Last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, activist Greta Thunberg made headlines for her impassioned speech urging leaders to address the climate crisis through global divestment from fossil fuels. And while to many listeners her fiery appeal only cemented her superstar-activist status, Steven Mnuchin ’85 — U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, former investment banker, executive producer of the Lego Movie (2014) and former publisher of the News — had an epic clapback for Ms. Thunberg! “After she goes and studies economics in college, she can come back and explain that to us,” Mnuchin retorted. “Is she the chief economist? Who is she? I’m confused.”
Good one, Steve! No, Greta Thunberg is not the chief economist, nor should she be. But Mnuchin’s comments illustrate a larger pattern, one that plagues circles of power and knowledge in general, and economics especially: the use of prestige as a prerequisite to any criticism of the status quo.
It’s gatekeeping on a societal level. Essentially, he’s saying: oh, you love the Earth so much? Name three of her songs. Alternatively: you love the Earth so much and want to tell the global political and economic elite — who by-and-large benefit from its destruction — to not destroy it? Get a Ph.D. in economics first.
All too often, pundits and politicians weaponize economics as the ultimate barrier to entry of criticism for any facet of our society. They do it in two primary ways: brutal simplicity and paralyzing complexity.
It’s so simple — and thus so true — that you can draw it on a napkin — or so goes the story of the Laffer curve, the “theory” behind trickle-down economics. Question any of the orthodoxies, and you get the other side: “it’s so complicated, you’ll never get it,” one might hear before a pundit rattles off a list of seven-syllable terms.
Much of this weaponization ultimately misrepresents the field it claims to cite, making TV-time talking points rooted in Econ 101-level analysis. But even within academia, pure economics isn’t innocent either. “Pure economics” isn’t exactly pure.
Knowledge is shaped by power. Economics, the dismal science concerned with the distribution of scarce resources (like the world’s wealth), is particularly malleable. Over the last forty years, a handful of right-wing billionaires have bankrolled economics departments, court benches and think tanks in pursuit of deregulation, “free market principles” and an objective, scholarly legitimization of their endless pursuit of profit.
In 1935, The Walgreen Foundation donated $10 million to the University of Chicago to promote “American values” and thwart alleged collegiate communism. The “Chicago school” of economics would go on to produce some of the premier free market apostles of the 20th century. Foundations like the Scaife, John M. Olin and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundations have spent the last half-century continuing the tradition. In 2016 alone, the Koch foundation gave $50 million in earmarked funds to nearly 250 U.S. colleges and universities. Yale has 243 books in its library published by the Cato Institute, a right-wing think tank co-founded by Koch. It has 183 more from the Heritage Foundation. 911 more from the American Enterprise Institute.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling the Yale economics department (who have dominion over my Econ degree status) a bunch of shills. My point is closer to the opposite. Mnuchin’s comments — and the dilettantish weaponization of “economics” in order to maintain the status quo, to legitimize inequality and to continue destroying the environment — ultimately insults the rigorous, brilliant, forward-thinking work of economists everywhere.
Economics is often cited as being full of absolute truths and nothing-but-the-truths. But no self-respecting economist would tell you that. In fact, economists love to tout how much they don’t know. For stock-picking advice, “don’t ask an economist,” says Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw. What caused the financial crisis? “Don’t ask an economist,” says macroeconomist Mark Thoma. Want to predict a recession? Then you’re in luck. “The stock market has forecast nine of the last five recessions,” economist Paul Samuelson famously joked.
But economists do know a lot — given some assumptions. These assumptions provide boundaries to models. They’re often unrealistic, sometimes downright false. But economics still provides windows into truth, just not the entire truth.
One thing economists really know is that climate change is real, that it’s a problem and that it’s pressing. It’s a non-question outside of self-righteous circles of profit and punditry.
I considered reaching out to a real economist for a quote that would carry my next point, but I decided to just say it myself — because I, you and anyone can: you don’t need a Ph.D. to understand that climate change is a problem.
You don’t need a degree in economics to see that income inequality is a problem, that people shouldn’t go bankrupt because they got sick or that the idea of “lunch debt” for kids is unconscionable. You don’t need a degree or a Ph.D. or the slightest bit of prestigious pedigree to recognize that the world is hurting and there are tangible ways to make it better.
Being able to navigate an unjust world is not a prerequisite to recognizing its injustice. Not only does it paralyze anyone who isn’t a member of the rich and famous from criticizing the rich and famous, but it denies and devalues the insights obtained precisely by not being a plutocrat. I’m sure that if he put his mind to it, Mnuchin could wrap his head around Thunberg’s point, but — as Upton Sinclair put it — “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
This is part of why places like Yale earn such a bad rap. When the elites, smarmy and superbly wealthy, reach down from their ivory tower to pat everyone else on the head and tell them “get a degree, then we can talk,” why would anyone feel anything but disdain?
Yes, Thunberg should not be the secretary of the treasury. But, then again, neither should Steve Mnuchin. You don’t need a solution to point out a problem. Anyone who says you do is engaging in bad-faith societal gaslighting, asserting that you need a degree to see the bear that has your head in its jaws.
ERIC KREBS is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .