Category Archives: Economics

Why I am such a poor economist

Actually I think I am quite a good economist, but I fail to match up to the standards by which professional or academic economists judge other economists to be good. This failing in my practice of economics began to develop in 1966. Then I was appalled by an article I read, which was written by two economists from my university advising the government of the island of Mauritius on how to improve their failing economy. It was a blue print for the most severe form of what today would be called Neo-Liberal economics. A reform programme that if implemented would have impoverished thousands if not millions of Mauritians. There was also a professor at my university who advocated an increase in unemployment as the best means of ending the inflation that beset the British economy of the 1960s. Today most academic economists now see increased unemployment as a useful policy tool in management of the economy. Then in the 1960s, it was heresy, as too many people remembered the misery caused by the mass unemployment of the 1930s.

Unemployment has always been seen as a necessary feature of a functioning market economy by economists. They believe that a certain level of involuntary unemployment is a required to make the market function efficiently. If there are people unemployed there will always be workers available to for expanding firms to recruit and there will always be workers made newly unemployed by failing businesses. Unemployment when explained in these terms can be seen as justified, as the free market model suggests that there is but a short time in which workers remain unemployed. Unemployment then is a short term pain suffered by a few, their temporary period of pain was for the benefit of all.

However the economy never worked in the way described by economists. There were a number for whom unemployment was a temporary situation, but there were many for whom unemployment was for the long term and who were subject to life of poverty and misery. What economists failed to take into account was there was always a mismatch between the location of  unemployed workers and the location of the expanding businesses. Large scale unemployment always occurred in areas where many businesses were failing or where many had already failed.

Economists had an answer to this problem, the unemployed workers should move to the areas in which there was work available. This is a solution of unbelievable callousness, it treats people as if there were a resource similar to other non human factors of production. One that should be used as the business though fit. Never have economist recognised the inhumanity of their policies. One can be sure that all economists are unfamiliar with Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. A book in which he describes the miseries suffered by the ‘Oakies’, the people forced off the land in Oklahoma by the Great Dustbowl and forced to look for work in California.

What makes me a bad economist is that I can’t accept the inhumanity of my subject. The golden rule of economics is that labour or humanity is just a resource like any other and should not be treated differently. This is very much the accepted rule today. It is unusual to find any economist speaking against the closure of any business and the unemployment it creates. All they see is human resources freed to work in more profitable sectors of the economy, the recent spate of closures of retail businesses to economists just part of the structural change in the economy. Put simply online competition in the retail trade has forced many high street shops to close, which they see as a consequence of the essential restructuring of the market.

One might add that in a British economy that is struggling there are few of the profitable sectors of business that will recruit these workers. Usually redundant workers find work in which they are paid an average of 30% less than in there previous work. Skilled workers are forced to take relatively low paid work in call centres and warehouses. There is no happy ending to a period of unemployment that the economist claim.

There is to an economist such as myself (one who sees unemployment as an evil to be avoided wherever possible) an alternative explanation for the closure of these high street shops. For me an equally important factor in this situation is the inflexible and dysfunctional commercial property market. The shops are always situated in central areas of towns or cities where the shop sites command premium rents. Economic theory states that when the demand for a resource declines its price should fall. Recently the House of Fraser appealed to its landlords for a reduction in their shop rentals in light of there falling profits. There landlords will ignore their plea and continue to demand sky high rents. All these city centre or high street sites are owned by large property companies whose only concern is to extract the maximum possible rent from these sites. It matters little to them if the shops fail and thousands lose their jobs. What matters most to them is the rents remain high, even it that means the site remains vacant. These people are eternal optimists and will wait as long as it takes to find a new tenant who will pay there extortionate rents. What makes me a bad economist to my peers is that I would seek a different solution to the problems of the failing high street. The solution for me is to introduce some form of rent control, there are plenty of mechanisms that can be used to ensure that a fair rent is charged for a property. This would benefit the economy as it enable many viable businesses to survive that would otherwise be put out of business through excessively high rental costs. Also it would preserve many thousands of jobs that would otherwise be lost.

Before anybody criticises me for being unfair to the commercial landlords through forcing them to let properties for uneconomic rents. It should be noted that all our city centre properties are owned by a few large property companies. These companies operate an informal cartel in which they co-operate in their self interest to maximise their rental incomes. In the past it was quite usual for such cartels to be regulated by the state to prevent them from abusing their powers.

Where I differ from so many economists is that I believe that policy measures or economic practices that create unemployment should not be a first resort. The first option businesses consider to increase profits, should not be to shed staff. The hollowing out of a business whereby labour costs are reduced to a minimum through shedding staff and premises closed to reduce costs to increase overall businesses profitability should be made difficult to undertake*. When hollowing out of a business occurs it is not just the staff who suffer, but the customers who experience poor customer service or a reduction in the quality and range of goods on sale.

The problem for me is the inhumanity of much economic theory and practice. I cannot accept economic policy and business practices that damage society’s well being as ever being justified. Not only is much of current business practice as sanctioned by economics harmful to individuals but it is also harmful to the state. When workers are paid wages that are insufficient to support themselves and their families, the state has to step in to provide in work benefits. The cost of these in work benefits are very substantial and represent a huge subsidy to bad employers, as state struggles to ensure that these low paid workers get a living wage.

