Category Archives: Politics

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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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.

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.

Weimar Britain 2010 – ?

There seems to be a gathering darkness in our society, unreason seems to increasingly be the language of our times. The darkness of unreason is said to have come from outside the political process, from  the extremists of the right who have been increasingly successful in infiltrating the political mainstream. Although there success is not entirely down to their own efforts, as they have been aided by collaborators from within the political mainstream.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this darkness is the increasing harassment of immigrants. All to often there are stories such as that of the grandmother of Singaporean origin who was sent back to her homeland, despite having a family in the UK. She was sent back penniless to a homeland where she had no family. Indifference often bordering on cruelty so often governs the actions of our politicians.

When I see the flourishing of unreason in society, I look to the past for explanation. One obvious parallel is the German Weimar Republic that was destroyed by the forces of unreason. One writer that tried to explain the rise of the forces of unreason was Ernst Junger. I find his book ‘On the Marbles’ particularly apposite. There exists within his narrative a wild uncivilised  family of huntsmen who live deep in the dark forest. This family breeds an exceptionally vicious and violent breed of dog, who are breed for nothing but fighting. In the climax of the book this pack of barbarous dogs takes on the hunting dogs of the foresters and destroys them. Now this barbarous family has control of the forest. There is one futile attempt later by the politicians to come to terms with the barbarians of the forest, but it ends badly in their death.

There is a darkness in the souls of us all, but a darkness that is suppressed by civilisation. Norbert Elias wrote of the significance of etiquette in making organised society and social  progress possible. When people started treating each other with courtesy and respect organised society becomes possible. These etiquette codes of behaviour or rituals are passed from generation to generations giving society its shape but once they are disregard or disrespected society begins to resemble a shapeless mass and loses its civilising aspect.* Football without rules is a meaningless undignified scramble and even the most aggressive and competitive of footballers who will resort to cheating to win a match, still accepts the need for rules. They know that if there were no rules to break there would be no game of football. Politicians increasingly resemble the cheating footballer but unlike them they don’t just want to break the rules to their own advantage, but they want to destroy the rules and reshape the game in their own image.

Ernst Junger’s allegorical tale was very prescient, there are dark groups in society who while they remain isolated and excluded from the mainstream, pose little threat to the larger society. If they are isolated in the depths of the forest they are little threat to the civilised whole. However once this dark group is welcomed into the mainstream of the body politic, their very ruthlessness enables them to rise to the top. Just like Junger barbarous dogs they destroy the opposition, an opposition that has not been breed for fighting.

This dark group existed within German society, they were the German nationalists. The most extreme of which were the Nazis. Mainstream politicians thought there ideas insane, such as wanting to return the bulk of the population to the land. Farm work and rural life they believed led to the cultivation the manliness virtues that the Nazi’s admired. Too many German men lived soft easy lives in the town and had lost the Aryan virtues that the Nazis admired. Having such crazy ideas led to the political elite believing that such simpletons could be easily managed.

When the economic crisis of 1929 lead to widespread unemployment, which many blamed on the government. The discredited ruling coalition thought that by incorporating the increasingly popular Nazi’s into government they come benefit from their popularity. They would be a useful counterweight to the powerful communist party. The conservative intellectuals such as Franz Von Papen thought that they could easily manage the ‘unsophisticates’ of the Nazi Party. Instead these conservative politicians lacked the ruthlessness of the Nazis and were out manoeuvred by them. The well behaved dogs of the conservative right proved no match for the wild dogs of the Nazis.

Once the Nazis gained control they removed those civilised constraints that kept those dark instincts of the German personality suppressed. Soon civilised Germans were treating there Jewish neighbours in the most cruel of manners. Once those civilised rules of social interaction were removed the darkest of behaviours become common. Millions of Germans knew of the existence of the death camps, yet only a small number of German opposed their use. Ordinary German citizen if they knew of Jews hiding form the authorities would not hesitate to betray them.

What I believe is that once the barbarous dark forces in society are admitted into the mainstream of the body politic they corrupt the political process and take it over. There barbarous belief systems cannot tolerate any diversity opinion or difference, so must they destroy it. That destruction as in Weimar Germany will be the destruction of the democratic system.

