Bethan Staton reflects on some of the conversations at the first edition of Talking Economics, an event developed in partnership between the Economics Observatory and the long-running festival of economics at Bristol Ideas.
According to Diane Coyle (University of Cambridge and a lead editor of the Economics Observatory), ‘Cogs and Monsters’ represent some of the worst of mainstream economics.
The cogs in the title of her latest book are what economists traditionally assume people to be – rational, predictable and obeying a set of known laws. The monsters are unknown, unexpected events that disrupt the ordered world imagined by those assumptions.
By treating people like cogs, overlooking the knotty realities of their lives or bending them to fit economic models, Diane argues economists risk responding badly to the challenges of the world, and creating new monsters of their own.
In her interview at Talking Economics, Diane put forward a few ideas for avoiding those traps. Economics, she says, must work to welcome people from diverse experiences and backgrounds. And economists must speak more to the companies, charities and people living the realities of the models they study. The plea was aimed at the whole discipline, but it was also the approach adopted by the festival, which brought together real-world experts and economists for three days of discussions last week, 17-19 November 2021.
The Thursday’s line-up, with a morning of discussions on the legacy of Covid-19 and an afternoon panel on Brexit, had no shortage of monsters either.
The opening panel – on the inequalities that pre-date and were worsened by the pandemic – could have been depressing listening.
Abi Adams-Prassl (University of Oxford and co-founder of the Covid Inequality Project) explored why workers with insecure jobs and low pay were hit hardest by pandemic lockdowns, and Jane Van Zyl of the charity Working Families showed how women with children bear greater burdens of care and being penalised at work.
Sarah Smith (University of Bristol) brought the discussion back to the intergenerational gaps that leave young people without the assets their parents enjoyed, while Richard Blundell (University College London, UCL) looked to the more immediate setback of missed schooling, worsened for young people without supportive parents or access to technology.
For a young audience, mostly made up of early-career civil servants and students, it was probably little comfort to contemplate that the impacts of intergenerational inequality could be lessened or worsened by other imbalances in areas like gender, race, worker status and parental wealth. And later panels dug deeper into difficult realities that economists might miss.
Former University of Bristol GP Dominique Thompson shared lessons from tens of thousands of appointments that, by the time she left her practice, were in nine out of ten cases linked to mental health. She believes the rise is fuelled by young people labouring under unmanageable expectations of success.
Fabian Postel-Vinay (UCL), a labour economist, said the same is happening in the world of work. A rush of job vacancies in warehouses over people-facing roles is just one indication of a labour market becoming dominated with jobs that are ‘less fulfilling and more stressful’.
In a discussion of the global consequences of the pandemic, Vyoma Dar Sharma (University of Oxford) reflected on her fieldwork, which found women in India had shouldered the burden of monitoring Covid-19 and distributing healthcare in the pandemic. An afternoon panel on Brexit exposed more about how economists got things wrong: Swati Dhingra (London School of Economics) recalled telling a panel audience on a night of the referendum that nothing was likely to change, only to watch Sunderland’s vote announced and sterling tank in world currency markets minutes later.
After months of physical separation, it was a joy that this year’s festival in economics took place in person, at the ‘We the Curious’ science museum on Bristol’s waterfront. But in an evening panel on reparations, Leon Sealey-Huggins (University of Warwick) reminded us that the setting also holds a history of brutal economic injustice that continues today.
Bristol was built out of profits made by the trading of slaves between African and the Caribbean. That money fuelled the industrial revolution, and the following years of fossil-fuel driven growth lay the groundwork for catastrophic climate change. Now, it is the Caribbean and other island states, historical colonies, that stand to lose the most from rising seas levels and changing weather.
For there to be any possibility of reparations, Leon and co-panellist Patricia Daley (University of Oxford) argued we must respond not just with economic measures but by dismantling these relationships of exploitation and extraction. Faced with other intractable problems, the morning’s panellists also called for radical solutions – and often expressed impatience with the politicians that are failing to enact or even contemplate them.
Jagjit Chadha, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), argued the that government’s insistence on deficit reduction meant it was ‘reneging on its responsibility’ to make big investments in public services, create long-term regional growth projects, and ultimately build a better society. He and Sarah Smith were among several economists to float the idea of a wealth tax, both to fund the massive public spending needed and lessen yawning wealth divides.
Other panellists argued more money wasn’t necessarily a solution. Rather than throwing money at an NHS that is unable to hire the staff it needs, health economist Carol Propper (Imperial Business School) said the government should redirect funding to nurses’ wages, mental health and preventative services. That would mean addressing root causes and stopping crises happening, rather than responding when they become – usually more costly – emergencies. She called for better funding for early years and childcare – a demand repeated time and again in discussions on work and gender inequality.
For those of us who (like me) spend a lot of time trawling through spreadsheets in search of data that explain what’s really going on behind the headlines, though, one of the biggest treats of Thursday’s line-up was an interview with Grant Fitzner, chief economist at the Office For National Statistics (ONS).
It felt like a peek backstage on a year when the ONS had to rethink everything about its approach to statistics. When lockdown happened, it realised its old approach of releasing data that showed what employment or GDP looked like six months after the fact wasn’t going to cut it. Almost overnight, organisations needed to answer questions that were meaningless before, like how many people wore facemasks, or were staying at home. Collecting data using face-to-face methods also became impossible.
The ONS responded quickly, publishing weekly Covid-19 infection statistics and new surveys, and using new datasets from sources like banks that gave real-time information about what was happening in the UK. GDP estimates started coming out monthly, and other datasets that had been ignored for years suddenly became important.
Grant recalled contemplating, pre-pandemic, whether to scrap a ‘obscure little thing called registered weekly deaths’, a publication that was read rarely. A year later, grimly, it had become one of the most-watched figures in the country.
And although the new approach to publishing national statistics is much more work, he said the ONS will stick with the changes. ‘We’re doing a lot more stuff, although we still can’t do all the things we want to do’, he said. ‘We’re not going to go back to where we were pre pandemic. This is the new world.’
On a day focused on bridging the gap between the real world and economics, a look into statisticians’ attempts to make data useful felt particularly apt. And after listening to so many economists switching on to the difficulties actually being experienced by working families, young people, educators and medics, we left the Talking Economics event in little doubt that collaboration between economists and the rest of us can come up with transformative answers to difficult questions.