Knowing Your Place – part two

5 May

Knowing Your Place was originally written to support a proposed event in 2018. In that brief note I reflected on the new meaning of the phrase. Once it was just a parental demand for subservience and ‘not speaking out of turn’.   Now it’s a Place-Maker’s celebration of Open Data and a vastly greater understanding of the local economy and community needs.

In Part two my attention turns to the wealth of fresh economic thinking. I say ‘fresh’ but it’s evident that ideas currently regarded as radical or outside of mainstream conventions have been around for decades. The puzzle is to understand why these commonsense ideas have struggled to be accepted.

This resistance to fresh thinking is not uniquely British. Deeply embedded but demonstrably errant economic dogma is a global concern. That in large part reflects an intellectual legacy underpinning the formative education of folk who now govern or influence policy. The re-education process will take a fair few generations to resolve.

In the UK, however, we have a particularly virulent strand of dodgy economic dogma that thrives largely because we have a very very centralised economy. In other countries with a more federal approach there is greater scope for economic diversity and experimentation amongst regions or municipalities. But before that thought distracts you, let’s review a few of these ‘fresh’ thinkers.

Throughout the profession there are economists who understand that things are not quite right. Not surprisingly these thinkers often try to differentiate their ideas. Those alarmed by widening inequalities – for example Stephanie Flanders – would prefer Inclusive Growth.   Similarly we’ve had mechanistic approaches, Economic Sciences, Positive Economics, Humanistic, Social, Monetary and umpteen other variants. All these attest to the diversity of thought and their advocates’ desire to avoid (or downplay) addictions to never-ending growth, over-simplistic price/demand graphs, supposedly free & efficient markets or fully informed rational actors.

Others come to the field with environmental and sustainability perspectives. The Circular Economy notion – regenerative to minimise waste of natural resources – has given rise to ‘systems thinking’ as expressed in Ken Webster’s ‘A Wealth of Flows’. This exposes the complexities of our interconnected world and takes on board the feedback loops that old-school economists might too easily dismiss as irrelevant externalities – leastways until they show up during investigation of ‘unforeseen consequences’.

Yet others take exception to simplistic political notions that government is bad and only private enterprise is to be valued. Leader of that rebel pack is, without doubt, Mariana Mazzucato and her work on The Entrepreneurial State where she lays bare the vital contributions of state-led investments subsequently exploited by the private sector with insufficient returns to the public purse.

And then we come to Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’.   Kate’s economic map is not of the sugar-coated variety with jam in the middle. This doughnut looks to lift folk from social deprivations (visualised in the central hole) whilst curbing the tendencies to reach beyond the outer edge of the ring where collectively we might threaten the ecology. Far from ‘deregulation’, Kate speaks of ‘re-regulation’ to better align policy with purpose and operate within the ring. Here’s an attempt to marry ‘redistributive’ and ‘regenerative’ policies – tackling both inequalities and wasted resources.

Kate’s work is hailed as ‘fresh’ but it takes years to be recognised as an ‘overnight star’.   Her ideas have been articulated for nearly two decades. Much of her research highlights the way that in recent times mainstream economists have been highly selective in their references to early thinkers such as Adam Smith. Understanding those dogmatic distortions is helpful but what is new is the power of visualisation. The ring doughnut provides a handy graphic that helps frame policy debates but is not pretending to be a pseudo-science.

The common theme amongst all these works is that they are directed towards the State – national governments and the establishment. They come across as grand top-down ideas; yet more supermodels. Not surprisingly it is painful to bang heads on brick walls that are reinforced by decades of dogma and where radical change seems unimaginably complex without some miraculously orchestrated global enlightenment.   The exception to that general top-down prescription is, perhaps, amongst advocates of the Circular Economy where some demonstrable progress has been made by careful evangelisation amongst a few global enterprises.

So perhaps an alternative approach to implementing these ideas is to take a leaf out of Ellen MacArthur’s Circular Economy Foundation. They have identified large enterprises (like Phillips or B&Q) as business communities where ideas can be worked out. Why not then start by applying the ideas, not at central state (national) level, but in cities and communities where local needs are diverse and the appetite for fresh thinking is strong? Do not imagine that there is some perfect model – a panacea – but understand that these works provide great scope for stimulating local leaders, communities and citizens to envision a brighter future with all manner of local enhancements to wellbeing – be they economic, social or environmental – in this era of rapid digitalisation.

Which thought brings me back to ‘Knowing Your Place’. Only by understanding the real needs – the locally diverse requirements that fall outside of standard economic models – are we able to address the ‘real’ economy and leave behind the rough average approximations of theoretical economists in high (and often distant) places.

There’s a time (which is now) and a place (near you) for every purpose. Let’s not delay and let’s not direct our efforts towards the centre when all about us can be transformed. These are ideas that need to find their place.

­­­­­­­_____________________________

References:

Inclusive Growth Commission – RSA Report:

https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/final-report-of-the-inclusive-growth-commission

Ken Webster, ‘A Wealth of Flows‘: ISBN 9 78099 27784

Mariana Mazzucato, ‘The Entrepreneurial State‘: ISBN 9 780857 282521

Kate Raworth, ‘Doughnut Economics‘: ISBN 9 781847 941374

 

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