Lowe digs way beneath the surface of our 2007/2010 financial crisis to excavate its historical, theoretical and worldview roots. What she finds are fatal flaws within the "neoclassical" model that dominated twentieth century economics. She explains:
Neoclassical economics grew from 19th century efforts to ground the classical economic theories of Adam Smith, a moral philosopher, in Newtonian physics. Variables in the equations of Newton's mechanics were renamed and transmogrified. Energy became 'utility' and particles became atomized actors rationally pursuing material self-interest in this field of utility in which price and supply are the forces and spatial coordinates and natural laws, discoverable through mathematics, maintain the stability of the market in equilibrium. That there was no empirical basis for these presumptions . . . did not deter . . . the early theoreticians who made this leap of faith into the new 'science' of economics.
In other words, nineteenth century economic theorists based their emerging field on a prevailing model from the natural sciences: Newtonian physics. They were not alone in making such a move. Late nineteenth and twentieth century scholars of sociology and anthropology did something similar by assuming that a powerful theory of natural science - Darwin's theory of natural selection - could be applied to social entities as well as biological. This led to a hundred years of models of social "evolution" that seemed obviously sensible to an audience impressed by the explanatory power of evolution in the life sciences. That social and biological realities might be importantly different, and that a model from one doesn't necessarily apply well to the other, didn't seem to occur to anyone for a while. In the case of economics, the problem is that twentieth century physicists engaged in a wholesale reconsideration of the Newtonian model but the economists didn't consider the implications for their own field. By then the Newtonian worldview was so deeply ingrained in neoclassical economics that few economists or financiers had the critical distance and imagination to question it.
It's not that the subprime lenders and derivatives traders who sailed our global economic ship into an iceberg were consciously aware of the obsolete physics of their practices. No one went to work declaring, "the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle be damned, I'll give that mortgage anyway." But what if there had been more financial professionals with the imagination, intellectual curiosity, and habit of critical thinking to question the underlying theoretical assumptions of their field? Would we have averted disaster? I don't know, but our chances would certainly have improved.
Whatever one makes of the argument of the previous paragraphs, the point is that in order to make anything of it requires a certain level of liberal education. A banker who knows nothing of Newtonian physics cannot even assess Lowe's argument to determine whether it contains lessons bankers should take to heart. Professionals need more than technical training. They need to be able to think about their work historically and philosophically. They need to understand their profession in its social context and place it within a large, rich and humane framework of meaning. Technical expertise, important as it is, is no substitute for informed, disciplined consideration of why we do what we do, why we do it the way we do, and whether there are ways we might modify our current practices in order to better contribute to the common good.