Economic and Political Rhetoric


Flipping through an old economics textbook provided a stark reminder of just how important language can be — and how quickly it changes. In the original 1948 edition of Paul Samuelson’s Economics text, he notes (p.7):

… words may be treacherous because we do not react in a neutral manner to them. Thus a man who approves of a government program to ration housing will call it a program of “social planning,” while an unsympathetic opponent will describe the same activity as “totalitarian bureaucratic regimentation.” Who can object to the former, and who could condone the latter?

Clearly the emotional content ascribed to “social planning” has changed. I’m willing to bet that neither Obama nor McCain is going to describe any of his policies as “social planning” (although each may describe the other’s policies that way).

By the way, rereading Samuelson’s first edition is an amazing experience. Samuelson’s book is easily the greatest economics textbook ever written; it was the foundational text for several generations of undergraduates.

Even today, the original 1948 edition reads astonishingly well. The introductory chapter alone is a beautifully written essay on economics and economic methodology (you can read it for free here).

And while modern textbooks typically begin with a list of the dozen or so key lessons of economics, Samuelson begins with a single claim: “The first lesson in economics is: things are often not what they seem.”



A fascinating aspect of the excerpt is that it engages in what is now almost political heresy by the second paragraph: that anyone, no matter their class or skills, can be thrown into unemployment or underemployment.

While an economist can fairly easily make that case, a significant portion of the public seems to really believe that if you want a job you can always find a job (with an important subtext that being unemployed is the fault of the unemployed).


"The greatest economics textbook ever written."

Oh really?

If he regards 'employment' as a given good thing, where does he start to examine the fundamentals?

Anyone taking the status quo as the starting point has a lot of ground to backtrack over -- once they realize the present situation is 'not where you want to start from.'


I majored in Rhetoric at Berkeley and not economics. If you want a better insight into the structural and systematic ways Americans are being "played" in this and every election, check out "The Art of Rhetoric" by Aristotle. Eminently readable and spot on. More than 2,500 years old and the original home(r) boy has still got it.


To Dave (in response to the above post): Reading almost any sociology textbook would produce a similar statement. It is mostly an American (I may be mistaken, but it's what my sociology professors have told me in the past) ideal that it always the fault of the unemployed that they are indeed ... unemployed. Or in the opposite view, that anyone, no matter what social class they are from, can achieve whatever success level they so desire.

The truth, or should I say, the data, reveals quite a different world. Still, I for one have refused to be average my whole life, so why stop being an outlier in that data now ;)


I found my degree in economics was a good preparation for my future endeavours. It demanded that I actually think and support my thoughts. Unfortunately, it was not a good entre into the real world of getting a job and I returned to school to get a business degree.

It was a shock to see what a low standard of academic rigour this course material entailed. Most courses were marked on the basis of whether one could regurgitate the material on the exam. It was only late in the educational process where one was requires to actually think and use the material that had previously been taught. Many fell down at that point.

I've always thought that if I ever had the oppertunity, I'd much rather hire a BA in economics than a business grad. Unfortunately, this is not a widely held belief. Besides, few employers want thinkers. They reserve that function for themselves!


The first and second chapter of Samulsons's textbook are absolutely the most exciting and clear beginning I've ever read.


Where can a non-economist (not an anti-economist) read a brief basic primer on economics to obtain a clearer understanding of news reports that quote various parameters such as CPI, inflation rate, etc. etc?

If possible, and if there is such a beast, I'd like to read something without political bias aside from any anti-socialism bias as we live (I think) in a capitalist one.


I've found the work of Prof. D. McCloskey in Economic Rhetoric to be particularly illuminating. A short layman's introduction to her work in this field can be found at


To Steve @ #1: As a business grad, I will offer a humble defense.

The world of business education is full of courses like those that you have experienced - teaching for the sake of exams. However, I would just as readily ascribe this to typical economics courses. Any college major, really.

The study of business is focused on application & decision-making. It revolves around entrepreneurship, financial acumen, & connecting people. The number one lesson that I took from my business education was: answer your why's before your how's. This sounds like the same lesson you learned from economics: how to support your thoughts.

Economics, as you noted, is a science of thinking, not doing. This is not to take anything away from the study of economics - it was my first choice of study in college, & I would not be as mature today if not for the lessons I took from it. But studying behavior in the vacuum of perfect information & the rational human can only have so much use in the real world.

I also wanted to note that all of my friends with economics degrees were in high demand in the job market. As I only recently graduated, perhaps this is a recent development. Hopefully this is reassuring to you.

& in acknowledgment of your opinion, I think that the young economists I know could outperform most of my business-background peers. But I hope that, when you do arrive at a position which allows you to hire recent graduates, that you do not dismiss business-types altogether. We're not so bad.