Demystifying economics

Ismail LagardienON a January morning, a few months before my 21st birthday, a medical doctor sat on the edge of my hospital bed and told me about the surgical procedure I was about to undergo. “To do the lobectomy they will do a thoracotomy. You will be turned on your side . . .”

I interrupted the doctor and asked her to explain, in simple, understandable English, what it was they were going to do to me. She obliged politely, without being patronising, and told me the gruesome details of how they would cut a long gash into my upper body, from the front to the back below my left arm, physically reach into my chest cavity, cut the bottom part of my left lung and remove a lobe.

Among several terrifying details, the doctor explained that I would have a pipe down my throat and others that would drain excessive fluids from my body. All the while, I would be sedated and anaesthetised to make it easy for them to get in and out of my chest, and for me to remain completely sedated and pain-free.

She went on to explain that during recovery and recuperation, I would be connected to a machine, of sorts. I remember, to this day, words like “gomko” and bottles of bubbling fluids.

Three weeks after the surgery, I asked the doctor why doctors used Latin words and phrases when they discussed medical procedures with patients. She gave me a brief lesson in the Greek origins of medicine (in the fifth century, BCE), the passage through the use of Arabic and Latin language in teaching and practice, and how this continued to influence medicine.

She explained that for ease of communication, medical students were requested to start using Latin phrases in their second year of study. They used a language that contained code words and phrases which, I discovered much later, they used (even) to share confidential matters about patients.

My argument, at the time, was that this practice, effectively, created a division between doctors and patients, and that it “mystified” medicine, especially for the people who, I would think, mattered the most, the patients. What, then, is the moral of this story?

On April 1 this year, I assumed the position of executive dean of business and economics sciences at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). One important part of my work in the coming months and years is to open up economics, as it were, and to “demystify” the discipline.

I am convinced that the more people knew and understood how this thing, “the economy”, worked and the more we cut through the technical language, the almost secret argot of economists – the same way that I asked the doctor to explain to me in the simplest of language what they were about to do to me all those years ago – the better people would be able to make decisions that affect their lives, the lives of their families and communities.

It will not be easy to change this culture in economics. Most scholars and practitioners operate in semiotic closure – systems of words and concepts that provide cyclical certainty for themselves.

Through these systems they affirm membership of the club and keep non-economists out of the club. Economist Paul Krugman is famously against non-economists having any influence in economic policy-making.

The result is that economists listen only to themselves and believe only what they say among one another. Notwithstanding the facade of “debate” they all tend to agree “rationality” of “markets” – never mind human agency.

I start, then, from the simple proposition that language has the ability to mystify and legitimise systems of beliefs and values.

Through language, “specialists” or “experts” present selected facts and ideas as truthful and, alarmingly, as commonsensical. This is not a crude discussion about communism or capitalism.

It is quite simply the understanding that when a population is kept in a state of mystified surrender to intellectuals, especially economists, people tend to accept ideas and stay within the confines of “common sense” without recognising abusive or exploitative relationships facilitated by language.

Under such conditions, the population are quite powerless to overcome their own subordination.

In my new incarnation, then, as executive dean of business and economics at NMMU, and on the pages of this newspaper, demystifying economics is a priority – least of all because of the challenges of uncertainty, unemployment, poverty, inequality, food insecurity and uneven development in the Bay and the Eastern Cape – and the country as a whole.

 

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