The tweeting academic could be mistaken for a begging dog. Hungry and needy, they look for scraps of sentences and bits of broken off intellect for their hundred or so followers. They desperately chase professional importance like a crumbly old marrow bone. There is the odd Crufts champion of course. Perfectly groomed quips and cocky little jumps over the citation bars. But for every Krugman wannabe, there is a playground of ‘experts’ loitering and chasing tails. The academic minion, whose scent is ignored, happy in second place at the conference paper show circuit. They bark and howl to fellows sitting a mere wet nose away from them in some dingy lecture room.
It is an unhappy outcome that I decided to challenge. Seeking no applause from the intellectual showboaters, rather reaching out to the everyday yapper, I embarked on an experiment. Armed with the message ‘committed to the popularisation of knowledge as a weapon’, I focused on a clear goal: maximising my social media reach and seeking contact beyond the few dozen that bother reading my academic research papers. I cheered the initial outcome. In no time I passed 8,000 followers. These weren’t ‘we follow back’ fodder either. These were a diverse pool of folk, disappointed with a bland mass media message and using social media to diffuse key social messages. A comment on NHS privatisation would spiral. My phone, constantly pinging with retweets, would annoy the family as popularity became as instant as a cuppa soup. Unlike the Brexit debacle, there is happy engagement with ‘expert’ comment. Misinformation is spotted early, quickly digested and shared. But the experiment soon spiralled. I somehow became known as a Trot. Here’s how…
The Economics profession is unfairly characterised in terms of a binary opposition, rather than the plural: it seesaws between the orthodox and the heterodox. My research would unashamedly fall into the former bracket. The educationalist undoubtedly scorns it, an apparent Chicago ‘human capital’ School assault on the good sense offered by the righteous social scientist. I seldom pay that view any heed. The interdisciplinary nature of economics should be a stand-out feature: Through the power of labour economics, it can quantify and it can test, it can offer evidence. From the living wage to wicked problems such as child poverty, it searches for positive change. It offers life improvements that are ignored by those fixated by a ‘they failed us’ whinge over the macroeconomist’s blindness over the financial crisis. It’s undoubtedly a pleasant life. A realisation that my ‘expertise’ can have impact. As Jeremy Kyle seemingly informs us every day as he belittles the common people, ‘put something on the end of it’. The fellow, at least to me, is celebrating strong conclusions. Economics is seen as the primary social science because, for good or for bad, it guarantees influence. End result is almost always offered.
All good so far. But then comes that ‘dangerous’ politician, Jeremy Corbyn, hell-bent on talking sense within the labour movement. Uniting those left behind by Thatcher’s Blair, he espouses various positions that are really just re-packaged from my economic orthodoxy. Austerity is, in economic terms, nonsensical? I can’t quibble. Income inequalities lead to social ills that are associated with wanton destruction of economic well-being? Theoretically and empirically admissible. Market fundamentalism, given the various market failures that characterise all markets, is unjustifiable? Even the most rabid neoclassicalist couldn’t complain. Neoliberalism, a term New Labour conveniently came to believe did not exist, is a triumph of right wing politics over economic rationality? Bingo! It is therefore of no surprise that I became a rather cheery ‘Corbynista’. It is consistent, after all, with everything that my economics informs me. But then comes the sneers from those hell-bent on ignoring these positive messages. The mass media, including the BBC which requires my license fee to fend off the weekly claims of bias, condemn me as ‘hard left’. I’m called deluded. I’m condemned by Labour councillor as a Stalinist. A Trot, Rabble, Dog no less. This is basic ignorance of political economy of course. But it is also a deliberate witlessness designed for clear purpose: to celebrate conservatism; to maintain the status quo.
Frustrated I look for a positive reaction from my fellow economists. But within this toxic environment they increasingly panic towards the mundane. I hear muttering that Corbyn lacks electability, but somehow a 5% cut in VAT will solve all of our current economic woes. I hear experts demanding blinkered policy-making because the financial classes have become our overlords. Economics is too often used to shutdown debate, rather than to provoke change. Corbyn’s moderate position is deemed militant. The social movement that elected Corbyn becomes some form of cult virus that breaks down any comprehension of the brilliance of the ‘expert’.
So what is the lesson from my experiment? I suppose I could just wax lyrically over membership of the ‘Trot, Rabble, Dog’ brigade. Rather than being a Krugman wannabe sniffing out followers lapping up my grand soundbites, I’m part of a social movement which is capable of transforming a deindustrialised Britain. But my personal experience is undoubtedly only of a secondary concern. Whether you support or reject Corbynomics, we live in a time where the lessons from economics can provide a particularly potent influence. This isn’t a time for going into our shells and preaching from tired textbooks that are alien to real world outcome. This is a time to embrace pluralist thinking where our political economic expertise legitimises debate. As Trotsky says, life is beautiful. So come join the social movement.