The Macro Economics Anti-Textbook: A Critical Thinker’s Guide by Tony Myatt. Review by Henry Leveson-Gower
Paul A. Samuelson – an economics colossus who bestrode the economics profession in the three decades after the Second World War – famously said: “I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws, if I can write its economics textbooks”. And he could. His textbook, Economics, first published in 1948, was translated into 40 languages, sold millions and is the best-selling economics textbook of all time. Economics textbooks are big money spinners but that seemingly wasn’t his motivation even if most economic theory suggested it should be. He insisted he wanted to be politically-influential and thought textbooks were the most powerful means to that end.
Canadian economics professor and author of this “anti-textbook”, Tony Myatt, is certainly not in it for the money. The demand for textbooks is driven firmly by lecturers who instruct their students on which to purchase at what, is likely to seem a vast expense for students fresh to living on a budget. Lecturers are almost certainly not going to instruct students to purchase this anti-textbook designed, as they might see it, to make their life harder. This would be their mistake. Myatt has produced a text that could help form the sort of economists we need: self-critical, humble and ethical.
Myatt has produced a text that could help form the sort of economists we need: self-critical, humble and ethical.
For those who have not had the joy of economics lectures, they largely involve the lecturer using diagrams with two straight lines, representing demand and supply in relation to the topic of the day, forming an ‘X’ to “explain” why demand and supply necessarily meet at the G-spot of economics: equilibrium. This process can often induce in students another state of equilibrium: sleep. The main economics story is Panglossian in style: we would have the best of all possible worlds if we left things to markets. The sub plot is that if this doesn’t work out for you personally then you are a loser. Students are expected to follow the seemingly eternal mathematical proofs that underpin these narratives and be able to reproduce them at will. They are not expected to question them.
In the interests of transparency, I should be clear that such study can be personally beneficial. If you can stay awake and stay the course, it appears you are less likely to end up being a loser because, according to the UK Department of Education, economics graduates are the best paid. This is unlikely to be far from the truth in most countries.
So why should students invest their limited resources in Myatt’s anti textbook? The reason is spelt out in the subtitle. It provides a guide to support critical thinking – arguably the point of education.
Another unique element to this text is in providing readers with questions to ask their professor that will challenge the simplistic narrative presented to them.
Myatt does this by providing in each subject chapter, a succinct and plausible version of the standard textbook economics and then explains what is missing; what is disputed; and how the standard text has papered over the cracks to give the impression that economics is largely a settled and unquestionable science. This doesn’t always work as some topics, as Myatt explains, do not receive any substantial coverage in standard textbooks. For example: inequality. But where there is any critical faculty, that should fire it up more than ever.
Another unique element to this text is in providing readers with questions to ask their professor that will challenge the simplistic narrative presented to them. This does beg the question as to who is brave or confident enough to ask such questions in a classroom culture that does not encourage it.
I still clearly remember asking a question in my first economics lecture at the Australian National University in 1993 as to whether economics helped us promote sustainable development. Apart from the answer being deeply disappointing – the lecturer suggested we might later look at a two-period investment model. Only two periods? I felt judged by my fellow students: why was I wasting their time? Didn’t I realise that the point was just to reproduce what we were taught and get the qualification? And in truth that is all you need to do, but having studied philosophy previously where debate and discussion was encouraged, I was quite taken aback.
So-called trickle-down economics is demolished in two pages as a zombie idea that just won’t die.
If I was in such a lecture now, I would be much less likely to be a lone voice. A student movement has emerged from the deep disenchantment engendered by the failure of economics to address or even engage with the questions of many young people, who flocked to study economics after the 2008 Crash to try and understand what had just happened to them and their families. There are now over 100 groups around the world under the banner of Rethinking Economics. Myatt’s book could have been designed for those groups. It provides ammunition use in the battle with lecturers, who have largely failed to respond to the challenge posed by the Crash which their models could not even envisage let alone foresee.
But what if you are not a student of economics? Myatt suggests the lay person could be a potential reader and indeed it has much useful material to help decode debates such as the recent one engendered in the hiccup prime ministership of Liz Truss. So-called trickle down economics is demolished in two pages as a zombie idea that just won’t die despite lack of any supporting evidence. However I did baulk at the equations regularly included in the text. I think these should be put in boxes or appendices so the lay person can read the text without having to be adept at algebra.
Ultimately though, there must be a health warning on this book. Once you have seen behind the curtain, you can’t unsee it. You will then find that much of what you hear from the mouths of economics experts are, at best, half-truths and often deeply misleading. If you are a student who previously saw economics as a route to gaining a plum job in the city, those plums may cease to look so enticing. Your whole perspective on the world could change with radical consequences, but then maybe there is more to life than money.