During a less than complimentary Twitter exchange yesterday about the qualifications needed to be Chancellor of the Exchequer (with the present incumbent providing the context) I made a serious point about the lack of economics teaching in schools, and rather surprisingly got a negative response; it would just mean pupils learning (I paraphrase) more of the neoliberal stuff being spouted by the political class.
I disagree. I worry when I read that economics is in decline in schools (although there seems to have been a small recovery in the number of A-level candidates in the last few years), and that there are almost no newly-qualified economics teachers: an understanding of economics seems to me to be really important in a democracy in which the key political issues of the day are economic as well. And I think it is wrong to assume that it must be neoliberal in nature. Certainly as an A-level student in the late 1970s and as an undergraduate in the early 1980s I ingested a good deal of Keynsianism; but, more importantly, I learned about the fallibility of economics. Richard Murphy, in The Courageous State, describes eloquently the disillusion that encountering academic economics produced, as he realised that what were being presented as iron laws of the market were actually based on axioms that were really little more than unsupported generalisations about human behaviour. I had a similar experience; Murphy’s book aroused a strong feeling of sympathy.
Moreover, you do not need to have studied economics at a particularly advanced level to understand the fallibility of many of the economic propositions that neoliberal politicians proclaim as unchallengeable fact. Much has been made recently of the Reinhart-Rogoff debacle, in which the argument that high deficits lead to reduced growth has been found to rely on dubious assumptions and unchecked spreadsheet data; but there are more obvious questions that need to be asked about markets and about choice. For example, influential constructs like public choice theory rest on assumptions that are really open to any non-specialist to challenge.
Most of all, the issue that Keynes raised – about how decisions in economic policy can be influenced by politicians, and that, far from the elegant inevitabilities of the cruder kind of market theory, economic policy is messy and human – need to be exposed. Politicians get away far less with proclaiming that There Is No Alternative (or its more subtle contemporary variations about deficits and debt) when people understand a bit of basic economics; a well-functioning democracy is one in which no politician could get away with describing the deficit as “maxing out the nation’s credit card”. People need to understand the basic concepts, in a way that the current business studies curriculum simply doesn’t achieve. And I’d argue that it’s perfectly possible to grasp those concepts at GCSE level.
It is almost impossible to imagine the current government making an intelligent decision about the school curriculum. But the point remains that, at its best, economics opens the mind. It means that, as part of their general education, people are equipped with the tools to challenge what politicians and advocates of big money want to present as fact. It’s not obvious that increasing taxes means people move abroad, or that cutting the public sector increases confidence; people need the equipment and the confidence to question these sorts of proposition and to understand that the issues are not clear cut, and that the propositions of the neoliberal (or any other) economic consensus often rely on debatable social and psychological assumptions. And in that sense a proper study of economics is a pretty good foundation for aspects of life going well beyond economic policy.