Category Archives: irony

Alice in Wonderland Economics

The book that I would recommend to anybody wishing to understand the economy is Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Not as a book to replace all the books that can be found in the economics section of any library, but as a first text which to give a good grounding in all things economic. What any budding economist needs to know about the economy is that things are not as they appear.  Alice is able to get through a door for which she is to tall by drinking from a bottle labelled ‘drink me’. After drinking that she shrinks in size to such an extent she is now able to walk through the door. She can be both giant and of normal stature in Wonderland. Later in the book she meets the Cheshire cat, who not only can become invisible but is able to become visible in place other than that in which he first appeared.  What the good economist should do is to be prepared to surrender their belief in a world of common sense. Just as for Alice the rabbit hole is a portal to another world, so a public corporation can equally be a portal to a world in which strange behaviours predominate.

One good example of this strange new world of economics is the strange behaviour of Starbucks. I was puzzled when I read that Costa Coffee a British coffee shop chain was more profitable than Starbucks. Starbucks seemed to be everywhere and I could see no evidence from what I observed that the business was doing badly. Then on reading more I realised that is was yet another example of a company not wanting to earn profits. Yet all the textbooks state that all businesses are profit maximisers. Profits earned are subject to corporation tax, so companies will do all they can to minimise their profits and tax bills. This is usually done by having a head office located in a low tax country such as Eire and that head office then imposes such a high level of charges on the business (for services provided) that the profits are reduced to such  a low level that the company is either ceases to be liable for tax or it only has to pay a minimal amount.

However the process becomes stranger and stranger the more it is examined. Usually the ‘charges’ that are paid to the Head Office are through a chain of offshore companies remitted to the multinationals homeland. Yet the profits declared then are only small part of the companies income. Such companies sit on vast cash piles which are located in various tax havens. This cash pile increases the companies wealth and the price of its shares. Shareholders are in many cases happy to have a reduced dividend but a reduction more than balanced by an increase in the value of their shareholding. Banks recognise that the shares held in such as Starbucks, Apple. Google etc. are extremely valuable assets. They will then lend large sums of money to these people against the security offered by there shares. These loans which are rolled over from year to year and which can be increased in line with the increase in the value of these shares. Loans have the advantage of not being income and are therefore exempt from tax. Many shareholders are content to enjoy their income in this way. Although there are a significant number who would still want to enjoy a cash return from their investment.

There is a passage in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ where Alice comes across a group of the Red Queen’s servants painting white rose red. This because the Queen wanted red roses and they mistakenly planted white roses. They hope that the Queen won’t notice the red paint. Similarly there is the many thousands of financial advisers who role in life is to paint earned income as anything but earned income. Anything that is either not liable for tax or which is taxed lightly. Unlike the Red Queens gardeners they are very successful in that the tax authorities never see through the disguise.

Apple is described as the world’s largest business. Although they are  the company with the largest sales revenue are not necessarily the most profitable. Much of the profit earned is changed into something quite different, such as a charge to Head Office at least in all the European countries. What profit Apple declares is largely resting in some offshore tax haven beyond the reach of the US tax inspector.

What any economist needs to realise is that to understand the behaviour of multi-national companies,is that the economics textbook is of little use. The book describes the behaviour of an ideal and imagined company, not a real one.

I could go further and relate other features of the book to the real economy. There are frequent examples in the book of nonsense verse, such as the song of the Walrus and the Carpenter. What the economist needs to know is that in the real world economy there are plenty such similar examples. All too often when a company goes bankrupt it is usually one that has received a successful audit. The auditors seem unable to notice those gaping black holes in the company accounts. This is because they use a set of industry agreed accounting conventions when analysing the companies accounts, conventions that serve to conceal rather than reveal mismanagement and a shortage of funds. While company accounts are not nonsense verse, they are often intended to deceive as often as they are intended to reveal the true state of a company’s affairs.

Politicians come the nearest to uttering nonsense verse on the economy. They are found of uttering what seem to be profound mantras on matters of the economy, but which are in fact meaningless phrases. Phrases such as the country has ‘maxed out its credit card’ a phrase uttered by a politician, when his government was doing all it could to encourage a borrowing binge to kick start the economy back to life.

Why I recommend Lewis Carroll’s book for any budding economist is that it reveals to the reader a strange world that is and is not ours. It prepares for them recognising the unfamiliar and strange amongst the familiar and it is often the strange and unfamiliar that make seemingly inexplicable behaviour explicable. Conventional or bad economists are unable to see beyond the fog that is the received economic wisdom. This is why these economists were unable to see the financial crash of 2008 looming in front of them, when all the danger signals were showing red.

Flying Pig Economics

Quite possibility in twenty years given advances in biochemistry and medical science, scientists will be able to breed a race of pigs with wings. In a similar vein PwC produced a report stating the Brexit could possibly be a resounding economic success. This is an exercise in which economic forecasters regularly indulge. This is an imaginative thought experiment in which they think of a world in which all the good possible events and changes that could possibly occur have occurred creating the most desirable of future outcomes. Even the great Keynes was capable of this wishful thinking. He said that due to advances in technology people would be able to have greatly increased leisure time, because the increased productivity of the new machines would require a much shorter working week. A prediction which this century has demonstrated to be fallacious

PwC should not be singled out for blame as ‘flying pig economics’ is regularly practised by politicians, usually when they wish to be elected or in the case of the UK win a referendum. The examples of this economic practice are too well known to require repeating.

