What would be a good introductory book on economics for lay persons?

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Posted by Miguel
7/05/2018 7:41 pm

A good introduction and summary of contemporary economics for lay people - not economics students.

Preferably impartial and uncontroversial. So, mainstream and orthodox leaning. No Austrian school or socialism or anything of this sort. (Not that I'm objecting to non-mainstream approaches, I find Austrian economics quite interesting for example, but I'm purposefully looking for some more mainstream and less controversial works, that is more likely to have wide acceptance)

Last edited by Miguel (7/05/2018 7:42 pm)

Posted by Jeremy Taylor
7/05/2018 10:18 pm

What kind of economics, i.e., micro or macroeconomics?

What purpose are you studying economics for? Certainly, it is a good idea, if one is interested in economics, to learn something of neoclassical. But if you are implying mainstream economics is not controversial, in the sense of without rather clear and continuing issues, that is less certain. There's a lot that has wide acceptance in mainstream economics, especially in microeconomics and especially that taught at a more general level, that is highly likely to be incorrect, or at least only apply in very limited circumstances (standard rational choice theory is a central example).

I recommend reading this thread:


As for a textbook, it probably wouldn't quite answer your specifications, but this one covers central economic concepts, giving the neoclassical views and critiquing and supplementing them where necessary:


It isn't perfect, but it both more approachable and multi-purpose than your average microeconomic textbook. It's far better than the likes of Economics in One Lesson.

Posted by UGADawg
7/06/2018 1:34 am

There really isn't any comprehensive and completely neutral introduction to economics aimed at laymen that I'm aware of; Gwartney's Common Sense Economics covers the basics pretty well, but it has a definite market-liberal bent to it. If you're willing to do more reading, the books here are going to offer you a more balanced perspective taken together. If you really want to actually learn economics, there simply is no substitute for working your way through a decent college level principles textbook. Mankiw and Cowen / Tabarrok are standard, and you can easily find webbed PDFs if you know where to look.

And take Jeremy's concerns re: mainstream econ with a grain of salt. He's correct that it's far from perfect, but he's got an unfortunate tendency to overstate his case, and he's made it fairly clear he's not really conversant or familiar with contemporary academic research (and I'm saying that with at least some expertise, given that most of my own work is in applied micro).

Posted by Jeremy Taylor
7/06/2018 2:16 am

If you mean I don't read every paper that comes out of the latest prestigious microeconomic journals, that is true enough. But it's a red herring. I am not a professional economist, true (though I am a social scientist who makes professional use of economic work), but I do have a good enough knowledge of both neoclassical and heterodox economics to realise that whether or not I have the exact knowledge of the latest publications a professional economist would has little relevance to the heart of the dispute. To dismiss critiques that show fundamental ignorance is fine. But it is quite different when it comes to informed critiques that are dismissed simply because the critic is not a credentialed member of the discipline, and doesn't have complete command of all the most esoteric knowledge and behaviours of its members, even when these are not directly relevant. The latter comes close to an intellectual caste system, not to mention closing the door firmly on most interdisciplinary scholarship. My higher degree  credentials are in political science/philosophy, but I'm interested in cross-over areas of a number of disciplines. I try to acquint myself well with them, but I don't believe I require professional qualifications in each - or even any academic ones - to do this, nor to make the kind of commentary I have here on neoclassical economics. And you haven't given specific details of my lack of knowledge and it's relevance to the problem at hand.* And, it must be said, you yourself seem to lack a deep knowledge of heterodox economics - you mistook Post-Keynesian economics with other schools of heterodox economics, you made misguided claims about what Post-Keynesians believe, and you referred to strawmen of heterodox beliefs.

I freely admit that there has been a lot of interesting and insightful work by neoclassical economists that sets aside or restricts assumptions made in the central neoclassical models, such as general equilibrium theory and standard choice theory. But what is in dispute is, one, the worth of those central models themselves; and, two, the place of  these more realistic models in neoclassical economics. That is, whether or not they are treated as special conditions, always looking up to the central models; or whether there is some more fundamental shift going on. This is particularly relevant here, given the almost complete dominance of the standard models in undergraduate economics and works for beginners.

Your position is not clear. On the one hand, you put a lot of stock in the non-standard models, as the vindication of neoclassical economics; on the other hand, you don't seem to want to admit that the problems with the standard models are that significant. I am not sure this position is entirely consistent, let alone correct.

* I probably concede too much in this paragraph, and certainly bring up more than is necessary, as you have never shown in what way I lack specific, relevant knowledge. Still, we're touching on interesting issues of each expertise and contemporary (over-) specialisation, so I felt like making a bit more of an apology.

Posted by UGADawg
7/06/2018 4:20 am

Oh, no, I don't care whether you've read the latest trendy thing. I just meant you clearly don't understand the general practice in applied academic micro, and, contrary to your assertions, I did provide several examples of this. But, to be blunt, I really don't have to: a casual perusal of any top journal will show you the kinds of boogeyman you're always going on about (e.g. perfect competition) don't show up in top micro journals except in exceedingly rare circumstances. And to be even more blunt, I'm highly skeptical you really understand any of those models at the needed level; you unintentionally outed yourself as lacking sufficient mathematical training to do so when you attempted to defend Keen's abysmal and elementary maths mistakes. If you can't read this and see what he's done wrong (which has to do with a basic intermediate micro model taught to all undergrads), then you need to start from scratch.

