On November 26th 2021 I presented a paper called 'The Refound Art of Economics' at the virtual SPERI/PSA workshop on 'Rethinking Economic Policy: Crisis, Change and Continuity in the UK and Beyond'. The workshop was organised by Scott James of King's College London.
Abstract: The world of economic theory is always much more contested at the time than it can be made to seem in retrospect. It is never the case that economists speak with one voice, however convenient it is to think about economics in the singular. Despite this, there nonetheless appears to be an interesting difference between the global financial crisis and the Covid crisis in how the public face of economics has been presented. This is not merely that the retreat into orthodoxy which followed the global financial crisis seems to have been replaced by a conscious desire to rip up balanced budget rules and a willingness of economists to be seen endorsing any number of novel macroeconomic policies. More importantly, we have witnessed a shift in the type of economics that has been most prominent publicly. It was abstract theoretical macroeconomics during the global financial crisis, as relationships that belong solely in the model world were used as a guide for those in the real world. However, it has been applied empirical economics during the Covid crisis, where the unprecedented nature of events has released the discussion from a need to use how relationships work on the blackboard for how they should operate in practice. This difference can be theorised using John Neville Keynes’s important methodological distinction between the science and the art of economics. In recent years it has become conventional to lament the lost art of economics, but economists’ public reputation seems to have been rehabilitated during the pandemic by the additional prominence enjoyed by applied empirical research. The art of economics appears to have been at least temporarily re-found, but how long this situation lasts remains to be seen.
On September 24th 2021 I presented a paper called 'The Political Context for Ricardo's Free Market Models' at the virtual Paris workshop on Reading Economics as Political Theory. The workshop was organised by Sam Knafo, Oliver Kessler and Matthias Thiemann.
Abstract: When attention turns to the need to read economics as political theory, one question tends to dominate. Out of all possible institutional arrangements for organising economic life, how did orthodox economic theory come to reflect in its models only free market institutions to the exclusion of all others? The search for the origins of this way of thinking usually alights on Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy. However, precious little scholarship has thus far been conducted on the broader background conditions that shaped the way in which Ricardo presented his text. Further exploration of these conditions makes it possible to ask whether orthodox economic theory’s continued conflation of ‘the economy’ and ‘the market’ results from treating as if they were universal what were actually only the specific features of a strictly limited period of early nineteenth-century British political history. Ricardo wrote the Principles during the time at which civil liberties in the realm of free speech were severely curtailed in Britain by repeated repressive legislation that culminated in the so-called Six Acts. These acts made criticism of the King and his ministers into an offence with serious consequences, not least because they were backed by suspensions of habeas corpus that allowed religious dissenters and political radicals to be imprisoned without trial. Ricardo was shielded by parliamentary privilege when speaking out in the House of Commons against the broader political climate that had produced this legislation, but not when committing his economic theory to the page. I ask in this paper whether he sought refuge from such pressures in abstract models that were at one stage removed from an expressly articulated opinion, models that imposed a rigid separation between ‘state’ and ‘market’. He thus might be seen to have circumvented what proved to be time-limited sedition laws through escape into a free-floating realm called ‘the market’, but that realm has persisted in orthodox economic theory long after the original need for it was exhausted.
On May 21st 2020 I delivered a paper called ‘Adam Smith and the Glasgow Tobacco Merchants’ to a specialist Smith studies workshop. It was due to be held in Newcastle, but had to be reconvened online due to the current lockdown conditions.
Abstract: The conceptual distinction between Britain and Greater Britain can be used as a starting point to help shed light on some of the difficulties Adam Smith encountered when scaling up his principles of economic development from the national context to make them suitable for the world of empire. This was certainly the world that dominated the activities of the Glasgow tobacco traders from whom Smith seems to have derived most of his insights into the economic approach of the merchant classes of his day. However, they do not get any explicit mention at all in The Wealth of Nations. They entirely fall through the cracks of two important tensions which its text reveals. The first is between, on the one hand, the overwhelmingly positive interpretation that is placed on the story of Britain’s economic development from feudalism to the mid eighteenth century and, on the other hand, the obvious ambivalence with which he treated the more recent dalliance with the colonial trade. The second is between the generally frenetic denunciation of British colonial adventures in India and the comparative soft-pedalling on the really rather similar activities taking place in its North American colonies. The former appears as an attack in particular on the merchant/political complex embedded in elite London society, whereas the latter offers something approaching a free pass to those same connections in Glasgow. The paper attempts to unpack the tensions contained in such a conspicuous silence, as they seem to run counter to the teachings of Smith’s system. I speculate on the impact that Smith’s known friendships with Glasgow tobacco merchants might have had on what look like potential misfires of his sympathy procedure when writing about the colonial trade of Greater Britain.
On March 19th 2018 I was a participant at a workshop held at the London College of Communication at the University of the Arts London in Elephant and Castle. The workshop focused on the Annual Tax Summary that was introduced in 2014 and goes out each year to millions of UK households. It presents a breakdown of how much income tax the recipient pays alongside a pie chart that breaks down in percentage terms the different spending categories that make up state expenditures. The workshop participants were invited to critically deconstruct the content of the Annual Tax Summary so that the accounting story that appears in the official narrative can be contrasted with the political story that can only be read between the lines. As a precursor to further events, the day finished with attempts to think through alternatives to the current structure of the Annual Tax Summary.