Have you been feeling down? Here’s my suggestion. Throw yourself into economics: news, theory, podcasts, articles, anything. It’s an enormous source of joy.
Here’s my thinking.
It’s been a grueling political season. Yes, there’s probably never been a time when that sentence wasn’t true. But it seems like these times are worse, simply because the President’s opinions are so frequent, frenetic, and fickle, and everyone responds in kind. It’s a huge industry that lives off your attention span, your sense of civic obligation, and the perception that really important things are happening.
It’s true this industry generates a kind of nonstop prattle that seems vaguely important. Get roped into this sector and you end up being buffeted this way and that by an information stream that may or may not have anything to do with the actual functioning of the world. What’s more, there is literally nothing you can do about it either way, which is why political obsessions end up making people feel powerless and generally depressed.
Unplug from Politics
Fortunately, we are no longer stuck with a single news path. We have infinite websites we can go to, podcasts to download, books to read or listen on audio, movies we can watch, commentators and Twitter accounts we can follow. It takes some effort to move from one path to another. You have to change your habits and preferences. But it matters. The information that you elect to push into your brain affects your emotional outlook on the world.
Let’s say you just push politics aside. What are you missing? Far less than you believe. From this year alone, I would estimate that 90% of political news is not really related to anything that actually affects your life and impacts on any real decisions you need to make.
Trump’s amazing call for a trade war is an example. It sounded terrifying but, as the weeks have progressed, it turns out that there have been so many exceptions and clarifications that the threat seems more like fiction than reality (at least we can hope so). Meanwhile, he now has fodder for campaign speeches for years. No one needs to check the reality because, in politics, the illusions are what matter.
Look, I’m speaking from experience here. After college, and my first job reporting from the Senate Press Gallery, I generally dropped politics out of disgust and went back to my first love of economics, technology, and the history of ideas. And so it remained for a very long time until the last few years, during which time I was drawn back in. It wasn’t an entire waste: I read deeply in the history of political doctrine to find the roots of the rise of identitarianism on the left and right. I learned and shared my discoveries far and wide.
But this turn started a dangerous and addictive habit of following the ups and downs of appointments, Congressional leadership, speeches and blather from podiums, commentators on highly politicized news networks, Youtube debates, and so on. Once you start doing all of this, you are actually crowding out real information that actually matters.
So what’s the path to breaking the habit? How can you get back in touch with reality without losing track of the exciting pace of life? The answer is economics, and I would include here the business news, financial markets, and technology news (technology used to be called the “practical arts”).
If economics has a defining characteristic it is that it is rooted in the existing realities of life. It reflects what Thomas Sowell calls a constrained vision of the possible. This is why Peter Boettke has emphasized (in his wonderful book) that economics is a special kind of social science. It is not unhinged. It is bound by the possible.
The beginning of economic wisdom is becoming aware of the ubiquity of scarcity, and the concomitant consciousness of human choice as the desideratum of life.
Which is to say: we cannot have it all, so there have to be systems in place that allocate, apportion, and create new wealth in order that human needs can be met. Economics is the study of how precisely that comes to happen in the world. In this way, economics is inherently disciplined and intellectually constrained. That comes as a relief in times when wild-eyed and often malicious daydreamers from the left and right are relentlessly pushing their visions for how the world should work, regardless of how it actually does work.
You don’t need a book of high theory to discover how intellectually liberating economics can be. You can follow the business pages. You can watch technologies come and go. You can see companies rise and fall. You can observe nations growing richer and poorer. The subject of economics can be explored through the business news. This draws you into economic theory as the explanatory template to come to understand cause and effect in the social world.
To put it more simply, economics deals with reality as it affects everyday life. Dealing with reality has brought the discipline no shortage of grief through the years. Economists (good ones, anyway) are forever telling government officials about the actual effects of their policies.
Restricting imports is not going to boost productivity.
Spending above than your means is dangerous because it will have to be paid for in some way, some day.
Controlling prices creates artificial shortages and surpluses that delay market clearing.
Regulation doesn’t make products and services better or safer; it only diminishes competition and short circuits consumer control.
Manipulating the money supply doesn’t generate wealth; it distorts signaling and creates booms, busts, and inflation.
All of that is bad news for politicians. But contrary to Thomas Carlyle, economics is not the dismal science. It is about the logic of wealth creation, opportunity, and a better life for all. And by the way, when Carlyle made that crack, he was speaking about how the English economists of the time believed that slavery could be abolished completely and humankind would flourish as never before. He found the very prospect to be outrageous and grim. The economists were right: the world can be liberated.
It’s more than that actually. The realities of economics are a uniting force in the world. Everyone deals with them. Everyone struggles for a better life, no matter your “politics.” In fact, Ludwig von Mises was searching around for a title for his book that came to be called “Human Action.” It was a good choice but the title he initially preferred (but the publisher rejected) was pretty wonderful: “Mankind In Search of a Better Life.”
That’s it exactly!
Now, you might say that the business news is not really economics, certainly not rigorous theory. And that’s right. But at least the topic is interesting and truly matters. So I’ve switched my news sources. I find myself listening mostly to my Google home assistant for news in the morning. I used to keep the defaults of National Public Radio because that’s what smart people do, or so we are told. But then I learned: there are literally hundreds of choices about what you can listen to.
In this case, I’ve reset my audible news flow entirely, drawing mainly from The Economist, APM Marketplace and Morning Report, Blockchain Daily, TechCrunch, the Wall Street Journal, and so on. In web reading, I stick with these main sources, including and especially AIER. For deeper reading, few resources are as powerfully compelling at Dierdre McCloskey’s trilogy on the bourgeoisie. Also, it is surprising just how compelling Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is even today. If liberal commercial society has to have a bible, we could do far worse.
This is not to disparage other alternatives to politics. Music, religion, literature, movies, nature, the gym, and so on, these are all fabulous. But how about the tactical truth about how we actually live? Economics is lovely because it unlocks the great mysteries of the material world: why we thrive, why we experience progress, how we can build prosperity and peace, the path toward making the best out of our limited time in this world, and leave something better for the next generation. Knowing and contemplating these things is indeed a source of immense joy.