How this book came about
The experience of life can be paradoxical. Probably the most important thing that ever happened to me was to have a succession of psychiatric breakdowns in my early adult years that shattered my belief in myself and left me struggling to start all over again. It was frequently terrifying and utterly confusing but it led to me into a struggle to understand my mind and emotions. In order to make sense of my experience I was forced to study psychotherapy theory and that led into evolving my own theory of what caused breakdowns. As I was fortunate enough to get employment on the margins of the mental health service I was able to work on my own problems as part of my job and eventually, in the 1990s to lecture and write material that even appeared in professional and academic journals and books about clinical psychology.
Along the way I could not help reflecting that what I was discovering was very different from what I had been led to believe in my training as an economist. When you go to a therapist the first thing on the agenda is not whether your income is high enough or the utility that you are (not) getting from your purchases. The therapy concepts of mental wellbeing could not be more different from the economist’s concept of ‘welfare’. This book explores the consequences of these contrasts and is the result of following a career and a life path very different from the one that most economists tread. If you read this book in depth you will notice that I feel no loyalty to economics as a subject, or to a professional peer group. Being an outsider seems to be a problem but it is one of those paradoxes again – it gives me tremendous freedom that I don’t have to worry about who I upset.
One of my favourite quotes, which I originally picked up in a book of clinical psychology by therapist Dorothy Rowe, is often attributed to the Talmud though it seems it may have come from a novel by Anaïs Nin. It goes: “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are” . In this respect I think I should say that I do not feel as if I am an economist. It does not feel as if it is part of my identity. I have never really practiced as one in a conventional sense. However, I do I think that I know the subject well enough. I have two degrees in it.
What originally interested me in economics as a teenager in the late 1960s was that it might provide the tools by which I thought that I could understand what, at that time, I conceived of as “underdevelopment”. The Vietnam War led to me questioning contemporary political and economic issues and I became very left wing. As I embarked on a study of economics at university I was sceptical – from a left wing and Marxist standpoint.
However, as said already, I never really practiced economics but instead got involved in local community development. I struggled to make the transition to adulthood in a state of mental and emotional turmoil, with no emotional understanding or skills. A small political sect provided a purpose to my life, a belief system and a social network. Leaving it was traumatic in the sense of leaving me lost and disorientated. That eventually led me into my long detour through the mental health system and the study of psychotherapy understandings of people. This partly helps to explain a lot of what I have written in this book. It also helps explain my loyalties – a deep scepticism of official viewpoints in favour of that of victims and “losers”.
Working in community development I became interested in local economic development and that eventually led me back into a sort of economics as I re-stabilised my life on the fringes – finding myself working with people who were and are sceptical of economic growth and “development” because of its destructive social and environmental effects.
This book subsequently arose out of a short series of 6 lectures on economics, environment and ethics for non-economists at Dublin City University who were studying for an MA in Religion and Ecology. A friend and colleague who had been teaching on the course before me, Richard Douthwaite, became seriously ill and recommended that I take over. I was interviewed and got half the module. The challenge in preparing the lectures was to present core concepts without assuming any prior knowledge so that a lay person could understand, with maximal brevity – and yet not oversimplify.
While preparing the course I came across a book by an American economist called Robert Nelson who argues very cogently that economics is a religion. (Nelson R. H. 2001). I do not want to get into a deep discussion here defining what religion is because there have been many different attempts to do this and there is much disagreement. Obviously economics is not about a relationship to a supernatural being whose will, like that of a parent in the sky, decides what happens in the world of its children. Nor does economics have a story that explains the beginning of the universe. Economists leave the explanation of the origins of the universe and how it works to natural scientists.
This also explains the title of the book. A Credo is a statement of religious belief made, in the Roman church, in a statement which starts with the Latin word “Credo”. Credo means “I believe”. One of the exercises for the students towards the end of the Dublin course module was to write a Credo to express the core beliefs of economists, as in “ I believe in the Free Market, in market competition, and economic growth…”
The idea that economists are akin to a priesthood is not new and nor are critiques of mainstream economics. Some excellent demolitions of mainstream concepts have been published in recent years by heretical economists or critics from outside of the economics profession – the most thorough that I have read is Steve Keen’s “The Naked Emperor Dethroned”, now in its second expanded edition. It is a sort of anti-textbook. After Keen there is not much left that is credible in mainstream economics teaching materials. There are other critical texts too – some of them more focused on ecological and bio-physical realities.
So economics is a subject field and a profession entering a period of deep change – a variety, a heterodoxy of approaches is emerging that is critiquing the mainstream from many different angles – post Keynesian economics, ecological economics, social-ecological economics, bio-physical economics, feminist economics, Marxist economics.
This fragmentation is bad news for those who would prefer economics to present a unified and simple message of “how things are”. Many people have speculated as to why the economics mainstream manages to persist despite so much good critique. Perhaps it is that orthodoxy presents a simple message – if you want answers to things you go to experts who give you a definite answer. What you don’t want are experts who answer your questions by telling you that there are several points of view and that the issues are very much in dispute. How could you hang onto that?
Preparing the Dublin lectures was a learning experience not just for the students but for me. It forced me to go back to the foundational ideas of economics in order to re-examine them. This review helped me to make sense of current ecological, economic and social difficulties. It seemed to me that the way economists think about issues is, in large part, a root cause of what is wrong.
A final point: I think the best way to learn about this subject is rather like learning a language as a small child. No child learns its first language by memorising lists of words together with the rules of grammar and then bringing them together. It struggles to make sense of the topical stream of sounds made by adults in the world as it finds it. The stream of sounds becomes a stream of meaning in which the infant learns to participate. In my view the best way to understand economics is to struggle to understand what has actually happened and what is going on here and now. Economics should be learned through economic history and through current affairs and always relates to a time in the historical process. When we do this we will notice that critics are shoved out to the margins – they are not given much of a place to participate because economics is a language of and for the elite and if you are not playing the elite game and using their ideas then you must get used to being on the margin. In addition when economics is largely derived and presented from topical events it is inevitably going to be out of date quite soon. The best before date on this book is not that far in the future. That is part of the reason why there is a website for this book . On the website I will try to stay up to date on new developments from time to time and, who knows, respond to critique.
1st January 2015