What I have to answer is why economists are so indifferent to the suffering of their fellow inhumanity. Why don’t economists care? The answer I think can be found in the writings of Wittgenstein. He introduces the concept of the language game, language for him is not universal there are groups with society that have their own language or language codes which have meanings that are understood only by them. One such group are economists we use words and phrases that have no meaning to outsiders, such as monopsony, giffen goods and zero lower bound. Some I can easily explain to non economists others I would find it practically impossible so to do. Economists have their own unique language embedded in which are truths only known to economists. The supreme good in which economists believe is the free market. The greatest gift that mankind gave to itself was the creation of the free market which ensures the most efficient and equitable distribution of goods and services. All economic policy making should be directed towards ensuring the most efficient operation this free market. Other economists such as myself that don’t share this belief are dismissed as poor economists.

There is one example from the 19th century which best demonstrates how economists think. When the Irish potato famine was at its height in 1846, the government suggested that it should import wheat from Russia to distribute to the starving Irish. Economists, landowners, land owing politicians and farmers objected. It would be an interference in the free running of the market and no good ever comes from government intervention in the market. Governments they said do not understand the workings of the free market. These objectors argued it would lower the price of wheat in the British market and put British farmers out of business. This they argued it would be bad, as it would reduce the number of farmers working in the industry and reduce in the long term food production in the British Isles, so causing problems in the future. Anybody familiar with Irish history knows that the government rejected the proposal to import wheat to feed the starving Irish, preferring to let them starve. To those who would say this is an unfair depiction of the mind set of economists, my rejoinder is that they know nothing of the thinking of the economists employed by HM Treasury.

Economists always have a defence against the claims that the practice of economics is an exercise in inhumanity. They will claim that the free market will in the long term provide all the benefits and goodies that it is possible for an economy to provide. All that is required in patience however Keynes provided the best retort to this thinking he said ‘that in the long run we are all dead.’

*One easy means of making hollowing out a less popular practice, would be to reintroduce the employment protection policies of the past, such ending the practice of zero hours contracts and other short term employment contracts that make it easy to dismiss staff. Re-introducing fair redundancy payments for dismissed workers would be another.

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When a visitor encountered the philosopher Democritius* in his garden, he to his surprise found him laughing uncontrollably. When asked why he was laughing, he said it was at the follies of mankind. If Democritius was living today he would have found plenty to laugh at in the follies of our leaders.

One of the more interesting of the Greek philosophers was the sceptic philosopher Pyrrho. This was a man so sceptical about the possibility of there being such as human knowledge, that he did not bother to look where he was going went he went walking, as he thought that if he was going to fall into a ditch there was little he could do to prevent it happening. While this story recounted by Diogenes Laërtius is apocryphal it does illustrate quite clearly the nature of his thinking. As all human knowledge was fallible, he said that we should be wary of putting too much trust in the great systems of the philosophers that claimed to ‘explain everything’. Why I value Pyrrho is he an  antidote to stupid thinking. Whenever I contemplate the latest popular fashion in contemporary thinking, I always think of Pyrrho. I am wary of the latest popular enthusiasms, whether it be for hygge, Gloop the philosophy of Gwyneth Paltrow or Neo-Liberalism, as on examination they all seem to rest on similarly filmsyl foundations.

Unfortunately politicians with a naive belief in rightness of free market economics are particularly prone to such stupid thinking. The politicians of the New Right,  despite their claims to realism are often the enthusiasts for the silliest of ideas. One such is the idea that the when the UK leaves the EU it can install an computer based system to record all foreign trade transactions. This scheme will operate so efficiently it is believed, that traders will find litle difference betwen the new trading system  and the current regulation free trade system. Traders will find it as easy to move goods in an out of the country as they do at present. The only flaw is that there is no such system anywhere in the world and the record of governments installing new computer systems is one of failure. This government has spent seven years trying and failing to introduce a computer system to pay benefits, the much derided universal credit system. If this scheme in which all the recipients of this benefit are already known and yet the government finds it impossible to get the scheme to work effectively, how can it possibly develop an IT scheme that will be able to handle the thousands of daily transactions that make up our international trade. Already the fallibility of the HMRC computer system enables thousands of people to avoid paying tax. Yet even although they know this, these Brexiters claim that they will be able to introduce a new marvellous IT system which will have none of the failings of any of its predecessors.

What Pyrrho would have advised these politicians and economists of the New Right to do; would have been to look at the past history of government failure in the procurement and introduction of new IT systems. This would have reminded the Brexit enthusiasts that there has never been a government IT scheme that has not been a magnificent failure.

If they were not convinced by that, he could have told them to look at the problems of IT in the defence system.  The operating system in our new aircraft carries is Windows XP, an operating system so outdated that Microsoft has stooped supporting it with updates. The vulnerabilities of this operating system were exposed when hackers (from North Korea)? were able to shut down so many of our hospitals that relied on this as an operating system. Also the broadband speeds available to these carriers does not exceed 8mb, a speed slower than most household broadband systems.  Pyrrho would have told these politicians to stop being foolish and indulging in stupid fantasies and instead address the reality of the real world of flawed computer systems.

Why blame economists when all the failures that I have outlined are those of the politicians? Quite simply because all these politicians of the New Right and our Brexit are believers in the economic philosophy called Neo-Liberalism. Neo-Liberal thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman have taught that mankind has invented the best possible of social institutions and that is the free market and that the role of politicians is merely to ensure the smooth operating of this market.

