The Campaign for Social Science Annual SAGE Lecture with Torsten Bell FAcSS, Chief Executive of the Resolution Foundation, took place online on 21 November. In his lecture Torsten focused on the immediate cost-of-living crisis, and the background to it which has been a living standards stagnation stretching back well over a decade. The lecture was presented to an online audience of several hundred academics, policymakers, and members of the wider public.
Torsten drew upon evidence from social science research to explore the current crisis in depth as well as looking at what the future might hold. He also reflected on the role the social sciences have played and can play in future in helping us understand and meet the challenges we face. This included clearly pointing out where the social science community could do better.
In the lecture Torsten discussed statistics showing very significant drops in Real Household Disposable Income per person across the UK as well as highlighting that we have the highest inflation for 40 years. Torsten also focused on rising energy and goods prices. Importantly, Torsten shared data which emphasised that poorer households are experiencing the impacts of inflation much more deeply than those who are better off, further widening the gap between rich and poor in the UK.
The lecture also covered people’s increasing anxiety over energy bills as well as figures highlighting projections for rising unemployment and rising mortgage payments. Torsten emphasised that in 2023 the level of government support for households is set to fall significantly (by about 60%) from the level in 2022. Additionally, he used data comparing the UK with other European countries to show the damaging effects of a combination of high inequality and low growth.
Torsten also described how complacency, fatalism, and a tendency to become easily distracted have each, at different times, impaired the ability of the social sciences community to have the kind of impact it ought to have on public policy. This includes missing some significant underlying trends (for example relating to working age income growth and home ownership among younger generations) which have made the current crisis even more challenging than might otherwise have been the case. In concluding, Torsten called for us to “put the complacency, fatalism and wishful thinking aside and get serious about getting growth up and inequality down.”
Shreya Nanda, Chief Economist at Social Market Foundation, and Arun Advani, Associate Professor of Economics at University of Warwick, gave responses to the lecture. Levelling Up, the need to grow regional opportunities, the problem of declining public services, the importance of an effective tax system, and the need to develop the right kind of skills provision were all topics discussed during the lecture responses. Professor Bobby Duffy, the Chair of the Campaign for Social Science, chaired the discussion bringing in questions from the audience covering topics such as the impact of Brexit, sustainable growth, and the UK’s productivity crisis.
The lecture and subsequent discussion provided much food for thought, once again emphasising that social science can provide invaluable insights and demonstrating that it must have a major role to play if we are going to successfully address the significant economic challenges we are facing.
Watch the video of the full event here