Making Sense of the Economy: A Conversation with Joe Richards

   During the 2008 credit crunch it felt almost impossible to turn on Channel 4 without being confronted by one of their edgy 18-34 demographic presenters bashing the bankers. Look at how they lined up - Jimmy Carr has a retort; there's Charlie Brooker attacking them too. What was that you said Vernon Kay?

   We all agreed that what bankers did was terribly bad and catastrophic for society at large.... but how many of us actually know what that was? Can anybody who criticizes the banking sector's inherent avarice, ignorance and parasitical nature actually explain what went down in the offices of the Lehman Brothers et al in language which makes sense to us? What exactly are "tranches" and "sub-primes"?

   The paradox, of course, is that economics is all around us and effects our everyday life yet we're incredibly terrible at conversing on the subject. I believe most of us Brits even find "the birds and the bees" talk with our parents/children easier than we do discussing the intricacies of the economy. The economy, however, is omnipresent in our day-to-day existence and interactions but we are all unable to see the forest for the trees; finance is an issue which hides in plain sight for us.

   As such, I was eager to speak to Joe Richards of  Economy  - an institution centered around the goal of making finance and the economy more palatable for lay-people such as myself who often get lost in the impenetrable lingo used by politicians when laying out the fiscal plans of this fine nation. My first question related to the use of buzz-words and terms that seem to be deployed on purpose to keep the public in the dark - I wondered whether this was actually the case. Do economists use ciphers or coded speak to purposefully bamboozle us? Does their jargon exist to hoodwink us?

   "The thing is with jargon," Richards puts to me, "is that its useful in certain situations; everybody uses jargon - its a shortcut in conversation and its helpful."

   Yet, whilst conceding this, there is an admittance that alternative viewpoints, closer to my suspicions, could be countenanced: "Lots of economists would say that jargon is really useful for people in positions of authority because it hides the fact they don't know what they're talking about. There's no evidence to suggest that that's true but I know that people would say that. I wouldn't necessarily say that myself..."

   So, I wonder, how can we, the great unwashed, understand the seemingly insurmountable topic of the economy so as to call out politicians when we know they're talking nonsense or acting with hubris and bluster? How can we gain a greater understanding of this expansive discipline?

   "One of the things we [Economy] have identified is that economics is deemed to be really boring and really confusing to a lot of people." This is an understatement - next time you're at the pub, ask for a show of hands to see if the preferred conversational topic would be the perils of hyper-inflation or, alternatively, that overhead kick Okazaki scored the other week.

   Thankfully, though, Economy understands the methods in which raising fiscal awareness can be made every bit as interesting as football or arts or whatever your interests may be. Following in the footsteps of recent movies including Adam McKay's anarchic adaptation of Michael Lewis'  The Big Short , and the Terry Jones documentary  Boom Bust Boom , Richards highlights how "using humour, using well-known faces, using popular individuals in the media and art and entertainment to approach a subject people don't feel they can engage with" is a winning tactic.

   So too, Richards notes, is making the subject relatable to us. The economy is not just, as we may assume, a huge abstract concept we will never be able to understand (like the infinity of the universe or the growing popularity of Minecraft-narrating Youtubers). It is, as mentioned previously, a subject which is all around us all the time and, as such, it stands to reasons that examples drawn from everyday life can help us engage - whether that is "immigration or your salary or the cost of living... or how much it costs you to travel and see your friends at any given moment in time".

   "What we've noticed is that economics is a kind of means to talking about many different things. Actually identifying the issues people care about and relating those back to economics... is our approach to making the subject more tangible."

   Richards notes how popular culture helps us engage with finances and gives an example of a recent post Economy ran about Bruce Springsteen and the economic references found within his songs . It is this approach which, he hopes, will encourage us all to partake in financial discussions which will lead us to greater knowledge of micro-economics and how they effect us. The potential rewards for being able to have proper conversations around these topics are huge. Were we collectively more well-versed in economics and able to hold an open, informed debate, it may have been the case that a lot of people may have voted differently in elections gone-by. This, of course, has huge implications - were we able to debate more openly and knowledgeably in recent years, our democracy may have led us on a very different course.

   "People feel they're able to understand government policy when it comes down to things such as health or the NHS or education and they could arguably have an informed vote in an area such as that," Richards notes. "When it comes to economics, what we've found is that people simply don't know what certain economic policies mean or what  the end result would be for them. Therefore, you could argue that they are making a less informed voting decision.

   "If you talk about income tax, for example, people know what that means - they know what a change in income tax means for them. If you start talking about inflation or interest rates or economic growth, people suddenly are a bit more confused. The end result is still a very tangible effect on their day-to-day lives; however, the immediate use of language is inconceivable and puts them in a position where they can't really comment on economics or government policy. Or they can't real vote in a way that they feel is benefiting them."

   I begin to think back to instances in my life when I've found myself engaging with economics without even realising and soon recall my beloved Leeds United. As a teenager I was baffled and perplexed at the incredible amounts of money LUFC were spending on players and their wages. There was no way, I believed, that Seth Johnson (and countless others like him) could in any way recoup the outlay spent on him. I assumed that, as a youngster with no interest in economics beyond fantasy football and arm-chair fan-dom, that the club would be correct for reasons I would never understand. Liquidation threats, huge debts and a series of crises later unfortunately proved me sadly right in my assessment.

   At this point it struck me that my early facetious comments regarding pub chat were all inherently wrong - it is not unfeasible that we've each spoke about economics over a pint or two. Whether it is debating footballer's wages, complaining profusely over the rising price of Tangy Toms or even discussing the cost of our imported jeans, we've all done it.

   "Ultimately," Richards states of the economy, "Its not dry." And he's quite correct. Hopefully with good humour and the helping hand of Economy or a familiar face or two, we can all learn to tackle the subject with greater tact and understanding. The economy is, after all, all around us.

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