Big Ideas: Festival of Economics round-up

IMG_4080NICVA organised today’s Big Ideas: Festival of Economics, filling their meeting rooms in their Duncairn Gardens building with discussion and debate about a wide range of ideas: land tax, economic data, devolution of tax powers universal affordable childcare, left/right politics, better public service procurement, modernising benefits, and a debt jubilee.

The four year Centre for Economic Empowerment project at NICVA is nearing its conclusion but the full attendance at today’s event can be taken as a sign of the capacity that has been built in the community and voluntary sector around economic awareness and understanding.

The animated breakout sessions were the venue for postulating and challenging “big ideas”. Sir Paul Silk who chaired the Commission on Devolution in Wales was able to add an external view to the debate around whether NI could benefit from a greater devolution of tax powers.

Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir opened the event. He said he was:

  • a believer in a moral economy that has a vision greater than just making money;
  • an opponent in the belief that the market will take care of everything; and
  • a believer in the power of citizenship.

He outlined three small but inspiring ideas that he said demonstrated how small initiatives could be transformative within communities. He added that building the NICVA building itself was a small idea that has helped a community of organisations grow up around it on Duncairn Gardens.

Asked by Seamus McKee what kind of Finance Minister he’d like to be, Máirtín said that he’d like to be associated with an Executive that not only makes peace but moves the country into a new place, providing sustainable jobs.

His comments on the likelihood that the UK government would not underwrite the EU’s funding directed towards Northern Ireland have already been detailed in a separate blog post.

A panel discussion then asked whether NI would benefit from a switch to left/right politics? Peter Bunting (IRTU), Tanya Jones (Green Party), Lee Reynolds (DUP), Alex Kane, Jeff Peel, Eoin Rooney chewed over the issue.

Eoin Rooney: The mainstream is finished, people are open to new ideas.

Jeff Peel: I don’t know if the answer is left/right politics, but it sure isn’t more of the same. NI is an annoying anti-intellectual society … it’s the weirdos we need, the crazy downbeat hipsters you see in San Francisco [who go off and work on crazy ideas] …

Peter Bunting railed against Jeff Peel’s ideas of a more secular society saying perhaps we need a more Christian society, quoting from Rev William Barber’s remarks at the Democratic National Convention at the end of July: “Pay people what they deserve, share your food with the hungry. Do this and then your nation shall be called a repairer of the breach.”

Tanya Jones wanted a society that was just, sustainable and cares for the poorest, weakest, youngest and oldest within it. We can’t do that by simply adopting British traditional Labour and Conservative politics because their policies rely on untrammelled economic growth and their policies traditionally haven’t paid attention to how we care for the world.

Lee Reynolds was candid: “I don’t mind if people want left/right politics. I’m a populist. We steal the best ideas and sell it as one package.” He also described how he cut his “political teeth on Slugger O’Toole”. People from all views would rip apart what he posted. A sharp contrast to social media feeds which tend to be absent from dissenting views.

Debunking Economics Steve Keen book coverAfter breakout sessions and lunch, the delegates reconvened to listen to Prof Steve Keen describe his views on the interaction of debt and credit. The author and academic is well known for his book Debunking Economics and associated website.

Patrick Sanders sketch based on Steve Keen's talkHe delved into graphs and formulae and at one stage ran a detailed economic model to illustrate his criticism on conventional economic theory and explain his alternative approach. It’s testament to the work done by CEE over the last four years that delegates remained attentive during the heavy material. [The audio isn’t going to make a lot of sense divorced from the slides and animated model, though Patrick Sander’s sketches are pretty accessible!]

NICVA’s Lisa McElherron quickly reprised the background to the Centre for Economic Empowerment and what it had achieved over the last three years.

After another set of breakout discussions and before the final panel discussion and closing remarks, Economy Minister Simon Hamilton was welcomed back to the NICVA stage. He spoke at an early CEE event, and appeared at a NICVA Innovation event last year to speak about DFP’s Innovation Lab (something that the new Finance Minister omitted to mention this morning).

