Category Archives: Greek Drama

Ugly economics an explanation of why we are in a mess

Plato developed the theory of forms which stated that all the virtues such as good and beauty were but mere copies of their ideal forms that existed beyond the sphere of life inhabited by humanity. In Plato’s creation myth the demigod who creates mankind makes mankind from the only material available, clay. A being made up of inferior materials unlike the Gods could never see the virtues in their true forms and would never able to appreciate true Good or Beauty. These inferior beings could only apprehend what were in effect rough and ready copies of the true virtues. Men could only know an approximation of the virtues. Although Plato was writing two thousand years ago his theory of the forms describes accurately the state of current economic knowledge, it is but a very imperfect copy of what might constitute true economics.

When I read economics what is striking is the lack of beauty in the subject, unlike for example physics there is no beauty in its formulations. Physics reveals the beauty of the universe, whereas all economics does is to reveal the ugliness of human society. The words of Gordon Gecko that ‘greed is good’ can be taken as the principle from which all current economic analysis derives. Our current Chancellor of the Exchequer believes that rewarding greed through  tax cuts for the wealthy is good, whereas helping the poor through welfare payments is bad, as it merely rewards a group of losers who are deprived of the incentive (compulsion) to work to provide for themselves and their families.

As a NeoPlatonist I recognise that although all the human sciences cannot be one or another form of moral philosophy; I do believe that a good social science should be informed by at least some of the virtues. Whenever I read an economic text it is very rare that I am grabbed by the beauty of the writing. All too often it is a struggle to get through some poorly written text.  A text that is peppered with difficult to understand economic terms, words that disguise the emptiness of the written text.  I believe that a text that is ugly in its construction can only create something that is ugly.

Good writing is that which contains understanding of beauty and as such moves the reader bad or ugly writing lacks any of the other virtues and as such has lost  touch with humanity. The government by constantly referencing ugly economics to justify all forms of unpleasant policy measures. One of the hidden scandals is the number of disabled and ill people who have succumbed to sudden death, as a consequence of sudden and unexpected benefit cuts. There are those ill and disabled who have resorted to suicide in consequence of the sudden loss of the income on which they depend.  Normally in such situations policy measures that have caused death would produce some contrition within political classes. The harsh welfare polices of the past few years have produced no such reaction. Instead ugly economics gives the justification to such measures, as what counts is the effectiveness of the whip that compels people to work. Government policy seems to a perverted inversion of Plato’s theory of forms. The supreme good is the balanced budget and subordinate policies such as welfare cuts are intended to make possible the attainment of this supreme goal. If this is the supreme good of human society it must be a very poor or mediocre society that sees this as its supreme good, a society which has rejected any sense of the grand vision that society’s of the past embodied. Athen’s with the construction of the Parthenon is one example of the grandeur of the human vision, contemporary Britain in which the only large constructions are shopping centres or malls sense to represent the very rejection of the grandeur that is humanity.

If Britain is to be judged by it’s leaders it is a nasty society bereft of any of the virtues that make a great society. A society which uses hunger as a scourge to make the poor work lacks any of the virtues that make a great society. All it’s leading politicians are like Socrate’s Alcibiades, a physically beautiful young man in appearance but in an inversion the Silenus dolls were ugly only on the inside he was ugly on the inside. Physical beauty concealed an ugly soul. It is not a true demonstration of the ugly society that politicians take great pains over their appearance, maintaining their youthful image through jogging or other forms of exercise and cosmetic surgery, What matters is their image, how they appear on the media. All our leaders tend to exhibit that fatal Alcibiades trait, beautiful on the outside ugly on the inside.

Perhaps it is being too unfair to blame the proponents of ugly economics for the mess that we are in. Could it not be equally possible that it is the ugly society which has created an ugly economics to match its essential ugliness. If economists are merely responding to the demand from the major power holders in society for a theory to justify their existence, they are culpable of devising a message that enables the ugly society to thrive. Their privileged role as the sanctioned intelligentsia serve to suppress any alternative voices. They are like the garden weed that denies those food plants we desire the space in which to grow and thrive.

Can a sense of collective depression account for the decline of Britain and the West

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Image taken from socialworktutor.com

Periodically I suffer from depression and with depression comes a self loathing. The depressed individual sees themselves only in terms of their failings, it is a worse picture scenario. When going through a bad patch I would compare myself unfavourably with others, in my mind I over exaggerated their strengths and virtues and under estimated my own. Something similar has happened to Western democracies, they seem to be under going a collective depression. This collective lack of self confidence negatively impinges on our choice of leaders. We just them by their failings not their strengths, we have lost the ability to pick leaders on the basis of their strengths.

