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I Spend Therefore I Am: How Economics Has Changed the Way We Think and Feel

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A powerful exploration of how economic thinking has infiltrated every aspect of modern life, even our understanding of who we are and what it means to be a person.      Economics is the academic success story of the 20th century, a potent force not just in markets and government, but in our everyday lives. It affects our decisions as consumers, of course, but also our educ A powerful exploration of how economic thinking has infiltrated every aspect of modern life, even our understanding of who we are and what it means to be a person.      Economics is the academic success story of the 20th century, a potent force not just in markets and government, but in our everyday lives. It affects our decisions as consumers, of course, but also our education, our health, our social lives and our family relationships. In his trenchant book, Philip Roscoe argues that the justifications of economics allow us to set aside social or moral obligations and to act instead within a limited, short-term definition of self-interest. This attitude, and these justifications, are responsible for the gravest problems we face, from global financial meltdown to environmental threat. I Spend Therefore I Am shows how our daily activities, our values, and even our understanding of what it is to be a person have been changed for the worse by economics, a discipline, he writes, "at war with the goods of life."


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A powerful exploration of how economic thinking has infiltrated every aspect of modern life, even our understanding of who we are and what it means to be a person.      Economics is the academic success story of the 20th century, a potent force not just in markets and government, but in our everyday lives. It affects our decisions as consumers, of course, but also our educ A powerful exploration of how economic thinking has infiltrated every aspect of modern life, even our understanding of who we are and what it means to be a person.      Economics is the academic success story of the 20th century, a potent force not just in markets and government, but in our everyday lives. It affects our decisions as consumers, of course, but also our education, our health, our social lives and our family relationships. In his trenchant book, Philip Roscoe argues that the justifications of economics allow us to set aside social or moral obligations and to act instead within a limited, short-term definition of self-interest. This attitude, and these justifications, are responsible for the gravest problems we face, from global financial meltdown to environmental threat. I Spend Therefore I Am shows how our daily activities, our values, and even our understanding of what it is to be a person have been changed for the worse by economics, a discipline, he writes, "at war with the goods of life."

30 review for I Spend Therefore I Am: How Economics Has Changed the Way We Think and Feel

  1. 5 out of 5

    Simon Dobson

    A fantastic exploration of the purpose and dangers of economics and its effects on society. (Full disclosure: like Philip Roscoe, I work at the University of St Andrews, and we know each other slightly.) Roscoe's main observation is of a fallacy, that economics is a descriptive endeavour. Instead, he argues that it becomes normative: it causes people to enact the behaviour that it thinks it simply describes. Introducing an economic model into a situation causes those concerned to act in accordance A fantastic exploration of the purpose and dangers of economics and its effects on society. (Full disclosure: like Philip Roscoe, I work at the University of St Andrews, and we know each other slightly.) Roscoe's main observation is of a fallacy, that economics is a descriptive endeavour. Instead, he argues that it becomes normative: it causes people to enact the behaviour that it thinks it simply describes. Introducing an economic model into a situation causes those concerned to act in accordance with the model, rather than (as we often think) the model simply exposing behaviours and motivations that were there already. Roascoe supports this hypothesis with a fabulous range of examples, from Norwegian fishermen to prostitution and internet dating. In many ways this argument is reminiscent of that made by Adam Curtis in The Trap. Mathematical and scientific models are necessarily abstractions of the agents and phenomena they describe, but when these models are used to design systems, we can find that – rather than the systems failing because the models are incomplete – the people involved respond to the systems' incentives by becoming more like the simplified abstractions. What game theory is for Curtis, economics is for Roscoe: simplifying assumptions lead to a reduction in human richness and behaviour through the power of incentives. One can read this book as a call to arms to reclaim economics (and society) by embracing these characteristics about systems and people, and to design systems with this power in mind: systems that enrich and encourage people rather than simply following the dictates of money and its tendency to further enrich the already wealthy at the expense of the poor. That would be a noble outcome for what is a fascinating piece of work

