Econonmics ≠ Numbers

What’s the meaning of those numbers? What do they express or represent? (Picture by Tim Evans


If I say “economics”, do you hear “numbers”? Thats the case with most people and actually most professors on the topic as well. I think thats not just a flawed perspective but plainly false.

If economics is the “study of the ways societies organize themselves to provide for the survival and flourishing of life”, then economics is just as much about telling stories as it can be about numbers. By the way, thanks to July Nelson for that great definition.

Mostly, I hear that economics has a lot to do with calculating aggregate numbers such as GDP, unemployment-outlooks, exchange rates or predicting propensities to save. That is all well and fine, but the point is, if I have no story to tell with such a number, the number itself is becoming meaningless.

When we set out researching for YourGreeconomy, we read all about unemployment rates in Greece. Soaring numbers, many fleeing the country.

Let me ask you this: What do you make of a piece of information that tells you “Youth unemployment is at 57%”?

The only thought that came to my mind was: “Gosh, thats a lot of people not finding a job.” That’s not very informative, though. That’s not very much meaning.

The meaning of something is what it expresses or represents. (Cambridge Dictionary)

So, what does a number like 57% youth unemployment express or represent?

It represents young people like myself who would rather stay where they grew up, indulge in their families, foster communities and spread knowledge. But they can’t. Because they can’t live on their parents shrinking income forever.

That number represents young people like myself who grew up into a globalized economy, speaking a multitude of languages and being raised in this thinking of factor-mobility. If I ask around my friends in Germany most would go work abroad for a while, check it out, see what it is they want to do. If you ask around the young and well educated in Greece, they say they have to leave the country.

And thats a huge difference. And those are stories, not numbers. Stories of how you feel if you have to leave to be able to pay for your families rent. Stories of how doing something you’ve been educated for, forces you to look somewhere else. Leaving behind your friends, family, infrastructure. Having your family scatter all around europe.

In this regard, numbers are tools to tell stories. As are models and formulas. But the numbers can never stand for themselves. Neither can models and formulas.

There is a caveat keeping uns from telling stories in economics, though: It makes information much less accessible. Telling stories doesn’t give you a imagined “clear picture”. And that’s the problem: If you hear a number on something, you perceive to have a clear understanding of a process, while hearing a story on the topic leaves you with this unclear gut feeling.

Clear pictures lead to clear responses: Greece is broke? Have it cut spending. Bloated public sector? Privatize. But as there is never a single cause, there can never be a single response. Stories open up perspectives maybe not so much on causes, but on what responses would work like.

And that’s the great thing about stories. A well told story gives you mediated, hands-on understanding of something. You’ll have a mediated experience to be someone else. You’ll be able to feel the way the narrator feels. You can be empathetic.

And that’s what economics needs to be, if we want to use it to build a better world. Have economics be about empathy and use numbers to illustrate your story. It would fit so greatly with Judy Nelson’s definition of the field.

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.