The age of Economism (bad economics)

Traders work the floor at the New York Stock Exchange, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Economism is defined as, “a political theory that regards economics as the main factor in society, ignoring or reducing to simplistic economic terms other factors such as culture, nationality, etc.” Or, as more simply put by the Oxford English Dictionary, the “belief in the primacy of economic causes or factors.”

Practically, Economism is the reckless application of simple economic concepts to aspects of the world that those concepts shouldn’t be applied to. It is very common to see this with supply and demand: an individual with a tenuous grasp on economics will presume that the world is just one big supply and demand graph made up of tiny supply and demand graphs.

Suddenly to this individual, the world will make perfect sense because if you try hard enough supply and demand can be applied to everything and better yet in their mind, it should be applied to everything. War, poverty, politics and Susan Herbst’s hairstyle can all be explained by the magical concept of supply and demand. To the disappointment of economists everywhere, that is tragically not the case. If only the world was dictated by two lines and the point where they meet.

Economism has come to prominence as of recent because of the self-validating aspect of it. Recently, social movements and political agendas have applied loose economic aspects to their rhetoric in an attempt to validate their goal. Because in the eyes of our capitalist society, it is a pre-requisite for an idea to have some sort of concrete economic benefit before it can be considered legitimate.

So, to fill those pre-requisites, individuals will claim that their ideas or agendas are not only good for society, but that it also has these wonderful things called “economic benefits.” Often times enquiring further on what these economic benefits might be will illicit you a half-hearted, “Well, um, it will create jobs” or better yet, “It will pump lots of money into the economy.”

This weak commentary has been seen recently on all sides of the political spectrum. Trump’s travel ban is good for the U.S. economy because it will keep more jobs open for all those hard-working Americans. Democrats argue that the Affordable Care Act is a boost to the American economy (it probably isn’t). What is obvious about both of these policies is that they are inherently non-economic. One deals with national security, and the other with healthcare. Economics shouldn’t, and isn’t needed, to justify these policies. They are perfectly legitimate, or in fact illegitimate, without the economic aspect of them. Yet, in the Age of Economism, someone must justify his or her agenda with bad economics.

What is regrettable is that people feel the need to justify their actions with bad economics so often. One should not have to justify a social program, or a humanitarian action better yet, with weak economic benefits. For example, there may be economic benefits to bringing in refugees, but that shouldn’t be the reason that we bring in refugees.

And continuing on with the refugee example, when the arguments for and against refugee resettlement are presented, both arguments very well may be valid. There surely are economic benefits to resettling refugees, just as there are negative economic effects to resettling refugees. There is no new way to measure which is greater, or has the “overall effect” on the economy, despite what proponents and critics will tell you. So, the next time a commentator says “[insert literally anything] is [good/bad] for the economy!” take their comment with a dose of skepticism. The economy is so complex and intertwined that it is impossible to measure the overall effects on the economy anything may have.

I’ll end this article by mentioning the two inspirations for this article. One was a Guardian article regarding a group of undergraduates who formed a student group to challenge the economics curriculum at the University of Manchester. In the spirit of Economism, the students rejected the content of their introductory economics courses because they believed that content was too abstract to apply to real world events. Second was a wonderful book by James Kwak, a law professor at UConn Law entitled “Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality."


Colin Mortimer is a contributor to The Daily Campus Opinion section.  He can be reached via email at colin.mortimer@uconn.edu.