Analysis by Keith Rankin.
Economic Life, Economics and Economism
When things go wrong with economic life, it’s easy to blame economics; that is, the academic discipline called ‘economics’. We all live economic lives, and use metaphors to give meaning to that amorphous thing we call ‘the economy’ and to our individual places within it. Shared metaphors within a society constitute a cultural mindframe.
The most important of these metaphors in our pan-western society is that of ‘making money’; thus, the economic purpose of life is to ‘make money’, with ‘money’ being a metaphor for ‘wealth’. Another metaphor – with both positive and negative connotations – is ‘economic growth’. Other culturally-laden economic metaphors with multiple meanings include ‘globalisation’ and ‘flat tax’.
We inform our lives through cultural metaphors; abstractions – largely unexamined (to an extent, unexaminable) abstractions – that exist to a large extent in the subconscious areas of our brains. It is not uncommon for these metaphors to have unreal – sometimes magical – qualities. We assume that money ‘doesn’t grow on trees’, without having much idea where it does grow. We also assume that money is completely convertible, meaning that a certain amount of money can be readily converted – now or in the future – into something else (such as a haircut or a toaster).
Economists, while trained in their social scientific discipline, are not exempt from the cultural metaphors that they grew up with. Thus, professional economists wear two hats, the one they grew up with, and the one that reflects their economics’ education. (We note that ‘hat’ is a good example of a metaphor; indeed a magical metaphor, in that we may ascribe a person’s current behaviour and language to a set of values or protocols that have supposedly been infused into an article of clothing.)
Economists, when being economists, by definition, wear their economists’ hats. But, for the most part, they do not take off their cultural hats; hats infused with western middle-class cultural metaphors.
Educated people with minimal economics’ training will largely interpret the economic aspects of their lives through the economic mindframe they grew up with, to a greater or lesser extent ameliorated by the extent to which they are willing to apply critical analysis to the metaphors and assumptions that makeup that mindframe. Trained engineers will generally interpret economic life a little differently from trained botanists, who in turn will interpret economic life a little differently from trained dentists. Each educational discipline – including economics – will modify but never overturn the predominant cultural mindframe.
In any society at any point in time (eg ‘western society’ in the early 21st century) there will be a mindframe that is shared by most of the people most of the time, and all of the people some of the time. Mindframes are cultural DNA, with the memes being the mutable fragments of such DNA.
Culture is not static. New generations will pick up new memes, which may to a greater or lesser extent erode cultural metaphors which have directed their parents’ lives. Nevertheless, some cultural metaphors – such as the ‘making money’ metaphor – are very difficult to unlearn. Much of the cultural understandings of the way the world works – including evolution of our understandings of how economic life works – is a generational process. Processes of mindframe change, while inherently slow, may quicken in ‘interesting times’ (another metaphor).
While generational mindframe changes may constitute progress – meaning new memes giving more helpful (or less unhelpful) ways of interpreting our information and our experiences – progress cannot be guaranteed when new ideas and new assumptions take root. Evolution can bring about regressive as well as progressive change.
An important meme that is growing in currency is the anti-economics meme. While I think this is a dangerous meme, it is true that many economists inadvertently facilitate the spread of anti-economics, with the ‘economic growth’ metaphor being the principal focus of an increasingly strident anti-economics.
In addition to anti-economics, there is something else which I call anti-economism, and which is practiced by heterodox economists. This indeed where I fit, but only if we carefully distinguish anti-economism from anti-economics. Economism is orthodox cultural economics, and is widely adhered-to by politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders, journalists, career academics, and economists employed within this power nexus. (Two points to note. One. Economists who are self-employed but dependent on the power nexus for contracts will tend to adhere to economism. Two. It is important to make a distinction between ‘career academics’ and ‘intellectuals’, even though many intellectuals have academic careers.)