It would be anathema for these politicians to install customs barriers at our sea and airports, as that mean introducing a barrier into the smooth working of the free market. Their philosophy then poses for them an unsolvable problem. Having decided that the UK must leave the free trade area that is the Single Market and the Customs Union, how do they introduce customs barriers that are not customs barriers? They know that once they introduce customs checks on imports and exports at Dover, they face the possibility of there being long tailbacks of traffic. Some estimates state that these queues will be up to 15 miles long. Now having introduced a problem that has no solution, they resort to a fantasy answer. The IT system for exports and imports that they propose only exists in the realms of their imagination, it is incapable of an existence in the real world. Its nonsense but nobody in government wants to admit to this.

What puzzles me is the great majority of these politicians who are enthusiasts for this scheme studied philosophy at one of our elite universities as part of their Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree. Even although scepticism is not the fashionable mode of philosophy in our universities, philosophy departments do boast that they teach their students critical thinking. Obviously our politicians of the New Right seem to think that this is a skill that only applies to essay writing.

*Democritius was a philosopher who lived in the fourth century BC in the cityl of Adbera, Greece.

My Cursed Generation – the Baby Boomers

Seeing my nephew and all the other students graduate at his university produced within me a number of  mixed emotions. A pride in his success and that of the other students was mixed with a sense of despair about the world which they are about to inherit. While as individuals we have not been directly responsible for the actions of the powerful business corporations who with their political allies have been responsible for the devastation that they have wrought on the social fabric of our society; my generation has been complicit in support their destructive actions by giving them our support at the ballot box. In the last general election my generation overwhelming voted for the parties of the right. The parties whose policies are characterised by selfish individualism, greed and hatred of modernity. The vote to leave the EU was just one expression of this hatred of modernity. While we claim that we dislike European immigrants taking jobs away from our young people, what we hate more is the diverse ethnic makeup of our cities, which we associate with modernity. When a leader of the ‘leave Europe and hate modernity’ party complained that when he travelled on a train to London he could not hear one English voice amongst the speakers he was speaking for far too many of my generation.

I call my generation the  ‘cursed generation,’ because we were cursed by being born into wealth. Not the great wealth of the rich but a relative wealth, we were all aware how lucky we were not to have experienced the hardships of our parent’s generation. I can remember my father telling me that his family only had meat one day a week. On other days they had to resort to cutting for themselves a piece of ‘chitlin’ which was a slab of cured pig fat hanging in an outhouse. As a child I had meat every day of the week, even if some of those meals were of low quality meat. The English sausage which was a stable of so many meals in the 1950s contained almost as much bread as it did meat. We all knew that compared to our parents we were the privileged generation. It was this sense of privilege that was corrosive of our sense of collective morality.

All the belief systems of the past that had motivated our parents generation to work for a better Britain died in our generation.Being the generation of wealth we developed our own new beliefs. Ours was the generation of the teenager, a generation that had the money to spend on clothes and entertainment. When our parents were teenagers their appearance mirrored that of their parents. Their teenage years were for them but a short introduction to adult life. My father was at the age of 14 given the job of stacking the hay bales after harvest. It was an unpleasant job as mixed with the hay were thistles that priced the skin. He could not wait to get an adult job and leave behind his childhood. There was for him and millions of others no teenage.  Unlike my generation for whom it was a period of privileged irresponsibility. We could go out in the evening to clubs, buy fashionable clothes (which our parents hated), we were not overburdened with the sense of earning the income necessary for survival. Somehow this sense of childish irresponsibility never completely left us with the onset on adulthood. We were the first generation of child adults. The respected behaviour was one of self indulgence. We spent money on clothes, home entertainment and foreign holidays. Very much like the monied aristocracy of the past we became a generation of self indulgence. What mattered to us was how we spent our money, what had been the great issues of the past faded into insignificance.

A political ideology developed which mirrored the childish self indulgence of my generation, that of the New Right. The individualist philosophies which gave expression to our self indulgence were the philosophies of choice. What they damned was the corporate state, the state which provided had good quality social housing, ensured employed rights at work. They portrayed the laws and regulations of the good society as so many restrictions on individual freedom. A philosophy which won wide support among the baby boomers. When the Labour party in 2015 proposed a wealth tax on the most expensive of properties, the baby boomers uttered a collective expression of rage, as they were the prime beneficiaries of the housing boom. It mattered little to them that this money would go to fund local community services. If chance had increased the value of your house to £4 million, you claimed instead that the increase in value was due to your work in improving the house and that they state had no right to tax you for enjoying the benefits of your hard work.

One of the strange successes of this policy of freedom was the almost completer removal of state supplied social housing in many desirable areas. The ‘right to buy meant that tenants in local authority housing were able to buy them at a discount. Now thirty-seven years after the policy was introduced a majority of those houses are now in the hands of buy to let landlords. Now the tenants in these properties are forced to pay exorbitant rents and suffer anxieties of insecurity of tenure. Governments privileged potential landlords further by giving them the right to remove their tenants with only two months notice and so effectively ending tenants security of tenure. Right to buy has disadvantaged social housing tenants through denying them low cost housing and security of tenure. What the philosophers of the right failed to explain was that their philosophies of choice would privilege only a few individuals, the rich and powerful not the great majority.