Obviously the current master of ‘flying pig economics’ is Donald Trump. He has promised to restore prosperity to the people of the USA through a number of fantastical schemes. One is abandoning free trade treaties, which he claims have encouraged US firms to move their factories to low wage countries such as Mexico, causing unemployment in the US. While he is correct to state that American have lost their jobs due to American companies outsourcing their businesses to other countries, his solution to the problem is unreal. If he does withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, of which Mexico is a beneficiary, he will wreak havoc on the US economy. Mexico is the USA’s second largest export market and its third largest trading partner. The sudden ending of free trade between the two countries would lead to a dramatic drop in trade between them probably throwing both into recession. He would through this action cause more jobs to be lost through increased unemployment than he would create through forcing US firms to relocate back to the USA. It is significant that all he has so far all he proposed as President is a US Mexican wall and not an ending to free trade. Perhaps realism as regards US Mexico trade has seeped into his consciousness.

Going back to the PwC story it is quite possible to construct a number of scenarios in which Britain gains from Brexit, however these scenarios are purely imaginary and require an abandoning of any sense of reality. The following three items will demonstrate the unreality of the report.

One target for the new trade deals is China, our government claims that freedom from EU controls means that we can arrange a new free trade deal, that will more than offset our trade losses from exiting the EU. Nobody in government seems to have a realistic understanding of the situation. China is far more interested in trade with Germany from whom it buys large numbers of machine tools, rather than the UK from whom it buys little. Our exports to Belgium, one of the smallest of EU states, exceeds in total the value of our exports to China.

The other large untapped market for British goods is India. Mrs May made a great show of visiting India to conduct a new trade deal. India would be very interested in a trade deal, but for one outstanding issue. The government there wants an ending to the restrictions on Indian immigration into the UK. Mrs May has made it very clear that the last thing she will countenance is increased immigration from India, making a new trade deal highly unlikely.

Then there is the USA and Donald Trump, he has said he is eager to have a new free trade agreement with the UK. However a new trade deal could prove to be problematic. Will the trade deal be of benefit to the USA or the UK? Donald Trump has already said that Brexit gives US banks a great opportunity to win trade from the City of London. One only has to think of some of the countries that have a free trade agreement with the US such as Puerto Rico and Haiti to realise that whatever deal is reached, the primary beneficiary will be the US.

What can be said is that the PwC report was made for the highest of motives that is designed to win favour with the government and future business for the company. The ‘flying pig economics’ of both Donald Trump and that of Theresa May is far more disturbing. Obviously they both believe that there policies are right and only if there is catastrophic change in their country’s economies are they likely to rethink their policies. The question has to be asked are they both naive or stupid (although one hesitates to use such abusive terms)? I think the answer is no, they both demonstrated intelligence to win power. I think they are fantasists who confuse the world of their imaginings with reality. History demonstrates that when a powerful authoritarian ruler gets to impose their fantasies of the world the people suffer. Although Donald Trump and Theresa May are not to be compared with Pol Pot, Chairman Mao and Stalin they are at the other end of the same spectrum. People won’t die in their thousands but thousands will be poorer because politics has given Donald Trump and Theresa May the opportunity to impose there fantasies on the real world.

I realise what I call ‘flying pig economics’ is usually referred to by commentators as post truth politics. While they may both indulge in post truth politics, it is unfair to call them post truth politicians as usually they believe that they are stating simple plain and obvious truths and it’s only the misguided metropolitan elites that refuse to recognise the truthfulness of their statements.

A Letter to Donald

Dear Donald

This short letter is my attempt to try to come to try to answer the question who is the real Donald, why does he behave as he does and why are you such a threat to the continued existence of liberal democracy. It is my attempt to come to terms with the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. If you met me you would notice a distinct difference in our manner. I am a man who  values modesty in conversation and behaviour. In short I am one of those Englishmen who overuses the world sorry, so I guess you can see why I find your behaviours so hard to understand. Not only that but I am also a liberal so we are so different in manner and our politics.

Although your personality is one steeped in anger, I think your anger comes from a fear of modernity. The world that you knew as a child, the America of the white heterosexual males is now being challenged, Now instead of the television presenter is less likely to be an Ed Sullivan, than a lesbian woman such as Ellen DeGeneres or a woman of colour such Oprah Winfrey. This is becoming an increasingly unfamiliar world to you in which you are not sure of your place in it. Formerly you would have been lauded for being a billionaire and having a much younger and beautiful wife, now many doubt the value of your achievements. This must be confusing to you, their must  be times when it seems that you are adrift in a hostile world. One reaction only is possible for you to this fearful world and that is anger, an anger which is so often caricatured by others as a snarl.

Unlike you I welcome the ‘differenceness’ of modernity, something I first encountered in a trip to Scandinavia in 1966. A difference demonstrated in the design of there housing and the beauty of their cities and towns, a beauty lacking in Britain. Other and later trips to Europe instilled in me an enthusiasm for the different. In 1970 I went to France where I had my first taste of French coffee, it was love at first taste. Until then coffee was instant coffee, either Nescafe or Maxwell House. A harsh tasting drink that you drank to keep you alert and buzzing. This French coffee tasted nice, it had flavour you enjoyed, coffee drinking now became an unalloyed pleasure. Getting to know other cultures and taking from them what I enjoyed has enriched my life.

