It is a swelteringly hot February day in Bloemfontein. Sweat has melted fabric and flesh together as I hurry to my broad-wheel commuter bicycle for the 10km uphill journey home; much to do, much to ponder about. Upended in a sea of constant uncertainty, this first-year student’s heartbeat was always tuned into allegro mode. While far from idyllic, university life left me with many memorable impressions.
I did not plan on becoming an economist — never even gave it much thought — rather, it was the outcome of a series of serendipitous events. However, I still vividly recall the opening lectures of my Economics 101 class: “Economics is the study of scarcity.” With much zeal the lecturer roared on while writing this phrase on the blackboard (which was actually green), using an overhead projector in support to drive home the point. “We have unlimited wants and limited means…” and invariably some reference to beer and student life was also made. Economics studies this scarcity gap; mind this gap and ignore it at your own peril.
Thus, as were millions of others around the world, I was told that, as if by invisible magic, people seeking to maximise their utility and companies seeking to maximise profit work together harmoniously yet independently to close this gap. The sceptic in me struggled with this “magic wand” notion. Why would an entire subject, a rather important one at that, be devoted to such a sad, even tragic, topic? No wonder that it was called the “dismal science”, coined as such by Thomas Carlyle, the British historian who must have had the same impressions about this depressing subject matter.
Carlyle made his comment after contrasting the bleak predictions made by Malthus with respect to population growth and poverty with the joyful outcomes in poetry, which was classified as the “gay science” as a result of Nietzsche’s “Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft”.
Neither Malthus, Carlyle nor Nietzsche coined the term economics, though. That honour goes to Xenophon (430–354 BC), the Greek historian, soldier, huntsman, economist, farmer, philosopher and author. As a friend and student of Socrates he was well versed in the art of argumentation: the discourse and the development of a narrative and structured enquiry. It is from his book Oeconomicus, (written in the form of a Socratic Dialogue, a genre developed to foster dialogue) from where we derived the word economics comprising oikos (house) and nemein (management). The opening lines of the book read as follows:
“I once heard him discourse on the management of the household as well, in about these words. ‘Tell me, Kritoboulos,’ he said, ‘is management of the household the name of a certain kind of knowledge, as medicine, smithing, and carpentry are?’”
“‘It seems so to me, at least,’ said Kritoboulos.”
Xenophon delivers his keynote address on economics by unfolding a narrative on leadership pertaining to the management of the household with agriculture as centrepiece. This story, 2,500 years old, is as young as the day on which it was written.
When stripping economics first from its mountains of hieroglyphic mathematics as a pretence of its scientific nature, and second from its abstract and reductionist theories of perceived reality, the concept deals with the management of the household and the leadership required to do so. Sadly though, in economics as a subject — both taught and practised — the emphasis has largely turned to mathematics and theory and the outmanoeuvring of a counterpart than on management and leadership. The tool, while occasionally useful, has encroached on the territory of the objective until it has completely overtaken it. Economics is awash with tools, yet it has lost its rudder. The challenges at hand have been overanalysed while the prudent management of household is all but forgotten; the neglect of the soul of economics has led us deeper into the abyss of analysis paralysis.
What if we could rewrite the narrative of economic textbooks? Not as a dismal scarcity-investigating science having blind faith in a magic wand-of-an-invisible-and-mystical-harmonious-equilibrium if 7.5 billion people seek to maximise their respective desires, but as one on management and leadership, with justice as its bedrock. There will be no place in such a narrative for the mushrooming of any psychopathic-like behaviour that characterises most company executives and politicians today who seek to extract maximum rent from each opportunity.
On the contrary. The unfolding narrative would be one of respect, dignity and commerce with conscience. While not neglecting the harsh realities of poverty, environmental decay and inequity, or perhaps rather because of those, the first lectures in Xenophon’s Economics 101 class this year would not have been filled with dry statistics and mind-bending mathematics as to the extent of the scarcity.
We are all aware of these facts — just look out of the window.
They would have been filled with inspirational messages about how, based on management and justice through leadership, we as a society can bring about restoration and healing. In this context economics is the study, no, the unfolding story, of healing. Each story of such healing would be contributing an exciting chapter about repair and the tenacity and goodwill to accomplish such.
Storytelling is something with which Xenophon and millions after him were well familiar and accomplished. Many a people and a culture based their development on storytelling. For millenniums, there were no digital means. There were no book presses. There were trees in the shade of which the old recounted stories of edification to their young, for the young to tell their progeny.
Can we change the economic discourse to such, or have we drifted too far from our roots that the only story left is that of an apocalyptic horror movie called the 21st-century kleptocracy mixed with plutocracy? If such is the future of our household, how dismal would it indeed be; alas it need not.
Let us rejuvenate the management of the household, all households, and rewrite the story. DM
Old-fashioned crisps used to come with a packet of salt giving the purchaser the choice whether to salt their chips or not.
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