Category Archives: Economics

Why it matters that politicians lie

Why are people so tolerant of lying politicians? It no longer seems to matter that politicians are exposed as liars, in fact some politicians have made a career out of being known as audacious liars. When one senior British politician is caught yet again in manufacturing falsehood, it is said that its only X behaving as X does. His lying makes him bit of a card. Nobody seems to mind that lies are increasingly becoming the common mode of the political dialogue. Politicians have always lied to protect their careers or to advance party interest; what has changed now is that the political lie is now seen as noblest of the political arts, being exposed as a compulsive liar no longer disqualifies a politician from the highest office, rather it is seen as a necessary qualification for high office. This terrible corruption of public behaviours is destroying the integrity of the political process. Democratic politics can only function if there is a certain degree of integrity, that is the political players must respect the rules of the game, when they show a contempt for these rules they discredit the whole system of governance.

There is a terrible warning from history that our politicians ignore at their peril. When in the fourth century BCE, Athenian democracy was threatened by the Persian kings, the whole population was united in resisting the invaders. Then when in the first century BCE the Romans invaded Greece, the population of Athens offered no resistance to the Romans when occupied their city. Once reason for this lack of resistance was that the political leaders of Athens had by their behaviours so discredited Athenian democracy that few felt it worth preserving. These politicians were masters in the art of fake news. They would use informers infiltrate their rival’s households and these informers would then claim to have evidence of salacious misbehaviour or wrong doing by their rivals. Personal vilification became the main mode of political debate, the practice of politics was largely reduced to the art of personal assassination. Although there is some difference in political practice today, politics tin its essentials increasingly resembles that of first century BCE Athens. Fake news, deception and dissembling are the most practiced of the political arts.

One obvious example of this practice is the attacks directed at the Leader of the Opposition. Whenever a government minister speaks of him, phrases such as a ‘friend of terrorists’ are always inserted into the conversation. Just as did the Athenian politicians ours practice the art of personal vilification. Not so long ago the government discovered a report by a former Czechoslovakian agent in which this agent claimed that the now leader of the opposition had sold state secrets to him. When these secrets had been supposedly sold to the agent, this leader was then an obscure backbench MP with no access to any state secrets. The fact that the story was totally implausible and easily discredited did not matter as it was an opportunity to smear the man. It’s political mud throwing it does not matter what is thrown as some will stick.

However the real problem of lying being elevated to the principle political art is that politicians never have the need to confront the truth. When evasiveness and dissembling characterise the art of politics, difficult and uncomfortable truths can be avoided. Particularly if confronting those truths would mean taking actions that would make the politician or government minister unpopular. Apart from a few dissidents, scientists are united in the view that the global climate is warming and this poses a serious threat to mankind. When for example the sea level rises as a consequence of global warming, many of the great cities of the world will become uninhabitable because of flooding. If the politicians took action to avert this impending catastrophe, it would be action that would make them unpopular with the voters. Averting this catastrophe is only possible if there is significant reduction in the production of the main green house gas carbon dioxide, this can only be achieved if there is a significant reduction in energy consumption. Such a reduction could only be achieved if the people, particularly those in the richest countries who use the most energy would accept a cut in their standard of living. Cutting energy means producing less of the goods and services that people desire. Making people poorer if only temporarily is a very unpopular policy option.

There is a good example of this dilemma in Britain’s recent political past. A city council in Scotland wanted to introduce a congestion charge to reduce the number of cars using its roads, as a means of reducing pollution in that city. Unfortunately it is common understanding amongst politicians that denying people the right to use their cars when and how they please is electoral suicide. Although this city council was controlled by the party in government, that government collaborated with the objectors to the scheme to prevent it being introduced.

Our political culture of lying and obfuscation provides a convenient escape clause for those politicians who don’t want to take unpopular action to halt climate change. There is an influential group of climate change deniers, funded and supported by the fossil fuel industries. Politicians can claim that the evidence for climate change is not yet conclusive, they can point to the research conducted by climate change deniers as proof of this. What matters least is this research is of little scientific validity, what matters most is that it exists. Claiming uncertainty as an excuse means that politicians can postpone or avoid taking those unpopular measures that are required to prevent global warming.

Perhaps it is the American Congress that provides one of the best examples of truth avoidance and evasion. There was from medical experts a demand that government to improve the nations health should persuade people to eat five portions of vegetables or fruit a day. Any such measure would mean that Congressmen would be going against the interests of the powerful processed food industry. As they would be promoting the same of fresh fruit and vegetables, which would have been at the expense of processed food. What Congress did instead was contrary to the recommendations of scientists, they decide that the tomato topping used on pizzas should be included as one of the five a day foods.

