Why our economy constantly make fools of our politicians

When the great financial crash happened in 2008/9 politicians, economists and political commentators were claiming that it was a once in a life time event and as such it could not have been predicted. Therefore absolving of any of the blame for the catastrophe. However all the warning signs of an impending financial crash were there for all to see. The banks for example were increasingly disregarding sound financial practices to keep the speculative property bubble growing. A bubble that dubious financial practice could not prevent from bursting. The politicians and central bank governors, who could have averted the crisis turned a blind eye to this widespread financial malpractice and so were the bankers willing accomplices in making this catastrophe happen.

Unexpected downturns should not be a surprise as the economy is constantly changing, and there is no reason why the economy should not be characterised by periods of recession and decline, as by those of growth. When economists say that the economy is dynamic, they don’t mean that it is always growing, just that it is always changing. Change can be in either direction.

What an economy in its essentials is nothing more than the aggregate of the millions of economic transactions that take place everyday. These transactions need not be the same today as those made yesterday, so the economy is constantly changing or dynamic. Therefore it should be no surprise that the economy is subject to sudden and unexpected changes. What should be surprising is that the economy appears stable or unchanging for such long periods of time. Why then are today’s interactions so often the similar to those made yesterday? If people are behaving the same today as yesterday, their expectations about the economy must have remained unchanged. Why these behaviours remain unchanged is a question economists have never been able to answer.

One explanation of why the economy changes must be found in the expectations and beliefs about the future held by those millions of individuals that participate in the economy. I would suggest that if today seems very much like yesterday, they will make the same decisions as yesterday. If their expectations change so will there behaviours. Uncertainty about the future will cause there expectations and behaviour to change.

Britain at present provides a demonstration of the effects of widespread uncertainty on economic behaviours. Our government is committed to Brexit, that is leaving the European Union (EU). However there is confusion about how the exit will be managed and what will be the future relationship between Britain and the European Union. Whenever government ministers are asked questions on these issues, all they get in reply is a series of meaningless generalities. Individuals correctly assume that this government does not have any answers to these questions. As the date for Brexit nears it is obvious that the necessary policy decisions have been made, so generating uncertainty.

If Britain leaves the EU, it will be leaving the customs union and inevitably there will be tariffs imposed on goods moving between Britain and the EU, as Britain will no longer be within the European free trade area. Yet when the government is asked about future tariffs on goods exported and imported between Britain and the EU, all it’s says is that it is committed to frictionless trade between Britain and the EU. Frictionless or no trade barriers will only be possible if Britain remains within the customs union. Yet the government has said it will take Britain out of the free trade area that is the customs union. Either the government is lying or it has no idea what will happen the day after Brexit. I think the latter is more likely to be the case.

If business and consumer confidence declines this will have a negative impact on the economy. If people feel unsure about the future they will save more and spend less. This evidenced on the high street, where nearly all retailers are reporting a decrease in sales. Many of the large retail chains are planning to close there less profitable shops, as they can see no likelihood of trade picking up. * This will lead to thousands being made redundant. Those newly employed will spend less, so reinforcing the downward trend in the economy.

Business owners will postpone investment or not make it all, if they are uncertain about the future. Only recently shipowners and port operators asked the government what would be the post Brexit arrangements for handling the import and export of goods between Britain and Europe, all they received was the standard non reply. This has very serious consequences, as the port of Dover which handles a large part of EU trade is in urgent need of modernisation. Given the uncertainty about the future, the port operators will not undertake the necessary modernisation works, so risking future failures in its cargo handling capacities and delays in the transport of goods. Transport company owners will not invest in new lorries or ships. Instead they will manage with their existing fleet of ageing lorries and ships. It will be a policy of ‘make do and mend’ for them. All these negative decisions made by consumers and business owners will reduce the level of economic activity, so slowing economic growth and possibly pushing it into recession. The great danger is that this feeling of gloom becomes all pervasive and as a consequence the economy could tip into a recession as severe as that of 2008/9, if not worse.

What our political leaders fail to realise is the negative effects of their indecision. They are the principal cause of the feeling uncertainty that afflicts the people of this country. In consequence the people are making not the same decisions they made yesterday, it was this repetitive behaviour that gave the economy its sense of stability. They are making different decisions and are creating a new dynamic, which is pushing the economy in the direction of recession.

What I am trying to demonstrate is that events such as the financial crash of 2008/9, just don’t come out of no where, they are the consequence of foolish decisions made by people with power. Such events should not be unexpected as politicians, bankers etc. are always going to make foolish decisions. Fortunately such people are also capable of making wise and enlightened decisions, otherwise there would be no human progress.

N.B. I try realise I have over simplified the workings of the economy, but I do believe that what I have written is correct in its essentials.

* However this decline is in part due to an increase in online shopping. In consequence high street retailers are facing a perfect storms, falling sales due to falling consumer confidence and increased competition from the online retailers.

