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Monday, 9 November 2009

Academic Capitalism and Knowledge as Capital

More off-cuttings from the 'buke' I'm writing....

“The University is a business and anyone who thinks otherwise is sadly mistaken. We are a business with education at our core –the intellectual capacity of the University is first and foremost – but the University needs to generate income streams in order to shape its own destiny rather than have it determined for it.”
Bob Burgess, Vice-Chancellor, University of Leicester (University of Leicester, 2007; emphasis added).

Let us take one (amongst many) example of the normalisation and ubiquity of the regime of ‘economic truth’, to use Foucault’s term, under neoliberalism. Education, especially, but not limited to higher education, is now increasingly and primarily viewed and organised through an economic lens – a degree is needed to get a job, generic employability skills are embedded in modules taught, state funding for research privileges those forms of knowledge which can potentially contribute to economic productivity and competitiveness, academic staff are increasing appraised and judged against a variety of economic and quasi-economic criteria. Education is not viewed, promoted or seen by its recipients i.e. students (now of course re-named not customers or users) or by teaching staff (trainers) as something a ‘good in itself’, nor are objectives of creating critical citizens, engaged in their communities and wider society (Barry, 2007b).[1] In Alistair MacIntyre’s terms the internal goods and standards of the ‘practice’ of education is being undermined or corrupted by the externally imposed goals of the ‘institution’ of the modern university geared towards economic objectives and organisational self-understanding (MacIntyre, 1***). Notions of ‘mission-led’ science, technology or engineering, that is, the creation of knowledge and technologies to ‘make the world a better place’, improve human well-being wilt in the face of imperatives and incentives for ‘commericalisable research’, intellectual property rights, patents, spin-out companies, ‘use relevant’ research; Knowledge-Transfer Partnerships and now in the UK, the Research Excellent Framework (REF) and its focus on measuring and rewarding the ‘impact’ of research.

As the same time, as encapsulated by the quote from the Vice Chancellor of the University of Leicester above, universities are today not simply places for the production and consumption of ‘market-relevant knowledge and skills’ but are themselves businesses, and therefore in competition with other ‘knowledge providers’ in a global marketplace. As Paul Ramsden, Chief Executive of Higher Education, recently put it:

The narrative of this contribution has concentrated on the challenge of how to maintain and improve our performance in global terms. To secure world class status by 2020, we will need to sustain the UK’s pre-eminent position as a provider of high quality teaching and student experiences against a background of a larger and more diverse student population and increasing international competition.

(Ramsden, 2008: 10; emphasis added).

All this is seen by critics as ‘academic capitalism’ and characterised by “the increase of external research funding at universities and a market-orientation of research” (Keskinen and Silius 2005: 18). This academic capitalism and the commercial corruption of the practice of universities (in teaching and research) has become particularly acute in the current economic recession as business leaders and corporations as well as the state demand that ‘research and development’ is corralled and marshalled in the service of pulling the economy out of recession and to ensure the ‘international competitiveness’ of the domestic or regional economy.[2]

Guala, in a review of Foucault’s The Birth of Biopolitics, notes that:

The government must constantly intervene, but on society, rather than on the economy itself. Notice the diametrical opposition with social democracy: government intervention is not required so as to fix the imperfection of markets, but to make a market economy possible – by creating and sustaining competition, for example, by having in place an appropriate legal system that supports the functioning of markets. But also by encouraging entrepreneurship in all areas of life, including those areas that were traditionally alien to the economic way of thinking and acting. In a world were individual choice, risk management, investment in personal development and so forth have become ubiquitous buzzwords, these ideas do not seem bizarre at all. (Guala, 2006: 6; emphases added)

The actors, institutions, habits, subjects of neo-liberalism need to be actively created, sustained and re-created as necessary – the role of government is to create active consumers, active entrepreneurs, to instil entrepreneurialism as both normal and desirable (even enforceable) and to accommodate society to the needs and requirements of the ‘the market’ rather than vice versa. In this way, the move to embed entrepreneurial skills within university undergraduate programmes in the UK is but a real world example of the operation of this ‘regime of economic truth’ or the ‘neoliberal planetary vulgate’ (Bordieu and Wacquant, 2001). One of the policy priorities of the British government since the early 1990s has been to render the country more economically competitive by transferring knowledge into wealth creation. A regulated quasi-market in higher education was created by the 1988 Education Act, by which the government forced universities to respond to market pressures and to become more entrepreneurial in terms of income generation from non-state sources. This led to radical changes in institutional organisation, management and behaviour, including most significantly the growing influence of business interests on university priorities, with businesspeople influencing the curriculum. Throughout the 1990s, successive British Governments emphasised the role of universities in the ‘knowledge society’ and the need to be more entrepreneurial within the globalised knowledge economy. For instance, in 1993 the Conservative Government launched a ‘technology foresight programme’, intended to encourage networking between researchers and the ‘end users’ of research (principally businesses, especially those technology related), to identify priorities for research development and to exploit them according to economic and social demand. The 2003 White Paper The Future of Higher Education argued that radical reform was necessary to widen student access to universities and to make universities more responsive to the demands of the global economy. These set the framework within which universities operate as adjuncts to the demands of the national and global market, to ensure the production of university graduates and universities themselves with the skills, experience, competency and character to secure and enhance the international competitiveness of the UK economy.

One example of this embedding of an entrepreneurial ‘economic truth’ is the following press statement which accompanied the awarding to the University of Nottingham of the ‘Entrepreneurial University of the year’ in 2008:

Ian Robertson, Chief Executive of the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship, which sponsored the category, said: "Choosing a single successful university was difficult. But entrepreneurialism was a clear and visible part of Nottingham's culture. A very difficult decision was eased by the breadth and depth of that entrepreneurial culture at the University, from senior management through to staff and the student societies. (University of Nottingham, 2008)

The current prioritisation of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is yet another instance of this ‘economisation’ of the university – a further transformation of institutions of higher learning into servicing the current needs of the national economy in the context of a global market. Other bodies of knowledge, subjects and disciplines – philosophy, classics, foreign languages that are not related to ‘emerging markets’ (such as India, China, Russia), cultural studies, are deemed ‘superfluous’ to the requirements of the ‘lean and focused’, market-orientated, modern university keen to be seen to be producing ‘impact’ and ‘policy-based’ research. As Claire Fox has put it, “Forget being a ‘curiosity-driven’ scholar; become a thoroughly modern ‘impact’ researcher, contributing to the economic and social wellbeing of the nation” (Fox, 2009), though the reality is that although ‘social wellbeing’ is publicly stated as a goal of publicly funded research and teaching, the reality it is a poor second to the ‘real deal’ of contributing to ‘economic competitiveness’. Research and teaching aimed at social wellbeing is not excluded, but certainly not supported to the extent that knowledge leading to commercial exploitation is. Government’s rhetorical support for it also functions as useful window dressing and a convenient fig leaf to hide behind whenever this crude economisation of the university is broached.

The newly established Excellence Framework (REF) is simply a continuation of the ‘closed’ system of disciplined assessment, ranking and categorisation of individual university departments and universities as a whole which goes back to the 1988 Education act. This ‘panoptic performativity’ (Perryman, 2006) of the ‘excellence’ ‘qualispeak’ and ‘audit’ and attendant ‘micro-managerial’ academic organisational culture has largely rendered academics into the ‘docile and compliant bodies’ necessary for this form of governmentality to operate successfully. As Readings (1996) put its there is an ideology of “excellence” which functions to judge, rank and control knowledge production within universities, and produce particular types of bodies and subjects in both academics (‘on message and orientated towards producing high impact, quality publications’ etc) and students (‘the oven ready’ graduate).[3]

From a Foucauldian, MacIntyre or Marxist perspective, the ideology of ‘excellence’ (a powerful discourse, partly from being so generic, in terms of focusing on ‘fitness for purpose’, as well as, at least initially, being such obviously a ‘good thing’ – who can question ‘excellence’?) is an extremely powerful mechanism for further integrating the University with the productive, economic logic of globalised capitalism through the disciplinary activities of the ‘competition state’. This discourse ‘works’ not because nobody knows what ‘excellence’ is but because everybody thinks they know what is (Lim, 2007: 6), and therefore the ‘pursuit of excellence’ becomes like the US Declaration of the ‘pursuit of happiness’. As Readings notes:

Generally, we hear a lot of talk from University administrators about excellence because it has become the unifying principle of the contemporary university. (. . .) As an integrating principle, excellence has the singular advantage of being entirely meaningless, or to put it more precisely, non-referential. (Readings, 1996, p. 22)

How does a university compete in a market where everyone is claiming and being judged by ‘excellence’ benchmarks? If every university is excellence, what does that mean? Apart from the tried and tested mechanism of ‘excellence inflation’ (which nicely complements ‘grade inflation’ at the student level) – whereby one simply tries to hyperbolise and exaggerate one’s ‘excellence’ as better from other universities’ ‘excellence’ (Darbyshire, 2008: 37) – one can join an ‘elite’ grouping of universities (say the Russell Group in the UK which markets itself as the ‘Top 20 research active universities in the UK’) or seek to be placed in the top 10, 50 or 100 of some market and politically meaningful league table with one’s competitors.

