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Thinking economists are grappling with why their profession has made our lives worse by Ross Gittins

Most economists are great believers in the need for “reform” – for other people, not themselves. Over the past 30 or 40 years, no profession has had more influence over the policies governments have pursued, but the results have hardly been flash.

Even the lightning speed at which an epidemic in part of China became a pandemic reaching every corner of the globe can be blamed in large part on the globalisation that economists long championed. 

After the unmitigated disaster of the global financial crisis of 2008 – which the economists not only failed to foresee, but did much to help bring about by their advocacy of deregulated financial markets – many people assumed this would force the economists, shamefaced, back to the drawing board.

It didn’t happen. But the poor performance of economies in the decade following the Great Recession hasn’t allowed the more intellectually honest among the world’s economists to delude themselves that all’s well with their theories and policy prescriptions.

At present, politicians and policymakers are preoccupied with suppressing the virus and countering the coronacession this effort has led to. Economists are worried about the depth of this recession, and are warning politicians that they’ll need to spend (and borrow) unprecedented sums to bring about a sustainable recovery.

A big part of the economists’ concern arises from their knowledge that deep, structural problems had caused the rich economies to be in a weak state before the arrival of the virus. This suggests that, without an extraordinary effort by governments, the recovery is likely to be slow, with unemployment staying high.

Worse, the “normal” to which we return after the virus has been fully vanquished isn’t likely to be nearly as good as the normal we remember. Not only will material living standards be improving at a glacial pace, but there’ll be continuing, maybe worsening, social conflict (not to mention a worsening climate).

The good news, however, is that leading thinkers among the world’s economists are still grappling with the embarrassing question of why their profession’s advice over many decades seems to have made our lives worse rather than better.

I’m just back from a couple of weeks catching up on my reading. I noticed several books by well-known economists coming to similar conclusions about how the ideas of “neoliberalism”, which dominated economic advice to governments for so long, led us astray.

In their book Greed is Dead, two leading British economics professors, Paul Collier and John Kay, both from Oxford, argue that the problem with what they (and I) prefer to call “market fundamentalism” – which oversimplifies and takes too literally the basic model of how markets work – is its overemphasis on the role of competition between self-interested individuals in generating economic progress. 

By sanctifying selfishness, it has undermined community-mindedness and the role of co-operation in advancing our mutual interests. Voting has become a simple matter of “what’s in it for me and mine”, while businesses and industries have been licensed to lobby for preferment at the expense of everyone else.

“In recent decades the balance between these instincts [of competition and co-operation] has become dangerously skewed: mutuality has been undermined by an extreme individualism which has weakened co-operation and polarised our politics,” they say.

In his book, The Third Pillar, Raghuram Rajan – a US-based Indian economist who did foresee the global financial crisis, but was told by his elders and betters not to be so stupid – argues that society is supported by two obvious pillars, the state and markets, but also by a neglected third pillar: the community. That is, the social aspects of society.

“Many of the economic and political concerns today across the world, including the rise of populist nationalism and radical movements of the Left, can be traced to the diminution of the community,” he says.

“The state and markets have expanded their powers and reach in tandem, and left the community relatively powerless to face the full and uneven brunt of technological change. Importantly, the solutions to many of our problems are to be found in bringing dysfunctional communities back to health.”

In his book, The Common Good, Robert Reich defines his subject as “our shared values about what we owe one another as citizens who are bound together in the same society – the norms we voluntarily abide by, and the ideals we seek to achieve”.

Since the late 1970s, however, Americans have talked less about the common good and more about self-aggrandisement; less “we’re all in it together” and more “you’re on your own”. There’s been “growing cynicism and distrust toward all the basic institutions of American society – governments, the media, corporations” and more.

But the last, more hopeful words go to Collier and Kay: “We see no inherent tension between community and market: markets can function effectively only when embedded in a network of social relations.

“Humans are not selfish, maximising individuals, pursuing their conception of happiness; they seek fulfilment which arises largely from their interaction with others – in families, in streets and villages, at work.”

Ross Gittins is the economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald.

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