanation is that the Econ 101 course is not teaching you science. Rather, it is directed at indoctrinating you in an ideology.

In his introductory textbook Principles of Economics, the former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke admits as much. He writes: “economics is not a set of durable facts – it is a way of thinking about the world.” I agree. Economics 101 teaches you a fact-free way of thinking — the very definition of an ideology.

In their book Capital as Power, the political economists Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler go further. They argue that mainstream (neoclassical) economics is “ideology in the service of the powerful”. If this is true, then the trade-offs in econospeak take on new meaning. In particular, the words that are absent from the economics dialect indicate ideas that the powerful wish to suppress. What econospeak seems to suppress is the idea of power itself.

Extracted from: RWER blogs

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