Economists who practice economism wear two hats – a disciplinary hat and a cultural hat. The danger is that, when critics target economists, they target the wrong hat; they target economics when they should be targeting economic culture. Anti-economism should be a resistance to endemic economic culture, which is a mindframe embedded in the societies which economists belong to; a resistance too easily treated as an opposition to economics itself. Thus – to use a familiar metaphorical phrase – those who subscribe to anti-economism run the risk of ‘throwing out the (disciplinary) baby with the (cultural) bathwater’. There is much that existing economics – and the history of economics – has to offer those who see economism as a major problem of our age.
Framing and Doughnuts
“Everybody’s saying it: we need a new economic story, a narrative of our shared economic future that is fit for the twentyfirst century. (Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics, p.12)
I am in the process of reading Doughnut Economics, by heterodox economist Kate Raworth. At the moment, my reading of this book is on pause, because I want to write here about my first impressions. (I look forward to finishing the book.)
The main introductory chapter of Doughnut Economics is an insightful discussion of economic iconography and framing. Yet it introduces a metaphor – the doughnut – that I think doesn’t work. Generally, the book’s promise of a new economics makes it an example of anti-economism that targets the wrong ‘hat’; though in a credible and insightful way.
What is particularly insightful is Raworth’s understanding of the need for an unlearning process to accompany a process of inculcating new disciplinary understandings of how economies work. She refers to cultural mindframes as ‘stowaway intellectual baggage’ (p.15). And (p.22), in her discussion on ‘framing’ (linked to sociologist Erving Goffman), she refers to Thomas Kuhn – author of the 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – and his use of his expression ‘community paradigm’.
She then cites economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), who wrote of his:
“… struggle to escape from familiar modes of thought and expression … The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in the old ones which ramify, for those of us brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.”
Then Raworth says (p.23):
“There maybe no perfect frame waiting to be found but, argues the cognitive linguist George Lakoff, it is absolutely essential to have an alternative frame if the old one is ever to be debunked. Simply rebutting the dominant frame will, ironically, serve only to reinforce it.”
Thus creating new memes, if not entire new frames is important. To propose is more important than to oppose. The problem – if that’s the correct word – is that old frames may be better displaced than destroyed. They may not be all bad. The replacement of one entire mindframe with another is revolutionary change. Evolutionary change – albeit with punctuated moments of comparatively rapid change – may serve us better than revolutionary change. Further, if the target people (economists) are wearing two frames (‘hats’) – ‘frame’ is an alternative metaphor – we should carefully aim for the problem frame, and not the other one.
I first learned of ‘doughnut’ as a metaphor last century, as in ‘doughnut cities’, a metaphor for urban decay (ref: The Doughnut Effect, The Economist, 17/01/2002)
“The American donut, a sugary ring with an empty centre, is a fine metaphor for the rich suburbs around a collapsed inner city.”
This metaphor is partially compatible with Raworth’s, in that the centre is a bad place to be. Raworth wants us to vacate the centre and occupy the ring. The lesson of the original metaphor, though, is to renew (and reoccupy) the centre, in part because the ring has many problems of its own.
As I would (!), I find my pie metaphor more useful than the doughnut. (Also see references below.) Though pie charts do not compete with Raworth’s iconography – indeed many readers might find both her doughnut and my pie to be useful components of a new frame – my pie seeks to utilise economics rather than to overthrow it. (It seeks to show economics in new way, rather than to create a new economics.)
My pie has a relaxation ring around the outside (a good place to be), whereas Raworth’s doughnut has a hole on the inside (a place to escape from). Further pie charts can naturally expand – allowing for new sustainable ways of thinking about growth – rather than focussing on non-growth. Yet the pie, which allows for growth, does not require growth. The pie makes every place a good place. Raworth’s doughnut, on the other hand, seems more like a refuge, a sanctuary, a citadel.
I look forward to reading the rest of Doughnut Economics; indeed, Kate Raworth may win me over to the whole of her vision. I do hope, however, that her doughnut meme to rebut the framework of economics will not ‘backfire’ (another metaphor), and “reinforce” our dominant cultural mindframe of economic life.
Meanwhile, it would be nice to see people give more attention to what economic life is really all about – incomes, spending and relaxing – and less attention to the meaningless quest to make more money.