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Intellectual stupidity a practice common to both Economists and Politicians

Intellectual stupidity is not a concept that is to be found in book on either the subject of economics and politics. This is a concept that was created by Robert Musil. He distinguishes between two types of stupidity, natural and intellectual. The first is the one due to physiological factors, it occurs when an individual lacks the mental capacity for higher order thinking. Although he would be criticised today for his use of this offensive word, he can be justified when its contrasted with intellectual stupidity. A term Hannah Arendt had in mind when she criticised evil as personified by Adolf Eichmann as banal. This was a man who lacked intellectual curiosity, he was unable to empathise with the millions of victims of the holocaust. He thought the was a good man because he made the trains to the death camps run on time. The fact that these trains took millions to their deaths was no significance to him. Their deaths were somebody else’s responsibility. He was in his mind a good administrator not an essential player in the holocaust.

Politics and economics practitioners are blighted with a similar failing. Milton Friedman was guilty of this failing. When Milton Friedman was told that the Chilean government when introducing the free market reforms he advocated were imprisoning, torturing and killing opponents of these reforms, he said it was a price worth paying. Just as with Adolf Eichmann his vision all that mattered was the introduction the Chicago School of Economic management to human societies. Human rights was for him just a matter of secondary concern. Recent political history has been dominated by such practitioners of intellectual stupidity.

In Britain such stupidity has been demonstrated by successive governments in there implementation of the free market economy. They see there role as being facilitators of a Hayekian free market system. When ever such reforms produce failures such as the collapse of Carillon, a company to which many government sources had been outsourced; it was a consequence of poor management with the company. Never was the policy of privatisation of government services considered to be a flawed concept. The ‘Economist’ magazine while exposing the failures of Carillon’s management mounted a strong defence of the outsourcing of government services. Now two other outsourcing giants Capita and Interserve are in trouble. Yet our government remains committed to outsourcing as a policy practice. This is demonstrates intellectual stupidity, as government ministers cannot contemplate any alternative policies or thinking.

Intellectually stupid politicians are always trying to second guess their civil servants. Rather than seeing them as experienced administrators who can offer them practical and useful advice on policy matters; they are seen conspirators who are trying to obstruct their policies. The traditional civil service practice of providing the minister with a series of policy alternatives from which to choose is seen as a threat to the integrity of government policy making. Just recently a senior politician who studied history at University decided that economists at the Treasury were conspiring to undermine Brexit, by producing erroneous data on the consequences of leaving the EU. This politician who has only a brief acquaintance with the subject of economics, claimed he could see not just errors but treachery in the work of these Treasury economists. This failure to accept any alternative view of events to the individual’s own is typical of the intellectually stupid thinker.

Why is intellectual stupidity the default mode of thinking of our politicians?

Perhaps part of the explanation lies in the books they read. Friedrich Hayek’s book ‘The Road to Serfdom’ can be read in a few hours, possibly on a wet afternoon, when there is nothing else to do. In this short book he claims to offer the solution to our contemporary malaise. There is no end to these books that claim to have the answer. Another such is Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Unchained’, yet another writer who claims to provide the solution to our current malaise. What these books encourage in their readers is a cult like belief, that they alone have the exclusive possession of the truth. The blinkered mindset of an ‘Moonie’, Jehovah’s Witness or Scientologist, is mirrored in the thinking of so many of our leading politicians. The lack of curiosity about alternative thinking is characteristic of the intellectually stupid.

These politicians have also been to the elite universities and this has given them an intellectual arrogance. They after a short period at university just ‘know’. One exemplar of this type is the politician who is an English graduate who decided that he did not need any advice from experts in their field (educationalists and economists), as he had acquired sufficient understanding ‘to know’. He as with so many of his colleagues ‘knows’ any further knowledge would be superfluous to the task in hand. These politicians can be best described as ‘generic’ politicians, as such they believe that they have already possess all the skills and knowledge necessary for the most demanding of political positions.

This lack of intelligent curiosity is demonstrated in these three remarks made by politicians about food banks in the U.K. The first said that increase in food bank use food was because people were attracted there by the free food on offer. Another said increased food bank use was a good thing, as it had shown that his government was more effective than the former at publicising this service. The last said people go to food banks for many reasons. What none of these politicians could say that people on low incomes were reduced to such desperate straits, that they were forced to go to food banks to get the food they needed for themselves and there families. Just as Adolf Eichmann could not bring himself to admit the his trains were taking the Jews to there death, so these conservative politicians cannot admit that there policies are creating such widespread impoverishment that thousands are now forced to go to food banks in order to survive.

This callousness is not the consequence of intellectual dishonesty, but a thinking that prevents thinking of either the Jews or the less well off, as people of any consequence. They are demonised either as a threat to the well being of the German people or a threat to the well being of the British economy and society. The political philosophy of both Adolf Eichmann and contemporary conservatives treats certain groups of people as inferior beings who lack the rights accorded humanity in general. A world view best summed up by the Nazi official who called Jews vermin.

What Robert Musil writes about intellectual stupidity is very similar to the thinking of Augustine on evil. He describes evil as a not knowing of God. People who don’t know God commit what we term bad acts. Augustine as a Neo-Platonist also equated God with Good, so people who did not choose to know God could not know good. The intellectually stupid chose not to know the evil of their actions and as such are unable to know good. These intellectually stupid would be the people who Augustine’s would accuse of doing evil acts.

Seeking Solace in Philosophy

As an economist the quality that you most need is equanimity. Why, because as an economist you are all to aware of the follies of the politicians and the damage their policies can wreak on the economy and society. A concern heightened by my anxiety about the futures of my daughters and my expected grandchild. When a senior banker accused some of our leading politicians as being ‘clueless’ on the economy, I mouthed a silent ‘hear, hear’. What an economist needs is some defence mechanism that prevents them from being overwhelmed by pessimism. When one writer called economics the miserable science he was all too correct in his opinion.

Perhaps I should adopt the philosophy of Democritius, who dispelled this anxiety about the follies of mankind and in particular its leaders in laughter. However laughter is only a temporary source of relief and soon the feeling of pessimism returns. I find some solace in the classical Greek philosophy of scepticism. A philosophy which demonstrates that all which passes as human knowledge is fallacious. This is of some comfort when I realise that the ‘reforming’ policies of our latest group of reformist minded politicians are based on little more, that what can be described as a set of incoherent and wrong headed series of assumptions about human society. While I can get some pleasure from demolishing these policies in my mind, it does not help alleviate the blackness of mood.

Philosophy has always been a refuge for me. I can retreat to my philosophy books, which takes me to a world far removed from the pettiness of what passes for the public debate. Ever since I was introduced to him at university I have been entranced by the figure of Socrates. When Plato writes of about Socrates and one of his students going to the cool river bank to escape the hot sun in Athenian sun to find the a more congenial place for discussion, I feel that I could be there with them. Aristotle writes that the highest form of human activity is this, the contemplation of the great questions that have always puzzled and intrigued mankind. Students of philosophy such as myself enjoy the intellectual cut and thrust in the dialogue employed by the greatest of philosophers. What we understand is that there are no simple or easy answers to the great questions posed by the nature of human existence. While practising this very Western form of active contemplation, I can get so lost in the books that I’m reading so that I forget the world outside.

When devising his philosophy Plato would make use of the myth to make his reasoning comprehensible to his audience. Plato’s the cave is one very familiar myth, but there are others. One of my favourites is the myth of human creation in ‘The Timeaus’, he uses this myth to explain the fallibility of human understanding. Mankind he writes is fashioned by the demiurge (the divine craftsman) out of clay. If mankind is made out of some inferior substance to that of which the Gods are composed, they are therefore incapable of understanding or sharing superior knowledge possessed by the Gods. Compare this to the less interesting contemporary myth of the market, which dominates current policy making. It’s a myth that tells us little about the economy. The central tenet of market theory is that there is a price at which markets clear, that is there is a price at which supply equals demand. There has never been a market in which an equilibrium of supply and demand has been attained. In reality markets are inherently unstable, as supply and demand are constantly changing and are never equal. Consequently the myth of the market as a guide to policy making is unhelpful, although perhaps to call it useless is going too far. This is why I prefer philosophy to economics, the stories it tells are more interesting and more truthful.

Recently stoicism has begun to find favour. This is practical philosophy devised by the classical Greeks. Its purpose was to help its practitioners lead the good life. This practical philosophy teaches that the only things that one can control are the one’s own emotions and feelings. There is a story which demonstrates this. There was a stoic philosopher on a ship caught in a storm. He was the only person to remain calm during this storm. When asked why he was indifferent to the crisis, he said that the observed a pig on the ship. The pig seemed undisturbed by the storm, so he imitated the behaviour of the pig. There was nothing he could do to avert the possible impending disaster, so the only practical policy he could adopt was to remain calm, as his getting anxious would do nothing to avert the possible impending crisis. Those things in life that the individual cannot control they call the ‘indifferents’. There are many ‘indifferents’ that the individual cannot control, also some such as good health they can influence by adopting a sensible diet. Anxiety comes from worrying about these ‘indifferents’ over which the individual has little control.

Donald Trump and the alt. right are a threat to the way of life that enjoy. There ever willingness to resort to violence or to threaten its use, is a threat the the tolerant civilised lifestyle which I value. As is also his constant demeaning of various ethnic groups as the threatening other. As this is an indifferent over which I have little control, the person who suffers if I obsess about this is me. Constantly being anxious is damaging to the human personality. Being a good stoic I am concerned about the irrational and erratic behaviour of our leaders, but I am not going to be overwhelmed by my anxieties on that score. Also I can influence this particular indifference by becoming political active. I can become part of the resistance.

John Stuart Mill gives me solace when I read that freedom, is the freedom to think. Whatever the alt. right does it cannot control my thoughts. In doing this I do have an advantage in that I am retired and can devote my time to reading my philosophy books. Perusing one of Plato’s dialogues on Socrates I can lose myself in the world of the Classical Greek philosophy. Also I can counter the nasty xenophobia of the alt. right by going to my local coffee shop, and there I can immerse myself in the Italian culture. What can be more engrossing than a discussion of the merits of the various types of pasta, while enjoying a cup of Italian coffee. What I am trying to say is that for a stoic there is much I can focus on to enjoy in these unhappy times.

Stoicism offers an interesting historical parallel, Seneca one of the best known stoics lived in a Rome, whose ruler was the narcissistic Nero. Given the predominance of narcissistic leaders in the Anglo Saxon world, who mistake their personal well being and success as metaphor for that of society, one can see the value of reading Seneca. Despite being an advisor to one of the most capricious and unpredictable of Emperors, he not only survived in that role for many years while others perished, but he did for many years act as a restraining influence on Nero. During those years he lived a modest moral life in keeping with the tenets of stoicism. Although even he lost his life as Nero’s paranoia intensified. His ‘Letters’ and plays I believe should be required reading for staff in Donald Trump’s White House.

