When I was an undergraduate, I used to be surprised that economics has such a bad reputation. As I’ve learned more about the world, I am less surprised, but it still disappoints me.
In theory, economics should be invaluable to making our world better, helping us make the right decisions based on our values, and build consensus around them. Unfortunately, though there is a lot of such decision making going on in the world, most people involved don’t think of it as economics. And what people do think of as economics based decision making, they often feel does a bad job of reflecting our collective values.
Some would say the answer is to stay away from economics – to just make all our decision-making purely from the heart, and to not try to rationalise anything. I’m somewhat sympathetic to that point of view – I’ve even seen how good I am at rationalising some decisions that go against what I knew in my heart was right.
But I tend to prefer the more optimistic approach of helping people “understand” and “do” economics better. That is, to involve a wider segment of the community, to help them understand the decisions that need to be made, and to think about how their worthy but often conflicting values should influence the decisions. This avoids leaving serious economic issues to small groups that may not have our best interests at heart.
On Thursday I went along to the second in a series of evenings designed to do just that. Hosted by Marylebone’s Cockpit Theatre and in conjunction with New Economics Foundation, Economics Burlesque (subtitled ‘Stripped down economics’) is a monthly event aimed at engaging a wider audience in a number of the important economic debates that are going on right now that matter.
Last Thursday’s was on questions related to pay differentials (i.e. why some earn so much more than others), engaging a fairly mixed audience on questions like:
- Do salaries reflect social benefits/costs, and should they?
- Should currently unpaid work (e.g. parenting, caring, or even helping family members move paving slabs) be paid?
- To what extent does pay inequality reflect, or cause undesirable power dynamics?
- Should unions have a say in setting salaries?
- Is it better to use taxation or wage controls to reduce inequality?
These aren’t easy questions, and it never helps to engage others if you oversimplify or assume that your values are universal. I was therefor pleased that both facilitator Timandra Harkness and key speaker Helen Kersley both avoided that kind of arrogance while still being insightful and entertaining. The audience members responded positively; the evening was marked by a genuine willingness to listen to and learn from others’ points of view.
I’m not sure we were ever going to go with a clear, meaningful consensus, but I think everyone went away having been challenged a bit, but somewhat comforted that we’re not alone in thinking that we want to do better than the current state of affairs.
I’d definitely recommend the series as worthwhile, and have booked my seat at the next evening of Economics Burlesque on Tuesday 20th May, on the topic of “Debt”.