Econo-fi: a new science-fiction

Niall Bourke, author of Line, on why economics poses a threat to us all

When I sat down to my first book I didn’t know what I was doing.

For some months previous I had been conducting a kind of thought experiment. You see, I passionately hate waiting in lines – or queues, if you prefer – and often get so irritated that I simply give up and leave. But I was also aware that there were some people who seemed not only to tolerate waiting in a queue but to actively enjoy it.

I would see occasional items on the news, about the release of new iPhones or royal weddings or Black Friday sales, where reporters would interview people chirpily standing in enormously long lines, some even wrapped in sleeping bags or inside tents having camped out overnight to guarantee their place.

Why was it, I wondered, that these people enjoyed waiting in a line whereas I hated it? Was it the camaraderie perhaps, a sense of belonging to something? Was it something more puritanical, a kind of self-flagellation to alleviate the guilt of the material indulgence to come? Or maybe it appealed to something altogether more primal and Darwinian, the joy in being able to boast success where many others would fail?

My thought experiment, then, had been to see if I could conceive of a set of circumstances, no matter how unlikely, powerful enough to keep me waiting in a line forever. And so in writing my debut novel Line, I was really just taking this idea and trying to develop it to its “logical” conclusion.

From the outset, I wasn’t sure where this journey was going to take me – but I did I have a vague inkling that the answers might come from science-fiction. I had grown up reading sci-fi (not exclusively, but extensively). I loved how the best sci-fi writers could take an aspect of completely plausible science-fact and extrapolate it out to create a shiny and warped new world – like when Italo Calvino based a surreal new world around the single fact that the Moon used to be slightly closer to the Earth than it is now. And often these were worlds which reflected our own back to us, but like a convex mirror so that all our blemishes were enlarged.

But the more I wrote, the more it became clear that science wasn’t going to be able to help me. The way I saw it, science understood where it was going. But the world I was discovering in Line was so odd, so warped and strange, that I couldn’t believe science would fail to predict its arrival, would permit it to happen. I needed another vehicle to carry me to my destination; a mode of thought almost as powerful as scientific inquiry but altogether more visionless. I needed an academic discipline equally assured in its sense of self of worth, but altogether more blind and groping. Yes, What I needed was economics.

If one academic discipline is going to make the world run in circles until it collapses, then my money is on economics. Despite a litany of failings, economics is still so often both presented and accepted as an empirical science. And therein lies the danger – it’s not empirical. Time and time again, modern economics has failed the acid test of any true science – the ability to make accurate predictions.

Time and time again – 1929, 1973, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2008 – leading economists all over the world have failed to see terrible financial crash after financial crash. And time and time again, eminent economic thinkers have been forced to issue chastening apologies when the thing they assured us could never happen had in fact came to pass. And I think there’s an argument that economics isn’t a branch of science at all, but a branch of philosophy: the philosophy of want.

Never were the inability of economists to advise on political policy more apparent when Allan Greenspan, then chair of the US federal reserve and probably the most influential economist in the world at the time, announced in the wake of the 2008 financial crash that he had been “partially wrong”.

“I have found a flaw,” he said, referring to his rather laissez-faire approach towards regulating the financial markets. “This modern risk-management paradigm held sway for decades…” but “…the whole intellectual edifice, however, collapsed in the summer of last year…Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.”

And all this just seven years after he had presided over the spectacular collapse of Enron, a company self-cannibalised by this very same short-termism and lack of interest in its own future. (In fairness to Greenspan, he also said that “people don’t realize that we [economists] cannot forecast the future. What we can do is have probabilities of what causes what, but that’s as far as we go.”)

But I am not saying economics, as an academic discipline, is without value. Western economic thought has had the most profound impact on the modern life. Ever since Adam Smith wrote in 1776 that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” the world has never been the same. For the 250 years since, a prevailing and broadly neo-classical understanding of market forces has shaped every fabric of our society.

However, the big problem, the real danger as I see it, lies not with economics as a mode of inquiry per se, but with the fact that no other social science or branch of philosophy is given even a fraction as much credence in modern policy making. Despite repeated failings, economic advisers seem to keep getting a disproportionate seat at the political table.

History has taught us, time and time again, that although the self-interest of the butcher and the baker might provide cheap bread and sausages, eventually, if left unchecked, it will also give us horsemeat or slavery or child labour. Yet successive governments continue to accept that the central tenets of neo-classical economics are as immutable as the laws of physics.

Economic advisers pipe the tune; that free markets are good (not always. As Cambridge lecturer Ha-Joon Chang points out in his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, there is really no such thing as a entirely free market, only degrees of regulation, so in advocating for free markets people often mean markets regulated in their favour); that consumers are rational (they often aren’t); that the market is the most effective mechanism to distribute a service (not always, just go ask electricity customers in Texas); that companies have an interest in their long-term future (many don’t, preferring instead to maximise short-midterm super normal profits) – and we trust them to rid us of our financial rats.

But at some point when writing Line I began to hear the dreadful clap of some huge cap stone trapping our children in the mountain cave because we were too lazy to ask what happens if we refuse to pay the required price. And it was then I realised it wasn’t sci-fi I was trying to write at all. It was something else – it was econo-fi.

Economic policy has been acting suspiciously in dark alleys for a long time now. And I wanted Line to put it on the watch list – because no one should be surprised if, when the smoke finally clears after some huge social implosion, it’s economic policy found holding the detonator.