SRP 435: Literature, Philosophy, and
Economics: Critical Representations of Commercial
Some Starting Questions
What is an economy? What sorts of processes does an economy involve? Why is it called an "economy"? Does it involve trade-offs, sacrifices, or the balancing of different factors? Of what sort? What is economized? For what purpose or to what effect? What does the need for "economy" presuppose? What kind of an environment require the practice of economy? In what sort of environment would economy be unnecessary? What are the results of failing to practice proper economy in an environment that requires it?
What should be the goals of any economic system? How can we assess the success or failure of an economic system? According to what criteria?
What do people do as part of economics? What sorts of general processes or activities do economic behaviors entail?
How is the value of something determined within an economic system? Are there very important resources which, though vital for human survival and well-being, have no economic value? Are there very valuable commodities or other resources which could be considered irrelevant or even harmful to human survival and well-being? Why? What exactly lends something an economic value? Can economic values be at odds with what should be the purposes of an economic system?
What is a division of labor? What are the advantages of division of labor? Are there any disadvantages to it? What are the differences between an economy where each person produces everything s/he needs and one where labor is divided into different tasks and the final products are exchanged? Is one better than the other? How do goods gain in value and other qualities from the division of labor?
If there is division of labor, what becomes necessary before consumption of the products can take place? How is exchange vital to the functioning of an economy where there is division of labor? Is there more than one way of exchanging what different people have produced? What are the advantages of exchange? Are there any risks or potential problems associated with exchange?
Is there a division of labor across time? Did our ancestors (all the way back to the prehistoric caves) do any work that has had an impact on our economic well-being? How does present value depend on the work and contributions of past generations? How does exchange take place between the past and the present?
Robinson Crusoe, a 1719 novel by the English writer Daniel Defoe, tells the tale of a man who shipwrecks on a desert island and, eventually, through his smarts and hard work, manages to create for himself a rather comfortable and sophisticated economic situation. Is this a realistic situation? How does that compare to for example, the situation of the main character, Chuck Noland, in the recent film Cast Away (2000, starring Tom Hanks). Is Chuck happy and comfortable in his desert island? Why does he want to kill himself? Is it lack of intelligence or hard work that causes his unhappiness? What is he lacking? What does he crave the most? What is the significance of that lack? What is the effect of the contrasts in lifestyles after his return to civilization? What does that suggest regarding the nature of value, the good life and their sources in an advanced economy? What may be one of the most important of all resources in an economy? What really happens to people who end up in desert islands?
Do we individually create the value of what we enjoy as goods and services in our economy? Is everything I enjoy something I personally invented, developed, refined, produced and consumed? How does a comfortable life depend on the work and contributions of others (past and present)? Is anyone an island?
Ideally, how should economic value be distributed? (think for example of the story of "Little Red Hen"). Is that how it actually happens in practice? Do those who work the hardest and contribute the most receive the most reward? If not, where in our economy are the loopholes that allow unfair distributions? Where are the opportunities for some to do little and receive a lot? Are such schemes legal?
How is exchange related to the distribution of value? Is commerce a form of exchange? Are commerce and exchange always identical? Are there exchanges which are not commercial? What might be some examples? How many kinds of exchange are there? Are all forms of exchange in a commercial society what we could call "equal" or "fair" exchange"? Why or why not? When is an exchange not equal? How can different products be compared in order to establish whether an exchange is equal or not? Is there some kind of measurement which could allow us to establish whether a given exchange is fair or not? Precisely what sort of exchange is commerce? What is the goal of commerce? What is the incentive to engage in commercial exchange? What expectation leads someone into the practice commerce? How is that expectation realized or disappointed? What must happen in the commercial transaction if the expectation of gain is to be realized? What does that imply? How does commerce compare to or contrast with equal exchange? How about a gift? How about fraud? Are those forms of exchange too? What exactly is commerce?
What does it mean to say that the economy has a social form? What sorts of
social forms can an economy take? What is the social form of a slave-owning
society? How do people interact with one another in the process of making a
living, dividing the labor, engaging in exchange? Are such relations always
fair and harmonious? Are some social forms better than others? What should be
the ideal social form of an economy? Does that correspond to the social forms
of our economy? How do particular forms of exchange, commerce for example, contribute
to the establishing of certain social forms?
If the advantages of a commercial economy derive from the division of labor and exchange, what are the sources of its disadvantages and problems? How are those problems related to the particular form of commercial exchange? What effects does commercial exchange have on the otherwise beneficial effects of division of labor and exchange? In what precise ways can commerce be said to be parasitical upon the processes of division of labor and exchange? How does it take advantage of them? In what specific ways? What social form does commerce have which differs from the socially cooperative nature of division of labor and exchange? In the terminology of game theory, what sort of a game is commerce? What sort of a game is equal exchange? What are their social dynamics? What are their respective specific effects? How does this translate into the specific problems which are characteristic of commercial capitalism (e.g. gross inequality, poverty, inequitable payments to the different contributors to production, social conflict and instability, natural resource depletion, etc)?
What sort of a social dynamic does the competitive process of commercial capitalism
define and what are its immediate and long term effects? How do commercial motivations
influence production itself? What do they do to the crafts and professions which
are part of the system of division of labor? How does the craftsperson work
who is also motivated by the expectation of commercial gain? What does that
do to the products of the craft? How do such motivations affect natural resource
use? How do they affect the treatment and payment of laborers working for a
manufacturer seeking commercial gain? How do they influence human relations
as a whole? How do they influence international relations and the global situation
as a whole?
What is the theory of commercial, market capitalism as it emerges from the ideas of figures like Adam Smith, John Locke, David Ricardo, David Hume, Thomas Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, and others? (this theory is also known as Neoclassical, laissez faire or "liberal" economics) What are its main principles? What are its assumptions? What does it assume about the participants in market exchanges? What does it assume about human motivations? How does it model economic behavior? What are its predictions? What are the goals and objectives of a market economy? How is it supposed to work? How are value and prices determined in such an economy? How is the value of product distributed among those who contribute to its creation? According to the theory, what is the long run tendency of free market economies? According to the theory, what are the effects of competition in such an economy? What happens to prices and quantities and variety of products over time? Do the theory and its predictions hold out in practice? Are the assumptions of the theory realistic or valid in actual markets? What would be the problem with a truly free market where all the participants have equal power and information (as the theory assumes)? What is an example of a truly competitive market in our economy (i.e. one where no one has more power or knowledge than others and where anyone can enter or leave the market as they please)? How do demand and supply operate in such markets? What is the economic situation of the participants in such markets? If all markets were truly free and competitive, how would that affect commercial motivations and commercial exchange? Who, in fact, has the most to lose from real "free market" economics? What is the great irony of the theory in relation to how capitalist markets actually function? Are such markets really free or are they manipulated in any way? How? What are some of the ways of tilting market power, information or access in favor of some and to the disadvantage of others? What does successful market manipulation result in? How is that the essence of what we call "business"?
Professor F. Fajardo-Acosta
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