What the Athenian citizen witnessed in the First Century BCE, we are witnessing today. The slow decay of democracy. Democracy has always had its enemies, either foreign powers or powerful individuals and business corporations who hate the idea of being subject to the people. However just as with Athens the greatest threat comes from within the democratic system, that is from it’s leading practitioners. The practice of lying is corrosive of the human personality, such people no longer recognise or value truth. Truth is something quite alien to them. A list of all the ignored inconvenient truths about the threats to the health and viability is lengthy. When a senior official at the Bank of England said he could not understand how the Governor of the Bank of England could sleep at night, given the threat posed to the economy by the enormous debts of the banking system, he was ignored. All his concern rated was a short article in the little business columns of the newspapers.

When its leaders no longer value the norms and conventions that make democracy possible, its future is bleak. People who lie, cheat and are adept in all forms of malpractice, don’t make good guardians of our democratic system. A corrupt and dysfunctional Westminster or Washington no is incapable of serving the people. The people become disenchanted and see contemporary politicians as venal and corrupt. Such politicians have lost the respect of the people. Unfortunately the yearning of the people for good governance makes them susceptible to the charms of right wing populist leaders. Leaders who promise to clean up politics and make government once again the government of and for the people. In the 1930s when Washington and Westminster seemed helpless in the face of the Great Depression and did nothing to ameliorate the suffering of the people, right wing fascist leaders such as Huey Long in the USA and Oswald Moseley in the UK became immensely popular. If circumstances had been more favourable to each they could both have brought to an end the liberal democratic experiment. Whatever Donald Trump might be he is no Huey Long, American democracy will survive Donald Trump. The real threat lies in the future, when the continued failure of the American Congress and the British Parliament fail to deliver for the people will discredit Anglo Saxon democracy. Then the people will welcome a strong leader to deliver from the self serving and venal politicians that currently govern them. What will destroy democracy is the worms at the centre of the democratic apple that cause it to decay and become rotten.

What I am writing now would be familiar to the people of the U.K. and the USA, who in the 1930s despaired of there governments taking effective action to solve the problems caused by the Great Depression. Only when democratic leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt took measures to reinvigorate the democratic system to ensure that it delivered for the people, was it able to survive. However if Huey Long had no been killed in 1935 it is likely that he would have become President in 1936 and replaced Roosevelt. He as President would have brought an end to liberal democracy in the USA. Surveying the contemporary political scene it seems that there seems to be a paucity of Franklin Roosevelt’s who could save liberal democracy from itself.

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Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’ updated

Sweet Auburn, loviest of village of the plain,

Where smiling spring it’s earliest visit paid,

And parting summer’s lingering blooms delayed

As a child I lived in many such Auburns, the first I can recollect was located in the Gloucester Cotswolds, the last in the Sussex Weald. Just as does Oliver Goldsmith, I also lament the loss of a community and a way of life which I cherished. My childhood came to a sudden and abrupt end when my father told me he was losing his job and that we would have to move as the house was a tied cottage. Suddenly I was thrust unprepared into the world of insecurity and anxiety, that is the adult world. Fortunately my father was offered a job on a nearby estate. Its owner was an old lady who wanted her estate run as if time had stood still. Employing a man in his fifties working as her gamekeeper schooled in the old ways suited her. If I gave this estate a anthropomorphic description I would call it a Mrs Haversham of an estate, it was one in slow decay that was desperately trying to cling its lost youth.

Oliver Goldsmith was lamenting a way of life destroyed by the enclosures. A period in which the people were denied access to the common land through the introduction of hedges and fences which now denied them access to the common land. (Breaking the fence to access the former common land was made a hanging offence under the infamous Black Acts.) If the agricultural poor were denied access to the common land they lacked the means to sustain themselves by farming that land. These people left the villages to find work in the towns. There was a similar depopulation of the countryside that started in the 1960s with the introduction of agri-business. The old country way of life with its intimate connection to the countryside was just not profitable. On the estate on which I lived most of my school mates and their families were given notice to quit, when the new owner introduce the new methods of farming. Although I cannot be certain of the exact number I think that at least fifty people were turned off the land.

The new lord was in contrast to his father. He was a man who had spent his formative years in the trenches of the Western front. There he got to know his men and had got to respect and value them. Death or the threat of it made brothers of them all. He as with many other junior officers was wounded in an attack on German lines. Sharing a casualty station and sharing the suffering of wounded and dying men of his unit can only have enhanced his sense of fellowship. He was noblesse oblige personified, he for example built retirement cottages on the estate for those who were to old or ill to work. A man blinded and wounded in the war was found a house and given a job minding the estates chicken. It mattered little that he contributed little to the estate, what mattered was that his sacrifice on behalf of the country was recognised. A man incidentally who us children found terrifying, were were scared to look upon his scarred face. Now to my shame I must admit our reaction was to run away on seeing him.

