It took me a while to work out what was odd about Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics: The User’s Guide. It is that the title is literally descriptive. I was expecting a book about the economy, or economies, told from the author’s refreshingly distinctive perspective. It’s actually a book about the economics profession. An alternative title would be Economic Methodology: an introduction to the issues, although it would obviously sell fewer copies. So it’s a useful book but I wonder about the intended audience? The campaigning economics students will really enjoy it, but I’m just not sure what the general intelligent readership will make of it.
Economics: The User’s Guide: A Pelican Introduction (Pelican Books)
The first couple of chapters irritated me. He asks, ‘Why are people not very interested in economics?’ Actually, they are. Student numbers are going up, and pop economics books sell well (including 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism).
He then goes on to distinguish between the imperialist version of economics (anything can be seen through the lens of rational choice and claimed as economics) and economics as the study of economies – and I agree with his view that it should mainly be the latter. But along the way the book asserts that ‘most’ economists pay no attention to issues such as bargaining power in labour markets, or technology and the structure of production. Excuse me?! This is a simple bizarre dismissal of huge swathes of economics (including my own areas). I find it increasingly frustrating that critics of economics portray the subject in such a Manichean way that they can’t acknowledge that we’re not all Eugene Famas or Steven Levitts, and in fact very, very, very few actual economists take the kind of approach presented as the ‘neo-liberal mainstream’. Indeed many of us agree with some aspects of the criticisms, and would like to engage in fruitful debate rather than Punch and Judy knockabout. Many – most – of the economists I know think economic history is important and read it themselves, in contrast to Ha-Joon Chang’s assertion. Maybe it’s just Cambridge, although I don’t think so.
The book gets better after this. There are a couple of chapters that cover – briefly – key economic concepts and an outline of global economic history. This is a kind of ‘pass notes’ introduction. A description of the main ‘schools’ of economic thought follows, a one-chapter intro to the history of economic thought. It’s a bit tendentious, but hard for anybody not to be in such a concise summary.
The remaining chapters pick selected macroeconomic topics , including inequality, the role of the state, growth, welfare and happiness, finance. In most cases, Ha-Joon Chang’s preferred approach to the question is contrasted with what a ‘free market’ economist would say about it. There is little about all the other schools of thought such as the Austrian or straight Marxist, described in the earlier history of thought chapter. The presentation is: ‘here’s my sensible, realistic way to think about think about this issue, and here’s what most mainstream economists (by implication, mad ideologues) say about it.’ So it’s a bit irritating but they are decent overviews of the chosen issues.
It takes me back to the audience question, though. This is an interesting read for 6th formers or undergraduates but as a supplement because there isn’t enough economics in it, or rather not enough economics to make sense of the meta-economics. Still, it would give them a useful perspective on macroeconomic issues. The history of thought chapter seems to me the most useful because it is a good capsule overview of something too rarely taught. As for the general reader, I find it hard to tell. I might have to try it on my economist son and my non-economist husband to see what they think. Perhaps I’m just too close to this debate to judge.