Words of advice from a sceptical economist to any aspiring politician

No politician has requested my advice but as so many people particularly journalists proffer uninvited advice, I feel free to offer my own. Sceptics have a special duty to offer advice as they stand apart from the common run of intellectuals who are always promoting their own ideologies and schemes, as we offer a warning as to the traps into which a politician can fall.

Any politician when entering the great Houses of Parliament or the chambers of the other legislatures will be in awe of the senior practitioners of the craft of politics who display a mastery of the chamber. This mastery only extends as far as the boundaries of the legislature. In Britain it is acknowledged that George Osborne (Chancellor of the Exchequer) is the master of the house, he dominates debates and sets the agenda for policy making. However this does not mean that this mastery is any more than a dominance of the members of the house,he like many masters of the politic art achieves his dominance through his avoidance of any of the intractable problems that face the country. The palace politics of Westminster and other chambers is dominated by series Ozymandias who pretend to a control of events that they in reality lack.

Ozymandias image taken from blogspot
Ozymandias image taken from blogspot

The sceptic’s duty is to remind the politician that they don’t know and not to be taken in by the many Ozymandias that dominate parliament, who show their ignorance. Greek sceptics such as Sextus Empiricus were the philosophers who claimed that the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle and Zeno were unsound and did not embody the universal truths their adherents claimed. Rather than trust to a new unproven truth of a philosopher they recommended that the people stick to the tried and tested ways of their ancestors. A contemporary sceptic such as myself would amend the original sceptic philosophy to say that all philosophies and ideologies while not containing within themselves the ‘big answer’ to life and society’s problems, do contain many partial and useful truths. It is the task of the sceptic to suggest methods by which the few partial small truths can be disinterred from the big lies contained within political ideologies and philosophies.

Sextus Empiricus Greek philosopher of scepticism a source of inspiration to the author
Sextus Empiricus Greek philosopher of scepticism a source of inspiration to the author

If the Neo-Liberal or free market philosophy that dominates political discourse really contained the big truth and not the big lie, Neo-Liberal Britain would be a prosperous and happy nation. Instead it is a nation in which there is much social division, great income inequality and much poverty. One ill is the dysfunctional housing market, a market which is making London uninhabitable for middle and low income families. Yet even within this malign philosophy there are valuable truths, which can guide good policy making. One truth is that the government cannot fine tune a complex mechanism such as the market to achieve such ends as full employment without there being adverse consequences, such as increasing inflation pressures in the economy. The big lie of Neo-Liberalism is that because the markets are so complex and incapable of being fully understood by politicians they are best left unregulated, which can result in powerful market players abusing their power to the detriment of others. Powerful players such as the landlord who can exploit their monopoly of the housing stock to force tenants to pay exorbitant rents that can equal half of the tenants income. It is the role of the politician to choose a middle position between over intervention and non-intervention to deliver legislation and policy changes that benefit the community as whole.

In today reform obsessed society it is easier to identity problems with any existing government policy or public service organisation and even easier to suggest reforms. However these reforms are unproven and are usually rushed into operation without any real consideration of their impact on society. What appears to be broken and dysfunctional may be less broken than the reformers suggest and often delivers a better service than the organisation that exists after their reforms.

Perhaps the example of the private finance market most clearly demonstrates this point. The banks and members of the financial services complained that the restrictions under which they operated in the 1950s and 60s hampered them when competing with their international rivals. What the banks complained of bitterly was the way in which the government restricted their ability to create credit (money) , the government would compel banks to limit their mortgage lending to avoid an inflationary increase in house prices. They complained that their foreign rivals were not subject to such restrictions and were able to take business that would have otherwise been that of the British banks, although there was little evidence of this happening then. A more telling example could be found in the Stock Exchange, there was an individual called ‘the government broker’,who dealt exclusively in the buying and selling of government stocks. In the morning he dealt with customers on the phone and in the afternoon he donned a top hat and morning suit and went to the stock exchange were he would conduct government business from his stand. Bankers and other financiers looked at the American financial market with its corporate giants and wanted the same freedom to practise free of regulation. In 1986 the government obliged and removed all restrictions on the financial markets in the so called ‘big bang’. Businesses merged and grew and new mega giants came to dominate the financial world. However this legislative free-for-all had a down side, with no restraints on bad behaviour either legislative or cultural the worst happened. One consequence was one financial crash after another. Lloyds Insurance market which was once the byword in financial probity crashed because of the reckless and sometimes fraudulent behaviour it’s the underwriters. Seemingly sound banks got into trouble over reckless speculation, one of the first to go was National Westminster which lost billions on foolish American purchases. It was only saved by being purchased by the Royal Bank of Scotland. Then there were the series of bank failures in the crash of 2008/9, in which the banks were only saved from collapse by government money and guarantees totalling about 10% of GDP.

