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Economics for Humans
Julie A. Nelson
Cloth, $16.00
The University of Chicago Press, 2006

“Can be read for pleasure and enlightenment by economists and non-economists alike.”— The Times Literary Supplement

Order from University of Chicago Press

Is it asking too much to demand that businesses be socially and environmentally responsible? When child care and elder care are commercially supplied, is caring turned into just another commodity? Many, believing that economies are cold and heartless systems that operate outside human control, would answer yes. But in this impassioned and perceptive work, Julie A. Nelson debunks theories that teach us that our economic lives are somehow separate from our moral values and our human relationships.

The impediment to envisioning a more considerate economic world, Nelson demonstrates, is a particular assumption that is shared by both neoliberals and the Left. Despite their seemingly insurmountable differences, they both make use of the metaphor, first proposed by Adam Smith, of “the economy as machine.” This pervasive idea, she 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—when healthy—circulates blood to all parts of the social body while also serving as the seat of compassion and care.

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


"Have you ever wondered how to square the love and affection you feel for others, with the brutal 'self interest' that seems to pervade economic logic? Nelson's concise arguments will help any student of business who has been force fed the line that all business is just self-interested economic reasoning…This is a beautifully written book that can be read by anyone in under 2 hours. It should be assigned reading in every MBA program in the world…It is a terrific contribution from a first rate thinker (and economist)."
—R. Edward Freeman, author of Managing for Stakeholders: Survival, Reputation and Success

“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

“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

“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

“Abandonment of the concept of the economy as an inhuman organism devoid of moral content could open the way to a more enlightened approach, rejecting a faith in mechanical laws...[A] passionate [book], to be welcomed in a discipline notably devoid of passion...Can be read for pleasure and enlightenment by economists and non-economists alike.”
— David Throsby, The Times Literary Supplement

“Julie A. Nelson...has no time for the old model of the economy as an impersonal, inexorable, market machine. The self-interests of the shareholders-first crowd, she insists in this lively and yet gentle polemic, do not inevitably convert to the general good ...Clarity and brevity are her book's greatest strengths—almost unheard-of virtues when economics is the subject, if we omit the occasional J. K. Galbraith...”
— John Allemang, The Globe and Mail

“Books attacking greedy, rapacious corporations and the supposed evils of capitalism proliferate. In general, such diatribes are not worth the paper they are printed on ...Nelson is far too intelligent for this sort of argument...The book provides detailed descriptions of the sheer variety of motivation, both corporate and individual, and institutional rules and structures that exist in the business world. Nelson's book can be recommended to a business audience.”
— Paul Ormerod,

“A library would require many shelves to store all the books faulting economic theory as well as the market for failing to take humanistic considerations into account. Nelson's Economics for Humans might appear to fall into this category, but her volume is far more interesting. In a clear and even welcoming style, she lays out some of the shortcomings of economics in the market economy, but she is unique in the way she tries to show linkages in the demands of everyday economic life and the need for a more caring society--in her words, 'keeping body and soul together.' …Libraries will find a wide range of readers for this book. Even open-minded professional economists will find freshness in Nelson's treatment of the subject, while people largely unacquainted with economics--not just the mythical advanced undergraduate--will find this book accessible. Summing Up: Highly recommended”
— Michael Perelman, Choice

ISBN: 0-226-57202-1

Julie A. Nelson is an economist and senior research associate at the Global Development and Environmental Institute at Tufts University.


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