Today there was yet another article in my daily newspaper by a prominent politicians disparaging those on the political left that fail to recognise the realities of life and want to make impossible changes in society. This disparaged group who are abused as fantasists, protest voters but never by terms that suggest that their choices are made on the basis of rational judgement. The only surprise is that he did not suggest taking the vote away from these ‘childish’ voters. Actually one former leading politician did suggest that by suggesting that the vote for the new leader of the Labour Party should be sabotaged by the other candidates withdrawing so making the contest invalid. If this had happened the same politician would have advised on how to rig the voting mechanism to ensure the right person was elected.
18th Century Aristocrats (counter-factual.net)
What is barely understood is that we are governed by an elite comparable to the landed aristocratic elite that dominated politics in the eighteenth century. This elite is composed of politicians, media persons, technocrats and financiers educated at the elite universities. (There are other groups that could be included but for brevity I have excluded them, what they all have in common is an education at one of the elite universities. It is this education that sets them apart from the rest of society.) What they practice is a policy of exclusion, only the dialogue between the members of this selected group is considered valid. They only listen to themselves, the rest of society is to be a childish rabble whose views and opinions are not worthy of consideration.
What I want to attack is the shared understanding of this group, an understanding which ‘things must be as they are’ or as it is more familiarly known TINA that is the society in which we live is the product of economic, social and technical forces that are beyond the control of individuals. What the politician must do is understand those forces making for change and work within the constraints imposed by them. Social democratic politicians recognise the pain of people working on zero hours contracts and that caused by job insecurity, but their role is not to change the cruel inequalities in society. Their task is to explain that low wages and job insecurity are a feature of modern society and must be accepted and that it is only through individual efforts at self improvement can circumstances change. The only amelioration they offer is the most modest of reforms, which will have little impact on there working lives. The social democratic party refuses to accept policies that would reduce or end job security by insisting that it is not the role of government to ensure that employers treat their employers well, what they instead offer is a way out of this appalling way of life through self improvement via education.
This new elite remains isolated by its adherence to things must be as there are ideology from the wider discontent in society. They believe that they are the ‘grown-ups’ in the words of Christine Lagarde (Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund). The new left in Greece (Syriza), Spain (Podemos) and Britain are childish fantasists trying to ignore the reality of the grown up world.
As a sceptical economist I must doubt such understanding of society I would ask why is it society is as it is? The reasons given are irreversible technological and social changes. Yet on examination they are only partial truths. Technological change has taken place but the distribution of incomes is determined by the social order. The company director in Britain earns a hundred times the salary of the average of the incomes of the employees in his business. In the 1960s the director’s salary was only 30 times greater than the average. Why the change, if the answer is that company directors have become more productive, that is open to objection. The profitability of companies as a return on capital invested in very similar to that of companies in the 1960s. The falsity of this view is demonstrated by the fact that in many failing businesses the directors are paid excessive salaries, how can huge salaries be justified for such corporate dimwits?
What as the sceptical economist I would say that there are different reasons for gross income inequality. While it cannot be doubted that some income differentials are due to technical change in that information technology has made many former skilled occupations redundant, the growing prevalence of the low wage culture has origins elsewhere. One is custom and tradition which decrees that unskilled occupations only deserving of low incomes.There is one interesting example which demonstrates this fact. When at university I read a book on applied economics by a Professor Brown and one example from that book sticks in my mind. He stated that the evidence suggested that wage differential between craftsmen and unskilled labourers had remained the same since Roman times. This suggests to me that much the justification of current income differentials comes from custom and tradition and does not reflect the real contribution each employee makes to the business. Why should the cleaner or the sales assistant be paid so little?
The other factor is power, the financial and industrial elites have cited custom and tradition as the reasons for low pay. Their mantra is unskilled staff make such a small individual contribution to the businesses profitability that they are only deserving of low pay. Yet I have never read of any study which has successfully identified the contribution to the firms productivity of say the cleaner and the financial director, yet the salary of the latter is more than that of the former. Businesses are a collaborative venture in which it is impossible to identify the contribution that each individual makes to the success of the business. Is the cleaner really that unproductive? It is the cleaner that maintains the workplace as a clean and healthy environment in which to work. Dirty toilets and uncleaned washrooms would lead to outbreaks of illnesses associated with unhygienic environments. How productive would the company director or IT specialist be if struck down by dysentery? There is good reason to suggest that cleaners are vastly underpaid, yet employers continue to pay the minimal wages.
Governments have enabled this power grab by the business elite by passing legislation to weaken or destroy those organisations that are the only means of equalising power in unequal labour market. Ever since the Neo-Liberal revolution politicians have constantly weakened the power of those groups that threaten the power of the over mighty employer. In Britain it has meant the emasculation of the one powerful trade union movement, changes in the law now make it very difficult for the unions to effectively organise industrial action. Therefore there is little restraint on the employer who wishes to pay as little as possible to his staff. It is no coincidence that some of the most profitable businesses with the highest paid directors in Britain have been the supermarkets an industry where low pay and job insecurity are endemic.
Scepticism as a philosophy is misunderstood, sceptics don’t believe are no truths, in that all philosophies or ideologies are fallacious. Instead it is the belief that in subjecting an ideology, philosophy or belief system to sceptical enquiry the truths it contains can be discovered it is the stripping away of error.
Being a sceptic is not contrary to a belief that society can be improved through reform, it is just a scepticism about the nature of such much contemporary reform, reforms whose fundamental truths are based on custom, tradition and exploitation of market power. I am a left of centre sceptic who believes in the superiority of left of centre ideology because it contains less wrongs than the alternatives and that with its emphasis on fairness those wrongs are likely to be less damaging to humanity than the wrongs of alternatives that exclude any notion of fairness. A sceptic also favours democracy as in a democracy there are always contending philosophies and ideologies as the proponents of each that will be subjecting each to scrutiny and through that many of the errors of policy associated with the mono-thought of the Neo Liberal world view can be avoided.
Unlike the interchangeable Neo-Liberals and New Keynesians who dominate the political process with their uniformity of view, I want a political culture that recognises many ideologies and philosophies as valid and that a recognition the aim of politics is not to destroy the opposition but to create a political culture in which many views can thrive. Contemporary politicians are so assured of the rightness of their beliefs that they cannot concede that they may wrong. They are as in Christine Lagarde’s word the grown ups who understand reality and who don’t indulge in childish fantasies. What a sceptic would say is that any believers in any ideology that denies it contains any errors or wrongs are the childish and naive ones.