Moments of Inertia by Rachel Crawford

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Economics: The User's Guide

Recently I read Economics: The User’s Guide by Ha-Joon Chang. As the title implies, it’s a kind of top-down beginner-friendly introduction and glossary that can be dipped into at random or read from beginning to end like I did. It talks about the history of economics, the many different things economists study and theorize about, and the multitude of different theories they come up with. It’s well-written, being concise, engaging and humorous throughout. It’s also carefully and considerately opinionated – which is a good thing!

Chang’s main thrust is that there are various economic schools of thought, and that it’s much less of a ‘hard science’ than many economists like to believe. Instead, it’s mushy, fuzzy, and political – it cannot be untangled from politics like mathematics and physics can. How we study, teach and research ‘hard’ sciences can be heavily political, but at the end of the day they bring us objective truths about reality that fields like economics simply can’t offer. Economics used to be known as ‘political economy’, which was much more accurate name. After all, its ultimate goal is to shape governmental (and non-governmental) policy and change the world. That’s a much more political thing to do than investigating quarks and leptons1. The forward-thinking student should analyse and learn from every school, because each has its blind spots and dead ends along with all the valuable insights into how the world works.

He also gives the one of the best one-page overview of the many different meanings of the word ‘liberal’, and why ‘neoliberal’ means more or less the same thing as ‘neoclassical’, and why you should probably use the much less confusing word.

If you’re looking for a nice friendly ‘way in’ to economics, I can recommend The User’s Guide without reservation. I look forward to checking out Chang’s other books.

  1. We can circle the drain on this a bit, I suppose: Physicists may study because they want to enable the creation of new technologies or improvement of existing ones, which will of course affect the world. For example they might make a discovery that may improve the efficiency of wind turbine technology, an act that has implications for the energy industry and everyone who ever uses a lightbulb. 

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