‘We need more economists.’
How often have I heard that statement in various JiE discussions, at our College workshops and elsewhere? Sir Ghillian Prance and Tim Cooper have said it, so has our chair, Paul Bodenham, and I’m sure many others. (We have also said that we need more theologians, but I leave that to another conversation.)
But do we need more economists? Or rather do we need to ensure that we all have at least a good appreciation-level knowledge of economics, and of the different schools within economics? This latter is what I argue in this paper. And that we also need, between us, a good appreciation-level of psychology, sociology, politics and other social sciences, of the different schools within those disciplines, and of their applications in various applied fields, including business, public health and environmental studies.
While a good working knowledge of theology, philosophy and some other disciplines may not hurt either. Additionally, we now recognise the importance of the story in winning hearts and minds, so some skill in creative writing would also help.
In an article in the magazine Prospect a group of economists defend their discipline from the challenge to their discipline from Larry Elliot of the Guardian. Elliot argues:
“Neoclassical economics has become an unquestioned belief system and treats anybody who challenges the creed of self-righting markets and rational consumers as dangerous heretics … Complex mathematics is used to mystify economics, just as congregations in Luther’s time were deliberately left in the dark by services conducted in Latin.”
The economists say that they just analyse data ‘to understand how people make choices, because that determines how they respond to policies and how they interact.’ And that this data analysis help them advise governments ‘on issues as diverse as which poverty alleviation policies actually work, how best to recruit and retain community health nurses in rural areas, and how poor households can be supported in their parenting practices to foster the development of their children early in life.’
They say they don’t really hold with the ‘infamous “homo economicus” theory, which says that humans are both selfish and rational.’ That this theory does explain the behavior of many corporations, but:
‘it does poorly at explaining how we treat our children—but ‘it is useful precisely because it serves as a benchmark. Economists spend most of their time studying departures from this benchmark—altruism towards our children, irrational behaviour when drinking. And not just at the fringes.’
I italicized the latter quote because that is precisely why I believe we need to be wary of economists. No matter how broad-minded and liberal some economists may be, their training leads them to see anything but rational, self-interest-maximising behaviour as departure from the benchmark.
What about self-image, peer-pressure, a sense of belonging and our other socio-emotional needs? What about conscience, a sense of obligation, our profound duty to love our neighbours, or the sense of valuing something for its God-given beauty? All these motivations that religious belief should enhance but are by no means confined to people of faith – are these all to be regarded as deviations from the norm of optimizing individual marginal utilities (or whatever the jargon is!)?
Robert and Edward Skidelsky, economist father and philosopher son, wittily argue (in How Much is Enough) that only the very young can be effectively instructed in the dominant economic dogma. More mature minds would ask too many question.
So what areas of expertise do we need in Joy in Enough? Given that we recognize the need to go to authoritative sources with research-expertise for guidance on the specifics of policy – such as CUSP (Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity), NEF (New Economics Foundation) and some issue-specific organisations.
We just need that appreciation-level knowledge to be able to understand what these bodies are saying, the context in which they arrive at their conclusions and recommendations, the alternative policies they may be arguing against. Let’s see how this would work out in a number of specific areas:
Resource and emission caps, so that we transition to an economy that operates within the planetary boundaries identified by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Here we just need appreciation-level understanding of climate, biodiversity and other key scientific fields, and of the political context in which these measures are being fought for. But we leave the actual campaigning to Operation Noah and the big Christian and other NGOs.
Reducing inequality in income and wealth to acceptable levels: economists can tell us the tools we can use (e.g. different forms of taxation of income and of wealth, higher minimum wage, reducing top-bottom ratios within companies. They can predict the ‘disincentive’ effects of higher taxes or the effect of higher minimum wages on certain sectors – based on their assumptions of rationality and financial motivation.
