Explainer
Economics
Culture
6 min read

How to pick an economic approach that really adds up

Assessing doughnut economics, Paul Williams asks what’s the economy for and who does it really serve?

Paul Williams, the CEO of Bible Society, worked for over a decade in business in London and then as an academic theologian in Canada.

a round table with empty chairs is seen from above. An orange is the only item on it.
Meina Yin on Unsplash.

“Anyone can see that our economic system is broken.”

This is the conclusion of Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, and her assessment has garnered positive endorsements from figures as diverse as George Monbiot, Andrew Marr and Sir David Attenborough. 

Yet to judge by the discussion surrounding the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, our political class is not included in this broad perspective that Raworth claims. In what is widely understood as the early skirmishes of an election campaign, anticipating the moment when the country’s voters have another opportunity to indicate the direction of travel they hope for, the focus is on who will be better or worse off by this or that tax cut or benefit change. If anything is broken it is not the economic system but something like ‘the government’s economic management’ (Labour) or ‘public sector productivity’ (Conservative).  

If you are worried, as Raworth is, by “relentless financial crises,” “extreme inequalities in wealth” and “remorseless pressure on the environment” then it seems that both the government and the opposition believe that the solution is more economic growth, albeit with some barely discernible differences in fiscal and regulatory policy. 

Our contemporary political discourse is dominated, regardless of party, by the mainstream economic paradigm in which the market generates economic growth and the state functions to keep things on track by taxing and redistributing some of the surplus to those who for whatever reason didn’t do as well as others in the process. It also provides some additional incentives to business and other organisations to act in the public interest, for instance by subsidising green energy or taxing fossil fuels. Both parties, it seems, support this approach. The difference between them concerns how best the state manages the economy to get the most out of it, how the resulting surplus is distributed, and what kind of further incentives are needed. 

Visualising doughnut economics

An economics diagram in the shape of a doughnut.
Source: Doughnut Economics Action Lab.

For Raworth, on the other hand, the first thing to ditch is the assumption that economic growth is the right goal to pursue. The ‘doughnut’ of doughnut economics is an alternative to GDP as a measure of progress. It name is derived from the visual depiction of the idea of an economy that operates in the space within two limits – ensuring the human rights of each person on the one hand, and staying within the means of the planet on the other. This concept refuses to conceptualise the economy as a closed system in distinction from the social and environmental systems on which it depends.  

Raworth also wants to shift the emphasis away from the individual rational chooser of economic theory toward a more social understanding of human flourishing. And in direct contrast to the mainstream paradigm sketched above, in which the market’s job is to deliver economic wealth and the state’s job is to worry about distribution and regulation, Raworth wants an economic system designed from the outset to ensure a more equal distribution and to actively regenerate the environment. 

The economic system itself is like an engine that can be put to whatever purpose you want. It generates wealth and wealth can be put to all kinds of uses, good or bad. 

How might we evaluate this? Nobody disagrees that financial crises, extreme inequality and environmental damage occur and are bad. A good number of mainstream economists find Raworth’s aims laudable and worth pursuing, because we do need a better measure of success and improved models of human behaviour and ways to incorporate and limit externalities like carbon emissions. Yet they also find her analysis of economics a caricature, as many of the developments in economics over the last few decades seem to be ignored. 

For her harshest critics, Raworth fails to give due credit to our current economic system for the incredible reduction in global poverty that it has already enabled, provides very little by way of actionable policy ideas, and is full of erudite but wishful thinking. 

Yet the popularity of Doughnut Economics reflects a deep sense amongst many of us (some mainstream economists included) that something is seriously wrong, alongside an instinctive identification with the kind of values and changes that Raworth seeks. 

 The vital question is: what is our economy for? If we can get a better sense of what purpose we want the economy to serve, it may prove easier to identify whether it is achieving that, or is in some sense ‘broken.’  

But to ask this question is immediately to step away from the mainstream paradigm that dominates our public discourse in framing the economy. For mainstream economics, questions of purpose are ethical questions and those questions are explicitly left to the actors within the economic system and the state acting on their behalf. The economic system itself is like an engine that can be put to whatever purpose you want. It generates wealth and wealth can be put to all kinds of uses, good or bad. 

These ancient texts suggest that our mainstream paradigm is seriously adrift if it imagines that our economic system is morally neutral.

For many people the idea that the economy itself can be separated from ethical questions will automatically raise an alarm. Certainly, for Christians it ought to. The Bible firmly resists the idea that wealth and its generation is morally neutral. Even the most superficial reading of the Scripture alerts to the inherently spiritual and moral quality of economic activity. Fruitful work is part of what it means to be made in the image of God in the garden of Eden. The product of work is offered to God in worship. The Law is full of commands to deal justly, use fair weights and measures, consider health and safety in the building of a house, and give yourself, your family and your animals a rest (to name but a few). Jesus tells us that you cannot serve both God and money. The pictures of the New Creation in both Old and New Testaments include economic imagery – The Old Testament book of Micah envisions an end to war with everyone living “under their own vine and fig tree” (a vision of peace and economic flourishing) and the New Testament book of Revelation depicts the product of human work being offered up in worship before the throne of God.  

Overall the Bible sees the economic, social and environmental dimensions of life as interwoven and interconnected. Take the Sabbath, for instance. It is not only workers who get (or are commanded to take) a Sabbath once a week. The command extends to the whole community - and even to animals. Every seven years, the Sabbath Year provides a rest for the land and for those struggling with debt – the land must be fallow and allowed to regenerate, and all outstanding debts cancelled. Sabbath and Jubilee are deeply intertwined (the Jubilee was effectively a sabbath of sabbaths, taking place after seven sabbath years) and the Jubilee was the theological paradigm chosen by Jesus to explain his own mission and ministry. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, he said:  

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” 

These ancient texts suggest that our mainstream paradigm is seriously adrift if it imagines that our economic system is morally neutral. And Raworth is closely aligned with the biblical vision insofar as she insists on the importance of an economy that exists not for its own sake, in some independent sphere, but explicitly to enable people, communities and creation to flourish together.  We need to ask what our economy is for. And this is as good an answer as you might find.  

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen