Commentary: How not to explain economics to the public

1 week ago 26

LONDON: I had some sympathy for United Kingdom chancellor Jeremy Hunt last week when he was teased for trying to explain inflation with coffee cups and a black felt pen. I’ve done a few explainer videos myself over the years, so I know it’s hard to get the tone right.

You want to sound as if you’re talking to a smart friend in the pub, but it’s easy to sound like you’re pandering to children instead. I also think that making economics more understandable is a worthy endeavour, especially right now.

Sadly, Hunt’s video was a perfect example of what not to do.

Why is it worth trying to explain economics better? Because the profession suffers from what Andy Haldane, former chief economist at the Bank of England, calls a “twin deficit”, of understanding and of trust.

In a UK survey in 2019, 40 per cent of respondents said it had become more difficult to understand economics when it comes to making informed decisions for voting in elections and referendums. Only 14 per cent said it had become easier.

An in-depth study in 2020 found that many members of the UK public didn’t understand concepts such as gross domestic product and disbelieved statistics like the unemployment rate.

LANGUAGE THAT MAKES NO SENSE TO THE LAYMAN

Part of this is a translation problem. Most economic concepts are not complicated, but they’re couched in a language that makes no sense to people who don’t speak it.

Economists keep saying the UK has a problem with rising economic “inactivity”, for example, but how many people know this group includes students and carers? If someone had called me inactive when I was on maternity leave, I would have thumped them.

“People who aren’t working or looking for work” would be a clunkier label but immeasurably clearer.

There was another example last week, when the same set of statistics led to the headline “UK wages rising at near record pace” from one news organisation and “Real-terms UK pay fell at fastest rates for 20 years” from another.

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