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15 March 2013updated 22 Oct 2020 3:55pm

How do you campaign against austerity?

It's not the economics, stupid.

By Alex Hern

For something which affects so many people, economic policy is frequently far from popular discussion. The outcomes of economic decisions are what win and lose elections; but even though it’s “the economy, stupid”, politicians are forced to run on their record, not their plans. It’s easy to hold someone accountable for failing to “fix the economy”, but it’s much harder for your average voter to tell whether a politician will be able to fix the economy in the future.

Earlier today, I spoke to Ricken Patel, the executive director of Avaaz.org, about the difficulty of campaigning for progressive economic policy. He told me that the organisation, which does traditional “clicktivism” campaigns, but also more nuanced activism involving identifying and winning over key policymakers. The key problem for carrying out a similar strategy in economic policy is that people tend to view it as a technocratic area. They are concerned that campaigning about a specific economic policy is like campaigning for your doctor to do a specific surgery—you should just leave it to the experts to do what they think is best.

On top of that, when Avaaz has campaigned on specific areas, like austerity, they’ve had trouble taking on the credit card analogy, which makes intuitive sense to people. The problem, he said, was that the left needs a credible response to the issue of public sector debt, and pointing out that the public sector isn’t like a household because you can print money just doesn’t sound realistic.

It’s true that the credit card analogy is difficult to counter—though I did try just that earlier this week. But my concern is that, even though it’s actually surprisingly easy to subvert and make the case for specific borrowing, there are too many basic truths in macroeconomics which simply have no analogy to a situation which people are familiar with. Perhaps the most obvious of those is the paradox of thrift: Keynes’ famous explanation of how the individually rational response to a recession—to scrimp and save, reducing your personal expenditure in order to make it through a tricky time—would lead to a greater dip in output than if people were individually irrational.

Any time the economy is simplified down to terms which make it seem equivalent to personal finances, it makes it harder to convince people of the ways in which it isn’t equivalent to them, which makes the entire quality of debate worse-off. That’s the reason the analogy is so pernicious, and why it’s dangerous for people to use it even if in the short-term it helps them—whether they’re left or right.

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Avaaz does have experience of carrying out campaigns aimed at more nebulous, long-term goals—a good example being their attempt to change the conversation around the War on Drugs, which was never going to win overnight—but even for them, a worldwide attempt to tell people “economic policy is not easily reducible to explanations which work in analogy with personal finance” might be a bit much.

Luckily, Avaaz has another suggestion. Alice Jay, a Campaign Director for the organisation, says that one area of economic policy it has had success in is, bluntly, banker-bashing.

Campaigning against high bonuses in the financial sector, and campaigning for “bankers behind bars”—personal responsibility for financial wrongdoing—has been, generally, successful.

Is this one way out of the bind? If tricky economic problems can be rephrased to be about questions of personal responsibility, that may be a more successful angle of attack. If they can be rephrased to be about questions of bankers responsibility, that’s even better.

It suggests to me that the way to win the economic argument—and it pains me to say this, because it’s so completely against what I feel comfortable with—is to downplay the economics entirely. Use and abuse of terrible, “common sense” arguments has rendered public discussion of economics intellectually vacuous. Instead, focus on whose fault austerity is, and who is taking the hit for its implementation. In other words, maybe the argument that “we’re paying for their mistakes” is the one most likely to promote a popular, worldwide campaign against austerity.

It has always rankled that, even if one accepts that the debt needs to be brought down, the people whose actions caused it to rise in the first place are back in profit, still in their jobs, and being rewarded with a cut in their income tax. If Avaaz’s experience is generalisable, then Krugmanite arguments about the self-defeating nature of austerity may be surplus to requirements. Not that I’m going to stop making them.

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