Writing this brief essay was to explain why I share Oliver Goldsmith’s sense of loss. I can read his and identify aspects of a lost rural life that are so similar to those he describes. He wrote of the village parson who cared deeply for his community, I knew two such Parsons. He writes of a terrifying schoolmaster, I experienced a terrifying choirmaster Mr P. Although beneath that gruff exterior I later discovered was a kindly and caring man. He was a teacher of the old school who believed fear was the best way of securing obedience amongst a group of unruly choirboys. One memory of him I cherish and that was when he spoke about me to a new choirboy. He said that ‘when J … joined the choir, he knew as little about music as that wooden bench. Now look at him’.

This essay is not intended to be a lament for a lost way of life, or to be a complaint about the ruthlessness of money obsessed landowners. Rather a celebration in prose a celebration of a lost way of life. What I also wish to show that despite all the changes in the countryside that had occurred since the 18th century there was still much that Oliver Goldsmith would have recognised in rural communities of the 1950s and 1960s. The loss of which I lament as much as did Oliver Goldsmith.

Alternative and/or Socialist Economics are overdue a revival

Politicians have constantly complaining about economists, usually for not giving them the they want. Only recently Michael Gove a leading Brexit campaigner complained that the people were fed up with experts. What he was complaining about was the fact that economists weren’t making the upbeat predictions about Brexit that he wanted. It was disappointing to him that all these economists who were backing the free market reforms of his government were no longer supporting him.

Michael Gove is typical of many politicians in their misunderstanding of economics. While throughout the course of his political career economists tended to speak with one voice, that of the Neo-Liberal free marketers, that resulted from the suppression of alternative economic voices. Free market economists of the Chicago school dominated the universities and the professions, maverick economists were marginalised or silenced. When he proposed that the UK leave the European Union, the largest and most prosperous free market in the world they could not support him. What he had misunderstood that while some economists were willing to ignore the evidence that a precipitate break from the EU would be bad for the EU economy, most economists subscribe to the view that there subject is evidence based and could not back a policy that was contrary to the facts. Free market economists could not support a policy that led to the U.K. breaking with the world’s largest and most prosperous free market.

However Michael Gove is not totally to blame for his misunderstanding of the nature of economics. Economists fail to recognise the divisions within society and the conflicting interests of the various groups that make up society. What they prefer is one ‘great theory of economics’, a theory that explains everything and benefits all. In the 1980s for a variety of reasons mainstream economists adopted the free market economics of the Chicago School. This is its essence stated that the free market brought about the most equitable of outcomes. The free bargaining of sellers and consumers would deliver the best outcomes for all. No longer would the state be ineffectively second guessing what the people or consumers wanted.

Contrary voices such as that of Michael Polanyi were ignored. Michael Polanyi argued that the unregulated free market was the worst possible of outcomes. He stated that the state was in effect could be better at second guessing what people wanted, than the market. In a free market the rich and powerful have undue influence over how the goods and services that the economy produces are distributed amongst the people. Not only could they claim the lions share of the wealth, but they could also deny the majority a fair share of the nations wealth. The health care system in the USA provides an example of his thinking. There the well off can have access to the best health care in the world, but also deny access to adequate health care for the majority. Health care in the USA is run by for profit health care providers. These health care businesses are usually companies owned by shareholders. Those share holders that hold a majority of the companies shares are the super rich and they are not going to permit their business to provide loss making services, as they want the best possible return on their investment. The provision of universal health care to the less well off is a loss making service, so it is not provided. The poor and less well off instead have to rely upon the health care provided by the hospitals run by charitable institutions. These institutions are poorly funded and cannot provide the best of care. Michael Polanyi would argue that health care is a universal good, as all have a right to good health care and only a state run health care service can provide health care for all.

When only one voice is heard the result is bad policy making. Michael Polanyi has long since been forgotten and the government only gets policy advice from free marketers of the school of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Now al too often government policy has been that of trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Every government embarks on a new policy to make health care services more market efficient, each reform costs billions, yet is considered necessary by each new government. Never does any health minister ever stop to think that their policy might be wrong and that there are alternatives to remaking the NHS into a faux free market. What all ministers believe is that by dividing the NHS into competing buyers and sellers (hospitals are sellers, selling there service to the various local health trusts) they get the most efficient of health services. Never do they understand that each new bureaucratic structure they impose on the NHS is yet another costly diversion of resources away from front line services and that these expensive bureaucracies may prevent health care being provided in the most effective and efficient way.

