Torsten Bell, chief executive officer of the Resolution Foundation, delivered the 2022 Campaign for Social Science Annual SAGE Lecture, on November 22. Bell’s talk, “The cost of living crisis: the short and the long view,” focused on the immediate cost-of-living crisis in the United Kingdom, and the background for the country experiencing it: a living standards stagnation stretching back well over a decade. He reflected on the role social science has played in recognizing, understanding, and solving these related but distinct developments.
Rising living standards, something taken for granted for generations, feel like a distant memory in the UK. Surging energy prices, the highest inflation in four decades, and falling real wages mean we are on course to end this parliament poorer than we began it in 2019. And yet living standards in the middle of the pandemic may turn out to be as good as things got. Many will go cold this winter, others will struggle with surging food prices, and almost everyone will feel squeezed. The Bank of England expects unemployment to rise.
Britain’s weak productivity growth saw workers enter the pandemic with wages no higher than they were in the financial crisis a decade before. The stagnation of the 2010s proves a toxic combination with the inequality of the 1980s, leaving low and middle-income Britain far poorer than their counterparts in other advanced economies. Recognizing this history is crucial to understanding what makes today’s struggles quite so acute. Alongside documenting these trends, Torsten offered his personal reflections on the role social science – and economics in particular – have played in helping policymakers, and the public, understand and respond to these forces shaping 21st century Britain.
Responses to Torsten’s lecture were given by Shreya Nanda from the Social Market Foundation and Arun Advani from the University of Warwick.
Torseten Bell, prior to leading the Resolution Foundation, worked in HM Treasury, as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers during the ﬁnancial crisis, and as director of policy for the Labour Party. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, school governor, and trustee of the Child Poverty Action Group.