Creative catastrophizing

The last year has seen a glut of books on economics for general readers, feeding off the fears most people have about their future in the global economy. In fact, the dismal science has never been so popular – or indeed so dismal.

Catastrophe sells, so many of these books come with doom-laden titles and the sort of menacing predictions familiar from the days of the Cold War. In How the West was Lost, the Zimbabwean-born academic Dambisa Moyo predicts a grim battle between Chinese and American capitalism, from which the more muscular, state-controlled, Oriental version will emerge triumphant. The west has all but given up on saving, skills and innovation – the motors of economic prosperity – and lacks the political will to save itself. America’s only way out is unthinkable – putting up trade barriers and defaulting on its debt.

Will Hutton has always been willing to ask questions conventional economists won’t. In Them and Us: Politics, Greed and Inequality– Why We Need a Fair Society (now out in paperback) he asks if ‘fairness’ matters and, if so, why? (His answer is yes, and because unfairness is inefficient and socially destructive). And before you think, ‘leftie rant follows’, Hutton throws this at you: fairness is ‘capitalism’s indispensable value’. It is fairness that allows innovation to flourish, and innovation is the motor of capitalism (possibly the only thing on which Hutton and Moyo are likely to agree).

bernard-stieglerIf this seems a bit optimistic for the times, look to France for some gloomy abstract thinking. Philosopher Bernard Stiegler (also “director of innovation” at Paris’s Pompidou Centre, and you don’t get more avant-garde than that) has written a book that tramples all over the barriers between economics, philosophy and social psychology.Ce Qui Fait la Vie Vaut la Peine d’Etre Vécue (something like ‘What makes life worth living’) raises the alarming prospect that human beings may be losing their ‘taste for life’ itself. The ecological crisis and the failure of market economics is driving us into a ‘general depression’. Modern capitalism, Stiegler says, works by ‘creative destruction’ – the need to produce goods and services that are ever more disposable and ephemeral – which leaves human beings feeling useless and powerless, without really understanding why.

These are just three examples; there are dozens of others, offering diagnoses and prescriptions varying from fundamentalist free-market to somewhere out beyond neo-Marxist. What they have in common is a willingness to think beyond the sterile models and simplistic equations of conventional economics and tap into much richer veins of thinking. But you won’t hear any of this when the next talking head from Goldman Sachs pops up on telly to give their dry, self-interested view on the latest inflation figures.

In the 1930s, Keynes wrote that an economist should be ‘mathematician, historian, statesman and philosopher…no part of man’s nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard.’ Frankly, economics, has spent the last thirty years with its head up its own arse, and it’s high time it took it out and took a look around.

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