Sunday, September 21, 2014

Reflections on Economics

A fascinating post (categorized as "change my view") came up on Reddit, regarding the veracity of the study of economics.  The author of the post argued that economics is the least grounded in "the objective and open-ended pursuit of knowledge as found in the sciences" and, in fact, is more susceptible to political agendas than any other social science.  I considered this point of view as I reviewed, and reflected upon, the week's materials.

 In the EconTalk podcast "Fragile by Design," Charles Calorimis and Stephen Haber discuss the impossibility of avoiding bank crises due to the conflicts of interest between governments and politics and banking systems, seeming to prove the premise introduced in the Reddit post discussed above.  Banks will always fail so long as politics are involved in financial regulations, but financial regulations cannot be established or maintained without politicians.  As we have seen, both in our class module and in real-life, politics is subjective and unreliable (in terms of changing climates), while being entirely predictable; politicians will disagree, and those disagreements will affect legislation.

Also affecting economics is culture. Our introduction to the unit states that "economics is the study of how people choose to use resources."  Thus, economics is highly reflective of culture.  How people choose to use resources is influenced by social factors, such as gender roles and familial structures.  Economics is also values-driven, both in terms of the ways in which people use resources and in the way in which people study and define the use of those same resources. Yet culture is proscribed, based in theories and fluctuating over time. What's more, no single culture is monolithic, and to understand economics it is important to understand varying cultures, and their histories, as well.

The libguide provided by the University of Florida lists materials which reflect this relationship between economics and culture. The page for book sources includes a quote by the famous economist, John Maynard Keynes: “Ideas shape the course of history.” Of course, Keynes would disagree with the Reddit author who questions the integrity of economics as a science, social or otherwise. But Keynes is certainly aware of the fact that the study of economics requires the acceptance of the ephemeral. With the right idea at the right time, our trajectory can change on a dime.

Interestingly, though, “Information Overload” seems to indicate that researchers, particularly undergraduates, are less interested in authoritative sources than they are in sources that are convenient to access and easy to use. Does this rule out complicated sources, or sources in which the user must dig for the perfect evidence to support his or her premise? Are these worthwhile? We have already determined that they most likely are, considering the fact that economics are complicated and require an understanding of a variety of fields in the social science arena.

I cannot say whether the Reddit author is correct when he or she says “while Economists (hilariously) try to create an air of credibility to their work by expressing their theories with mathematical formulas, this doesn't change the fact that the basic ideas that underpin the field are based not on empirical data but rather the assumptions they've made about the world and humanity.” However, I do believe that, as librarians, we must present a variety of sources to researchers so they can find the clearest picture possible, one based on available data from all related fields, not simply on “the assumptions they've made about the world and humanity.”

1 comment:

  1. Very good, thanks. Nate Silver has a great chapter on the problems with economic forecasts in his book "The Signal and the Noise".