The Story of how I Chose Economics ATAR but Ended up in a Religion Class

I was sitting in my desk during Economics, or what I thought was Economics, when I began to wonder if I had walked into the wrong classroom. Rather than listening to a lecture about a social science that taught how people behave, how industries interact, and how governments can shape effective policies, I was seeing a man standing at the front of the room preaching esoteric parables from a worn bible. He read from it, giving perfunctory explanation, and then we were encouraged to take turns examining various selected passages.

The bible was unlike the leather-bound, gold-titled, heavy tomes I was used to. It was wrapped badly in a clear book jacket, had a bland blue cover, and was entitled “Discovering Economics” — this was the primary text from which all the components of our class were derived. To be honest, I was a little bewildered at having ended up in a Religion class, but on the bright side, our teacher was pretty enthusiastic. The preacher was devoted to his faith and loyally subscribed to the most orthodox and traditional iterations of the ideals outlined in the religious text we read from every day. “Economic growth is good for society!” he cried, voice cracking with emotion. “The market always tends towards equilibrium!”

The labour market, where people living in poverty are often exploited by profit-hungry corporations, was presented as two straight lines on a pair of axes. A minimum wage? That was a price floor, and it was bad because it reduced efficiency, and all other things being equal, would also increase unemployment. Never mind that companies are often able to absorb the costs of minimum wage rises, or that the “efficient point” was one where powerful firms would take advantage of the desperate and disadvantaged: The greatest sin our preacher admitted to was not using a ruler to draw the graph. “A bit naughty,” he commented, and used a whiteboard eraser to clean off the economic lifeline of 60 million low-wage Americans.

However, like others upon whom a religious practice is thrust, I began to have doubts about the doctrine being taught. Closely analysing my text, there were a number of strange and confusing assertions. Besides oddly incomprehensible statements like “We will see how markets can are the best way to achieve efficiency”, which peppered the scripture and popped up at every page turn, I began to notice some questionable conclusions and theories being presented.“Higher rates of economic growth are associated with social problems such as crime,” it read, “…stress-related diseases, loneliness and the break-up of the family unit.”What was, exactly, the break-up of the family unit that pervaded affluent countries? The book provided no answers. Could it be the rise of single parents? Or an increasing number of mixed families? Or, heaven forbid, families with same-sex parents? Significant social problems indeed — dire consequences equated with crime and depression.

But we all know that it is not the literal interpretation of a religious text that defines those of the faith. So I began to listen more closely to our minister — a professionally recognised teacher of the Holy Word, and an experienced one at that. He had been training young economists for years, and would surely be a reasonable and intelligent representation of the internationally practised faith.

What I heard was not encouraging. I asked the preacher why we used GDP as a measure for economic growth, give its flaws. It didn’t reflect societal progress, gave no indication of wealth and income distribution, was comprised of vague estimates, did not account for the destruction and degradation of the environment, gave policymakers a false impression of the economy, and, according to the bible’s own teachings, lead to high inflation, structural unemployment, and gay couples raising children. “Well,” he conceded, “it’s not perfect. But it’s a good measure and we like using it because it’s what economists have always used.”To be honest, I was pretty unconvinced. It seemed like the only reason why we were using fundamental economic concepts like GDP was because economists had followed these doctrines for decades. If something doesn’t work, keep using it.

“Our production possibility frontier will keep expanding forever,” he said.

“Surely,” I said, “there’s an eventual limit to our resources. If we keep growing infinitely, we’ll eventually run out.”

“Well,”he said, “We can’t keep growing infinitely, that’s why there are downturns.” He pointed at the business cycle on the board. That was not what I had asked, and I mentioned it. His response was confident and well-assured.

“Our resources now are limited. But the production possibility frontier will keep expanding because we’ll keep finding more efficient ways to use resources. Does that make sense? 1000 years ago, people would have said, we’re going to run out of resources. Well, we didn’t, we just came up with more efficient ways of using them.”Saying that we didn’t need to worry about an eventual limit of resources because we would keep finding more efficient ways of using them seemed to me like an incredibly dangerous and worrying attitude. There seemed to be an assumption that no matter how much of our natural resources we consumed, we’d be able to keep using the ever-diminishing supply in more creative and effective ways to fulfil our desires.

“Even the sun won’t last forever,” pointed out one student. “Well,” said the preacher, “What about global warming? The sun is getting stronger!”

My distress that an adult and a teacher had this understanding of climate change was vaguely comforted by the raucous laughter this assertion was met with.

A friend tried to explain the blatant misunderstanding we had heard. “Maybe it was a misspeak,” he commented. But my faith in the religion had been eroded. The next day, the priest was talking about issues our society faced. “We can fix these issues, he said. “Like we can fix global warming, and then hopefully the sea levels will go back down.”

Well, no, actually. No, they won’t. To all readers, please take note: “fixing”global warming will not make the sea levels go back down. Even if we manage to limit our temperature rise to 2C, a feat looking incredibly unlikely given global political leadership (or lack of) in this issue, the studies tell us that the ice shelves are gone for good and higher sea levels are here to stay. If this is the sort of understanding economists and economics teachers have of the most significant existential threat our world is faced with, no wonder there are people disaffected with the religion of economics. It should be alarming that we keep learning the same principles that were taught years before the GFC, and before climate change was a thing, and that we are still taught a set of doctrines which deny equality, social progress, and humanity — instead idealising humanity as a self-interested and cruelly rational man. I am proud to say that I no longer believe in the Myth that is neoliberalism.

The comparison of economics to religion is not a new one:

You don’t even need to read the articles — next time you see your economics teacher, ask them a few probing questions about the fundamental assumptions of their beliefs and see how they react. But if economics is no longer a social science, and instead a doctrine of worship, what does that mean for humanity?

Religions can give us wonderful things. Christianity has given us charities and not-for-profit organisations like Anglicare. Capitalistic, free-market libertarianism has given us iPads, among many other things. But religion also has significant downsides. If it does not evolve to reflect the needs and wants of our ever-changing society, it can become irrelevant, purposeless, ineffective in achieving its aims — and downright dangerous. Whilst it has mostly evolved, strains of the corrupted, prehistoric era of Christianity are evident in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in America. Hate crimes and violence are the consequences of this ideology, but for the most part a minority view. The religion of Economics, on the other hand, is taught in the same way it has been for decades and is spread all around the world. It can do far worse than incite prejudice — it can destroy our planet.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Economists like Kate Raworth have recognised our blind subscription to an outdated way of thinking and have proposed revolutionary, yet strangely commonsense, new ways to approach economics. These studies focus on the balance between an ecological and societal ceiling and place humanity and our planet at the heart of our economic pursuits. It is these models that are relevant to our society today, that should be at the core of policymakers’ considerations, and should be taught in schools at every level. If we do, we might be able to reverse our downwards spiral of dystopia and extinction.

Our generation is the first to grow up with social media, driverless cars, and fidget spinners. But we might also be the ones to save the world.