As Readings puts it, excellence “draws only one boundary: the boundary that protects the unrestricted power of the bureaucracy” (Readings, 1996: 27; emphasis added). Any department that fails to conform is simply closed down, as can be witnessed in the erosion of subjects such as classics, philosophy, womens’ studies, cultural studies i.e. any subject deemed not achieve the required standard when those standards of excellent are increasingly composed of economic objectives.

Here we see the disciplinary fulfilment of the discourse and practices (institutionalisation and bureaucratisation of ‘quality controlling’) of ‘quality and excellence’ within the academy. In Loughlin’s words: “The purpose of the ‘quality revolution’ in management theory was explicitly Orwellian. Its goal: to produce a language to facilitate the control of working populations by making meaningful opposition to the policy decisions of senior management within organisations strictly impossible” (Loughlin, 2004: 717). For those academics caught in the disciplinary web of such bureaucratised systems, or at least those who have some sense of disquiet about such processes, there is a sense the whole ‘research excellence’ and other academic quality control exercises are grudgingly put up with (if not actively resisted) as a form of ‘tax’ to be paid for being a ‘scholar’ in the modern higher education world of ‘total and totalising quality control and controlling’.

As Derbyshire has forcefully put it:

The worlds of health care and education have been colonised by ‘The Audit Society’ and managerialism. Under the benign guise of ‘improving quality’ and ‘ensuring value for money’ a darker, more Orwellian purpose operates. Academics had to be transformed into a workforce of ‘docile bodies’, willing to scrutinise and survey themselves and their ‘performance’ as outcome deliverers and disciples of the new ‘Qualispeak’. (Darbyshire, 2008: 35)

What is crucially important to understand here is the partial and one-sided ‘entrepreneurialism’ that is being prompted by state and university management. Social entrepreneurship, encouraging novel and creative forms of ‘active citizenship’ is resolutely not on the agenda. Here is important to review the rhetorical commitment on behalf of the state to an expansive conception of entrepreneurship

Reforming curriculum and assessment…will ensure graduates who are educated to the standard which the future economy and well-being of our nation demands. That standard must enable them to embrace complexity, climate change, different forms of citizenship, and different ways of understanding individuality and cooperation. A student experience that is fit for the future will develop their qualities of flexibility and confidence and their sense of obligation to the wider community. (Ramsden, 2008: 11)

This sounds good, but the vast bulk of effort has not gone into encouraging forms of active citizenship in relation to climate change or social responsibility, but rather into conventional economic growth activities. Ramsden goes on to state that

The vision of learner as passive consumer is inimical to a view of students as partners with their teachers in a search for understanding – one of the defining features of higher education from both academic and student perspectives, and powerfully embodied in academic culture since at least the time of Humboldt. There is no reason to impose a false divide between higher education as a road to a better, more highly-paid career and a vision of it as a life-changing personal experience. (Ramsden, 2008: 16)

But such rhetoric rings hollow when one weighs up the stress on purely economic, productive scientific, technological dimensions of entrepreneurialism, innovation and creativity. Investment in technological and scientific knowledge production will always be disproportionally more expensive that most social science and humanities subject areas. Nevertheless a quick glance at the sheer scale of the disparities of funding for STEM subject areas in teaching and research and social science and humanities, really brings home a sense of where the state’s priorities lie and therefore where the priorities of university management lie. To use Foucauldian terminology, modern universities are actively creating particular sorts of subjects, shaping – rather explicitly in the constant reference to the ‘student experience’ in modern University management speak - and rendering these economically necessary subjectivities (skills, knowledge, dispositions, character traits) socially and culturally desirable.

Indeed, discussions of ‘academic freedom’ within government – such as a speech by Bill Rammell is curiously one-sided in which only some things and issues are up for debate. In his speech the then Minster used academic freedom as a counterpoint to Islamic extremism on university campuses (Rammell, 2007). For example, questioning economic growth – while of course not outlawed (at least not yet) – is nonetheless neither encouraged, actively supported or regarded as a ‘good career move’ academically speaking, given it is such a heterodox and ‘dissident’ intellectual pursuit.[4]

The point of this brief excursion into the modern ‘brave new world’ of ‘knowledge production and consumption’ (aka modern universities) is to demonstrate, as if this were needed, the real world, institutional and mundane, workday context within which knowledge is produced, taught and disseminated in the modern university. While of course it is entirely possible that the dominance of neo-classical economics could have taken place in an academic context different from the one described as happening over the past 20 years or so in the UK, it is also the argument of this chapter that the institutionalisation of the forces of ‘academic capitalism’, viz., the quality controlling auditing bureaucracies, the manipulation by the state of the political economy of research funding, the promotion and ‘encouragement’ of ‘impact’ oriented research ‘excellence’, all provided the conducive institutional conditions for the privileging of neo-classical economics and its achievement of ideological and pedagogic hegemony within the academy.
[1] A wonderful example of this which fits perfectly a Foucauldian analysis (or indeed one based on MacIntyre’s critical analysis) is the re-naming of the UK Department of Education as the Department of Business Innovation and Skills. Enough said.
[2] A good example of this is the increasing calls in the Republic of Ireland for more funding for applied scientific and technological research (reference) or more worryingly, the general trend in research funding which allocates fewer resources to fundamental research in favour of supporting and boosting research which has an industrial or economic application.
[3] The discourse of the ‘over ready’ graduate is revealing in that it is not, as one might expect, used as a critical term in deconstructing or analysing higher education, but also used as a positive or merely descriptive term. As an example, see the following from the newly appointed Director of the Business School in the Southampton Solent University: “I have always been keen to develop graduates who were enterprising and employable – and that will be my ethos here at Southampton Solent. I want our courses to produce oven-ready graduates who can hit the ground running, not only in business skills, but also in enterprise” (Southampton Solent University, 2009; emphasis added). For further analysis of the ‘oven ready graduate’ see .
[4] Of course there are some exceptions such as academics like Herman Daly who have developed successful academic careers in questioning orthodox economic thinking and economic growth – or more recently Tim Jackson and his well-received report and book Prosperity without Growth (Jackson, 2009). This issue of green or heterodox positions which challenge what passes for ‘common sense’ and the orthodox mainstream, will be explored further in chapter X.. in relation to reading green politics as a form of ‘dissident’ politics within contemporary capitalist societies and cultures.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Dig where you stand .....and die

As usual, reading and writing on the 'buke' that is obsessing me - and for whatever reason occasioned by re-reading Molly Scott-Cato's wonderful book - Green Economics - I was reminded about how we can define community. I'm always banging on about 'digging where you stand', that is doing the best you can, doing what you can do in your local community, but it struck me this also is about (or could be about - I don' want to frighten the youngins out there!) about the sense of 'home' of 'being' one feels in recognising that all this digging where you stand is also digging your own grave - metaphorically speaking. To think that where you are now, all the people and wonderful stuff you do now in THIS place at THIS time is ....well...a prelude to your graveyard oration (clearly I'm arrogant and confident enough that there will be people who will be concerned about such things when I'm gone!). This may be a new test of community each of us can try. If you were to die, do you think anyone apart from your immediate circle would notice? Where in other words do we find meaning for the ultimate human experience that is death? For me, its where I am now and perhaps that is the greatest value I can place on where I am and feel part of.... I'm not feeling poorly by the way so I plan to be around for a good while yet!!

The Economist Emperor has no clothes: Toxic Textbooks and Dissident Economics

The children’s fairytale ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ is useful (like Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax) for uncovering the ultimate psychological and cultural basis for how we think about economics, and economic practices and concepts such as money, credit, exchange, property, patents etc. Something becomes real with power and potency not because of its own qualities but because enough people imbue them with these qualities i.e. it becomes ‘real’ not because it exists but because enough people say it exists. Reciprocally, the economic imaginary creates and sustains its own subject – that is to say economics studies not the real economic world as it is, but bases its claims to knowledge on its study of an imaginary world – the economic imaginary. In large part this imaginary is made possible by the progressive disembedding of the economic from society (Polanyi, 1947). This imaginary world is peopled by perfectly rational, utility maximising individuals, firms existing in perfect competition and a market which clears at a price when supply meets demand.

