Election economics: Rethinking economic literacy

As I watched the Vice-Presidential debates, I noticed the frequent invocation of certain word and phrases such as socialism, job creator, debt and deficit. I thought about the ways these words are intended to provoke us and how economic discourse has been distilled to a few prominent signifiers. It seems like these words and phrases have appeared with increasing frequency as the election draws closer. It is my belief that economic literacy must be more than a vocabulary test. You can see examples of what currently “counts” as economic literacy here and here

As Herbert Gans (2015) has written that high school textbooks “are not about the economy but about economics. They teach students how the discipline describes, conceptualizes, and analyzes a variety of economic processes, actions, and institutions. Above all else, the texts teach the apparently timeless principles of a discipline that studies an economy in constant flux and frequent turmoil…But concepts are tools for studying economies and can do little to teach students about the economy in which they will live” (p. 244).

In other words, economics tends be reduced to disciplinary vocabulary and school economics tends to be more about economics than the actual economy. It’s not that concepts like “opportunity cost” aren’t useful-they certainly are. My students and I talk about this concept all the time. But words have power. Economics must help students consider how words are used by economists, politicians and everyday people to achieve certain ends. For example, I see numerous social media posts (falsely) accusing Joe Biden of ushering in socialism. There, “socialism” and sometimes “radical Marxists” are used as slurs. No explanation is given because none is needed. It’s red baiting. The meaning is understood. It’s not about socialism, but scare tactics.

I am particularly drawn to Deirdre McCloskey’s studies of economic literature. Knowledge and Persuasion is my favorite McCloskey text. Her work pulls the curtain back on the discipline to expose its human side. From her position as an insider, she reveals the discipline’s inner contradictions and mechanisms of persuasion in a manner that is accessible, funny and packed with style and snark;

“politicians are full of hot air. Of course they are. What else is new?….But so are we all full of hot air, we economists and journalists and plain folk beyond Washington’s Beltway. Hot air is what humans breathe. The words of the budget crisis are not mere rhetoric, because there is nothing mere about wordcraft. The choice of plot, to take a piece of wordcraft, is crucial for how the budget story turned out” (p. 51). In short, “the words make the crisis, too” (p. 50).

For more about the terms job creators, socialism, entitlement and debt/deficit see the blog posts.

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