Given the childish self indulgence of my generation it is not surprising that the newspaper, that so many of them choose to read was the one that deliberately crafted in message in a format that could be read by a child. Initially the owner of this most popular of papers insisted the articles in his paper should be written in the language that could be understood by the average thirteen year old. Today it has  been so dumbed down that the wording of its articles is that which could be comprehended by a seven year old. What better newspaper to popularise the political philosophy of individualism and self indulgence?

The political philosophy of these newspapers is very much that of the playground. When a child you want to belong, and you belong you must be a member of a gang. These childhood gangs have criteria for acceptance, criteria that must be met by all members. They have a definite sense of who cannot belong, who must be excluded from the gang in our to maintain its identity. If anybody could become a gang member the gang would cease to exist. Similarly our tabloid press identifies those who have a right to belong to the British gang and those who don’t. The don’ts are the poor, particularly those on benefit, European immigrants, particularly those of the East and European politicians of all sorts. All those who pose a threat to the British gang’s identity are to be excluded from membership. Just as children do, these papers subject the ‘outsiders’ to all kinds of abuse, reminding them that they are not wanted in the British gang.

Although mine was the self proclaimed generation of the age of Aquarius, that was an illusion. Instead it is the generation that disliked all that the Age of Aquarius brought with it. The disproportionate voting of my generation for Brexit and the Conservative party, is nothing more than the expression of this dislike.  I recently read an article by Thomas Franks about Republican supporters of Donald Trump which I think best explains this phenomenon. What we remember of our childhood was that it is was one of security, prosperity and endless summer holidays. Part of the reason for our roseate memories are that as children we were protected by our parents from the nastiness of society. However it was also a time of full employment, good wages and good housing for all who needed it. All that has vanished from society largely due to the rapacious behaviours of the large business corporations and their political allies. Yet rather than apportion blame were its due, we lay the blame at the feet of modernity. Modernity for us is the most visible expression of the modern bad times. As a group we dislike the ethnic mix in our big cities, we want to return to the security of our childhood. A childhood in which all the people were white ethnic British, as it as a time of job security, fair wages and the many other things that we associate with the good society. All of which are lacking today, so we think if we return to the past we will get all those good things that we had then. A belief not so dissimilar to those much derided cargo cults of the Pacific Islands. Instead of worshipping Prince Phillip and waiting for him to return and return all the wealth stolen by the Europeans, we worship the past and believe if somehow we could return to it, we would be able to return to the good society of the past.

I do believe that it is my generation’s innate sense of childishness and its nostalgia for a fondly remembered past, that makes it so susceptible to the siren appeal of the stories of the New and Alt Right.

Why economists don’t do happiness

Just last week my daughter told me that she was pregnant and it made me realise that there is a gaping hole at the centre of economics.  Economists state that anything that people value is to be considered as wealth. Yet there is an inconsistency according to this criteria  as much is missing from the lists of what economists classify as wealth. All those pleasures that mean so much, yet which cannot be ‘monetarised’ are ignored. Even if these many uncounted pleasures do add to the well being of an individual. Going back to my daughters pregnancy all an economist can tell me is the cost of bringing a child into the world and that the cost of their upbringing, will possibly to be offset by their later productivity as an adult. Only the negatives count, pleasure and happiness are missing from the economists index of wealth.

It is not that economists are unaware of the importance of happiness as part of the make up of an individuals well being, its just that they have no method of quantifying it, as they cannot count units of happiness, so they just ignore it.

The government has shown some awareness of this problem and they have produced a happiness index. They conduct social surveys to measure the happiness quotient. However there is always a great deal of cynicism about the project and its claim to have identified the happiest town are generally taken with a pinch of salt. Although the governments attempt to quantify happiness and to measure the overall level of happiness can be justified, as it does need to know the state of the nations well being. Yet it is of limited value, a recent international survey claimed that Norway was the happiest of countries. A survey dismissed by one Norwegian who said how can the introverted and anxious Norwegians be happier that the extroverted Greeks.

Although not a professional economist, George Osborne (former chancellor of the exchequer) he does belong in the category of ‘miserablilist’ economists, he made one of the most infamous statements about how human frivolity impacted badly on the economy. When a national holiday was given to celebrate the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, he bemoaned the lost productivity due to the people having an extra day’s holiday. He as a typical Gradgrind economist, could even give a spurious figure in billions for the estimated cost of lost output. Economists don’t do happiness or pleasure as it does contribute to a measurable increase in the nations wealth.  If it can’t measured it does not count. Economists have contributed a ‘miserablist’ mentality to the national consciousness.

Although I know of no studies of weddings by economists, they are one of those pleasurable occasions that consume large quantities of wealth and that appear to make little meaningful contribution to the nation’s wealth. Therefore they meet with their disapproval. Earlier this year my daughter got married and we spent a substantial sum of money on the occasion.  Economists would describe this as a  potlatch* like ceremony, a ceremonial practice in which the families give away substantial amounts of their wealth. This mood of disapproval infects the media, there are constant censorious articles about the nation’s excessive spending  on weddings. While I don’t intend to defend the spending of the rich, as when one rich young woman spent £12 million on her wedding, what I do want to defend is the spending of the average family on a wedding.

