I was trained as a scientist for more than 10 years now although there’s always been a part of me fascinated with the idea of forging science with other fields. Immediately after I finished my master’s degree in science, I enrolled in two non-degree courses, macroeconomics, and microeconomics. IT WAS WONDERFUL! Or to be specific, I look forward to my classes. I study intensely, not because I am getting a degree out of it, but because I’m genuinely interested in the subject. I find it intellectually challenging and at the same time, I feel it has a deeper purpose, a chance to directly impact policy. Unlike the kind of science that I’m doing that will take a considerable amount of time before it can be used by humanity, one way or another.

I started reading books on economics even before that, mainly because I was curious about the 2008 financial crisis. Then there’s the field of behavioral economics, which is equally interesting. In my understanding, it sought to incorporate human irrationality in economic models. With all of these readings, I was deeply enthralled by the capacity of economics to explain processes in the world **quantitatively** from human behavior, government spending to global connections. This is what we crave in science, the ability to measure the properties of a system, gain a mechanistic understanding of the system and then ultimately predict or tweak the system to make it better. And here is a field, economics, that has a potential to do exactly just that. But there is no way, that economics can be regarded as an exact science. In fact, it is far from it. Economic models carry a lot of uncertainties but it doesn’t mean it is not useful. It’s applicable to certain situations.

After finishing my economics courses, I flew out of my home country and started my Ph.D. in science in Hawaii. Since then I find it difficult committing time to deepen my knowledge of economics. But I remember how it felt, rummaging through my textbook and seeing the last pages of Samuelson and Nordhaus’ Economics. It was cathartic. It confirms what I felt. On its last pages, it shows the Family Tree of Economics. It illustrates that although I was exposed to basic theories in econ, it’s just a small portion of the wide array of economic thoughts. What I learned is just one of the ways a society is structured.

FT85.jpg
Family Tree of Economics by Samuelson and Nordhaus. Photo from Institute for New Economic Thinking

 

Fast forward to these past few days, the issue of free education in the Philippines emerged once again. And economists, at least the individuals that I know, are against the free college tuition scheme. The main argument being there’s no free lunch. The money allocated to cover tuition fees in state colleges and universities is obtained from other budget items, hence a trade-off that should not be taken lightly. Another argument is that the richer students will benefit more than poor students (read here, and here). All of the above arguments, however, have corresponding counterarguments. It seems to me that it is an allocation issue and not of trade-offs. There is a discussion and rebuttal paper by Agham Youth (read here). A human right (tertiary education) should not be pitted against another human right (primary education) as explained here. (there’s more of the discussion supporting and against the free college tuition that I was not able to include here)

But beyond the issue of free education, as I become more acquainted to social issues, I find mainstream economics has opposing views to what I believe in, most of the time. Not to mention, some of the economists I know, talk about econ as if it is the absolute truth, which to me is a failure of imagination and a failure to recognize that every issue is complex and multifaceted.

I’ve read condescending and angry comments from both sides. To be honest, I was profoundly angry too. But thankfully, I didn’t project my anger to anyone. For me, this is beyond free education because every social issue has economics aspect to it. I am angry because there are contradicting data, and there’s always be biases depending on who will present it. I am frustrated that I don’t know enough to argue against mainstream economic thoughts. I am frustrated since economists seem to reduce issues of human rights to be pragmatic and efficient. As I write this piece, I ask myself, is the way economics taught fundamentally flawed? Or I just need to examine my own biases better?

They say anger and compassion come from the same place and I believe that. I guess, there are certain issues that will strike a chord inside of you, and for me, this is one of them. There is unexplained frustration inside of me, that’s why I’m writing this blog. I need to create a shape out of the frustration and disappointment and hopefully, I can step away and examine it better, and push me to become a better scholar.

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