An Evening Of Economics With Eno Comics, Economy, 20 November 2017

Brian Eno is a very charitable fellow, so invitations to visit his place are often on behalf of a charity for which he is a formal patron or simply a charity he feels motivated to help.

Economy – click here to find its website ecnmy.org – is a new charity which has entered Brian’s orbit and for which he kindly laid on this event at his studio.

Brian had mentioned the forthcoming event to me some weeks ago, when we ran into each other on the street, so I had saved the date. Brian had told me to expect Ha-Joon Chang and Yanis Varoufakis. I had read the former’s book, 23 Things…, back in the day, but had not got around to reading any Varoufakis. So I one-clicked a copy of And the Weak… , reading it a week (ironically) before the event.

I highly recommend the latter book, btw, especially the “modest proposal” appended at the end of Yanis’s book. Those nine pages should be getting far more thought and attention; they should be required reading for anyone who cares about the future of Europe and European people.

Brian hadn’t mentioned Ayesha Hazarika ahead of time so I had to look her up; a former advisor to the Labour Party and the Remain campaign, now seeking solace in comedy. Sounds like a natural progression to me.

Comedy and economics sounded like my kind of thing.

Before the main event, over pre-panel drinks, I met some very interesting postgrad/researcher types, plus several of the Economy charity’s staff and trustees. A very bright, young and friendly bunch.

Economy’s big thing is to try and make economics understandable to the general public; a very laudable aim. I tried not to bore people too much with tales of  The Price of Fish derring do

…but I do find it hard to express how I feel about making economics meaningful and comprehensible without reference to the book.

I didn’t notice anyone sidling away from me and one or two of the Economy people tried to encourage me to ask a question for the panel session, which I didn’t really want to do and in the end I was rather glad I didn’t get around to it.

Some of the Economy team, Brian and the Panel, photograph “liberated” from Victoria Waldersee (centre)’s twitter feed

As is so often the case with this type of event, the best bits were before and after the formal session. Not that the formal session was all that formal.

Ayesha set the tone for the formal session by being really quite funny when introducing herself and in her early responses. Good self-effacing stuff. Ha-Joon and Yanis picked up on the irreverent tone, but I don’t think either of them should give up the day job for comedy.

Victoria Waldersee of Economy did a superb job of trying to cram a heap of questions about important economic & political issues into a 45 minute panel comprising three people who all talk for a living.

Predictably, the answers didn’t get all that far during the panel session; it reminded me a little of Question Time on the TV – except that on this panel all of the opinion was pitched as anti-economics, anti-capitalist and anti-establishment…

…which is fine as far as it goes, but I wanted to hear what was suggested in the place of everything that is wrong and heard little in terms of alternative proposals and solutions.

More confusingly, I found the panel sometimes at variance with the charity Economy’s raison d’être, with Ha-Joon and Yanis both suggesting that it is impossible to teach economics to youngsters without indoctrinating them with neo-classical economics clap-trap. I don’t agree. We might need a significant shift of emphasis or lens for teaching young people the right building blocks, which means that we might need to teach a lot of teachers to teach differently, but ignorance of vital topics is surely not bliss. Surely it is possible (even if difficult) to change curricula?

Yanis’s big takeaway on education is that young people should be taught economic and political history and not taught that pure economics is sort-of about maths. I buy into that part.

I don’t buy Ha-Joon’s rather emphatic view that economists are to blame for the 2008 crash and each of the preceding market bubbles and failures in the past 100+ years…

…that sounded a bit like a bigot’s rant against his least favourite ethnic group, immigrants generally or some despised far-away nation. Ha-Joon is clearly not a bigot, but to attribute blame so simplistically does an injustice to the undoubted quality of his own mind.

Such simplistic, finger-pointing style was in part a symptom of the shortness of the formal discussion and attempts to match Ayesha for comedy. The audience (there must have been a hundred or so of us crowded into the studio) lapped up the irreverence generally; I suppose that reaction egged on the Professors to attempt greater heights of mirth.

Ayesha, in fact, cleverly switched away from unsubtle comedy when she described her experience of politicians grasp of inflation (almost non-existent) and when she explained inflation in simple, human terms – hard working care workers no longer able to feed their families without resorting to food banks because the prices have all gone up while their wages haven’t.

Very subtle, a very sardonic humour style; it reminded me stylistically of my Norman Lamont song from NewsRevue 25 years ago – click here.

So by the end of the formal session I was convinced that Economy is a good cause but I was not convinced that the formal panel discussion had relentlessly advanced the charity’s cause; economists and economics had been all-but universally damned.

Indeed, so nervous was I of being thought of as having anything to do with that maligned category of people, economists, I didn’t dare mention my Keele connections – click here if you dare – which I always thought of as being “very much of the left” but with a balanced, open-minded aspect; clearly not sufficiently left in some circles.

I didn’t even dare chat about the fact that Janie and I were going to a preview of the Modigliani on Wednesday, just in case we were mistaken for acolytes of Franco Modigliani, the Nobel-winning corporate finance economist… 

…rather than Amadeo Modigliani, the painter & sculptor of long-face fame, being featured at the Tate Modern.

OK, I’m now exaggerating for effect…must be catching.

I had some really interesting conversations after the main event; a real mixture of people. One very interesting fund manager who reads books but was now trying to spend the rest of the evening incognito, some more of the Economy people and a very pleasant chat with David Graeber, for the first time in a couple of years.

As always, I thoroughly enjoyed an evening at Brian’s place, meeting interesting people and having my thoughts severely provoked.

I’d like to help the charity Economy if I can; I have one or two ideas…

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