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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!