What economists know but politicians do not. Is that a health service run by health care professionals might adopt some wasteful practices such as over ordered get of medicines, but the cure for this problem is far more costly. If the most efficient distribution of medicines is to be ensured a new bureaucracy of stock controllers, accountants and financial controllers of all kinds. The cost of these bureaucrats far exceeds the cost of any over ordering by medical professionals. In the well managed private hospitals of the USA administrative costs account for 40% of the costs of running the business. Unfortunately in the U.K. the government with its various reforms is trying to divert an increasing share of the health care budget to these financial controllers.

Although Michael Polanyi who once was a well known economist he is now virtually unknown amongst contemporary politicians. Contemporary economists are overwhelming free market economists and little is published that is contrary to the consensus view. What is now needed is a ‘Dead Economists’ society. A society that popularises all the policy prescriptions of these long dead economists. There are a number that I can recall such as Michael Polanyi, J.K.Galbraith, Piero Staffa and John Maynard Keynes. If politicians were familiar with Friedrich Hayes’s work other than his short populist text, ‘The Return to Serfdom’, they would realise that he would have been critical of much ill thought out policy making. There are numerous economists who have written about the problems that face contemporary U.K. and suggest policy solutions, but all are ignored. What politicians want are the simple easy to under policies offered by the free marketers, they have little patience with good economic practice, as it is time consuming and does not offer the simple answers that make good headlines in the popular press. Donald Trump rather than be seen as a maverick politician contrary to the mainstream of politicians, should seen as representative of current political process in which politicians have a limited time span and want solutions produced within five minutes.

Our Dirty Streets are not so much a consequence of Neo-Liberalism as the Poor Policy Choices made by our Politicians

As a fan of Scandinavia noir I am always struck by the cleanliness of the streets, which is such a contrast with the streets of the city where I live. Italy is always said to be a country where local government does not work, yet my experience of Italy is very different. When I stayed in Pisa, I would always come across the street cleaners when returning to my hotel late at night. Apparently the council was concerned that leaving rubbish uncollected in the streets would encourage rats and mosquitos. (Obviously there are exceptions, as in Naples where the Camorra control refuge collection.) British towns and cities seem to demonstrate a certain air of neglect, it is obvious that refuge collection is not a priority. What is not realised is that this dirtiness of the British city is not so much a characteristic of the national character, but a consequence of policy decisions of government.

This is a neglect imposed on local communities by central government consequent on it adopting the policies of Neo-liberalism. One of the tenets of Neo-liberal practice is that private enterprise is superior to public enterprise in the provision of goods and services. If however the state or local authority preferred to keep a service within the private sector, it should be run as if it was a private business enterprise. In practical terms this meant respect for the bottom line. If the private sector ethos was adopted by the public sector the same level of service could be delivered at a lower cost of the tax payer. Also these efficiencies in service provision meant that more could be delivered for less.

When working as a manager in local authority social services, I encountered this new philosophy first hand. The funding to local government had been cut and I was at a meeting with fellow managers to discuss how best to implement these cuts. This particular meeting was about home care; the local authority employed care staff to look after the elderly and the house bound. Our senior managers were enthusiasts for this new philosophy of work and had decided that twenty minutes of care would be all that any housebound individual needed. What we agreed on was a certain minimum of care that could be achieved in twenty minutes. Light dusting only was permitted in the room in which the individual spent most of their time. Using a vacuum cleaner to clean the carpet was forbidden, as it would take up too much time. There were a whole of list of don’ts, that is time consuming care activities. To ensure that the staff were not tempted to do more than the minimum, they were given so many clients to visit, that if they did more than the directed minimum, they would end up working more hours than those for which they were paid. This new service delivery scheme was regarded as a success as it mean fewer care staff were needed for home care, which meant a big cost saving for the local authority. What the housebound elderly or sick wanted was irrelevant.

A similar approach is applied to refuge collection. Funding for such has been cut by the central government to encourage the adoption of cost cutting efficiency As a fan of Scandinavia noir I am always struck by the cleanliness of the streets, which is such a contrast with the streets of the city where I live. Italy is always said to be a country where local government does not work, yet my experience of Italy is very different. When I stayed in Pisa, I would always come across the street cleaners when returning to my hotel late at night. Apparently the council was concerned that leaving rubbish uncollected in the streets would encourage rats and mosquitos. (Obviously there are exceptions as in Naples, where the Camorra control refuge collection.) British towns and cities seem to demonstrate a certain air of neglect, it is obvious that refuge collection is not a priority. What is not realised is that this dirtiness of the British is not so much a characteristic of the national character, but a consequence of policy decisions of government.

This is a neglect imposed on local communities by central government consequent on it adopting the policies of Neo-liberalism. One of the tenets of Neo-liberal practice is that private enterprise is superior to public enterprise in the provision of goods and services. If however the state or local authority preferred to keep a service within the private sector, it should be run as if it was a private business enterprise. In practical terms this meant respect for the bottom line. If the private sector ethos was adopted by the public sector the same level of service could be delivered at a lower cost of the tax payer. Also these efficiencies in service provision meant that more could be delivered for less.

