Economic literacy is valuable for individuals. It gives people the tools for understanding their world and navigating the complicated waters of globalisation. Countries also benefit from having economically literate citizens, capable of evaluating economic proposals and rejecting the make-me-belief promises of populists and demagogues. Unfortunately, older citizens often fail to understand how their retirement plans work. Younger ones struggle to pay down their exorbitant student loans. And voters, in general, remain hopeless in the face of economic jargon that promotes a deficit of understanding. Perhaps, introducing children to economics in schools can make a difference in all our lives. We travelled to Portugal to understand what is being done to promote economic literacy. And we returned convinced that if we are to find viable solutions to climate change and inequality, economics education must change.
Manuel Serrano: what is the Economics Olympiad? What is the purpose of this initiative, and what do you expect from this year´s event?
João Pedro Santos: The Portuguese Economics Olympics (OE) is the most significant economic education initiative in Portugal, aimed at young people in high and professional school. Its main goal is to promote an interest in the study of economics in young Portuguese people, in order to improve the level of economic and financial literacy.
In this year´s edition, we achieved a new record of participating schools and students (more than 1750 students), which allows us to have an ever-greater impact on the national education system. We believe that this year´s theme – the Circular Economy – will successfully awaken young people's awareness of the importance of changing the economic models in force during the 20th century, as well as the importance of preserving resources as an integral part of the economy.
Manuel Serrano: economic literacy is a foundation for democracy and healthy public debate. It affects everyone, and every policy domain, from healthcare to immigration. Are governments doing enough to empower citizens to take part in the conversation about the future? Are we equipping citizens with the right tools to hold politicians accountable for their economic promises?
João Pedro Santos: Unfortunately, government officials and public officials are not doing enough. Perhaps, because they fear it will promote accountability. Promoting economic literacy would involve subjecting decision-makers to greater scrutiny, which apparently is not a priority for everyone. Nonetheless, it should be a priority for functioning democracies: it is essential to promote transparency in public management and information reporting to ensure that citizens can rationally assess political decision-making.
Manuel Serrano: democracy requires politicians and journalists to be able to translate technical language. Representatives must be capable of simplifying without tergiversating. Journalists must be able to explain an issue without dumbing-down the discussion. However, the former often use jargon to limit public scrutiny, while the latter often fail to distinguish a critical issue from a contingent one. Can we still rely on politicians do the right thing, or should we educate ourselves and hold them to account?
It is essential to be capable of educating and holding both journalists and politicians accountable, ensuring that a separation between both spheres remains in place
João Pedro Santos: It is essential to be capable of educating and holding both journalists and politicians accountable, ensuring that a separation between both spheres remains in place. In Portugal, the pressure exerted by politicians on journalists is all too evident, leading to a decrease in press freedom and the consequent lack of transparency in journalism. Our society requires free and independent media outlets willing to hold power accountable, beyond ideologies and agendas.
Manuel Serrano: Portugal has the sixth-highest level of inequality in the European Union, according to Eurostat. Do you think we are doing enough to tackle this issue? Do you believe initiatives such as yours could raise awareness about economic issues beyond deficits and surpluses?
João Pedro Santos: The first step to combat inequality is to understand it. Accordingly, promoting knowledge of economic phenomena is the first step to enable the population to understand how economic laws behave, how and why inequities are generated, and how equity and social balance can be promoted. The best way to reduce inequities is to provide decent opportunities for education and training for young people, championing social mobility through knowledge.
Manuel Serrano: Economics is often perceived as authoritarian. It tends to explain way differences, ignore culture, and champion reductionism. Can initiatives such as the Economics Olympiad bridge the gap between economist and ordinary citizens? What have you learned from previous editions?
João Pedro Santos: The experience of the first six editions is incredibly positive. We try to get young people to think about economic phenomena and not to accept them dogmatically. The choice of topics such as the Social Economy or the Economy of Happiness is beneficial for this purpose, as young people are encouraged to see the world from a distinct perspective. We have had positive feedback from the participants, and even today, some of the first participants are still involved in the project.
Manuel Serrano: Are economists prepared to address issues such as inequality, globalisation and find more efficient ways to tackle climate change? Are economic curriculums adapted to our times? Some argue that we need new journalists and politicians to address the problems we face today. Do we need new economists too?
João Pedro Santos: Definitely, we need new economists. Economics education is still adjusted to the reality of the Industrial Revolution, believing that Labour and Capital behave similarly, and that the growth of production is the sole objective of society. Today, it makes no sense to continue to think about the economy as we did 200 years ago. For that, we undoubtedly need new politicians and new journalists, but also new teachers. The transformation of the educative system is fundamental to understand that the current logic does not make sense anymore. We believe that this change, although slow, is already taking place.
Manuel Serrano: initiatives such as yours argue that we need to increase economic literacy to empower citizens to take part in a debate about our collective future. Nonetheless, this year's International Economics Olympiad will take place in Kazakhstan, hardly a democratic and free state. Isn’t it troublesome to champion a debate about a better future for our societies in a country that does not seem interested in empowering its citizens?
We believe the best way to transform countries is through education
João Pedro Santos: We believe the best way to transform countries is through education. In July 2019, we participated in the final of the International Economy Olympics in St. Petersburg and everything went well. The experience was incredibly positive according to all participants, regardless of the political problems that the country was experiencing. Without turning a blind eye to the problems of some of the participants, we believe that seeking to train their young people is the best way to enhance democratic values. We must respect Kazakhstan 's effort to promote an initiative like IEO, believing that one-day countries such as Portugal will make a genuine effort to host the final.