When I read Erasmus’s ‘Adages’ I am reminded that the curse of having leaders pursuing policies that are ruinous to their countries in order further their own personal ambition is nothing new. Renaissance Italy in which he lived was plagued by wars between the Princes and Dukes of the various city states, which might have brought fleeting glory to these men, but which were ruinous for there various city states and the Italian nation. Is there no more insightful into the psyche of politicians, than Erasmus’s adage that ‘war is sweet to those who have never tried it’? Despite the almost constant internecine warfare in Italy, Erasmus still managed to write and publish his criticisms of the crass behaviour of the ‘great’ men of Italy. Although, as with many writers living in authoritarian states to avoid persecution, his critiques of foolish and arrogant leaders were set in the past or given such ambiguous settings that no contemporary leader could consider themselves libelled.

Reading philosophy reminds me of the heights to which the human spirit can rise, in contrast to the gutters of the human spirit in which so many of our contemporary leaders reside. This is why I find solace in philosophy.

Why I am such a poor economist

Actually I think I am quite a good economist, but I fail to match up to the standards by which professional or academic economists judge other economists to be good. This failing in my practice of economics began to develop in 1966. Then I was appalled by an article I read, which was written by two economists from my university advising the government of the island of Mauritius on how to improve their failing economy. It was a blue print for the most severe form of what today would be called Neo-Liberal economics. A reform programme that if implemented would have impoverished thousands if not millions of Mauritians. There was also a professor at my university who advocated an increase in unemployment as the best means of ending the inflation that beset the British economy of the 1960s. Today most academic economists now see increased unemployment as a useful policy tool in management of the economy. Then in the 1960s, it was heresy, as too many people remembered the misery caused by the mass unemployment of the 1930s.

Unemployment has always been seen as a necessary feature of a functioning market economy by economists. They believe that a certain level of involuntary unemployment is a required to make the market function efficiently. If there are people unemployed there will always be workers available to for expanding firms to recruit and there will always be workers made newly unemployed by failing businesses. Unemployment when explained in these terms can be seen as justified, as the free market model suggests that there is but a short time in which workers remain unemployed. Unemployment then is a short term pain suffered by a few, their temporary period of pain was for the benefit of all.

However the economy never worked in the way described by economists. There were a number for whom unemployment was a temporary situation, but there were many for whom unemployment was for the long term and who were subject to life of poverty and misery. What economists failed to take into account was there was always a mismatch between the location of  unemployed workers and the location of the expanding businesses. Large scale unemployment always occurred in areas where many businesses were failing or where many had already failed.

Economists had an answer to this problem, the unemployed workers should move to the areas in which there was work available. This is a solution of unbelievable callousness, it treats people as if there were a resource similar to other non human factors of production. One that should be used as the business though fit. Never have economist recognised the inhumanity of their policies. One can be sure that all economists are unfamiliar with Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. A book in which he describes the miseries suffered by the ‘Oakies’, the people forced off the land in Oklahoma by the Great Dustbowl and forced to look for work in California.

What makes me a bad economist is that I can’t accept the inhumanity of my subject. The golden rule of economics is that labour or humanity is just a resource like any other and should not be treated differently. This is very much the accepted rule today. It is unusual to find any economist speaking against the closure of any business and the unemployment it creates. All they see is human resources freed to work in more profitable sectors of the economy, the recent spate of closures of retail businesses to economists just part of the structural change in the economy. Put simply online competition in the retail trade has forced many high street shops to close, which they see as a consequence of the essential restructuring of the market.

One might add that in a British economy that is struggling there are few of the profitable sectors of business that will recruit these workers. Usually redundant workers find work in which they are paid an average of 30% less than in there previous work. Skilled workers are forced to take relatively low paid work in call centres and warehouses. There is no happy ending to a period of unemployment that the economist claim.

There is to an economist such as myself (one who sees unemployment as an evil to be avoided wherever possible) an alternative explanation for the closure of these high street shops. For me an equally important factor in this situation is the inflexible and dysfunctional commercial property market. The shops are always situated in central areas of towns or cities where the shop sites command premium rents. Economic theory states that when the demand for a resource declines its price should fall. Recently the House of Fraser appealed to its landlords for a reduction in their shop rentals in light of there falling profits. There landlords will ignore their plea and continue to demand sky high rents. All these city centre or high street sites are owned by large property companies whose only concern is to extract the maximum possible rent from these sites. It matters little to them if the shops fail and thousands lose their jobs. What matters most to them is the rents remain high, even it that means the site remains vacant. These people are eternal optimists and will wait as long as it takes to find a new tenant who will pay there extortionate rents. What makes me a bad economist to my peers is that I would seek a different solution to the problems of the failing high street. The solution for me is to introduce some form of rent control, there are plenty of mechanisms that can be used to ensure that a fair rent is charged for a property. This would benefit the economy as it enable many viable businesses to survive that would otherwise be put out of business through excessively high rental costs. Also it would preserve many thousands of jobs that would otherwise be lost.

Before anybody criticises me for being unfair to the commercial landlords through forcing them to let properties for uneconomic rents. It should be noted that all our city centre properties are owned by a few large property companies. These companies operate an informal cartel in which they co-operate in their self interest to maximise their rental incomes. In the past it was quite usual for such cartels to be regulated by the state to prevent them from abusing their powers.

