Friday, March 11, 2005

Economics? Ugh!

When I was about ten, I asked my Dad, economist Edward C. Harwood, "Economics is so dull; what is so impassioning about it? I mean, it's so ... BO-O-O-O-R-ing!" I was convinced from all I had seen and heard (and apparently absorbed) that there didn't exist a more unexciting, uninspiring, laborious, besotting field of endeavor. It had no physicality or rhythm, no charm, no color, no sense of humor, and seemed to be filled with nothing but numbers, graphs, and the kind of bespectacled people that can spend their whole day fiddling with them. Ho hum. (At least to a ten year old.)

His answer was to explain that to study economics was to learn about the spring from whence sprung much of the good and evil experienced by mankind. It was not wealth that fascinated him; it was the idea of eliminating the suffering so attached to the lack of it. He didn't say that wealth brought happiness, nor that it was the source of all evil, or even that it had the power to change basic human nature in any profound way; but what he said was that its control, once out of the hands of its original creator, was a tool to manipulate whole nations, even to the point of war. What could be a more profound subject of inquiry?

I thought of that a moment; then asked, "But what about religion? Isn't that even more fundamental than money? How about psychology? Doesn't that touch a more basic element of humanity?"

His reply was to explain that as a scientist, he had come to the conclusion that neither religion nor psychology was a true science, as he understood that word. His own experience learning about the myriad forms religion takes and the diversity of psychological theory had led him, in the first instance, to interpret the word "God" as a name for "We Know Not What;" and in the second, to see that psychologists and psychiatrists had about as many explanations for human behavior as there are human beings. Therefore, any pretense of being able to fathom such unknowns as the human psyche or human faith - and more importantly any attempts to describe any fundamental "truths" about either subject - were destined to failure by their very nature, and therefore at once hypocritically presumptuous and intrusive upon very personal and private matters. It was not that he wished to diminish the importance of the role of faith, or morality, or the human psyche in each person's life and in society as a whole; he just didn't feel competent, as a member of our race of common men, to delve into these notoriously subjective realms of research with any hope of contributing something useful to society and human progress.

On the other hand, although these questions of faith and of human psychology may be most fundamental, the next one up the ladder was man's attempts at societal organization, and more specifically his undesigned, evolved market behavior and his various, historically more or less successful attempts at political structuring. Here was the domain where he thought he might have something to contribute, all the more so because these particular fields were full of erroneous and sheepish theorization that badly needed the attention of as clear-minded a shepherd as he.

I understood the basics of what he was trying to say; but it took me 45 more years and an attack on our soil by self-declaimed representatives of the world's most forgotten have-nots to bring home to me just how right he was.

Here he is, in an uncharacteristically friendly pose - oh, don't get me wrong; in his defense, you must remember that any happy-go-lucky comic wrinkles left in him after his simple New England WASP upbringing were steamrollered out by iron West Point discipline and two world wars. And anyway, I was in on the secret: underneath a somewhat foreboding exterior beat the humblest of golden hearts. (No pun intended, for those in the know.)


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