Occupy Economics

At its root, my research into the political economy of aid for mine action is essentially a critique of the uncritical acceptance of conventional economic wisdom that privatization, deregulation and liberalization will lead us to a more prosperous and efficient economy. For years I had run into commercial demining managers parroting simplistic economic models suggesting that commercial tendering would make demining cheaper, faster, more efficient and safer. I heard many representatives of donor agencies repeating this line too. However, in my quantitative and qualitative PhD research at the London School of Economics I found that this conventional wisdom was not quite so straightforward. Making demining more competitive often led to higher accident rates, lower quality demining and less focus on the top humanitarian priorities. Competition, particularly in a region where there is a problem with enforcing the rule of law, can sometimes make public services worse (Read my book Foreign Aid and Landmine Clearance for more details, an extract is available for free here).

Since completing my PhD, I have found similar research findings in other sectors, including humanitarian aid in Haiti, and a church’s social services. There is not a straightforward line between neo-liberal reforms and a better world. In fact, privatization, deregulation and liberalization can lead to greater inequality, a reduction in the quality of social services and political fragmentation.

This is why I, like the economists in the video embedded above, have joined the Occupy Movement. As I explained in my interview with the Daily Beast last month, while I do not always agree with some of the Movement’s more radical fringes, I believe they have opened up a conversation about what is wrong with our economy — the system that distributes scarce resources. When some 1.4 billion people live in poverty and over 925 million are hungry, we cannot pretend that our global political economy is serving humanity well. We need something better — a system that enables a more prosperous and equitable world, a system that protects us from economic and other risks, a system that fosters the ‘good life’, not ‘bare life’, for all human beings.

Traditional economists are often suspicious of politics — having assumed it out of their models, they are irritated when political reality comes crashing in and ruins their neat production functions. But the ‘actually existing economy’ rarely mirrors neo-classical models, which assume perfect competition, equal access to information, rules that apply to everyone and a lack of violence. It is only through political mobilization — nonviolent activism — that we can call attention to the ‘market imperfections’ and ‘market failures’ that have actually become remarkably ‘normal’  and ‘accepted’ in our economy. Only through politics can we have a dialogue and discussion about ways to organize, and yes, regulate, our economy so that it serves society, not the other way around.

~ by Matthew Bolton on 5 December 2011.

One Response to “Occupy Economics”

  1. UPDATE: I have added my name to the list of professors researching economics and political economy who are publicly supporting the Econ4 Statement on OWS (http://econ4.org/statement-on-ows) — the above video.

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