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Our economy could use some comedy!

Date:11 February 2020
In the Standup Economics festival, eight experts from the Faculty of Economics and Business shed light on important economic topics through wit and humour.
In the Standup Economics festival, eight experts from the Faculty of Economics and Business shed light on important economic topics through wit and humour.

Can jokes be the best way to tackle the sometimes dry world of economics? Groningen set out to prove they are the perfect match in October, when the first Standup Economics festival came to the city. Making important economic topics tangible and open for discussion: this is what Standup Economics is all about, because the economy is too important not to make jokes about.

The festival -- organised in collaboration with Het Financieele Dagblad and Comedy Central, in collaboration with the Groningen Agreement and FEB’s research communication team -- aims to take economics out of the boardrooms and ivory towers and make it understandable and open to discussion for everyone. On various stages across the city of Groningen, including the Grand Theatre, the Martinus Brewery and Vera, renowned comedians like Jörgen Raymann and Raoul Heertje put well-known economists on the spot. Amongst them were eight experts from the Faculty of Economics and Business: Dirk Bezemer, Marijke Leliveld, Tristan Kohl, Roelof Salomons, Marco Haan, Steven Brakman, Harry Garretsen and Karel Jan Alsem. During surprising encounters and debates, they shed light on important economic topics through wit and humour.

FEB Research followed the trail of the impassioned FEB experts taking part, visiting packed halls and lively shows including ‘How can we keep the Netherlands rich?’ and ‘How to destroy world trade in three easy steps’.

Friendly vibes

The Grand Theatre on the Grote Markt is packed to the rafters. Roelof Salomons takes a photo of the audience from the stage to share on Twitter afterwards. He laughingly admits to being slightly nervous, saying: “I’m all right now, but ask me again in another four hours.” As the cameras starts to flash and camera teams grab their final interviews, stand-up comedian Jörgen Raymann takes to the stage. Money for Nothing by Dire Straits blasts out of the speakers. It’s time for Standup Economics to begin.

An hour later, Vera, Groningen’s hub for international underground pop, is full to bursting. All of the seats are taken and people stand up against the walls, back into the room behind the bar. The vibe is friendly. “I’m delighted but amazed to see that the place is sold out on a Sunday afternoon”, says presenter Raoul Heertje. “I can see people drinking beer. Please don’t stop on my account.”

Another explosive opening tune: Nederland, oh Nederland, jij bent de kampioen. The voice of André Hazes takes the audience back to 1988, the historic year when the Dutch football team won its first (and only) international trophy by winning the European Cup.

80 billion

But this event is not about football; it is about major, ongoing economic issues. Stand-up comedian Raoul Heertje, son of the renowned Dutch economist Arnold Heertje, welcomes Roelof Salomons onto the stage. Salomons, besides being a professor at FEB and, at the time of Standup Economics, is also a chief strategist at Van Lanschot Kempen. After his introduction, Heertje swiftly turns to the subject of how much money Kempen manages. Heertje: “Roelof, you manage 80 billion euros. I think I’ve got more like 70 billion…”

Salomons is flanked by his fellow professors Pieter Gautier (VU Amsterdam) and Bas Jacobs (Erasmus University Rotterdam). They spent the next hour debating the topic ‘The Netherlands is rich, and that’s the way we want to keep it’, with regular witty interruptions from Heertje. When Jacobs refers to research carried out in Groningen by Angus Maddison, the comedian immediately retorts: “Angus Maddison? That’s not a typical Groningen name – or did you mispronounce it?”

Silver economy

In his contribution, Salomons argues the case for more competition in industry, calling on businesses to take more risks. “We’re all saving like mad! It’s great for me as it keeps me in work, but we need the government and industry to invest. We’ve turned into a silver economy. That’s the nub of the problem. I believe that it’s time to start on government projects that are long overdue: fast rail connections, education, the energy transition. The current low interest rates make this the perfect moment. It’s time to lower taxes and invest.”

Later that week, in his weekly column in De Telegraaf newspaper, Salomons uses his favourite hobby of running as a metaphor. “You won’t get anywhere if you hold back. Think of competition as running. If you run on your own, you don’t go as fast as you do when someone’s breathing down your neck. And if thousands of runners are breathing down your neck, you go even faster, further and higher.”

Electoral suicide

But, Heertje asks the panel, why aren’t the people in power taking any notice of your knowledge and advice? “Aren’t you in touch with the people who matter? Roelof, you’ve got 80 billion!” Jacobs claims that the most economically simple solutions are often the most politically complex. “A tax on nitrogen, road-user surcharges; it’s electoral suicide.”

Gautier throws in a little nugget about the lack of contact between academia and politics. In an ironic comment aimed at Minister Eric Wiebes, who cancelled his appearance at the festival earlier that week, he says: “I had hoped that it would happen today, at last…”

17 million losers

During the VIP drinks in the Grand Theatre following the first round of shows, Marijke Leliveld and Marco Haan seem content about their performance on the panel of the 17 miljoen sukkels (‘17 million losers’) show. Under the wing of stand-up comedian Anne Neuteboom in the Martinus Brewery, they discussed the question ‘Why do we keep making the wrong decisions?’

Once again, there are happy faces all round. The venue was sold out, and there was plenty of laughter and interaction with the audience, conclude Leliveld and Haan unanimously. The organization committee of the Financieele Dagblad newspaper and Comedy Central couldn’t do anything wrong in Leliveld’s eyes anyway. To boost ticket sales, she’d been asked to perform in a slick commercial alongside the lead character Phil from the American hit comedy series Modern Family.

The eye-catching PR campaign caught Steven Brakman’s attention. Billboards advertising Standup Economics adorned the centre of Groningen for weeks. “I think I underestimated it”, he admits. “I thought that it would just be a nice little event with students in Vera. And then I saw all those billboards around the city!”

Trade war

Brakman joines a panel with FEB colleague Tristan Kohl, Heleen Mees (columnist for the Volkskrant newspaper) and Kees de Kort (columnist on BNR news radio) to try and shed some light on the trade war between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. Between the weight of Mees, who is particularly keen to praise China’s huge economic achievements, and the scornful jesting of De Kort (“Sure, the Chinese are all nice, honest guys”), Brakman and Kohl do their best to analyse the American president’s reasoning. Brakman: “A lot of people have lost out to globalization, and they are now in big trouble. The middle classes in the USA have been hit heavily. Trump introduced import levies to protect these people. He is serving his supporters. Seen from this angle, it’s perfectly rational.”

It’s a pure show of strength, says Kohl. “Putting tariffs on metal or cars has a much faster and more direct impact than taking a procedure through the courts of the WTO.” Xi Jinping has been uncharacteristically quiet about it, says Brakman. “He’s gambling on long-term policy, with major investments in Africa and Europe. Xi Jinping comes across as a world leader, while Trump has disqualified himself.”

Sleepless nights

“Will this backfire?”, Heertje asks in his closing round. Yes, Brakman warns from his barstool on the stage. “At first, I thought it would be a matter of time. But this trade war will last until Trump has gone. And there’s only one person to blame and that’s Donald Trump.” Anti-Trump hysteria, says De Kort. “The recession is coming, whether we like it or not. The only thing that the trade war will do is speed it up.”

Then the presenter turns to Kohl one last time. “Tristan, is this keeping you awake at night?”, Heertje asks him. Kohl answers yes, twice. “Really?” Heertje finds this difficult to believe. “Yes!”, shouts Kohl smiling. “My head’s spinning with all the ideas for research!”