  2. 4 out of 5

    Anna

    What a great antidote to popular economics books this is. It effortlessly undermines the blithe assumptions of that oeuvre, which have come to deeply annoy me. I was immediately grabbed by the use of a famous Borges short story as a metaphor for economics, a comparison I could hardly be expected to resist. (The story in question is 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius'.) The main issue I take with 'I Spend Therefore I Am' is its insufficient length - I was left wanting to know more about, amongst other t What a great antidote to popular economics books this is. It effortlessly undermines the blithe assumptions of that oeuvre, which have come to deeply annoy me. I was immediately grabbed by the use of a famous Borges short story as a metaphor for economics, a comparison I could hardly be expected to resist. (The story in question is 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius'.) The main issue I take with 'I Spend Therefore I Am' is its insufficient length - I was left wanting to know more about, amongst other things, the Chicago School’s exploits in Chile, Islamic approaches to credit & debt, and how neo-liberal economics infiltrated UK politics. Also, the section critiquing economic analysis of prostitution never raised one obvious point; that the assumptions being made were not only unrealistic but also deeply sexist. Other than that, I enjoyed this book and found it a lucid, interesting analysis of the rarely-questioned dominance of economic thought. It tied in with other books I’d read, funnily enough including Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, which talks of market norms changing the way people relate to one another. Nonetheless, this felt like a new angle on the issue and one which directly targeted the plethora of graphs, tables, and equations with which economics justifies itself. The range of case studies used is somewhat idiosyncratic but all are interesting. Online dating, organ donation, and credit ratings are all discussed. Chapter 6, ‘The Price of a Life’, covers the dangerous concept of Value of Statistical Life (VSL). Although it’s not specifically mentioned in the book, VSL is pernicious in relation to climate change policy-making. It ends up pricing lives in the developing world well below those in the developed, as it is based on forgone income. This economic approach allows the debate on greenhouse gas mitigation to be talked of in terms of money losses, when these figures conceal large numbers of additional deaths to be expected as a result of rising temperatures. This book notes the dangers of fungibility, in this case enabling trade-offs between large numbers of deaths in the developing world and slightly reduced GDP in the developed world. This approach is morally reprehensible, not to mention ineffective at precipitating decisions on climate change policy. As Roscoe comments, the Stern Report opened up climate change policy to an endless, technical wrangle about the economically optimal level of mitigation. Unfortunately this looks set to continue beyond the point that catastrophic climate change can be averted. It is thus clear that this book and I have a shared mindset. On many pages I was delighted to find an articulate expression of some thought I’d struggled to put into my own words. Here is an example: ’But the real crux of my argument is a third point: economics makes the world it describes. The very foundation of this calculation, the notion of a world where what we should do is tied to measures of wealth, where all our decisions are most properly addressed in the language of social welfare and returns on capital, is a product of economics, of a long process of historical and social adjustment to a set of theoretical laws. Economics and our contemporary society are deeply, irretrievably intertwined; that is the fount of economic power, the reason that economics explains so well. I’m glad to have read this book whilst also reading The Making of the English Working Class as the two are bookends. Thompson’s book explains the upheaval and suffering occasioned by the initial implementation of the factory system and laissez-faire economic thought on the English population. ‘I Spend, Therefore I Am’ demonstrates the extent to which this ethos has become accepted and internalised, to the point that it is seen as objectively right and inevitable. Economics must be seen in its historic context, not as a timeless set of immutable laws. I feel sullied for using an econometric methodology in part of my PhD, frankly. I will include a detailed critique of it, of course, but in environmental policy fields flawed econometric methodologies predominate. Hopefully not for much longer.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sean Goh

