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Saving Capitalism from Economics 101

Markets can be good, but they are also profoundly susceptible to abusive practices, including by prominent private-sector people. This is not a theoretical concern; it is central to our current policy debates, including important new US legislation that has just been put forward.

WASHINGTON, DC – All across the United States, students are settling into college – and coming to grips with “Econ 101.” This introductory course is typically taught with a broadly reassuring message: if markets are allowed to work, good outcomes – such as productivity growth, increasing wages, and generally shared prosperity – will surely follow.

Unfortunately, as my co-author James Kwak points out in his recent book, Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality, Econ 101 is so far from being the whole story that it could actually be considered misleading – at least as a guide to sensible policymaking. Markets can be good, but they are also profoundly susceptible to abusive practices, including by prominent private-sector people. This is not a theoretical concern; it is central to our current policy debates, including important new US legislation that has just been put forward.

One core problem is that market incentives reward self-interested private behavior, without accounting for social benefits or costs. We generally overlook our actions’ spillover effects on others, or “externalities.” To be fair, Econ 101 textbooks do discuss this issue in some contexts, such as pollution, and it is widely accepted that environmental damage needs to be regulated if we are to have clean air, clean water, and limits on other pollutants.

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