Where I differ from so many economists is that I believe that policy measures or economic practices that create unemployment should not be a first resort. The first option businesses consider to increase profits, should not be to shed staff. The hollowing out of a business whereby labour costs are reduced to a minimum through shedding staff and premises closed to reduce costs to increase overall businesses profitability should be made difficult to undertake*. When hollowing out of a business occurs it is not just the staff who suffer, but the customers who experience poor customer service or a reduction in the quality and range of goods on sale.

The problem for me is the inhumanity of much economic theory and practice. I cannot accept economic policy and business practices that damage society’s well being as ever being justified. Not only is much of current business practice as sanctioned by economics harmful to individuals but it is also harmful to the state. When workers are paid wages that are insufficient to support themselves and their families, the state has to step in to provide in work benefits. The cost of these in work benefits are very substantial and represent a huge subsidy to bad employers, as state struggles to ensure that these low paid workers get a living wage.

What I have to answer is why economists are so indifferent to the suffering of their fellow inhumanity. Why don’t economists care? The answer I think can be found in the writings of Wittgenstein. He introduces the concept of the language game, language for him is not universal there are groups with society that have their own language or language codes which have meanings that are understood only by them. One such group are economists we use words and phrases that have no meaning to outsiders, such as monopsony, giffen goods and zero lower bound. Some I can easily explain to non economists others I would find it practically impossible so to do. Economists have their own unique language embedded in which are truths only known to economists. The supreme good in which economists believe is the free market. The greatest gift that mankind gave to itself was the creation of the free market which ensures the most efficient and equitable distribution of goods and services. All economic policy making should be directed towards ensuring the most efficient operation this free market. Other economists such as myself that don’t share this belief are dismissed as poor economists.

There is one example from the 19th century which best demonstrates how economists think. When the Irish potato famine was at its height in 1846, the government suggested that it should import wheat from Russia to distribute to the starving Irish. Economists, landowners, land owing politicians and farmers objected. It would be an interference in the free running of the market and no good ever comes from government intervention in the market. Governments they said do not understand the workings of the free market. These objectors argued it would lower the price of wheat in the British market and put British farmers out of business. This they argued it would be bad, as it would reduce the number of farmers working in the industry and reduce in the long term food production in the British Isles, so causing problems in the future. Anybody familiar with Irish history knows that the government rejected the proposal to import wheat to feed the starving Irish, preferring to let them starve. To those who would say this is an unfair depiction of the mind set of economists, my rejoinder is that they know nothing of the thinking of the economists employed by HM Treasury.

Economists always have a defence against the claims that the practice of economics is an exercise in inhumanity. They will claim that the free market will in the long term provide all the benefits and goodies that it is possible for an economy to provide. All that is required in patience however Keynes provided the best retort to this thinking he said ‘that in the long run we are all dead.’

*One easy means of making hollowing out a less popular practice, would be to reintroduce the employment protection policies of the past, such ending the practice of zero hours contracts and other short term employment contracts that make it easy to dismiss staff. Re-introducing fair redundancy payments for dismissed workers would be another.

When a visitor encountered the philosopher Democritius* in his garden, he to his surprise found him laughing uncontrollably. When asked why he was laughing, he said it was at the follies of mankind. If Democritius was living today he would have found plenty to laugh at in the follies of our leaders.

One of the more interesting of the Greek philosophers was the sceptic philosopher Pyrrho. This was a man so sceptical about the possibility of there being such as human knowledge, that he did not bother to look where he was going went he went walking, as he thought that if he was going to fall into a ditch there was little he could do to prevent it happening. While this story recounted by Diogenes Laërtius is apocryphal it does illustrate quite clearly the nature of his thinking. As all human knowledge was fallible, he said that we should be wary of putting too much trust in the great systems of the philosophers that claimed to ‘explain everything’. Why I value Pyrrho is he an  antidote to stupid thinking. Whenever I contemplate the latest popular fashion in contemporary thinking, I always think of Pyrrho. I am wary of the latest popular enthusiasms, whether it be for hygge, Gloop the philosophy of Gwyneth Paltrow or Neo-Liberalism, as on examination they all seem to rest on similarly filmsyl foundations.

Unfortunately politicians with a naive belief in rightness of free market economics are particularly prone to such stupid thinking. The politicians of the New Right,  despite their claims to realism are often the enthusiasts for the silliest of ideas. One such is the idea that the when the UK leaves the EU it can install an computer based system to record all foreign trade transactions. This scheme will operate so efficiently it is believed, that traders will find litle difference betwen the new trading system  and the current regulation free trade system. Traders will find it as easy to move goods in an out of the country as they do at present. The only flaw is that there is no such system anywhere in the world and the record of governments installing new computer systems is one of failure. This government has spent seven years trying and failing to introduce a computer system to pay benefits, the much derided universal credit system. If this scheme in which all the recipients of this benefit are already known and yet the government finds it impossible to get the scheme to work effectively, how can it possibly develop an IT scheme that will be able to handle the thousands of daily transactions that make up our international trade. Already the fallibility of the HMRC computer system enables thousands of people to avoid paying tax. Yet even although they know this, these Brexiters claim that they will be able to introduce a new marvellous IT system which will have none of the failings of any of its predecessors.