According to Gilles Raveaud, one of the co-founders of the ‘post-autistic economics’ movement in France, one of the reasons for starting the movement was criticism of

"the construction of ‘imaginary worlds’ by economists. That is, worlds which do not have any link with any plausible mechanism in reality. Such worlds (the famous ‘models’) are just developed for their own sake, because of their tractability. We no longer want to be taught such fairy tales, the aim of which is not to explain ‘reality’, but just to show the ability of the writer to construct a ‘nice model’. It may be fun for the authors, but we do not want to be part of the game". (Raveaud, 2000)
Now ‘myths’, ‘fairy-tales’ and ‘imaginary worlds’ are not terms we usually associate with modern economics and the application of these terms – which I think is perfectly appropriate – seems to suggest a critique of economics that goes beyond its false denial of its normative assumptions and refusal to see itself as ethical, partial and biased, ideological and political. And that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this! So long as there is openness and honesty about value positions and normative judgements, neo-classical economists have as much right as anyone else (but a strictly equal right) to contribute and make arguments around how the economy ought to be organised. This is the appeal for pluralism within economics that is at the heart of the heterodox and post-autistic economics movement.

A good example of how frustration with the dominance o the neo-classical orthodoxy is being expressed is the ‘Toxic Textbooks’ campaign. This is a campaign started by students in the Sorbonne in Paris in 2005 for greater pluralism within university courses on economics – a demand for greater democracy and debate within the teaching of economics. The ‘Toxic Textbooks’ campaign is on one level simply another front in the battle against the neo-classical orthodoxy and in many respects that is correct. But it also reveals in a very public manner the fact that what is at stake here is an ideological battle for ‘hearts and minds’ and not simply an ‘epistemological’ paradigm shift in some Kuhnian sense. One of those who have championed the campaign is the heterodox economist Steve Keen who in a provocatively entitled article entitled ‘What a load of bollocks’, notes how despite the current economic crisis and the fact that neoclassical economists did not either predict it not after the crisis see any need to correct some of its basic assumptions, the orthodoxy intends to continue on as usual and regardless.

Two prominent economics textbook writers have recently written that the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) shows that the world needs more economics rather than less. Writing in the New York Times, Gregory Mankiw could see some need to modify economics courses a bit in response to the GFC, but overall he felt that: “Despite the enormity of recent events, the principles of economics are largely unchanged. Students still need to learn about the gains from trade, supply and demand, the efficiency properties of market outcomes, and so on. These topics will remain the bread-and-butter of introductory courses.” Writing on a blog The East Asia Forum, authors Doug McTaggart, Christopher Findlay and Michael Parkin wrote that: “The crisis has also brought calls for the heads of economists for failing to anticipate and avoid it. That idea, too, is wrong: much economic research pointed to the emerging problem. More economic research (and teaching), not less, is the best hope of both emerging from the current crisis and of avoiding future ones”. What a load of bollocks. The “principles of economics” that Mankiw champions, and the ”More economic research (and teaching)” that McTaggart et al are calling for, are the major reason why economists in general were oblivious to this crisis until well after it had broken out. (Keen, 2009a)

The sheer dominance and power of the neo-classical orthodoxy, the profound lack of debate and criticism within the modern academic economics profession means that while of course the normal academic channels and modes of knowledge production should be used to develop and articulate critiques (such as academic journals, publications, research projects and conferences), there is also a need for direct action as it were. As against an authoritarian regime, dissidents would be foolish to advance their arguments against the regime solely by the established ‘rules of the game’. In the case of academic economics journals these are almost completely monopolised by the orthodoxy, with heterodox economists forced by the lack of pluralism and encouragement of dissident perspectives within mainstream academic economic journals, to create their own publications, journals and associations to support and promote their work. In this way the ‘Toxic Textbooks’ campaign can be seen as the ‘direct action’ complement to the ‘normal’ channels of intellectual protest. Like an authoritarian political regime, the neo-classical intellectual regime is largely immune and deaf to critiques through the ‘normal’ channels –hence the move to the streets by heterodox dissidents and their explicit casting of the issue in terms of a battle for hearts, minds and curriculum.

As Keen in another article noted:

The current economic meltdown is not the result of natural causes or human cnspiracy, but because society at all levels became infected with false beliefs rarding the nature of economic reality. And the primary sources of this infection are the “neoclassical” or “mainstream” textbooks long used in introductory economics courses in universities throughout the world…If economics were in any sense a science, this dramatic failure would lead to a period of soul searching and intellectual ferment from which would emerge a more empirically grounded vision. But with the essentially unscientific nature of economics, this development is unlikely unless enormous pressure is brought to bear on academic economics departments by their students, by business groups, unions, and community groups–in short by anyone whose welfare is affected by the economy…The most immediate source of pressure will be students of economics, who can and should actively protest against being taught neoclassical dogma as the global economy goes into meltdown around them. (Keen, 2009b)

It is not only the inertia of the established and therefore powerful orthodoxy that explains why one can understand this more ‘direct action’ approach being taken by the dissidents, but also because the stakes are so high. The economy and teaching about economics is far too important to be left to a self-selecting and self-reproducing ‘sect’. In short, because whoever controls the teaching of economics controls the policies that determine how the human economy operates, the stakes are enormous in terms of affecting well-being and survival of billions of people. The stakes are enormous also because the economy is human sphere which has the most direct, material and metabolic relationship with the non-human world which is the ultimate foundation for all life on the planet – human and non-human. If, as the dissidents believe (and I count myself amongst those dissidents) that the current economic orthodoxy is literally causing the liquidation of the life-supporting systems on the planet (and calling this ‘progress’), then their direct action, using whatever means necessary, is understandable and laudable. It is in defence of life and an earth-based economics supportive of life and well-being against the life-destroying or life-ignoring imperatives of the ‘orthodox economic regime of truth’ that the foundational motivation of the dissidents can be found. Ultimately, the ‘Toxic Textbooks’ campaign is about taking back control of economics from a powerful intellectual elite and their dominant paradigm which supports, justifies and give intellectual credence to an economic system that is literally killing life.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Greens in Government - its not whether or not you sup with the devil, but simply how long is your spoon

After another conversation with someone this morning about, amongst other things

As Green Party TD and Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources noted in the Dáil in a debate in early July 2008:

We bought bigger cars for the status that it gave. We built bigger houses with X number of bedrooms and bathrooms, regardless of how we were going to heat these massive properties. We flew to New York in a way that turned Madison Avenue into our latest Grafton Street…Let us be honest with ourselves that is the phenomenon that occurred… In the last decade China and India started to produce our goods for us at a fraction of the cost. That brought down inflation in the developed world and allowed the central banks to lower interests internationally, which led to easy lending, bad lending. (Irish Times, July 11th, 2008)

Greens in government - Its not whether or not you sup with the devil, just how long is your spoon

Ocassioned by another conversation with my good friend John McCormick - who also feeds us since its his organic fruit and veg that feeds my family and I every week - discussing the all too common statement that the 'greens have sold out' by being and continuing to be in coalition govt in the Republic with Fianna Fail (FFers). You hear and see it everywhere the all too glib refrain of 'the one ethical party has sold out', 'I'll never vote for the Greens again'; 'I feel betrayed by the Greens' and other statements along similar lines. This dilemma was forcefully brought home to me (not that it needed any reinforcing for me!) at the meeting on 10th October in Dublin where the party took the decision to continue in govt on the basis of the revised programme for govt. Some party members were saying similar things - and the issue of NAMA seemed to act as the lightening rod for various concerns members had about our continued participation in govt.

I want to outline my own take on all of this. I believe politics is the 'art of the possible' which also means its the 'art of compromise' - those who niavely think that one can get all one desires politically within the modern liberal demcratic system are well....naive. If they don't want to play the game of liberal/bourgeois party politics, then well...don't play the game. Go and play a different one, and while of course this does not mean those who refuse to play the game cannot criticise those of us who do, at least acknowledge that we who play the game know the game's rules...we're not naive. We know and accept its about compromise, and negotiation and at root about the politics of 'good enough' or 'second best'. So yeah I'm a full on 'realo' , realist but with principles and often wonder if people who do criticise do so on the basis of full knowledge of the game and rules thereof. Just as in Norn Iron I'd much rather a (very) bad peace than a (moderate) good war, likewise south of the border ('down Mexico way'....) I'd much rather the FF-Green coalition than FG-Labour alternative. Does anyone who cares about the need to decarbonise the economy, begin the long-overdue step change in the transition away from unusustainability seriously think this will happen in the Republic without the Greens in power?

