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Is Economics a Dismal Science?

A famous quote is that of Thomas Carlyle stating economics as the dismal science. Thomas Carlyle complained that society had become mechanical and lost much of its humanity because of the abstraction of ‘real things’ into monetary terms.

In fact, there appears much gloom around the fabled world of money and exchange, and as someone who is outside of this field of study I wrestle with just what it all means and what is the practical nature of economics (also known as political economy).

Sir Humphrey Chetham
Sir Humphrey Chetham

From meeting various people who love the study of economics and invest their lives in it, they have revealed to me that it is not about doom and gloom but about all the varying ways that people act to exchange goods and services to improve the lives of people (directly and indirectly). It is the study of man in the ordinary business of everyday life, said Alfred Marshal.
Without the pretence of understanding the subject, I can say that ideas and elements expressed within it are inspirational and I find it fascinating that great thinkers’ ideas have been so useful as to have become common knowledge – much as people may not know the heritage or jargon to formally describe the thoughts they have.

My feeling is that economics is not a dismal science but a way of thinking about and trying to understanding better how we as human beings communally meet the needs of the individual and the group. It is not so narrow as ‘the allocation of scarce resources’, but more about recognising the reciprocal functional relationships which are inherent in the complex systems we occupy.  It stimulates me to appreciate more all the diverse efforts which go into producing something and exchanging it for something else.

Something as simple as a pencil (symbol of Sir Humphrey Chetham) can symbolise a whole chain of collective efforts to get something to market (the place we exchange). If you don’t believe me, just try making one yourself! For me economics, like so many other subjects of study, adds value to our world and challenges us with the notion of insight which is not lofty and abstracted so no-one can see past the smoke and mirrors but instead a series of axioms which urge us to think how tomorrow is going to be sustained along with how today was formed.

Critically, I do think that the abstractions of mathematics do obscure the understandings of functional relationships which we find in the more grounded classical economics.  The problem with using mathematics to express the world is that there is an ever present danger of separating what we think from what is actually happening.  Modern economics suffers heavily from formulas and algebra which make esoteric the nature of what is being studied.

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