What Pyrrho would have advised these politicians and economists of the New Right to do; would have been to look at the past history of government failure in the procurement and introduction of new IT systems. This would have reminded the Brexit enthusiasts that there has never been a government IT scheme that has not been a magnificent failure.

If they were not convinced by that, he could have told them to look at the problems of IT in the defence system.  The operating system in our new aircraft carries is Windows XP, an operating system so outdated that Microsoft has stooped supporting it with updates. The vulnerabilities of this operating system were exposed when hackers (from North Korea)? were able to shut down so many of our hospitals that relied on this as an operating system. Also the broadband speeds available to these carriers does not exceed 8mb, a speed slower than most household broadband systems.  Pyrrho would have told these politicians to stop being foolish and indulging in stupid fantasies and instead address the reality of the real world of flawed computer systems.

Why blame economists when all the failures that I have outlined are those of the politicians? Quite simply because all these politicians of the New Right and our Brexit are believers in the economic philosophy called Neo-Liberalism. Neo-Liberal thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman have taught that mankind has invented the best possible of social institutions and that is the free market and that the role of politicians is merely to ensure the smooth operating of this market.

It would be anathema for these politicians to install customs barriers at our sea and airports, as that mean introducing a barrier into the smooth working of the free market. Their philosophy then poses for them an unsolvable problem. Having decided that the UK must leave the free trade area that is the Single Market and the Customs Union, how do they introduce customs barriers that are not customs barriers? They know that once they introduce customs checks on imports and exports at Dover, they face the possibility of there being long tailbacks of traffic. Some estimates state that these queues will be up to 15 miles long. Now having introduced a problem that has no solution, they resort to a fantasy answer. The IT system for exports and imports that they propose only exists in the realms of their imagination, it is incapable of an existence in the real world. Its nonsense but nobody in government wants to admit to this.

What puzzles me is the great majority of these politicians who are enthusiasts for this scheme studied philosophy at one of our elite universities as part of their Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree. Even although scepticism is not the fashionable mode of philosophy in our universities, philosophy departments do boast that they teach their students critical thinking. Obviously our politicians of the New Right seem to think that this is a skill that only applies to essay writing.

*Democritius was a philosopher who lived in the fourth century BC in the cityl of Adbera, Greece.

My Cursed Generation – the Baby Boomers

Seeing my nephew and all the other students graduate at his university produced within me a number of  mixed emotions. A pride in his success and that of the other students was mixed with a sense of despair about the world which they are about to inherit. While as individuals we have not been directly responsible for the actions of the powerful business corporations who with their political allies have been responsible for the devastation that they have wrought on the social fabric of our society; my generation has been complicit in support their destructive actions by giving them our support at the ballot box. In the last general election my generation overwhelming voted for the parties of the right. The parties whose policies are characterised by selfish individualism, greed and hatred of modernity. The vote to leave the EU was just one expression of this hatred of modernity. While we claim that we dislike European immigrants taking jobs away from our young people, what we hate more is the diverse ethnic makeup of our cities, which we associate with modernity. When a leader of the ‘leave Europe and hate modernity’ party complained that when he travelled on a train to London he could not hear one English voice amongst the speakers he was speaking for far too many of my generation.

I call my generation the  ‘cursed generation,’ because we were cursed by being born into wealth. Not the great wealth of the rich but a relative wealth, we were all aware how lucky we were not to have experienced the hardships of our parent’s generation. I can remember my father telling me that his family only had meat one day a week. On other days they had to resort to cutting for themselves a piece of ‘chitlin’ which was a slab of cured pig fat hanging in an outhouse. As a child I had meat every day of the week, even if some of those meals were of low quality meat. The English sausage which was a stable of so many meals in the 1950s contained almost as much bread as it did meat. We all knew that compared to our parents we were the privileged generation. It was this sense of privilege that was corrosive of our sense of collective morality.

All the belief systems of the past that had motivated our parents generation to work for a better Britain died in our generation.Being the generation of wealth we developed our own new beliefs. Ours was the generation of the teenager, a generation that had the money to spend on clothes and entertainment. When our parents were teenagers their appearance mirrored that of their parents. Their teenage years were for them but a short introduction to adult life. My father was at the age of 14 given the job of stacking the hay bales after harvest. It was an unpleasant job as mixed with the hay were thistles that priced the skin. He could not wait to get an adult job and leave behind his childhood. There was for him and millions of others no teenage.  Unlike my generation for whom it was a period of privileged irresponsibility. We could go out in the evening to clubs, buy fashionable clothes (which our parents hated), we were not overburdened with the sense of earning the income necessary for survival. Somehow this sense of childish irresponsibility never completely left us with the onset on adulthood. We were the first generation of child adults. The respected behaviour was one of self indulgence. We spent money on clothes, home entertainment and foreign holidays. Very much like the monied aristocracy of the past we became a generation of self indulgence. What mattered to us was how we spent our money, what had been the great issues of the past faded into insignificance.

