Economics for Humans

Julie A. Nelson

Economics for Humans

Julie A. Nelson

164 pages | 1 line drawing, 1 table | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2006
Cloth $18.00 ISBN: 9780226572024 Published October 2006
E-book $10.00 to $18.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226572055 Published February 2010

At its core, an economy is about providing goods and services for human well-being. But many economists and critics preach that an economy is something far different: a cold and heartless system that operates outside of human control. In this impassioned and perceptive work, Julie A. Nelson asks a compelling question: If our economic world is something that we as humans create, aren’t ethics and human relationships—dimensions of a full and rich life—intrinsically part of the picture? Is it possible to take this thing we call economics and give it a body and a soul?

Economics for Humans argues against the well-ingrained notion that economics is immune to moral values and distant from human relationships. Here, Nelson locates the impediment to envisioning a more considerate economic world in an assumption that is shared by both neoliberals and the political left. Despite their seemingly insurmountable differences, Nelson notes that they both make use of the metaphor, first proposed by Adam Smith, that the economy is a machine. This pervasive idea, Nelson argues, has blinded us to the qualities that make us work and care for one another—qualities that also make businesses thrive and markets grow. We can wed our interest in money with our justifiable concerns about ethics and social well-being. And we can do so if we recognize that an economy is not a machine, but a living, beating heart that circulates blood to all parts of the body while also serving as an emblem of compassion and care. 

Nothing less than a manifesto, Economics for Humans will both invigorate and inspire readers to reshape the way they view the economy, its possibilities, and their place within it.

1 Tending the Body: The History of Economics
2 Tending the Soul: The Defense of "Noneconomic Values"
3 Bringing Body and Soul Together
4 Love and Money? The Question of Individual Motivation
5 Business and Ethics? The Question of Organizational Behavior
6 Keeping Body and Soul Together
Review Quotes
Nancy Folbre

“A stunning rebuke of conventional assumptions that describe our economic system as a robot-like machine. In this deeply intelligent and personally engaging book, Julie Nelson emphasizes the tremendous influence of ethics and emotions on economic outcomes. She challenges both the Left and the Right to think more creatively about the relationship between love and money. Everyone who studies care—or cares about social science—should read this book.”--Nancy Folbre, author of The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values

Robert H. Frank

“Economics, as it is often taught today, portrays us as homo economicus—someone who doesn’t vote in presidential elections, doesn’t return lost wallets, and doesn’t leave tips when dining out of town. Julie Nelson reminds us that most people aren’t really like that.  She helps point the way to a richer, more descriptive way of thinking about economic life.”--Robert H. Frank, author of Luxury Fever: Money and Happiness in an Era of Excess

Vivianna Zelizer

“Julie Nelson cares. She cares enough about her home discipline, economics, to demand that it jettison the crippling assumption that the economy is a clockwork machine. She cares enough about people to insist that we recognize the full range of our economically valuable activities, from the unpaid provision of personal care to the ethical management of corporations. In this sparkling, passionate, personal book Nelson shows how to humanize economics without abandoning its commitment to rigorous description and explanation.”--Viviana A. Zelizer, author of The Purchase of Intimacy

John Allemang | Globe and Mail
"Clarity and brevity are her book’s greatest strengths--almost unheard-of virtues when economics is the subject. . . . It’s good to read about business and not feel dirty."
Michelle Wenderlich | Intergenerational Justice Review
"Nelson is insightful and makes good arguments to show why neoclassical machine metaphors do not hold for economics in reality. She passionately argues for reconnecting economics with ethics. . . . Her book is exceedingly accessible, clearly organized and well-written. She examines much within a slim 127 pages of main text, and Economics for Humans will stimulate all readers--knowledgeable in economics or not."
Elissa Braunstein | Eastern Economic Journal
"This is a great, fun and interesting read, appropriate for college classrooms as well as a thoughtful gift for erudite friends and family. No prior experience in economics is necessary, and perhaps we would do well to ensure its incorporation in the standard economics education. The (human) world could only benefit from better economic science, after all."
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