Image: Gabrielle McKone
What do artists know about economics?
“The only reason to learn about economics is to stop economists pulling the wool over your eyes.”
– David Norton, Emeritus Professor, School of English Literature, Victoria University of Wellington
WHAT IS ECONOMICS? What is it for? And how much of it do we want? These questions lingered, like an irritating aunt, throughout my day at the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa (TEZA) 2015. It was hard to avoid economics, given the way the word, and therefore the concept, were embedded right within the thing itself. And there were suggestions, hints, thoughts about new ways of doing economics scattered everywhere in the TEZA programme.
The artists were asking questions, as artists do, and should, rather than searching too hard for immediate answers. But I did wonder if other questions needed to be asked. A question can be a bridge between you and the person you disagree with. And I think that many people cynical about TEZA’s purpose – the people who aren’t at all convinced about volunteering, the sharing economy, post-capitalism, or the wider project of redefining economics – would have bridged the gap between TEZA and themselves by asking, in a slightly hostile tone: yes, this is fine, but how is it all to be paid for?
EVEN THOUGH THE TEZA SPACES WERE IN A SHOPPING PRECINCT, surrounded by layers of concrete, they felt like spring. Ideas were popping up everywhere, and not in a central, organised structure like a tree trunk, but independently, unpredictably, like blades of grass.
Very often the ideas were right in line with TEZA’s mission of thinking about new forms of exchange, new kinds of economics. I test-tasted bread with Simon Gray as he talked about working on school gardening projects and trying to make schools self-sufficient. I helped Mark Harvey create bizarre, inventive cardboard and sticky tape costumes for a bunch of schoolkids, as a way of thinking about volunteering and what it brings to people on both sides of that exchange. I visited Sharemart, which promised “a new economic model” for clothing, based on exchange, repair and reuse. I went out to the old Porirua mental hospital grounds and talked to Tim Barlow about artisanal workers, industrial workers and the now-defunct Todd Motors plant.
All these projects were joyous, and creative,and clever. They stood on those merits alone. They were all also questioning the dominance of market systems, the exchange of buying and selling in our modern lives. But there were other questions that I felt needed asking. I also felt that free-market economics would have posed some difficult questions for them.
Getting schools to grow more vegetables is something I wholeheartedly support, for its own sake and for its many spin-off benefits – the lessons it teaches about the environment, the earth, the growing process. But there is a good reason that schools and other small groups don’t invest much time, often, in growing vegetables. Anything done by amateurs in small chunks will produce less of what we want in a given time than something done by professionals at scale. Leaving gardening to the professionals – division of labour in other words – opens up the time for us to do other things that we might want to do.
Sharemart faced similar issues. One of its staff members noted that people coming there to have clothes repaired were supposed to stick around, so as to learn from the seamstresses and exchange something meaningful, but they would often just “drop and run”. Again, it was about division of labour: leave someone to do something efficiently, and you can use that time to earn an income, or do something else that you value. It’s also about cost: people often don’t get clothes repaired because it’s cheaper to buy new ones.
TEZA, of course, is arguing that we need a different kind of economics: but what kind, exactly? Clothes are cheap in part because when you throw away old ones, you pay almost no price, in rubbish bags or tip fees, to compensate for the environmental costs of this pollution (the externality, in economic terms, that you impose on everyone else). So is TEZA saying that if we put a proper price on pollution – and, not incidentally, carbon – then throwing away clothes would, rightly, become more expensive than repairing them, and that would get us to our desired outcome? Is the answer, in other words, to be found in extending the reach of economics, applying price mechanisms to more things in a fairer way?
Similarly, with self-sufficiency in schools, one could argue that the many benefits of growing your own vegetables outweigh the efficiency benefits of leaving it to the big boys. But how do we quantify those benefits? Could we somehow measure them in a concrete way, put a number on them that could be added into a matrix of traditional economic calculations to evaluate the best option? Again, this would be extending the reach of economics. Or, conversely, should we simply assert that those things cannot be measured, and that non-economic concepts – learning for its own sake, protecting the environment, ideas from other disciplines such as sociology and philosophy – have primacy? That would be a deliberate plan to re-orient economics around different goals.
Tim Barlow’s mobile community centre sparked even bigger questions, thanks to the fact it was towed by, and paid homage to, a Hillman Hunter from the old Todd Motors factory. Todd Motors used to be an essential part of Porirua life, employing thousands of people, and its disappearance still reverberates harshly through the community. But it disappeared because New Zealand simply couldn’t produce cars that were as cheap and reliable as Japanese imports, and the country overall chose – and benefited from – those imports, even if Porirua suffered.
Barlow isn’t suggesting that we revert to protecting a car industry (not that we could anyway, given the free trade agreements we have signed). But then what do we do? Again, do we try to concretely measure the benefits of having local industries – the spillover effects, the savings from not having people unemployed, and so on – in a way that allows us to better make the case for them? Or do we say that we, the people, acting through government, have a better view of how the economy could work than when we, the people, act as consumers, buying and selling things? If so, how would we have that knowledge, and how could we articulate it?
THESE ARE ALL DIFFICULT QUESTIONS, and I’m not saying that TEZA could have answered them alone. But if we, the broader movement in which TEZA is embedded, cannot answer them, cannot come up with a new and coherent economics, we will probably be unable to explain to the skeptics how everything is going to be paid for.
At one point during my day at TEZA one of the artists said to me: “Economics is so cool. It seems like an imaginary system.” And to some extent it is. Its supposed precision and predictive power are certainly illusory, and, as my old English lecturer David Norton suggests in the epigraph to this piece, it’s good to be able to challenge its more ridiculous claims. But the non-imaginary part of economics simply helps us answer the question of how we can best do what we want, given limited resources. And that is one of the hardest questions to answer.