"Economics is a Form of Brain Damage."
I was knee-deep in a documentary on the global economy for Canada’s National Film Board, gallivanting around interviewing the world’s most esteemed economists and growing more disillusioned by the day. The economists claimed they’d discovered laws within their discipline as solid as the laws of physics. We can micromanage growth, engineer prosperity and keep the economy humming with few or no ill effects, they said. It was such arrogant bullshit. And Hazel called them on it.
She wasn’t an economist herself; her husband was. After years of breathing his and his colleagues’ second-hand smoke at dinner parties, she knew where these boys were messing up. They were tallying the wrong numbers, recommending the wrong paths, and relying on models that bore only a passing resemblance to how people really behaved and the world really worked. Neoclassical economics, she said, was “a form of brain damage.”
Few listened to her — at least at first. Because she was just “a housewife,” standing outside the clubhouse, listening through the keyhole. (Of course that’s often the best place to be. You know what’s going on, but you didn’t drink the Kool-Aid.)
J.K. Galbraith cast a longer shadow, out there with her on the Left, but he wasn’t nearly as radical. To me, Hazel was the first person who truly drove home the idea that economists were mis-measuring progress. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the master metric? Come on. Things like literacy rates and the health of children are better indications of whether a country is thriving than GDP — which also glosses over the damage, the “externalities,” left in the system’s wake. JFK was swayed by her message. A year after meeting with Hazel, Kennedy on the campaign trail had this to say about the GDP:
“It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
The sustainable alternative model Hazel proposed — based on renewable energy sources and biomimicry — was so ahead of its time that the old guard couldn’t even see it over the curve of the horizon.
Hazel could have been, maybe should have been, the Jane Jacobs of economics. Jacobs, too, was uncredentialed and dismissed as a mere homemaker meddling in the old boys’ network of urban planning, favoring such nonsense as diversity and locally driven solutions.
The two women had this in common too: they talked of the coming of a New Dark Age if we don’t get our shit together.