Introducing the Progressive Economy Forum
“Are you calling me stupid?” This is a natural response to anyone that says that we are not able to make informed political decisions. Brexit has of course made us more sensitive to such quips, with Remainers too often telling the Brexiters that they didn’t know what they were voting for. My response is that most people don’t know what they are voting for, including during general elections, because we’ve been hoodwinked into an economic approach based on lies.
This month, the Progressive Economy Forum (PEF) - a new initiative delivered in partnership with CLASS - had its public launch, and to mark the occasion we commissioned a survey of 1,500 people on their perception and understanding of economic issues. We found that found that almost two thirds of people don't know what a 'government deficit' is, and two out of every five citizens don't know what 'austerity' means. This is despite austerity and ‘eliminating the deficit’ being the central theme of economic policy for the past eight years. It’s a bit like having eight years of royal wedding chat and not knowing who Meghan Markle is.
But it would be wrong to blame the public for this lack of knowledge. The Office of National Statistics had to give former Prime Minister David Cameron a lesson on debt and deficits after he mixed the two up in a Conservative Party political broadcast. Our poll found that the BBC is the most trusted source on economy, but BBC journalists repeatedly fail to challenge false austerity narratives.
One of the most depressing things about our poll's findings is seeing how successful these narratives have been. Almost one in four (24%) thought the most important task for government in managing the economy was ‘balancing the budget', this was ahead of investing in the productive potential of the economy (19%) and making the best use of scarce resources (16%). A further 11% believed the priority should be ‘saving money to pay down the national debt’.
Ten years after the crash, we have failed to tackle the scale of economic illiteracy. As a consequence, we have a democratic deficit and political leaders are not being held to account for initiating unnecessary public spending cuts. It's time for a mass economics education programme so people can decide for themselves.
So what does a mass economics education programme look like? Rethinking Economics, a student-led organisation, is helpfully pushing back on the teaching of economics, but here are some other complementary ideas:
- Economics 101 for all school pupils – not theoretical discussions with no relation to real life, but e.g. what GDP means and the pros and cons of its use, how money is created, links between the economy and society and a bit of economic history including what led to the global financial crisis (hint: it wasn’t Labour Party investing in the health service or immigration);
- BBC or Channel4 needs to do it’s public duty and make some fun economic programs – after being involved on one on inequality I’ve pitched a few ideas but the creatives always turn it into something that resembles ‘Secret Millionaire’ (seriously);
- Free online courses, accessible materials including animations so that the 69% who say they want to know more about economics can easily find out more. CLASS and the Progressive Economy Forum will be piecing together a ‘People’s guide to the economy’ so watch this space.
I wish these issues got as much airtime as the royal wedding. Given that we’re getting ripped off daily by public spending cuts and various botched privatisations, it is surely worth a bit more airtime. Three in four people we surveyed said that a political party’s economic competency factors into their voting decisions - let’s not make these decisions without knowing the facts.
Check out the Progressive Economy Forum here.