When I read any accounts of the debates conducted by the Republican candidates for the role of President, I am filled with despair. They all demonstrate astounding degrees of economic illiteracy, a tendency all too common demonstrated by politicians this side of the Atlantic ocean. The only economic topic deemed worthy of debate here is how to reduce the government debt. Economic illiteracy rules out the obvious solutions such as reversing the trend to reduce the tax take from the super rich and business corporations, as one conservative politician said increasing tax on the rich is immortal. Instead in one of the richest countries in the world there are constantly circulating in the media stories about how this poor country cannot afford to provide for the welfare of its citizens.
Economic illiteracy also prevents politicians in Britain discussing the more serious deficits that is those of the private sector and the banking sector, which are x2 and x5 greater than the government deficit. Only a self denying ordinance based on nonsensical theories about economics could possibly explain this strange politics.
Ronald Regan image taken from the internet
America provides a good example of nonsense economics. Before George Bush Snr. was chosen as Vice President by Ronald Regan he described his economics as ‘voodoo economics’. What Ronald Regan was proposing was to cut federal taxes, spending on environmental and welfare programmes while increasing spending on defence and military aid to friendly states. Ronald Regan also said while doing these he would cut the government deficit. What his advisors had failed to understand was that defence spending was one of the great sources of ‘pork barrel’ politics. Many Congressmen and Senators had large defence industries in their states and what they wanted was massively increased spending on defence. The voodoo or nonsense was that while they paid lip service to cutting government spending, they constantly voted for the opposite. Under the presidency of Ronald Regan the government deficit spiralled upwards and none of the constant hand wringing over the problem did any good. It was not until the Presidency of Bill Clinton and the introduction of more economically literate policies that the budget deficit declined.
It is a truism but economic good sense is always rejected by politicians if it goes against their long held prejudices. Unfortunately British politics as with American politics is dominated by nonsense economics. One of the most common foolish prejudices is that if its not hurting its not working. This is a very selective hurting as the hurt about which British politicians enthuse is the hurt that they inflict on the poor and those on middle incomes. Great efforts are made to ensure the pain is not registered by the better off, who benefit from tax handouts or tax cuts to protect their income.
Hubris a neglected economic concept
While some economics is nonsense there are significant truths in the body of economics that politicians ignore at their peril. The temptation for any politician is to rewrite economics according to their own prejudices and personal beliefs. They can achieve this because the economy has constantly grown since the beginning of the century (apart from a few downs) and they can claim that this growth is a result of their policies. It is extremely hard to disprove such claims as the economy is such a vast complex mechanism and it is extremely difficult to distinguish cause and effect. Once in an economics seminar I and my fellow students argued for over an hour whether or not it was possible to identify the effects of a particular economic policy as by the time it began to take effect the economy had changed and it could not be known to what extent the improvement in the economy could be down to a particular policy measure or a change in the economy. The smartest of politicians took advantage of this uncertainty to rewrite economics according to their own personal preferences, as it was extremely hard to produce evidence to prove or disprove their theory. They were aided by a certain complacent belief amongst economists that the economy was self sustaining and that even the worst of economic policies would only have a small negative impact on the economy. In addition there is the Lysenko factor, that is many economists are only to willing to rewrite their economics in deference to the wishes of their employers, as that the way to preferment and prestigious academic positions.
Once politicians realised economics could be bent and reshaped according to their own personal whim, they began to treat economists as propagandists and not advisors. Economists became a servant of their political masters to be used and abused as they pleased. Whatever the failings of particular economists they are nothing as compared to that of the politicians. The arrogance of politicians is such that they are unaware of the dangers of the policies they practise. The classical Greeks had a word for this hubris, that is when ambition led men to overreach themselves. Greek tragedies featured a hero in conflict with his fate and often the Gods. In tragedy of Orestes it is foretold that Orestes will kill his father and marry his mother, yet in spite of this he continues on his path to his tragic fate, when after realising that he has killed his father and married his mother he is despair puts out his eyes. In the UK we have a number of Orestes that manage our public affairs, who as with him are blind to their fate, despite the warnings of economic soothsayers blindly commit themselves to a policy that will lead their nation into disaster. If they cared to look beyond the hermetically sealed world of Westminster they might realise that there are dangers out there of which they are ignorant.
The chorus from Orestia
Recently I read that the British government pledged £1.2 trillion of monies to support the banks in the crisis of 2008/9. The significance of that figure is that it was almost the same in total as the country’s national income. In other words the government was willing to pledge the whole of the nation’s income to bail out its banks. Fortunately the bank creditors were sufficiently satisfied with this pledge not to demand it be honoured, it is very unlikely this pledge won’t be cashed in during the next crisis. Our politicians being supremely self confident don’t realise that they have put in place a process that will lead to the destitution of the UK.
The cause of the next disaster will be the over extended British and Western European banks. At the root of this crisis is what is termed Fiat money, money that is no more than a promise to pay. Our banks can create money by making an entry in their computer records and the only limit to their powers of credit creation or money making is what they think is reasonable. What the banks believe is reasonable is what others may term unreasonable. In 2008 the banks backed their loans or bank money with cash reserves of 2% so for every £100 of bank money they created they only had £2. In the event of a crisis the banks quickly ran out of money to pay their customers who wanted their money back and a run on the banks and a collapse of the world financial system was only avoided by the prompt intervention of governments.
Our arrogant political class has learnt nothing from the crisis of 2008/9 and foolishly believe that by manipulating the money supply and interest rates they have beaten one crisis and have the tools to beat the next. Only the foolishly arrogant could believe this as all indicators show the economies of the West are desperately weak. Interest rates (that charged by the Bank of England on loans to banks) for example cannot be increased from there historically low levels of 0.5%, without fear of that increase sparking a major recession. The complacent politicians have even encouraged the governor of the Bank of England to announce that they see no reason why our ‘financially sound’ banks should not be allowed to increase their assets to total x9 our national income (GDP). Those assets will largely be loans or bank money, which has no value other than that given to it by the banks. Already with the slow down in China there is evidence that the new recession is starting, given the arrogant blindness of our political leaders they will be helpless to prevent a rapid spiralling downwards of economic activity as they have not the policy tools at hand to prevent it.
Can I finish this essay with another metaphor, that of the ship of fools. This was a popular subject for art in the medieval world and these pictures showed a boat crewed by all the political leaders of the time, kings, great lords and Popes, often this ship was shown heading to disaster on the rocks pictured in the background of the painting. The current ship of fools is driving Western society on to the rocks of yet another economic disaster and it is their arrogance that prevents them from seeing that their world is being put in peril from there foolish misdirections.