Power And The Dialect Of Economics

by Blair Fix

A few months ago, I went down a rabbit hole analyzing word frequency in economics textbooks. Henry Leveson-Gower, editor of The Mint Magazine, thought the results were interesting and asked me to write up a short piece. The Mint article is now up, and is called 'Power: don't mention it'. What follows is my original manuscript.

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If you've ever taken Economics 101, then you're familiar with its jargon. In the course, you probably heard the words 'supply and demand' and 'marginal utility' uttered hundreds of times. As you figured out what these words meant, you gradually learned to speak a dialect that I call econospeak.

Like all dialects, econospeak affects how you express ideas. The vocabulary of econospeak makes it easier to express certain ideas (such as 'market equilibrium'), but harder to express others (like 'imperialism', as we will see). This trade-off is a feature of all specialized dialects. Physics-speak, for instance, makes it easy to talk about the dynamics of motion, but difficult to talk about emotion.

While all scientific languages share this kind of trade-off, econospeak is different from natural-science dialects in one key way. The natural sciences have a solid empirical footing. Mainstream economics does not. As Steve Keen showed in his book Debunking Economics, when the ideas in Econ 101 are subjected to scientific scrutiny, they manifestly fail.

Despite this scientific failure, Econ 101 charges on like a juggernaut, largely unchanged for a half century. Why? The simplest (and most incendiary) explanation is that the course is not teaching you science. Rather, it is indoctrinating you in an ideology.

In his introductory textbook Principles of Economics, former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke admits as much. He writes:

"economics is not a set of durable facts ... it is a way of thinking about the world."

I agree. Economics 101 teaches you a fact-free way of thinking - the very definition of an ideology.

In their book Capital as Power, political economists Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler go further. They argue that mainstream (neoclassical) economics is "ideology in the service of the powerful". If this is true, the trade-offs in econospeak take on new meaning. In particular, the words that are absent from the economics dialect indicate ideas that the powerful wish to suppress. As we will see, what econospeak seems to suppress is the idea of power itself.

Analyzing econospeak

To better understand the economics dialect, I recently assembled a large sample of economics textbooks. I measured the frequency of words in these books, and then compared this frequency to what is found in mainstream English (as measured by the Google English corpus). Here is what I found.

Unsurprisingly, economists use some words far more than average. The word 'supply', for instance, is about 30 times more common in economics textbooks than in mainstream English. The word 'demand' is about 50 times more common.

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