The student economics revolution and why Arts People should be joining it

I have just read The Econocracy, written by Joe Earle, Cahal Moran, and Zach Ward-Perkins, three economics graduates from Manchester University, published in October 2016.

The Econocracy’s authors co-founded the University of Manchester Post-Crash Economics Society because they discovered that the type of economic thinking they were being taught as undergraduates was unable to predict financial crashes such as that in 2008 nor always suggest successful solutions for problems created by that crash.

The University of Manchester’s student revolution stands for a more pluralistic economics education and is part of an international student movement asking for major changes to be made to university economics curricula world wide – Rethinking Economics – and an opening up of discourse between economists and the general public at a level which the general public can understand.

If, as Bruno Frey suggested to me, Arts People try to use the language of economists when promoting their work, then The Econocracy explains why this is.

Earle et al. define an econocracy as “A society in which political goals are defined in terms of their effect on the economy, which is believed to be a distinct system with its own logic that requires experts to manage it.” (I was reading the Kindle edition, so I’m citing “locations” in the text. This quote was at loc. 405), suggesting that this is the kind of society most of the world now lives in. This means that economists (experts) have become very sought-after and influential.

The authors argue that because “The modern state wanted a scientific and objective way of shaping politics” (loc. 625), economics courses at least at UK universities have concentrated on training economists in one particular way of looking at society, neoclassical economics, which is characterised by a mechanical view of the world with “agents” (the individuals or bodies such as companies or governments who are actively involved in “the economy”) acting in a mathematically predictable way, and “supports the belief that experts are able to isolate ‘economic’ forces that operate largely independently of political, institutional and cultural context and therefore avoid messy questions about history, ethics and practicality.” (loc. 2005).

This means that the economic experts informing important policy decisions only have one fairly narrow way of thinking about them, whether that one way is applicable, or the best way, or not.

The underlying belief of this type of economics is that to be successful, an “economy” must grow, and that will mean that people are happier. However, “the emphasis on quantifiable aspects of economic well-being … means that there is a focus on material sources of well-being such as income and consumption over less tangible issues such as human rights, job security and mental health.” (loc. 1131). This means that the language of policy-makers is shaped by tangible, quantifiable aspects, and the intangible non-quantifiable yet nevertheless valuable and important aspects of human interaction are largely neglected.

In other words, in the language of government there is a lack of balance between economic value and cultural value, so if Arts People try to speak the language of economists when promoting their projects, this is because it’s likely to be the only language policy-makers understand.

Maybe economic growth does make (some) people happy, but it’s certainly not the only aspect to securing long-term subjective well-being (more on that in my next post).

In the eyes of the authors of The Econocracy, there is a causal correlation between this exaltation of economic value with public feeling of disenfranchisement as exemplified by Brexit and some of its post-expert rhetoric : “The devaluation of citizenship at the heart of econocracy forms the backdrop to the recent rise in populist political movements across Europe and the US.” (loc.763), and the results of my own research regarding the attribution of value to an arts process support this view.

The student economics revolution is important for Arts People because it shows us that a future in which a balance between economic value and cultural value might be achieved is possible, and even how to build it. If economics teaching at HE level needs to become more pluralistic, Arts People also need to starting thinking and talking about what they do in terms of those intangible, non-quantifiable values that make up the reasons why they do what they do.


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