A lot of anger has been directed at the Greens as if a) the junior member ofthe coalition that b) was not within an ass's roar of being in power during the Celtic Tiger period which laid the causes of significant aspeces of the current economic jocker the Republic's in, as if the Greens were responsible for the crisis or somehow that it is entitely appropriate for them to be judged by different criteria which means they must bear a disproportionate amount of the blame and atract a disproportionate amount of public ire and anger for the current mess. If its a junion coalition party people want to blame its the PDs not the Greens they should be after, and if they wish to direct their anger at the political authors of the current crisis - look no further than the FFers. But, and in conclusion, there is also another party that is not being factored into the conversations about who is blame for the current crisis.

Consider the following:

We bought bigger cars for the status that it gave. We built bigger houses with X number of bedrooms and bathrooms, regardless of how we were going to heat these massive properties. We flew to New York in a way that turned Madison Avenue into our latest Grafton Street…Let us be honest with ourselves that is the phenomenon that occurred… In the last decade China and India started to produce our goods for us at a fraction of the cost. That brought down inflation in the developed world and allowed the central banks to lower interests internationally, which led to easy lending, bad lending. (Irish Times, July 11th, 2008).

Who said this? An astute social and political commentator like Fintan O'Toole or David McWilliams? A member of the Labour or FG party? Someone from CORI or David Begg of the Trades Union movement? No, it was Green Party TD and Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. And what he was saying - namely that people in the republic need to look closer to home (as well as seeking other causes) for causes of the current economic crisis. While irresponsible lending by banks certainly happened, while developers built thousands of houses for the 'buy to let' market, while various Irish companies made money from promoting the puchasing of houses and apartments in eastern Europe, the Balkans, Turkey and elsewhere - no one 'forced' Irish people to do any of this (if compulusion was anywhere it was for those for whom the 'Celtic Tiger' economic boom was something they read about rather than experieced themselves). People (by which of course I do not mean ALL people - since not everyone engaged in the orgy of debt-fuelled consumption, spectulative house buying for a quick buck and all the rest of it. Yes, perhaps one of the reasons why the Greens attract a disproportionate amout of the public anger about the end of the Celtic Tiger and the curent pain is that to publicly admit that the responsibility lies sqaurely with the FFers, the PDs and their active encouragement of consumption, debt, housing speculation etc is to also have to face the fact that many people did so knowing that this was too good to be true, that maybe there was something wrong with the developer-FF coalition on the back of which so many Irish people made a lot of money snd had a high old time. Maybe, just maybe, focusing anger on the Greens is a way to avoid looking at the FF mirror in which a lot of people currently slagging of the Greens will find their own reflection. After all, its only when the tide goes out do you know whose naked, and to hide their embarassment people will use any fig leaf....Green in this case.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Neo-Liberalism as a Water Ballon

This is a fantastic, simple, funny and wonderful explanation of ne0-liberalism explaining how the operation of its principles is the root cause of our current economic problems. I particularly like the explanation of the class, gender, racial and disability division of society and its unique way of outlining how 'credit' fuels consumption and spending. Hats off and well done to those who did this!

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Thursday, 8 October 2009

TASC Progressive Economy Conference - Saturday 10th October

Just finished my presentation to the TASC Progressive Economy Conference entitled 'Greening the Economy, Greening Economics' - The picture here basically summarises the paper which critiques the dominant neo-classical economic orthodoxy - a theme I've been banging on about for years/decades its seems - ever since I first had the temerity in an undergrad economics tutorial in UCD in the mid 1980s to question the ethical and political values underpinning it. I seem to recall it was a discussion sparked by an article - whcih as I recall had lots of those impressive looking econometric algorithms and tables etc. which basically developed a 'model' and 'proof' (not an 'argument' mind or anything as 'soft' as that) that bought sex was not as utility maxmising as sex with someone you love. I'm kidding you not and I'd love to find that article again. This experience was for me (although scarily not everyone else in the class and not least the economics lecturer who shall remain anonymous) the 'emperor has no clothes' moment when I said WTF? First its obvious why this would be case but more importantly what was this economic thinking doing meddling in this aspect of human experience? I was happy (and still am) that if you've a limited budget and have to choose between a coiuple of optoins as to what coat to buy, had fixed 'non-transitive' preferences, didn't take the views of others into account, lived on this mysterious island where everyone was perfectly rational, utility maximising and there existed the utopia of a 'perfect market' with perfect information, neo-classical economics is yer only man!

The FFers

Says it all....and not a Green in sight!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

NAMA: Toxic legislation for toxic debts?

O'Donaghue resignation

I'm tempted to think that if someone were to say to me 'What do you think about O'Donaghue's resignation?', I'd reply 'A good start'. O'Donaghue is only the tip of the ice berg in terms of the culpability not just of the FFers but of other political parties in the Republic who've been parasitic on the body politic. That's why the Green Party's demand for a reduction of the number of TDs as part of the re-negotiation of the Programme for Government is spot on, as is their other demand for an end to corporate donations to political parties. O'Donaghue, like other FFers such as Ray Burke are simply an exaggerated example of the arrogance within that party that it was the 'natural party of government' in Ireland and for whom political power, priviledge and patronage (though appointments to the boards of semi-state agencies etc) was something they were 'to the manor born'. The likes of O'Donaghue have acted like an aristocracy, whose power like the aristorcracy and monarchy is fundamentally based on a lack of openness and transparency and critical reflection. If I was asked further for an epithet for O'Donaghue it would be this: 'Some people bring joy wherever they go: some whenever they go'. Let him be the first of many as the stables of Irish politics and the political class are cleaned out.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Bring back Sammy!

Things have been quiet, too quiet on the environment front here in 'norn iron' since we swapped the climate change denying Minster Sammy Wilson for his creationist party colleague Edwin Poots.

Sammy while vilified by Greens and environmentalists - he positively took pleasure in winding us up - is sorely missed since his combination of arrogance, ignorance and media-hunger was gold-dust for green campaigners, giving us plently of media coverage. So, perhaps time to bring back Sammy? Just in time for the implementation of the new sustainable development strategy perhaps?!

Big week for the Greens

This is going to be a huge week for the Greens in Ireland. On Saturday we hold a special convention to vote on two significant issues which depending on how the vote goes may mean we walk from coalition government with Fianna Fail leading to a general election - and possible electoral meltdown for ourselves - based on the kicking we got in the locals in June. The first issue is party support for a new Programme for Government (PfG) which is being negotiated and finalised as we speak. The FFers also got a kicking in the June polls and are extremely weak, so the Greens rightly are pushing them hard on getting more radical green proposals into the PfG.

The second is NAMA (National Asset Management Agency) proposed legislation - a 'toxic' piece of legislation to deal with the toxic loans in the Irish banking system. This complex piece of legislation seems to come down to basically Irish taxpayers - via the state - compensating those bankers and developers who engaged in risky and speculative financial dealings during the boom time of the Tiger economy, by bailing out the banks and buying up around 75 billion euro of toxic debt for sum of around 54 billion euros. Its a lot more complex than this, and its caused outrange within Irish society and the Green party. However, the argument we're told is that we need NAMA to get the economy going again, to start credit flowing from the banks etc.

A group within the Party, called Greens against NAMA, is calling for the party to reject it. A member of this group today emailed me the following interesting clip which makes the case against NAMA and connects it to the issue of peak oil - . In that video Party leader John Gormley does make the point that NAMA is simply kick-starting an unsustainable economy, but we're not going to change it overnight etc.

The danger, of the many that now confront the party, is that a rejection of NAMA will fuel a groundswell to reject the PfG and participation in government and lose the change of a generation perhaps for the Greens to be in power and get some radical policies implemented. If NAMA is the price for our staying in power for another 2 years, will members reluctantly support it? or should they support it? I have to say I'm conflicted on this one - NAMA doesn't look like a good deal (but what are the alternatives? - here I have to admit I'm partial to nationalising all the banks myself) - but the pragamatist in me does want the party to stay in power - but not at any cost....Dilemmas, dilemmas. On this one, politics looks less like the art of the possible than squaring the impossible...

