The master economist…must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher — to some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words…No part of man’s nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard.
— John Maynard Keynes, 1924
Radical Uncertainty was born of my frustration with the unthinking and unimaginative way economics is covered in the mainstream media. The economy, business and the world of work are usually treated as if they are the private concerns of economists, business moguls and financial “experts”, and nothing to do with the rest of us.
In the UK, “business” seems to mean the views, interests and doings of “the City” – a few thousand people working in global finance. The millions of men and women whose work actually comprises “the economy” are treated as collateral damage. Have you noticed that the first person asked to comment on a piece of economic news is usually an economist whose salary is paid by a bank?
This means conventional economic “wisdom” is rarely challenged and the big questions that matter to us as workers, parents, shoppers, citizens and voters are left unanswered or, all too often, unasked. This blog is a tiny contribution to putting that right.
The economy is not an abstraction, it’s not a model, a system or an alternative universe. The economy is part of life, and economics should be part of the human discourse. The economy encompasses culture, community, work, fashion, ideas, even sex, love and family life. It’s political and personal. You can’t see the join between the economy and society — because there isn’t one.
Conventional economics wants nothing to do with this messy, human stuff. Driven by what Thomas Piketty called a “childish passion for mathematics”, it reduces the economy of human beings to a highly theoretical and ideological model in which isolated individuals make decisions according to silly rules that have nothing to do with the way real people think or behave. The business and economic media rarely challenge this fantasy or the implications of accepting it.
I’m not an economist or a financial expert, just a jobbing writer trying to come to terms with the global economy as a business owner and a trade unionist (yes, such a thing is possible!), as a father and a citizen, as a flawed and sometimes irrational human being. I don’t pretend to have the answers; I just hope to ask some interesting questions, and point readers in the direction of some interesting thinking.
Radical uncertainty was an idea at the centre of John Maynard Keynes’s challenge to orthodox economics in the 1920s and 1930s. In contrast to conventional economic thinking then and now, Keynes reckoned we usually have no basis for making rational predictions about an unknowable future. To quote Keynes’s biographer, Robert Skidelsky, “the function of belief systems and institutions was to give humans courage to act in the face of the unknown and the unknowable”.
It also seems a very apt description of the times (economic and otherwise) in which we live.
About Craig Ryan
I am a freelance journalist and communications specialist living and working in London. I am a partner in Lexographic Media, associate editor of Healthcare Manager and a former editor of Public Service Magazine.
My main interests as a writer are books, current affairs, work and Europe, especially France. Like everyone else, I am also busy not writing a novel – but you never know, so watch this space (or rather this one). If anything here takes your fancy, you can read more of my work at craigryan.eu. You can also follow me on Twitter: @CraigA_Ryan.
I am also a new(ish) dad, a long suffering supporter of Crystal Palace FC and Surrey cricket, an Elvis Costello fanatic and, if given the chance, a fairly accomplished pub bore.