But other disciplines or professions can also help us. HR (human resources or personnel) managers or professionals can predict within company and labour market effects of many of these measures. HR research casts doubt on the existence of a fully competitive market for CEOs and top executives. ‘Top brass’ are not necessarily tempted to other companies, particularly to companies abroad, by bigger remuneration packages, in the way that top footballers, say, are. (Think about it – CEOs tend to be 50 not 25 and with families settled in communities.) Social scientists and theologians may be able to tell us how rewards might be framed differently by the top performers. Remember the chief constable of Cornwall who refused to take a performance pay bonus, and said that it was insulting to offer one to someone at his level?
At the other end of the pay scale small business experts need to be consulted about how socially valuable small businesses might survive minimum pay increases – for example by some form of local social contribution subsidy?
A more equal distribution of employment hours and opportunities is an important component of inequality and unemployment reduction, as well as being a component of work-life balance and thereby a means towards greater well-being. This is a particular area in which economic expertise is particularly questionable. Conventional economists tell us that the proposition that a more distribution of employment hours reduces unemployment is the ‘lump of labour fallacy’; that the way to reduce unemployment is to expand the economy, thereby creating more jobs; that even if some jobs are lost in the ‘creative destruction’ involved in the economic expansion, the new jobs will more than compensate for those lost. Maybe economic growth will lead to more jobs. But most economic growth has dangerous environmental consequences. Whereas redistributing 40 well paid jobs at £50k a year and 50 hours per week among 50 people at £40k per year and 40 hours a week mathematically leads to a gain of 10 jobs without extra cost to the firm’s wage bill. Mathematics is much more solidly based than economics!
HR management expertise is of particular relevance here. How can working hours be best shared out in different types of firms, in different sectors? What are the implications for recruitment, training, pensions, etc?
Again a range of social scientists, such as those involved in health promotion, have expertise relevant to winning hearts and minds for such policies. The over-worked and very highly-paid middle classes, especially, need to be won over to such policies.
Other important policy areas for us include:
- ‘De-marketing’ – restricting and regulated advertising and the other process used in the excesses of consumer product marketing
- Promotion of social capital, getting people more involved in their neighbourhoods and in local community organisations
- Promoting local, and what Molly Scott Cato describes as bio-regional, economies – regions just big enough to be fairly self-sufficient in terms of food and other goods and services.
While economists may have some contribution to make in areas such as these, expertise in areas such as psychology, sociology and social policy, business and management, and agriculture are probably of greater importance.
So what expertise do we need in Joy in Enough? On economics I recommend two fairly short books written for the layperson by Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang. 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism is a bit orthodox ‘leftie’, but is written in a very clear and punchy style, very short paragraphs. Economics: The User’s Guide is a bit harder going, but working through its 460 pages gives you a good understanding of the main concepts and arguments, and the differences between the nine main schools of economic thinking.
Reading these two books help you understand some of the main texts on which our thinking on the political economy is based – Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth, Dietz & O’Neill’s Enough is Enough, Raworth’s Doughnut Economics and the above-mentioned Skidelskys’ How Much is Enough?
We need one or two professional economists to keep us in touch with ‘mainstream’ developments, and to ensure that the policies we are lending our weight to have been fully thought through. Which of course do we have already in the JiE College.
What about the other social sciences – psychology, sociology, business and marketing, etc? I think a similar reasoning applies. We should all try to have some basic appreciation-level understanding of these areas, with a few specialists amongst. Perhaps it would be too much of an ask for us all to have as much knowledge of all these areas as we need to have of economics.
I was very impressed by the inter-disciplinary approach used by Jillian Anable and two colleagues in An evidence-based review of public attitudes to climate change and transport behaviour for the Department for Transport in 2006. They reviewed the literature on a wide range of theories that are being used or might be used to explain this attitude-behaviour link. These included a number of economics-based, psychology-based and sociology-based approaches, community theories of behaviour, and stages of change models. Not surprisingly their conclusion was that a combination of all may be required, but more weight given to the latter-mentioned. ‘Whilst economic measures are important, attempting to predict people’s behaviour on purely economic grounds (rational choice theory) is rarely adequate’.