When working as a manager in local authority social services, I encountered this new philosophy first hand. The funding to local government had been cut and I was at a meeting with fellow managers to discuss how best to implement these cuts. This particular meeting was about home care, the local authority employed care staff to look after the elderly and the house bound. Our senior managers were enthusiasts for this new philosophy of work and had decide that twenty minutes of care would be all that any housebound individual needed. What we agreed on was a certain minimum of care that could be achieved in twenty minutes. Light dusting only was permitted in the room in which the individual spent most of their time. Using a vacuum cleaner to clean the carpet was forbidden, as it would take up too much time. There were a whole of list of don’t, that is time consuming care activities. To ensure that the staff were not tempted to more than the minimum, they were given so many clients to visit, that if they did more than the directed minimum, they would end up working more hours than those for which they were paid. This new service delivery scheme was regarded as a success as it mean fewer care staff were needed for home care, which meant a big cost saving for the local authority. What the housebound elderly or sick wanted was irrelevant.

A similar approach is applied to refuge collection. Funding for such has been cut by the central government to encourage the adoption of cost cutting saving measures and the ending of what were seen as over friendly employee policies. The local authority can only manage this service by giving a time limit to each individual household refuge collection. Speeding up refuge collection is achieved by making householders take there bins on the pavement for collection. These refugee collectors know that if they delay themselves by collecting the rubbish strewn in the street, they will be unable to complete there work in time forcing them to work for free in their own time to finish their round. In consequence any difficult or time consuming tasks are left undone. Problematic streets or houses will be left untouched, as to tackle them would be take up too much time. Given human nature, the refuge collectors will be tempted to avoid the more difficult tasks claiming that it would contravene their terms of employment, which demands the minimum of time spent on each task. When the work practice emphasises quantity not quality, it is easy to understand why our streets remain dirty.

What has been had the most impact on the provision of public service provision is the self denying ordinance adopted by the politicians. The one that tells them that they should never interfere in the free market and that free markets work best if all power is ceded to the entrepreneur. If all entrepreneurs were gifted and benevolent this would be fine. Instead they have used this freedom from regulation and oversight to enrich themselves at the expense of society and the state. They have been given a licence to make money, a licence that imposes no obligations on them. Only today I read an article explaining how a property developer could make £50,000 a year. All they had to do was convert a house into a series of micro flats and charge the tenants exorbitant rents. This £50,000 would in come in part or wholly from the state. Either the tenants received tax credits to help pay their rent or the tenants received housing benefit which would be used to pay the rent. Only recently two major rail companies walked away from a contract the run the East Coast railway. The government never questioned there reasoning, it was sufficient for them to claim that the continue to operate the railway would cause them to lose money.

Rather than blaming Neo-Liberalism for this situation, it is the politicians who are to blame. They failed to have an elemental grasp of human psychology. If you give a group of powerful and ruthless people the freedom to act as they please, they will do just that. If profit maximisation is the sole motivating factor for running a service, the business owners will do whatever they can to maximise their profits. If reducing the quality of the service improves profits, that will be done. One illustration of this is a proposal by one of the privatised rail company was to strip all the seats out of the carriages in its commuter trains and replace them will diagonal resting places. This would have enabled the company to squeeze even more people on to its trains, increasing both revenue and profits.

Our politicians are as hapless babes in the cut and thrust of the market place. When a business tenders for a large contract, it incurs substantial costs in drafting that tender. If it fails to win the tender it will have to bear the cost of failed bid. Our political babes have allowed those who submit losing tenders, to sue them for the money they lost in preparing the contract. These naive innocents are quite happy to acquiesce in this most uncommercial of practices. The business men and women who compete for contracts for the privatised services have been more or less able to draft the terms on which they compete for government business.

What renders our politicians so helpless is that they have so decimated the civil service and local government in there desire to create a small minimal cost government, that they lack the staff who are either qualified or experienced to manage out sourcing successfully. Not so long ago the staff devising a contract for the running of a railway service, were so incompetent in their drafting and in the subsequent negotiations, that the losing tenderer was able to successfully take the the Ministry to court and win back the contract it had lost. It is not unknown that for a government so lacking in-house expertise, that it will turn to one of the large accounting companies asking them to draft the out sourcing contract. This same accountancy company could also be advising one of the companies bidding for that contract. With the out sourcing of government services to the private sector, it is always win, win for the private sector and lose, lose for the government.

