BACK at the start of the Noughties, the task of making economics interesting for anyone but the pointy heads who get their kicks from aggregate demand curves seemed impossible.
I Spend Therefore I Am: The True Cost Of Economics
Then along came Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics, and the task of making a book about economics as interesting (with choice statistics such as “the swimming pool is about 100 times more likely to kill a child than the gun is”) seemed just as impossible.
But if Freakonomics set the bar high, Philip Roscoe, a reader in management at the University of St Andrews, wasn’t out to challenge it. “Bookshelves strain under the weight of the ever-more confident ‘economics explains everything’ genre,” he concedes early on. His thesis is different: he wants to show how economics invades almost every decision we make and is changing how we behave.
Decision-making governed by economics, he claims, already sees us justify concepts that would once seem abhorrent – picking a spouse in the same way as buying car insurance; incentivising blood donors; being free riders who ignore the environment.
It’s a shame, though, that Roscoe takes so long to get there. There’s a dense wade through the history of economic theory, in which he traces how the dismal science’s false claims to reflect the world we live in gradually got taken seriously, during which the prose style is more akin to an academic paper. Get through it, though, and I Spend Therefore I Am’s vision of a future world where we are each governed by economics is quite alarming.
One of the best chapters analyses how economics led to the invention in 1950s California of credit scoring, which created sub-prime lending and 2008’s banking implosion. Elsewhere, dating sites have “harnessed the methods of economics – surveys, statistics, and algorithmic matching – to lay claim to a particular scientific knowledge about what makes a perfect relationship”, meaning partners become “commodities to be compared and consumed” – it’s relationshopping, apparently. We “pare ourselves down to a list of characteristics, and bargaining commences: economic men and women, seeking the best deal we can get for the credit we have available”.
Despite the gloom, Roscoe concludes that economic-thinking shouldn’t be dumped. It just needs to leave behind the dispassionate science. In the shops, Roscoe ponders, a smartphone with a tag detailing it was made by a man who took his own life, or a T-shirt whose label reveals it was made by a woman earning £7.95 a month, might see consumers think about more than price. “Integrating its ends with its means can see economics help humans to flourish rather than base life on efficiency,” he says. His Dystopian outlook on the world now, though, makes that possibility seem like a long shot.