Saturday 8 February 2014

Help us ask the big What If? questions

"You see things; and you say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say 'Why not?' "

So said George Bernard Shaw, at least in the mouths of one of his characters in Back to Methusalah.  It was universalised later by Bobby Kennedy.

The issue goes to the narrowness of economics at the beginning of the 21st century. Once a subject area stops studying history, it can appear to them that no other system is possible – it is the way it is, because it is the way it is.

To unravel this, we have to inject a little of St Augustine into the economics conversation again – the bit when he abjures us to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.

It is a harmless hobby to imagine the world differently (though it offends the conventional), but you have to take your wits with you. When you ask a question about like 'What if?' you have to be able to be completely honest - not just about the benefits of the shift you are imagining – but the peculiar and often counter-productive side-effects that are likely to come along as well.

It isn't always comfortable for campaigners any more than it is for conventional economists.

This is the skill that mainstream economists have lost. Worse, they tend to be as harmless as serpents and as wise as doves, neither of which is terribly effective.

I recently edited a book of 'What if?' speculations by economists called What If Money Grows on Trees?, with an excellent introduction by the economist Neva Goodwin from Tufts University.

I’m going to be talking about it with one of the contributors, my friend and collaborator Andrew Simms, at the Brighton Science Festival on Sunday evening. But we need to be able to debate and argue with people, so do please come along and tell us what you think....

We will be as harmless and wise as you want us to be.

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