New York as with London where I taught has become an increasingly cultural melting pot with an increasing diverse ethnic mix of peoples. While the integration of new ethnic groups could present problems of which as a teacher I was well aware. They also brought their cultures with them. Some saw these cultures as alien and a threat to the host society. Yet these cultures embodied a whole new range of cultural experiences that enriched the host culture. One such obvious enrichment was the West Indian carnival in Notting Hill. A diverse open society is a creative society and London at present is the leading cultural centre in Europe. The constant making and remaking of London culture that is the consequence of having to adapt and absorb new cultures is  a source of the creativity that makes London a leading culture centre. However with Brexit the open and welcoming culture of London will be lost as new ethnic groups and their cultures are increasingly excluded from Britain. What is likely to replace it is a cultural resistant to change and closed to new ideas?  In fact many of our new right politicians would welcome this, a London that increasingly resembled one of those dull provincial towns or cities that characterised Britain in the 1950s.

Although you regard Muslims as that most alien of the other, my experience of them is entirely different. I have encountered them as students and friends.   Coming into contact with them made me realise that there was another exciting culture and life to get to know. I have read the poetry of the Sufi master Rumi. No doubt you are familiar with the life of St. Francis of Assisi, but what you don’t know is that this greatest of Christian saints regarded Rumi as a spiritual master. This intermingling of European and Islamic culture has been of benefit to both societies throughout the millennia. The classics of Greek philosophy might have been lost if they had not been preserved in the translations of the Arab philosophers. Unlike you when coming into contact with a new culture, my reaction is not to reject it as something alien and foreign; instead I want to explore it, to learn from it. I have a friend who as you do rejects muslim culture as being alien and benighted, yet even he enjoys the poetry of Omar Khayyam.

What is frightening about your anger and that of your fellow believers of the right is that you have the power to turn back those aspects of modernity that you despise?  This is why you want to make abortion illegal. If women no longer have control of their bodies, they will be unable to live independent lives and will be forced back into the box of domesticity. Similarly there are the new Jim Crow laws of the South, which make it difficult for Americans of colour to vote.  These laws reduce the presence in the political arena of people of colour, a change which is ensuring that the white dominance of the South is continuing.  Another alien group is put back into its box, but this time it is the box is one of servitude. Although this turning back is but a temporary measure, history shows that regimes such as yours can successfully hold back the tide of history for many years.

What worries me is your destructive attitude towards those institutions that make civilised life possible. Liberals such as myself think that John Rawls political thinking provided the essential  template for making of a successful political system. He wanted to answer the question to which all liberals want a solution. How do you construct a political system that gives voice and sanction to people of different and often incompatible views in a manner which avoids the worst of the destructive and divisive effects of political conflict? Societies can be torn apart by warring factions as demonstrated so well in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There the two rival factions, the Capulets and the Montague’s constantly threaten the peace of Verona with their constant feuding.

To this problem John Rawls had an interesting answer. His answer was that the constitution makers should indulge in an act of collective forgetting. When devising a constitution they should strive to forget their own beliefs and prejudices and try to exclude them from there thinking. Then they should focus on the building of a belief and bias free constitution. The emphasis should be on functionality not belief. One such example is the American constitution of 1787. The political system they devised was not free from fault, but until recently it had functioned effectively by containing political conflict within a system that delivered effective governance. Now unfortunately the new right that is the Republican party has set out to destroy that system that worked so well for two hundred years. The behaviour that you displayed towards former President Obama is demonstrative of the destructive behaviours of the new right. One of the main voices accusing Obama of being ineligible for office was yours. This nasty ‘birther’ campaign was a child of your making and did nothing other than to bring discredit American politics.

There are two requirements for a good political system. The first is how the winners treat the losers. The winners must accept the reality of the rotation of power, that is that the losers might be the winners next time around. They must accept the threat of the loss of power with good grace. While it is legitimate for politicians to seek to retain power, it is not legitimate when they use means which can only be described as illegitimate. American political history of the recent past has been little more than the attempts by the Republicans to change the political system in such a way as to permanently exclude the Democrats from power. Using the conservative Supreme Court to open elections to undue influence by the rich and powerful business corporations is one. These so called ‘super PAC’s  (political action committees) are free to spend as much money as they want to influence an election. The same court has permitted the gerrymandering of the electoral process to exclude potential Democrat voters in the South. When the winner refuses to acknowledge the right to dissent and opposition, the tenor of politics changes it becomes more shrill and intolerant. Politics is conducted in the language of a Fox News presenter or the ‘shock jock’.

What has been lost from contemporary politics is the civility of manner? In the early twentieth century the members of the various political parties in Britain would be at each others throats in the Chamber, but they were able to distinguish politics from the person. These same men would then meet at various country houses for weekend parties at which there was no trace of animosity. This courtesy no longer exists in contemporary politics and you are the exemplar of the new rude and brutal politics. Without the practice of courtesy politics becomes degraded into being an unpleasant fight in a bear pit. When intolerance towards the other is the practice of each party democratic politics becomes impossible. The ‘give and take’ that made democratic politics possible in the past has ceased to exist. The obstructive behaviour of the Republicans toward President Obama which culminated in the threat to shut down government is an example of the new destructive politics. Similarly the behaviour of the Republicans toward former President Clinton demonstrates most effectively the breakdown of the American political system. Shutting down government for a month by refusing funding and impeaching the President over an affair with an intern was the nadir of American politics. All the worst practices of Republican politics have culminated in you. The destructiveness of your political reign is likely to exceed in destructiveness the damage inflicted on American society by the actions of Senator McCarthy. HIs witch hunts inflicted irreparable damage to the lives of individuals, you threaten to inflict irreparable damage to the fabric of American society.

