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Economics 101 For the Political Junkie: Part 1 - Schools of Economic Thought [183a]

Updated on May 1, 2015




Hundreds of hubs, including several of mine, and millions of words have been written or spoken arguing for one side or another of the question regarding which economic system is best for America. I have my preference and you have yours, but, why do you have yours? Do you really know, when you sit down to think about it or if some one asks you to explain, your rationale for selecting that system? Do you know and understand the theory behind it and its history, if it has one?

In today's world, the answer is fundamental because one system argues for governmental involvement in economic affairs and the other argues just as strongly that governmental intervention just makes things worse. How do you know if it does or not? What can you point to that will support your position or weaken your opponents?

What started me on this series of hubs is a car trip from Florida to Arkansas and back, actually a couple of them. To help pass the time on these 1600 mile trips, I bring along lectures from The Great Courses series and it took a couple of these trips to get through Economics, 3rd Edition by Professor Timothy Taylor and 28 hours of information. It is an overview course that develops the ideas behind micro and macroeconomics, how they work and don't work together, and the issues about them. To say the least, it added greatly to my knowledge base, solidified things I already knew or suspected, changed my mind about a few other ideas, and got me thinking about economics in general and the critical importance for average Americans to have a basic understanding of this arcane and often opaque subject.

That last phrase is true and a shame. Economics should be neither arcane nor opaque. I assert that to an inquisitive mind, which any political junkie who his worth his or her salt ought to be, economics can be a vibrant, interesting, and entertaining area inquiry. This is true whether you are intrigued by or even understand the the mathematical relationships behind economics or if you are one of those where math is a mystery for all you have to have the ability to do is picture the ebb and flow of money moving around the world on the one hand, or the battle between supply and demand on another; very little math required. Personally, I am more of the ebb-and-flow kind of guy with some mathematical ability.

OK, enough with the philosophy.There is a wide chasm in the understanding of economics between mainstream economists, regardless of political persuasion, and the the average American/political junkie who listens to Fox News or MSNBC. Would I be too far wrong in asserting that the latter understand economics in terms of political implications rather than economic ones? For example, those on the Right believe strongly in laissez-faire, e.g. government getting out of the way of business because it stands in the way of America's (the Right's) idea of liberty, while an economists view is that an unfettered free-market always produces better results than the alternative. Or, is it better to let recessions and depressions run their course rather than interfere with the market mechanisms because it always brings supply and demand into equilibrium? Again this political view because it ignores several important parts of the economic equilibrium equations regarding near and mid-term turbulence.

So, why should you care? Because the quality of your life depends on it! Based on which kind of economic system you choose to live under, based on who you vote into Congress and the Presidency, the quality of your life can change drastically over time. America now has 200+ years of history living under one or the other to determine which system provides what results and how each impacts our perception of liberty and the relationship between government, business, and the People.

No, I am not being overly melodramatic with the last paragraph. All of those things change significantly under the policy decisions, both monetary (Federal Reserve) fiscal (Congress), made to conform with the economic theory currently in vogue. In the political drama since the 1980s as well as the violent change from the relatively mild recessions in the 50 years since 1950 to the near depression of 2008, gives you just a taste of those differences.




FOR THIS INTRODUCTORY HUB, I am going to start considering this question from the vantage of roughly 1920; that is because it is very easy to answer, there really is only one - what is now termed Neo-Classical. For a more complete history please see this Wikipedia link on Economic Schools of Thought.

But just for continuity, let me offer that one of the first known economic system, one which many say Classical Economics is based, is Chanakya economics from around 300 BC; Chanakya was an Indian teacher, philosopher and royal advisor. Other ancient schools were Xenophon, Aristotle, Qin Shi Huang, and Wang Anshi. The beginning of the 8th century BCE saw the development of the Islamic Economic School. This early economic philosophy led to such familiar ideas as trading companies, big businesses, contracts, bills of exchange, long-distance international trade, the first forms of partnership (mufawada) such as limited partnerships (mudaraba), and the earliest forms of credit, debt, profit, loss, capital (al-mal), capital accumulation (nama al-mal), circulating capital, capital expenditure, revenue, cheques, promissory notes,trusts (see Waqf), start-up companies, savings accounts, transactional accounts, pawning, loaning, exchange rates, bankers, money changers, ledgers, deposits, assignments, the double-entry bookkeeping system,lawsuits, and agency institution. A surprising list, isn't it? (thank you Wikipedia)

Classical economics, the one with which most of us are familiar, resulted from the works of great thinkers like Adam Smith (1776), Jean-Baptiste Say (Says Law, 1803), Thomas Malthus (1800), David Ricardo (1817), and John Stuart Mill (1848). After a fashion, classical economics morphed into neo-classical economics as more information became available and analysis was accomplished which tried to explain why the economy worked the way it did.

Neo-classical economics, the kind of economics practiced in the United States for much of the latter half of the 1800s up to the Great Depression in 1929, grew out of the ideas of classical economics but with one fundamental difference; whereas classical economics believes the value of goods is based on the "cost of production", neo-classical economists dropped that idea and asserted the value of goods is based on the "perceived" value of the purchaser. Both classical and neo-classical economics are concerned primarily with what is happening at the "tree" level of economics, understanding economic behaviour in terms of effects on supply and demand by individuals and firms, rather than the aggregation of a societies supply and demand requirements.

