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Making Economics Easily Digestible – Ha-Joon Chang 

Festival of Economics

Written by Isaac Kneebone-Hopkins

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Ha-Joon's approach in this talk and in his new book, Edible Economics, is interesting, or unusual, depending on your perspective. He utilises the well-understood metaphor of food to elucidate the less-understood world of economics as part of his self-proclaimed crusade to popularise the subject.

Taking a leaf out of his book, or better yet, a piece of chocolate from his selection box, I will attempt to do the same.

Economics is like Marmite—either you love it or you hate it. Where Marmite is a by-product of beer, economics is a by-product of industrialised society and capitalism. While Marmite is a beneficial addition to your health as part of a well-rounded diet, economics is a valuable addition to the democratic body politic (too much of either is probably bad for your blood pressure). Ha-Joon emphasises that under capitalism, everyone needs to have some understanding of economics for our democracy and democratic choices to be truly meaningful.

Before I retire this metaphor (although my struggles highlight Chang’s knack for this), let me stretch it just a bit further. For me, Marmite is the dismal condiment, much like, as Ha-Joon pointed out, Thomas Carlyle deemed economics the dismal science.  That is to say, it’s not really my cup of tea, but at this point, the metaphors are becoming a bit confused.

Despite my awkward attempts, using food as a prism is a fitting way to approach economics. The discipline has inherently always been about access to food. Thomas Malthus, the grandfather of modern political economy, infamously argued in 1798’s An Essay on the Principle of Population that populations must be controlled, or there wouldn’t be enough food to go around.

Malthus’ system of thought was fundamentally shaped by the aftermath of the introduction of the enclosure acts of the eighteenth century. Enclosure was the process by which peasants lost their feudal rights to access and graze their animals on ‘common land’ that their families had farmed and used as a source of food for centuries. The land was now solely used by the landowners for more profitable sheep farming. This displacement of the peasants led, for the first time outside of famine or war, to mass starvation in the UK and created the need for national programs of food provision for the poor to be organised by the church and state and the expansion of poor laws and almshouses to detain and put to work the starving masses.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise. As far back as the sixteenth century, Thomas More identified the way the rural poor were sacrificed to the needs of sheep (and the profit motive that led to their proliferation) in the first round of enclosures, which led soon after his death to the introduction of the first poor laws and almshouses. He created the enduring and surprising metal image of man-eating sheep when he said, ‘Your sheep, that were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, now, as I hear say, be become so great devourers, and so wild, that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves.’

With the rural poor chased into cities by man-eating sheep, the Industrial Revolution took hold and the British Empire spread with these displaced and ever-hungry people as its workforce and colonisers. Industrial cities grew across the UK with a new business elite gorging themselves on the profits from wool, linen, and an extractive empire.

The British replaced our fear of man-eating sheep with what Chang calls an aversion to foreign food that reached an ‘almost religious zeal’. Britain conquered half the world, discovering along the way riches beyond compare to steal, a variety of ingredients to incorporate into our diets, and a series of cuisines we considered too spicy or laden with garlic. I can attest to the religious zeal Chang described, as my Nana, from a small Welsh town, refused to her dying day to eat pizza, which she deemed ‘too exotic.’

Chang’s view is that the British food horizon didn’t expand until the neoliberal turn of the 1980s, in exact counter to the decline in the breadth of economic ideas available in the academy. You now have the freedom to consume whatever you want; you can have a full English for breakfast made with Polish eggs, Neapolitan pizza for lunch with Moroccan tomatoes; and top off your gluttonous day with a Thai Green Curry for dinner made with Sri Lankan coconut milk. However, in this world of unlimited choices, your options of what you are allowed to think have become increasingly limited. Post-Keynesianism is as exotic to mainstream economics as margherita was to my nan. Marxist economics (shock horror), as Ha-Joon points out, is viewed the same way my nan saw my teenage veganism, a good way to starve. The range of legitimate thought has diminished, obscured by the faux freedom of consumer choice. The end of history and the birth of all-you-can-eat fusion buffet.

Chang highlighted that the proponents of economic freedom, time and time again, have chosen to prioritise it over human freedom. This choice is then dressed up as a scientific necessity. The need for different choices was raised by the audience: How do we expand the range of economic ideas taught at university and put forward in the media? How do we create policies that ensure people are well-fed? How do we create an industrial policy that prioritises protecting people and the environment over constant growth?

As Ha-Joon stressed, the primary aim of economics should be to build a world where everyone has their basic needs met—literally, a society where everyone has enough to eat. However, this requires economists to make different ethical assumptions than those they currently build their systems around. As it stands, despite all our economists and more economic data than has ever existed, we fail to meet even this low bar. Ha-Joon makes clear that if mainstream economics is unable to measure this failure, then we need to push for a new economics. To come back to the food metaphor one last time: as there are those in our society gluttonising themselves on our economic surplus, we are in dire need of regulatory Ozempic.

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