What I believe disqualifies you from high office in a democratic society is your lack of civility. This is incivility derives in a part from your fear of and anger at modernity, as a relatively  inarticulate man it is second nature to express your anger in abusive language and in uncivil behaviour. It is not the belief in reasoned argument that is practice which enables democracy to thrive. All to often recorded parliamentary debates in England and those in the Senate or Congress fail to demonstrate reason. Civility was one of the factors that influenced the construction of the House of Commons after it was destroyed by German bombs. It was deliberately made too small to accommodate 600 MPs comfortably, it small size was intended to ensure that debates would tend to brevity because of the discomfort of being too long in the Commons. This with the regular emptying of the Chamber for numerous votes would be a tension releasing mechanism, so preventing that build up of tension that would lead to outbreaks of bad temper and behaviour, evidenced in other parliaments. Unfortunately British politics all too often copies the worst of American practice and incivility is now becoming the dominant mode of British politics. By civility I mean the civilised behaviour that makes debate and political dialogue possible, not the abuse and demeaning of one’s opponents which is now the common practice of British politics. When Theresa May came to the US it was not just to make a trade deal but to meet a like minded politician, a man who is the master of incivility. Why I want you to go is not just because you threaten the existence of liberal democracy in the US, but because you give encouragement to those many European politicians that also want an end to liberal democracy. Manners are said to make a man, manners are needed to make a President.

History has it wrong the Soviet Union won the cold war (at least in Britain)

One of the commonplaces of history is that the communists and in particular the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. This victory was exemplified in the pulling down of the Berlin Wall in 1990. However this is a misreading of history. There are two ways of winning a war, one the most obvious is the conquest of the enemies territory, the other less obvious is when the loser takes on the ideas and practices of the winner. A more subtle form of conquest but just as real. Recent history demonstrates in Britain at least there is an enthusiasm for the ideas and practices of the former Soviet Union.  As a teacher I always spent at least one lesson teaching communist economic practice, as I found it fascinating and I thought that the students would benefit from the knowledge of an alternative economic system. Imagine my fascination when recent events recorded in the media demonstrated that he practices of the Soviet Union had been adopted wholeheartedly by the department of education.

The leaders of the communist state realised that they had taken over a country steeped in capitalist values and their major task would be to re-educate the people in the values of communism. In the early years of the Soviet regime trains carried artists and other propagandists from town to town to teach the people communist values and practice. Without this programme of re-education the communist state would fail as the capitalist enemy from within would undermine all the efforts of the communist state at reform.  There had to be  in tandem with this programme of re-education active policing to root and destroy those enemies of communism. Just last week the latest schools minister just like any good communist politician he was claiming that saboteurs were seeking to wreck his programme of educational reforms. In this case it was a small group of rogue examiners and teachers, all of whom he was determined to root out of education system.

The Soviet State believed that schools would play a key role in re-educating the population into the correct mores of the communist state. Not only school students but those at university were expected to study the thoughts of the communist leaders. In addition they to follow courses of the approved and correct ideological content. Marxist studies were a key element of both the school and university curriculum. There was a certain paranoia in the thinking of the Soviet leaders as they saw themselves as the enlightened minority constantly threatened by the actions of the mass of unbelievers; it was the same attitude that prevailed in the Conservative government elected in the 1980s. They saw a failing nation corrupted by the anti capitalist values of social democracy and socialism. Just as their communist predecessors had, they employed the law and aggressive policing to destroy the power of the enemy within, that is the trade union movement. They also realised that the success of their conservative counter revolution depended on the re-education of the populace into the right ways of thinking. Obviously the start was be made with the easiest to re-educate the young that is those at school. This would be achieved by changing the curriculum and by re-educating the teachers.

I was one of the first teachers to be put on the programme of re-education. It was obvious to the government that we were imbued with the wrong thinking and one of the best ways of eradicating this was to introduce teachers to the right way of thinking. When a communist state wanted to re-educate the population they were sent to the camps in their thousands for re-education. When the South Vietnamese State fell to the communists all the army officers and government functionaries were sent to the camps for re-education in the values and ways of communism. In Britain the government made a half hearted attempt at re-eduction, was rendered ineffective hampered by their commitment to spending to cutting government spending so their was only a minimal amount of money to be spent on re-education. I as one of the selected few for re-education attended on training session given by a manager from the private sector in the values of business and free enterprise. Then I had to follow in my own time a modular course of re-education and produce a portfolio to demonstrate my commitment and willingness to teach the new ideas. I guess like many in the old Soviet system I was very sceptical about its value of this programme but I completed the it because it was the only way of saving my job. This made me less than an ideal ideologue for the cause.

Rather than continue with this programme of ineffective  re-education the government resorted the negative tactic of weeding out unsuitable teachers. They created a new inspectorate who role was to ensure that school worked in conformity with the new rules and values. This body weeded out many staff who were resistant to the new ideas. Many creative and talented teachers left the profession, rather than be forced to teach the new orthodoxy with it series of box ticking exercises. A flight similar too but much smaller in numbers than the flight of intellectuals from Russia in 1920s. Now as in much of the old Soviet State promotion is gained by adherence to the values and practices espoused by a series of government ministers. Promotion now is largely dependent on a display of the toadying factor.

Teachers are still regarded as potentially the enemy within and are subject to a series of punishing controls, usually in the form of inordinate amounts of paper work. Just as a worker under the Soviet system was expected to attend regular party meetings to demonstrate their commitment to the system, so a teacher is expected to produce mountains of paper work to demonstrate their commitment to best new system.