When I looked up the practice of potlatch on Wikipedia,  it reminded me that the practice was intended to strengthen social bonds within the tribal group. Exactly the same is true of contemporary weddings, they add glue to the social cohesion of society. My family is as so many in contemporary Britain an extended family. Social and economic change has dispersed the family across the country. Only at weddings and funerals do the family come together. Weddings being the more effective glue as they are a happy occasion and people are more willing to come together for such occasions. What such family get togethers do is to counter fissiparous tendencies of the free market. A largely unregulated free market such as that which is destructive of all social bonds. This destructiveness also has a cost but one that is never counted.

If I can give an example of this. Teaching was once a family friendly occupation, parental leave was generous compared to other occupations and the maternity leave was assured. However now the free market has been introduced to the education system, maternity leave is no longer celebrated. Losing an experienced teacher to either maternity or paternity leave is seen as taking a valuable asset out of the classroom. The management in schools are now uniformly hostile in their attitude to new parents. Now there is the obligatory out of school hours working that negatively impacts on childcare. Teachers are expected to put in several out of hours work both in school and out of it. When family life is put under such stress it makes breakdown of the family more likely. When 1  in 3 of new marriages end in divorce, the harsh economic and social system in the UK must be a large factor contributing to this.

Durkheim identified this sense of social isolation, which he called anomie, as significant factor that contributed to the individual committing the act of  suicide. Some doubt has been thrown on his research; but there is evidence that the loss of community is a factor in the development of mental and physical ill health in individuals. There is even some research that suggests that those who live alone are more likely to develop dementia. The cost of family and community break up is never costed. Michael Polanyi stated that the free market is a threat to social order. He wrote that the state should intervene to mitigate the worst effects of the free market. He believed that Britain only avoided revolution in the late eighteenth century, because all those thousands of hand loom weavers made unemployed by the factory system could get money from the parish with which to support themselves and their families. In France of the same period it was the unemployed and hungry poor who provided the muscle to overthrow the royalist system of government. They were the sans culottes who cheered the execution of the king.

While the free market in Britain has not created the misery equivalent to that, which the economic upheaval in the eighteenth century caused, it has wrecked damage on the social fabric. Why I as an economist celebrate the ‘excessive’ spending on weddings, is that it is the push back by families and individuals against the destructiveness of the free market system. Governments have  been complicit in this laying waste, removing employment protection laws and enabling the most unfriendly of family employment practices to become widespread. The government is now being forced to recognise the high cost of the free market unfriendly policies of business. Only recently it introduced a policy guaranteeing thirty hours of free child care at a nursery.  An inadequate and under funded child care programme, but least it’s a belated recognition of the problem. However it still remains hostile to those organisations and groups that resist the worst abuses of the free market.

In such a society when the government does little to prevent the divisive forces of the free market wreaking havoc on the social system, it is essential that there is some countervailing force that resists this most destructive of forces. The family is one such unit and the other is the local community. People need some security that comes from the feeling of belonging, something which a market of freely competing individuals does not offer. Although even the government is careless of the health of the family, doing little to offset the damage done to this social institution by the free market. Unlike the free marketeers of business and government, people see the family unit as being essential to their well being and will constant remake the family unit in whatever mutation. The family survives as an extended family, as family members are able to exploit new technology such as the smart phone to strengthen family links.

Economists fail to recognise that the free market can only prosper in an ordered society. A society of all against all is one that is going to fail.In a society whose raison d’etre is competitiveness and insecurity, it is left to the family to provide that sense of security and personal well being that is so essential of personal well being. This is why I value the wedding, as it celebrates the most essential of social units the family. For this economist long may families go on spending large sums on weddings as is a celebration of social togetherness, and as such it is the one remaining bulwark against the destructive individualism of the free market. Economists’ only  have the tools to celebrate production, they have no means of celebrating human happiness or togetherness. Simply put economists don’t do happiness and given their influence on politicians and policies their input into the political process can be very damaging.

*Potlatch a practice of giving away the families wealth, which could involve the destruction of such wealth. It was a custom practised by the Indians of Northwest USA and Canada. It was a practice designed to strengthen social bonds and to maintain social equality. No one individual was able to accumulate wealth and become the rich and powerful individual who would dominate tribal society.

Is it fair to compare today’s Brexiteers with yesterday’s Nazis?

This is my reply to a friend who said I was wrong to see similarities between the rise of the Brexiteers in Britain to the rise of the Nazis in Germany

Almost every day there is an event or a happening that reminds me that I am living in very strange times.  Its almost a feeling of déjà vu, except this sense of déjà vu comes from my knowledge of history. I can understand the feelings of the German citizen of the Weimar Republic who watched in horror as his country was taken over by the party of the ‘crazies’ and ’no-nothings’. Until the late 1920s the Nazi’s existed as a ridiculous but violent fringe group that had little impact on the politics of the country. When the Great Depression left the government looking helpless in face of this crisis, the Nazis were able to capitalise on this and campaign as the party with an answer and the one who understood the pain of the losers. The Leavers or Brexit campaigners were also a small fringe group once called ‘fruit cakes and nut cases’ by a Prime Minister.  Just as with the Nazis they were able to exploit the discontent among the people caused by de-industrialisation in the old manufacturing towns and years of austerity following the financial crash of 2008. Just like the Nazis their support came from those seeing themselves as the ‘left behind’. Now these ‘fruitcakes and nut cases’ have their representatives in the government. The ruling conservative  grouping in parliament has co-opted them into government, hoping to use their popularity to offset their own unpopularity. Now we have our own Von Papen hoping to use these extremists for her own ends, although history suggests she is more likely to be used by them to achieve their extremist agenda.