We need to find more studies like that on inequality reduction, social capital promotion and all the areas of interest to us.
I remember the definition of an economist that Michael Jacobs, Gordon Brown’s advisor on green economics, gave us at a SERA conference: an economist is someone who is good at figures but does not have the charisma to become an accountant…
How much more of a sense of the ‘charismatic’ is needed for advising on the complex societal questions that interest us in Joy in Enough? ‘Charismatic’ in the sense of an appreciation of the rich pageantry of our collective life, and an active interest in all the disciplines and studies that can throw light our world.
As theology can. But again, do we need more academic theologians or do we need to be all theologically-literate?
4 Replies to “Expertise needed in Joy in Enough”
Comment from Paul Ballard:
As a practical theologian interdisciplinary working has characterised my approach. As an academic I have also had to be aware of the limitations and dangers of being in such a position.
In a world of specialisation and multiplicity of disciplines it is difficult to cross boundaries and trespass into another’s domain. It is also too easy for the amateur to rely on a very limited knowledge of another discipline. One is exposed to ridicule and dismissal by the expert.
Of course, it is difficult to master a range of disciplines, though some seem able to straddle the barriers. Yet such dialogue is absolutely necessary. The only recourse is to be sufficiently literate to be able to recognise something of their working and limitations, as well as knowing one’s own limitations. That is why, when writing for Joy In Enough, I always append a bibliography so that those handling it can see where I have been. It must be legitimate for there to be external critics of a discipline, challenging orthodoxies and assumptions and conclusions.
But I still am very aware of my limitations and how difficult it is to get into another’s shoes; how exposed one is and open to simple misunderstandings and mistakes.
While working on Joy in Enough I found some interesting questions.
(a) As a theologian I discovered that there were two almost totally disconnected dialogues going on: (a) theology / ecology – creation care; and (b) theology / economics. In each case there was almost no reference to the ‘other’ party whether economic or ecology. This in fact reflects the wider situation. In the socio-economic field there may be reference to sustainability issues but only as an add-on, another issue to be taken up, not as a primary challenge to the economic paradigm. Similarly, ecologists recognise the radical situation posed by bio-degradation, but seldom see it as a challenge to our human way of life per se. Also, issues are looked at as particular challenges (climate change, plastic, deforestation) without spelling out the total interconnectedness of these matters. This is where, for me, JiE offers a real challenge and sides with the small but emerging voices that call for a radical recognition of and challenges to the human condition.
(b) Do we need experts? Yes and no! There should probably be enough balance of basic expertise to ensure that the task is informed. But who should be invited is a question. Experts may have an overview of their subject area but will themselves have their own perspectives. An expert who is ‘one of us’ may not be representative. In any case this does not absolve the need for the ‘literate, critically aware amateur, as above.
Perhaps what is needed is greater structure and explicit demands and discipline in the process. There is no need to ‘start again’. Much has been achieved which can be built on. Perhaps however, there could be a return to look at the methodology, aims and direction of the project. It may be that too much was expected too soon. I can remember some of the C/E social reports which were the fruit of patient and careful work.
(c) I still think that JiE points to an important and necessary dimension in the sustainability battle. While there are signs of change (renewables etc) the fundamental issue has hardly begun to emerge – the need for a radical change of social and human practice in relation to planet earth. This in the end is a matter of how human beings understand themselves. ‘What is man?’ This is not just a theological question but a universal one. At the same time Christians are in a peculiar place to respond to it. We have something to bring to the table (whether they hear or not) and we should not be ashamed of it. But this also requires a literate and informed range of theological amateurs.
