Economics is more philosophy than maths

There’s a bold assertion to start a Monday morning with. It comes out of the difficulty of discussing alternative economic approaches with people who aren’t green. The argument always, always goes ‘but where does the money come from? It doesn’t add up? You can hardly run a country if you can’t do basic maths’.

The current economic models defining how our financial world works can all be traced back to people. John Stuart Mill and John Keynes have always been the poster boys, but there are plenty of other people with ideas in the mix. From the outset there have been countering voices, speaking against our current economic models. This is theory, not science.

The mistake we are encouraged to make, is to believe that our current economic system isn’t theory, but truth. That it is a science based on numbers, and therefore beyond question, is an understanding that serves to keep the current approach in place. The numbers follow the philosophy, not the other way round. If you require alternative economic theories to be measured by the dominant one’s standards, of course they don’t hold up, because what you get is a numbers game, not a conversation about the underlying philosophy driving the numbers.

So, what is the underlying philosophy? It is about value. Money is a system for recognising value, and we understand value as that which can be bought and sold, and we understand profit as good. Starting from this position, growth is good, and more trade is good, more consumption is good. Our system tells us that only that which we can sell has a value. Health only has a value in terms of ability to work, or to sell health care. Beauty only has a value if someone will pay to look at it. Unpaid work has no value, eco systems are assumed to have no value. The future has no value, your unborn descendents have no value and your quality of life has no value. It is possible to value things you cannot buy and sell. We need to reclaim that.

If your system is only interested in how to move money around, it does not even properly think about resources. It’s a very short term growth economy that we have – as we run out of resources, there’s no long term thinking about how to be viable in the future.

Our system treats work as a moral virtue for those who are poor, and as unnecessary for those who are rich. Anyone who is poor and unwilling to work is lazy and stupid. Anyone who is rich and unwilling to work is virtuous and clever – we are not considering the value of the work to the society in this, we are assuming money to be inherently good and having it to mean something. Thus a person who has never done anything useful because their parents are rich and they don’t need to, is loved, and a person who has never done anything useful because they belong to a culture of low aspiration, is hated. This is about valuing and belief, not about maths, because either way there’s a person who does no useful work, but attitudes to it are radically different.

If you start to question what value means, you need a totally different conversation about how economics might work. If you want to factor in your grandchildren (or someone else’s) your happiness, the condition of the oceans and the wellbeing of bees, you need a whole other philosophy. No one is buying or selling the wellbeing of bees, people are buying and selling the chemicals that kill them. This creates an inevitable bias if all you value is that which can be bought and sold.

For anyone interested in a grass roots approach, I’ve been wondering about how we act in our own lives to challenge this. My personal answer is that some of the best things I do are not and will never be for sale, and I watch myself for any evidence that I am letting the price tag influence my value judgements.

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

13 responses to “Economics is more philosophy than maths

  • Lou Green

    Excellent post, so very true and I only wish more people could understand economics and values in these terms. I think if they did, society would have the capacity to be a much nicer and fairer place.

  • ricodilello

    Great post, money is only a piece of paper, it has value because we believe that it does.

  • Blodeuwedd

    Reblogged this on The Forest House and commented:
    Still not decided about party politics and, specifically, the election…but I certainly agree with everything said here. We need a fundamental re-think about what is important!

  • angharadlois

    A thousand times yes!

    One thing to note, I suppose, is that we can “buy” the wellbeing of bees by buying organic produce wherever possible – which, granted, is not cheap, but neither is anything that is honestly produced and fairly traded. It is one of the bees in my bonnet, so to speak: plenty of people will sign petitions calling on the government to save the bees, but far fewer will actually follow up by buying changing their buying habits. Capitalism, for all its awfulness, at least allows us this much power. But, ultimately, economic inactivity is a profound form of rebellion in this culture, and I heartily enjoy it 🙂

  • Linda Boeckhout

    There are economic theories which very much take the literally invaluable into account. It is not economics in itself that is the problem, but the dogma of neverending growth and putting a price tag on everything… I agree, and I hope more and more people will start looking at it that way. I have a feeling this sentiment is growing but not enough to tilt the scales, yet.

  • greenwisewoman

    Loved it! I exerpted a bit (our system treats work…) and Facebooked it with a point—- it was sooo good!!
    (but then I got into a fight about reading for comprehension…..)

  • Kaylee

    I think it is a shame that money has become a religion. Like fire, it is a good servant, but a poor master.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    If you primary interest is in increasing you profits than anything well made is against your interest. Something that breaks down and needs replacement makes you far more money in at least a couple of ways. First you put less raw material, or poorer quaility raw material, into it cutting your raw material costs. Second your workers often spend far less time using cheaper and less quality methods of putting it together and in the process of making it and you save labor costs. Using foreign labor, or even prison labor works even better in the United States. Then you make money each time anything has to be replaced.

    Nothing ever lasts long enough to be passed down to the next generation, so every generation is forced to start fro scratch. But this throw away economy makes wonderful profits for those who finance the business or who manage it. Of course nothing ever quite functions as it should and it leaves a lot of poor customers mostly frustrated and ever getting ahead as everything will need to be replaced often. But for the bottom line you can squeeze out enormous continuing profit.

    All the businesses agree to keep it this way in both formal and informal agreements. Real competition is the last thing industry ever wants so that the alleged free market system is actually a carefully controlled system of splitting up the spoils..

  • River Stone

    Excellent post, Nimue. I’m reminded of Michael Sandel’s point that there are moral limits to markets. As a society, we need to do some pretty hard – and fairy urgent – thinking about whether we want market values structuring every area of our lives.

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