I would like to ask you to introduce yourselves quickly and what you do in terms of your profession.
My name is Gonçalo Lima. I am currently a research assistant in a research center on the economics of education. I do research on topics related to economics and education or education through the realms of economics. Most of my days are spent either looking into data’s or visiting schools or talking to people in school (teachers/students), talking to staff in ministry of education, policy makers, ministers etc. It is a bit of an academic job with a strong policy making component. Right now most of the school visits are stopped because of the virus but I continue working on data analysis. That is most of what I do throughout my day. Starting next academic year I will start a PHD in Florence and before that I did a bachelor and master in academics here in Porto. And for 2 and half year I lived in Paris working for an international organisation in the area of education. There also my day to day work was talking to policy makers, going through education related data and trying to provide policy advice to different governments around the world.
What will be your PHD about?
My PHD will also be on economics and most probably in the area of economics of education and labor.
What brought you to this field? Why did you decide to study economics?
In the beginning I was not sure, as I think most people when you finish high school. I was just 17, I had a huge interest in economics and social issues. I knew that I wanted to study something related to mathematics. On the borders of mathematics. It is something I really enjoy, but I think economics just mixes my interest of logical thinking with creative reasoning and social impact in the best way possible. Social science and economics are something that really can bring that all together and be very encompensing in general. In the beginning it was really hard because I had a broad interest in a lot of different areas. Actually in the beginning I thought I would like to be a writer, because I always loved to write and read fiction and art in general. I was, believe it or not, I was a bit indecisive between economics and cinema. I am kind of a cinephile. But I ended up going to economics and I started loving it. I guess I started my career on that.
What, according to you, makes a good economist or a bad economist?
In my opinion I think what makes a good economist is someone who first thinks deeply about specific topics in a scientific way. What I mean by this is someone who tries to approach problems that are typically studied in the field of economics with a very scientific approach. What I think makes it a good scientist in general, and a good economist in particular, is someone who is willing to abandon their assumptions about how the world works by looking into data and the world in general. Through the right tools kind of test those assumptions and those beliefs. The best type of economists is the one that actually pushes the frontier of knowledge by testing the assumptions we all take for granted.
Is there a way to train to put away your assumptions? Is it a matter of training or a certain quality you have or not? It can be difficult I think
That is why not everyone is a scientist. That is probably one of the most difficult things, to actually abandon our own beliefs and try to look at the world in an observational, testing way. In a way you are willing to intervene in the world to understand how it actually works. I think that is one of the roles of a scientist, honestly, and I include economists in this group.
We want to take the opportunity now that we talk to someone from this field to ask specific definition questions. We have 4 terms that are very known. We all know what they are but we would like to hear your definitions on them. More like a short definition because they are very complex terms. The first one is: what is capitalism? Would you have a short definition of what capitalism is?
That is a pretty difficult one. I guess it depends on your assumptions. I once thought about this and discussed this with other people in the field of economics. Capitalism as the word says is an economic system based on capital. Capital being a stock or an accumulation of wealth that allows you to allocate resources to productive means. Capitalism exists as long as there is capital. So I guess capitalism has existed for 1000 years now, since production exists. There is actually some anthropological and archeological evidence that homoserines used to produce tools for killing and tools for cooking or very different tasks, in a series. Not only producing one at a time for when you need it but in a serial way. As long as you have a serial production of something, you have capitalism because you are basically creating a kind of capital that will be re-invested in the future. This is like the broadest definition that I have for capitalism.
I guess, in the sense that it is usually understood, is that, not only capital is the center of the economic system but the means for allocating capital and production is decentralized from a ruler or a state. That is more related to capitalism in the sense we understand it today. Versus the idea of socialism or communism or other types of economic system for instance. I don't know if it is a very interesting answer but it is a broad definition.
You are talking to dummies here so for us it's great. I never heard it explained this way, so simply. It is a word people use a lot without really knowing what it means exactly, that's why we thought it is good to come back to it. The next one is: what is neoliberalism?
