By Sarah (Steve) Mosko
Special to the Surf City Voice
If you are looking for a passionless primer on modern economics spouting platitudes about how western style capitalism, unregulated markets and globalization are fail proof and good for all, this book is not for you.
If, instead, your guts tell you something is seriously amiss when the gulf between the rich and the poor is ever widening and the health of the planet is on a steady decline, all while politicians bicker over policy nuances that have nothing to do with solving these immense realities, then you will find this book vital and loaded with truths.
The authors are Philip B. Smith, a recently deceased physicist-turned-economist who recognized that the discipline of economics lacks the value-free pursuit of truth ideally embraced by hard sciences, like physics or chemistry, and Manfred Max-Neef, a very much alive academic economist who, when confronted with poverty in the flesh, became a dissident of mainstream economics upon realizing that everything he’d been taught left him bereft of any real understanding of poverty and its solutions.
They joined forces in this mostly easy to digest book (I have never had an economics course) to expose how the predominant economic paradigm driving the world’s economies today is based on far less-than-lofty values – greed, competition and accumulation – values so universally sanctioned that no apology is deemed necessary even though it can be shown that wealth accumulated through such a system leads to immeasurable human injustices and environmental ills.
This paradigm fosters rapid economic expansion “at any cost” to people or the planet, and it is fed by the uncontrolled consumption of fossil fuels and a belief that consumerism is the path to happiness. It also concentrates power and wealth in the hands of a small minority.
Several “myths” underlying the economic system which have successfully evaded scrutiny are brought to light. Most fundamental is the notion that perpetually increasing economic growth and production are a necessity, and even possible, on a finite planet. A case is made that such magical thinking is the root cause of global warming and depletion of natural resources including oil and gas, fresh water and biodiversity. The authors warn of the inevitable environmental crash in our future if a more sustainable economic system is not adopted.
Other myths debunked include the views that globalization is inevitable and the only route to development (recall that the United States did not follow such a model) and that competition and integration into the world economy are necessarily good for poor nations. We are reminded, for example, that the natural resources of poorer nations are very often plundered and their local industries destroyed by rich nations under the pretext of globalization, and that jobs are lost at home when competition prompts corporations to outsource overseas.
Furthermore, democracy takes a back seat to corporate power when international institutions like the World Trade Organization dictate laws and regulations that nations need follow which effectively enable corporations to “rule the world.”
An over-arching theme of this book is the de-humanization of mainstream economics, where the GNP (gross national product) is revered as the ultimate indicator of a nation’s wealth, when in reality the GNP has become detached from the real measures of a nation’s success and well-being: the health and economic security of its peoples and their freedom to act in pursuit of their own best interests. The authors stress that a shift to a humanized economy will necessitate that culturally approved values of greed, competition and accumulation be replaced by solidarity, cooperation and compassion.
The key premises upon which a humanized economy would need to be based are laid out. Among them are realizations that the purpose of the economy is to serve the needs of people and not the reverse, that the economy takes place within the biosphere so permanent growth is impossible, and that reverence for life trumps all other economic interests.
Although “Economics Unmasked” reached bookstore shelves just months before the Occupy and 99 Percent movements had names or affiliates, it’s fair to say they seem drawn from the same wellspring of moral outrage over the social and environmental injustices attributable to the prevailing economic model. The fundamental difference perhaps is that the book authors’ academic backgrounds and access to real world facts about mainstream economics enabled them to lay out a forceful imperative for and roadmap to a more moral economic paradigm whereas, accurate or not, Occupy and 99 Percent have been criticized for lacking clear messages and solutions.
Activists within these movements, as well as sympathetic onlookers, would no doubt benefit from reading this book to help them better articulate both their grievances with the status quo and proposals for change. And to those who might take offense at any criticism of capitalism, know that this book is in no way a blanket indictment of capitalism, just of its recent incarnation.
“Economics Unmasked” was published in 2011 in the United Kingdom by Green Books.