Womanising politicians such as John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Lloyd George would have never made it near the top in our contemporary world. A rival would have revealed their many liaisons to the press so as to destroy their career. Yet these three men were visionaries who could envisage a better world and could motivate others to share their visions. David Lloyd George had a vision of a society in which the ills of the industrial revolution were ameliorated through the provision of unemployment benefit. Franklin Roosevelt bought into effect the New Deal which ended the mass unemployment and poverty of the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy initiated the Great Society and under the aegis of this umbrella term many reforms such as Medicare where introduced to improve the lot of the less well off in American society and he started the process that ended worst forms of racial discrimination in the USA. Black Americans now had the protection of the law and killing of ‘uppity Negroes’ had became a crime. This is not to deny that politicians with exemplary family lives don’t make great leaders, but as leaders are chosen on the basis of whether or not they behave well towards family, excludes the great leaders who have had a less than moral personal life.

Britain in particular cannot conceive of leaders except in terms of their vices or relative lack of vices. Not being a self confident society, it like the depressive only sees the world around them in the worst possible terms. Great ideas and the associated visionary politics have disappeared from British society. Now great ideas are seen to be a propaganda cover for a particular interest. Words are bandied about by politicians but those words have no real meaning. Rather than explain a policy vision a politician’s speeches contain a number of key phrases designed to evoke the right feeling and response from voters. In the words of a former Prime Minister, that ‘vision thing’ is lacking from politics. Our depressive society cannot believe that there can be any great ideas or leaders.

There is one example that I can call to mind, which illustrates perfectly the current low level of personality based politics. During a wartime debate in Parliament Winston Churchill was accused by an opposition MP Bessie Braddock of being drunk. He replied that ‘I may be drunk now, but I shall be sober in the morning, you are ugly now and shall still be ugly in the morning’. The sexist language is no longer acceptable but the important fact is many people in Westminster and the press where aware that he had a serious drink habit, yet it was considered of no significance. What mattered were the outstanding qualities he embodied as national leader. Churchill was also subject to intense periods of depression, periods he referred to as the black dog’. Today a rival would have leaked stories to the press about his drinking and depression ensuring that he would never get anywhere near the leadership of the country.

A more current example illustrates how a political career can be destroyed through gossip. Charles Kennedy as leader of the Liberal Democrats took the party from being an insignificant fringe party to the centre of British politics. He increased the number of the parties MPs from less than twenty to over sixty. Unfortunately he as with Winston Churchill had a serious drink problem. A problem which destroyed his career in these timid times. His rivals leaked stories about his drink related problems and he was forced to resign the leadership. After rejecting the next leader for being old, they selected a leader fit for the times. He was a very presentable young man who was a devoted father and good husband. This leader displayed such a lack of political acumen that he led the party to disaster at the polls. Now the total number of Liberal MPs could be comfortably be seated in a small family car. The party rivals by focusing on Charles Kennedy’s weakness, were able to obscure the fact that he was an inspiring and effective leader, who in spite of his drinking towered above his rivals. Charles Kennedy’s rivals were able to leak stories about his drinking problems to a press that saw an MPs vices as the story, not his politics. It is true as had been said that the British press rarely ventures out of the gutter in which it habitually wallows. Only a society with no confidence in itself would think that politicians foibles rather than policies are the main story.

There is an interesting historical comparison. In the dog days of Athenian democracy, when it was in decline, politicians stopped attacking each other’s policies and instead attacked their rivals by claiming their bad behaviour in their personal life made them unfit for high office. These politicians planted informers within the entourage of their political rivals. These informers would report salacious stories about these men to their employers. Political careers were destroyed on the basis of what can only be called malicious gossip. A situation not unlike today’s Britain were the informers are political rivals in the same party ever eager to leak damaging stories to the press. These stories are then published in the news media and a run of bad stories can ruin a politicians career. Today’s politicians have delegated the role of destroying political rivals through the publishing of malicious stories to the press. It is the press not politicians than determine the success or otherwise of a politicians career. These stories can be quite trivial in nature but the cumulative effect is the destruction of a career. One such example this trivia is the leaking to press of stories that a particular senior politician had a quick temper and threw staplers at his staff. A story that was totally irrelevant to his leadership capabilities. Unfortunately in today’s Britain politicians prefer to destroy their rivals anonymously through the leaking of malicious stories than through open debate.

