Oliver Chan: Why I’m taking on the Politics & Economics Editorship

My aim as Politics Editor for Impolitikal has been to strip away the pantomime theatrics of parliamentary debates, pundit panels and saviour worship and distill politics down to power and its distribution between parliaments, communities and interest groups, and how values built into powerful political and cultural institutions prioritise some voices and ideas over others.

Over the last year, while considering a potential PhD on reforming democratic institutions, I’ve found that some of the most useful texts on how political institutions work – their values, structures and incentives – come from economists, which has led me to immerse myself in economic theory. The ideas of Henry George, Karl Polanyi, Thorstein Veblen and most prominently Ha Joon-Chang have fundamentally reshaped the way that I approach politics, in that I now believe political change isn’t possible without credible alternative economic models.

Take the possibility that we are on the precipice of a new socio-economic model as transformational as the welfare state or neoliberalism. Like Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman who have previously shaped modern economic thinking, the next economic model or models are fundamentally political projects, to be ushered in by a seachange of values, priorities and environments.

“I now believe political change isn’t possible without credible alternative economic models.”

Classical liberalism as a lightly-regulated system suited the needs of an Industrial Revolution where technology and capital unleashed burgeoning wealth as long as new urban migrants didn’t have the wealth, organisation – let alone universal suffrage – to fight back. Extreme rural poverty in developing, undemocratic societies in many cases suited the rise of communism.

The sheer need to mobilise all national resources as the only means of ending the Great Depression and fight World War Two forged a sense of national interest and empathy that saw the rise of a Keynesian welfare state based on universal, cheap-to-free education and health, unemployment benefits and full employment.

Finally, neoliberalism suited a rapidly globalising world where citizens were remade as consumers whose need for cheap goods required borderless, free-flowing international investment and where socioeconomic status is based on individual merit.

Any fundamental economic shift requires reformative political movements at both the national and international levels, which will in turn require a convincing economic theory at their heart. Besides the efforts of UK Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s ‘New Economics’ lectures of top emerging economic thinkers I’ve seen no great effort to channel emerging political values into bold new economic ideas.

No emerging political seachange can succeed unless accompanied by a moral and ethical argument for economic change. If you want to truly understand politics, you must understand economics. If politics is about power, economics must be about value. I wouldn’t be doing the best job that I could as Politics Editor if I didn’t incorporate economics as an equal partner of politics.

“No emerging political seachange can succeed unless accompanied by a moral and ethical argument for economic change.”

Under my new editorial mandate, Impolitikal is going to forge a platform for economic commentary that is accessible and forward-thinking. One of the most important areas we aim to address is the link between personal values and evidence.

Personal values and political bias can determine what kind of research is invested in and carried out – what variables are measured, which are granted more weight than others, and how the statistics are ultimately interpreted. Values determine how we define inequality and social outcomes: for example, whether we see income inequality as a bad thing or if we measure poverty in absolute or relative terms.

Economic judgements – whether to spend more during an economic recession or cut public spending, business freedom versus intervention – are more about underlying political ideology than we’d like to think in terms of belief and even how we judge the outcomes.

These political values will shape what a new economic model looks like – whether it’s national or international. For example, if inequality is now a political priority on the left, what combination of ideas will best reflect these values, will resolve this and explain their consequences in terms of economic impact and human behaviour?

Land Value Tax, carbon tax, Universal Basic Income and wealth tax among other theories are usually discussed alone rather than reflecting a coherent collection of moral and ethical logic.

Impolitikal will investigate economists’ notions of human ‘nature’. Rather than rely on ideological assertions that we are either inherently self-interested or motivated to do good, a whole range of factors and contexts can cause us to act with relative selfishness and selflessness at different moments.

For example, Adam Smith is right that people are natural barterers but it’s not purely for economic survival nor do we demand immediate payback. Think about birthday presents and housewarming gifts, which are based on social and cultural obligations and values without the insistence or expectation of immediate or equal payback.

“A whole range of factors and contexts can cause us to act with relative selfishness and selflessness at different moments.”

The weight of political institutions, public services, workplaces, and cultural, social and legal norms encourage or discourage certain behaviours – whether we’re employees or employers, or if we drive, train or cycle to work. We will behave certain ways based on how much power our managers have or how our levels of cycling infrastructure will encourage or discourage people from acting like reckless assholes.

If incentives and environments shape our dispositions and behaviour, then economics approaches recognise this rather than a binary choice between forced cooperation or forced competition.

We wouldn’t be Impolitikal if we didn’t consider that, rather than one next dominant economic model, there could be multiple models for different nation-states, cultures and even industries on the horizon. A Chinese market socialist model, an Asian Tiger; a Keralan Model, an indigenous economic model – perhaps the world is beyond consensus.

Perhaps it’s realised that one school of economic thought can’t explain everything all the time. Ha Joon Chang has been at the forefront of challenging the drive to ascribe to one economic school alone. The battles between political parties and pundits idolise different nations – whether Sweden for the left or Singapore for the right – but often ignore the contradictory models.

Sweden is a lot more free market and conservative than we’d like to think, whereas the low-tax, low-spending Singaporean model is interventionist in both economic planning and dominant ownership infrastructure and the vast majority of housing. In Chang’s words, “give me one economic theory that can explain Singapore.” He encourages us to test all theories when looking at a problem, saying: “you should not be a man or woman with a hammer.” Instead, he promotes a “Swiss Army knife” approach – engaging a variety of tools to coordinate a nation’s economy.

Lastly, Impolitikal wants to explore how dominant economic theories tend to reflect political power dynamics that prioritise certain values. Economics appears to be the last true dinosaur profession, where the most revered economic theorists and academics are still overwhelmingly white males.

Men are also the vast majority of those who pull economic levers: Finance Ministers;  Treasurers; Chancellors; Reserve Bank/Federal Reserve chairs; and top corporate CEOs. This bias is most obvious with GDP – our main measure of all economic based on the value of all goods and services produced within a national border usually within a given year.

GDP values all goods and services, including funerals and environmental disaster clean-ups but ignores unpaid but economically valuable work such as parenting, housework and care for sick relatives – largely done worldwide by women and girls.

I’m calling for pitches from talented, passionate writers: original ideas which you think would fit into any of our priority areas, or more generally with the values of Impolitikal. If you’re interested, please email me at oliver@impolitikal.com.

Oliver Chan is a London-based social and political researcher and writer, and Politics and Economics Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Oliver.