Are wages too controversial? Why we have to cancel tomorrow’s debate

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March 18, 2014 by Adam Smith

I have to cancel tomorrow’s sitting of the Rational Parliament. I’m sad about this decision. It was to be our third sitting and we were going to debate how the government should be involved in setting wages, a topic voted on by the Rational Parliament’s friends and followers. I hoped we could cover the minimum wage, which is due to be set at a new level this year; the living wage, which has gained huge political momentum; and the idea of the citizen’s income.

But it seems that not enough people are interested—we haven’t sold very many tickets. Perhaps more crushingly for the Rational Parliament, no researcher wants to come and debate with us. This is not the end of the project by the way—read all the way to the end 😉

I’ve contacted 16 university-based researchers whose work covers things such as labour policy, wage economics and, specifically, the minimum wage. They include established economists and social scientists, such as those who serve on the government’s Low Pay Commission or those who do contract work for it. They populate our universities and research institutes around the UK. Of the 16 I contacted, four didn’t reply and 12 said they couldn’t make it. Even more than this number were contacted on my behalf by other networks, and I received no reply.

Several people close to the project have speculated that there might be something taboo about debating these deeply political issues in public. I honestly don’t know whether there is. Do you? I think it’s an idea worth entertaining. I asked one of the researchers who couldn’t make it to say a little bit more. I told the researcher that I just wanted to know, confidentially, whether there was any other reason why they couldn’t or wouldn’t come, but I received no reply.

I can understand researchers’ reticence and their reluctance. The Rational Parliament is still new. It’s still an experiment. We’ve only done two sittings. Although these earlier sittings were popular, we’re still something of a gamble, especially for researchers. Many of them are often cautious about their work being debated and discussed in public—they want the recognition but they worry their studies will be misused. This might be particularly the case with obviously political economics on wages and social security.

But I would have thought that of all places, the Rational Parliament would be the best place to debate these topics. An expert who comes along to talk about their research would get more words into the debate than they would in a news story after an interview with a journalist. They can engage directly with people misusing or misunderstanding their work. Plus they’d be in a room of people who have signed up for a calm and reasonable debate where the clerks of the house enforce the principle of balancing values with research evidence.

What’s more, despite my efforts to promote the debate on social media, there hasn’t been much of a buzz around this sitting. Not very many people have tweeted about it. Campaigners haven’t rallied around it either—is our debate format too problematic for them too?

I honestly don’t know the answers to these questions I’ve posed. But I think it’s worth thinking about as I plan how to build the Rational Parliament project from now on. And yes, I do have a plan how to make it better—and I need your help.

Your clerk,

Adam

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