When President Michael D Higgins delivered his recent fiery speech about economists’ “obsessive” attention to gross domestic product growth at the expense of the planet, a damburst of economists hit back, suggesting he update his view of their discipline. The debate then morphed into assertions that the President was correct about something that was never at issue. Is there anyone left on earth who does not believe that heedless growth has almost destroyed our beautiful planet? Is there anyone stupid enough to say (out loud) that they don’t care? But that was not the issue on which the “priesthood” – as the President dubbed his target – had rushed to defend its honour.
In short the real problem with the speech from this viewpoint was not the irrefutable implications of rampant growth but that it created two angry, opposing teams. The danger is obvious. When teams are knocked up in such a provocatively public fashion (one economist who regularly critiques fellow professionals joined ranks in solidarity), each side is honour bound to beat the other to a standstill, publicly. Nuance, expertise, conflicting but equally affecting points of view, any faint chance of illumination, are all lost in the scrum for the last, loudest, most withering word.
During a broadcast discussion on the debacle, a young panellist declared, “I will defend the President always.” That’s precisely how teams are designed to work but such a statement should be heresy to an educated, politically sceptical young population. The notion that any elected person should be above criticism, that it’s about the team you belong to and not your careful assessment of the facts or new information, is precisely what has led to disasters like Brexit. It has also led to the spectacle of a sexual predator indicted on criminal charges slouching towards the White House and to the fawning attitudes to leaderships in places like Russia, Nicaragua and Cuba. This can only be explained by old tribalists lagging decades behind reality.
How do we know this? Mostly by following a cross-section of trusted media outlets with responsible, brave journalists reporting from the ground. But observe what teams and tribalism have done to those journalists too.
Unlike every other sector in which rational members of the public expect to encounter a mix of the great, the good, the bad and the terrible (think doctors, nurses, teachers, gardaí, academics, economists, revenue collectors, cyclists), there is little attempt to distinguish between individual journalists or between media organisations – or even between Irish media/political culture and say the British media Brexit/Conservative nexus.
Journalists’ reputations are casually slaughtered online. Defamation is commonplace. People boast of getting their news from Twitter and assert – as many do about the Ditch news site, following its series of scoops – that it’s the stories that matter not who owns, funds or directs the news gathering.
When did media ownership or funding sources cease to matter? Is it irrelevant that Rupert Murdoch – the right-wing, climate-denying media titan who transformed the relationship between British politics and journalism – controls Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Sun and the London Times? Or that when someone pops up on the RT channel, we should be aware they are being handled by a Russian state-controlled international news television network funded by the Russian government?
This is the problem with sweeping attacks on any profession, trade, group or class. It emboldens the lazy ones as well as the thugs.
None of that is the President’s fault of course. His erudition, intellect, passion and sense of fairness are never in question. There are hints we may yet see a rapprochement between the Áras and the “priesthood”. So here’s a modest proposal: stage it as a civilised debate between the President and selected economists in a public forum. If, as many now appear to believe, the job of president is to be a thought leader on such pivotal issues, perhaps the logical next step would be for him to appear in venues where the general public could hear him articulate and debate his ideas. There is no greater risk to humanity than the climate emergency, so the obvious place to start would be with the intersection between that and economics of whatever kind.
The economists could explain why they have only a smattering of women, why they operate in silos, why they’ve been accused of being captured by outdated metrics and the markets and why that matters. Higgins could elucidate on how and when the priesthood’s metrics have influenced governments. It could be a fascinating insight into an art/discipline on which we should be all be better informed.