    This book makes you take a look at all the water we've been immersed in for so long we didn't know it was there. Where water = efficiency as the sine qua non, as espoused by economics. TL;DR: Economics claims to be merely descriptive, but just as how a label defines the scope of one's consideration, so the economic measures we prize so highly end up shaping our priorities towards 'efficient allocation of scarce resources' (Central Problem of Economics hurhur), even if sometimes there are better, This book makes you take a look at all the water we've been immersed in for so long we didn't know it was there. Where water = efficiency as the sine qua non, as espoused by economics. TL;DR: Economics claims to be merely descriptive, but just as how a label defines the scope of one's consideration, so the economic measures we prize so highly end up shaping our priorities towards 'efficient allocation of scarce resources' (Central Problem of Economics hurhur), even if sometimes there are better, alternative goals to pursue (especially in the arenas of healthcare, education and love). Caveat: A bit drily written. Still the underlying message is worth ploughing through for. ___ Economic transactions are the ones in which these chains of reciprocity are broken: the swapping of money severs, rather than reinforces, all extraneous ties. With purchase ownership is transferred, and all claims of previous labour, time, and entitlement are set aside. Housing shows markets doing what they always do, left unsupervised: transferring wealth from those who have little to those who have more. Thatcher's reforms drove a slow transformation of the house from one category- a home, pedestrian, cheap, often state owned, viewed in terms of its function and social benefits of safety, security and dwelling- to another- an article of private property expected to generate profits and viewed in terms of its economic return. Our modern economy of industrial capitalism emerged as the outcome of deliberate innovations in law: the abolition of assistance for the poor, the construction of robust property rights over land and capital, together with the technological and organisational innovations of the industrial revolution, and the displacement and near starvation of an entire agrarian population to transform a rural peasantry into a source of industrial labour. The free economy is no less a product of careful organisation than the command economy. What differs is the intent of the regulation: the neo-liberal regulates towards a free market rather than away from it. Markets are particularly good at stimulating competition and pursuing efficient solutions to allocation problems, and so competition and efficiency become the prime measures of state performance. We are so habituated by these criteria that we fail to notice all the other things we might be doing: providing justice, looking after weaker, vulnerable or impoverished members of society, stimulating creativity or pursuing equality, to name a few. An economics of everything tests on three key assumptions: 1. People are self-interested and respond to incentives. 2. Fundamental individualism: the idea that people take their own decisions, individually responding to the incentives around them. 3. Economics merely describes. Economics and the world it describes are tied together by obscure, yet powerful loops of feedback and interaction. The argument that inaccurate assumptions are useful has allowed economics to perform a useful sleight of hand: to rid itself off the obligation to base its theories on observation of the world around it yet at the same time claim the utmost standards of scientific rigour. It is the label that renders us blind to the circumstances of a commodity's production. It frames our decision, guiding us as to what matters and what does not. It is ironic and unfortunate that credit scoring turns out to be much less inclusive than its supporters had hoped. They rely on records of regular salary payments and existing credit obligations. Affluent and financially aware individuals, with good financial discipline, can instantly gain access to credit. Those who are off the grid, on the other hand, who have never been steadily employed and who lack a history of credit repayments are permanently excluded from participation in the new financial utopia. Forcing students to take on huge financial commitment for an education pushes them towards the few areas where they perceive they can be sure of making enough money to repay their debts, such as banking and law. The resulting surplus of lawyers and bankers means that many will be underemployed and, more importantly, all our talent will be in the wrong place. When it comes to managing risk, cost benefit analysis can only tell us what to do if we have already decided that what matters most is maximising a nation's wealth. Willingness to pay models such as the value of a statistical life base policy costings on the assumption that we are best placed to calculate our own tolerance of risk. But they are blind to the impact of necessity. Willingness to pay is constrained by ability to pay. How we choose to allocate healthcare funding speaks directly to our understanding of what healthcare is all about: what goods do we expect it to deliver? It is much easier to communicate cost savings than it is to demonstrate intangible factors such as compassion or care, and if we insist upon an environment where every single factor is ranked and weighed, attention will soon enough gravitate towards efficiency. Paying for blood donation appears to have a crowding out effect, seeming to change the supply rather than increase it. The quality of suppliers drops, and monitoring costs go up while total supply is unaffected. When Friedman days economics explains, be means that it takes predictions and that we can test those predictions further. When the popular literature of economics claims to explain the world, the word is deployed in this sense: economics does not understand, but predicts in ever increasing detail. For most other people however explanation is a process which gives an insight into the rich and varied relationships of cause and effect in the world. In sum relationship science tells us the following: find a kind-hearted partner, one who excites you in a hearty, primal way, and stick with them. Share experiences and be prepared to compromise. Change. Dating science, on the other hand, suggests almost the opposite: find a partner who likes the same sort of things as you, and who has the physical characteristics that you usually find attractive. Get the person who is right for you as you are now. Do not change, and do not expect primal fireworks. Leave the whole problem of compatibility to the experts. Once the discussion is dragged onto economic terrain it can only be settled with calculators and spread sheets. Economic reasoning is not objective: not in the sense of having recourse to some higher scientific truth, nor in the sense of treating everyone the same. Economics makes the world it describes. The very foundation of this calculation, the notion of a world where what we should do is tied to measures of wealth, where all our decisions are most properly addressed in the language of the social welfare and returns on capital, is a product of economics, of a long process of historical and social adjustment to a set of theoretical laws. The historian of science Ted Porter has argued that cost-benefit grew in popularity throughout the twentieth century as a means of building trust in bureaucratic administration. Numbers had the appeal of fairness and scientific objectivity. But calculations such as investment returns or the VSL are socially and temporally specific artefacts. They are made, and we should be able to understand and, should we wish, to dispute that making. When we understand the world as if people respond to incentives in a self interested, instrumental manner, then we build institutions which make people respond in such a manner. If the central question of economic analysis is the trade off of costs and benefits, then the central virtue of economics is efficiency. It is an explicitly moral claim, a statement about how the world should be: if we can do more with less by following a particular course of action, we are morally obliged to act that way. Humans are not distinctive because we truck, barter and exchange. We are distinctive because we can treat each other as persons, distinctive in our ability to empathise with, commit to and understand one another, and to build relationships that are strong and mutually nourishing. Through its systematic assertion of self-interest, economics has undone our capacity for relationship; in an age of unprecedented wealth, we are unhappier than ever before. This is the true cost of economics.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Shishir

