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Economics is for all — not just economists

05 August 2022

The conversation about how to create a fairer and greener society needs to happen in churches, argues Jeremy Williams

IF WE were to do a free-association game, and I were to say the word “economics”, I wonder what would come to mind for you. I suspect that, for many people, it would be something to do with money or politics. When researchers have asked how people feel about economics, they have found that many are confused or intimidated. Most feel unequipped to contribute to questions about the economy, and many struggle even to define what the economy is. Economics is often seen as boring and technical, and conversations about it are full of jargon.

One thing that people do know, however, is that economics matters. While they might not understand exactly what economics is, they know that it lies behind interest rates, the cost-of-living crisis, and whether they will get a pay rise this year.

This leaves many in a frustrating place. They worry about rising prices, debt, and housing, but they feel powerless to do anything about it. They don’t quite understand the questions, which gives them no opportunity to shape the answers to them. Just 12 per cent of UK adults surveyed by the think tank Economy said that they found economic discussions in politics and the media accessible — which suggests that most are excluded from vital conversations about their lives.

IT DOES not have to be this way. Economics is simply the business of how a society lives together, and it’s right that we feel that we should have a stake in that. It does not need to be exclusive.

Neither is economics unchangeable. The economy is not governed by universal laws of nature. It is designed. Decisions are made. They can be changed — and history is full of examples of this. All sorts of rights that benefit people, from maternity leave to paid holidays and state pensions, were fought for by campaigners of the past.

As an example that I benefited from myself, I was just the right age to get a pay rise in my first ever job, when Tony Blair’s Labour government introduced the minimum wage in 1999.

I didn’t know it at the time, but there was a century-long story behind that pay rise, and Christians were often at the heart of it. The first politician to take up the cause was Mark Oldroyd, in 1894. He was the Liberal MP for Dewsbury, and a Nonconformist who believed in the dignity of work. A generation later, the first calculations for what a minimum wage ought to be were done by the Quaker philanthropist Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree.

It would take decades’ more work from unions, poverty campaigners, Labour Party activists, and, finally, politicians before the policy worked its way into the real world and my slim teenage wallet. And it makes me wonder: what progress will my children be able to take for granted, because my generation secured it for them now? A four-day week? A living wage? A Green New Deal? A fairer tax system re-focused on land and wealth rather than income?

It may have taken a century to secure a minimum wage, but we don’t have the luxury of time on the climate crisis. I write as a new Conservative Party leader is being chosen. So far, no candidate has seized the topic and made it their own, which is a missed opportunity. Since the cost of renewable energy has fallen so far in the past decade, addressing the climate crisis will also address high energy bills. Insulating sub-standard homes will enhance health and comfort. A net-zero drive will improve transport and restore nature. There is a hugely positive story to tell here.

TO CREATE a fairer, greener society, and a better future for generations to come, more of us need to tell these kinds of stories, advocate for them, and vote for them. Before we can do that, more of us need to be able to talk confidently about economics, and how it connects to the things that we value.

That is why Green Christian has launched the campaign Joy in Enough, which advocates a greener and fairer economy. We long for a world in which every person can flourish and everyone has enough, communities thrive, the climate is stabilising, and nature is recovering.

The most powerful tool for change is honest conversation, which is why we developed the Plenty course. Covering inequality, debt, justice, the climate crisis, and much more besides, it explores the subjects that matter most to people, showing how they connect to their faith, and giving people tools for making change.

A greener, fairer economy is possible, and the Church has a part to play in shaping it. In taking on that challenge, we join a legacy of Christian social action that has already shaped the society in which we live. It begins with a conversation, and we invite people to join us.

Jeremy Williams is a writer and activist. His books include Climate Change is Racist: Race, privilege and the struggle for climate justice (Icon Books) (Comment, 30 July 2021) and Time to Act (editor) (SPCK) (Books, 21 August 2020).


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