Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What is economics, anyway? (Part 1: Etymology)

Someone coming across the word 'economics' for the first time could be forgiven for thinking it was a dislike of sustainably-produced food: 'eco-' is clear enough, as in 'ecology', 'nom' is an onomatopaeia that refers to the eating of food, as in 'nom nom nom', and '-ics' refers to ickiness.

Hence, 'eco-nom-ic(k)s' - the state of finding ecologically sound food icky.

Organic food is expensive, so that would explain all the mentions of money, interest rates and loans. As for international trade, well, that's how the best products are obtained. Coffee from subsistence farmers in Tanzania, bananas from Costa Rica, and so on.

Our hypothetical amateur etymologist would not be entirely wrong. All of this is in fact covered by economics, but the subject is at the same time far more general and far more basic. So basic, in fact, that the ancient Greeks had a goddess of economics, and considered her among the most essential of their pantheon. The Romans also had such a goddess, and placed her at the center of one of their most important cults.

The Greek and Roman goddesses are very similar to each other - so similar that they are often mistaken for 'copies' of each other, when in fact they were developed by each culture, independently.

This is very promising.

By looking at the traits that are shared by these goddesses and their cults, we may gain some useful insight into the essential nature of economics.

How so?

Suppose you've only ever seen a pig in the form of spam. This is akin to modern economics, a heavily refined and modified version of the original material that includes other ingredients, some of which are difficult to decipher, and others whose relevance is not obvious at first sight. If you were to take spam as your point of reference, you might reasonably conclude that a pig was some sort of sponge, or possibly a fungus.

Now suppose you're curious about what this 'pig' thing looks like before it goes through the spam factory. Despite your best attempts, you are unable to find a live specimen, but you do have the next best thing: two statues, each one a religious icon from a culture that worshipped pigs. They share a lot of things in common, but one has wings, and the other has six legs.

By noting what the statues have in common, you may hopefully come away with an idea of what an actual pig looks like. Any significant differences between the statues are likely to be attributable to historical or cultural influences. (This is interesting in its own right.)

This is the technique that we'll be using to understand what lies at the root of economics.

Before we do this, we should stop and consider the true etymology of the word 'economics'.

It comes from ancient Greek - oikos, for 'house', and 'nomia' for 'management'.

At its roots, economics is the study of household management - of how to make the best use of a family's limited resources in order to satisfy the many competing needs and wants of its members. If the baby needs a new cot, it must be paid for. Will it be through more work, or reducing existing spending? Who will work more? Doing what? What expenses will be cut? For how long? Is it possible to build a cot from scratch? What about borrowing?

The 'household' can range from an individual to a family to a firm to a nation and beyond, but the issues remain remarkably similar. This is perhaps why both Hestia, the Greek goddess of household management, and Vesta, her Roman counterpart, were deities of both the family and the state...

...but that is a topic for the next post, where we'll begin our analysis of classical goddesses as signposts for the essential nature of economics.

1 comment:

Krista said...

First Comment! Do I win a prize? Hopefully not canned fungus-pig.