Maybe that is closer to the second definition I was giving. Liberalism is based on the idea of individual initiative and putting the individual in the center of any kind of economic system or type of social organisation. It derives from classical liberalism. Neo is kind of a way of probably stating the movement in economic some thinking. Especially from a political perspective that started I think in the 80s with Nixon and with the Raegan presidency in the US. It started with the deregulation of the market. That market can solve all of the distributional problems. That is the idea of neo liberalism, based on the importance of globalization, market integration, free initiative, individual initiative. I would define it like that, giving more importance to the market than to the state/public authorities in the sense of distributing the wealth and opportunities.
And what is a sound economy? We heard it in a talk by Schomsky. He was talking about a sound economy and we had no idea what it is.
A sound economy in the sense of a stable economy, maybe this is what you mean?
Maybe this is what he meant.
An economy which is sound in a sense of strong and stable, is that it? I never heard it as a term in itself.
Now we are done with the definitions. In your opinion what are the basic pillars of a healthy economic system?
I think any economic system should strive for providing opportunity for every citizen, well-being for everyone within a free society. So I believe that a sound economic system, depends on market and free trade among people as a means of generating wealth. But I also think that it depends on a strong state that has popular support through democracy that implements the level of taxes that is necessary to provide public goods such as a public schooling system, a universal health care system, and all the other roles that are typically assigned to a state. Security, defense. I believe the state should have the monopoly of violence. A state should have a strong regulatory power to be sure that markets do not trump other social institutions, which sometimes is difficult. It is a kind of typical tension between the market and other kinds of social ways of organizing things.
And what would be your critics on the current economic system we are in?
Bad or good critics.
In general there are different varieties of capitalism and market-based economies in different countries. I think one of the main criticisms that has been explored, and I think it is correct, we as economists and people everywhere in the world are being faced with the negative consequences of inequality. That is a very important issue. I think it is something that is probably negative in a way. I don't think that per say, inequality is necessarily bad. In a sense, I believe that all human beings should be free to do what they desire. I think everyone being equal would be a pretty boring state of affairs and it would not lead to a society in which I would like to live. But I believe that economic inequality can be particularly pernicious, not only because of poverty in general. Some people are against the idea of putting inequality as a very important issue, saying that poverty is more important than inequality and as long as you have a minimum level of existence it is ok that some people will earn much more than others. I do not think like that, I think that extreme inequality is not a characteristic of the system, it is a bug. It is a negative consequence of the way things are. Probably my criticism is, in these last couple of decades, especially since the last crisis, we finally started to understand some of the negative consequences of globalization for western countries. It was in general pretty good for developing countries. There were a lot of distributional consequences that need to be faced with. There are a lot of challenges such as a shrinking middle class, a growth in income inequality especially. My criticism would be to actually look at the tools that economics provides you to understand why markets can be extremely inefficient in distributing income and wealth among different people and what kind of tools can be also used to correct these levels of inequality. Mostly through adequate taxation and adequate welfare systems. That is one of the criticisms. The other question was?
What you think is also good about this system?
Globalization and market integration are great in general. It actually bringing peace to the world. Because as long as countries are integrated in a market economy, it is very difficult to start a war between them because they have a lot to lose. When you look at the data’s you actually see that developing countries are going through amazing developments: in terms of education, vaccination rates, united health care, child mortality, violence, life expectancy. All these indicators have been improving, when these countries start to integrate their markets within these types of market economy. So I guess that has been the main advantage, the increase of wellbeing in a lot of countries.
So we can go now to the next categories, which is focused on questions around the notion of care. We will start with a plainer question. What does care in general mean for you?
There are a lot of ways to look into that: for instance healthcare, specifically as the right to recover health. Care from a perspective of love within the family, or within a community or within a society. It is a way of keeping not only human beings but life things in general alive and well. This is the most general definition I can find of care. But in different contexts you can think of different meanings.
I also can think of education as a way of taking care of human flourishing and development, as a human being and as a "worker" in a capitalist society. And I also see in families, among friends and within a community.
And what aspects do you think are directly linked to care in your work?
Probably because my work is very much related to trying to study or find policy solutions. Although the idea of my work is not to find solutions for individuals, person to person on a personal level, but more on a very macro/general level in terms of public policies. It is related to care in the sense of being able to find policies that attempt to improve well-being in general and the way things work. I don't think it is something that is directly present in my day to day work but it is the end line of all my work.
In general, it is a more personal question, but what keeps you moving and what helps you go through more challenging times?
