Questioning Economics

“It’s not an investment if it’s destroying the planet.” – Vandana Shiva


Before we dive into different aspects of economics, and continuing on the theme of critical thinking, it is useful to ask what we might need to unlearn as well as learn. Mainstream economics is often presented as a science, separate from questions of ethics, social values, and the day-to-day experiences of people. As we will see in this session, much of what is taught and talked about as ‘fact’ in mainstream economics can be closer to ‘belief’. Yet, economists, policy makers, or indeed corporate lobbyists do not speak about this. In the readings we will explore some of these assumptions and underlying beliefs and how they relate to our own beliefs on social justice and inequality.

Learning Outcome

That participants will critically reflect on their own understanding of economics, and how it links to issues of inequality.


1. “Why Study Economics?” – Jim Stanford (Chapter Extract)

This introductory chapter (PDF) is a really straightforward explanation why economics matters for everyone. You don’t need to read the entire chapter, just until page 9.

2. Video: The Story of Stuff

This lovely video explains the problem with believing in limitless economic growth; “You cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely”.

3. ‘How Capitalism is Killing Democracy’

In this article by Robert B. Reich, we are asked to question the relationship between capitalism and democracy. Do free markets lead to free citizens?

4. Capitalism is killing the planet - it's time to stop buying into our own destruction - George Monbiot

In this article George Monbiot argues that instead of focusing on ‘micro consumerist bollocks’ like ditching our plastic coffee cups, we must challenge the pursuit of wealth and level down, not up.

5. Economics for people - Ha-Joon Chang

Economics has long been the domain of the ivory tower, where specialized language and opaque theorems make it inaccessible to most people. That’s a problem. “It is extremely important for our democracy to function that ordinary citizens understand the key issues and basic theories of economics.” Ha-Joon Chang .

6. Is History important? Robert Skidelsky

If we’re headed for a recession, blame the economists who flunked history class. History has long been downplayed by economists, even though it holds the keys to answering some of the most important questions today. Why did the stock market crash in 1929? Should the 2008 bank bailout have been handled differently? Is there any way to stop this endless cycle of booms and busts? Economic historian Robert Skidelsky explains why the past is vital to making sense of the present.

7. Blog: Is mainstream economics common sense? – John Barry

Economics while presented and viewed by most people as ‘dry’, ‘objective’ or scientific’, is seen as ‘difficult’ and best left to ‘experts’ who know better i.e. those we hear on the media authoritatively and confidently talking about ‘real wage decreases’, ‘economic growth’, ‘the need for competitiveness’ and ‘foreign direct investment’ and telling us, the public, how the ‘markets’ have reacted to the latest government policy etc…

Read more


Discussion Questions

  1. Is it possible to have a theory of economics that can predict human
  2. Are the problems our economies face due to high consumption and demand, referred to here as growth, or to do with the relationship between democracy and capitalism?
  3. Are there any absent voices in these resources? Who are they?
  4. Do you feel that there are any real practical alternatives to the problem being presented in these resources?

Learning Journal

  • How could we have more democratic control of our economies?
  • Do I relate to any of the resources in a personal capacity? How?

Extra Resources

Tom HealyUnlearning Economics 
Dr. John BarryArguing for Post Growth Economics (video) 
Aldred, J.Two Myths About Economic Growth in The Skeptical Economist: Revealing the Ethics inside Economics (Earthscan, 2008) 
Kaufman, C.‘Capitalism, Freedom and the Good Life’, in Ideas for Action (South End Press, 2003) 
Inequality 101: Why should I care?

This lecture series from the Institute for New Economic Thinking, economists Arjun Jayadev (Azim Premji University) and Branko Milanovic (CUNY Graduate Center) break down what inequality is, how we measure it, why it exists, and how to address it.