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We need an empowering narrative

23 June 2017
by Guest author

Gabriela Ramos, OECD Chief of Staff and Sherpa to the G20

When the subprime crisis started, most economists, and the policymakers they advised, thought it would only affect people who had bought homes they couldn’t afford. They didn’t expect that national problem to trigger a cascade of events that almost caused the collapse of the world financial system. Nor did they foresee how the financial crisis would lead to the Great Recession. Global interconnectedness and the complexity it brings were not really understood, nor were the contagion mechanisms that they can trigger and that would impact other regions of the world.

Today, we’re trying to understand how the Great Recession and the other important trends that it aggravated such as growing income and wealth inequality,  gave birth to the backlash against globalisation, and to the political crisis we are confronting in many countries, with divided societies and a lack of common purpose. At the OECD, we set up our New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC) initiative to examine these failures and establish the basis of a better way of analysing economic challenges and producing policy advice based on that analysis.

The slogan of this year’s OECD Forum was “You talk, we’ll listen”, and that is what NAEC has been doing. Over the past few years, we’ve asked a wide range of people what was wrong with the way we were doing things. And they haven’t been shy about telling us!

At the Forum, we presented the views of a sample of around 20 world experts across a variety of fields – financiers managing billions of dollars, Nobel prize-winning economists, political scientists, social scientists… compiling the ideas they have shared all through the NAEC initiative.

As you’d expect from such a strong-minded group, they don’t always agree with us or each other, and we do not claim to buy all that they say. More importantly, to avoid the “herd thinking” prevailing before the crisis, and that prevented a better understanding of the imbalances that were accumulating to a tipping point, it is important to listen to those that think differently from us, and to remain open to criticism and honest exchanges.

But a number of common views do emerge from reading the draft report. Growing integration and connectedness is helping to improve living standards across the globe, but the traditional models we use to study today’s economy make too many assumptions that are at odds with the facts. The very name of these models, general equilibrium, shows that they assume that the economy is basically in balance until an outside shock upsets it. They assume that you can understand the economy by studying a representative agent whose expectations and decisions are rational.

This view is essentially linear, and the policy advice it generates is tailored to a linear system where an action produces a fairly predictable reaction. It looks at aggregate outcomes and at average results. It concentrates on flows and does not consider stocks. Real life is not like that.

Economic models that rely only on inputs such as GDP, income per capita, trade flows, resource allocation, productivity, representative agents, and so on can tell a part of the story, but they fail to capture the distributional consequences of the policies we make, and do not address the  fact that the growth process has only benefited a few. They do not capture natural depletion, or incorporate environmental damage as liabilities. On the contrary, they assume that, by growing the pie, inequality of income and opportunities will diminish (the trickle-down effect), or that you can always clean after you grow. So we need a full re-vamp of our analytical frameworks and the assumptions that we make, to better capture the reality. At the OECD we have done so by proving that income inequality harms growth.

To start with, we need different more granular information, data and analysis, and definitely, better metrics. We have to be able to check how policies will impact different income groups, communities, regions and firms. We need to get away from growth first and distribute later, or clean later. The unintended consequences of policies should be considered beforehand, and so should equity.

Traditional models do not integrate important dimensions such as justice, trust or social cohesion that are not easily measurable. In fact these models are based on an ideology or narrative that claims that people are rational, take the best decisions according to the information they have to maximize utility, and that the accumulation of rational decisions will deliver the best outcome.

Real people are not like that. Their lives are shaped by their hopes, aspirations, history, culture, tradition, family, friends, language, identity, the media, community and other influences. As these other elements are not the core of macroeconomic models, they are neglected, and the social and human sciences (psychology, history, sociology…) that can explain these variables have been put aside in the modelling work to develop economic policy options.  As the economic profession became highly quantitative, the non-measurable features of the economy were just ignored, such as people’s fears, expectations or sense of unfairness.

The world we live in is a system of systems, physical or not, that is complex. That means you have to take a systemic approach that can deal with tipping points, phase changes, emergent properties, and – very important for us – the fact that shocks do not come from outside. The system itself produces the shocks that destabilise it.

We need a new approach to economics that isn’t just about quantitative economics. An approach that integrates behavioural economics and complex systems theory, as well as economic history.

We also need a new narrative to integrate all these different, often conflicting influences. So what might such a new narrative look like? The report concludes that it should be based on the best facts and science available, and contain four stories: a new story of growth; a new story of inclusion; a new social contract; a new idealism.

The state can help empower the shift. An empowering state is one that focuses on strategic investments to allow people, firms and regions to fulfil their potential. That means putting people at the centre of our policy efforts, and broadening the objectives of policies to include not only material well-being but many other options that are important such as health, quality jobs, a sense of belonging, social cohesion, and environmental outcomes.

At the OECD we have made progress with NAEC and with the Inclusive Growth Initiative, inviting policy makers and stakeholders to consider different alternatives to the traditional framing of economic issues. We conclude that by being inclusive, economies can be more productive, and that fostering productivity growth in an inclusive manner makes growth sustainable.  We call this the “nexus” or the need to foster “inclusive productivity”. We are making the call to turn this analysis into action, but this will require a re-engineering of the institutional settings in OECD economies, getting rid of silos and having a holistic approach for the well-being of people, that is multidimensional.

The lively and informative debate with the public at the OECD Forum suggests to me that the draft report touched on a number of subjects people care deeply about. But it is still a draft and we need to continue the conversation, so please send your comments, criticisms and suggestions to us at [email protected], and we’ll keep you informed on how the discussion progresses over the coming months.

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