Suggesting British society is going through a period of collective depression is unusual, but I can think of no other equally valid metaphor that can be used to describe Britain today. Only a society in this strange mood which can see nothing good in their politicians, a country in which the least bad are chosen as our leaders. One characteristic of all our leading politicians is their emphasis on their normality. They never aspire to greatness, oratory has vanished from our politics speeches put the emphasis on their ordinariness they always agree with the generally accepted opinions. The leader of the opposition party is subject to vilification for not going along with the majority view in parliament. When one reads about the actions of the members of his parliamentary party one gets the impression that there is a desire to abandon these challenging policies and retreat the safety of the parliamentary consensus. These MPs have been baying for military intervention in Syria in unison with the members of the governing party, they are afraid of seeming to be different. This fearfulness and the seeking of a security blanket is also typical of depression. The depressed individual seeks to hide from the world, normal social intercourse becomes difficult. There is also a desire for the peace of anonymity, a desire not to stand out. All characteristics of the current political classes.

All to often commentators speak of the loss of hope among the young, as they face a world which is increasing hostile to their aspirations. Yet this loss of hope is common to all levels of society, but particularly among the political classes. They also lack in the future, they lack the confidence to introduce for example radical policies on climate change. A selection of policy proposals from the last election demonstrate this timidity, rather than offering private rental tenants security of tenure, they were to be given the right to ask for it from their landlord after a certain period of time. Rather than ban zero hour contracts the employer would be given the right after twelve weeks to ask to be given permanent contract. Taking the last one it is obvious that employers would dismiss staff after eleven weeks to avoid having to offer that a permanent position in the workforce. Probably the same employer would after having given an enforced break to their employees, would rehire them on a new eleven week contract. A good example of promising to alleviate a major social ill, while in fact doing nothing to change the situation. What could be a better example of the mood of hopelessness that infects the mood of politicians.

Often it is the young who are cited as having no hope, which may be true but its more true of our political classes. They as with the depressed individual have lost hope and believe it hopelessly misguided to think they can do anything to improve the situation. They as with the depressive see themselves as helpless pawns who are the playthings of greater forces, such leaders lack the self belief to implement changes necessary to arrest the slow decline of this country economy a decline that will see the living standards of the majority fall towards those prevalent in the less developed economies. Already this country’s fall from major power status is obvious, as it can only provide six ageing fighter bombers for the campaign against Isis.

Bad Economics and bad politicians, why the West is heading for yet another financial crisis

When I read any accounts of the debates conducted by the Republican candidates for the role of President, I am filled with despair. They all demonstrate astounding degrees of economic illiteracy, a tendency all too common demonstrated by politicians this side of the Atlantic ocean. The only economic topic deemed worthy of debate here is how to reduce the government debt. Economic illiteracy rules out the obvious solutions such as reversing the trend to reduce the tax take from the super rich and business corporations, as one conservative politician said increasing tax on the rich is immortal. Instead in one of the richest countries in the world there are constantly circulating in the media stories about how this poor country cannot afford to provide for the welfare of its citizens.

Economic illiteracy also prevents politicians in Britain discussing the more serious deficits that is those of the private sector and the banking sector, which are x2 and x5 greater than the government deficit. Only a self denying ordinance based on nonsensical theories about economics could possibly explain this strange politics.

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Ronald Regan image taken from the internet

America provides a good example of nonsense economics. Before George Bush Snr. was chosen as Vice President by Ronald Regan he described his economics as ‘voodoo economics’. What Ronald Regan was proposing was to cut federal taxes, spending on environmental and welfare programmes while increasing spending on defence and military aid to friendly states. Ronald Regan also said while doing these he would cut the government deficit. What his advisors had failed to understand was that defence spending was one of the great sources of ‘pork barrel’ politics. Many Congressmen and Senators had large defence industries in their states and what they wanted was massively increased spending on defence. The voodoo or nonsense was that while they paid lip service to cutting government spending, they constantly voted for the opposite. Under the presidency of Ronald Regan the government deficit spiralled upwards and none of the constant hand wringing over the problem did any good. It was not until the Presidency of Bill Clinton and the introduction of more economically literate policies that the budget deficit declined.

It is a truism but economic good sense is always rejected by politicians if it goes against their long held prejudices. Unfortunately British politics as with American politics is dominated by nonsense economics. One of the most common foolish prejudices is that if its not hurting its not working. This is a very selective hurting as the hurt about which British politicians enthuse is the hurt that they inflict on the poor and those on middle incomes. Great efforts are made to ensure the pain is not registered by the better off, who benefit from tax handouts or tax cuts to protect their income.