I'll be down in Dublin on Saturday for the convention - and also speaking at the TASC conference that morning - I'll be making my mind up which way to vote on both these issues then....

Friday, 2 October 2009

What would Steiner do?

Off to an Anthroposophical Society of Ireland workshop on the financial crisis in Dublin (looking forward to it if not the 6am start!) 'Money - In Search of Truth and Reality within the Financial Crisis'.

I've been reading a little about Steiner's view of the economy - as part of his conception of the 'threefold social order' (economy, state, society), but can't say I've really understood him. In an effort to better do this I've joined and now subscribe to the Centre for Associative Economics - latest issue its journal - Associate! has some interesting articles. In one I read the following:
"To bring balance to purchase money and loan money, we need to step in through gift money and convert our excess surplus into purchase money: in effect to give away capital to maintain a healthy economy. This is not necessarily a matter of more charity; there are other ways this can be accomplished such as interest free loans, or loans that can be written down as the borrower achieves success in his or her business activity. The other solution is to cut debt, to reduce the principal on a housing loan, in effect just shrink the amount of debt in the economy. These actions free up funds to spend on core activities; ideally activities which serve the general needs of humanity – education, health, culture. This gesture is guided by the understanding that capital cannot grow indefinitely in relation to spending money, that excess surplus has to be returned to the economy in a healthy way, that my surplus at some point is probably best used by someone else, not accumulated for my benefit. “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours.” This, according to the Rabbi, is the attitude of the virtuous for it recognizes the importance of giving. The parallel in the associative economic view is the importance of gift money".

This idea of 'gift money' seems to be that for moral as well as sound economic reasons (to prevent booms and crashes) 'surplus' profits (or a proprtion of them) should be simply recycled back into the system. The idea of interest free loans has a definite appeal in relation to the financing of any 'Green New Deal' with innovative financial mechanisms such as 'Green Bonds' or creating a 'Green Bank'.

In Steiner's 1922 lectures on economics he writes perceptively about money and its role in the economy;

"We ought not to let money merely flow
into circulation and give it freedom to do
what it likes. For we thereby do something
very peculiar in economic life. If we require
animals for some kind of labour, the first
thing we do is to tame them. Think how
long a horse has to be tamed before it can
be used. Yet we let money circulate quite
wildly in the economic process

Steiner, R Lectures on Economics, New Economy Publications, Canterbury 1996 - emphasis added.

From what I can gather - or gather so far from my very limited reading and understanding of his ideas - what Steiner had in mind was the necessity to build in devaluation within the money supply. This is something I've come across before in my research and reading on alternative/complementary currencies and the use of 'scrip money' during the 1930s Depression (I wonder will our current economic woes which are being called a recession develop into a depression so that it will have to have a capital D like the 1930s?!), which was a form of local money existing alongside the official currency

One of the main issues with scrip money is it had an in-built depreciation mechanism - either each time you used it, this was one transaction closer to it being no longer useable (i.e. each scrip note had a fixe number of transactions it could be used for), or there was a date set when the scrip note would be worthless and no longer accepted as a medium of exchange. The ingenoius element of scrip money, and which speaks to Steiner's concern about the dangers of 'surpluses' being accumulated, is that these currencies encouraged exhange and economic activity but discouraged hoarding. What's the point of hoading currnecy that is 'worthless' after it time limit has come?

I would suspect that as the economic crisis deepens we'll see a return to such localised responses. Alongside people shopping more in charity shops anothe depression-beater is re-localisation, and one of the most successful and best know recent examples of this is the Totnes pound championed by the Transition movement .
Had great fun today blogging and responding to posts I put up on TASC's Progressive Economy website - first reponding to comments from mainstream neo-classical economists on the release of the Comhar Green New Deal report - and also a reply 'The Neo-classical empire strikes back' - to a post Richard Tol had put up on http://www/ attacking the report. The replies to these two posts and ensuing conversations were illiminatation. I'll put them below

"I'm sure Richard Tol, if he so chooses, will be well able to defend his position. However, for me, Richard's post identifies the clear choice between, on one hand, governments setting (and committing to) the policy and taxation regime, facilitating the market mechanisms (e.g., cap-and-trade) and applying the necessary regulation and, on the other, governments being the prime movers, investors, policy-makers, regulators, winner-pickers, etc. Att all times and places, when and where this choice is valid,and applying the tried and tested tools of economic analysis, the former is superior to the latter.
October 2, 2009 2:35 PM
John Barry said...
OK, fair enough - its clear where we both stand on an unfettered market and role of the state etc. but what about the other points raised in my post - for example the ideological bias and dominance of one take (neo-classical)on economics? I'm unsurprised whenever I raise this 'hidden' aspect of the mainstream take on economics that the silence is both deafening and telling. I'm NOT saying neo-classical appraches are always and everywhere wrong etc, all I'm asking for is a) an explicit recognition of its normative assumptions and b) greater pluralism in the debate about economic policies. Thanks for taking the time to respond.
October 2, 2009 2:46 PM
Paul Hunt said...
The difficulties always arise when the economic circumstances are such that some deviation from the first option may be required to achieve a valid policy objective. The configuration of energy policy, regulation and economic organisation in Ireland is so dysfunctional that major reform is required if the objective is to begin to alter the pattern of energy consumption and to reduce carbon emissions in the short to medium term.But this, of course, isn't on the political agenda. There may, indeed, be a role for direct government intervention in the context of incomplete, inadequate or malfunctioning markets, but only when the fundamental dysfunction is addressed. As a result we are fated to experience expensive, economy-damaging government interventions.
October 2, 2009 3:00 PM
John Barry said...
And the question as to the ideological and normative assumptions of neo-classical economics?.....Go on, you can say it here - you're among free thinkers!
October 2, 2009 3:19 PM
Paul Hunt said...
You jumped into the join between my posts - posting on this site is a pain. By no means "unfettered". Even the most imaginative S-M fan would struggle to conceive of the incentives and constraints I see as necessary. The huge body of theory and evidence has persuaded me that markets are the least worst tool we have to make capitalists (possessors of human, physical or financial capital)jump through hoops to deliver economically and socially useful outcomes. And, to the greatest extent possible, governments should focus on using this tool effectively - rather than intervening directly. There will always be plenty for governments to do in other areas.
October 2, 2009 3:22 PM
John Barry said...
So, just to be clear - the basic ideological position is the following:Markets are good, but need government regulationGovernments should stay out of marketsMarkets deliver for societyAnd of course none of these are 'objective' or 'scientific' but based on normative assumoptions not about how society or the economy is, but how the economy ought to be.But may I ask, though I guess I know the answer - what are markets for? what does a market based/organised economy deliver? Namely, orthodox economic growth - which again has a whole range of normative implications and assumptions - ranging from how this acts as a substitute for greater socio-economic inequality, its implications in terms of global justice and the distribution of development opportunities globally; how a sub-system (the economy) can expotentially grow when the larger system (the ecosystem) is finte and fixed; to the really thorny issue of the contribution of this model of economic growth to well-being beyond a threshold. So... if one is not an egalitarian, is not particularly concerned abotu global justice, or ecological limits, or that well-being ought to be a matter for public policy, then its clear - neo-classical economic growth is yer only man. Is what I've said here a complete distortion of your position?
October 2, 2009 3:39 PM
Paul Hunt said...
I'm not dodging your legitimate questions. I'm not keen on labelling - it encourages pigeon-holing and stereotyping (as well as creating carricatures), but we need to distinguish between Neocons, Neo-liberals and Progressives. As I have pointed out on previous posts, the Neocons have shamelessly purloined the neo-liberal brand which has a distinguished pedigree from Adam Smith through JS Mill to Keynes and onto Krugman, Sen and Stiglitz in the modern era. Only for the purposes of this post I would describe Neocons as "Markets everywhere; government nowhere (expect to enforce prperty rights, to clean up the mess they make or to prosecute profitable wars)"; Genuine Neo-liberals as "Markets where possible; government as and when required"; Progressives as "Governments everywhere; and markets only if we really have to". I know this is probably unfair, but if the cap fits...
October 2, 2009 3:44 PM
John Barry said...
Paul, I think you misunderstand me. I'm not interested in labelling myself, but am asking about the underlying values, and normative principles which each and every theory of political economy has - whether it makes these explicit or not. Each of the three positions you outline - neo-cons, neo-liberals and progressives - have different (and some shared) normative views, all I'm asking for is a greater honesty or self-awareness that none of these positions - and others - are objective, scientific, value-free or non-ideological. That's all. My main gripe is the continuing fiction amongst neo-classical economists that their position on the economy is somehow non-political or non-ethical or non-ideological.

