Book review: What every economics student needs to know…
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Book Review: John Komlos, What every economics student needs to know and doesn’t get in the usual principles text. (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.; 2014; ix, 258 pages; ISBN 9780765639233)
John Komlos, Professor Emeritus of the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, has written an ambitious book with an ambitious title. He challenges the simple neoclassical pseudo-truths that most introductory textbooks are feeding to their unsuspecting customers. This is a very worthwhile undertaking. John Komlos is not the first to do so. There has been Steve Keen with his Debunking Economics, which came out in first edition already in 2001 and Rod Hyatt and Tony Myatt with their Economics Anti-Textbook (2010), to name just two. There is no doubt that a student who would otherwise be left just with the textbook wisdom will benefit greatly from reading this book at the side and seeing that there are other ways to do economics.
Compared to Keen they do not get an analysis that is as thorough and well organized. Compared to the Economics Anti-Textbook, they get a less pluralistic alternative to the usual mainstream texts. What they get is an engaged, often quite angry criticism of modern textbook economics from a particular perspective, which Komlos calls Humanistic Economics. This is a concept which I like, but not everybody might share his philosophy to the same extent.
”I prefer to focus on human beings and how they live and feel, rather than inanimate objects such as money or abstract concepts such as output or gross national product”, Komlos writes. He thinks a kinder and more just capitalism is possible, one that empowers people and enables them to live with less fear and uncertainty. He claims that this encompasses zero unemployment, zero inflation, zero trade deficits and zero government debt.
It is a strong claim that all this is possible and desirable. Unfortunately, Komlos does not structure his book accordingly, but is rather too caught up with extensively criticizing the mainstream. I suspect he is pushing at open doors there, for most of his readers. There is no extensive elaboration of how this better system of the four zeros could be achieved and maintained. How would an economy work at zero unemployment? What will keep unions from demanding an ever greater share of the value added? Government debt is not an entry in the table of contents and is not systematically treated in the text. There are seven pages on international trade, but, as far as I can see, there is no attempt there to make and prove the claims that trade deficits are best eliminated.
This is unfortunate. Komlos misses the chance to set his own agenda and spell out an alternative, rather than piling on onto the criticism of the existing dogma. After Komlos has discharged his frustration with standard economic textbooks in this way, it is very much to be hoped that he will undertake to show, in a focused way, that the alternative, kinder economics is indeed possible. I suspect that he will have to water down some of his claims, but I can be convinced otherwise.
Hill, R., & Myatt, T. (2010). The economics anti-textbook : a critical thinker’s guide to microeconomics. Black Point, N.S.: Fernwood Pub.
Keen, S. (2001). Debunking economics: the naked emperor of the social sciences. Annandale, N.S.W.: Pluto Press
From: p.4 of World Economics Association Newsletter 4(4), August 2014 https://www.worldeconomicsassociation.org/files/newsletter/Issue4-4.pdf
Komlos need not water down any of his claims. Rather more claims need to be added: For humans; against capital. Instead of “social capital”, promote “social beings”. Education can bring this about. Komlos and others in Economics Anti-Textbook thinking mode may work on evolution of a new science “human science” instead of having more of economic science. Such human science shall guide, train and enhance capacities of individuals to evolve into social beings, socialized and having united spirit to acknowledge fellow beings presence in this world of Robinson Crusoes.
Having followed Prof. Komlos’ courses in Munich, I can say that he is a very engaging and colorful lecturer. He also has very nice research to look at “human beings and how they live and feel”. Most of his papers are on anthropometrics, i.e. measuring living standards based on things like height and BMI. Maybe this work alone isn’t enough to develop an alternative paradigm for an alternative, kinder economics, but it is a refreshing addition to the methodological arsenal.
On another note, his own academic background (first undergraduate physics, then doctorates in history and economics) is a good example of interdisciplinarianism – not one of economics’ usual strong suits!