What as an economist struck me was the similarity of the economic models they employed. In the old Soviet Union Gosplan Moscow decided on the targets for all Soviet Enterprises and there were a series of Gosplans at different levels of government that added more and more detail to the plan to ensure that the central directives were met. Not only that but there were Gosfinance and Gosresources, that decided the money and resources to be allocated to the education sector. Since there were at least three separate bodies in Moscow deciding upon targets, finance and resources it was inevitably that these directives issued by these three bodies were often in conflict. Also it must be added that these detailed central plans always specified quantitive targets to be met to demonstrate that the planned targets were being met. Managers of local public enterprises struggled to meet these targets set by these different bodies so they often resorted to all kinds of practices in an effort to appear to be meeting these targets. Since it was easier for a shoe factory to meet the target to make by making only shoes of one type, a factory would often turn out only right or left handed shoes.

The similarities with the education system in Britain today are striking. The department of education set targets for schools to achieve. These targets are always expressed in quantitive terms, as they are easier to measure and check. Quantitive targets such as a setting numbers to pass tests in English and Maths. However the Education Minister and his planner set the targets  independent of the Treasury which controls funding and resource allocation. The consequence is targets being set that are impossible to achieve with the funding and resources available. This has led to the development of a new profession the private consultants who teach how to achieve the impossible targets.

Just as in the old Soviet Union the performance of individual schools is measured against a set of targets set by the central government. This means the emphasis in schools must now be on achieving government targets and so teaching practice is changed to enable the school to score as high as possible in tests, as high scores earn score additional scarce funding and resources.  In the Soviet Union factories made only left handed shoes, so schools similarly  turn out students with only the left handed education. Right handed education that is creative thinking cannot be measured so it is increasingly left out of the curriculum. Creative subjects such as art and music are downgraded within the system so the most able are encouraged to do the book ticking knowledge based subjects. In the Soviet Union what mattered was the quantity not the quality, the same is true of British education. What matters is the attainment of government targets not the quality of the educational students receive. Many of the targets are of have little real educational value but what matters is appearance, these statistics that can produced to show how successful is the minister of education and his latest reform programme.

What demonstrates most clearly the success of the Communist model is that Britain is eager to emulate the methods of teaching used in the schools of Communist China. Britain invariably lags behind China in the PISA tests. These are supposed to be impartial means of assessment by which the performance of a nation’s school students are  judged. Everybody outside the Government and the Department of Education knows that Chinese score highly in such tests because only students at the best selective schools in Shanghai are entered for the Pisa them. What matters to the Chinese is prestige and they would never think of entering students from those schools whose relatively poor performance  who would drag down the nations scores. Given that in a Soviet type education system all that matters is the appearance of doing well, rather than the more difficult task of actually doing well, in Britain the government is now importing Chinese teachers to help remodel our schools to be more like those of the Chinese.

Note. Despite their claimed difference between the Communism of the former Soviet Union and the Neo-Liberalism of the West are vastly overstated. They both claim to be ideologies of freedom but are in fact authoritarian ideologies that intend impose their limited understanding of freedom on their host societies. Under Neo-Liberalism we should all have the freedom to buy and sell without hinderance. One hinderance is what are regarded as the bedrock of democratic society, the freedom of association.  Political movements that intend to enact a reform of society, will according to the Neo-Liberals hinder the workings of the free market. They wish to impose restrictions and costs on business that will increase costs and reduce the supply of goods available to consumers. Therefore such movements should be discouraged or prohibited as they interfere with the workings of the free market to the detriment of all. It is the increasingly authoritarian nature of the British Neo-Liberal model of society that means that British society increasingly resembles that of the Soviet Union.

The Economics of the School Playground or Free Market Economics

Recently I met a group of friends who like me are nearer to seventy than sixty. What surprised me was that the ethics of the school playground still prevailed amongst us. As we had not met for several years, there was an immediate struggle within the group for supremacy. One particularly made a determined effort. First through trying to put down what he saw as the weakest member of the group, by making a slighting references to his speech impediment. Once having demonstrated his superiority to over him in his mind, he went on to list his recent achievements to demonstrate his superiority over the others. This competitive behaviour is apparently typical behaviour of men in any social situation. Once he felt that he had achieved top dog status he calmed down and returned to a more normal conversational mode. This is little more than a grown version of the  playground behaviour we indulged in as children. In my primary school it  was superiority in the traditional sports of marbles, conkers or any athletic activity that counted.  There was inevitably one boy who excelled at all things and who had the admiration of all, the alpha boy (male). What struck me was that if the behaviour and the ethics of the playground still governed the behaviour of this group of near seventy old men, surely these playground behaviours must come to the fore in all spheres of activity in which men participate.

Obviously it is possible to overstate the influence of the learnt playground behaviours on adult males; however there do seem to be striking similarities between behaviours of boys in the playground and those of adult males.  Is this not demonstrated in the male obsession with competitive sport? Men are taught from their earliest age that life is a competition in which its necessary to win or at least do well. Losers are beneath contempt, I still remember with horror the way us boys treated the designated loser in the playground. The vital social skill of co-operation is placed well below that of competitive ability. Until very recently economists were men, the Cambridge economist Joan Robinson (1903-83) being one of the exceptions. Does the dominance of men in economics with their competitive behaviours influence there understanding of the economy? The answer is a probable yes. Economists see the competitive market as the infra structure upon which the economy is grounded. All sectors of the economy are nothing more than competitive markets in one guise or another. Economic theory is a theory of winners and losers. Losers play an essential role in the economy as through their failure they remove from the market those producers that are inefficient, those that produce the wrong products and those workers that are less efficient. Unfortunately the losers suffer the penalty of unemployment, but they have a function in that they provide an incentive to those in work to try harder to avoid the penalty of unemployment.