Maybe doing things that I enjoy doing. Meeting friends, going to the cinema, things like that. It is not a very specific answer.
No it doesn't have to be specific, everybody has its own techniques. We always say with Olivia, as we work with very different types of people, "people are people". In the end we always come back to similar things, meeting with your loved ones, finding routines of something you like to do etc. It all comes back to these answers.
What are your thoughts and feelings about the current corona crisis situation?
Also maybe the impact it has economically?
Yeah.. it's going to be pretty bad. I am very worried. It is definitely the worst crisis in the last 100 years perhaps, or even more. I hear a lot of people saying that a lot of things are going to change after this. I don't know. Probably yes, probably not. I don't think anyone knows. I have no idea to be honest, what is going to change. I think there is going to be a retraction in globalization, in the next year. There is going to be a rethinking about how things are going to be planned and made. There are going to be some changes in the world of work. Some companies for instance are going to understand that a lot of the work can be more autonomous, a lot of office spaces are not needed and that people can work from home. But I think, in terms of health, it is pretty bad. No one knows when things will come back to normal. Probably they never will. It's just that there is going to be a change in a way that I don't really understand.
I am also worried in terms of education. There are a lot of children that now have no classes in a classroom and this is going to be increasing inequality because some children do not have as much support at home as some others do and as much access to computers and internet etc. So it's a very difficult challenge I believe.
And economically, unfortunately, for at least one/two years it is going to be a disaster.
The economy has basically stopped in most countries in the world. I don't know what is going to result out of this.
But as you said maybe it is also an opportunity to rethink certain, maybe more negative consequences of the system and see how to shift that. Like how the state can take some things back into hands, these sort of things. As you were describing earlier capitalism and all these consequences.
Yes, I think some companies will rethink their production and their supply chains, maybe a bit more local. When I say retraction in globalization I mean that some multinational may be resifting some of their production back to their home countries, in order to have tighter supply chains that don't always depend on a world economy that is constantly connected. So yes, I think maybe there will be some changes in that line, maybe not. I honestly don't know.
Yes I think nobody knows. It is only speculation.
Yes it is only speculation. I read people saying completely different things like everything is going to change or that nothing is going to change.
We just have to wait and see. What are your biggest fears in relation to society and the future?
Definitively, artificial intelligence. I think it is going to be the major challenge in the next 20/30 years. It will completely change the workspace, the production of wealth, the place of innovation. It is going to change the way people communicate. The way it is developing, it is basically almost having to communicate with other intelligent human beings in a way. That is I think the most threatening, or maybe more challenging, as it can also be an opportunity, is to have some type of intelligence that is out of our hand, and some type of global intelligence. One thing is to have super intelligent machines or software that play chess or do whatever, or are assigned to the production of something, and the other is to have an artificial being that is globally as intelligent as a human being, but except better at everything they do. I think that is very challenging for the future of work. It relates to the question of care actually, as a lot of advances in artificial intelligence are not affecting or are not going to affect people who work in strongly social professions. Mostly related to health care. Usually the typical example is the one of a masseuse, so someone that gives massages. No one wants to be massaged by a robot. Those jobs are pretty safe. Nurses, teachers etc. Strongly social professions are usually not strongly affected but even now in strongly intellectual professions there is going to be a huge impact. Nowadays companies such as airbus or others are using artificial intelligence in creative ways, not only in the design of airplanes. There are no humans involved in this. A.I can now create music, paintings, and write books and poetry, at some point we won't be able to distinguish what is made by an artificial being or by a human being. I think that is going to be pretty challenging. I think in the 21st century, it will be the largest disruption in society.
There is a very good series from Sweden called Real Humans. It's not so popular. They only did 2 seasons. It is about A.I. There are robots integrated in daily life, used as gardeners, helpers etc. They have USB sticks in their necks, so if you want your nanny to suddenly speak Spanish, you can just download the program to her and then she will speak it. It very well captures this feeling of them becoming better and doing more. It brings up the problems that it brings in society: the work, the labor, people losing their jobs, racism, people falling in love with them. They have this surface that they look like humans etc.
That is probably the biggest mistake and I think the ethics committees are going to start to understand that. That is the worst thing you can do to give human like appearance to something like that. That is very dangerous. Robots with human faces that look like humans.