So far no reply to this last post....

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Green New Deal for Republic of Ireland published

Comhar - the Irish Sustainable Development Commission - has today launched its 'Green New Deal' document outlining an alternative, green, sustainable and low carbon path to economic recovery in the Republic.

As someone who has worked on the GND for NI (and as someone who had some small input into this report), I am extremely pleased and welcome it obviously.

Some of the report's findings include:

· Revive the Irish economy and create job opportunities through building an innovative, low-carbon and resource efficient society.

· Protect ecosystems and biodiversity while reducing fossil fuel dependency.

· Provide for greater social inclusion through stimulating new green jobs, reducing fuel poverty and delivering better access to transport.

· Build ecological resilience and capacity to adapt to climate change.

It recommends focusing on the following areas:

· Improve the energy efficiency of existing housing stock
· Renewable Energy
· Transforming the National Grid
· Delivering Sustainable Mobility
· Public Sector Investments
· Skills and Training
· Green Infrastructure

All of which the report argues would create hundreds of thousdands of jobs, create economic activity as well as enhancing energy security, begin dealing with peak oil ('leave oil before it leaves us' as it were) and reducing CO2 emissions.

The report has been discussed in today's Irish Time's by Jim Gibbon

The timing of this is interesting in that the Green party has begun negotiations with Fianna Fail about reviewing the Programme for Government and its clear the junior coalition party is going to push for greater 'greening' of that programme and has a list of radical policy demands that may, given the weakened state of FF, be delivered upon.

I'd like to think that there was some synchronisation involved....and good luck to the Green negotiating team in pushing the FFers as far as possible to implement some radical policy changes.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Beyond the Growth Paradigm

"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." J Krishnamurti

Following on the previous blog, just came across this from the excellent Adbusters in Canada and the latest edition of their magazine 'Thought control within economics' . Another analysis of the need to overturn the dominance of neo-classical economics within the academy

Other inspiring sources of the fightback against this neo-classical hegemony is the 'decroissance' or 'degrowth' movement in France and the 'Toxic Textbook' campaign of which I'm a member here in Ireland -more anon as soon as anything's organised. One great aspect of this latter campaign is its provocative 'health warning' stickers it has designed to be put on neo-classical economic textbooks- see above.
Its not that the neo-classical model has necessarily got it all wrong or is necessarily 'bad' but its hegemony is stifling pluralism and exposing students in Universities to different perspectives on economics, what the economy is, how it can or should be organised, with what principles, institutions etc. etc.
I sometimes think there is a lot of parallel between the struggle in Eastern Europe against communist domination and this similar intellectual (but with very real effects) struggle against the tyranny of neo-classical economics. and the pressing need for it to be returned to its proper position as one amongst many approaches, not the only, or necessarily the best. I'm reminded here of the following "Economists give answers not because what they say is true, but because they are asked".

Limits to and beyond 'economic growth'

Went to an excellent talk by Prof. Tim Jackson - Economics Commissioner of the UK's Sustainable Development Commission - at Queens last night 'Northern Ireland and the Transition to a Sustainable Economy'. Tim author of the SDC's report Prosperity without Growth - - out next month as a book -Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet - What was one of the most interesting aspect of the evening - extremly well attended - was the utter silence from those who one would have imagined were defenders of the orthodox economic growth perspective in the audience (neo-classical economists, senior policy-makers etc.). Not one question or comment came from those in the lecture whom I would have expected to defend what Tim was criticising. Reflecting on this afterwards I suggested that 'power does not need to speak', the brave defenders of the economic status quo do not need to defend it with reasoned arguments. No doubt there was much mutterings afterwards about how utterly wrong Tim's analysis is, how impractical etc., but in public...silence and no sign of reaction, except the discernable stiffening of backs and shifting in seats. But nada by way of publicly defending what they believe....

Northern Ireland Economic report on Innovation contains little innovative thinking

In Northern Ireland, the Barnett review - Independent Review of Economic Policy (DETI and Invest NI) - - published yesterday, is weighty and provides much food for thought in terms of the economic challenges and opportunities for NI. However whether the NI executive (aka Sinn Fein and the DUP) will use it to create a new economic strategy or whether it will sink only time will tell (my bets are on the latter). Some of the main findings of the report - commissioned by the Department and Enterprise Trade and Investment - are outlined below.While the report finds that Invest Northern Ireland has contributed to job creation and NI's overall economic performance, it confirms the views of those, like me, who have viewed NI's economic strategy as partly a 'race to the bottom' in terms of seeking low-wage and insecure service sector jobs. As the report puts it:"When compared to other UK regions, NI has attracted a higher number of new foreign-owned investment projects and promoted a higher number of jobs per head of population. However, many of these jobs, particularly those in the service sector, offered wages below the private sector average (e.g. contact centres). Furthermore, a significant proportion of support was associated with safeguarding jobs in the manufacturing sector" (p.7).While recognising that a lot of the policy drivers affecting economic performance lie outside the NI Executive, it also notes the lack of improvement in NI's productivity and sees R&D as a key driver of economic growth, which it views as - surprise, surprise - FDI attracting and export-led. One of the report's most striking recommendations - and one likely to cause perhaps most political upset within the NI executive - is the proposal for the creation of a single 'Department of the Economy' - (requiring the amalgamation of two existing Departments - DETI (which the DUP hold) and DEL (which the UUP hold)). Re-carving political power within the 4 party executive - especially given the increasing hostility betwene the DUP and UUP - is not politically feasible, even though it make make economic and policy sense (but then when did the latter have anything to do with how the NI executive operates?!).Another, unsurprising finding is that Universities should support STEM and 'Innovation relevant' subjects more (which in the current financial constext facing Universities in NI means less 'non-economic' subjects, and further increasing the trend towards viewing the primary role of University as providing skills for the economy), and create more industry-university innovation links. However, the report also suggests the creation of: "A new institution for commercially-oriented research should be explored in NI, along the lines pioneered by the successful VTT institute in Finland. The institution should be outside the University system and not subject to the constraints of the Research Excellence Framework (REF)" (p.10). So, speaking as an academic, the authors of the report either thought universities were not deemed to be up to the task, or were inappropriate, or that it was accepted that there is some scope (just) and rationale for universities to also engage in non-economic research and teaching. If the latter - how big of them!There is mention of the 'Green New Deal' (and indeed support for the social economy) for NI but this is not seen as a central plank for economic recovery. Here the report echoes the short-sightedness of the Matrix report - which likewise viewed a green, low-carbon economic strategy as something that was of future, but not of immediate relevance to the regional economy in NI.It views the Green New Deal not as a distinct, innovation-led strategy to provide jobs,enhance energy security and begin the process of putting Northern Ireland on a 'low carbon' path, but as something which merely contributes to 'energy saving and conservation' (p.11) as part of the 2008 Strategic Energy Framework. Sadly, this indicates to me the authors of the report did not either read what the GND is about and what they possibilities are for a GND in NI, or did and decided rather to present a conventional 'business as usual' economic analysis and set of recommendations.While the report does outline some good ideas, provides a wealth of information, data and critical analysis of the NI exeutive's economic policy, it is regretable for a report that focuses on and arguges for the centrality of 'Innovation', that it contains precious little innovative economic thinking.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Technically competent barbarians: the role to planetary hell is paved with economically rational decisions

More out of laziness than anything else, I thought I'd get double benefit as it were from cutting and pasting below, an excerpt from a chapter (on Green Political Economy) of one of the books I'm currently working on.

Renowned holocaust scholar and former director of the International Research Institute at Yad Vashem, Yehud Bauer in an address to the German Bundestag, mused on the reasons how the evils of the Nazi regime gained intellectual and cultural acceptance within Germany. For him, “The major role in this was played by the universities, the academics. I keep returning to the question of whether we have indeed learnt anything, whether we do not still keep producing technically competent barbarians in our universities” (Bauer, 1998; emphasis added).

When it comes to the teaching of economics at universities – and sadly many other forms of knowledge which have been influenced (or corrupted might be closer to the truth) by modern economics, such as large swathes of so-called 'political science', sociology, agriculture or planning for example – a provocative thought would be to ask whether Bauer is correct in his analysis. Rather than serving to weed out, transform or blunt the rougher edges off such ‘barbaric’ - but perfectly rational forms of thinking and action- universities are in fact complicit in maintaining and increasing the reach of this barbaric thinking.