A political ideology developed which mirrored the childish self indulgence of my generation, that of the New Right. The individualist philosophies which gave expression to our self indulgence were the philosophies of choice. What they damned was the corporate state, the state which provided had good quality social housing, ensured employed rights at work. They portrayed the laws and regulations of the good society as so many restrictions on individual freedom. A philosophy which won wide support among the baby boomers. When the Labour party in 2015 proposed a wealth tax on the most expensive of properties, the baby boomers uttered a collective expression of rage, as they were the prime beneficiaries of the housing boom. It mattered little to them that this money would go to fund local community services. If chance had increased the value of your house to £4 million, you claimed instead that the increase in value was due to your work in improving the house and that they state had no right to tax you for enjoying the benefits of your hard work.

One of the strange successes of this policy of freedom was the almost completer removal of state supplied social housing in many desirable areas. The ‘right to buy meant that tenants in local authority housing were able to buy them at a discount. Now thirty-seven years after the policy was introduced a majority of those houses are now in the hands of buy to let landlords. Now the tenants in these properties are forced to pay exorbitant rents and suffer anxieties of insecurity of tenure. Governments privileged potential landlords further by giving them the right to remove their tenants with only two months notice and so effectively ending tenants security of tenure. Right to buy has disadvantaged social housing tenants through denying them low cost housing and security of tenure. What the philosophers of the right failed to explain was that their philosophies of choice would privilege only a few individuals, the rich and powerful not the great majority.

Given the childish self indulgence of my generation it is not surprising that the newspaper, that so many of them choose to read was the one that deliberately crafted in message in a format that could be read by a child. Initially the owner of this most popular of papers insisted the articles in his paper should be written in the language that could be understood by the average thirteen year old. Today it has  been so dumbed down that the wording of its articles is that which could be comprehended by a seven year old. What better newspaper to popularise the political philosophy of individualism and self indulgence?

The political philosophy of these newspapers is very much that of the playground. When a child you want to belong, and you belong you must be a member of a gang. These childhood gangs have criteria for acceptance, criteria that must be met by all members. They have a definite sense of who cannot belong, who must be excluded from the gang in our to maintain its identity. If anybody could become a gang member the gang would cease to exist. Similarly our tabloid press identifies those who have a right to belong to the British gang and those who don’t. The don’ts are the poor, particularly those on benefit, European immigrants, particularly those of the East and European politicians of all sorts. All those who pose a threat to the British gang’s identity are to be excluded from membership. Just as children do, these papers subject the ‘outsiders’ to all kinds of abuse, reminding them that they are not wanted in the British gang.

Although mine was the self proclaimed generation of the age of Aquarius, that was an illusion. Instead it is the generation that disliked all that the Age of Aquarius brought with it. The disproportionate voting of my generation for Brexit and the Conservative party, is nothing more than the expression of this dislike.  I recently read an article by Thomas Franks about Republican supporters of Donald Trump which I think best explains this phenomenon. What we remember of our childhood was that it is was one of security, prosperity and endless summer holidays. Part of the reason for our roseate memories are that as children we were protected by our parents from the nastiness of society. However it was also a time of full employment, good wages and good housing for all who needed it. All that has vanished from society largely due to the rapacious behaviours of the large business corporations and their political allies. Yet rather than apportion blame were its due, we lay the blame at the feet of modernity. Modernity for us is the most visible expression of the modern bad times. As a group we dislike the ethnic mix in our big cities, we want to return to the security of our childhood. A childhood in which all the people were white ethnic British, as it as a time of job security, fair wages and the many other things that we associate with the good society. All of which are lacking today, so we think if we return to the past we will get all those good things that we had then. A belief not so dissimilar to those much derided cargo cults of the Pacific Islands. Instead of worshipping Prince Phillip and waiting for him to return and return all the wealth stolen by the Europeans, we worship the past and believe if somehow we could return to it, we would be able to return to the good society of the past.

I do believe that it is my generation’s innate sense of childishness and its nostalgia for a fondly remembered past, that makes it so susceptible to the siren appeal of the stories of the New and Alt Right.

Why economists don’t do happiness

Just last week my daughter told me that she was pregnant and it made me realise that there is a gaping hole at the centre of economics.  Economists state that anything that people value is to be considered as wealth. Yet there is an inconsistency according to this criteria  as much is missing from the lists of what economists classify as wealth. All those pleasures that mean so much, yet which cannot be ‘monetarised’ are ignored. Even if these many uncounted pleasures do add to the well being of an individual. Going back to my daughters pregnancy all an economist can tell me is the cost of bringing a child into the world and that the cost of their upbringing, will possibly to be offset by their later productivity as an adult. Only the negatives count, pleasure and happiness are missing from the economists index of wealth.

It is not that economists are unaware of the importance of happiness as part of the make up of an individuals well being, its just that they have no method of quantifying it, as they cannot count units of happiness, so they just ignore it.

The government has shown some awareness of this problem and they have produced a happiness index. They conduct social surveys to measure the happiness quotient. However there is always a great deal of cynicism about the project and its claim to have identified the happiest town are generally taken with a pinch of salt. Although the governments attempt to quantify happiness and to measure the overall level of happiness can be justified, as it does need to know the state of the nations well being. Yet it is of limited value, a recent international survey claimed that Norway was the happiest of countries. A survey dismissed by one Norwegian who said how can the introverted and anxious Norwegians be happier that the extroverted Greeks.

