Questions and answers about
the economy.

Pause for thought

The UK faces crises – from housing and health to slow economic growth – at home, as well as those of a more global nature – stemming from climate change and geopolitical challenges. The country will soon vote for the party they believe best placed to rise to the occasion.

Newsletter from 24 May 2024

On the edge of the London School of Economics (LSE) campus, on Portugal Street, sits a sculpture by Mark Wallinger. Its name – The world turned upside down – comes as no surprise once you have seen the piece, but it does reinforce the core message.

At first the installation looks like any other globe. But very quickly you notice something curious: the planet is flipped. Most of the world’s landmass now sits at the bottom of the orb, and the vast Indian Ocean sits proudly in the upper hemisphere. The North Atlantic Ocean swirls around the southern side of the world, and, just out of sight, we can assume the planet is capped by the icy plains of Antarctica.

The inversion is striking. Countries and continents normally familiar in shape jump out at you in surprising ways. India now reaches up towards the equator, with Sri Lanka drifting above it like a backwards apostrophe. The African continent stands as a mighty pyramid, with Egypt (of all places) nestled in its bottom-left corner, far below the Cape of Good Hope, which stretches out to the new north. The United States, normally such a dominant geographical image, is relegated to the edge of London’s rain-smeared concrete, struggling under the mass of Mexico, Brazil and the rest of Latin America. Nothing is as it should be.

But this is all relative. Actually, there is no real reason why we should think about the earth in any particular orientation. Floating in the milky way, the green and blue marble makes just as much sense whichever way you look at it. Ultimately, there is no up, no down, no east, no west, no clockwise. In space, nobody can hear you scream ‘that’s the wrong way around’.

And yet, when the skies darken and the world seems frightening, people often say that their ‘world has been turned upside down’. In a personal crisis – like grief, illness or even professional failure – or while witnessing a global catastrophe – like war or famine – we can sometimes feel so lost that it seems as if left is right and right is wrong. Things that were once certain and rigid appear distorted and confused.

In recent history, there has been no shortage of these moments. Lives and livelihoods have been swept aside by conflict – from Gaza to Sudan to Ukraine to Yemen. Climate change threatens millions with burned crops, rising oceans and dying ecosystems. And microscopic viruses invisible to the naked eye have ground entire economies to a halt, causing people, both old and young, to be shut away from the world for months on end. How many individual worlds have been flipped on their heads in the last year alone? The number is immeasurable.

But what does an upside-down globe in central London have to do with any of this? In the face of numerous horrors at such a scale, how can an art piece tell us anything useful?

In my view, it is simple. Wallinger’s work invites us to ask questions and challenge our expectations. Rather than accepting the familiar, The world turned upside down reminds its onlookers to double-take, to look twice, to pause. Perhaps taking the time to view things differently, even just for just a couple of minutes, can lead to something interesting.

Never let a good crisis go to waste

With every crisis comes opportunity. According to one British prime minister, at least (and reiterated more recently by a US politician), these periods of intense volatility should never be allowed to go to waste. Challenging circumstances can force us to look at the world differently, and to break away from old assumptions about the ways things work.

The Economics Observatory (ECO) is a good example. Founded in May 2020 by Romesh Vaitilingam (our editor-in-chief) and Rachel Griffith (University of Manchester/Institute for Fiscal Studies), the Observatory was set up initially as a response to Covid-19.

What could academic economists do to help policy-makers navigate the challenges of lockdowns, vaccine rollouts and the rise of remote working? How could the research community act quickly to inform decision-makers in the face of a new threat? What role would the economics profession play in overcoming the pandemic?

Forged in the fires of an historic episode of economic, political and social upheaval, the Observatory proved that economists have a critical role to play. Crises create countless questions – and robust answers become worth their weight in gold.

Today the world feels almost as volatile as it did when ECO was launched back in 2020. Four years, more than 800 articles, almost four million page views, and three UK prime ministers later, and the world keeps generating new challenges.

One is the political future of the UK. On Wednesday, Rishi Sunak announced a general election, to take place on 4 July, in a statement outside Downing Street. Against a backdrop of lashing rain and the distant vibrations of D:Ream’s song ‘Things can only get better’, it was difficult to view this moment as anything other than yet another lurching step in the country’s chaotic recent history.

As discussed in my newsletter from earlier this month, whoever is in power in July will face a treacherous set of policy challenges. From faltering economic growth and creaking public services, to a crippling lack of housing and struggling schools, the next government will have its work cut out. Evidence-based policy will be more important than ever.

Goodbye for now

I end on a personal note. Today is my last day as centre manager at the Economics Observatory. I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved during the last four years and feel very lucky to have been part of something so engaging, so important and so much fun.

I would like to thank Richard, Romesh, Ashley, Denes, Kirsty, Xenia, Rahat, Andrea, Josh and Finn for being such an excellent team to work with. Thank you too to Christian, Sarah and Alvin at the University of Bristol, and to Jim and Paul at LSE. Finally, thank you to our fantastic board of lead editors, to all our excellent contributing authors, and to ECO’s growing ranks of readers. It has been a pleasure and privilege to work with, and for, you all.

And remember, next time any of you find yourself in Holborn, make sure to take a look at the curious globe on Portugal Street. You might spot something that makes you think differently.

Author: Charlie Meyrick
Image: The 'World Turned Upside Down' by Mark Wallinger, Portugal Street, London. Credit: Image taken by author.
Recent Questions
View all articles
Do you have a question surrounding any of these topics? Or are you an economist and have an answer?
Ask a Question
Submit Evidence