Ismail Lagardien: Demystifying economics

At the end of last year I searched, as I’m sure many people did, for something positive, something uplifting about the year that was. There was nothing.

It was a year heavy with death and dying. From the ruins of Aleppo to Havana, we were reminded of our own mortality.

The optimists among us may believe that this new year cannot possibly be as bad as the previous one. The pessimists would imagine the worst was yet to come and, so far, we have not been disappointed.

On the first day of the year we received the news that one of the world’s finest economists working on inequality, Tony Atkinson, had died.

A day later, we heard that the writer, John Berger, had died.

The new year started off badly . . .

Atkinson and Berger belonged to that rare group of radical humanists who remained true to their principles until the day they died. Both shared the belief that the uneven power relations that underpinned economics – from the language and symbols we use to describe the world, to states of affairs – were fundamental to understanding inequality.

And so were snuffed out two voices that influenced many of us who dare consider economics a moral and social science, as Atkinson emphasised, and helped us understand the way inequalities in power and privilege shaped (even) art and literature, a defining feature of Berger’s work. They played a significant role in shaping my own understanding of the political economy and culture of late capitalism.

Berger’s summation of the current crisis in global capitalism was insightful: “It seems to me that we have to return, to recapitulate what globalisation meant, because it meant that capitalism, the world financial organisations, became speculative and ceased to be first and foremost productive, and politicians lost nearly all their power to take political decisions – I mean politicians in the traditional sense. Nations ceased to be what they were before.”

For most of the post-war period Atkinson was one of the few economists who worked, actively and unflinchingly, on understanding and fighting poverty and inequality. He remained committed to the belief that economics was a social and a moral science, and not a science like physics.

He understood that economics is, always, necessarily about humanity and society, and that economic policymaking was essentially to create a more just society.

In a discipline where being humane and caring about and for the poor, where the welfare state and optimal taxation are considered to be moral values and, therefore, inimical to “scholarly” or “scientific” endeavour, Atkinson stood out, precisely, for his humanity.

This caring and humane approach was embodied in his scholarly work and in his day-to-day life.

Economics was not a 9 to 5 occupation that belonged in the rarefied air of academic halls.

Atkinson’s work on inequality set high benchmarks for economists who would, otherwise, have no language to address matters like social justice. He was a huge inspiration for economists like Thomas Piketty and worked closely with Joseph Stiglitz – both of whom have gained fame for their work on inequality in recent years.

I would add to that pantheon the ground-breaking work on global inequality by Branko Milanovic.

Without Atkinson’s work, metrics on inequality and knowledge on social security mechanisms would be terribly wanting. The Atkinson measure (of inequality) is used to determine contribution(s) to observed inequality.

What I admired most about Atkinson’s work was the way he tried, always, to make it accessible to a wider audience – especially to those of us who are not “specialists” or “experts”.

Notionally in different intellectual streams – Berger in arts and culture, and Atkinson in economics – they would have had no disagreements on the moral base of economics.

They believed that economics and its cognate fields of study, like business, management studies and human resource management, should return to its moral and ethical basis.

This “return” is necessary if only because of the direct and indirect influence that economists have on policy-making across society and for reasons of democratic accountability. On this basis, alone, to the extent that it needs to be explained, economics is not value-free.

This should be made explicit, and young (and old) economists should be trained to detect the value commitments in their theorising and conceptual work. This goes to the heart of economics curriculum reform, which is currently being addressed in institutions around the world.

From Atkinson and Berger, and very many others, I gathered the understanding that the economist who studies economics in isolation from its context in human affairs makes the same mistake as the lawyer who studies law without considering the moral and social context in which the law operates.

The reader who has had patience to follow this column, may recall that I set out in May last year (with some success, I hope) to help demystify economics. This was the prime objective of both Atkinson and Berger.

Both spent most of their lives in “a lifelong assault on mystification”.

Atkinson made his economics accessible and clear to ordinary folk, and when Berger was awarded the Booker Prize in 1972, he said: “Clarity is more important than money.”

Dr Ismail Lagardien is executive dean of business and economics at NMMU