Bristol’s Festival of Economics is designed to bring economic debate and discourse into everyday life. We caught up with Diane Coyle, a distinguished economist and programmer for the 2017 festival, to ask her why economics needs celebrating.
Diane Coyle is an economist determined to demystify economic jargon. With a career spanning academics, policy, and media, she knows that economics is too important to modern society to leave to the insiders. It’s the guiding purpose for the Festival of Economics, a yearly public forum that Diane initiated and continues to develop. In an era full of misinformation, she believes it’s time for an open economic debate that promotes positive civic engagement.
What gave you the idea for a Festival of Economics?
It all started with a tweet.
In 2012, I was in northern Italy where an Italian economist was running something similar. I was bowled over by the fact that thousands of people were coming to a small hillside town to listen to economics lectures. On a whim, I tweeted that someone in the UK should do something similar. Andrew Kelly, who organises Bristol’s Festival of Ideas, responded with enthusiastic support and willing to help. I have always been passionate about communicating economics in a way that engages members of the public, so it made a lot of sense. The festival now brings together academics from various areas of specialism to discuss pressing economic issues in a clear, non-jargony way. It’s been running for six years now, and on this measure and in terms of attendance, it’s a massive success.
Why is the Festival an important event?
What we’re trying to do is create a forum that gathers two groups of people that rarely interact meaningfully: academics and the public. Within the environment of the festival, academics are forced to talk in a clear and accessible way—something that’s not really part of their everyday job. It’s a very fruitful translation exercise that helps them refine their thinking.
We aim to make economics entertaining for the public. But more than that, we want to help people engage. Our ability to vote is a great privilege: it’s vital that we all have some basic economic knowledge to help inform our political decisions.
What are your goals when you start programming the Festival?
We design our content around what is going to be relevant to the person on the street. So, what’s in the newspapers? Early in the year, we list a dozen subjects that are likely to be hot topics. Then we find researchers who are both knowledgeable and can communicate engagingly. This year we’ve programmed around themes like healthcare, automation and inequality. And, of course, Brexit. We make sure that a well-informed journalist chairs each panel, just to keep everyone honest in their aim to remain understandable and accessible.
Who are you excited about speaking this year?
All of them! We have a star line up for 2017 from Stephanie Flanders to Nobel Prize-winning Jean Tirole to Eric Beinhocker of University of Oxford, author of the influential The Origin of Wealth.
What are the most significant misconceptions about economics that you see in the mind of the public?
The single biggest misconception is that economics is immoral because it’s all about money. Obviously, money is a significant part of the economy, but it’s not everything.
For example, a considerable part of economics is about measuring trade-offs. If you choose to do one thing, that means you limit your ability to do something else. It’s called ‘opportunity cost’. This is another misconception: that we don’t have to be limited by opportunity costs. But trade-offs really do exist, and we do need to make choices. This is what economic discussion should be about.
Who do you think is responsible for these misconceptions?
It all comes back to how people are taught in school. From a very early age, most people just give up on maths. Without basic maths, economics becomes difficult to conceptualise. This makes people more reliant on others to interpret economic realities. Most of the time, this interpreter becomes the media. But with a fragmented media landscape, it becomes much harder to determine fact from fiction.
I don’t think there’s an easy fix for this, but I have noticed that people are becoming more interested in educating themselves. To the extent that something goes wrong in the economy, people get more interested in it. In the last 10 years since the crash, we’ve seen an increase in the numbers of formal and informal students.
How can ordinary people practically engage with economics?
There are lots of resources available now, much of which is free online. I’m part of a team that has put together an introductory course on a free online platform called CORE Economics. Our goal is to introduce people to the economic perspective on subjects like innovation, inequality, and environmental sustainability–all current social and political issues. Similarly, at the Festival of Economics, we want to make it all as accessible and exciting as possible. But we know our work is foundational: any significant changes depend on people making economics relevant to themselves and their communities.
Diane is Professor of Economics at the University of Manchester. She is Co-Director of Policy@Manchester and author of a number of books, including GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History and The Economics of Enough. She is founder of the consultancy Enlightenment Economics, which specializes in the economics of new technologies.