woensdag 17 april 2013

The dominant Economy

I grew up in a family where the men (except me) were economist and the women were mostly philosophically or socially interested.

My connection with the economic field has never been spontaneous, but it was clear from the start that the economy represents a relevant aspect of human existence. I have learned to appreciate the conversations about the importance of margins and profitability and robust financial management. And when I myself could not find employment in line with my historical interest the distance to the economic area was small enough for me to take the plunge into a guaranteed job in accountancy. For no longer than was necessary, of course.

However, dominant it remains, that economic thinking. And the bad thing is, it’s so obviously true. The once-again-with-both-feet-on-the-ground pretends to be the last word. Any attempt to define the world more broadly will soon go to the wall.

I suffered from that previously at home, but last week I experienced it again at the Nexus conference with the theme “How much is enough?”. Or actually, I witnessed that others experienced that impotence.

At the conference in Amsterdam Lord Robert Skidelsky (economist) gave a lecture on occasion of the appearance of the Dutch translation of the book which he and his son Edward (philosopher) have written under the title How much is enough? Money and the desire for a good life. In the book they advocate a shorter workweek for all (15-20 hours) and more opportunity for people to do what they themselves find important. And they wonder why we work ourselves to death only to gather more and more wealth.

After Skidelsky's lecture there was a panel discussion led by Rick van der Ploeg with as participants Skidelsky and three Dutch economists. Van der Ploeg presented to the participants questions like “What does the crisis mean for you personally?” And “What should be done to solve the crisis?”

The answers sooned turned out to be of a techno-economical nature. There was talked for more than half an hour about recapitalization, strengthening balance sheets and cutting expenditures for another ten years. Could you expect otherwise with a debate panel composed of economists and bankers, but, it appeared, not every visitor had come for that. The audience wanted more views in the spirit of Skidelsky, I think.

Anyway, while I was still busy with realizing that all this could only moderately interest me, a collective irritation was suddenly felt in the room. As if the economic talk passed by the heart of the matter or should urgently be associated with a broader view on society.

Someone shouted her discontent from the balcony down. I could not hear what she said, even when the second time she used a kind of megaphone. But, unmistakenly, this did not please her, and, judging from the applause, it didn’t please a large part of the audience either.

The panel chairman could not negate this. So, the first waiting behind the interruption microphone got his turn. But after treating his question the next person waiting had to show ten minutes of patience because the panel chair now started to broach explicitly philosophical themes indeed, but in doing so followed mainly his own interest. Then suddenly time had run out. That was a bit sad of course, and therefore the man was allowed to put his question as yet, with barely time for a response.

In those tiny minutes nevertheless a couple of interesting themes lighted up, such as the question why economy and compulsory work and wage labor yield the kind of oppressive associations they produce. Perhaps, suggested Skidelsky, one must distinguish between work content that others decide about for you, and work content that you determine yourself. And perhaps in talking about less work not a division between work and idleness is at stake, but between work designed for you and work designed by you.

These themes were only briefly touched upon. But I had liked to hear a bit more about them from those economists.

Also see Blowing Bubbles and Begging for Feed-back