Science vs Economics: The need for economics ‘in a new key’

by Adam Davidson-Harden with Andrea Loken, Teachers, OSSTF Limestone District 27, ECA co-founders

Natural sciences are based on “the systematic observation of natural events and conditions in order to discover facts about them and to formulate laws and principles based on these facts.” Natural science is based on evidence. It is in search of discovering “facts” about the observable world – the laws of nature – which are non-negotiable and already exist.

While all disciplines seek truth, economics, as a social science – as Marx and many others after him have pointed out – is tied to questions of politics, history, and competing ideologies. Social science is never ‘value-free’ or ‘neutral’. Current thinking in ‘ecological economics’, or in other schools of economics from left perspectives, deliberately embraces the rootedness of economics in certain sets of values, philosophies and ideologies that seek to meet human needs or promote true ecological sustainability. Orthodox (or in other terms, ‘neoclassical’ or ‘neoliberal’) economics, pretending as it does to be a ‘value-free’, predictive cousin to the natural sciences, is still laden with values, namely in the service of the status quo of neoliberal capitalism. Its position is clearly stated through its pretense to ‘objectivity’, in not asking – or even allowing – critical questions concerning social justice and ecological sustainability to enter into conversations about what ‘well-being’ means, economically. This market-centred, myopic way of looking at the world externalizes any question except profit or aggregate monetary values, expressed in traditional metrics like Gross Domestic Product. Of course, different schools of economics have innovated different metrics, though they have yet to gain any widespread acceptance by governments that ardently cling to our capitalist status quo.

Under the banner of a ‘value-free’ analysis, dominant schools of economics have fit comfortably into the neoliberal capitalist policy programme of ‘austerity’ – the deliberate impoverishment of states’ capacity to legislate and fund programs and policies in the public (social/ecological) interest. Such policies are always justified in the name of fiscal prudence, where social reforms must always bear the brunt of ‘belt-tightening’ (and concomitantly, corporate taxation must be reduced and social inequality allowed to grow). This continued attack on what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed the ‘left hand of the state’, privileging the ‘right hand of the state’ in giving the advantage to the wealthy and corporations, has naturally resulted in a drift toward increasing inequality, including in Canada (or our corner of Turtle Island – see this video). The impoverishment of the state when it comes to fulfilling the realization of ‘social citizenship’ through programs such as adequately funded health care and education, or through adequately legislated and funded protections for our natural environments, must always take a back seat to priorities of profit-making. Austerity has increasingly been revealed for the neoliberal policy program that it is: a school of thought to externalize any substantive social or ecological concern, which works to increase social stratification and global inequality.

Ultimately then, following the insights of economics ‘in a different key’, we need a radically new vision of how economics should work. We need to stop letting the corporations and a few at the top dictate the plan. This necessity is painfully obvious today with respect to fossil fuel corporations and the reality of climate change. As Naomi Klein states: “We cannot solve this crisis without a profound ideological shift.” We can make up new rules for economics, but not for nature. Science and mother Earth will win. We might as well get on her side.

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p.s. Please consider sharing our blog/posts and petition on your social media platform or share with friends and colleagues via email. If we are to affect change as quickly as is necessary, we really need everyone to become involved. All of us have a stake in our pensions and care about a planet that is livable in the future. The urgency is only going to become more and more apparent. No one is coming to save us. The power is within ourselves – each individual – to change the current system. We hope you can join the growing chorus!

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