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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Rethinking economics - first workshop of new think tank

Last Saturday (27th November) I organised a workshop, the first public outing of a new think tank I've helped start - the Centre for Progressive Economics. The title of the workshop was 'The Global Economic Crisis: Analyses and Responses' and on a very cold morning around 30 people braved the elements to listen to three presentations and discuss ways in which the progressive left in general and the Trades Union movement in Northern Ireland in particular could beef up its analysis through engaging with university reseachers and becoming informed of the growing and existing evidence base for alternative economic analyses and policy prescriptions to the dominance 'neo-liberal' one.
The first presentation was from my colleague Andrew Baker who gave a wide-ranging, informed, incisive and provocatively entitled paper "Why Austerity is not commonsense but a politically driven nonsense". In his paper and subsequent discussion during the Q&A, Andrew systematically outlined and then demolished 5 'myths' that characterise the UK Lib-Con coalition's economic rationale and rhetoric of 'austerity' as the only policy option for the UK.
The five myths are
1. The country was on the verge of bankruptcy and risked becoming like Greece
2. Government debt is like household debt, or credit card debt. Like a household we have to balance the books and not live beyond our means as a nation.
3. Spiralling public debt is the result of 13 years of ruinous Labour spending and economic mismanagement.
4. Bond markets were demanding cuts in public spending and without them interest repayments on government debt would have spiralled out of control, choking off any prospect of UK economic growth.
5. Fiscal austerity is expansionary and will lead to private sector growth

The upshot of Andrew's analysis is that there is no economic rationale behind the drive for austerity, but rather represents a poliotically opportunistic attempt by the coalition to:

a) drive through deep public sector cuts now and blame the previous Labour adminstration on it, while the latter is still fresh in the public's memory. As Andrew puts it in his conclusion:

"The principal driver of the strategy is political opportunism and a concerted effort to pin the blame on the last government. This is the coherent thread running through the narrative the government are constructing."

and b) ferment/re-ignite class divisions and social tension. As he puts it
"Government strategy looks to be an effective way of fermenting class politics, social polarization and dislocation. "

Both the dogmatism around 'there is no alternative' to austerity and the deliberate creation of class tensions have obvious echoes of Thatcherism and its clear the Con-Lib adminstration is laying down a marker for how it wishes to proceed in 'remaking broken Britain', largely by breaking up the welfare state and immiserating millions with all the social costs of that, it seems.

Andrew's presentation was followed by John Woods (Convenor, NI Green New Deal group) who talked about a green approach to responding to the economic crisis. His presentation on ‘The Green New Deal in Northern Ireland’ outlined how this rather unique coalition of groups and organisations (from the Trades Unions to the CBI, Friends of the Earth, NICVA and the Ulster Farmers Union) have proposed job creating policies around the retrofitting of social housing, which also tackles fuel poverty and reducing carbon emissions. See here for the group's Housing proposals.

The final paper was from Andrew Fisher (Coordinator- Left Economics Advisory Panel) the title of which was "It’s the politics, stupid: ‘Responding to the UK Comprehensive Spending Review’" in which he pointed out the millions in unclaimed tax which could be used to address the fiscal problems of the British state, rather than attacking those on low income and welfare. Based on previous research by the Tax Justice Network he explained how the existing Tax Gap and Tax Injustice within Britain means that £120 billion in tax is lost, avoided or uncollected.

The final element of the day was a open discussion around the relationship between the Trades Union movement, progressive economics, academics and academic research. It was opened by Brian Campfield (NIPSA) and touched on issues around the research needs of the trades union movement, the importance of being briefed and up to speed on the latest research and the need for a focus on challenging the media's constant re-inforcing of the dominant neo-liberal line when discussing the economic crisis and Northern Ireland's response to it in particular.

It was a good start, the first of many and well done to all who participated and helped in its organisation.

It is hoped that the papers and presentations from the day will be put up on the Centre for Progressive Economics website soon.


  1. The current round of cuts are, as you say, opportunistic - in fact, I'm reminded of Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine. Make a big clamour about tings to pass through ideological changes while doing the books.

    The roll-back neoliberalism of the 1980s, the roll-out neoliberalism of the 90s and early part of this century are being furthered by this current round of neoliberalising everything! Nature included. It will be some time from now before we begin to see the true 'Big Society' but I have the feeling it will destroy the state, shrinking back to an even smaller shadow behind big business - who we have no say over.

  2. sorry, I forgot to leave any contact details!

  3. Thanks for the comments Ribert - what are your contact details? Best, John


    I just twigged who you are btw, I'm studying sustainable development at Exeter and have read some of your books!

    I have just started blogging for Earthscan, and at 10 Ways blog, I found your blog due to the topics discussed.

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