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Sex And Economics: An Interview With Cyber-Punk Economist Diane Coyle

Diane Coyle is one of the leading economic experts working today. Her new book, Paradoxes Of Prosperity is her third book explaining her unique and radical perspective. Here she talks to 3AM's Richard Marshall about what she's been thinking since she quit her job as the leading economic editor of The Independent to pursue her mission to communicate her cyberpunk economics to as wide an audience as she can.

Richard Marshall Interviews Diane Coyle


3AM: You sound simultaneously both extremely right wing and extremely left wing in your ideas.

DC: There are basically two things. There’s long term and there’s short term. The basic paradox is that things that deliver the real stuff like increased life expectancy, stopping babies dying, nutrition and stuff like that is technology. But that’s long term. We can guarantee that our grandchildren will live longer than us. They’ll be healthier. But short term, it means incredible disruption. That’s the paradox. To get to long term goodies you have to go through short term disruption. Now I think its worth it. That’s one of the things that makes me sound a bit right wing at times. It’s controversial but if you look back a couple of generations to how our grandparents lived you can see the distance we’ve travelled. Especially if you come from an economically underprivileged background. My grandfather died in the workhouse. The other thing is the radicalism of capitalism - if you take it seriously. One of the things I try and say is ‘make these guys walk their talk.’ And they’ll have to because their rhetoric is entirely about consumer choice, personal freedom, free markets. And they don't do it because the big corporations and the rich and powerful don’t want this stuff. But if you try and make them live up to their rhetoric then you get some very radical outcomes. I think free markets do have a great deal of potential to give free choice and benefits and could be an incredibly radical device.

3AM: But a critic of your position might respond by asking you where these devices are. They aren’t built in to the idea of a free market. There’s no guarantee that they’ll deliver anything like what you seem to say they will.

DC: They’re not built in. It’s about struggle. Political struggle. If you’ve got men in suits in the western world saying ‘Free trade is fantastic and it’s the only way to deliver wealth’ – and I think that’s probably right – then what we need to say to them is ‘Yeah, great, so let’s do it. Let’s open our markets to textiles from other markets, for example,’ – and I think they’ve painted themselves into a corner where it's going to be very hard for them not to do that. You know, globalisation has not worked very well for the very poorest people. Markets are not open yet. But the rhetoric of it is about changing all that. We need to push at rhetoric and make it happen. Use the rhetoric against those who use it. Force them to actually do what they say is the best way of doing things. And that’s where the struggle comes in. We’ve got to work at getting the power to deliver the markets to globalisation.

3AM: The riots and protests at the big world trade centres and meetings – these people would say that that’s what they’re up to. They’re about pointing out that things are not fair at the moment, that there are still massive inequalities and that this must change.

DC: Yes and what they are doing that is useful is highlighting the problem. What they get wrong is suggesting a solution that, instead of asking for the vision of the free markets to be delivered, throws away that empowering rhetoric. Their solutions are completely incorrect. They say that free trade is bad and that it cannot work. The problem with that position is that there is nothing to suggest that turning your back on trade and open markets brings about economic prosperity. One of the very few completely consistent bits of evidence there is in economics is that if you want a prosperous country and if you want to make poor people better off you engage in trade with companies from other countries. So the protests have been helpful in underlining the problem but they’ve been unhelpful in that they’ve proposed solutions that are suicidal.

3AM: So who do you connect with?

DC: Marx is good because he thinks about technology and understands very well that it completely transforms the economy. Very few other writers have made that connection. The great example is electrification which was first of all devised in the 1850’s and didn’t assert itself amongst companies until the 1920’s. What it meant was that you could run machines in factories with their own motors instead of round a central drive shaft. You needed long, flat factories, not tall narrow ones. And as soon as you lay them out like that then first of all you’ve got to build new factories and they’ll be in new places so you have to build new roads out to the new factories, and railways. And once you’ve laid them out like that you can start thinking about moving them around and organising production techniques and once you’ve done that you’ve created the potential of the production line. And once people thought about a management technique that involved assembly lines then you were beginning to think of a different kind of worker with basic, fairly standardised skills to run the machines. So the whole public school movement in the USA was developed to produce workers with these skills. This was about the 1920’s where half the capital and half the factories had electricity and were beginning to work this stuff through. But it wasn’t until about the 1950’s that this technique reached its apogee. That’s a hundred years before it made its impact. The investments in the infrastructure and the social structures necessary for making assembly line techniques work were so much bigger than the investments necessary in the technology. Marx was one of the few people who understood this.

3AM: So today, with the new technologies such as computers moving very fast, are we finding that social structures and so on are not moving at the same speed. Is this bringing about problems?

DC: I think modern technological developments are moving very quickly. And we’re getting a backlash against globalisation. You know, it’s like in the past. We had the roaring twenties and the great enthusiasm for new technologies and yet we then had the 1930’s and the great depression. And after that massive wars.

3AM: Is that where we’re heading?

DC: It’s something that worries me. There’s a great essay that Keynes wrote in 1918 when he said that there’s an awful lot of depression around and our politics is not very good but I still predict that our grandchildren will be 8 times better off then we are. And he was right. But he was also right about how bad it was going to be in the short term. It’s not an undilutedly optimistic view of the future. It makes me worry.

3AM: So the conflict and the backlashes taking place now are not surprising. The details may be but the fact that they’re there is something we should have expected.

