Economics for Everyone: A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism

Economics for Everyone: A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism

By Jim Stanford
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Fernwood Publishing, January 1, 2008, $24.95

The first thing you need to do to effectively change something that’s totally out of whack is to understand it. You can’t debate with someone without knowing her point of view and you can’t argue against something until you know why it exists in the first place. When it comes to economics and capitalism, while we know the system has left us in an incredibly unequal, unfair and unethical marketplace, it is hard to argue against it without knowing how it works exactly.

Short of taking a university-level macroeconomics course, or buying a textbook and plugging your way through it independently, learning the basics of capitalist economics (and the specifics of neoclassical schools, neoliberalism, monetarism) is tough. So for anyone grappling with the messy capitalist system, Jim Stanford’s book, Economics for Everyone: A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism, is incredibly helpful.

Stanford is an economist with the Canadian Auto Workers union, holds a PhD in economics and writes a regular column for He also is an economist with a refreshing disdain for economists and a strong populist bent.

“Never trust an economist with your job,” Stanford writes in the introduction. “A society in which ordinary people know more about economics and recognize the often conflicting interests at stake in the economy is a society in which more people will feel confident in deciding for themselves what’s best — instead of trusting the experts.” And from there he sets about showing the reader what capitalism is about and what it isn’t.

Economics for Everyone starts from the very basic elements of work, production and value to the very complicated stocks, bonds and loans. Accompanying this slow build are illustrations by Tony Biddle that allow the reader to visualize the ins and outs of consumption and production of capitalism with humour.

Stanford’s book is incredibly conversational, which in some cases could be a fault, but considering the cold academic nature of his topic, is a comfort. There is also a plainness to his writing that smooths understanding. For example, he tells us that 50 per cent of the work done in the economy is wage labour and 40 per cent is unpaid work in the household: “âe¦ much of that unpaid work can be interpreted as a ‘cost of producing workers’: that is, it’s an input to the ongoing re-creation of a willing and able labour force (feeding, clothing, and caring for people, in order to send them back into paid work the next day),” he writes. “[T]he vast majority of work in our system consists either of working for someone else, or getting ready to work for someone else.”

While Stanford is highly critical of capitalism, he is still firmly entrenched in the moderate Left. While noting his deep concerns with the devastating environmental and social outcomes of the system, the solution he proposes for the short-term is to return to Golden Age style investment in production, reversing the tide of neoliberalism with its emphasis on low taxes and more profits for the rich.

“Fighting to make our respective countries more like the Nordic variant of capitalism and less like the Anglo-Saxon version (which demonstrates the worst social and environmental performance of any of these broad varieties) is a deserving and fitting challenge that rightfully deserves our first attention,” he writes. The book then goes on to envision a socialist democracy where a large percentage of companies work for the public good rather than to profit shareholders, as is the case today.

While Stanford certainly doesn’t go much further than a mild socialism (sorry, no anarchist collective bartering systems here), the real value of the book isn’t in his brief examination of alternatives, but his thorough, honest, explanation of what we’ve got right now. The future he leaves to the reader.—Jenn Watt

Jenn Watt

Jenn Watt

Jenn was editor of the annual Best of books and is currently an Ontario-based journalist.