Is Economics a Science? Not without Core Courses in “Money Mechanics” & “Public Money”
Posted April 23, 2018
Last week, the Department of Economics at Northwestern University announced its unanimous vote to classify economics as a STEM major. Additional approvals are required before the reclassification is implemented, but the article in the Daily Northwestern made no mention of possible obstacles or objections. It sounds like it will go through.
The late Stephen Zarlenga, author of the 700-page Lost Science of Money, might not be resting so peacefully at the moment. Zarlenga, an independent researcher and a Chicago native, observed that most economics of the last century is more theoretical than scientific, both in practice and in academia. Many others, including scholars, journalists, politicians, and grassroots activists (such as myself), are coming to the same conclusion.
There are many historical reasons for the disconnect between economics as a field of study and economics as a description of most people’s lived realities. But a direct antecedent to teaching economics as pure theory is that the mechanics of money (currency) and political economy are no longer taught in U.S. schools and universities. Although “the money question” was a street-level issue in 18th and 19th century America, not until very recently was it recognized as such by the 21st century. The American Monetary Institute, which Zarlenga co-founded, did not exist until 1996, more than 100 years after the National Education Association voted to eliminate political economy from high school curricula, in 1892. This was thanks partially to Professor Woodrow Wilson, who made the official recommendation to “exclude formal instruction in political economy” from high school programs. The resolution was passed unanimously by NEA’s conference on history, civil government, and political economy meeting in Madison, WI.
Now, more and more people in the U.S. (and globally) are coming to realize how unscientific economics is without the study of currency and public money. Worse, we are realizing how our economy is in fact manipulated in multiple ways primarily through usury and fractional reserve lending by private banks. Lifelong activists such as myself joke about suing our public school systems for this gaping hole in our civic education—which I did not discover until my early 60s, about five years ago. (In my case, since I moved from Chicago to Highland Park in my junior year, I might have to sue two school systems.) Or, do we just go after the NEA?
At the same time, some of us are in shock that the creation of money—public currency—has not been in the hands of our Constitutionally designed government for most of our American history and for all of our recent history, going back 105 years to the creation of the Federal Reserve system in 1913 (thanks partially to President Woodrow Wilson). Combined with the over- and under-regulation of securities, investment, stock market, etc., in favor of corporations, private banks, and over-rich people (who can afford lawyers and legislators for every economic action), we can see how the money commons is now out of reach of more and more Americans.
This is just to raise a red flag about including economics as part of the STEM curriculum—where “S” stands for “Science” and “M” stands for “Math” (with Technology and Engineering in the middle). One of the newest websites in the monetary reform movement is titled Mathematically Perfected Currency. As the name suggests, most countries (if not all), do not currently have mathematically perfect currency. This has led to the financialization of everything that should be held in common (land, water, air), and the over-production and over-use of everything because of multiple manipulations of currency and public money. In turn countries such as the U.S. are now experiencing extreme disparities in income and escalating suicide rates because individuals can’t make the numbers add up (especially in the context of other unjust economic factors such as racism, sexism, etc.).
If Northwestern’s economics curriculum does not include the mechanics of money and political economy, I do not think it should be approved as part of NU’s STEM curriculum. It would be perpetuating a false system as academic truth, while adding yet one more layer of bureaucratic confusion to access the “lost science” of money.
Or, is the reclassification of economics as part of NU’s STEM curriculum an indication that the mechanics of money and political economy are going to be included as core courses (if they’re not already)? That would be a move of great wisdom. As Stephen Zarlenga, Geraldine Perry, and other monetary reformers have noted, access to the lost science of money is a high-priority reclamation project for 21st century democracies, not to mention the survival of our entire biosphere.
On the other hand, the Daily Northwestern article made it quite clear that the decision to add Economics as a major in the NU STEM curriculum was not an educational decision. It was a pragmatic decision made to help international students applying for work visas. Maybe the real question is, why are STEM-based visas prioritized?
I’ve tried to avoid the simmering question of the over-marketing of STEM curricula in the U.S. (over and above social sciences, the arts, living skills, etc.). There is certainly merit in advocating for economics as both a social science and a hard, STEM-oriented science. From the perspective of a grassroots monetary activist, I wonder what the discussions were like in NU’s Department of Economics during this decision-making process.
One can’t help but wonder what NU’s President Morton Schapiro thinks about the Department’s decision. Schapiro is an economist whose most recent book is Cents and Sensibility: What Economics can learn from Humanities, co-authored with Gary S. Morson. I interpret that as a sign that economics as a skill set and a field of study is getting more grounded and connected to most people’s everyday realities, which are most accurately expressed by a combination of hard and soft data. But without political economy and the mechanics of currency, economics is not any kind of science.
— “Economics department votes to classify as STEM major” by Jonah Dylan, in The Daily Northwestern (April 17, 2018).
— The Lost Science of Money (2002), by Stephen Zarlenga (1941-2017)
— J is for Junk Economics (2017), by Michael Hudson. See especially his entries on “economics as science” and the Nobel Prize in Economics, which was not part of the original Nobel legacy. Prof. Hudson is based at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (Department of Economics).
— Sovereign of the Market: The Money Question in Early America (2017), by Jeffrey Sklansky. Prof. Sklansky teaches History at University of Illinois-Chicago.
— “Monetary Transformation and Education” by Lucille Eckrich, in The Neoliberal Agenda and the Student Debt Crisis in U.S. Higher Education (2017). Essay cites information on Woodrow Wilson and elimination of “political economy” from high school curricula, p. 241. Prof. Eckrich is based at Illinois State University (College of Education).
— Climate Change, Land Use, and Monetary Policy (2013), by Geraldine Perry. Ms. Perry is a Chicago-area journalist and author.
— Cents and Sensibility: What Economics can learn from Humanities (2017), by Morton Schapiro and Gary S. Morson.
ACTIVIST GROUPS and RESOURCES
— International Movement for Monetary Reform (a fast-growing coalition)
— American Monetary Institute (think tank)
Oct. 2018, Chicago: Next AMI annual conference
— Alliance for Just Money (new U.S. activist group in the process of formation, including a Chicago cohort)
— New Abolitionism Campaign (Black church holding in-person and virtual events on “Monetary Reform and the Future of Social Justice”), Rev. Delman Coates (Maryland)
— Monetary History Calendar (weekly email filled with tidbits of the history of money, banking, currency), by Greg Coleridge (Ohio)