Human economies can be understood in more than one way.
- The private business economy is what economics textbooks are generally about.
- The public purpose economy consists of governments and their agencies as well as non-profits and international institutions like the World Bank or the United Nations. The public purpose economy is a collection of institutions that are justified by their stated intention to act for some broader good than their own profit or enrichment – though they may differ widely in their definitions of what is “good”.
- The core economy is where households and communities carry on their internal activities of production, distribution and consumption. The core economy’s justification and purpose is the survival and well-being of its members. It is located in home, family, and neighborhood; places that function as markets for emotional, social, and civic transactions. This paper will consider some distinguishing characteristics of these three economies – in particular: their goals or justifications; what currency they use; what kind of demand they respond to; and how they define and reward work.
The second half of the paper will offer reflections on the harms caused by an excessive dominance of the private business economy over the other two, with thoughts on some of what will be required to redress this balance. It will conclude with an image of a healthier relationship between humanity and our natural environment – a relationship that will inevitably come about, whether we choose to move into it positively, or are forced into it by breakdowns in all of our economies resulting from natural and social disasters.
In mainstream economics scripting, government is either bumbler or villain. Cast as market fixer, intervenor, enforcer or redistributor, the state cannot but act inefficiently or, worse, illegitimately. Public goods and collective action are called “problems,” the commons a “tragedy.” Even today’s so-called “public economics,” as represented by the “public choice” school, is decidedly anti-public. It was not always thus. More than a century ago, economists theorized the state as a framework of collective agency for public purpose and understood government as a producer meeting collective needs. A cogent concept of “the public economy” guided this nascent field of public economics, long since lost to historic upheavals and repression by proponents of market-centric rational choice theory.
This paper rejects today’s orthodoxy and its artful, but artificial, construct that subverts the ability of the public economic system to produce on behalf of the polity. I call instead for the embrace of a new public economics that returns to lost roots while breaking new ground by taking into account the biophysical imperatives of production. The model offered here takes a systems perspective (as did Quesnay and early 18th- century Physiocrats); recognizes a public economy with distinctive purpose and drivers (as did the “German Public Economics” theorist Gerhard Colm in the 1920’s); and focuses on government as a producer (as did Paul Studenski in the 1930s-50s). Finally, it draws on two centuries of physics and on 21st century systems ecology in recognizing biophysical imperatives inherent to production. Developing and promoting a cogent theory of the public economy system is vital to the effective operation and, ultimately, the survival of the governmental systems by which democratic nation-states function today. The simplistic type-casting of government, the “market-failure” rationalization for state action, the invalid imposition of market axioms and assumptions on the public domain, the disregard of public purpose must all be rejected. It is time for a Reformation of public economics.
Just as mainstream economics neglects the biophysical basis of production and disregards energy as the most fundamental input, it likewise ignores the existence of the public economy. Both types of denialism threaten the ability of societies to develop energy solutions that can meet the needs of the polity. This article calls for a new theory of the public economy and it outlines elements of such a theory. Both a biophysical economics and a new public economics are needed to address the energy challenges confronting modern societies.
Liberating contemporary economic analysis from the straitjacket of mainstream neoclassical theory is the animating theme of the essays assembled in this special number of the Real-World Economics Review (RWER). The authors of the works assembled here are all committed to the idea that what is regarded by traditional economic theory as a set of exogenous forces framed and deployed from outside the market mechanisms that are the focus of the discipline – namely, the public sector – is in fact an integral agent that directly affects the very issues and phenomena neoclassical theory claims to explain. Indeed, it is the very failure of traditional economic thinking to account for the “public economy” in any systematic and meaningful fashion that prevents it from explaining how societies actually produce goods and services and, in compensation, constructs inapt and futile framings, such as “market failures,” to explain why governments exist.
In contradistinction to prevailing doctrine, the following articles strive to reconstruct a public economics by embedding the public sector intrinsically within economic models. Rather than separate the “public sector” from economics, understanding collective action as something distinct from the economy, a public economics views the entire economic system – the “macroeconomy” as a whole – as comprised of multiple economic systems: of markets, of public activities, and of domestic interactions. Read More