by Ruth Bergan of Trade Justice Movement
Despite ten years of working on trade, migration and other issues that have everything to do with the economy, I approach this reading list with the same sinking feeling as I did GCSE trigonometry. As with trigonometry, I’m pretty convinced I’m not going to understand it, and even the bits I do I will forget instantly because I’ll never use them in real life. Happily, this is not the case for the first week’s readings and films.
The unpromising-sounding chapter ‘Why study economics’ defines economics as being about ‘who does what, who gets what, and what they do with it’ - so far, so good. It makes a good start at breaking down the edifice that is ‘economics as a technical subject for a small group of (self-) important experts’. For example, it explores the way in which markets are often referred to as purely mechanical, technical things, and people believed to always act only in their own economic self-interest, until markets start to fail, or any one of us pays a bit more for something because we think it’s more ethical than the cheaper version. At this point markets suddenly develop traits such as a ‘loss of confidence’, ‘jitters’, or react to ‘uncertainty’, it becomes apparent that what we are talking about are relations between people and that it is utterly ridiculous to try to isolate the economy from society and politics.
Since I work for the Trade Justice Movement, it is of course music to my eyes to read the following: “Nothing better exemplifies economists’ know-it-all attitude than debates over free trade. Conventionally trained economists take it as a proven fact that free trade between two countries always makes both sides better off [they have a] near religious devotion to free trade”. The evidence that this is not the case has been mounting up for decades (see the reading in coming weeks by Ha Joon Chang), but has been consistently denied by neoclassical economists (I now know what this means because it’s explained in the chapter).
Standford starts to explain and critically examine capitalism as a system, pointing out that it has not ended hardship for billions of the world’s people, even though there is enough wealth to go around, that the environment is being destroyed and millions of people are unemployed. The ‘invisible hand of the market’ is not successful at distributing wealth and other socially-desirable goods (like health care) equitably. Standford is unapologetic about which end of the political spectrum he is placing his writing, and both chapters could be accused of not offering a balanced picture. However, his point is that the other side of the story is accepted as ‘fact’ and therefore dominates all other debate.
The chapters provoked a lot of questions: what would a different economy look like? Can we organise work differently: why is 9-5, five days a week expected of us all, all the time? How can we ensure that perspectives other that neoclassical economists get air time? The chapters also assume a constant need for progress and innovation, which seems to rule out other ideas like a steady state economy or ‘de-growth’ – I’m going to try and make time to read the rest of the book to see whether this comes up (I think that makes me a nerd).
Both of the films essentially address one aspect of the current capitalist system: ever-increasing consumption and its human and environmental impact. Morgan Spurlock needs no introduction but I’ll confess that I had never watched Super Size Me (despite the fact that it came out nearly ten years ago). Overall it’s a damning indictment of McDonald’s, arguably the poster-company for late-20th-century capitalism. The film focuses on the shocking health impacts of their food, but the economics are there (and if you’ve read Standford’s chapters, you’ll probably be primed to pick up on them): from the sheer numbers of fast food outlets in the US, to the huge lobbying operations and omnipresent advertising (in 2001 McDonalds spent $1.4 billion on advertising). Worth a watch to see the dark side of capitalism in action, but probably won’t teach you a lot more about economics if you’ve done your reading.
The Story of Stuff is much shorter (about ten minutes) and follows the life cycles of goods. It underlines that the exponential increase in consumption hasn’t happened by accident, but has been planned since the end of World War II to drive economic growth, perpetuated by large corporations and their (unhealthy) relationship to government. Possibly the most depressing statistic of the film is that 99% of the stuff that Americans buy is thrown out after 6 months. Main message – we need to turn back the clock on our culture of consumption (I think I might have been listening to too many party conference speeches).
Overall, I’d say none of this is too challenging, but it’s really useful to have all the arguments in one place. Bring on week two!
Each week someone from the econowhat? team will be reading the books and articles and watching the film. That person will post up their comments here to get the discussion started, then please add your own comments. The bloggers are not expert economists, but other people we know are, so don't be shy to ask questions.
Nadia Idle, War on Want
Maddy Evans, Jubilee Debt Campaign
Ruth Bergan, Trade Justice Movement