Wednesday, December 13, 2017

An economics reformation

I went to this event yesterday at UCL - Time for an Economic Reformation. Mainly focused on the academic discipline of Economics and its teaching, with the mission of reforming what is taught and studied - rather than about revising economic thought per se...there seemed to be a view, not explicitly stated, that there wasn't much of a need for new thinking itself, just for the academic discipline to reflect the new thinking that was already around.

Good, clear speakers - perhaps a function of the fact that almost all the panel were women? But the only man, Steve Keen, was also very clear, even though I find much of the econometrics that he presents pretty incomprehensible. Other panelists were: Victoria Chick; Mariana Mazzucato; Kate Raworth, of Doughnut Economics fame; and Sally Svenlen, of the Rethinking Economics student group.

The audience was also star-studded - Hilary Wainright, Charlie Leadbetter, and my favourite - David King, formerly Chief Scientist at DECC, who spoke from the floor with some passion - about how the extent to which our economic system had undermined the ability of our species to continue living on our planet was something of an indictment of our economic theories.

Panel chaired by Larry Elliot, economics editor of The Guardian, and event as a whole compered by Andrew Simms of the New Weather Institute (I hadn't heard of that before).

Good discussions, sensible contributions - nothing that made me groan, though equally nothing that looked like it was the key to a root and branch transformation of economic life and organisation. I suspect that one of the reasons for this, and for the slightly lackluster nature of the '33 Theses for an Economics Reformation' is that it's pitched as a conversation with mainstream economists. So though the implications of what is proposed might actually be very radical (as Andrew Simms proposed) it's all positioned as super-sensible.  Mariana Mazzucato cited Polanyi in her short contribution (which was sparkling and interesting) but there wasn't anything in the proposals that matched up to his ideas about how economies are made and unmade.

Delightfully, we were all asked to comment on the 33 Theses. I didn't contribute, but if I had I might have mentioned that the importance of 'intellectual property' - patent and copyright based monopolies - seemed to be missing; and that there wasn't anything about the process whereby economic ideas move from economists to public discourse (as discussed in this paper by Laurie Laybourn-Langton and Michael Jacobs), and at length in‘Inventing the Future’ by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek - see my review here.

I think that this second aspect is really important; one of the ways in which what is often called 'neo-liberalism' has been so successful is that it's really hard to think about other kinds of economic relationships, outside the framework of 'market economics'. Pseudo-economic ideas about governments not being able to spend more than they 'earn', and about the private sector as the only place where value is created, become the commonsense of our age. Making other kinds of ideas into common sense is a key task for any economic reformation.

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