The invasion of economic thinking

We are falsely reducing everything to economics

Sometime before each semester begins, Vanderbilt students are given an appointed time and date to register for classes in YES. On this day, we wake up just before 8 a.m., open our computers, log into YES, and hover our cursors over the enroll button so that at the very second the clock strikes eight, we submit all of the classes in our cart—

Stop right there. You probably didn’t think twice about the word “cart” did you? The cart, of course, refers to a shopping cart. What does the use of the cart in YES imply? The reduction of classes into a mere product?

Yes. In effect, we are paying for classes through tuition—but is that how we really want to think about education? Is it just a business transaction? This is an example of the use of economic language or thinking in places where it need not apply, falsely reducing institutions and social relations to economics.

Word choice (cart, in this case) is just a symptom of the deeper problem of this sort of thinking. It  creates the illusion that economics is the bedrock, and not a facet of all—if not a large part—of society. Consequently, it misguides our thinking and approach to many situations.

The political arena is perhaps where this misguided thinking is most obvious. Economic views, a large portion of political identity in this country, can make the difference between a libertarian and a Democrat. Many members of my family, and for a time myself, put the greatest weight of a person’s political value on their economic views.

Economic thought processes have made their way into nearly every facet of life on Vanderbilt’s campus. It is not uncommon for social interactions to operate in the logic of the market. Think about our org fairs, or an organization tabling at Commons or Rand. Day by day, these common occurrences grow less distinguishable from glorified sales pitches. Every time I fail to avoid awkward eye contact with someone at a table, I begrudgingly nod my head for a few minutes before I invariably say “no thanks,” as I tend to do whenever someone tries to sell me something, like kiosk workers at shopping malls. Why do we even use the term “sell” anyway, when salesmanship is just a form of persuasion that should only apply to the world of markets?

For those still unconvinced of how pervasive this phenomenon is, there is always one example glaring us right in the face: social media. Each user of social media is a firm in the business of accumulating capital in the form of internet points—likes, upvotes, retweets, whatever—accumulated by users selling their products—their posts—and consuming those of others with a button press.

That said, one doesn’t have to look too far to find social media used explicitly for the world of markets. Every massive Facebook group or GroupMe that is formed by students eventually becomes an advertising platform for various organizations or even actual businesses. It becomes only an extension of the experiences at the tables that I, and many others, end up avoiding.

This is a shame, because many groups and organizations do great things on this campus. But the fact of the matter is that I don’t want to be sold something. To rephrase the question I asked earlier: Do we really want to think about our role in organizations as a series of business interactions? Shouldn’t what we do in organizations and in the classroom have intrinsic value that drives people, rather than having to have meaning sold as a product?

In sum, the pervasiveness of our economic life has had a negative impact on how we view and participate in various interactions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not planning to flinch every time someone uses the word “sell” or sneer at every economic analogy. But I want to make sure we are keeping things in proper perspective. What might be good business practice is not necessarily good social practice. Economics does, after all, assume that all parties are only self-interested. And if we were all like that in real life, all the time, the world would be much worse. One could argue we are acting too self-interested as it is.

Dominic Rottman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at dominic.t.rottman@vanderbilt.edu.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Selling is persuasion, as you say, but is that bad? If you ask a girl to marry her, and she isn’t sure, are you going to try to sell her on the idea? Would you accentuate all of your good qualities and reasons why marrying you would be in her best interest, and try to minimize your negative qualities and the reasons not to marry you? Would you disparage the competition? Or would you say to yourself, “Love is not a market transaction, so I wouldn’t want to sully our relationship with anything that remotely resembled “salesmanship.” If she decides not to marry me, I’m happy as long as she’s happy.”

  2. I like this article. The way that we think and the words that we use do impact our decisions and actions. While economics has an important place in society, I would not want it to be the “bedrock” of social or personal relationships. I think Mr. Rottman has an insightful point.

  3. People use this form of language to place an idea in a more conceptual way for most…to make some sort of connection. Money it seems or the economy seems to get to the hearts of most albeit negative or positive. What you’re looking for or want for others seems to be a more formal approach which at times can be boring. So a play on words can catch one’s attention.

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