Although not a professional economist, George Osborne (former chancellor of the exchequer) he does belong in the category of ‘miserablilist’ economists, he made one of the most infamous statements about how human frivolity impacted badly on the economy. When a national holiday was given to celebrate the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, he bemoaned the lost productivity due to the people having an extra day’s holiday. He as a typical Gradgrind economist, could even give a spurious figure in billions for the estimated cost of lost output. Economists don’t do happiness or pleasure as it does contribute to a measurable increase in the nations wealth.  If it can’t measured it does not count. Economists have contributed a ‘miserablist’ mentality to the national consciousness.

Although I know of no studies of weddings by economists, they are one of those pleasurable occasions that consume large quantities of wealth and that appear to make little meaningful contribution to the nation’s wealth. Therefore they meet with their disapproval. Earlier this year my daughter got married and we spent a substantial sum of money on the occasion.  Economists would describe this as a  potlatch* like ceremony, a ceremonial practice in which the families give away substantial amounts of their wealth. This mood of disapproval infects the media, there are constant censorious articles about the nation’s excessive spending  on weddings. While I don’t intend to defend the spending of the rich, as when one rich young woman spent £12 million on her wedding, what I do want to defend is the spending of the average family on a wedding.

When I looked up the practice of potlatch on Wikipedia,  it reminded me that the practice was intended to strengthen social bonds within the tribal group. Exactly the same is true of contemporary weddings, they add glue to the social cohesion of society. My family is as so many in contemporary Britain an extended family. Social and economic change has dispersed the family across the country. Only at weddings and funerals do the family come together. Weddings being the more effective glue as they are a happy occasion and people are more willing to come together for such occasions. What such family get togethers do is to counter fissiparous tendencies of the free market. A largely unregulated free market such as that which is destructive of all social bonds. This destructiveness also has a cost but one that is never counted.

If I can give an example of this. Teaching was once a family friendly occupation, parental leave was generous compared to other occupations and the maternity leave was assured. However now the free market has been introduced to the education system, maternity leave is no longer celebrated. Losing an experienced teacher to either maternity or paternity leave is seen as taking a valuable asset out of the classroom. The management in schools are now uniformly hostile in their attitude to new parents. Now there is the obligatory out of school hours working that negatively impacts on childcare. Teachers are expected to put in several out of hours work both in school and out of it. When family life is put under such stress it makes breakdown of the family more likely. When 1  in 3 of new marriages end in divorce, the harsh economic and social system in the UK must be a large factor contributing to this.

Durkheim identified this sense of social isolation, which he called anomie, as significant factor that contributed to the individual committing the act of  suicide. Some doubt has been thrown on his research; but there is evidence that the loss of community is a factor in the development of mental and physical ill health in individuals. There is even some research that suggests that those who live alone are more likely to develop dementia. The cost of family and community break up is never costed. Michael Polanyi stated that the free market is a threat to social order. He wrote that the state should intervene to mitigate the worst effects of the free market. He believed that Britain only avoided revolution in the late eighteenth century, because all those thousands of hand loom weavers made unemployed by the factory system could get money from the parish with which to support themselves and their families. In France of the same period it was the unemployed and hungry poor who provided the muscle to overthrow the royalist system of government. They were the sans culottes who cheered the execution of the king.

While the free market in Britain has not created the misery equivalent to that, which the economic upheaval in the eighteenth century caused, it has wrecked damage on the social fabric. Why I as an economist celebrate the ‘excessive’ spending on weddings, is that it is the push back by families and individuals against the destructiveness of the free market system. Governments have  been complicit in this laying waste, removing employment protection laws and enabling the most unfriendly of family employment practices to become widespread. The government is now being forced to recognise the high cost of the free market unfriendly policies of business. Only recently it introduced a policy guaranteeing thirty hours of free child care at a nursery.  An inadequate and under funded child care programme, but least it’s a belated recognition of the problem. However it still remains hostile to those organisations and groups that resist the worst abuses of the free market.

In such a society when the government does little to prevent the divisive forces of the free market wreaking havoc on the social system, it is essential that there is some countervailing force that resists this most destructive of forces. The family is one such unit and the other is the local community. People need some security that comes from the feeling of belonging, something which a market of freely competing individuals does not offer. Although even the government is careless of the health of the family, doing little to offset the damage done to this social institution by the free market. Unlike the free marketeers of business and government, people see the family unit as being essential to their well being and will constant remake the family unit in whatever mutation. The family survives as an extended family, as family members are able to exploit new technology such as the smart phone to strengthen family links.

Economists fail to recognise that the free market can only prosper in an ordered society. A society of all against all is one that is going to fail.In a society whose raison d’etre is competitiveness and insecurity, it is left to the family to provide that sense of security and personal well being that is so essential of personal well being. This is why I value the wedding, as it celebrates the most essential of social units the family. For this economist long may families go on spending large sums on weddings as is a celebration of social togetherness, and as such it is the one remaining bulwark against the destructive individualism of the free market. Economists’ only  have the tools to celebrate production, they have no means of celebrating human happiness or togetherness. Simply put economists don’t do happiness and given their influence on politicians and policies their input into the political process can be very damaging.

*Potlatch a practice of giving away the families wealth, which could involve the destruction of such wealth. It was a custom practised by the Indians of Northwest USA and Canada. It was a practice designed to strengthen social bonds and to maintain social equality. No one individual was able to accumulate wealth and become the rich and powerful individual who would dominate tribal society.