Returning to the start of my essay the dirty streets of British towns and cities is a consequence of the adoption of least cost minimal service practices, associated with out sourcing and competitive tendering. This could be said to be a consequence of the adoption of Neo-liberalism, but really it’s down to the naivety of the political classes. To put it another way the wrong people are in charge of the provision of public services, people with the wrong mindset. When for those in charge the priority is the bottom line, non profit making services will be delivered for the lowest cost, even if that means the service is minimal and delivered barely acceptable standards. What is needed is the services to be put in the hands of those whose priority is to maximise the common good. Obviously cost efficiency is important but it should not be the main criteria for service provision. The least cost health care option is to provide no health care, but it is not necessarily the best option. measures. The local authority can only manage this service by giving a time limit to each individual refuge collection. Speeding up refuge collection is achieved by making householders take there bins on the pavement for collection. These refugee collectors know that if they delay themselves by collecting the rubbish strewn in the street, they will be unable to complete there work in time and will be forced to work for free in their own time to finish their round. In consequence any difficult or time consuming tasks are left undone. Problematic streets or houses will be left untouched, as to tackle them would be take up too much time. Given human nature, the refuge collectors will be tempted to avoid the more difficult tasks claiming that it would contravene their terms of employment, which demands the minimum of time spent on each task. When the work practice emphasises quantity not quality, it is easy to understand why our streets remain dirty.

Is there a possibility that events such a Black Wednesday will occur more frequently in the future?

The short answer to my question is yes. There will always be that occasion when that combination of human folly and arrogance will lead to a repetition to the economic disasters of the past. As an economist I can reconcile myself with the knowledge that such crisis are but a once or twice life in a time occurrence. Unfortunately I believe that I will be unlucky enough to experience a third life time economic crisis, but one of such damaging dimensions that it has the potential to make the crisis of 1992 and 2008 seem relatively insignificant.

Recently I read an article in ‘The London Review of Books’ which expressed an opinion which I share and that is, that for the first time in recent history we have a group of leading politicians who want to do ill to a substantial number of their fellow citizens. These politicians are the ultras of the Conservative party. It is not just the turning back of the clock to disadvantage those groups that have profited from modernity, but desire to impoverish large numbers of their fellow citizens. Now some of them are beginning to openly admit that leaving the EU will not deliver any of the benefits they claimed in the referendum campaign. In fact they recognise that there will be a significant loss of national income as a result of Brexit.

There are those who believe that the economic downturn consequent on ending our free trade deal with the EU, will lead to a modest reduction in living standards.  They believe that the stoicism of the British will enable them to weather this temporary storm. Britons endured worse during the Blitz and so they believe they will the people demonstrate a similar stoicism in seeing out this downturn. Just as in 1940 they will see this deprivation as a price worth paying  to be free of this new tyrannical continental behemoth that is the European Union. They seem to want to replay the 1940s, but with a contemporary twist.

However what they do not seem to realise is that the various predictions of a 3% or 8% in future income growth are the cautious predictions made by economic statisticians. The  economy is not some mechanical creation such as a car that can be tinkered with to produce a slightly more modest performance, it’s a dynamic social organisation that is capable of volatile, unexpected and sudden changes in direction. An economic slowdown is quite capable of turning into something much worse.

The British economy as with many others includes within it many economic fault lines that if triggered would wreak tremendous damage to the economy. What these foolish politicians have forgotten is “Black Wednesday’ in 1992, a day in which speculators effectively bankrupted the country.  All the weakness in the economy that existed then, still remain today. One such is the massive private sector indebtedness, which includes that of the banks. Britain is one of the world’s bankers and as such it holds a large proportion of the world’s cash reserves. The banks assets are moving towards a position whereby they total nine times the county’s GDP, that is about £18 trillion. Just as in 1992 the British banks are borrowing short and lending long. In plain English customers deposit money on short term notice, money that they can withdraw on demand or with a few days notice. Banks lend this money long term, it is invested in property or some other asset, which either cannot be quickly changed back into cash if needed or if cashed in it will return a value much less than that for which it was purchased. British banks have reserves that they can use to fund cash withdrawals in normal circumstances, so this is never usually a problem. However it becomes a problem when the abnormal happens and investors lose faith in the banks and want their money back. The abnormal occurred in 1992 and 2008. On the first occasion the central Bank was almost bankrupted and in the second if was the entire banking system that suffered the same experience. Nobody that is not a fool or an arrogant politician with little understanding of economics would do anything to provoke a recurrence of these past crisis.

