Economics 101, Reza Aslan and Jesus, and the fall of Rome

Attention conservation notice: Scholars often disagree with each other. That is not evidence that your real-deal experiential knowledge is better’n than all that book larning.

I’m surprised this piece from didn’t get more airplay: Econ 101 is killing America by Robert Atkinson and Michael Lind. This is something that I have been wondering around for about 15 years, since I finished off my econ degrees and moved out of the world of econ, which is impossible because econ pretty much rules the world. But if there is one thing a person who studies environmental justice has encountered, it’s some blowhard who wants to lecture you that racism has nothing to do with injustice, it’s just that that those poor people have no money so they live in places with bad environments. And of course it’s just an accident that people of color are also disproportionately poor, etc etc. But once you get past econ 101–the micro class that entirely too many undergraduates take to satisfy general ed requirements because they think it will be ‘useful’–you see all sorts of ways in which poverty and racism can and do work as separate forces, even within constrained paradigm of economics itself.

IOW, once you take more economics after econ 101, you learn that the simplistic supply=demand lines drawn on the board and the elasticities you learn are basic concepts that get much more complicated once you get past hamburgers and robots. The problem, according to Atkinson and Lind (and I agree) is that few people take more than econ 101 and that superficial and misleading summary of the discipline, combined with economists’ race to dominate the policy discourse over all disciplines, means that we wind up with popular support for policy based on what people think are settled questions in the discipline, but are actually way more contested both in theory and in the empirical evidence we have. Of their myths, I think the most important one is Myth #3: that the economy is a market, but not for the reasons they discuss. Sure, yes, there is a lot of non market activity out there. But thinking of economies as markets leads us to the fundamental problems of macro, and this is how you aggregate up from the logic of individuals and firms to understand the resulting collective conditions. That’s a big onion, and there are very smart people working on it, but the idea that markets and economies are interchangeable concepts strikes me as very similar to believing that cities are simply collections of neighborhoods. Certainly neighborhoods are a part of cities, but assuming that’s the whole is likely to lead you wrong.

Those messy points where economists disagree tend to get put away in econ 101 because undergraduates do not like you to say things like “here’s one theory for how things work; here’s another.” They want to know how things work. I’ve read “this professor should just teach the facts about cities and not all that stuff about politics” on my evals roughly a million times: but politics are a fact in cities, that much is clear, and your explanations for what makes cities run have consequences for politics and vice versa. Fact: cities have people and buildings in them, all close together. That would be a short course on the city.

I was thinking about this the other when I happened upon a Wikipedia entry for the Decline of Rome. I’m sure there are problems with this entry, but datum! Look at it! It has a whole listing of the theories that are out there, and while it doesn’t really help you sort through them, it DOES allow the reader to see that there ARE multiple theories. How unexpectedly useful!

My students have been posting this embarrassing FoxNews interview with Reza Aslan conducted by Lauren Green on the show Spirited Debate. The whole thing is a mishegosse; you can see some good commentary and the full video from Asawin Suebsaeng writing for Mother Jones with this link here. There is so much that makes your face hurt here; having been a scholar presented with dumb questions in interviews and struggling to be polite, I feel for Aslan here, and I feel for Green, too, as she’s clearly out of her depth and badly prepared. I’ve heard some whining about how he harps on the fact that he is a PhD, but what else are you going to do when somebody else is harping on the fact that you are a practicing Muslim? The only way to respond is how he responds: I’m more than a practicing Muslim; I’m writing about my area of expertise. The whole thing is embarrassing for everybody; she begins with a simple ad hominem argument: presenting him with the presumption that his writing a book about Jesus because Aslan is Muslim means that Aslan must have some sort of ax to grind. At no point does she address the book’s argument–that because Jesus was subjected to a punishment reserved by the Romans for crimes against the state, the Jesus movement was likely higher profile and more destabilizing to the Republic than other scholars have allowed–which actually isn’t all that radical a departure from the scholarship on the historical figure of Jesus. Then she goes on to say that other scholars debate his findings, as though that debate throws his interpretation immediately into question–but all scholarship works like this, even scholarship in science until the definitive experiment is conducted or the definitive proof is produced.