While most leading political figures of the leave movement would reject any similarities with the Nazi party of the 1930s, there are in fact many similarities. When I write of the ‘crazies’ I mean the right wing zealots and Europhobes who want to take Britain back to a past of their own imagining. Some extremists have even spoken of a British Empire 2.0. The heroic imagined past of the leavers is Britain of the 1950s, an island of heroes that had defeated the Nazis. The heroic past that the Nazis wanted to take Germany back was the age of Siegfried and the Nibelungenlied. This they would achieve by taking the people out of the cities and moving them back to the land. The hard physical life on the land would develop in the Germans the heroic virtues of that characterised the German warrior people of the sagas. Opting out the industrial age was no more a realistic policy, than is opting out of the international trading system. Neither can be achieved, yet that does not deter the zealots.

What the Brexiteers and the Nazis also have in common is the hatred of modernity. The Nazis believed that the cities and cosmopolitan spirit within them sapped the strength of the German culture. Germans were no longer the ‘blond beasts’ of Nietzsche’s writings. Cosmopolitanism was an alien introduction to the German culture, one brought in by an alien race, the Jews. Brexiteers also hate the cosmopolitan spirit which they believe has corrupted the purity of the British national character. Obviously the alien force that is responsible for this is the EU and the associated influx of European immigrants. What both want is the expulsion of these alien forces from their country. The Nazis confiscated Jewish property and created such a hostile climate in for the jews, that many felt that they should leave.  It is no coincidence that there are echoes of this policy in that of the British Home Office, which has been charged with creating a hostile climate for undesirable EU immigrants, so forcing them to leave. (At present it appears to be a policy focused on Eastern Europeans and those EU immigrants that are homeless. Although given the nature of the current political leadership that hostility could be extended to other groups of EU citizens.)

Hitler was very much the social conservative. One of his first actions was to discourage women from working. Women for him were primarily homemakers and bearers of the next generation of German children. Our Brexiteers are also social conservatives, most of whom would wish to return  to women to their traditional role as homemakers. They have been a strong influence on the government, this is a government which is making abortion more and more difficult to achieve. If abortion becomes increasingly difficult it means women will be increasingly forced into child caring roles and will have to leave the workforce. It is no coincidence that this government has announced that it will give a very generous grant to the anti-abortion charity Life.

Initially the Nazis were dismissed as not being a serious political party not just for there fantastical beliefs, but because so many of their leadership were relatively uneducated men. Leading politicians dismissed them as an irrelevance because they could never see such ill educated men ever being serious actors within the political process. The coarseness of their manner and speech made it easy to dismiss them as an irrelevance. Not so long ago the then Prime Minister dismissed the UKIP voters as a group of as fruit cakes. He as an Oxbridge first could not take these relatively uneducated people seriously. Now these people, as did the Nazis when they first entered into a coalition with Von Papen hold the whip hand in government. They despite there seeming ignorance of European affairs are dictating the terms on which Britain negotiates to leave the EU. The Prime Minister who to retain the support of them keeps talking about a no-deal being better than a bad deal. This is in spite all the advice from economists that such a rupture from Europe will have a disastrous impact on the economy. Just like the German conservatives who were willing to accept the nonsensical beliefs about the malign Jewish influence, the Prime Minister has readily adopted the Brexiteers belief that the EU is a malign influence on the UK. She has adopted the worrying practice of the Weimar politicians who willing swamped a realistic world view of for fantastical one, as a means of staying in power.

What makes the comparison between the German conservatives of the 1930s and British conservatives of today, is this last point. There willingness to abandon their realistic world view for the fantastical one of their former enemies. Just recently one of the leading Remain conservatives demonstrated this trend. She said that although Brexit might cause some problems, the British people would rise to the occasion and make a success of Brexit. With no evidence for this, there cannot be a greatest example of foolish wishful thinking. Conservatives of the Weimar Republic and contemporary Britain would rather go along the madness of their own extremists, as they saw that madness as being less damaging to the country that ceding power to the opposition. As further evidence of this adoption of the fantastical world view of the extreme right, they insist of referring to the parliamentary opposition as dangerous radicals. Yet the policy proposals of this party are very mild in comparison with that of the Labour Party of 1945.

While I would not suggest that the Brexiteers are Nazis, there are so many points of similarly that such comparisons are valid. One clinching argument for me is that both are enemies of democracy. This government of leavers has done everything possible to avoid an open debate or real scrutiny of their Brexit policies in Parliament. Their argument is that of authoritarian governments everywhere, which is that secrecy is necessary if they are to make a success of their negotiations; any open discussion of policy options would weaken their hand. Only yesterday the Brexit secretary in reply to questioning from a House of Lords Committee, said in effect trust me. He was not prepared to submit to any democratic scrutiny. of his negotiations with the EU.