One of the triggers of a depression is falling business confidence, once that is lost the economy is in the doldrums. The maladroit government negotiations with Europe over Brexit is leading to a loss of business confidence, as businessmen are increasing uncertain of what the future holds for them.  Whenever politicians are informed on problems tor business that are developing because of Brexit, they are either ignored or dismissed. Such behaviour is further draining confidence out of the economy. In such febrile circumstances a run on the pound could easily be triggered. One such trigger point occur at the port of Dover. The government has made no preparations for the reintroduction of customs barriers at Dover, yet free trade with Europe will end in the near future forcing the government to reintroduce customs barriers. New staff are not being recruited and it no preparations have been made to introduce new  IT systems to processing the import and export trade tariffs, such checks are unnecessary while Britain remains in the single market. It seems to assume that they can introduce a seamless system of tariff collection, when they or nobody else in the world knows what such a system will look like or even if such a system is possible. After March 2019, when Britain leaves the EU and chaos prevails at Dover and other ports, it will be a demonstration of government incompetence. When the government is demonstrating such a degree of incompetence investors could take fright and take their money out of British banks. Our banks are quite incapable of funding such a large and sustained flight from sterling and the UK would have to turn to the IMF for help. The resultant crash would turn the British economy into an economic basket case resembling that which is contemporary Greece.

However there are a minority of Tory Ultras who would welcome such a collapse. The consequence shortfall in government finances would mean that many of the institutions of modernity, such as the welfare state and the NHS could cease to exist through lack of funding. They like the medieval doctors who let blood to purge the body of noxious vapours, believe that an economic crash which destroyed the welfare state would lead to a similar purging of the British character.  Such a purging would be the purging of the welfare dependency virus, no longer would the British people be able to look to the same for welfare or health care. This purging of the British character would lead to a rejuvenation of the British, they would become like their independent 18th and 19th century forebears who created the largest empire the world has seen. Some ultras are even speaking of the Empire 2.0.

However they show little awareness of history, the Greek political parties that dominated the Greek political scene prior to the crash of 2008 that is New Democracy and Pasok have disappeared from the political scene, as the people blamed them for the decimation of their incomes and economy. Although these Tory ultras are careful to remain in the background pulling the strings to ensure that the government commits to their desired hard Brexit, they would not be unable to avoid ‘ownership’ of the post Brexit economic crisis. They were members of the party of government that caused the economic crash and in any election many would be voted out by an angry electorate.

Greek tragedy provides a metaphor which can demonstrate the reality of the crisis facing Britain. In Greek tragedy the God’s raise the hero up, only to later destroy him. It is as if the God’s of the economy have raised the Brexiteers and Conservative Party Ultras to power only to destroy them. The Gods seem to have chosen the least capable and those least fitted for the role to lead the Brexit negotiation, knowing that their incompetence will be the cause of their downfall. It is tempting to refer to Winston Churchill wartime speeches in this context, because they see themselves in the Churchillian role of standing up to the continental tyrant. He said the Nazi’s would reap what they had sown, the same applies to the Brexiteers who will reap the consequences on what they have sown. Not the whirlwind of mass destruction but the whirlwind of economic destruction. Quite possibly the Conservative party, as with the conservative Greek New Democracy party will disappear from history.

Any prediction made by an economist is never more than a probability or a possibility. When the Bank of England predicted economic meltdown if Brexit occurred, it was widely assumed that they had made a terrible mistake, when this never happened. However this scenario was avoided through the prompt action of the governor of the Bank of England, who fearing a downturn in the economy, pumped billions of pounds of extra money into the economy to prevent that downturn happening. Similarly it is possible that the realists in the Conservative party regain control and instead of going for a decisive break from the EU with all it’s damaging consequences, they will negotiate a ‘soft Brexit’ which will minimise the damage to the British economy which will result from leaving the EU.

A new and unusual solution to economic policy making. ‘Wittgensteinian’ Economics.

Recently I have been reading Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein. In reading this book I realised that Wittgenstein’s approach to philosophy opens the possibility of there being a different approach to economics. What Wittgenstein is always criticising philosophers for is there constant search for the one grand theory, the unifying theory that answers all the questions. There was he argued no grand theory and it was pointless looking for one. This is an approach that I believe should be adopted in economics.

There is at present one theory that dominates economic policy making and that is what might be termed free market economics. One small book Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom’ is the origin of all current thinking on economics. Usually today it is known as Neo-liberal economics, an economic philosophy associated with the political right. Although there is a left of centre variant, new Keynesianism. Proponents of the latter claim to have rediscovered in Keynes writings his love for the free market and put to one side Keynes radicalism.

Keynes radicalism was the consequence of his despair at the misguided policy making of the governments of the 1920s and 30s. Usually the policies of the 19th century Parisian commune are ridiculed by economists. One policy that was held up to ridicule was the policy of having the unemployed dig up the paving stones, only to replace them later. The unemployed were paid a wage for this work. Economists saw this as a foolish waste of money that did little to improve the economy. However as Keynes pointed out this created an income for the unemployed and that there spending could help bring a dormant economy back into life.