Rothstein, picking up on Bauer, points to the dominance of empirical/quantitative focus in modern political science (the term itself of course immediately gives it away) which has increasingly drawn inspiration and methodological techniques from neo-classical economics. Like Bauer he wonders if the profession is producing ‘technically competent barbarians’ (Rothstein, 2005: 5). That is, highly trained and skilled professionals devoid of ethical reflexivity or trained and schooled in thinking that ethical, normative thinking and argumentation are ‘outside’ and are not integral to of the proper remit of their activity as political scientists or economists. It is important to note that the criticism being developed here is not simply that the ‘barbaric’ logic of modern neo-classical economics is destroying people and planet but that a large part of this reason for this barbaric and life-destroying logic is the failure and refusal for this way of thinking about the economy to integrate ethical and political-normative considerations as core features. In other words, it is possible to ‘rescue’ neo-classical economics from itself as it were and to recover and establish its ‘proper place’ at the table amongst other forms of knowledge and normative positions in discussing the economics, what the economy is and how best it ought to be thought about and organised. An account of economics devoid or actively resistance to the integration of normative and ethical thinking paves the way to planetary destruction.

Economics does not describe and explain or predict the world, it actively creates and recreates it in its own image, according to its own (hidden or occluded) value system and logic.

Part of the issue – indeed a benefit – in including ethical judgement in economic decision-making is that it debunks another element of the myth of modern economics – namely that of expertise based on knowledge giving those who possess it (and have the credentials etc to prove it) superiority over ‘non-experts’. However, this levelling of economic analysis – i.e. permitting non-economists and non-experts a role undermines both the claim of modern economics to be able to produce and know the ‘truth’ about the economy, and also the desire for non-economists/non-experts for the latter to be the case. As Aldred puts it, “Often the truth is that economists don’t know…This kind of modesty is not what many of us want to hear. We yearn for the comfort and security of definite answers. But an honest economic analysis can typically hope to do much less than this” (2008: 8; emphasis added). Typically any comprehensive, honest approach to addressing economic issues requires recourse to democratic political and ethical debate, seeing the issue from a variety of positions – scientific, political, cultural, social, and ecological as well as ‘economic’

Tetlock’s study of people who make prediction their business, i.e. people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses is instructive here. It turns out that they are no better than the rest of us (Tetlock, 2003). When they’re wrong, they’re rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it, either. This is abundantly the case when it comes to modern economics – how many economists predicated the current economic recession? How many of these so-called economic experts have come out publicly to say they got it wrong? The dogmatism and arrogance that modern economics exudes – its refusal to be more modest in its claims, own up to its limits and admit its mistakes – is of course a major problem when one thinks of the multiple negative consequences for people and planet of following its prescriptions. Having an impressive looking mathematical formula for one’s views does not either make those views ‘the truth’ and therefore superior or better than the views of others, nor does this algorithmic underpinning make those views attractive or desirable – it just means you have an impressive mathematical formula for your views.

Aldred, J. (2008), The Skeptical Economist, London: Earthscan.
Bauer, Y. (1998), ‘Address to the Bundestag, January 1998), available at: (accessed 27/09/09)

Tetlock, P. (2003) Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (Princeton: Princeton University Press),

Rothstein, B. (2005), ‘Is political science producing technically competent barbarians?’, European Political Science, 4, 3-13.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

The Corruption of the Academy

Clearly, given this is my first blog since June, I'm not a particularly good blogger! Perhaps its the kids (two), or that I have a very busy real (i.e. non-on-line) life with lots of wonderful 'real-world' interactions with 'real' people, or that my various commitments and job occupies my waking hours more than they ought to, but whatever it is it is. My most recent entry.

It was occasioned by telephone conversation with my good friend John McCormick, an organic farmer, which while it started about something else ended with me going off on a bit of a rant or eloquent stream of consciousness - delete according to your preferences when you've read what's below. The rant was basically me expressing my deep and continual frustration with the conservatism and lack of pluralism and real creativity and exchange of ideas within the academy (supposedly the place where the 'unthinkable' can be thunk etc.). While the vast majority of academics are thoroughly decent people (of course we have the egoists and sociopaths - mostly confined thankfully to econometrics, or postmodernism - only kidding!) there is something deeply, deeply disturbing to witness (and be a part of) a system of knowledege production and associated work practices which in the main promote and sustain the unsustainable, the unjust. the undemocratic i.e. namely the 'status quo'. Often it seems to me that what universities and places of higher education do is to prepare and create a future for people which is exactly like the present only with ...better teeth, more vitamins, bigger TVs, faster downloads, more stuff..bascially what we have at the minute just with 'better', 'more', 'faster', 'bigger'. And...what a dismal, unimaginative and unsustainable imaginary and objective this is. 'Making the world a better place', 'improving the collective lot of humanity', 'leaving the world in a better state than we found it', such objectives and motivations for knowledge are, in the modern 'hard ball' world of the academy, quaint, useless, 'not with the programme', and therefore actively rejected and ridiculed as having anything more than an (almost obligitory) rhetorical (and therefore completely cynical) role as window dressing when compared with the 'real deal', the 'real issue' and the 'only' or at least most valued/prized/incentivised (call it what you will....I call it corruption and bullshit, but then that's me, a great believer that 'exaggeration is when the truth loses its temper') form of knowledge production.

Us 'knowledge workers' (as I tend to think of myself, though this is a term that most of my academic colleagues would reject...'What? you mean to say we're 'workers'?! Preposterious! We're academics. We're scholars. We're...intellectuals. But workers?! Give me a break!'), paid for our core funding by tax-payers money (remember that people, YOU pay our wages, ask what we've done for you lately with your money by the way next time you meet us), are not encouraged to think of what we do or ought to do in terms of 'making the world a better place', but rather in terms of get the research funding secured, create a new degree to attract non-EU students (preferably from China since this is the last remaining great solvent, sovereign power remaining on the planet). No, our job is to maintain the status quo, deliver subject/disciplinary specific modules which all will ensure the smooth acquisition of 'transferable employability skills' to produce, in the words of former Vice Chancellor of Queens, George Bain (now of course an engaged and enraged citizen in the Lough Neagh vacinity since Rose Energy decided to built a chicken-shit incinerator near his house), our job is to produce 'oven ready graduates'. That is, half-baked (like a lot of things the academy prodcues these days), graduates who can slot easily and effortlessly into middle management of business/the state/civil society(of course this last one is NOT what the university aims to do, but for sake of completeness and mirroring the completely rhetorical/cynical stance of universities I will include it). To conclude, the role of universities today is to complement, enhance and above all comply and support the existing social and cultural order, its role is not to create critical citizens or spaces in which people can imagine alternative futures....which is why sadly, most of the interesting, life-affirming, progressive knowledge-based work I do is done in spite of, rather than because of the academy, whom I regard more and more as the 'boss', 'the man' against whom I have to work around, under and behind, while also making sure I deliver on my official contract. On this last point I have for many years lived by the following dictum, and I've found it useful and helpful in coping with (if not of course solving the tensions I have on a daily basis between what my values and heart tell me to do, and what I actually do): "The wise peasant bows down low and farts silently as the great lord passes by". Never, ever confuse outward signs of deference for inner compliance!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Having written a blog for progressive economy - Where's our 'Green' Whitaker? was reflecting on the relationship between the imperative for orthdoox economic growth (and the conventional neo-classical economic theory and thinking which accompanies) and sustainablity, (in)equality and well-being.

I'll begin by citing Thomas Friedman, once the cheerleader for unfettered neoliberal globalisation, who has recently become a 'proto- green' (at least from an economic perspective). In an extremely interesting op ed piece for the New York in March he states:

"Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

Welcome to the party Thomas, us greens have been saying as much for a least 4 decades.

Couple that with two excellent discussions this week - one by John Woods, director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland and another by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett both of which spoke to the same key issue- namely that we have the empirical evidence that economic growth is not just ecologically unsustainable (i.e. not compatible with 'one planet living') but also needs inequality which undermines general well-being in society.

John Woods presented a summary and implications for Northern Ireland of Tim Jackson (Economics commissioner of the UK's Sustainable development Commission) and his recent SDC publication Prosperity without Growth John's talk and Tim's argument is, basically, that what the green movement has been saying for decades is true: beyond a certain point, economic growth does not only not add much to general and average well-being, but through positional comeptiion, status competition and 'defensive' consumption, actually undermines human well-being. Here the real challenge is how to design public policy and especially macro-economic policy which aims to enhance human flourishing rather than a narrow focus on one means to flourishing i.e. conventional economic growth.