DC: I think so. But one thing people ask me is – given what I know now about what happened, should we have done it as we did? I still think it was worth it. Is worth it. I don’t think we’ll wipe each other out completely. And we will be better off in the long term.

3AM: So who shouldn’t we be listening to? Marx we should be reading – now more than ever since the Marxist states are basically gone now. Who should we not be taking seriously but people are taking them seriously?

DC: Well, I think someone like Marina Hatton has got it wrong. She doesn’t pay enough attention to the evidence. She’s got a big thing about the idea of Corporations running the world when in fact Governments are becoming more and more influential. Governments are growing and the sphere of private business is shrinking. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t watch out for Corporate power but we shouldn’t exaggerate it. Nor should we ignore other factors. To argue that Corporations are becoming the rulers of the world is just not supported by the evidence.

3AM: You seem to suggest in your new book that we don’t really know how we’re going to get to the future. We don’t know the details even though we can know the broad sweep of progress.

DC: I think anyone who claims to know the details are being too bold. No one knows the details.

3AM: What you say in this book and in earlier ones like The Weightless World you seem very much in tune with the sort of novelists who I know you like to read . People like William Gibson. Is this conscious? Do you think Gibson’s got certain things right?

DC: Oh I think he’s got many things right. He’s as big an influence on me as anyone. What we’ve got to understand is that we need detailed imagination if we’re to understand what might be happening to us. We need novelists, we need people who do this and help us to envisage what is possible, what is likely and so on.

3AM: Who else do you find helpful?

DC: Well there’s Gibson and JG Ballard and Iain Sinclair and then some of the Victorians. Mrs Gaskill is very good. She had a tremendous understanding of the social impact of the technological changes going on around her. Cyberpunk stuff generally, though, is very good. Very strong. Sinclair is good because whereas Gibson and the cyber-punk writers give us detailed musings about how the future might work, Sinclair does the same for the past. It’s gripping stuff. Very important that people try and imagine this kind of thing.

3AM: So we need to be reading this stuff?

DC: I think if you read William Gibson and Mrs Gaskill you’ve got a great combination.

3AM: So how did you get into this sort of thing?

DC: It was a great teacher who got me hooked. You need great teachers. I came from a Mill town in Lancashire in the North Of England. The 1945 Education Act saved me – I went to a grammar school and eventually got into doing economics. And clearly it’s a very sceptical, logical way of thinking. Its not a body of knowledge, it’s a way of thinking and I was predisposed towards thinking like that anyway. I found it very attractive. Being very sceptical and mathematical – which is fairly unusual in a girl – it explains why there aren’t very many women economists around – I got into all of it, including the engineering side of stuff too. I liked it. I went to Oxford and Harvard. I think for any European spending some time in America is incredibly interesting and useful. It’s a hugely flawed country filled with a tacky pop culture but it’s also a profoundly vibrant and democratic country. I mean, it does look tacky to us – if you look at the present situation and all the flag waving stuff you kind of want to cringe – but I still think that it’s a pretty valuable process – all those people feeling strongly and patriotically looks naff to cynical Europeans – but all those voices get fed into the political process. Now that’s something that we need to value and celebrate. It is democratic. After all, they’re citizens and so why shouldn’t their voices count? Europeans might like to feel superior – it doesn’t look particularly stylish - but I think we’ve a lot to learn about including people in the political process. Let everyone’s voice count. Americans seem to do that better than Europeans. And what’s interesting is that there are checks and balances that mean that what comes out of the process is not as hokey and populist as you might expect. I mean, look at the response to the Twin Towers attack. Let’s be honest, it could have been a lot worse. Some of the rhetoric suggested it would be. But it has been quite calm and measured. It’s the ultimate democracy.

3AM: You didn’t stay as an academic but you became a journalist with the British broadsheet The Independent. Why?

DC: It’s about communication. There are not that many experts who are communicating. The sciences have done much better than the social sciences in communicating their ideas. I wanted to try and get across the issues and arguments of economics to as wide an audience as I could. There aren’t that many spokespeople for economics who can do that. And it does seem to be quite important that people get to know what is going on. They need to be able to hear and understand the debates so they can participate. There’s so much kow-towing to experts and what I want to do is stop people being frightened of the stuff. I’m a dissenter. I want people to get angry. Debate and politics – people must get involved. That’s what it’s all about.

3AM: So where are you going next, now that you have given up on the journalism because of the constraints of that work, as you see them. As an author and advisor, what are you going to tell us next?

DC: The next project is a book about economics – about how interesting it is. I’m struggling with the title. I’m thinking about something like ‘Sex and Economics’.

3AM: (Laughs)That sounds good. So will there be sex in it or will that be it? Just in the title?

DC: (Laughs)No, there’ll be sex in it. I like anything that’s stimulating. Then I’ll write a novel. Try and imagine something about what’s going to be happening. It’ll be a mix of stuff. I used to listen to the Clash very loud whilst reading the Victorian novelists – not just Gaskill and Dickens but the Europeans ones too – Zola I think is fabulous. Germinal. All of his stuff. And Victor Hugo. Stendhal is great as well. What I hate is Flaubert – novels about the tiny preoccupations of the bourgeoisie. I don’t watch much TV. I love Pulp. Modern jazz. Warhol. Nudes. I’ll have a nude on the front of my book – female and male nudes, although there don’t seem as many male nudes around. That’s the stuff I’ll be writing about. What I like is people. It’s all about people. Economics. Politics. People.


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