What this illustrates is that Keynes was asking a different question to that asked by his contemporaries. He was trying to find an answer to the question, how do we bring to an end the misery of mass unemployment? His academic colleagues were asking a different question, how do we restore a dysfunctional economy back to being a fully functioning one that will in the long term work to the benefit all? Different questions have different answers. While Keynes advocated greater government spending to increase the demand for labour to reduce unemployment; they wanted to cut government spending, believing that only a prolonged period of sound finance and balanced budgets could create the strong economy, an economy which would eventually generate new economic growth and so ending the time mass unemployment. All this government could say to the unemployment was to have patience, as eventually the economy would pick up and they would have jobs. Keynes had one answer to this policy and that was in the long run we are all dead. There was also the unspoken assumption that growth generated by Keynes spending policies would be bad growth, whereas the economy eventually moved into the upswing in the trade cycle that this was good growth. A set of unprovable and dubious assumptions

When George Osborne adopted a similar policy in 2010, that of fiscal consolidation, cutting government expenditure and balancing the books, he repeated all the errors of the politicians of the 1920s and 30s. Mass misery, although this time not caused by unemployment, but low wages and the insecure employment of the ‘gig’ economy.

Wittgenstein’s last book was ‘Philosophical Investigations’ crystallised my thinking on economics. Rather than believing that there was one grand unified theory of economics, there are series of economic investigations which belong to one family, as they all bear a familial resemblance. The economy as subject matter is the familial resemblance. He also writes about the grammar of philosophy, which provides the format or structure for ensuring that the correct questions are asked or the correct philosophical investigations undertaken. What is the nature of good is an incorrect question. The correct question is what actions are understood as good. Asking people what is good is silly, as anybody when asked that question could give numerous examples. They understand the concept good, what they don’t need is a philosopher telling them what good means. Philosophers when asking this question brings itself into discredit, as the answer is either I don’t or a definition that lacks application or validity to everyday life.* Politicians are also failing to formulate their questions correctly. What they ask is that asked by the politicians of the 1930s how can we the economy to health. What they should be asking is a series of questions about the economy, such as how can unemployment be reduced, when looking for policy solutions to all these individual problems they will be answering the big question, of how can we restore the economy to good health.

I can give examples to demonstrate my thinking. The British economy has a number of dysfunctions within it, but ones that the Neo-Liberals believe only require the one solution. These dysfunctions are:

• Slow and anaemic economic growth

• The highest trade deficit as a percentage of GDP for a developed country, as a consequence of a shrinking manufacturing industry

• An unbalanced economy, one in which the financial service sectors are booming and manufacturing is in slow relative decline, an economy also unbalanced in that the southeast and London are experiencing high growth and incomes while the other regions experience the reverse

• An economy that is increasingly failing to deliver for increasing numbers of people, who are denied the essentials of a good life, that is fair incomes, secure employment and good housing.

• Income inequality is now approaching those levels last seen in the dismal 1930s

• The economy is increasingly subject to speculative booms and busts in the various asset market, usually such busts originate in the property market

• A country which shares record levels of indebtedness with Japan. The majority of British debt is private sector debt, which an upward shift in interest rates could make unsustainable, as too many households would have difficulty managing their debt repayments

There are other dysfunctions that I could add to the list, however I had to end the list somewhere. Only today Areon Davis (Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the end of the Establishment) has in today’s Guardian newspaper outlined a different set of market dysfunctions, which could result in a repeat of the 2008/9 financial crisis. Yet the Neo-Liberals politicians always resort to the same set of policy options to deal with each of these dysfunctions. They are

• Vary interest rates, either lower or raise them

• Reduce regulation on business, thereby reducing the regulatory role of the state

• Cut taxes and government spending

• Recently they have added a new measure – quantitive easing, that is increasing the supply of money to the banks

What the British economy requires is a different set of policy options for each of these major dysfunctions. Why do these politicians believe that the same policy options should be prescribed for each policy? A doctor prescribes antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection, he would not use them a patient that suffered a cardiac arrest, yet this is exactly what the government does with economic policy making. It’s always the same prescription, whatever the problem.

The economy is a dynamic organisation that is constantly changing and each change in the economy offers new benefits or brings to the fore new problems. There can be no one theory of everything, while Neo-Liberalism offers some policy options suitable for some problems, that is all it can offer. If instead politicians realised that each new problem the economy threw up was asking a new question of them and not just some variant of an old question policy making would improve. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, economics is a series of investigations that ask different questions, each of which requires a different response.

*I am aware that my brief paragraph does an injustice to Wittgenstein’s thinking, as I have taken elements from ‘The Brown and Blue Books’ and ‘Philosophical Investigations’, which are dissimilar books written at different stages in the development of Wittgenstein’s thinking. However to do so suited my purposes.

Why our economy constantly makes 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.