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We need to re-examine what we teach economics students – Prof. Garba

It was amazing hearing a professor of economics almost condemning the discipline during your inaugural lecture for the field’s inability to provide solutions to poverty,…

It was amazing hearing a professor of economics almost condemning the discipline during your inaugural lecture for the field’s inability to provide solutions to poverty, unemployment and instability. Can you share with us what informed your thinking?
As you pointed out, the topic of the inaugural lecture is ‘Economics: A Discipline in Need of a New Foundation’. It summarised my experience as an economist since my first contact with economics in secondary school in 1976 up to the date of the inaugural lecture, Wednesday 5th March, 2014.
The focus of it is my understanding of economics in terms of the purpose of economics and some of the commitments that were built in the foundation of the economics; commitment about metaphysics, epistemology and commitment about ethics.
I looked at the focus of the economics as a discipline and what is meant to achieve at various levels; at the levels of academics, policy and vested interest. The purpose was to begin a debate on how to understand the foundation of economics so that we can re-examine what we are teaching the students to be sure that we are not mis-educating or indoctrinating them. Once we are able to do that, we need to be sure that the kind of policies we are recommending are not policies that are misdirecting government and, therefore, producing disastrous result for nations globally. My emphasis was that economics is in crisis as a discipline and the global economics is in crisis. The crisis in global economics is far more obvious than the crisis in economics. We know that since 2007 many countries have had economic crisis. The US, Japan, Europe Zone and others had gone into deep recession as a result of some of the recommendations and policies that have been suggested by economists. We can visibly see the global financial crisis in terms of low growth, increasing unemployment, especially among youths across the world, and the increase in governments’ indebtedness across the world. We can also see so many volatilities and instabilities that are taking place across the world. There is also the spill over of political instability and insecurity across the world. This is why I thought it is important to start a debate at the intellectual level to re-examine the foundations of the discipline.

Somebody may be tempted to ask what informed your thinking in advocating for re-examining the outputs of economics as a discipline; have you sensed that the foundation of economics was built wrongly that is why it is not able to solve the Nigeria’s and other countries economic problems?
Two questions guided my stance. The first question is what is the meaning of life? And the second question is what the purpose of life is? The question of what is the meaning of life; I found out that life has meaning when you are able to fulfill duties to your family, to my students, since I am a teacher, duties to society and duties to the nation. In the hierarchy there is order, but when I came to economics I realised that the order there is self first. I realised that all that human mind and senses can do is to produce knowledge. However, you need more than knowledge for virtuous world. You need wisdom and understanding, which are high levels cognisance than knowledge. Knowledge is not sufficient to produce just and fair world and intellectuals devote their efforts on knowledge. As I grew in King’s College and as I grew in life and realised that life has a purpose even beyond good works, then my view of economics began to change. At the methodological level, I was not satisfied with the discipline that was always working towards an answer. You go to search and research because you did not know, but in a discipline where you have the answers but you are only looking for something to justify the answer rather than ask questions, I have some doubts up to the point where it became clear to me that the purpose of economics has nothing to do with scholarship. Really, those who are pushing the agenda (of academic economics) have an objective of controlling the way people think. When you can control the way people think, then you can control them. Lately, I am able to understand that even the structures (of economics) have clear goals. The first structure of the theories, which they call positive and on that they built the normative; there are foundations beyond that, which have to do with world views and values. But in the training of an economist, the values are not obvious; the world views are not obvious. What they let you see are the theories and you cannot understand the theories, in-depth, unless you go down to the foundations. This is why I decided that we must understand the foundations of economics, and it is when we do that we can understand the purpose of economics. People have designed certain interests and they are using economics to achieve those interests. We, as teachers, don’t understand that we are actually being used to achieve those objectives and we are training students to be also used in achieving those objectives.

How do you think this new thinking about economics would positively make impact on Nigeria?
I directed this idea to three different sets of people.One, to the economics generally. Two, to Nigerian economists and, three, to non-economists, particularly Nigerians. For economics generally, we need to take a pause and ask; what is the purpose of this thing that we are doing? I expect that my inaugural lecture would strike into the minds of economists to take stock of what they are actually doing. If what they are doing is right, it can be a powerful force for good and if what they are doing is wrong, it can be a powerful force for evil and that should be able to challenge us and re-examine what we are doing. If our ideas are supposed to provide a better world but we are seeing conflict, inequality and poverty everywhere, then, we are supposed to re-examine ourselves whether we have something to do with those vices. For the Nigerian economists, our problem has been inferiority complex. We have been led to believe that some people are the ones that would be providing leadership in thought. Therefore, all we need to do is, we take the text books and the theories that they have done and start teaching it.
My point is that it is a foolish way of reasoning because the laboratories for economics are everywhere. If God has blessed every one of us with mental capacities and sensory perceptions; if we employ and deploy these facilities with right kind of purpose then we can achieve a lot in terms of providing light about the use of resources. That is why I advanced the idea that the purpose of economics should be to help society to choose wisely because economics is about choice. Therefore, the idea of putting one first, which economics emphasises, has proven to be foolish and immoral. I am convinced, if we make right and wise choices, we would have less poverty. Poverty and wealth are two sides of the same coin. If we have to aggrandize, then it means we deprived others from going to school or engage in meaningful ventures and, as such, they would not be able to earn income and they would remain poor. Therefore, the wealth of the wealthiest people of the world is the poverty of many people because you cannot accumulate that wealth without exploiting people. This is why we need to motivate our students to have confidence in themselves that they do not need to wait for somebody to think for them. Somebody who is selfish and self-centred needs not think for our students. Therefore, our students need to explore the environment and think in order to help the society to come out of its woes. The most powerful force in the world is economics because it affects every aspect of life. Therefore, if economics is not right we would not manage the resources well, and if we did not manage resources well, then, there would be all kinds of problems that we are seeing today. Therefore, there is no way we can have stability in the world where 300 people own more assets than three billion people.

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