Keynesian economics, after John Maynard Keynes, grew out of the need to explain why the neo-classical system failed under economic stress; in 112 years prior to the release of his book, " The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money" (1936), there had been an average of a major financially-based recession every 5 to 6 years! With it came the theory of macroeconomics, the "forest"-level view, as it were. Keynes does not dispute the fundamentals of microeconomics, the backbone of the classical and neo-classical systems; he simply asserts that there is more to the story, which microeconomics overlooks, that will explain why the classical and neo-classical theory fails in such a dramatic fashion each time the economy becomes overly stressed and why the economy collapses with such regularity and high frequency.

His answer was simple. While adherents to neo-classical economics believe strongly to the "if you build it, they will come" theory, meaning supply drives demand and aggregate demand will quickly catch up with aggregate supply in both the short-run and the long-run. Keynes argue that this is not true in the short-run. His theory holds that 1) demand drives supply and 2) in the short-run, different factors drive supply and demand decisions which lead to disequilibrium between aggregate supply and aggregate demand. Keynes agrees that in the long-run (decades) supply and demand will come back into equilibrium. It is the devastation over the short-run (years) in human terms which drives Keynes to suggest government use its monetary and fiscal levers to interrupt the destructive power of positive feedback which is the bane of a pure microeconomics-based economic theory.

Neo-classical Synthesis - It quickly became evident to virtually all economists that at least some aspects of Keynes' theory of macroeconomics was correct and had to be accounted for. It was apparent that the "forest-level" view was relevant after all, so neo-classical and Keynesian economics were merged; no one doubted anymore what most of what Keynes had theorized was true. That didn't mean, however, that all economists agreed on the solutions; they ended up being divided as ever

"Freshwater" Economic Schools - As the name implies, these are centers of economic thought situated around the large bodies of fresh water in the United States, e.g., the universities like Carnegie Mellon, University of Chicago, and the University of Minnesota. These economists hold with the neo-classical side of the synthesis, still maintaining that supply drives demand and that when things go terribly wrong, government has no role in mitigating its course.

"Saltwater" Economic Schools - Again, you can guess where these universities are located and they include such esteemed campuses as Berkley, MIT, Columbia, and Harvard. Of course these economists hold that 1) demand drives supply, 2) the government should sometimes intervene to shorten the course of serious economic instability, and 3) government has a role to play in keeping the economy stable by reacting sooner rather than later to economic perturbations that seem to be getting out of control.


I WILL LEAVE IT AT THAT for this segment for I have reached a natural stopping point. From this point forward, my baseline will be the ideas of the "fresh" and "salt"water schools of economic thought as they are the ones which shape our lives today.


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    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      8 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      Thanks, almost done with it until my DSL went down a week ago, AT&T sucks.

    • profile image


      8 years ago from Marietta, Georgia

      Good Hub. Very Informative. Looking forward to reading part 2.

    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      8 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      Thanks HS, I am looking forward to see what I come up with as well, lol.

      I appreciate your comments and thoughts as well, IB. As they say though, it is hard to have your cake-and-eat-it-to (although I have never understood why not). The nature of capitalism is to self-destruct if left to its own devices. It does this by decaying into monopolies and oligarchies, just as uranium 238 decays into plutonium; it is enevitable because of greed and human nature. The remedy for this sad state of affairs is some degree of government intervention in the marketplace to keep the playing field level. Consequently, you are in the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't conundrum.

      The government, small or large, needs revevue to function. That started out as excise taxes and grew from there. You have two basic choices, tax income or tax consumption; both or disincentives. Which is the worse? As I understand it most economists think taxing income is the poorer idea.

      One reason I can see is if you tax consumption, you may suppress demand from the consumers paying the taxes somewhat, but the gov't turns right around and buys goods and services with those taxes thereby increasing demand. On the other hand, taxing income depresses the incentive to produce which, regardless of whether you are an Austrian or a Keynsesian, depresses economic growth even with the increased demand from gov't purchases. This is why I favor a national sales tax rather than an income tax.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      8 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Very interesting summary of what has led to the mocern schools of economic thought. I look forward to reading your next Hubs examining the differences and how they affect economies. Excellent series, My Esoteric.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      Brad Masters 

      8 years ago from Southern California

      The best theory on economics was from Adam Smith. The problem is that today Monopolies are back and they are on a global level.

      While the Monopoly is the best form of business for the business, it is the worst form of business for the consumer. There is little to no competition when there is a monopoly.

      The other problem that doesn't work in economics is the undue influence of government over the private sector. The government makes businesses do stupid things in order to get a tax advantage. Taxes on products also stifle spending, and therefore have an adverse effect on consumer purchasing.

      Supply and demand works, but not for monopolies or government control.

      The last thing that you need in a congress person is another lawyer. Perhaps if we had more business owners or middle class wage earners at least in the House of Representatives, Congress would be a more business oriented place. They would be able to understand business and the economy, and how to make it work for the country.


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