An Interview with John Quiggin

Fall 2015, John Quiggin, Scott Remer

John Quiggin is an economics professor and Australian Research Council laureate fellow at the University of Queensland. He received first-class honors degrees in economics and mathematics from Australian National University and his PhD from the University of New England. He writes regularly for Crooked Timber and a variety of newspapers and magazines, publishes and maintains a personal blog, and recently published Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us (Princeton University Press, 2010). In addition to being an extraordinarily prolific researcher and explainer of economics from a social democratic perspective, he has served on the Australian government’s Board of the Climate Change Authority since 2012. The following interview was conducted via email and edited by Scott Remer, PC ’16, for the Fall 2015 Issue (PDF version).

An Interview with John Quiggin

Margins: What does “social democracy” mean to you, economically, politically, and culturally? What are the characteristics of the good life and the good society that you think the Left should be fighting to achieve for all?

Quiggin: I changed the description of my position from “socialism” to “social democracy” around 20 years ago. That reflected a view that the achievements of social democrats (and in the U.S., the New Deal) represent an approach to the good life in which everyone has sufficient security from unemployment, ill health, and poverty to enable them to lead full and flourishing lives. By contrast, ‘socialism’ embodies a disparate set of ideas, some of which I agree with and some not.

I see the task of the Left as revitalizing and broadening the social democratic project. The ultimate good society would be one in which the slogan ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ was not only realized, but extended to women as well as men, and to the entire world, rather than to a few countries in the global North.

That’s somewhat utopian, of course, but I believe that a utopian vision is a necessary and desirable part of a strategy that must inevitably focus mainly on day-to-day struggles. The idea of a guaranteed minimum income/universal basic income is one potential bridge between current policy debates and ultimate aspirations.1

Margins: How does the global warming crisis relate to your picture of the social democratic utopia?

Quiggin: Unlike many on the Left, and even more on the Right, I believe that global warming can be managed within the existing frameworks of capitalism. A combination of regulation, carbon taxes, and emissions trading would be sufficient to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm or even less without any significant impact on the economy as a whole.

Politically, however, the fact that so much of the Right has adopted a denialist position, ultimately based on absurd conspiracy theories, has had two big effects. On the negative side, it has substantially slowed progress towards decarbonization and increased the risk of policy failure leading to dangerous climate change. On the positive side, it has accelerated the intellectual breakdown of the Right and undermined the willingness of centrists and the media to assume a position of ‘false balance’ in debates over this and other issues.

Margins: What thinkers (and books) influenced your intellectual formation as an undergraduate?

Quiggin: I read very widely, but I can’t say that any one thinker was particularly influential. Rather, I was influenced by the intellectual environment of the time, which was one of optimism and a belief that a better society was not only attainable but within our reach. Obviously, things didn’t turn out that way, but I remain convinced that the vision of that time was more realistic than the illusions fostered by the version of capitalism that emerged in the 1970s and has been dominated by the financial sector.

Margins: Did you always know you wanted to be an economist and professor? How did you decide what to do with your life?

Quiggin: I always wanted to be a professor, but for a long time, I wanted to be a mathematician, and [I] did my first degree mainly in math, with economics on the side. There weren’t many jobs for mathematicians when I finished my undergraduate degree, so instead of going to graduate school, I took a job in the civil service and continued my studies in economics. This was the time of economic crisis in the 1970s and the resurgence of the free-market right. I became convinced that economics was where I could do the most good.

Margins: Do you have any advice for students trying to figure out how best to change the world?

Quiggin: I learned economics in a hardline “Chicago school” department, which challenged all my beliefs about how the world worked and should work. This forced me to think deeply about what I believed and why and to not be satisfied with easy responses to the arguments of the political right. It’s important to understand those arguments and to confront them in the strongest form you can. Only then is it possible to work towards a coherent alternative.

Margins: What gives you hope for the future?

Quiggin: The failure of what I’ve called market liberalism (aka neoliberalism, the Washington Consensus, and so on) has been obvious since the Global Financial Crisis and is now making itself felt in political debate. The facts about growing concentration of wealth, stagnating incomes for large sections of the population, inequality of opportunity, and so on have been known to economists and social scientists for a long time, but are only now becoming undeniable in public debate.

Margins: What event or set of events do you think will be necessary to catalyze a complete paradigm shift away from neoliberalism and towards social democracy?

Quiggin: I see the U.S. as the most promising location for such a shift. It will require a general recognition that the current system offers neither a just distribution of income nor equal opportunity to do well, but is rather entrenching a hereditary elite while impoverishing the bulk of the population. The debate on this point has shifted markedly in the last few years. When I wrote Zombie Economics in 2009 and 2010, the facts were recognized by social scientists, but political discussion proceeded as if the “American Dream” were alive and well.

Now the fact that the system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the financial sector is generally recognized. However, this fact has not sunk in sufficiently to overcome the longstanding power of rhetoric designed to turn the middle class against low-wage workers and workers in general against the poor and unemployed. I hope that steady repetition of the facts combined with the inevitable exposure of yet more wrongdoing by the financial sector will produce a gradual shift to the left.

1. A few links along these lines:

Image: Newtown Grafitti