By Julie A. Nelson
At its core, an economy is about providing goods and services for human well-being. But many economists and critics preach that an economy is something far different: a cold and heartless system that operates outside of human control. In this impassioned and perceptive work, Julie A. Nelson asks a compelling question: given that our economic world is something that we as humans create, aren’t ethics and human relationships—dimensions of a full and rich life—intrinsically part of the picture? Economics for Humans argues against the well-ingrained notion that economics is immune to moral values and distant from human relationships.
Nelson locates the impediment to a more considerate economic world in an assumption that is shared by both neoliberals and the political left. Despite their seemingly insurmountable differences, both make use of the metaphor, first proposed by Adam Smith, that the economy is a machine. This pervasive idea, Nelson argues, has blinded us to the qualities that make us work and care for one another—qualities that also make businesses thrive and markets grow. We can wed our interest in money with our justifiable concerns about ethics and social well-being. And we can do so if we recognize that an economy is not a machine, but a living thing in need of attention and careful tending.
This second edition has been updated and refined throughout, with expanded discussions of many topics and a new chapter that investigates the apparent conflict between economic well-being and ecological sustainability. Further developing the main points of the first edition (2006), Economics for Humans will continue to both invigorate and inspire readers to reshape the way they view the economy, its possibilities, and their place within it.
Robert Breunig on Economic Record wrote:
ON THE FIRST EDITION: "Tending to the body, much less the soul, may seem an odd project for an economist. After all, most academic economists strive for rule-bound logic and elegance, a task that is seemingly anathema to concerns of the body [...]. It is an even bigger leap to address concerns of the soul; moral or spiritual concerns are politely treated as crackpot divergences when they are not completely ignored. Julie Nelson's Economics for Humans cogently and creatively challenges these priors, offering an alternative understanding and vision that confound the usual categories of leftist vs mainstream. And it is highly readable, written in a narrative style and format that kept me happily perched under a sunshade in the midst of a Southwestern camping trip. [...] One of the things that I most liked about the book was the careful and challenging alternative that Nelson develops, one that builds on the body and soul metaphors of the prior chapters. What the business lobby promotes about the virtues of the market are essential positives for Nelson (and they sound good to me as well): goals like employment creation, financial responsibility, opportunities for creativity, innovation and growth. Without the soul or some ethical compass, however, exclusive focus on the economic body leads to greed, alienating hierarchies between workers and bosses, and obsession with short-term profits, growth and materialism. Similarly, it is hard to disagree with what market critics promote about non-economic values: aesthetic, moral and spiritual development, mutual respect and concern among people, and ecological balance and sustainability. But without the practical guide of the body, dominance of the soul can lead to passivity about provisioning, dependency, and ungrounded fears of money and power. Combining body and soul (creating employment with an eye to ecological sustainability, meeting financial responsibilities while maintaining care and concern for the weak and needy, or acknowledging that we work for love and money) means understanding our productive and reproductive lives in terms that simultaneously reflect economics and ethics. [...] This is a great, fun and interesting read, appropriate for college classrooms as well as a thoughtful gift for erudite friends and family. No prior experience in economics is necessary"
Bruno S. Frey on Journal of Economic Literature wrote:
ON THE FIRST EDITION: "One of the basic premises of Economics for Humans is that economics should be about improving people’s lives. [...] Another premise of this book is that there are two spheres of discourse in the world, one that can be categorised as ‘pro‐business’ and one that can be categorised as ‘anti‐market’ (I take Julie Nelson’s terms from the book). Both of them believe that they have the interests of average people at heart and both of them believe that they are in opposition to each other. They rarely speak to one another and they do not understand each other. [...] I found her characterisations of the ‘pro‐business economist’ and the ‘anti‐market leftist’ both fairly extreme. Such characterisations are probably inevitable in this kind of a book and serve a literary purpose to contrast the two camps, but I think most individuals, irrespective of camp, picking up this book would fail to see themselves in the characterisations. It made us wonder who exactly the target audience of this book is. Academic economists are likely to feel that this book does not offer them much. The author characterises the ‘pro‐business’ camp as believing that unfettered markets always give optimal outcomes. Most research economists will be alarmed by Nelson’s failure to mention the wide range of economic research on market failure, externalities, public goods, informational asymmetries, etc., that conflict with this characterisation. I found that the most compelling parts of the book were actually those that are intended to convince the ‘anti‐market’ types that economists actually care about human well‐being. [...] Maybe her target audience is the anti‐market left and those who know nothing about economics. But then I worry that the book presents an overly primitive image of current thinking in economics."
ON THE FIRST EDITION: "Realizing that only a few people nowadays read a book from beginning to end, Nelson offers a welcome list of her basic arguments (p. 4): (1) The idea that economic systems are inanimate machines operating according to amoral laws is a belief, not a fact. (2) This belief has harmful effects — for life on the planet, for human society, and for you in particular. (3) Understanding that economies are vital, living, human-made, and shaped by our ethical choices can help to improve conditions — both individually and as a society. I suspect that most readers would endorse the second and third statement; it is difficult or almost impossible to object to such general and well-meaning statements. So the real issue is whether economists really look at the economy in terms of a machine. [...] I am in complete agreement with the criticism of the view that the economy functions like a machine, but perceive that fascinating extensions to economics have been made over the last few decades, which have altered economics very much to the better. [...] She is so focused on attacking the economy-as-a-machine metaphor that she overlooks the huge amount of work dealing with positive and negative externalities and public goods, and thus documenting the limits of an exclusive pro-market view. She also does not deal with how non-market goods, such as the environment or culture, have been valued. [...] While I hold quite a different view of economics from Nelson’s, it may nevertheless be true that the economics-as-a-machine metaphor is still prevalent. Nelson does not cite any empirical evidence of what economists do or think. Rather, she writes in somewhat vague terms such as, for example, 'In many discussions of economics... [...] Julie Nelson deals at some length with three specific areas where she judges the machine view of economics to be prominent. The first area deals with education in economics [...] The second area handles the topic 'Crisis in Care.' It is most competently written and documents the deficiencies in the American health system well. The third area refers to the 'Crisis in Business. Here the discussion is not as convincing. [...] Nelson’s book is full of complaints about the present state of economics but lacking in solutions."
Table of Contents of Economics for Humans
- Tending the Body: The History of Economics
- Tending the Soul: The Defense of “Noneconomic Values”
- Bringing Body and Soul Together
- Love and Money: Motivations in Care Work
- Money and Love: Motivations on the Job
- Business and Ethics: Corporations as Organizations
- Service and Its Limits: Nonprofits, Governments, and Benefit Corporations
- Economy and Environment: The Question of Global Survival
- Keeping Body and Soul Together
About Julie A. Nelson
Julie A. Nelson is professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a senior research fellow at the Global Development and Environment Institute of Tufts University. She is the author of many articles and books, and a leader in the fields of feminist, social, and ecological economics.