    Economics of exchange, barter and values now firmly in the hands of “money’. While it is a vast improvement from the old days of barter and exchange it diminishes the human element of reciprocity obligations, relationships, love, generosity, emotions and altruism. Such is the power of neo liberal Economics, mandating exploitation, consumerism, that we know the price of everything and value of nothing. Values and worth confused. Economics rules our Political thinking as well as our personal inter Economics of exchange, barter and values now firmly in the hands of “money’. While it is a vast improvement from the old days of barter and exchange it diminishes the human element of reciprocity obligations, relationships, love, generosity, emotions and altruism. Such is the power of neo liberal Economics, mandating exploitation, consumerism, that we know the price of everything and value of nothing. Values and worth confused. Economics rules our Political thinking as well as our personal interactions. Economics has helped society in many ways, but there are darker sides that need consideration. (Flawed logic - marginal utility / opportunity cost / diminishing returns). While democracy and equality sound very fair many weaknesses arise as garnished by Utilitarian thinking. Thus the ‘cost benefit’ and ‘self interest’ argument in decision making often clouds the moral obligations required by a democratic fair and just society. Real life is a lot more complicated than what is suggested by self-referential ‘rules’ of economics. It is NO science. Many examples cited above, of unintended painful consequences. Modelling and statistics used in economics, flawed since it is not a material science. Humans do not react in a pattern of logic. Our decisions are emotion based. Economic rational dissociated from ethical living (oughts’ obligations dignity and duties) Social objectives missed by this new religion of Economics.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Becca Pelly-fry

    Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, must read this book immediately. It is a critical look at the way our 'civilised' society has organised itself away from the essence of being human. Fascinating and important. Read it! Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, must read this book immediately. It is a critical look at the way our 'civilised' society has organised itself away from the essence of being human. Fascinating and important. Read it!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Bill Taylor