Northern Ireland has made huge strides forward economically. The private sector is driving growth. Our employment rate is now at its highest ever level. Economic inactivity is at an historic low and falling. And we continue to successfully compete with other locations worldwide for major job investments.

We are most definitely doing better. But we are far from where we want to be. Our household disposable income remains stubbornly amongst the lowest in the UK. Too many are still out of work. Some have never been in work in their lives. Many of those who have jobs are working harder and harder but feel that they are stuck in the same place. And they are concerned that their children will have to struggle more than they did for less, rather than more. These are the people who ought to always be to the forefront of all our minds.

The minister argued that while we want our local companies to grow and seek more inward investment, the better economy that is built must be “better for everyone, everywhere in Northern Ireland … an economy for the common good”.

His policy was clearly one founded in social justice (though that phrase was not used).

An economy for the common good is absolutely constructed upon the foundations of more and better jobs, improved skills and a better economic infrastructure … But true success won’t simply be determined by purely economic measures. Genuine success should be gauged as much by how economic growth enables our people to live healthy, happy and fulfilling lives.

For me, an economy should reflect the values of its people. Not the reverse. The people of this province are hardworking. They cherish their families and their communities. They help their neighbours. They are hospitable, charitable and show compassion for the less well-off amongst us. And while they will never let anyone who succeeds get above their station, they always take pride when one of ours wins or does well, wherever they are.

IMG_4086Simon Hamilton sees these values reflected in the outcomes at the heart of the new Programme for Government. “This isn’t a competition or a trade-off between economic growth and a better society. The two go hand in glove. A globally competitive economy is the cornerstone upon which we can construct the fair, compassionate and sustainable society we want for Northern Ireland. But in pursuing our economic dream we need to be careful we don’t lose the best of what we already have as a society.”

He quoted the July speech by the Bank of England’s chief economist Andrew Haldane who noted that while Northern Ireland has the lowest per capita income of any region in the United Kingdom, it also tops “by some distance in pole position” the life satisfaction league. The reverse is true of London. “That is quite the contrast and something of a paradox and perhaps proves the old saying that money can’t buy happiness.”

We can be prone to talking this place down because we don’t top the league tables on wealth or prosperity but we arguably have something that is harder to achieve and, ultimately, of greater worth. The qualities that make Northern Ireland the most prosperous region in the United Kingdom and Belfast the most prosperous capital city in the Legatum Institute’s 2015 Geography of Prosperity Index which combines wealth and wellbeing.

The qualities that make Fermanagh and Omagh the happiest places to live in the UK according to the Office of National Statistics. We must protect and preserve those qualities with the same effort and enthusiasm as we put into bringing more and better jobs to Northern Ireland, increasing our competitiveness and improving our productivity.

Balance is required.

I desperately want our economy to grow and rebalance and become more innovative. That won’t happen without considerable effort by us all but I don’t want that to come at a cost to our society, where we lose the things that we put a premium on like family, community and caring for others. Increased stress, a fear of being overworked and underpaid, greater insecurity and uncertainty are not, in my view, prices worth paying. Maintaining a healthy work life balance and allowing people to have the free time to enjoy their lives should be every bit as much part of our economy as lower unemployment or increased investment. Surely we want to safeguard our society where people work to live instead of trading it in for one where people live to work.

He quoted William Golding’s “the greatest ideas are the simplest” and concluded his remarks saying:

There will be nothing simple or straightforward about building an economy that works for everyone but its beauty is perhaps that it is an idea that we can all support … Creating an economy for the common good, an economy that works for everyone, is surely something that all us, regardless of our religion or our social class, can get behind and help build together. As we devise and develop and deliver innovative and imaginative economic policy ideas, building an economy that works for everyone should be the overarching big idea that drives us all forward.