Co-operation rarely gets a mention in economic textbooks, except in negative terms;  trade associations and trade unions are seen as nothing than barriers to the efficient working of the market. However this ignores the fact that society as a whole is largely a co-operative enterprise,in which people co-operate for the greater good. Education and healthcare in this country are  examples of collaborative enterprises. Even in the commercial market the rival traders see the benefits of collaboration. When I worked for a London insurance broker, my employers and others collaborated in the financing of the Lloyds insurance market and its management. They co-operated because they knew a regulated and well organised market would attract more business as people with place their money with businesses they trusted. Unfortunately with the deregulation of the market in the 1908s there has been a falling away of standards and trust particularly in regard to the life assurance companies.

There is one example from the playground that male economists seem to have forgotten. Rules are needed to make the games boys play work. One game that we used to play at the Scout hut was British Bulldog. There would be two teams of boys, one trying to stop the other team from  reaching the other side of the room. The easiest way to stop the members of the team trying to cross the room would have been  through extreme violence, such as a punch. To prevent this game degenerating into a fight rules were imposed which prohibited any contact apart from the grabbing and tackling of opponents. Just as British Bulldog needed rules to make the game work, so does the economy needs rules as without them bad practice thrives.

Seemingly economists have voiced their approval of the actions of the playground bully, he who but for rules would have got his pleasure from hurting others. All influential economists are of the Neo-Liberal school which sees government regulation hampering the legitimate activities of business entrepreneur (bully).  Their mantra is that business knows what is best for business. The malign impact of this abandoning of all rules is demonstrated clearly in the food market. There successive governments have since the 1980s weakened or removed much of the legislation governing food hygiene, In tandem with this they have reduced to an almost insignificant number, the number public health and food inspectors. One consequence of this has been shown in the recurrent food scandals, most recently the beef scandal in which supermarkets were found to be selling horse meat instead of beef in many of their processed meat products.  Criminal gangs have also found that lax food and healthy regulation make it possible to relabel and process food that unfit meat to the supermarkets for sale to the public. Food writers write of a food mafia that is exploiting lax food and hygiene regulations to the detriment of public health.

There is hope for change as there are now many more women becoming economists. I don’t want to make the suggestion that women are any less competitive than men, having two daughters I can testify that women can be extremely competitive. However women value co-operative behaviours more highly, they learn from an early age the value of supportive groupings. One example of this co-operative behaviour is the support that mothers offer each other with childcare. All the pre-school child care groups in my locality were organised and run by local women with or more usually without government support (funding). What I am trying to suggest is that the different life experiences of women make them value collaborative behaviours more highly than men.

Many of these new economists reject the  social darwinism of the mainstream, one economist such economist is Ann Pettifor. She has warned of the dangers of the unregulated financial markets in her book ‘The Coming First World Debt Crisis’. These unregulated market she explains are in danger of bringing about an economic crash greater than that of 2008/9. In the UK private sector indebtedness amounts to 2000% of GDP, the highest in the developed world. This level of debt is a threat to the future viability of the economy, yet the government persistently ignores their problem. Lord Oakshot described the British Treasury as the bastion of free market fundamentalism. It almost goes without saying that the senior economists at the Treasury are male and are so wedded to the idea of competitive markets, that they refuse to consider any other than the most minimal of regulation in the financial markets.

This is not to deny that some of the new women economists are of the orthodox persuasion, as a number of them work for that centre of economic orthodoxy the British Treasury. What I suspect is that a greater percentage of female economists are of the non-mainstream variety, than is true of their male colleagues. If men tend to see the world as nothing more than a series of competitive interactions, they will have a preference for those economic practices that encourage competition and they will see any regulation of the competitive market as anathema.  Unfortunately despite its public statements to the contrary, the male dominated Treasury sees little reason to do other than minimally regulate the financial markets, despite the likelihood of an unregulated financial market repeating the experience of the crash of 2008/9.

Why are our leaders so stupid?

What puzzles me is why are people such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson so popular. The first advocates the policies of a clown and the second pretends to be a clown to achieve political success.

When I was at school in the 1950s I remember being told about Columbus’s voyage to America. The Headmistress told us that it was a particularly daring adventure, as people at the time believed the world was flat and thought that Columbus was in danger of falling off the edge of the world. The  truth was very different as I discovered later. Columbus was an experienced sailor who knew about the fishing grounds off North America that European sailors visited each year that the Atlantic Ocean was bounded by a large landmass to the West. Also it was known at this time that the earth was round. The classical Greeks had realised that the earth was round because they knew there was a horizon, beyond which the eye could not see, therefore  the earth surface must be curved.If was the geographer Eratosthenes (276BC to 195/4 BC)  who calculated with an incredible degree of accuracy the earth’s circumference. It is highly unlikely that Columbus was unaware of that the earth was round. My teacher was typical of those of the time that believed that people of the past had a childlike understanding of the world, whereas in fact the opposite was true.