Hubris a neglected economic concept

While some economics is nonsense there are significant truths in the body of economics that politicians ignore at their peril. The temptation for any politician is to rewrite economics according to their own prejudices and personal beliefs. They can achieve this because the economy has constantly grown since the beginning of the century (apart from a few downs) and they can claim that this growth is a result of their policies. It is extremely hard to disprove such claims as the economy is such a vast complex mechanism and it is extremely difficult to distinguish cause and effect. Once in an economics seminar I and my fellow students argued for over an hour whether or not it was possible to identify the effects of a particular economic policy as by the time it began to take effect the economy had changed and it could not be known to what extent the improvement in the economy could be down to a particular policy measure or a change in the economy. The smartest of politicians took advantage of this uncertainty to rewrite economics according to their own personal preferences, as it was extremely hard to produce evidence to prove or disprove their theory. They were aided by a certain complacent belief amongst economists that the economy was self sustaining and that even the worst of economic policies would only have a small negative impact on the economy. In addition there is the Lysenko factor, that is many economists are only to willing to rewrite their economics in deference to the wishes of their employers, as that the way to preferment and prestigious academic positions.

Once politicians realised economics could be bent and reshaped according to their own personal whim, they began to treat economists as propagandists and not advisors. Economists became a servant of their political masters to be used and abused as they pleased. Whatever the failings of particular economists they are nothing as compared to that of the politicians. The arrogance of politicians is such that they are unaware of the dangers of the policies they practise. The classical Greeks had a word for this hubris, that is when ambition led men to overreach themselves. Greek tragedies featured a hero in conflict with his fate and often the Gods. In tragedy of Orestes it is foretold that Orestes will kill his father and marry his mother, yet in spite of this he continues on his path to his tragic fate, when after realising that he has killed his father and married his mother he is despair puts out his eyes. In the UK we have a number of Orestes that manage our public affairs, who as with him are blind to their fate, despite the warnings of economic soothsayers blindly commit themselves to a policy that will lead their nation into disaster. If they cared to look beyond the hermetically sealed world of Westminster they might realise that there are dangers out there of which they are ignorant.

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The chorus from Orestia

Recently I read that the British government pledged £1.2 trillion of monies to support the banks in the crisis of 2008/9. The significance of that figure is that it was almost the same in total as the country’s national income. In other words the government was willing to pledge the whole of the nation’s income to bail out its banks. Fortunately the bank creditors were sufficiently satisfied with this pledge not to demand it be honoured, it is very unlikely this pledge won’t be cashed in during the next crisis. Our politicians being supremely self confident don’t realise that they have put in place a process that will lead to the destitution of the UK.

The cause of the next disaster will be the over extended British and Western European banks. At the root of this crisis is what is termed Fiat money, money that is no more than a promise to pay. Our banks can create money by making an entry in their computer records and the only limit to their powers of credit creation or money making is what they think is reasonable. What the banks believe is reasonable is what others may term unreasonable. In 2008 the banks backed their loans or bank money with cash reserves of 2% so for every £100 of bank money they created they only had £2. In the event of a crisis the banks quickly ran out of money to pay their customers who wanted their money back and a run on the banks and a collapse of the world financial system was only avoided by the prompt intervention of governments.

Our arrogant political class has learnt nothing from the crisis of 2008/9 and foolishly believe that by manipulating the money supply and interest rates they have beaten one crisis and have the tools to beat the next. Only the foolishly arrogant could believe this as all indicators show the economies of the West are desperately weak. Interest rates (that charged by the Bank of England on loans to banks) for example cannot be increased from there historically low levels of 0.5%, without fear of that increase sparking a major recession. The complacent politicians have even encouraged the governor of the Bank of England to announce that they see no reason why our ‘financially sound’ banks should not be allowed to increase their assets to total x9 our national income (GDP). Those assets will largely be loans or bank money, which has no value other than that given to it by the banks. Already with the slow down in China there is evidence that the new recession is starting, given the arrogant blindness of our political leaders they will be helpless to prevent a rapid spiralling downwards of economic activity as they have not the policy tools at hand to prevent it.

Can I finish this essay with another metaphor, that of the ship of fools. This was a popular subject for art in the medieval world and these pictures showed a boat crewed by all the political leaders of the time, kings, great lords and Popes, often this ship was shown heading to disaster on the rocks pictured in the background of the painting. The current ship of fools is driving Western society on to the rocks of yet another economic disaster and it is their arrogance that prevents them from seeing that their world is being put in peril from there foolish misdirections.