Economics Through Imagery

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To the Market of Ideas

Arthur Edwards works as an associative economist. He offers courses in schools on financial literacy, weekend seminars for adults and is presently undertaking a doctorate looking at Rudolf Steiner’s idea of three kinds of money.

Economic Conversation – An Associative Voice

Literacy – social and financial

Like conversation, economics is transactional: it arises from exchange. In conversation, the exchange occurs through words and meaning; in the economic realm the equivalent dialogue subsists in numbers and values. As words convey meaning, so numbers stand for economic values. It ought to be clear that the meaning and values are what count and that the words and numbers are the means to this end.

In each instance we are concerned with language, which in the economic case, is rarely brought to consciousness. To be financially literate is a prerequisite for economic awareness. Financial literacy means fluency in accounting which is the language of business. Through accounting the universal structure of economic life can become evident, and separate endeavours commensurate, diverse though they are.

Furthermore, we have in accounting not only a language that makes our economic communication conscious but also an instrument that renders tractable our initiatives, individual and several.

About economics, everybody has an opinion, normally lurking below the surface, unacknowledged. And yet, to what do all the opinions add up? It is said that if you were to lay flat all the economists in the world, head to toe, they still would not reach a conclusion.

To find firmer ground one needs to identify, describe, and plan one’s own activity; to give an account of what one is doing oneself. In practice this means to be able to construct one’s accounts in the form of a balance sheet, an income expenditure statement and a financial plan, for it is only in this way, when shared, that distinct activities become commensurate when shared. A conversation can only take place through a shared language. Were we all to learn how to participate in this kind of conversation, our relationship to the economic realm would become transparent.

An Economic Vision

Imagine a waking dream: … walking along your local High Street, you see embedded in every shop-door a flat-screen display showing the live accounts for the business inside. Discrete but clearly indicated, the income and expenditure statement for that month, next to it the actual balance sheet – changing each moment: the life blood of the business is made visible.

Is accounting really so far from daily life? What if we informed ourselves about the economic circumstances around us, rather than leaving it to happenstance or an invisible hand? The cost of living …, next year’s pay settlement …, the price of housing …it’s all to be found in the numbers. A set of accounts tells a story; the business narrative; the book in which the economy becomes visible.

The vision continues … at the end of the High Street you observe a distinctive building, it looks like a transparent temple: as you draw nearer you see the glass walls flashing up hundreds of transactions between all the businesses and showing the dynamic movement between accounts. Inside a meeting is taking place. This meeting place has replaced the bank.

Could it be that it is only by accounting that we can become economically awake, individually and socially?

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The accompanying illustration arose when participants at “The Market of Ideas” event were challenged to ask themselves “What does economics look like?”. This was the starting point for an exchange.

One participant volunteered that he had set out to explain the nature of ‘interest’ to his daughter. We then attempted to illustrate this as a series of accounting transactions in order to identify how through making an ‘investment’ a new economic value might arise, out of which a dividend could be shared as ‘interest’. This brought us to the question of whether ‘investment’ in housing creates new economic values or merely affects a change in the level of prices. A more topical subject could hardly be found.

Economics Through Imagery

Words and Images

What is ‘an invisible hand’, a ‘national economy’ or a ‘market force’? Economic phenomena are perceived, communicated and understood with images, but rarely graphically illustrated.

An interesting exception is the supply and demand curve - the image is resonant of mechanics and suggestive of a world that has been mathematised. The logic of the line is incontestable. But where did the image come from? The ubiquitous scissor-hands diagram began life as a mere footnote in a 19th century economics text – today it is the primary vehicle for inculcating young minds with the idea of economics. Might not the image of a set of accounts represent a closer approximation of a transaction?

Images are not just graphs, they live in words too: supply and demand is a bread and butter notion, upon which popular thinking has come to rely. Likewise competitive global economy and a host of other mantric formulations. How conscious are we if we merely repeat such phrases? Wouldn’t it be more profitable to explore what lies behind these terms and ask how in fact economic life is constituted.

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Rudolf Steiner and Associative Economics

In 1922 Rudolf Steiner, better known as an educationalist and philosopher, gave a course in economics that was accompanied by blackboard sketches – illustrating his value theory and idea of the economic process. Steiner had much to say about the economics of culture and described the need to quantify this realm in terms of ‘labour saved’ or … better directed.

Associative economics, a way of understanding the situation of humanity in a single economy, takes its cue from Steiner’s rethinking of economic life. A particular emphasis is placed on accounting, rather than mathematics, as a tool for better perceiving economic transactions and relations. Fields of research include monetary policy, financial literacy and the economics of farming.

Economic Conversation

The purpose of this stall is to explore economics through imagery – both the wallpaper as is and how we might metamorphose it. Transactions with the stallholders are focused on how the present circumstances of participants can be translated and made visible through the logic of accounting.

Using pastels and black paper – a conversation takes place.

Gallery of Images<br>

Contact Arthur Edwards:<br> See also the Centre for Associative Economics.

To the Market of Ideas