Dismal Science

I attended an event this week in a bizarre location – Sir John Soane’s museum. Sir John rose to prominence in the 19th Century as a visionary architect and collector of antiquities and art. Most famously he designed the beautiful vaulted ‘counting rooms’ (pictured) for The Bank of England, where the first paper money was printed to pay for the Napoleonic Wars. More of printing money anon.

Sir John also decided his children would be architects and his children’s children would be architects. Thereby the science of architecture would be brought to a peak of perfection within a matter of a few generation of Soanes. It didn’t quite work out that way. 

His son went to prison for fraud, had children with his inappropriate wife and then even more inappropriately had some with her sister. He also wrote a thinly disguised satirical attack on his father in a contemporary journal which on reading provoked his mother to take to her bed and expire. A lesson to us all – our children may achieve many things in life, but they are unlikely to do our bidding.

The conversation piece for the evening was what can business and policy makers do to help the UK economy grow by an extra 1%. On a £1 trillion annual UK turnover and with the power of compound interest, over time, that would make us all better off by an unfathomably large number of billions of pounds. Seems like a good idea. But ultimately I came away feeling 1) we don’t really know how to turn a macro idea into the micro reality 2) even if we did, what would ‘go under the wheels’ of ‘concentration’ and competitiveness in the process. 

I’m no socialist, but the words fairness or equality didn’t feature once, nor did wellbeing, happiness or sustainability. Of course economists will tell you they are all ‘priced in’ in the cash value we place on things. But all economists also know that much of what we value in social and cultural value is missed by the ‘dismal science’.

As I texted my other half on the way home:

All very worthy, abstract macro-economics and a list of things for government to do. When will these people learn that money ain’t the only measure that matters and government is clueless and incompetent in managing it anyway. Viva culture and social ties, they are our only and best hope.

Yesterday’s flattening of Japan under a wall of water shakes the myth of our invulnerability like a Tokyo office block. The smoke and the more lethal invisible cloud spreading from a crippled nuclear plant today serves as a reminder of our hubris. 

Humanity clings to the planet in interdependent and fragile ways. If we make our big choices for the future on 1%s of £trillions I fear we’re missing the point. Much like Sir John Soane’s project to perfect architecture – ‘events’ and what matters to real people have a habit of getting in the way of the best laid plans.

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