We assume today that our knowledge and understanding is superior to that of the past. Yet our politicians constantly disapprove this notion. In the USA Donald Trump is likely to become the Republican Party’s candidate for the Presidency and Boris Johnson possible future Conservative Party leader What both these leading politicians have in common is an anti-intellectualism, both of them in their campaigns seek to  appeal to most primeval of voters instincts. Trump blames the Mexicans for crime and wants to erect a wall to keep them out, and Johnson believes that Obama’s part Kenyan ancestry makes him anti British, because of the injustices the British inflicted on Kenyans during the days of Empire. To say that both these politicians are intelligent men who are just using anti immigrant and anti foreigner feeling to win support and that they don’t really believe what they are saying does these two men a disservice, they believe what they are saying. They are both populists who believe in simple solutions to difficult and complex problems, both of them personify the  anti-intellectualism which is dominant in the our society. The political dialogue in both countries is dominated by the anti-intellectualism of those such as the Tea Party whose policies are moving closer to the mainstream in both countries. UKIP a party that gets much media coverage seems to be campaigning for things such as ending the smoking ban in pubs. Sam Goldwyn once  said a movie never lost money for underestimating the intelligence of the average cinema goer, now in politics the belief is that no politician ever fails for underestimating the intelligence of the average voter. There is a change in society that has made stupid politics the dominant strand. Possibility it is linked to Walter Benjamin’s insight (when writing about the cinema) that contemporary media  leaves little time or scope for reflection, as the media image is all involving leaving no opportunity for distancing necessary for reflecting on the projected image.

If I was to compare contemporary England with medieval England, I would say that the former is technically sophisticated but intellectually unsophisticated. This is not to say that there are not a community of intellectuals whose thinking is far superior to that of those of the medieval era, but these people are excluded from the public debate, which is dominated by the advocates of stupid politics. Obviously Trump and Johnson are not stupid men, they just find a politics of idiocy the most effective means of self promotion. What is most disturbing is that these men intend to pursue the policies they advocate, without regard to the damage caused to society through the introduction of their simplistic policies.

As an economist I can see the dangers of practising stupid politics. Britain has endured years of austerity because the government believes in a nonsense called ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, that is cutting government expenditure will increase growth. Despite this policy having no economic credibility the opposition’s chief economics spokesman, a man who had a top class degree in economics from Oxbridge immediately signed up to the policy. Knowing it was fallacious economics made no difference, he did not want to appear out of step in with all the others who were practising stupid politics. Bonhoeffer said that the success of the Nazi’s was due to fact that good people did not speak up, similarly stupid politics is prevailing because the intelligent do not speak up. In England it is the noise and abuse made by the practitioners of stupid politics that scares of the intelligent when we most need them.

Intelligent women for example are put of entering the English Parliament because of the sexist behaviour in the bear pit that is the House of Commons. When female opposition MPs speak, male MPs on the government benches often  make crude sexual gestures with their hands and shout sexist abuse. Also any show of intelligence is likely to get a politician pilloried in the tabloid press as a geek, as happened to the last leader of the opposition. Anti-intellectualism is rife in the English political culture and it’s preventing intelligent government.

What really provoked me into writing this article was a tweet by the illusionist Derren Brown, in which he referenced a You Tube in which two evangelical preachers explain why it is necessary for them to own private executive jets. One says it is so he can get some quiet time in which to talk to God, as he would be unable to do that on a flight with other passengers who would disturb him. Christ when he wanted a quiet place for meditation found a quiet spot in a garden or in the countryside, surely these two men could have done the same. These two men are Christian literalists they believe that the bible is the word of God and that all should to obey the word of God as explained in the bible. These two Christian literalists are following a practice condemned as being wrong as far back s the early Middle Ages. St. Augustine in his book on Christian teaching explained that the bible should not be taken literally, the word of the bible required explanation by the Christian teacher. Following St. Augustine’s advice all medieval bibles contained commentaries on the page side by side with the biblical text. These commentaries were there for the preacher to help him explain the text to the people. What these evangelical preachers are doing is practising a type of Christianity that even the least educated of medieval priests would have recognised as wrong. If these men had been medieval clerics they would have been relegated to some obscure rural parish where they could have done little harm. Yet these men are seen as representative of true Christian belief, religion seems to mirror the practice of stupid politics.

This simplistic religious view of the world that divides the world up into good and bad guys is very influential. George Bush’s crusade against the evil of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is representative of good versus bad guy politics. Isis and other Islamic fundamentalist groups embody the same good bad guy philosophy. A philosophy that justifies the cruel treatment of all unbelievers whether they be Christian, Yazidi or Shia Muslim, as they are already condemned by God for rejecting the true religion and as such are wordless people. One of the main targets for Islamic fundamentalists are the Sufi Muslims who practice a more sophisticated and humane religion. The simplistic belief of the fundamentalists contrasts unfavourably with the sophisticated Islam of the medieval  period as demonstrated in the poetry of the Rumi  (1207-73) or the philosophy of Averroes (1126-1198). Christian thinkers owed much to these men, Francis of Assisi’s thinking was greatly influenced by the poetry of Rumi. Depressingly anti-intellectualism is not only a feature of Western politics but also in the politics of much of the Muslim world.

There are many sophisticated and intelligent clerics today but they do not get a hearing in today, because their speech is too subtle and nuanced for a world that wants simple truths. Rowan Williams the very intellectual former Archbishop of Canterbury was pilloried in the press as a bearded weirdy. They were not interested in the message from an educated Christian, for them Christianity is that of the simple minded fundamentalists.

There is no doubt that the public appetite is for stupid thinking, there is a wanting for people offering a few simple homespun truths that they claim will solve the world’s ills. Does not the constant diet of super hero films coming out of Hollywood demonstrate that something is very wrong in our culture? Hollywood appears to have opted out of making adult films, as it has correctly judged that the audience for its films want simple child like stories. The only hope is that the world particularly the Western world will tire of simple childlike stories and politics. When politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson get chance to put into practice their childlike policy solutions and those policies prove to be a resounding failure, the pendulum will surely swing in favour of a more grown up politics.

