ECONOMICS: THE USER’S GUIDE
Like many people, I have spent rather a while feeling incapable of arguing economics, because I believed economics was a complicated and maths-related science. I had opinions, of course, on economic issues, but never realised they were economic. And I knew that I disliked neoliberal politics — that I, rather, favoured the Keynesian approach, if not out-and-out democratic socialism. But I didn’t feel I knew enough about the issues to discuss them in any meaningful way. Thus, when I came across Ha-Joon Chang’s accessible, introductory reader on economics, I was very excited. It should surprise no one that I am an unmitigated nerd.
The fields of law and social sciences are often, mostly rightly, maligned for the use of academic jargon as a method of gate-keeping. That is, preventing those who aren’t in the know from accessing knowledge about that particular field. Economics, on the other hand, has been so successfully gate-kept* that it is scarcely considered a matter of theories, but is seen as a rather dull subject involving complex number-crunching. Not a social science, indeed, but a strict science. This is, Ha-Joon Chang argues in this informative and de-jargonised economics text, a great fault in the global economic system. Chang’s mission is to demystify economics for a wide audience, and he succeeds.
Chang also wants to elucidate the limitations of economics in explaining modern life. He shows appreciation for the works of Stephen J Dubner and Steven D Levitt’s Freakonomics books, while also disagreeing with their (apparent) assertion that economics can explain everything about existence in the 21st century. And, though I’m not sure I agree with Chang’s opinion on that particular count–microeconomic decisions inform almost every decision a person makes in their life–it certainly is refreshing to hear any kind of academic admit that their particular field can’t explain everything.
Economics: The User’s Guide is best described as affably written. Through most of the book, I could imagine sitting in one of Chang’s lectures — he is a Cambridge professor — while he cracked dorky jokes and showed youtube clips with a smirk on his face. I can imagine his students rolling their eyes as he waffled over the computer, muddling with the faulty technology that plagues any university lecture theatre, but secretly keeping him as a favourite in their hearts. He seems like a really nice guy and I would love to meet him.
More importantly, the book achieves its goal of introducing economics in an understandable way. Chang neatly, and without ignoring his own biases, breaks down the strengths and flaws of the various economic schools of thought. In particular he focuses on the successes of neoliberalism in establishing itself as the only “acceptable” school, which holds economics as an empirical science rather than a political one. He also sharply, though briefly, critiques the World Bank’s attachment of conditions, based on neoliberal economic ideas, to loans to developing nations.
My only criticism is that the book can, at times, be overly simple. However, Chang is writing for beginners and perhaps for first year economics students who will not have been exposed to the ideas talked about in the book before. I, on the other hand, have two Bachelor degrees and a deep interest in the political sciences. So I can tolerate the small annoyance of an occasional condescending-seeming passage. It would be worse for an introductory text to assume its reader is possessed of certain knowledge — especially when Chang is so critical of academic gate-keeping.
If you are interested in economics, or even if you don’t think you are, but are interested in politics, do give this book a go. I feel well-apprised of the basics of economic thought. I look forward to reading more of Chang’s work, and the work of other economic thinkers, now that I have been given the basics in such a delightful and understandable form.
*Is there a word for that? It feels like there should be a word for that.