John Lanchester’s Crisis in the Classroom

Tutorials with some of the victims of Nick Clegg’s bare-faced lies recommenced today amidst news that the economic recovery rollercoaster is now poised for an unprecedented third dip. The ongoing economic crisis, I reckon, is eventually going to bring an associated terminological crisis into being. How many more dips lie on the horizon? What term should we use to describe a seventh or even a fifteenth dip? Is this the sort of thing which non-repentant macro-economists lose sleep over? Contemporary economic terminology has become undeniably if unintentionally evocative –  I for one find it very difficult to think of the path to recovery and not think of the Euthansia Coaster. Grown ups will will no doubt draw more serious inferences.  

So within today’s session we read John Lanchester’s recent analysis of the nation’s finances together. Lanchester is the author of Capital, a sprawling fictionalised account of crisis-based London life, he is a sort of Marxist of an explicitly empirical persuasion and, thankfully for today’s purposes, he is also an erudite, concise, and above all clear economic commentator. When I grow up I want to be quite like John Lanchester. The article’s main concern is with explaining how, despite the fact that the coalition government’s austerity campaign is failing with respect to it’s own structural deficit management goals, only 28% of the British public are in favour of increased welfare spending. Fraser Nelson has since pointed out that austerity is also demonstrably failing to reduce the debt without much by way of public uproar.

The upshot? The majority of the British public seem opposed to heightened welfare spending, even though government spending is increasing. 90% of the British public believe the national debt is falling, even though it is rising. What is to be made of all this, Lanchester asks? Austerity is not working, economically speaking, but it still seems to be working, politically speaking – such is “the shit we’re in”. It is in keeping with this entry’s fairground-centric tenure to remark that people usually recommend rollercoasters upon emotional rather than technical grounds. 

Lanchester’s article is not without it’s challenges, of course, not least of all in a classroom of students with no more than ten weeks of Higher Education under their belts. So we’re approaching the article with the respect it deserves and the attention it requires. Today we read it together, once, in an effort to attempt to condense it’s 4,507 words into something like an elevator speech. “Austerity: economically redundant, politically expedient”, and variations on this theme, is where we got in the few minutes we had left for discussion. The more interesting discussion awaits. I’ve asked the students to read the article a second and then third time in advance of our next meeting. For the second time, each student will make a note of every single instance where something Lanchester has written is in any way un-clear to them. I proposed the following five headings:

* People

* Institutions and Bodies

* Concepts and Theories

*Turns of Phrase

* Calculations

* Sources of Evidence  

Each student will send their list to me and, once I’ve received a list from each of the students in each of the three groups I run, I will create an aggregate document. I told the students that I counted 21 potential moments of unclarity, spread across the five categories. I guess the figure will come closer to 30 once everybody has gotten their documents in – we’ll see – I’ll post back the results once they’re all in, towards the end of next week. In addition to asking each student to fill out an individual list, I’ve also invited them to propose additional categories and, for the particularly ambitious, to propose an alternative typology. If nothing else, these ambitious counter-typologies will offer us a productive segue way into Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’s Taxonomy. We’ll again see!

During our next meeting, then, each student will take responsibility for discussing a particular category in more detail and thereby to describe, and potentially challenge, aspects of Lanchester’s argument, to the rest of the cohort. Once we’ve done this, finally, I’ll ask the students to discuss how the article relates to them as economic subjects, in the abstract, as well as as pedagogical subjects paying for the privilege of discussing austerity, in the concrete. Again, I’ll report back on all of this.

2 thoughts on “John Lanchester’s Crisis in the Classroom

  1. As per the above, we reached 65 terms which were felt to require some sort of elucidation, as listed below. This list is going to be taken into the classroom for further discussion next week.


    1. George Osborne
    2. Danny Alexander
    3. Nate Silver
    4. Richard Feynman
    5. Robert Chote
    6. J.M. Keynes
    7. Mrs. Thatcher
    8. The Mayans
    9. Lord Salisbury
    10. Nick Clegg
    11. Brown and Balls
    12. John Lanchester
    13. A Cynic
    14. Economic blogetariat
    15. Jeremy Hunt

    Institutions & Bodies

    16. Tories
    17. Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR)
    18. Bradford and Bingley Building Society
    19. Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS)
    20. International Monetary Fund (IMF)
    21. British Medical Association (BMA)
    22. London Review of Books (LRB)
    23. Royal Mail

    Concept and theories

    24. Bank of England’s quantitative easing scheme
    25. Fiscal
    26. ‘World economic outlook’
    27. Austerity policies, packages and cuts
    28. Triple dip recession
    29. Structural deficit
    30. ‘pension liabilities’
    31. 50 per cent income tax rate
    32. Private Finance Initiative (PFI)

    Turns of Phrase

    33. Saying ‘I told you so ‘ is supposed to be near unbeatable fun….
    34. Crouch down for a closer look at the economy…and the murky waters grow murkier still
    35. Counterintuitive
    36. Guesstimate
    37. ‘ringfenced/non-ringfenced’
    38. Kitchen sink
    39. Poor-bashing pasty tax
    40. Oldster-bashing granny tax
    41. Cassandra-meets-scrooge
    42. Ring wing mythopoesis
    43. ‘almost rococo creative accounting’
    44. ‘A wonks pride is a powerful thing’
    45. ‘dole scroungers’
    46. ‘maxim for budgets’
    47. ‘Treasury thumbprint all over the OBR’
    48. ‘or as the Chinese never fail to call it, ‘the western financial crisis’
    49. ‘Productivity puzzle’
    50. ‘Bond vigilantes’ on the international debt markets’
    51. The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant.
    52. Stygian economic gloom


    53. Credit Rating
    54. ‘real terms’
    55. ‘inflection point’
    56. Multiplier…‘using a multiplier of 0.5…in the range of 0.9 to 1.7’
    57. What are the relations between the figures of structural deficit and the series activities with Royal Mail pension liabilities Bradford and Bingley building society and the quantitative easing scheme of Bank of England?

    Sources of Evidence

    58. ‘British social attitudes’
    59. ‘spring budget’ & ‘autumn statement’
    60. ‘nobody knows anything’
    61. ‘Fall in GGE – General Government Employment ‘… there are more than half a million public sector jobs still to be cut over the next five years.’
    62. ‘So for every £1 billion removed from government spending, GDP would contract by £500 million (Page 4)
    63. Double dip recession figures
    64. Unemployment figures
    65. OBR figures

    Additional Stated Concerns

    The parts that I find difficult to understand is how all the independent bodies, such as the OBR, Institute for Fiscal Studies IMF, and the World Bank, which is not mentioned in the article, work together to create such forecasts, and where they get their data from to create such forecasts? Do these institutions provide forecasts for other economies if they are independent, or are they commissioned bodies of the Government?

    I am a little confused with the mechanism of calculation and the source of evidence. If you can explain what they are again I can add that in. With the mechanism of calculations I am confused were some of the % come from which they state.

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