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What every economics student used to learn at university was how difficult it was for leaders to make policy decisions on the economy. The effectiveness of policy measures were uncertain and the time lag in implementing these measures meant that when they came into effect they were often addressing yesterday’s issues. What we learnt was how difficult it was to understand and manage that highly complex human institution, which is the economy. In one of our seminars it was decided that there were no economics was not a science comparable with physics and that economic theory was at best a good guess as to how the economy worked. Consequently economics for the student in the 1960’s was very much a work in progress. It was Churchill who said that if you asked four economists for a solution to a particular pressing economic problem you would get five answers and two of these answers would be from Keynes. (Keynes was the outstanding British economist of his generation. This humility did no fit well with the demands from politicians for policy solutions, as exemplified in the words of Margaret Thatcher who said she wanted answers not problems. There was a group of economists responded eagerly to such requests and began to supply answers that were not hedged about with caveats about what might possibly make the policy ineffective.
Economists had to know and there was a school of economists that knew. These new economists where named variously as the Chicago School of Economists, Monetary Economists, Free Market Economists or Neo-Liberal Economists. They took inspiration from the economist Milton Friedman the doyen of the Chicago School, who in turn was inspired by the economist Friedrich Hayek. What this group offered was a solution to the one problem that dogged the Western economies of the 1970 and that was inflation. They offered two solutions to the problem of inflation, they said that inflation could be controlled by controlling the money supply and by supply side economics.
Monetary economists could supply answers to for example that of inflation, which reached 27% pa in 1976. Politicians could understands that if the money supply increased faster than the supply of goods, more money would be chasing relatively fewer goods and so prices would be pushed up. If money supply was cut inflation would fall and the economy would continue to grow on a smoother trajectory. What they did not want to know was as any non monetarist economist could tell them demonstrated a relationship between increased money supply and inflation is not the same as demonstrating a cause.
However once politicians began to follow the policies advocated by these new economists, it became obvious that these new economists did not know. Britain was one of the first countries to practice monetary economics as suggested by Milton Friedman. In doing so one huge problem was discovered no Treasury economist was able to define what made up the money in circulation and what was the total money supply. The government came up with five possible measures and from this they selected one as their preferred measure which they called M3. M3 was chosen which was the total of currency in circulation plus bank deposits. They chose this one because it was the easiest to measure, after all the banks regularly published accounts showing their total bank deposits. They then made one huge assumption that all other measures of money supply would change in the same way as their preferred measure. However there was no evidence that all the other possible measures of money supplies the bank identified, would change in the same way as M3. It was a hope that all the unmeasured changes in money supply would follow M3, but the evidence for this was lacking.
In desperation the Treasury and Bank of England gave up trying to account for changes in money supply and instead adopted a new practice. Admitting they could not count the money in circulation they opened for controlling the demand for money by changing interest rates. They believed that the supply of money was determined by the demand for money, therefore by controlling the latter they would control the first. Ever since the 1980’s changes in interest rates have been the main instrument for controlling the economy. Nobody today every mentions that the central plank of government economic policy is based on a theory for which evidence is lacking, simply because they cannot identify or correctly measure the key determinant, money supply.
Something very similar happened after the great financial crash of 2008/9. There were three deficits that could make recovery difficult the government or public sector debt, the private sector debt and the banking sector debt. The smallest was the government debt amounting in 2009 to about 60% of GDP and the largest was the banking sector deficit of 540% of GDP(as identified in a report by Paul Tucker, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England.) It is obvious that the debt that is in most urgent need of attention was that of the banking sector, yet the government of the day and succeeding ones chose to ignore it and focus instead on the government debt. The latter is the easiest to reduce as all the government had to do was cut its own spending, whereas the more serious bank debt was much harder to tackle. The government would have to take on the big banks and the City of London, very powerful opponents of whose power the government is in awe. Also if the government was serious about reducing bank debt it would negatively impact on the property market, as cutting the debt would be achieved by reducing the loans the banks could make in total. If there was less money available for house purchases, prices would fall. It is a truism of British politics that the easiest way to achieve electoral unpopularity is to preside over a fall in house prices. Consequently Britain remains with Japan one of the most indebted of the developed nations.
While these facts are known amongst the community of economists there is a conspiracy of silence in parliament about the true nature of Britain’s debt problems. There is no leading political figure that wants to be responsible for the painful economic adjustment that would result from putting the bankers house in order. Instead they focus on how they will reduce the least significant of the three debts and the noise of the debate on government debt crowds out any possible alternative debate on the real nature of the debt problem.
The economic debate as understood by politicians is what matters, as they determine economic policy. The fact that the economic debate is founded on on misinformation and lies is irrelevant. What matters is that the economic lie is the one that every one accepts. In consequence the economic debate is about the wrong debt and the government has pursued the unnecessary austerity programe that impoverishe an increasing number of people, while turning a blind eye to the excesses of the financial industry. Lies matter because they can be based on simple easily understandable untruths, whereas the truth about the problems of the economy is complex and hard to understand. To admit to truth would deny the politicians the opportunity to offer simple policy solutions that they could sell to the electorate. As the political debate of today is conducted in the simplistic language of the tabloid newspapers the truth about the real nature of Britain’s economic problems will remain concealed. Concealed that is until some major economic crisis forces the political and media classes to recognise the true nature of the problems facing the British economy.