In Praise of Being and Black Metal (and other counter cultures)

When I was a student in the 1960s a popular subject of study was futurology, that is a study of how society would change in the future. It’s a subject that seems not to have lost its popularity, there was not so long ago the seminal text by Francis Fukuyama “The End of History” and more recently there is the book I have just finished reading Paul Mason’s “Post Capitalism – A Guide To Our Future”. However while enjoying reading such books I as a sceptic look for different answers, answers that will satisfy my scepticism. Such answers I find in classical Greek philosophy as I am one of those who believes that old answers are the best.

One such author who shared my views was Jonathan Swift. In one of his short stories he imagines “A Battle of the Books’. A battle in which the books in the library shelves fly off the shelves and form up into two rival armies. In one army there are the books written by the classical Greek and Roman writers and in the other the books written by Swift’s contemporaries. In a short but vicious battle the books of the classical Greek and Roman authors prove their superiority by triumphing in battle.

Aristotle provides my inspiration for this short essay. What I what to appropriate is his concept of being and give it a more modern context. Not only was Aristotle a philosopher but he was also a biologist and as such was aware of the diversity of life between and within species. He wanted to solve a simple classification problem, that is what do we mean when we speak of man or any other creature. These creatures change with age so the young creature is different from the adult and they differ markedly within each species. He wanted to know what was the chief characteristic or essence that enable one to call a man a man. How was man to be identified, what was the characteristic that gave man his identity. His answer was being, that is what was it that each individual evolved into, what was the perfection or ideal for their species. There was he believed a template for perfection into which the best of the species would evolve.

What was the essence or being of man, it seems to Aristotle it is man as the philosopher. The ideal man was one who reached that stage of intellectual maturity which enabled him to think. At the end of ‘The Ethics’ Aristotle writes briefly that the best type of life is the one spent in contemplation. The essence of man is that of a rational thinking being who spends his time contemplating the nature of their own existence. Any other type of human existence does not participate fully in the being of human nature.

To give my musings some contemporaneity, I want to consider the trend towards the 24/7 society or as the writer Negri wrote the means by which ‘society has become the factory. What he was referring to is the networked society and the ubiquity of the smart phone, which means work is no longer tied to the workplace. Once a person is in possession of a smart phone they can take their work with them. A friend of mine explained to me how when on a beach on holiday in Southern Europe, he received calls from work and carried on his consultancy work from the beach. What I am more familiar with is the individual working from the coffee shop using their laptop, tablet or smartphone. In our networked society the home can as much be the workplace as the office.

The downside of this networked society is the lack of privacy. I am reminded of a study in the 1960s of politicians who had nervous breakdowns. One cause of these breakdowns was the merging of the private and public spaces of these politicians personalities, the had lost the sense of the private. They could no longer cope because they had lost their individuality all that was functioning was their public persona, they were an empty shell or husk having lost the kernel of human individuality. What on concerns me is the very intrusiveness of the networked society and the diminishing scope for privacy. Work becomes an increasingly controlling factor in people’s lives. They are becoming less themselves and more somebody else’s person. The space in their life for personal development is becoming increasingly restricted. Their scope for achieving their potential being is increasingly limited. People are becoming increasingly ‘outer directed’ and lacking inner direction or creativity.

One commonality of the recent popular protests is their resentment of the controlling ‘big brother’, the oppressive monitoring of work and social life. Interiority is discouraged as it might conceal subversive thinking. The fear of dissent is the greatest fear of the new manager, everybody must be on message. Rather than there being a collective societal breakdown there will be increasing resistance to big brother. People will become increasingly creative in creating personal private spaces for themselves. Already it’s happening on an interpersonal level with under the screen events, when raves and music events are organised through social media, pop up events which lack legal sanction. Increasingly non big brother events will be organised, events at which individuals are free just to be. The social network will be increasingly used to create under screen events. The fog of social media messages make the control so loved of big brother impossible. Already protests have been organised through peer to peer networks; whether it be protests in East London about gentrification and the lack of affordable housing or Chinese factory workers protesting about poor pay and working conditions.


What I believe is that the organised network of ‘big brother’ is contrary to human nature. If I can modify Aristotle’s concept of being, human nature contains within it the urge to fulfil individual potential, that is to be a something. Whether it be Aristotle’s philosopher or something else this potential cannot be ‘other directed’. The monitoring of individual behaviour whether it be by the security services or employers can only provoke hostility and a counter reaction. In a relatively free society such as the UK individuals will come up with ways to subvert big brother and make their inner selves increasingly impenetrable to big brother. There is a thriving under the screen counter culture which appears to be about music and clothes, yet for anybody who is familiar with these cultures it is far more than that. Clothes and music are but the visible appearance of the new man or woman, one who has created a personality separate from that imposed by the societal big brother. When I read any literature given to me by my nephew who is a Black Metal enthusiast, I am made aware of this resistance amongst the young to an oppressive culture that wishes to deny them their individuality.

Reading this last paragraph I realise that I identify being or individuality with non-conformity. I am a serial non conformist a non joiner in, when teaching I was described by one colleague as being one of the three eccentrics, who taught in that school. My non conformity was sought in emphasising my individuality and I think my personal experience can be generalised, the good society is one that allows individuals to exercise their individuality, to develop their potential or being in ways free from the direction of society’s big brother. A society that calls itself free cannot impose big brother through the social media it will meet with resistance. Resistance to the brutalities of the industrial workplace in the early 19th century developed within small private rooms in public houses and resistance to the brutalities of the new social order, poverty pay, insecurity and poor housing will develop in those under the screen places made possible by the new social media.