Against Riches

Socrates is perhaps the first of the great philosophers and he was hopeless with money. His wife was driven to despair when he instead of working at his profitable trade as a stone mason, he spent his time in philosophical discussions with his friends in the market place. There is some dissonance between philosophers and wealth. Even when such as Bertrand Russel they inherit wealth, they usually mismanage it and bequeath their heirs less wealth than they themselves inherited. Wittgenstein was a philosopher in the true socratic tradition, he gave the estates he inherited to his brother, as managing an estate would be a distraction to his study of philosophy. There is something about the love of wisdom that causes philosophers to disdain wealth.

Wealth does seem to produce trivial or just plain silly thinking in the people that possess it in abundance. Possibly best demonstrated in the life style website Goop of the actress of Gwyneth Paltrow. There one can find all manner of bizarre lifestyle practices that are claimed to enable the practitioner to lead a better life. While such sites are easily mocked and are of little real significance, what is disturbing the reverence with which the thoughts of the very rich are treated. Billionaires think that the possession of such great wealth distinguishes them from the common run of mankind. They see themselves as supermen, who think that they should be privileged not just for their possession of great wealth, but for there thinking, they are the thinkers of exceptional thougts. I remember reading as a child that the common man would be out of their depth at the dinner table of the Mountbatten’s*, because these gifted individuals thought thoughts beyond the comprehension of the ordinary man.

These ‘great thinkers’ can rely upon myth makers to weave a story that demonstrates their superiority. Ayn Rand is the latest of the myth makers who claim the possession of great wealth as an indicator of a great mind, a person who is one of society’s shakers and movers. Prior to that it was people such as Lord Blake who claimed that membership of the aristocracy was the best qualification that a person could have for leadership roles in society.

Yet when the thoughts of these great men are examined, they are notable not for there genius but their mediocrity. I remember reading of what billionaire who claimed to be able to solve Britain’s unemployment problem. He claimed that it could be done by abolishing the minimum wage. What he claimed was that the current wage rates made too many people to expensive to employ, therefore there was unemployment. Obviously if wages were cut all would be employed. What never occurred to him was that a certain minimum level of income was necessary for human survival. The fact that low wages would lead to hunger and other social ills was of no consequence to him. For him the poor never featured in his thinking as fellow human beings.

The question I want to answer is why does the possession of great wealth make it impossible to think great thoughts. I am not condemning the possession of wealth, just the possession of great wealth. As a person of modest wealth that would be hypocritical, I do believe that there is a certain minimum level of wealth that is necessary for the good life. There is no virtue is not being able to pay the bills.

When trying to ask why such ordinary men believe that they alone are uniquely gifted with knowledge denied to others, one answer is arrogance. The vast majority of the wealthy were born into wealth and as such from the very moment they were conscious, they expected to be deferred to by those around them.Whatever they said would be treated with respect, no matter how silly their ideas. Growing up on a country estate, I soon learnt that the greatest misdemeanour was to show disrespect to the seigneur or a member of his extended family. Disrespect meant uttering some disagreement no matter how moderate the thoughts expressed by a member of this group. The father of the current seigneur demanded that his workers only spoke to him if he spoke to them first. Anybody who disrespected this rule was immediately dismissed. While this is an extreme example, it does demonstrate how privilege of birth leads to the corruption of the intellect.

All of these people it can be argued have been educated at our elite universities, so they should as Lord Mountbatten thought be better educated than the common place individual. However such education seems to be designed to give them an elegance of expression rather than of thought. All the lazy prejudices of the wealthy are given a literary sheen that makes them when expressed appear profound. A friend of mine who was a former member of the working classes, always criticised Bob Crowe* when he appeared on television for the inarticulate nature of his expression and thinking. What he was doing was equating a limited verbal vocabulary with an unsophisticated manner of thinking. Yet I never heard him utter such criticisms of the various representatives of the employing class or the political right who appeared on TV. He as with all of us was over impressed with an elegance of speech which disguised a vacuity of thinking.

Probably it helps that the ideas of the wealthy are so often part of the mainstream of the public dialogue.  In an unequal society the ideology of social and intellectual inequality is one of the essential props necessary for the perpetuation of the system. Therefore it is easier to get one’s thinking accepted and into print if such thinking accords with the accepted belief system. Finding a publisher is much easier if an individual writes in the language of the mainstream. The media then confirms the thinking of the most mediocre of the class of the wealthy. It really should be of little surprise that the wealthy and privileged should think that their thoughts are those that are correct and true, as they are rarely exposed to contrary thinking in the media.

What I want to argue for is the superiority of the thinking of the lower middle classes, a group for whom life is often a struggle. This is not a struggle for survival but a struggle for success. A struggle to gain those material goods thought necessary for the good life. Yet they are also group which has sufficient leisure for study and whose education introduced them to the writings of the great thinkers of the past. Aristotle was a doctor and as such is one whose life is an exemplar for the middle class thinker. There is no privilege, one has to earn the right to heard, one has to compete within the market place of ideas. Not having a privileged status one is denied to opportunity to think stupid thoughts, as such thinking would be ridiculed. Isaiah Berlin wrote that the case for right wing philosophy is almost impossible to make*. A reasoned philosophy cannot have as it’s founding principles self satisfaction, complacency, greed or the abuse of power. When people such as Lord Blake defend privilege they rely upon tradition, they see tradition as the passing down of a superiority in thinking and manner from one privileged generation to another. Bear and bull baiting were traditional sports practised in Britain for centuries, yet this did not make them right, both were justly outlawed because of they were barbaric. Blake’s defence of privilege is equally fallacious.

