Scotonomics Festival of Economics, Dundee, 24-26 March 2023
Dundee is a stylish city. Beautiful in the March sunshine it marked the culmination of Scotonomics’ journey from an obscure Youtube channel to a major event in the calendars of people who like to think and talk about Scottish economics, politics and independence.
I enjoyed Dundee, it’s a great place for a vegan foodie, and the V&A museum is astonishing but in truth the conference dominated my time there and it was time well spent.
Economics is complicated and at times a little hard to follow and the event did a good job of making it explicable to those of us without formal economics education who I suspect made up the majority.
Economics includes so much and the event proved that it’s hard to be well-informed about either Scottish independence or about politics without some insight and understanding of the economics that underlies both. You can’t have nice policies if you can’t fund them. And you can’t foresee policy consequences if you don’t also look at economic affects.
The introductory session began this theme of making economics easy to understand with a physical game where audience members followed each other around to mimic how things like Interest Rates, Unemployment and GDP follow each other.
We moved on to innovation looking both at exciting tech projects and at innovative systems solutions such as community projects. There were many quite profound insights such as this one from Steven Hail: “Poverty and inequality are the same problem.” I’m still thinking about that one.
We had a great session on economic models. Like many amateurs I had a vague notion that economic models are sort of dumb as they are based on unrealistic assumptions (cough, 2008) so it was fascinating to hear from Stephen Kinsella who gets that but knows how to employ them as useful tools within their limitations.
The evening finished with an audience with Alex Salmond, former First Minister of Scotland of course, and a wonderful moment of political theatre. Alex is a suave charismatic speaker who captures his listeners. He likes to name drop but frankly they are pretty impressive names. However the audience pushed him onto awkward ground on Alba’s climate policies until finally he ended up justifying oil drilling on the basis of the sunk costs of the oil rigs – to a room full of climate-aware economists! (For the non-economists the Sunk Cost Fallacy is a rookie mistake that economists learn about in their first year). Awkward!
And exciting! For this is how the Overton window changes, when smart politicians have to go into rooms and defend dumb policies then, behind closed doors, angrily demand a change so that they won’t be made to look so foolish next time.
That was Friday; Saturday started with a bang.
After informative presentations on currency from first rate speakers from the Caribbean and Australia we moved on to two homegrown experts Tim Rideout and Stewart MacKintosh and they strongly disagreed on how quickly Scotland could adopt a currency after independence. Words like “nonsense” and “foolish” were flying – top entertainment.
I didn’t catch all of Saturday’s sessions so my next one was Shona Robison, then Social Justice, Housing and Local Government Secretary. She spoke about our options beyond the welfare state covering things like UBI, Universal Basic Services, Minimum Income Guarantee (which Scotgov is already making moves on) and Community Councils. It’s great to have the people actually implementing policy explain and defend their thoughts.
My next session was one of the most imaginative and forward-thinking: community-led economics. There really are some great ideas around and it was wonderful to see speakers openly talk about contesting power and property.
Common Weal’s Amanda Burgauer got to cast rather forlorn eyes at Wales as she co-presented a session with Mark Hooper, Plaid councillor and special advisor to the Welsh government, who told us about the impressive things Wales has been doing since they nicked CW’s idea for a National Energy Company and made it work. One day, Amanda, one day.
My last session on Saturday was a panel with the wonderful Steve Keen on screen from Australia. Steve is an economics legend and he lived up to expectations to the point that he took all the hardest questions and answered them clearly and authoritatively. There are few thinkers more worth listening to in any field.
Sunday’s sessions started with MMT which explored the meaning and the limitations of this approach.
Next session made a persuasive case for a Scottish job guarantee. The reasons some people oppose this are really quite ugly.
They then tackled growth and degrowth finishing with Lukas Bunse’s stark statement that our choice is between planned degrowth or a crash.
More Steve Keen next and he wasn’t mincing words as he took on the economics establishment’s failure to address climate change. He concluded that it’s too late to change our social system so we have to constrain the one we’re in. Which will mean carbon rationing. If you watch one talk from this event make it this one.
Jon Helgi Egilsson regaled us with some extraordinary stories about the Iceland’s wild banking ride and then we had an ironically amicable session on how economists never agree.
A session on technical solutions injected some optimism and also some scepticism.
We finished with a session on a Scotland of ideas which was apt as the weekend had been so full of ideas.
As well as the planned sessions it was brilliant to meet so many other people interested in the conjunction of economics, Scottish independence and having the think-and-do attitude that we pride ourselves on at Common Weal.
Finally I’d like to plug Planet Critical, the channel of journalist Rachel Donald, who I’d never heard of before but who hosted the event on the Sunday and whose interviews I’ve been absolutely devouring since I got back.