Welcome to Economics From the Top Down. My name is Blair Fix. I’m a political economist based in Toronto. I spend my time thinking about the future of humanity, and how we can create economic theory that’s relevant to real-world problems. In this blog, I tell you about what I’m learning. You can read the academic version of my work here and here.
I write about economics, but I don’t consider myself an ‘economist’. I’m a social scientist who’s skeptical of much of the economics discipline. As an outsider, I feel free to point out the problems in the field. To get a sense for how I feel about mainstream economics, read these posts:
I’m a generalist by constitution and have spent my life dancing between disciplines. I began my studies as an engineering student, but soon quit to study music — jazz of all things. For most of my early twenties, I was a professional musician. But over time, I realized that I disliked the musician lifestyle. I liked hanging out in libraries, not clubs.
So I took a hiatus from music and worked as a substitute teacher. During this time, I discovered the Feynman Lectures on Physics. I found Richard Feynman’s approach to science so infectious that I decided to become a high school physics teacher. I went to teachers college and landed a job teaching math.
My path in life seemed set. Except that along the way I discovered economics. Or rather, I discovered the embarrassment that is the discipline of mainstream economics. In my spare time, I was reading books by Steve Keen, Herman Daly, E.K. Hunt, and David Korten. These authors highlighted the absurdities that pass for scientific knowledge in economics.
Discovering that mainstream economics was nonsense was a revelation to me. In physics, making a scientific contribution meant filling cracks in existing knowledge. But if economics was bankrupt, I realized that you were free to rethink the whole field. As a generalist who’d chafed under disciplinary authority my whole life, this seemed like a job with my name on it. I decided, as Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan put it, to give economics a “radical Ctrl-Alt-Del”.
So I went to grad school determined to create a new approach to economics. Luckily, I found a safe space to do this in the Environmental Studies program at York University. One of the reasons that economics nonsense gets perpetuated is because neoclassical economists have a stranglehold in academia. If you take economics at a university you’re going to learn neoclassical economics (much like medieval theologians had to learn church dogma). Doing ‘environmental studies’ gave me a way to study political economy outside of an economics department. I eventually got a PhD in Environmental Studies. (If you have few hours to kill, you can read my dissertation here.) Along the way, I wrote a book called Rethinking Economic Growth Theory from a Biophysical Perspective.
So what am I doing now? Writing this blog, for one. I’m also continuing my research outside academia. (You can find a list of my peer-reviewed writing here.) Unfortunately, the academic job market is ridiculously competitive, so I find myself again working as a substitute teacher. But I don’t mind. I do science because I love the search for truth, not the career payoffs.
What is ‘economics from the top down’?
You might be wondering about the name of this blog. What is ‘economics from the top down’? Let’s begin with what it’s not. It’s not about supply-side economics, which is sometimes called ‘top-down’ economics.
Instead, I use the phrase ‘economics from the top down’ to mean two things. First, it’s a philosophical approach to studying human society. It’s an alternative to the ‘bottom-up’ approach that’s most common in economics. In the bottom-up approach, you first postulate simple principles of human behavior. You then use these ‘microfoundations’ to explain the behavior of groups of people.
I think this approach is misguided. It’s the equivalent of trying to explain individual behavior using postulates about how cells behave. It’s not that the bottom-up approach is impossible — clearly individuals interact to create group behavior (just as human cells interact to create individual behavior). The problem is that this bottom-up approach is far beyond our present abilities. We have no universal theory of human behavior (just as we have no universal theory of how cells behave).
The alternative — what I call the ‘top-down’ approach — is to treat groups as a unit of analysis. We study the behavior of human groups as important in its own right. If you follow the work of David Sloan Wilson, you’ll know that biologists are starting to think this way. Mainstream economists, however, have yet to catch on.
The second meaning of ‘economics from the top down’ has to do with hierarchy. When you look inside human groups, you inevitably find that they use hierarchy as an organizing principle. In a hierarchy, power flows from the ‘top down’. How humans organize into hierarchies is a major theme of this blog. For examples of my research on hierarchy, read these posts:
If you’re not in the mood for reading, the videos below summarize my research on hierarchy.
I love to hear from you
All of the posts on this blog are open for comments. If you like a post, if it leaves you with questions, or if you think I’m off the mark, feel free to leave a comment. You can also contact me directly here.
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