What appeared in 1986 to be a cosy gentleman’s club was in fact an efficient financial system that worked, it only fault was that it did not enable its members to earn the mega bucks of the American investment bankers. This market had evolved since the 18th century from coffee houses and financial exchanges and developed a series of working practices that protected and benefitted the customers of the financial sector. The relatively small size of the members of the market meant that the collapse of one did not equate to a financial catastrophe, as it did not as today bring down with it with it the other over indebted giants of the market. When a series of fringe banks crashed in 1973, they were easily absorbed by the larger banks and their customers suffered no real loss. The separation in the Stock Exchange of the role of broker and stock jobber had prevented the manipulation of shares to the detriment of the customer. Now with the merger of the two roles there is frequent evidence of insider trading and share manipulation by the banks which are to the detriment of the customer. There was the infamous Goldman Sachs case in which company emails revealed that the bank had sold ‘crap’ shares to their customers, whose sale benefitted only the Goldman Sachs traders. The overnight scrapping of the old established practices in 1986 which ensured the probity and soundness of the financial markets, created a market in which the reverse is true and which is prone to sudden and catastrophic breakdowns. A market which is so dysfunctional that it can only continue to exist through the continued explicit and implicit guarantees of government support which will compensate all in the event of a crash.

As a sceptic I am tempted to say that all reform is misguided, but that is wrong as society is constantly changing as governments have to adapt policy to changed circumstances. What I as a sceptic say is wrong is the belief that only ‘big bang’ reforms or those starting from ‘ground zero’ assumptions are wrong, it is the nature of reform that is wrong not reform or change itself.

Only if a politician understands the character of the reformer will they be able to judge the value of any proposed reform. All reformers are either ‘missionaries’ or ‘salesmen’ which is why such bad judges of the reforms they suggest. Once that is understood many proposed reforms can be seen as unsound, as they self interested proposals that only benefit the ‘missionary’ who have their sense of being the prophet that saves society from itself confirmed or the salesman who gets a cash benefit from the successful promotion of a reform.

The reforming Neo-Liberal economists are missionaries, they are on a mission to save society. These missionaries will always claim adopting their methods will result in some desired end. In the 1960s they were campaigning for an end to government policies that ensured full employment, they argued that allowing unemployment to increase to its natural level would reduce inflation. In the 1970s they argued for an end to the managed exchange rate system which they claimed would lead to an ending of international financial crises (history soon demonstrated the fallacy of this claim). Then in the 1980s that introducing the free market into the public services would reduce their cost and improve their effectiveness (as a rail user I and many others would dispute this claim). I compare them to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claim that only by adopting your religion will you get to heaven, the Jehovah Witnesses among the political reformers claim that only by adopting their practice and method will the best of all possible societies be attained. What they also have in common is that both their claims are faith and not evidence based.

The best example of the salesman type of reformer are the financiers of the City of London who argued successfully for the removal of all restrictions from the financial services. They as with the successful salesman gained an increase in income from the sale of their ideas. Obviously salesman are most frequent type amongst the financiers who recommend the privatisation of various government services. These financiers will gain from the consultancy fees from advising on the sale of a public service or as in the case of Royal Mail from handling the resale of its assets. (The financial advisors were guaranteed a proportion of shares in the newly privatised Royal Mail at a price they suggested. They were then able to sell the shares they had acquired at a much higher price making a large profit.)

From the viewpoint of this sceptical economist all proposers of reform should be regarded with extreme scepticism. Those reforms proposed by the missionary or the salesman are particularly suspect.The motives of any reformer should be treated with scepticism as it is more than likely the proposed reform includes a strong element of self interest.

One final word of advice the reforms that a politician proposes to introduce will inevitably be wrong, in that it will disadvantage one group in society. The role of the politician is to choose the least wrong of all possible options, the one that will wreak the least damage on society. Hopefully the reform may even produce more benefits than injuries, although recent policy measures in Britain have tended to damage rather than mend the social fabric.


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