Here we go again. You’ve swapped 2015’s cat calendar for the latest edition that promises to be extra cute, a simple act carrying with it promises of a better year and a better you. The first ‘special offer for new joiners’ gym membership pamphlet has dropped through your letterbox, serving as a painful reminder of the festive period’s gluttony, and you’re beginning to think it might be the best way to escape the feeling of shame born from your December excesses.

But there is another way. Put down that direct debit form and start the New Year by being a better citizen. Not only in the typical way of ensuring you put your rubbish in the bin and don’t spit chewing gum on the floor, but by getting involved in your local economy.

It’s a topic we discuss a lot in this magazine and throughout October and November my knowledge improved considerably thanks to attending the Manchester crash course in Everyday Economics. This six-session course, run by Rethinking Economics, was both informative and enlightening, with each of the two-hour lessons addressing and shattering the myths surrounding inequality and poverty, tax, GDP, money creation and debt.

I asked Catriona Watson, one of the curators of the course, to talk to me a little more about the work that Rethinking Economics does, as well as what we can do going into 2016 to both learn about and be more active in our local economy. (Catriona’s responses are her own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of Rethinking Economics.)

Tell us a little about Rethinking Economics.

Rethinking Economics is an international network of economics students and academics who are trying to open up the discipline of economics – both in universities and for the general public. We have two main aims, which are to campaign for curriculum change in universities and to ‘democratise’ economics and make it a subject that is accessible to people who haven’t studied it formally. The point of the crash course is to do this second bit – we’re all part of the economy and decisions made by politicians on economic policy impact every part of our lives.

How did you become involved in the group?

I got involved when I was at university and realised that what I was learning didn’t have much to do with the actual economy. I wanted to understand what was going on in the world around me and what politicians are talking about when they say, “We have to do this, because it’s good for the economy”, but I didn’t get that from my degree. Economics lecturers also don’t let you ask too many questions. If you’re wondering why the gender pay gap, questions about sustainable resource use or what’s a fair way to run an economy aren’t included in your tutorials, you won’t get an answer from your academics.

 

Background image by Jo Peel.

Coming into the New Year, what kind of decisions can we make to get involved with our local economy?

Our local economy is made up of so many different things – businesses, workers, volunteers, organisations. There are many ways to get involved – the main thing is just to get stuck in. That could be making time to visit your local market, joining your local credit union, or volunteering with a shelter, befriending service or charity shop. The Timebanks and Incredible Edible projects are great examples of people doing economics a bit differently in Manchester as they are based on giving what you can rather than buying and selling. The local economy isn’t just what’s bought and sold locally, but services that people provide for free, often without even thinking about it.

Will you be running any more of the crash courses?

At the moment we are working to develop the crash course model and also secure funding to put on more courses. We want the course to be as cheap as possible (or free!) to ensure that anyone can attend, but to do this we need some funding for staff time and resources.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to learn more about economics?

Ha-Joon Chang’s book Economics: A User’s Guide is a great place to start if you just want to learn the basics.

The Post-Crash Economics society at Manchester University runs regular events on economics. They also have a great reading list on their website.

Also, join the mailing list at rethinkeconomics.org as we will be launching a new public education website in March.

Ultimately, as Catriona says in her responses, the best way to help is to get involved. So make this your resolution for the year. It can be as simple as volunteering your time at a community project or even just learning more and educating your friends on the fact that the economy isn’t something so completely abstract and removed from reality that only politicians and well-paid hedge fund managers in the City can influence it.

We are all cogs in a machine. If enough of us smaller cogs decide to change the direction in which we whir, those big ones at the top will be forced to as well. In spite of what we are told in the media there are alternatives to the free market and the examples that Catriona has given are just that.

rethinkeconomics.org

David Ewing