Economics as Storytelling – will Northern Ireland live happily ever after?

Economics is seen as one of those complex subjects, up there with nuclear physics, as simply too difficult to understand and something only economic experts can comment on.

However, this is not always the case. While presented and viewed by most as objective, scientific and complex, economics can actually be viewed as a form of storytelling.

What we need to do is translate the language into one that is easier to understand and the best way of doing this is to reveal the political and ethical values underpinning the way in which economics is presented.

Take, for example, ‘rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy’ is not a statement of fact like ‘water boils at 100 degrees’. It is an economic narrative based on a certain set of assumptions and values about how those proposing this policy wish to see Northern Ireland and so, such an economic policy is actually a story. Being aware of such proposals as narratives helps citizens understand ‘economics’ is not ‘science’, it involves often hidden values, ideology and politics.

In the same way we see narratives and value-based stories being played out in the debate around Brexit.  For those who are pro-Brexit, there is a strong projection of a happy and positive, almost ‘fairy tale’ like ending at the conclusion of the Brexit saga. For opponents of Brexit, it is portrayed as an unmitigated disaster, a ‘nightmare’ scenario rather than a ‘fairy tale’ ending.

All forms of economics are forms of political economy, which contain values and ideology. Every economic story contains ideology about how the world should be and are therefore political because they involve value judgements and choices. This means that most people can and should be better able to understand them. The trick is to look and find these other stories, which are usually hidden behind jargon, mathematical equations and statistics.

The main form of economics and how the economy is understood within both the media and informal education is capitalist economics. That is an understanding of how to arrange the economy (how we make, distribute and consume goods and services) and economic growth. This is usually understood as increasing the monetary value of the circulation of goods and services.

This dominant economic story is more formally known as ‘neo-classical economics’. It supports a particular view of the economy and society which is supportive of a capitalist organisation of the economy. It largely supports private ownership; a reduction of the welfare state and a lowering of regulations on businesses. Neo-classical economics also endorses production for profit, justifies an unequal distribution of income and wealth alongside promoting free trade and economic globalisation, and above all, is committed to promoting ‘economic growth’.

A sign of the ideological success of neo-classical economics as our dominant economic story is that it has, by and large, managed to perform the sleight of hand, replacing ‘capitalism’ with ‘the economy’, such that whenever we talk about the economy we are in fact usually talking about a particular mode of economic organisation, namely capitalism.

So, we have a dominant economic story, one that would be broadly familiar to many people in terms of their ‘common sense’ view of the economy, gained from what they read about in newspapers, see on TV or listen to on the radio….but there are other stories possible….and perhaps needed. Economics as storytelling allows for alternative stories or different versions of ‘the end’ or ‘they all lived happily ever after’.

Professor John Barry is a Lecturer in Green Political Theory, Politics and Political Economy, from the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. John will deliver a lecture on ‘Economics as Storytelling’ as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s ‘Festival of Social Science’ on Tuesday 7 November at 6.30pm, Canada Room, Queens University Belfast – for more details click here http://www.esrc.ac.uk/public-engagement/festival-of-social-science/festival-events/events-in-northern-ireland/economics-as-story-telling/

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