“If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion” So said George Bernard Shaw. A modern-day version could be “don’t trust economists – including me”, which Ha-Joon Chang stated during his talk at the RSA a few weeks ago.
Chang’s message was simple: you shouldn't avoid economics because you're not an expert. As he said (paraphrased here): you don’t avoid talking about religion because you haven’t studied theology, or steer clear of war topics because you haven’t got a Masters in International Relations – why should economics be so different? In fact (as he wrote in a recent Guardian piece), economics is so important it shouldn’t be left to the experts.
“What this means is that, as citizens in a democracy, all of us have the duty to learn at least some economics and engage in economic debates.”
Economics is intrinsically linked to the way we live our lives, but has historically been taught in a theoretical (and elitist?) way. Economist friends of mine joke that the more complicated an economic theory is, and the fewer people who understand it, the better the theory is. Whilst quite unfair, it’s not a unique perspective. Recently, an open letter written by over 40 student organisations internationally called for a revolution in the way that Economics is taught in universities: “It limits our ability to contend with the multidimensional challenges of the 21st century - from financial stability, to food security and climate change. The real world should be brought back into the classroom…”
Bringing the real world into the classroom – at all stages of education – is unquestionably valuable. My colleague Hilary blogged on her recent trip into an Academy, discussing how, by applying real practical experience and asking students what they care about, you can inspire students to engage in a way or on a topic that they never thought possible. And by teaching cross-cutting, complementary skills – rather than teaching on a very isolated subject by subject level – people create what they thought themselves incapable of.
I also really like the idea of not solely leaving things to experts. Working collectively on a difficult topic – and applying a range of minds, expertise and life experience – we have far more potential to do wonderful things than acting independently in silos. Here at the RSA we’re running a modern-day RSA premium to improve the North Bank, where anybody (including you!) can contribute ideas to making a space better. We also work closely with our Fellows, who come from all sorts of ways and places in life, and are committed to creating social change together - and our Catalyst fund offers small pots of money to interested people who want to try out a way to make their bit of world a better place.
Chang’s lecture really stuck with me. This may be because I’m an eager amateur economist, but I think it's because it reminds me a lot of the RSA. When the RSA first came about 260 years ago, a watch-maker, surgeon, botanist, painter and merchant - amongst others - joined to bring together “all social classes committed to publick [sic] good”. You don’t need to be an expert or of a certain discipline to care about the things that directly affect you – so don’t be afraid to try out ideas or take part in discussions. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the impending Economics revolution.
Watch or listen to Ha-Joon Chang's event here.