Last edited by UGADawg (7/06/2018 4:33 am)

Posted by Jeremy Taylor
7/06/2018 4:37 am

You are essentially repeating the position I am criticising. You make assertions that the controversial assumptions of the central models of neoclassical economics are not at the forefront of neoclassical economics today. You then use this to assert that this shows that this means we don't need to worry about these assumptions, without giving any clear and detailed outline of the role of either the assumptions, standard models, or non-standard models in neoclassical economics today. Frankly, though, I have little to add on this that I didn't say above or in the other thread.

Your claims about my mathematical knowledge border on the disingenuous. Where did I ever give any detailed defence of those specific claims, such that would allow you to legitimately make such inferences? I invite anyone to read the thread linked above. You found some aggressive neoclassical partisan who attacked Keen on this point (you quoted a blog as far as I recall, not that paper). All I did was note Keen had responded to the point and refer you to that response. Neither I, nor you weighed in with our own analysis of the disagreement. I did note, also, that the criticism in question relates to a very small part of his work, a criticism he developments himself. Most of his book is relating the work of others, like Piero Sraffa and leading neoclassical themselves. You ignored this point (repeatedly). I invite you (or I would if it wouldn't side track Miguel's even further) to post your own description of Keen's argument and it's mathematical problems, if you are desirous to avoid the impression you just used whatever you stumbled across as a convenient means of dismissing Keen.

Posted by UGADawg
7/06/2018 10:41 am

You are essentially repeating the position I am criticising. ... Frankly, though, I have little to add on this that I didn't say above or in the other thread.

Oh, the feeling is mutual, believe me. I showed why several of your key contentions were just wrong, and sometimes not even wrong, so I have no interest whatsoever in spending additional time rehashing that debate.

I just felt Miguel should know you are not a reliable source of information when talking about economics, so I pointed it out to him. That's all.

You ignored this point (repeatedly). I invite you (or I would if it wouldn't side track Miguel's even further) to post your own description of Keen's argument and it's mathematical problems

I ignored many of your points on purpose; you have a tendency to Gish gallop, i.e. you listed a bunch of superficial objections that would take at least several times the length of your posts to begin to answer satisfactorily (I tried to mitigate this somewhat by offering you papers to read, but you obviously didn't read them, so unfortunately that didn't work either). Again, I'm not going to waste time on that kind of pointless low level discussion.

Regarding Keen: this is not the hill you want to die on. He just did the basic calculus wrong, and as a result he calculated profit incorrectly, which drove his results (P / Q outcomes other than those suggested by the standard model). The other paper provides a separate example where, again, he just did the basic maths wrong. This is not a matter of interpretation. If you cannot immediately read either of the papers I've linked (the original is here; PDF warning) and understand it, then I'll take that as confirmation of my earlier worries. It's literally the economaths version of someone insisting 2 + 2 = 6.

Posted by Jeremy Taylor
7/06/2018 2:26 pm

You do the pompous arse routine very well, I must say (I say that as someone who is prone to it myself).

I suppose we should be glad at least there is some mutuality here, as I think you rely on red herrings, non sequiturs, strawmen, not to mention dodging important points and trying to hide behind an aura of your own expertise. But, like you, I see little point in rehashing that discussion, as I said all I wish to do in the original debate, and others are free to read that. A further point of mutuality is that I'd advice Miguel to take your neoclassical triumphalism with a grain of salt.

Actually, my point is not that Keen did his maths wrong or right. I was just pointing out it is disingenous to suggest that I made any deep defence of his maths. You posted a blog post that I didn't have time to read through immediately (and I was put off by the unacademic vitriol of the writer, and what seemed to me the fact you were just posting any old attack you just found on the internet). Having had the time to actually read that post, albeit cursorily, I agree he gets the calculus wrong, or seems to (I haven't had time to go through his responses in-depth). But, apart from your misrepresentation of my alleged defence of Keen on this point, I also wished to see you actually show what he did wrong. As noted, I suspect you just posted the first attacks you found on the internet, and that you yourself have no idea whether he was wrong or right. But, whatever, it doesn't actually make him wrong in the rest of the work, as this is really just a presentation of the views of others, for the most part. 

Anyway, I think this side-tracking of the Miguel's thread has gone on long enough (and I apologise to him), and both seem to have said all we wish to without repeating ourselves yet again. 

Posted by UGADawg
7/06/2018 6:21 pm

I agree about not needing to sidetrack the topic any further; if you think Auld made a mistake, feel free to PM me. Cheers.

Posted by seigneur
7/07/2018 4:30 pm

Miguel wrote:

A good introduction and summary of contemporary economics for lay people - not economics students.

Preferably impartial and uncontroversial. So, mainstream and orthodox leaning. No Austrian school or socialism or anything of this sort.

A while ago, I started the exact same quest myself. I found that there is no such thing as impartial uncontroversial economic mainstream. Or, to put it another way, the thing called mainstream in economics is a kind of ideological attitude, instead of a science.

I have confirmed this with a close friend of mine, who is a professional econometrician. He is ashamed of the state of economics as a science. His recommendation: Learn the basics of accounting and be suspicious of anything that deviates from this. When someone posits a "model" that has no connection to the basics of accounting, it's appropriate to ignore him.

The state of economics is comparable to what happened in philosophy: the fashionable mainstream used to be postmodernism in many universities, which is really a trend of art criticism, but it managed to pose as a school of philosophy for decades. In case of economics, it's been going on much longer without any proper challenge to the economists.

Edit: If your real aim is to get to know economics as actually practised, and not those boring principles of accounting (whose wider applications you would have to discover yourself with time-consuming individual work, likely arriving at something completely different than what economists are used to), then read the classics and the textbooks. None of this is uncontroversial or impartial, but that's how economics is.

Last edited by seigneur (7/07/2018 4:57 pm)


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