Public ideas

Economic ideas : Marx and Foucault in 4000 words

The political and economic theories that guide our thinking about public policy “are reflections of dominant power interests, rather than an encapsulation of objective truths about the world”.

This is hardly a novel or radical idea: Marx expressed similar thoughts, as did the philosopher Michel Foucault last century.

Asad Zaman of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics explains this idea in an essay in the Real-World Economics Review: How power shapes our thoughts. It’s a critique of neoliberalism, communism, and theories of development economics. It’s also a criticism of the way universities have gone along with teaching ideas that claim to teach “positive economics” (as opposed to normative economics), as if economics is value-free, when the economic ideas in most university faculties align with the interests of the well-off. He argues that economic theories are shaped by those with socio-political power.

For those interested in the epistemology of political and economic theory Zaman does us the service of writing much more clearly than Marx or Foucault.

But even if we accept that what is taught in universities serves the powerful and privileged – a plausible proposition – how has that shaping taken place? As direct government policy in allocating teaching and research grants? As choices by students seeking degrees with high starting salaries? As an ecological convenience in the way functionalist theory would suggest? Or, to take the most banal possible explanation, because the theories of Hayek and Freidman have a neat abstract logical structure, even if they have only a tenuous connection to reality?

Conspiracy theories may be crazy but they’re influential

There is a powerful LGBT network whose task is to discourage any form of sexual activity that may lead to reproduction, in order to pave the way for people of colour to occupy the space once occupied by western civilization.

Crazy, but not far from some of the “replacement theory” propaganda driven by the right. And the neat thing about conspiracy theories is that they are generally impossible to disprove, because the conspirators are so devilishly clever that they leave no trace of their activities. In terms of Popper’s theory of falsification, they lie somewhere between bullshit and drivel, but many people believe them.

Writing in The Conversation Lara Millman of Dalhousie University warns that conspiracy theories are dangerous, even if they don’t affect behaviour. It took only one crank who believed that Hillary Clinton operated a paedophile ring in a Washington pizza shop to commit a violent attack on the business.

Then there are more pervasive dangers. One is that conspiracies undermine trust in public authorities, and in doing so can have costly consequences. Anti-vaxxers provide a case in point.

Another is that belief in a conspiracy may serve as a shibboleth that provides acceptance in certain social groups. Even if you don’t believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, if you want to be accepted in the party you had better pretend you believe it was stolen. The conspiracy theory becomes a social bond that suppresses critical thinking.

The cities we live in: unintended consequences of well-intentioned policies


Please come back

Corporations and local governments in inner-urban regions are trying to get people to come back to the city, but they have a tough task, because many of our inner-urban regions are not the most appealing places. Australians who travel to cities like Amsterdam or Vienna wonder why large parts of our cities are unappealing, and why there is so little mixed use of our urban spaces.

The problem lies in zoning, but not in ways that are self-evident. In another era it made sense to separate industrial from commercial and residential zones: tanneries, sheet-metal factories and chemical plants do not make good neighbours. So authorities wisely relaxed zoning rules, releasing large amounts of industrial land for other use. But as a group of academics from the University of Queensland point out, writing in The Conversation, there were unintended consequences of this policy: How we accidentally planned the desertion of our cities.