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The perils of leaving economics to the experts

One hundred years ago the idea of ‘the economy’ didn’t exist. Now, improving ‘the economy’ has come to be seen as one of the most important tasks facing modern societies. Politics and policymaking are increasingly conducted in the language of economics and economic logic increasingly frames how political problems are defined and addressed. The result is that crucial societal functions are outsourced to economic experts. The econocracy is about how this particular way of thinking about economies and economics has come to dominate many modern societies and its damaging consequences. We have put experts in charge but those experts are not fit for purpose.

A growing movement is arguing that we should redefine the relationship between society and economics. Across the world, students, the economists of the future, are rebelling against their education. From three members of this movement comes a book that tries to open up the black box of economic decision making to public scrutiny. We show how a particular form of economics has come to dominate in universities across the UK and has thus shaped our understanding of the economy. We document the weaknesses of this form of economics and how it has failed to address many important issues such as financial stability, environmental sustainability and inequality; and we set out a vision for how we can bring economic discussion and decision making back into the public sphere to ensure the societies of the future can flourish.

The well-being of Europe’s citizens depends less on individual consumption and more on their social consumption of essential goods and services – from water and retail banking to schools and care homes – in what we call the foundational economy. Individual consumption depends on market income, while foundational consumption depends on social infrastructure and delivery systems of networks and branches, which are neither created nor renewed automatically, even as incomes increase. This historically created foundational economy has been wrecked in the last generation by privatisation, outsourcing, franchising and the widespread penetration of opportunistic and predatory business models. The distinctive, primary role of public policy should therefore be to secure the supply of basic services for all citizens (not a quantum of economic growth and jobs). Reconstructing the foundational has to start with a vision of citizenship that identifies foundational entitlements as the conditions for dignified human development, and likewise has to depend on treating the business enterprises central to the foundational economy as juridical persons with claims to entitlements but also with responsibilities and duties. If the aim is citizen well-being and flourishing for the many not the few, then European politics at regional, national and EU level needs to be refocused on foundational consumption and securing universal minimum access and quality. If/when government is unresponsive, the impetus for change has to come from engaging citizens locally and regionally in actions which break with the top down politics of ‘vote for us and we will do this for you’.