A response to Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’
I wrote this for Rethinking Economics’ “8th way to think like a 21st century economist” competition, which it quite rightly didn’t win (this from the lovely folk at On Purpose UK quite rightly did). It’s in the form of an open letter to Kate Raworth, whose book Doughnut Economics is structured around seven ways to think like a 21st century economist, and is really a critique/build on her third way: Nurture Human Nature.
(I hope you don’t mind the informality, you seem the sort of person who wouldn’t.)
First, thank you for writing your book. It’s genuinely brilliant. It captures so much of what needs to change to make economics a profession that drives human thriving.
But there is one of your seven ways that I think you need to push further. It’s the third: nurture human nature.
Don’t get me wrong, your critique of homo economicus is bang on. But the alternative you paint is too tentative, and defined to too great an extent by what it’s not. I worry that you’ve accidentally accepted some critical boundaries set by the model we’re trying to leave behind, and as a result leave key power dynamics in place. And while you play that game, change will never come fast enough.
My challenge to push further builds in stages: from your conception of human nature, to the corresponding metaphor for the role of the economist, and the resulting strategy for change.
In terms of the conception of human nature, your “smallest unit of analysis”, I want to propose three fundamentals, in place of your five shifts.
First, we humans are creative. As Picasso put it, “All children are born artists. The challenge is to remain artists as we grow up.” There’s plenty of evidence to back him up: it’s increasingly accepted that all of us are born with an inherent capability to invent, hack, imagine and reimagine the world we live in; and equally recognised that most of us have these talents systematically beaten out of us. Death Star Economics (as I prefer to call what came before the Doughnut) can’t deal with creativity because it’s inherently difficult to model. In your analogy with Newtonian physics, this is the property of the atom that shows up at the system level in the complexity you highlight in your fourth shift. It’s vital you build this into your thinking at this level too: without it, you risk accepting the old frame that humans are choice makers and quibbling over how those choices are made. Instead, we need to make it an absolute fundamental that we are also choice creators and shapers. Educationalist Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value”. We need this in our economics.
Second, we are empathic. You talk of reciprocity and fluid values. But we don’t just reciprocate, we empathise; and it’s not just that our values are fluid rather than fixed, but that empathy is as if not more important a driver of evolution than the competition and status that Death Star Economics accentuates. Experiments by animal behaviour experts like Frans de Waal highlight empathy among creatures as diverse as monkeys, elephants and fish: a well-fed elephant, for example, will help a hungry elephant access food regardless of reward. Advances in neuroscience are helping us locate this capacity for empathy deep in our evolutionary inheritance. As De Waal puts it, “the possibility that empathy resides in parts of the brain so ancient that we share them with rats should give [us] pause”. We need our economics to be built not just around the idea that self interest isn’t our only driver, but that the very concept of the self is something that expands to include others.
Third, we are moral. This takes us beyond the idea of humans as rational, approximating or adaptable, into an understanding that we want to be good, but that we define what good is by the stories we live in and look to (more or less consciously) for guidance. This is a truth manifest from Homer’s Odyssey, which carried the ideal of “virtue” (arete) for the ancient Greeks, to the great religious books. Indeed, this is the root of the word “religion”: that to which things can be tied back. Its significance today is that, in the title of economic historian Robert Nelson’s book, we need to understand “Economics as Religion”: it is Death Star Economics that provides the story that surrounds us, and therefore our morality. The deep implication of the consumer priming and Death Star education studies you cite: the truth is not that people are fundamentally selfish, it is that when we live immersed in the moral story that selfishness is goodness, we act accordingly despite our nature.
When we put these three together, we get to very different ideas of the role for economists and the resultant strategy for change than is currently set out in your Doughnut. In Death Star Economics, people are basically bad; incentives designed by strict, all powerful economists are the only way to harness our negative nature. You argue that people can be good, if nudged and moulded by nurturing economists. But that leaves the power with the economists.
People are creative, empathic, and moral. We can and want to come together to shape the world we live in for the better. We don’t need to be nurtured. We don’t need parents to mould us on their terms. We need coaches to help us use and build our power on our terms. If we get Death Star Economics out of the way, what we need is not to be nudged but to be involved: to have our power recognised, and unleashed.
What would this look like in practice?
First, it means reducing the negative nudges wherever possible, not nurturing but getting out of the way of human nature. Think of those consumer priming studies, then consider the thousands of advertising messages we are exposed to every day. The task of reducing this exposure becomes essential. We have to stop telling ourselves not to care.
Then economists need to involve. Instead of providing personal financial literacy classes to consumers who need to be taught to protect their own interests, we need to equip nations of citizen economists and give them meaningful opportunities to shape big decisions, using everything from citizens’ assemblies to participatory budgeting. We need to devolve power and wealth to the greatest possible extent, to be used by those whose lives it will shape with the support of economic coaches — not allocated from the centre by all-knowing economists, nurturing or otherwise. We need to build power, in as many people and ways and places as possible.
The Doughnut is a transformative idea. But I believe that to really change the world, the smallest unit of analysis needs to become the greatest centre of power.
I hope this comes across in the spirit intended, and look forward to hearing any thoughts it provokes