Not having a privileged upbringing makes one aware of the inequalities and unfairness of human society, whether one wishes it or not you are constantly being reminded of the failings of that society. One is born a critic of society, a discontent being inured which makes one instantly critical of existing human practices and ideas.  Without this critical faculty, thinking becomes trivial ,insubstantial and uninteresting, it is the thinking of the self satisfied. This sense of a lack of an indefinable something in society is what drives us to look for new and different answers. Kierkegaard writes of the abyss, the point at beyond which the thinking person comes to that point at human thought ceases provide any meaning to life. For Kierkegaard it is at this point that people turn to Christ. Only Christ can provide this missing something . Although I love Kierkegaard as an author, I would suggest that this sense of an abyss instead forces on one a recognition of the inadequacy of existing ideas and the desperation to seek new answers.  I don’t believe philosophers can ever adequately answer the problem posed by the abyss. Every generation will find fault with existing thinking and will feel the need to find new answers to the challenge of the abyss. It is the reinventing of the wheel but a very profitable reinventing. Being born to wealth means the sense of the abyss will never be as acute, as wealth can always buy distractions from the abyss. Possibly this is why the life of the super rich is one of conspicuous consumption, they constantly need new toys to distract them from the emptiness of their lives.

If the rich and privileged are not capable of great thoughts, I would argue that they are disqualified from great holdings of wealth which give them power over the lives of others, which they are not qualified to possess. There is one contemporary example which demonstrates the unfitness of the rich to their wealth. Hugh Hefner the millionaire publisher used his magazine ‘Playboy’ as a vehicle for promoting his thinking and superior lifestyle. A man whose written thoughts were no more than a manual on how to exploit young women, which demonstrates the essential nastiness that is at the heart of the culture of the rich and powerful.

* A former member of the Royal family at whose table the now Prince of Wales regularly dined.

  • The former leader of the RMT union who in negotiations regularly outsmarted his opponents. Men all of whom had been educated at the elite universities and whom one would think would be superior in the skills of reasoning and argument. I do suspect Bob Crowe overplayed his inarticulacy, so as to give his opponents a false sense of superiority.
  • One exception to the rule is Michael Oakshott, but his conservative philosophy was a philosophy of scepticism, which was inherited  from the Greek philosophers of scepticism, men such as Pyrro and Sextus Empiricus. Reading Wikipedia `I see that I have a very different understanding of Michael Oakshott to that of the author of an article on him.

My missing medicine and Brexit

Yesterday I was confronted by the reality of what will be the post Brexit world. I went to the pharmacist to collect my prescribed medication for treating my high blood pressure. Instead of the expected two packets of pills I received one. The pharmacist said that I should come back in two weeks for the other packet as there were problems with the supply of this drug. When I asked why there was a problem he sad it was the manufacturer, what he suggested was that they were not producing this drug at the moment. This I found very surprising as it’s a very common drug for which there is a constant and high demand. Then I realised its Brexit, we are not beginning to enter the world in which the essentials are in short supply.

One obvious problem it appears is capacity. Uncertainty about the future has discouraged business investment. (Something that in more honest times was termed an investment strike.) I assume that the pharmaceutical company was unwilling to invest in new machinery has they felt little confidence about the prospects for the economy in the future. Politicians are unable to offer any clarity what will be the post Brexit settlement. Correctly businesses assume that confusion amongst the political leadership as to what Brexit means and how negotiations should be conducted means that post Brexit Britain will be an economic mess. Why invest in expensive new machinery if the manufacturer believes the future is bleak. Therefore what prevails in industry is a culture of make do and mend. Under such circumstances there will be recurrent shortages of supply.

This suggests many possibilities such as that one of the machines making this drug has suffered a breakdown and the manufacturer is waiting for the necessary part to repair the machine. The past will probably be coming from abroad as the British machine tool industry has shrunk so much that it is unlikely that there is a British company making the required part. Obviously if the key part is being imported this will add to the delay. Although it is more likely that the manufacturer has delayed the costly repair work and is content to let stocks run down, hoping that when that point is reached economic circumstances are more propitiate and then they will feel the outlay on repairs is justified. One frightening alternative is that the manufacturer of this drug has decided not to manufacture it any more as it takes a gloomy view of the future economic prospects.

In such lean times as the present it is quite possible that the manufacturer has shut down one production line to keep costs down. If the drug that I use offers only a low profit margin to the manufacturer, it will be one of the first to be shut down. If a number of such drug manufacturers take the same attitude a shortage of this drug will soon develop.

There is one further complicated factor, all businesses now operate a just in time policy. This means that they only have enough stock in hand to met immediate demand. Keeping large stocks is expensive and cost conscious firms prefer to keep the minimum stock in hand. When the economic future is so uncertain these just in time stocks will be reduced to the barest possible minimum to reduce costs. If all firms are doing the same shortages will develop and pharmacists will be forced to shop around to find the drugs they need. The pharmacy that I use is part of a large chain and it is quite likely that they also are minimising their costs by holding a minimum of stock in there warehouses. What this means is shortages and delays in obtaining medicine are going to become more common.

When the railways were privatised in Britain it was so poorly managed that Britain became a case study for economists in how not to privatise a transport service. Similarly Brexit will provide a case study for economists as to how a successful economy was turned into a basketcase through the mistaken actions of a group of incompetent politicians.