21st Century Economics

Today's students, the citizens of 2050, are being taught economics rooted in the 1950s, which are based on the theories of 1850. Kate Raworth argues we need a new, 21st century economics, and proposed its seven key features in "Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think like a 21st Century Economist" (2017). In many ways the key idea presented in Kate's book preceded its publication, and those following the work of Oxfam over the last few years are already familiar with the doughnut.

The book delves deeper than the doughnut; exploring how dominant ways of thinking came to be, their limitations, and proposing new approaches. At the root of the argument is that "we have economics that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive: what we need are economics that make us thrive, whether or not they grow" (p. 30). For the author, this does just mean new ideas, but also new images and metaphors. For example, from thinking that good equates with "forward-and-up" to good as "thriving-in-balance" (p. 53). An important shift Raworth highlights is the need to think about the long term; "it may sound extraordinary but, despite having adopted GDP growth as the de facto goal of economic policy, the textbooks never actually depict how it is expected to evolve over the long term" (p. 246). And, in so doing, recognizing that we may not – probably cannot – continue to grow indefinitely.

Much of the book is high level visionary thinking, providing thought leadership in how thinking might and could change. There are some key specific issues that Raworth highlights: population, distribution, aspiration, technology and governance" (p. 57). The book offers the most on distribution, technology and governance, which are interwoven, such as: "Rather than wait (in vain) for growth to deliver greater equality, twenty-first century economics will design distributive flow into the very structure of economic interactions from the get-go. Instead of focusing on redistributing income alone, they will also seek to redistribute wealth – be it the power to control land, money creation, enterprise, technology or knowledge – and will harness the market, the commons and the state alike to make it happen. Rather than wait for top-down reform, they will work with bottom-up networks that are already driving a revolution in redistribution. What's more, they will match this revolution in distributive economics with an equally powerful one in regenerative economic design" (p. 205).

A few side notes, I found interesting:

  • On Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs): "economists also uncovered a troubling flip side to the experiment that they had not been expecting. Students who were not selected by the scheme, but had siblings who were, became less likely to attend school regularly – and more likely to drop out – than students from similar families in which no one took part in the scheme. Most strikingly, this was particularly true amongst girls: those with siblings in the scheme were 10% more likely to drop out of school than girls from similar families in which no one was participating. What's more, this unintended negative drop-out effect turned out to be far stronger than the positive effect on attendance and re-enrolment that the scheme was set up to achieve in the first place" (p. 119)
  • On currency: "What kind of currency, then, could be aligned with the living world so that it promoted regenerative investments rather than pursuing endless accumulation? One possibility is a currency bearing demurrage, a small fee incurred for holding money, so that it tends to lose rather than gain in value the longer it is held… demurrage is a word worth knowing because it could just feature in the financial future." (p. 274).

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