A case for economic literacy

1.  Economic institutions as an essential contribution to cultural survival
Culturally mediated models of human-ecosystem organisation (cf. economics), especially those created by the world’s indigenous communities, have been, and continue to be displaced by the rapid global expansion of the neo-liberal dominant market economy. Globalisation outcomes of this kind are of concern because a goal of central importance to indigenous communities is cultural survival – an aspiration that is deeply compromised by the loss of formal (e.g. social-ecosystem organisation) and informal (e.g. spoken language, knowledge) cultural institutions of this kind. In New Zealand, an important lesson of the last 3 decades has been that it is not possible to argue the case for reforms in government plans, policies and social institutions (e.g. the economy), without being able to evidence and explain why, what is currently on offer, inadequately contributes to the goals of Māori community well-being and cultural survival. After the damaging effects of 178 years of colonisation, this is now a necessary key performance indicator and to do this economic literacy is needed.

2. There are different types of economic literacy
A university training in economics is not needed to understand and give daily expression; through kawa, kaupapa and tikanga to a distinctly Māori cultural model of economics. However, an understanding of the economic ideas of our time, their historical emergence, limitations and assumptions can be very helpful when it comes to helping Māori communities to reframe their distinctive cultural identities and institutions in a modern-day ‘market economic’ context. Both forms of economic literacy have their place.

3. What will be needed to reinstate a distinctly Māori cultural model of economics
If we accept that culturally-mediated institutions like education, medicine, knowledge development and economics play an essential role in achieving the goals of Māori community well-being and cultural survival, then the reframing and reinstating of a distinctly Māori cultural model of economics is needed. The task of making a space for a Māori and market economic model of economics to co-exist will require a certain amount of unravelling, disconnecting, re-positioning and re-forming – tasks that cannot be achieved without an understanding of the market economic institutions, thinking and assumptions we are seeking to challenge and change. There will also be times when we need to challenge ourselves and change what we are doing. The physical survival and well-being of Māori communities is increasingly dependent on their participation in the market economy. This means that as indigenous peoples, we are inextricably connected, and often unaware of being implicated in the financial, social, ecological and cultural consequences of market economic activities.

4. Economic literacy: from daunting task to practical steps
While a need exists to understand the economic thinking of our time, this can seem like a daunting task. Not everyone has the ability or the resources needed to study economics at university. Thankfully, economic literacy is no longer dependent on university learning of this kind. There are a wealth of digital resources available on the internet that can be used to grow economic literacy. However, for those who feel that they have very little understanding about economics, it can be hard to know where to start looking and what to concentrate on. To help remedy this problem, we have created this new ‘economic literacy’ column on our Te Toi Ōhanga website with a view to posting short blogs about digital learning resources that we think will support growth in economic literacy that is directly relevant to the community well-being and cultural survival needs of Māori communities.

5. TV documentary – The Commanding Heights: the Battle for the World Economy
A helpful place to start this journey is with the book and TV documentary of Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw called ‘The Commanding Heights: the Battle for the World Economy’. This book was first published in 1998 under a sightly longer title. In 2002, it was adapted as a TV documentary and later released as a DVD with supporting PBS educational website that included free, online, public access to the TV documentary.

The Commanding Heights is essentially a narrative about the rise of free market economics and globalisation during the 20th Century. It attempts to provide a wide-angle perspective on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of these most recent expressions of capitalism. The TV documentary version of this narrative has drawn criticism for its (i) over-simplification of the so-called ‘battle of ideas’ between John Maynard Keyes and Frederic Hayak, (ii) treatment of the anti-globalisation movement and (iii) use of historical parallels. It also largely fails to address the growing critique of free market economics linked with ecological sustainability, intergenerational fairness and the serious problem of human cultural extinction. However, it does provide a detailed historical narrative, one that the co-authors have done their best to relate to the shifting political landscapes of the 20th Century. As an easy-to-understand, historical introduction to (a western scientific perspective) on economics, this is a good place to start exploring and learning.


6. Links to online digital resources

6.1  Commanding Heights Book:

Yergin, D. and  Stanislaw, J. (1998) The commanding heights: the battle between government and the marketplace that is remaking the modern world. New York: Simon and Schuster.


6.2  Commanding Heights Documentary by episode:

Episode 1 The Battle of Ideas

Episode 2 The Agony of reform

Episode 3 The New Rules of the Game


6.3  Commanding Heights, PBS educational website


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