Yes because emotionally you just start to connect and all people who feel lonely they start to have this love for these robots and naturally you start to project.
Yes and I think the biggest mystery is consciousness and if A.I. continued to develop like this, is there ever going to be a being with a consciousness like us? With self-awareness and with all this? I think it is very dangerous to have a species who is as self-aware as us of their own existence, but being better than us at everything. That is the challenge. On the other hand I believe that it can be an opportunity having most of the work transferred to machines and software’s and A.I. It is already with us. So that humans can develop a lot of other expertise in other areas and maybe it is an opportunity for there to be a lot of wealth that is created out of thin air from other A.I. beings, while humans enjoy life to the fullest without having to worry about having a 9 to 5 job.
And would you say that these are your hopes of what society could become in relation to the reality we are in?
I think that progressively it has become like that. In the course of 100 years, people have been working less hours in terms of having hard manual labor kinds of jobs. I believe that larger and larger scales of the population have been able to develop and flourish in other kinds of activities. I believe that it is impossible for people to just stop working, because it doesn't work like that. That is Aristotle who said that people derive meaning from activity. Happiness derives from activities and being busy with something, whatever that may be. It is just that some people unfortunately have to be by chance or choice, perhaps in a job that they really hate, to provide food and shelter for themselves and their family.
It is threatening for a lot of people with less qualified conditions in terms of jobs to be substituted by robots and machines, but right now it is also threatening the engineer or the designer. They can now also be substituted by an artificial intelligent software. I think a lot of it will depend on the equilibrium we can find, and I am hopeful we can find it and integrate these technologies in our day to day in a healthy way at least and see these technologies as partners to facilitate our lives rather than substitute, or complement our own activities. This is the optimistic view. The pessimistic view is having a world full of robots and artificial intelligence while we stay inside of our houses and become fat and ugly, in front of our TVs, drinking coke all day and processed foods etc.
But from an economist point of view, if all the jobs of these people are replaced, then they don't have a job, then they don't earn money, how would we solve that?
This has been an issue since technology is here. It is always an issue with technology. When the sewing machine started to be introduced, a lot of sewers started strikes all over Europe. When the press was invented a lot of copyists, scribbles, also lost their jobs, but nowadays we can't imagine life without a printing press. People always adapt. The problem is that technology usually goes faster than how people can adapt. I believe that society delays these sorts of processes, if it is really that disruptive, it doesn't happen all of the sudden. It depends a lot on retraining, on these sorts of mechanisms, to make sure that these people don't fall behind. That is going to be a huge issue for instance when autonomous cars will be introduced. Because it will be introduced in the truck industry, so a lot of truck drivers will lose their jobs. Maybe we can wonder, does someone really want to become a truck driver? Is that an activity that someone really enjoys doing? Probably yes, but maybe it also gives other opportunities for people to find their means of economic and personal realization in other types of occupations I would say.
So, now we can do the last round which is like a fast round called "rhetoric".
We have few words that came up during our research, words that we are figuring out what it means for us. What we read in certain texts or that appeared in our discussions so I will just list these words and you can answer with the first association that comes to your mind. You can also say nothing comes to my mind or I don't understand. Everything is fine and there is no good and bad.
Core - The first thing that came to my mind was Pilates
Continuity - It's really stupid but the first thing that came to my mind is function, as in mathematics, because it is a property of functions to be continuous/discontinuous
Turning precarity into possibilities - The first thing that came to my mind was market
Non-efficiency - Of shores
Side job - Nothing specific came to my mind
Stubborn/committed - Something like hard headed
Taking different shapes - It came to my mind, sourdough. You think you make bread with. I did bread the other day.
Adaptable/flexible - Worker
Non-tangible - Money
Long term - Death. I just remember this because of a quote of Kain saying in the long run we are all dead.
Equity - Education
Imperceptible - Mental illness
Gestures - Hands
Unspectacular - Accountant job, when I think of something boring or unspectacular I always think of the accountant job
Daily - Routine
Interdependence - Science
Not radical - Nothing came to my mind
Unconditional - Universal
Hands on - Laptop, because that is where I put my hands on most of the time.
If I tell you care based economy, what are the three first words that come to your mind.
Universal / free / Healthcare