I am thrilled to accept the University of Sydney’s recent invitation to serve as an Honorary Professor in the Department of Political Economy. I have a long and collegial association with the Department – including delivering the second Ted Wheelwright lecture in 2009 (on the Global Financial Crisis), participating in seminars and conferences, and most recently squatting in Frank Stilwell’s office for six months in 2014 while on research leave here with my family.
The Department is a unique and irreplaceable asset in the global political economy community. It is a multidisciplinary meeting place for both scholars and activists. Its research and teaching stretches the frontiers of our understanding of world economy and society. And it attracts ambitious, committed students from around the world. I can also attest to the remarkable collegiality within the Department: its culture and practice marks the best traditions of mutual respect and diversity of analysis, yet combined with a willingness to challenge each other in the interests of formulating stronger, more convincing analyses. It will be both a great honour, and a great opportunity to further my own thinking, to be welcomed into such a fine scholarly community.
I have just settled in Sydney, having left in January my long-time position as Economist with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union. (Unifor was formed in 2013 through a merger between the Canadian Auto Workers, where I worked since 1994, and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions.) The leaders and members of Unifor supported me very generously while I was there: not only providing concrete economic analysis and advice to the union, but also allowing me to play a broader role in economic policy debates in Canada and internationally. It was a difficult decision for me to leave that job (after 22 years), and I carry with me a tremendous “scrapbook” of memories of our union struggles, victories, and lessons. But the desire to do something different (not to mention the appointment of my spouse, Professor Donna Baines, to a senior position in the Department of Social Work here at the University of Sydney!) spurred the big move.
I have great hopes for transferring my work as an “activist-economist” from Toronto to Sydney. And it is already clear there will be no shortage of urgent opportunities for me to do so. A core theme in my work has been a desire to democratise economics, by expanding popular understanding (including among union members and other working people) about the ideological roots and hegemonic functions of conventional economic discourse. We need to understand that what is widely accepted as economic “common sense” (rooted in ideas about the virtue and productivity of private property, the universality of greed, and the efficiency of markets) is not scientifically based (and hence “sensible”) at all. Rather, it reflects a conscious and political effort to justify the status quo – rather than truly explaining it. I have placed great emphasis on communicating critical approaches to economics in ways that are accessible, without being simplistic or populist. The best example is through my book Economics for Everyone (now in its second printing with Pluto Books) and its associated web-based curriculum materials (all available for free at www.economicsforeveryone.com).
The economic and political similarities between Australia and Canada will make my transition easier, I suspect – as will Sydney’s much more appealing climate! While I am cautious about drawing too many parallels between the economic experience of the two countries, they are too obvious to overlook: both suffer from a renewed recent reliance on resource extraction as the main engine of accumulation, the associated problems of deindustrialization and environmental degradation, the distorting influence of credit-fueled speculation (in both financial assets and property), and the increasingly aggressive exercise of political influence by the concentrated interests which benefited from those regressive trends. Canada held a federal election in October 2015 (just before I left the country), in which voters threw out an unapologetic right-wing pro-extraction government, replacing it with a more moderate and balanced (but still pro-business) party. That election hasn’t remotely solved all Canada’s problems, but it was undeniably a move in the right direction – and a testament to the ability of progressive resistance campaigns to influence the course of events. With a federal election now underway in Australia, will there soon be another parallel we can draw between these two countries? I hope so.
My paying job here in Australia will be with the Australia Institute, the leading progressive research institute in the country. I will work with them as an economist, and director of a new project called the Centre for Future Work. This Centre aims to strengthen the Australia Institute’s presence and engagement in issues related to employment, labour markets, incomes, industry, and globalization. We will be publishing research reports (some quick-and-fast, some longer-term and more comprehensive), building links with trade unions and other progressive constituencies, and trying to influence the battle of economic ideas related to these topics. I am interested in partnering with political economists and other academics interested in these issues, and would welcome any inquiries in my new role (you can reach me at jim[AT]tai.org.au). The Australia Institute will be a great home for me, and I look forward to working closely with their team of progressive, entrepreneurial researchers (including a prominent alumnus of the Department of Political Economy, Dr. Richard Denniss).
I am already participating in some of the research going on in the Department of Political Economy: including Lynne Chester’s project on industry policy, and Frank Stilwell’s tireless efforts around inequality, tax policy, and related topics. And I look forward to doing much more – including guest lectures, supervision of graduate students, and other contributions.
Thank you very much to the University and the whole Department for this opportunity, and for your warm welcome to Sydney!