Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Economics Is for Everyone: Boom Bust Boom Conference Reviewed

Last week I had a work meeting in Manchester, which gave me an ideal opportunity to catch up with this, the Boom Bust Boom Conference at Manchester University, organised by the Post Crash Economics Society and Rethinking Economics. The Post Crash Economics Society was founded in Manchester in 2012 after a group of economics students got fed up with the fact that the only economics they were learning was the kind that'd led to the crash, and that no-one was questioning - or encouraging them to question - the assumptions behind this.

If a three-day conference discussing economics sounds really dull, it's probably because we've been encouraged to think of economics as technical, dull, mathematical and nerdy, and entirely inaccessible to ordinary people. On the news we've often presented with economic facts as it they arrive by divine intervention, rather than as a result of human actions and interactions. The society and the conference are set up to challenge this.

The conference had attracted some really top-notch speakers including Ha-Joon Chang and Paul Mason, but sadly they were mostly on the first day so I missed them. One of the events I missed was the UK premiere of Boom Bust Boom the movie, a film made by Monty Python star Terry Jones, which attempts to explain how we ended up in this mess.

Happily, as at many events, it's often the people you've never heard of who make the most interesting contributions. 

The most interesting talk I went to was by Devrim Yilmaz, a diminutive Turkish academic who was once on the staff at Manchester. Yilmaz is the only person I've met who was able to explain clearly and simply why the Eurozone is perpetually in crisis, why it will be perpetually in crisis if it continues as it is, and why some people are doing very well from it - in short, that it isn't a crisis at all. Clue: it's all about keeping the weaker economies inside the eurozone, while keeping them weak, so that the value of the Euro stays down, thus making the exports of the richer countries more competitive. Their reward for putting up with this should be capital transfers from rich to poor countries, but now rich countries are getting grumpy about that end of the deal. In short: austerity, it doesn't work, won't work, and he had the graphs to prove it. It was quite fascinating and enlightening. Yilmaz used to be employed at Manchester, and helped the students set up an alternative economics module, after which his contract wasn't renewed. Censorship: it doesn't exist in the UK, or our universities, people. Yilmaz is now at Kingston, and I rather suspect their gain is Manchester's loss.

The other talk I found very interesting was by Karel Williams, who talked about something he called 'foundational economics'. This is the idea that most of the services that we rely on - food, power, healthcare, education - can't simply be bought anywhere or sourced from the lowest bidder as they are geographically located. This means that they are not really subject to the market choice which modern economics claims they should be, and are in effect protected from the open market. Companies which operate in these protected, immovable sectors should be expected to meet a different set of standards - in effect, social standards - than those which operate in a really open market, where, should the consumer not like their offer, they are at liberty to refuse their products. I hope I've understood this right: Dr Williams kindly gave me a copy of the book about all this but I haven't read it yet. He also talked about the resilience of this part of the economy, and how we should base a healthy national economy around things we all need, like food, utilities, healthcare and education, rather than on intangibles or exports. I've met - and I'm sure you all have too - dozens of people setting up their own businesses with some kind of social slant, their hobby/passion for cheese or beer or teadresses or tents mixed with an emphasis on locality and sustainability, but I had never met anyone who was able to provide an intellectual basis and justification for this kind of homegrown social economy. I did ask Dr Williams if the hipsters were going to save us all, and like a politician he dodged the question, but did concede he quite liked craft beer.

I also went to a workshop on feminist economics, which sadly, was very underwhelming. All in all it was a fascinating day and there was quite a wide variety of people attending. One of the things I liked was how little discussion there was of traditional 'left vs right', almost as if for many younger people, the distinction is no longer live. It was refreshing to be in such a boiling pot of ideas, without people lining up along a set of tired old lines.

I really hope that we could have a similar event in Bristol: I am sure there would be a lot of people interested in attending and adding to the discussion.

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