Feet Of Clay

Artists challenge the influence of economists in shaping public policy

ART by Gregory Beatty

photo by Darrol Hofmeister


I have an undergrad degree from the University of Regina with a major in economics. When I was in school, British economist John Maynard Keynes was still god. Shaped by life-altering experiences such as WWI and the Great Depression, Keynes developed the idea of governments being active players in the economy to help smooth out bumps that history had shown were inevitable under capitalism.

When things were slow, governments could prime the pump to get money circulating again by running deficits. Then when the economy recovered, they could direct surplus revenue to pay down the debt.

Through the tail end of the Depression, WWII, and the post-war baby boom, Keynes’ system worked great. In part to help people, but also to remain politically popular, governments were more than amenable to running deficits in rough times. Rarely, though, did they have the discipline to pay off debt in good times. And by the late 1970s, government debt as a percentage of GDP had skyrocketed, and inflation (and interest rates) were punishingly high.

Enter Milton Friedman and his Chicago School colleagues. As monetarists, they advocated that to wrestle debt and inflation to the ground governments needed to be stingy with their pump-priming, and that the only true road to prosperity lay in laissez-faire capitalism.

Whereas Keynes was the darling of the left, Friedman was big with conservatives. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were both disciples, and 35 years later monetarism remains a potent economic force.

But enough about economics — let’s turn to the exhibition that’s the subject of this review. Rubbish & Reason is by Quebec artists Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens. The curator is former Regina resident John Hampton, and cribbing from the brochure, the show “explores the significance of diagrams and other forms of economic modeling as agents of social, cultural and subjective change.”

Okay, we’re back to economics a.k.a. “the dismal science”. Influenced by Thomas Malthus’ dire forecasts of human deprivation as our population expanded unchecked, that’s the tag Victorian-era historian Thomas Carlyle hung on the discipline.

Considering the amount of hardship a significant portion of humanity endures every day, the “dismal” part of Carlyle’s tag is definitely apt. The “science” part, though, is a little misleading.

Yes, in doing their analysis economists draw on all sorts of data from Stats Canada and other government agencies, business and labour organizations and whatnot. Most of the figures are ballpark, but they provide a base for economists to stand on.

My memory of economics, though, is that lots of assumptions are built into the models that economists use to interpret the data and develop their forecasts.

Markets, for instance, are assumed to be truly free with no barriers to entry or exit to hinder the laws of supply and demand. But we don’t live in a perfect market economy. Trade barriers, quotas, monopolies (natural and artificial), imperfect knowledge and all sorts of other market distortions exist.

Economists also assume people generally act in a rational manner when making economic decisions. Some economists even subscribe to the ideal of Homo economicus, where virtually every decision we make in our lives is motivated by self-interest with the goal of improving our economic well-being.

Such assumptions are probably necessary, because the vagaries of human (and therefore market) behavior are impossible to predict. But the over-simplification built into economic models, and the sheer impossibility of accounting for a multitude of complex and ever-changing factors, Ibghy and Lemmens suggest in Rubbish & Reason, calls into question the authority of the discipline.

Visit the show and you’ll find works with such titles as Barone-Adesi-Whaley Pricing of Commodity Options and Relationships With Varying Elasticity Values that reference actual economic models and theories. The diagrams used to illustrate them, though, far from being statistically precise, are instead haphazard constructs made from lengths of board and rope, dowel and plastic mesh, with bricks as counterweights in the larger pieces.

An accompanying video called Taming Chance shows Ibghy and Lemmens working (usually individually, and unsuccessfully) to build similar diagrams in an empty studio. As structure after structure crashes down we see how great an impact even tiny elements (such as the vibration of the artists’ footsteps on the floor) can have.

So really, when you consider all the challenges of trying to analyze economic trends, especially as they play out on a national and international scale, it’s pretty much akin to predicting the weather. We can (and should) use economic data to guide us in our decision-making as individuals and a society. But we shouldn’t regard the discipline as a veritable religion, as we arguably do in these neoliberal times.

Ibghy and Lemmens highlight the danger of this mindset in the “Rubbish” component of the show — which features a large grainy photo-copied image of people with garbage bags cleaning up a shoreline after an oil spill or some other catastrophe.

So far we may have been able to outrace Malthus’ 19th-century prediction of doom through productivity gains from technological innovation — but it’s come at a terrible cost to the environment, and like government debt and inflation in the late ’70s, the problems of environmental despoliation and gross inequality caused by unregulated markets are coming to a head.

Implicit in Ibghy and Lemmens’ critique is the question of whether Homo economicus is a true representation of who we are, or is it more a case of an economic model being imposed on us that might serve a small segment of society well (the fabled one per cent), but leaves the vast majority adrift in a sea of greed, poverty and unsustainable consumer aspirations?