    Economics isn't a science in the way that physics or chemistry explain and define scientific laws. It's a social science trying to understand, describe, and ultimately predict man's behaviour. It doesn't just explain how, it then proceeds to change the way we behave and hence outcomes of economic activity. This is the central message from the book. Roscoe is as much a philosopher as an economist which allows him to plot the progress of man into what he calls 'economic man'. So the overall theme o Economics isn't a science in the way that physics or chemistry explain and define scientific laws. It's a social science trying to understand, describe, and ultimately predict man's behaviour. It doesn't just explain how, it then proceeds to change the way we behave and hence outcomes of economic activity. This is the central message from the book. Roscoe is as much a philosopher as an economist which allows him to plot the progress of man into what he calls 'economic man'. So the overall theme of the book is that we are in a continuous process of dehumanisation by applying economic theory such as supply and demand, and cost benefit analysis to everyday life. Early on he uses an example of a prostitute varying the price of her product and the nature of her market offering to determine which works best for her. She has taken on economic principles to affect the nature of her work. There are many case studies in the book which show how the application of market principles has affected behaviour and produced unwanted unintended outcomes. EU fishing quotas, education, NHS for example. Other examples of the dehumanising effects of automation are credit scores replacing trust and honesty, online dating codifying Cupid's arrow turning prospective partners into a list of attributes. See recent research showing how people are abusing others using Tinder whilst already in a relationship. A good read overall, documenting the progress of economics and its effects on people, but eventually running out of ideas on what can be done to reverse the trend. The usual small scale activities are mentioned, local money, extending democratic control etc, but the author himself admits these don't really address the issue. It's all about competition and the never ending quest for efficiency and profit. It's okay as long as the benefits can be shared out to reduce inequality, but that doesn't seem possible in today’s world. What's needed is a mindset change but that is unlikely to come about until we really start to feel the effects of the big issues like climate change and automation / AI.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lynn

    I found this to be terribly depressing. The author demonstrates how our society has organised everything - from credit, medical care and housing to education and personal relationships - to be understood through coldly rational cost-benefit analysis, and the degree to which this has already destroyed community and even humanity. Unfortunately, the only solutions he proposes depend on our ability to take back control of exchange from huge international corporations that exist to make profit and c I found this to be terribly depressing. The author demonstrates how our society has organised everything - from credit, medical care and housing to education and personal relationships - to be understood through coldly rational cost-benefit analysis, and the degree to which this has already destroyed community and even humanity. Unfortunately, the only solutions he proposes depend on our ability to take back control of exchange from huge international corporations that exist to make profit and couldn't care less that they're shaping a world full of isolated, unhappy people, a world in which wealth and power inevitably flow from those who have little to those who have much. He does not offer suggestions on how this might be done - perhaps because we're long past a point where such a thing is possible.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    This gem of a book covers a little economic history, some philosophy and a conclusion that states that modern day economics alters ourselves and our society. Economics artificially makes a framework wherein individuals are merely consumers - without thought to our character, our relationships or the intricacies of our communities. I was satisfied that he gave some examples of how things can be different - although they are not easy to implement. However, just being aware how I am being manipulat This gem of a book covers a little economic history, some philosophy and a conclusion that states that modern day economics alters ourselves and our society. Economics artificially makes a framework wherein individuals are merely consumers - without thought to our character, our relationships or the intricacies of our communities. I was satisfied that he gave some examples of how things can be different - although they are not easy to implement. However, just being aware how I am being manipulated allows me to think and consider and, hopefully, be a better human being. Highly recommended.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Wilde Sky

    This book contains a discussion on economics. I found this book incredibly dry (like an academic research paper but without any details) and there seemed to be no convincing original argument – isn’t it obvious that life is just a series of negotiations / transactions (over love / money / status / etc.)?

  10. 5 out of 5

    Cliff Chew

    Introduces interesting perspectives for an Economics graduate.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Yusuf

  12. 5 out of 5

    Dan

  13. 5 out of 5

    Thom

  14. 4 out of 5

    Estella Kuchta

  15. 5 out of 5

    Pham Anh

  16. 5 out of 5

    Hikmat

  17. 4 out of 5

    Hassan Javed

  18. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  19. 4 out of 5

    Reka Paul

  20. 5 out of 5

    Wen Xiang

  21. 4 out of 5

    Shan Yang

  22. 5 out of 5

    John

  23. 4 out of 5

    DBecks

  24. 4 out of 5

    Alaric Seah

  25. 4 out of 5

    Ann

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jakov Jandric

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy Williams

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy Kahn

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kalina

  30. 5 out of 5

    Hashaam Javed

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