Economics of non-economists: Why it matters

11 January 2019 12:14 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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This is that time of the year many of us make resolutions—from losing weight to eating healthy to complete something you procrastinated for months. May be it’s time that we all Sri Lankans come up with a collective resolution this year by giving ourselves a promise to strongly voice our concerns and opinions as citizens on all economic issues that affect our lives. 


It is increasingly becoming evident that we cannot rely on those so-called experts—in this case the economists— as they have failed miserably safeguarding public interest. Economists do not have the monopoly on economic truths. They are products of what they have been taught and past experiences have shown that they haven’t been the most honest kind. Their technical expertise places them in a privileged position in society, which in turn gives them access to corridors of power. This should make us to take what they say with a pinch of salt or may be even with a bag of salt.


We don’t need to be economists to comment or express our opinion on economic issues. What happens in the economy affects our families and it gives us more than adequate right to comment on it.


It is just bizarre how this notion that economics should be left for economists has been sold to us. We generally have very strong opinions about everything else—may it be international politics, LGBT rights, global warming, etc. without having any academic qualification in the relevant fields.

The best example in the recent times is the number of constitutional experts that emerged with the 52-day constitutional crisis Sri Lanka faced. Majority of those who commented on and interpreted the constitution on social media and many other such platforms neither were lawyers or experts in constitutional law. But when it comes to economics, why do we always tend to say, “Oh, that’s for the experts to explain…”


In his book ‘23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism’, distinguished South Korean economist Ha Jung Chang makes a bold statement that 95 percent of economics is common sense. He argues that economics is made to look difficult by the use of jargon and mathematics and even the remaining 5 percent can be understood in its essence, if someone were to explain it to you in layman’s language. 


Hence, is it justifiable to ask when the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) expressed their strong opinion on the Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement, what expertise do they have in trade policy? In fact, we should encourage more and more individuals and organisations to come forward to express their opinions, which will help create a broad dialogue on such important economic issues. Of course, the arguments should be based on logic and backed by realistic assumptions.


When the government says unemployment has come down substantially but when there are protests by graduates demanding jobs every other day, shouldn’t we as citizens wonder what’s really going on?


When the policymakers and experts say Sri Lanka needs to connect to international supply chains to grow its exports and thereby its economy, why don’t we question them? Whether the people of nations like South Korea and Taiwan, who followed this model, are happier and living a life of contentment, although their economic well-being has improved drastically?


When the economists and policymakers say the only way for Sri Lanka to achieve faster economic growth is through following free market policies, shouldn’t we be worried, given our past disastrous experiences? The sudden and unplanned opening of the economy in 1978 deprived Sri Lanka of its chance to become a manufacturing economy. Our exports are still lagging behind US $ 20 billion, while the countries like Vietnam and South Korea, which gradually opened up their economies, after letting their domestic industries to become mature enough to compete in the global stage, are getting hundreds of billions as export income.


Those economists and policymakers who highlight the financial losses made by Sri Lanka Railways every year always fail to mention the economic contribution railways make as a transportation mode. Try imagining the massive cost the country would have to bear, both monetarily and environmentally, if we were to transport the same number of people currently using trains for their commute, with buses.


So, what we are trying to argue here is that sometimes it is entirely possible for non-economists to have better judgment on certain economic issues than those of professional economists, whose judgments are most of the times clouded by the schools of economics they belong to.


It is heartening to see Sri Lanka’s citizenry boldly expressing their opinions on many issues during the last couple of years, which culminated during the recent 52-day political crisis the country endured. In the same way, let’s make our voice heard on important economic issues that affect our economic as well as social and cultural well-being.

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