In the excellent disucssion which followed John's talk, it was clear that the dominance of the discourse and myth of 'economic growth' is one of the main reasons for people to misunderstood greens and others who question 'growth'. The issue seems to be that many people cannot but view a non-growth argument as anything but 'bad' whereas the real issue is to seperate out growth from 'prosperity' (as Jackson does), 'flourishing' (after Sen) or in my own work 'economic and social security', or to simply draw a distinction between economic growth and well-being. The evidence behind Jackson's report is pretty compelling, drawing on decades of research in economics, behavioural economics, psychology and cultural studies, all of which show that growth after a threshold does not appreciably add to average well-being ( the infamous 'crocodile graph' is illustrative here demonstrating rising GNP over decades coupled with well-being faltlining since around 1960).

Wilkinson and Pickett 's talk was also robust in its empirical evidence. They were talking about their new book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better and presented an impressive range of statisical and cross-country analysis which shows the strong correlation between inequality and a range of issues from obesity, lack of trust, crime, imprisonment, mental health. What I found particularly striking was their evidence that inequality does not simply negatively affect the least well off, but almost everyone does less well the more unequal the society.

So, the upshot? Well... green critiques of economic growth now have a firmer evidence base, the need for more redistributive economic policies is needed, the creation of less unequal socieities not only is inextribly linked to challenging economic growth (i.e. if you are an egalitarian or on the left, you should be in alliance with greens) and what is needed above all is more pluralism in economic thinking. What does public policy look like when its free from the imperative of economic growth, competitiveness and all the other guff of 'there is no alternative' economic thinking and what does public policy look like when its aimed at directly improving quality of life, human flourishing rather than economic growth?

Friday, 29 May 2009

The need for a new model of the economy

Been thinking this crurent economic crisis should be an opportunity in so many ways - not just in terms of using it as an opportunity to re-direct the economy in a more sustainable and renewable energy manner - a la 'Green New Deal' - see - but equally, if not more fundamentally, to break with the dominance of neo-classical economics. While I've been writing and critiquing neo-classical economics for over 20 years for its limited focus (orthodox measures of GNP/GDP thus excluding non-monetised work and exchange, especially the gender labour in the domestic sphere, as well as of course the 'free' and unpriced 'gifts' of the ecosystem) and its promoition of 'economic growth' as a structural necessity for the economy (that is, the economy needs continual economic growth in order to stave off failure - impossible in a finite biophysical work, and undesirable in relation to human well-being), the recent 'Toxic textbooks' campaign
has reminded me of the need for a deeper reform of not just how we re-organise the economy but how we understand what the economy is. Part of the point here is that neo-classical economics is a) as value-based and ideological as any alternative account of the economy - i.e. it is a form of political economy just like Marxism, green political economy etc. but b) its dominance 'crowds out' these competing models thus supressing pluralism, debate and contention - why would we assume that there is one model for the economy and how to understand and conceptualise it, when we wouldn't accept that there is one model or conceptualisation of the polity or society?

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Post Celtic Tiger errata

Have just read Showcasing Globalisation?: The Political Economy of the Irish Republic by Nicola Jo-Anne Smith on my way down on the train from Belfast to Dublin. Its a good source of empirical data and debates about the Irish economy in terms of whether it really is 'globalised' or merely 'internationalised' and actually concentrated in terms of trade to a couple of countries - US and the UK in particular. Its also a rather infuriating read - lots of 'on the one hand...but on the other...' and frustratingly fails to come down with any analtyically insightful or normatively interesting positions. It contests that Ireland is a 'competition state' (Irish-style) as maintained by critics of the neo-liberal CT model such as Peadar Kirby or Denis O'Hearn yet does not outline what a 'competition state' is and how it differs from a 'welfare' or 'developmental' one. It also offers the most torturous account of the persistence of inequality in Ireland but maintaining this is not a major issue given the rise in absolute wages for most and the provision of a (bare and increasinly thread-bare) social safety net. But perhaps most frustrating of al, and which to my mind, really undermines the book's contribution, is there is no discussion of the dynamics of globalised capitalism or indeed the character of irish capitalism. It is as if one can blightly discuss 'globalisation' without mentioning capitalism!
Nevertheless, despite my criticisms, it is a good start to the debate about the CT and more importnant the post-CT siotuaiton, not least in Smith's argument that both the 'Whittaker moment' in the 1950s (which heralded the end of DeValera-style protectionism) and the social partnership model of the late 1980s ( of the commonly held features which explains the CT 'take off') were borne out of crisis. Where is our 'green Whittaker now' and is there a green version of social partnerhsip and the need to use and respond to the current economic (and growing political) crisis by restructuring the state, economy and civil society in Ireland?

Monday, 25 May 2009

Greens fight BNP and get Joanna Lumley's backing

Joanna Lumley, fresh from shaming the Labour government into giving justice to the Gurkhas has come out in support of the Green Party and publicly backed Green MEP Caroline Lucas

It also looks as if theonly way to stop the BNP Leader, Nick Griffin, from getting elected to Europe is to back the Green Party's MEP candidate Peter Cranie and

What's infuriating is the way the media are hyping the BNP up out of all proportion to their popular support - see article in Independent today

Infuriating for us, i.e. the Greens, since we're way out-polling them yet do you think the press gives us the same coverage? I suppose violence and jackboots sell...Ho hum...

Sunday, 24 May 2009

While working on the chapter about 'Resilience and the Transition Movement', I came across this remarkable UK Government report released last November - entitled 'Powering our Lives Sustainable Energy Management and the Built Environment, Its a fascinating read, commissioned by the Foresight programme of the Office of Science and Technology. While Transition towns gets two explict mentions, what I've found particularly interesting is one of the four scenarios outlined in the report - 'Sunshine State' - which contains some elements of the Transition vision. Here's some quotes from the report:

"International solidarity has fallen by the wayside in response to climate change and expensive energy. Instead the Government has fostered an emphasis on localism to respond to energy problems supported by a shift in social values after a period of outages and fuel shortages. A Sunshine Index is the main metric of progress, not Gross Domestic Product. Home insulation and other energy efficiency measures are universal following strong regulation. Retrofitting is sometimes done alongside adaptation work to help buildings cope with warmer and wetter conditions. Green roofs and parks are common as part of comprehensive local sustainable drainage systems to counter flooding. There are more local shopping streets and other community resources, partly because of planning decisions intended to promote local autonomy and partly because of municipal enterprise. New build commonly uses off-site construction methods, often from overseas. (Foresight, 2008: 71)

However, unlike Transition, the Foresight study has the ‘Sunshine State’ scenario involving greater fossil fuel use (Foresight, 2008: 75), but like Transition, it notes that “In one of the Project’s future scenarios, Sunshine State a community approach, relatively uncommon in the UK today, becomes increasingly prevalent” (p.92). However, there is an intruguiing mention (nothing more) to an Energy Reduction Strategy (p.174)

The 'Sunshine State' scenario (who or what committee came up with this lame and non-informative title?!) is outlined in the report as follows:

"It was a world away from the ‘live for the present’ consumerism of the last part of the 20th century, and the shock has led to the emergence of new social values, which reinforce the importance of self-direction and self-determination, but also the need to try new ideas to resolve problems. Although there is technological innovation in this world, the principal driver of change is the development of new social institutions, many of which are about better ways of sharing limited resources at a local or community level. One of the motivations for this has been deteriorating mental health outcomes, worsened by climate change anxieties, which could have had huge public health costs if not addressed. Many of the new social institutions consider tackling mental health to be their priority, particularly in terms of the impact it has on the isolated and more vulnerable members of society who perhaps do not have strong family support structures in place. This is a world where almost anything which can be decentralised has been…. Expectations have shifted from the turn of the century, this world is slower and it is different, but it is still an affluent world by any historical standards". (Foresight, 2008: 171; 175)

However, from reading the coonclusion and recommendations of this report, its clear–and perfectly in keeping with the UK government’s strategy as outlined in its 2006 Energy White Paper – that energy decarbonisation is preferred to energy descent. That is, decarbonisation with energy consumption the same or rising (based on use of nuclear power and carbon capture and storage or sequestration) is the strategic option as opposed to prepating our people and infrastructure for a life with less energy (based on renewable, green and clean sources of energy). That an official document even comes that close to considering a future energy scenario such as 'Sunshine State' one out lined in this report, while welcome, it only adds to one's disappointment to see it will have absolutely no effect on UK energy, climate change or sustainable development policy.