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Definitions of economy

January 6, 2012

The Swedish definition of “economy” is that it’s the science or practice on how to “manage scarce resources” (“hushålla med resurser i ett tillstånd av knapphet”, Wikipedia). To get some help translating that phrase, I looked into the English wikipedia page on economy, only to find it completely absent from the definition. The managing aspect can be found under “Etymology”, as can the thrift aspect. The section on etymology also tells me that the shift to the current English meaning occured pretty recently. In English these days, the “economy” of an area means “the labor, capital and land resources; and the manufacturing, trade, distribution, and consumption of goods and services of that area”, again according to Wikipedia. The word has lost its connection to scarcity. Interesting.

To be fair, the disambiguation page also lists “the quality of being efficient or frugal in using resources” as a meaning of “economy”. Way to undermine my own point! I should have stopped at the main page. However, it seems to be a side meaning, as it doesn’t have its own article, and isn’t associated with the study of economics.

The German language goes with English on this one.”Die Wirtschaft oder Ökonomie ist die Gesamtheit aller Einrichtungen und Handlungen, die der planvollen Deckung des menschlichen Bedarfs dienen,” says the German wikipedia page. Translation: economy is “the sum of all institutions and actions that serve to fulfill human needs in a systematic way”, which is only a more abstract way of putting the English definition.

I als found the funniest side meaning ever on the German disambiguation page: “Wirtschaft”, in Austria, can be used as a casual expression for “chaos”! Well, it certainly seems apt, after the financial crises lately. I wonder how old that usage is?

So, why did I start investigating into definitions of economy? Well, because of stuff like this (in Swedish). Basically, Sweden has had a lot of problems with trees falling over railroad tracks and stopping the traffic. Some years ago, a project was started to clear away all trees from the vicinity of railways. This year, the project was defunded, even though some tracks remain where trees grow so close to the track, it’s forbidden to run trains there in hard weather. Typical governmental stuff and not very interesting. (In Sweden, the state takes care of the railroad tracks, but private companies run the actual traffic.) The part that interests me is the reactions to the defunding. It caught my eye because there are both good and bad reactions. Mostly in newspapers, you only see reactions of the bad type.

Good reactions: Jan Sundling, the chairman of Sweden’s biggest railway company, thinks that the government has the wrong priorities. He thinks that the tree-clearing project is more important than the upgrading of electrical systems that the money is now going to. Oskar Fröidh, traffic researcher at KTH, agrees with Sundling. Thomas Eriksson, at the governmental agency responsible for roads and railroads (“Trafikverket“), of course claims that the electrical upgrade is more important than getting rid of the trees.

Bad reaction: Lena Bjerkesjö, responsible for public relations at a smaller railway company, just says that Trafikverket should definitely cut down all those trees, so that her company can continue running their trains even when it’s storming.

Maybe I’m being unfair to Bjerkesjö. It is perfectly possible that she also displayed understanding of the situation, but that the newspaper cut out that part of her comments. It only happens to be a pet peeve of mine, when people demand that money should be spent on X and then don’t indicate where that money is supposed to come from. Economy is (at least in Swedish) about making priorities, about the allotment of limited goods. But all to often, the scarcity aspect of economy is forgotten. Of course we have to spend more money on X! X is really important!

Yeah. It is. But so is Y, Z, W and Q. And we can’t afford all of them. Just because I think we should buy Y and Q doesn’t mean I think X isn’t important, you know. It just means that I find Y and Q even more important than X.

I don’t even take it seriously any more, when I read in the newspaper that some project is being defunded and some social worker or mother or company representative or what not claims that this is a catastrophy for the people involved and of course the project should recieve continued funding. Wah wah, cry me a river. I only take such claims seriously if some indication is made as to where the complainer thinks the money should come from. What else should we spend less on? Or should we raise taxes? Or borrow money?

Resources don’t come from nothing, unfortunately.

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