With respect, and not meaning to demean any of the ideas expressed here, I think there is far too much emphasis on academic debate in most of the writings so far. I honestly don’t think it matters a whole lot whether we recruit more economists, or more theologians, or both, or neither. What we need to recruit is good communicators – and we also need to have a clear message to communicate. I’m not sure we’re at that point yet. Rather than more theoretical papers, we should begin to focus on practical issues that affect people’s everyday lives. In exactly the way that David Attenborough has recently drawn worldwide attention to plastic pollution in his ‘Blue Planet’ series, we ought to be doing the same thing with regard to excessive consumerism and the inequality of wealth and resources. Attenborough did not write loads of papers about this (if he did, they didn’t make the news), but made his point through graphic filming and through stressing that we are not only killing off marine life, but potentially killing off ourselves, by allowing plastics to enter the food chain. Can we succeed in making a similar impact?
This ‘thread’ is getting interesting! I was originally setting out to address the points raised by Tony and Paul, but won’t be able to resist making a few remarks on Ruth’s contribution too. Regarding the need for more experts, I am reminded of some guidance from John Lennox when talking as a mathematician about the impact of faith on our attitude to illness. While trying to demonstrate the value of faith in our lives, he wanted to quote some statistics that he had read about the psychological effects of illness in people of faith in comparison to those with no faith. The results were startling. However, before drawing the obvious conclusion, he decided to consult the experts in the field of psychology with his hypothesis before pronouncing on it. As it turned out, it didn’t matter whether those psychology experts were believers or not, they all endorsed his conclusion. He therefore felt free to speak publicly about it.
The key point here is not that he had to invite the psychologists to be part of his team (they probably had more pressing things to attend to), but that he decided to test his hypothesis out on those experts rather than just reading what they wrote and drawing his own conclusions. So rather than inviting more experts in and potentially blunting the message through ‘drafting by committee’, it might be better to “ensure that we know where all the key experts live”.
Compose, Consult, Conclude!
Regarding Ruth’s remarks, I agree to a point. Communication is a key element, but we need to understand that people only hear what they want to hear. David Attenborough rightly strikes a chord with his message on plastics because we can all relate to the problem (“practical issues”, as Ruth calls them). However, one of the attractions for the public here is that the solution lies somewhere else (e.g. with the product designers, the supply-chains, the retailers and the waste recyclers). The planet will not be rescued by stopping the use of plastic. It’s simply a symptom! The key cause of the degradation is, as Paul rightly points out, the “human condition”. The issue for us is that it will take more than a good communicator to break that pattern. It will take the Holy Spirit. Until we are articulating that Christ is the answer, I am not sure that we will get through. Sermon over!
Thank you Ruth and Paul for your contributions, which help keep this thread going .
Kurt Lewin, early 20th C psychologist, said ‘there’s nothing as practical as a good theory’. A good theory is one that explains and predicts, that leads us to the truth. Vital importance in this ‘post truth’ age. We had a lovely homily on this from David our area dean at a Wednesday morning Eucharist, relating to the reading from St Paul on the nature of truth. Good natural science and social science helps us make sense of our world. Theology gives us an under-pinning perspective on the wider nature of truth. (Similar to the point you make Paul?) So I do think there is a role for theory.
But I agree we Ruth that we don’t need any more lengthy, wordy documents. I also agree with the importance of good communication and having a clear message to communicate. Hence the importance of the debate we’ve started on identifying our USP or distinctive features. How are we different from the Quakers, Tearfund Restorative, etc? Also Tanya and I are both keen on writing stories with JiE themes.
I agree with Paul that we don’t need to have any particular area of expertise in our college, but perhaps have a network of good contacts that we can bring in as required. John Daniels suggests something like a core group of people, perhaps with appreciation-level knowledge of theology and a range of fields, who would meet face-to-face more regularly, calling in the particular expertise as required.
That group might also ‘begin to focus on practical issues that affect people’s everyday lives’ as you suggest Ruth. You have made a good start with your reclaiming Advent and Christmas project. We might adopt or spawn more such projects – on housing In London and the affluent university cities for example. The CUSP newsletters often gives good examples. But we need to recruit more person power to follow through on that.
Thank you both again