While the dark forces in Britain remained isolated and excluded from the mainstream, they could be tolerated as the harmless indulgence of a tiny minority. However in Britain as in Weimar Germany changes occurred within the governing elites that made possible the introduction of the barbarous views of the extremists. Within the conservative political spectrum there had always been a significant minority that hated the post war settlement. High personal taxation and the tax revenue used to fund of social welfare programmes and the health service they saw the illegitimate action of government. They saw the economic crisis of the 1970s as an opportunity to destroy the social democratic state. Whether it was the free market economics of Milton Friedman or the Neo-Liberalism of Hayek and Rand, they had a brutal philosophy. What they wanted was the re-create the society that pre-dated Hobbes ‘Leviathan’. They wanted a society of in which ‘nasty brutish’ men, were not restrained in their actions by the state. It was human competitiveness not social organisation they believed was the motor for economic and social progress.

As this philosophy increasingly took hold on the Conservative party, its policies became more and more brutal as it sough to recreate the society of ‘nasty and brutish’ men. Although policies were couched in morally virtuous terms such as taking people out of the dependency culture and making them self sufficient, all but the most deluded of Conservative must have realised they were practising a policy of cruelty. This policy was corrupting of the people making the policy, as implementing cruel social policies is not a morally neutral activity, it corrupts the mind. The poor become defined as a subhuman species unworthy of the decencies of human society.

With this degradation of moral sensibilities conservative politicians have not hesitated to exploit the those dark atavistic sentiments on race and ethnicity to win support. However what they fail to realise is that they these sentiments are not something that can used when needed for electioneering and then forgotten. Once they have been imported into the political dialogue they remain there. These politicians so resemble so many Franz Von Papen’s  who thought that they could use the extremists for their own ends.  Similarly these conservative politicians are offering extremists access to power, an access that they will exploit.

Again Ernst Junger’s allegoric tale offers a useful explanation of the current situation. Bad as the current conservative politician are, there are the much more dangerous extremists who are beginning to enter the political mainstream. The conservative politicians are like the hunting dogs in his tale, they are trained to hunt herbivores and not to fight other dogs. I liken them to they hunting dogs because they are trained to hunt weak herbivores of society, the poor and less well off majority. Neo-liberalism of the Ayn Rand type has schooled them in how to attack the less well off majority to benefit of the billionaires class, but it has not schooled them in how fight off the extremists. I fear that our conservative Neo-liberal politicians, will be as with Weimar’s conservative politicians little more than a conduit to power for the extremists. 

  • I must confess that my summary of Norbert Ellias thinking does not do justice to him. His ideas are far my complex that my summary would suggest.

The British Army a metaphor for Britain’s economic decline

When you wish to understand what is happening in an economy, the answer comes from the small things. Not from the micro-economics of the classical economist but from stories repeated about events in the real world. The source of inspiration for this essay was a comment from my daughter who has friends who are married to soldiers. Their husbands are very discontented, as they seem to waste their time on a series of seemingly meaningless tasks. It seems as if the bad of practices of national service days are being reinvented when soldiers could be told to do such meaningless tasks as cut the grass with nail scissors. If they are correct the British army seems to be at present an organisation without purpose or meaning.

This I can contrast with the attitude of a former pupil of mine who served with the army in Northern Ireland. I thought that he would have hated service there because of the dangers. Instead he loved it, he had two posting there and was considering leaving the army because his next would be an action less posting to Germany. Anybody with even the briefest knowledge of the British army knows that it can do mindless routine like no other organisation. He as did many others join the army for the excitement, a life out of the routine. I cannot describe in words the excitement he told me he experienced on an active mission hunting an IRA unit.

A dysfunctional army and discontented soldiers is a metaphor for so much of contemporary Britain. There are countless business organisations that demonstrate the same lack of purpose, due to poor leadership and with a discontented workforce. What the British army demonstrates is how state and private sector organisations become increasingly dysfunctional in a society that appears to be in decline.

Britain has been in decline since it lost its Empire and in the words of Dean Acheson it ‘has lost an empire and has not yet found a role’. In the post war period many politicians attempted to find a new role for Britain. At first it seemed its future lay with Europe and the country joined the EU. However being one of the leading nations in the EU did not satisfy the political class, as it had not injected the hoped for dynamism into British economy and society. What the political class wanted was the great shock that would electrify the economy and restore it to economic health and they found the needed great shock they needed in the practice of Neo-Liberal economics.

One of the great ideas of the Neo-Liberal revolution is the idealisation of the private sector business model. In consequence much of the public sector was transferred to private ownership and that included much of the defence department. Now procuring weapons for the army is in the hands of a private sector organisation called the Defence Procurement Agency. This department was intended to be a commissioning agency, that would outsource the design and production of defence equipment to private sector companies, so getting the best deal for the armed services from the competing defence contractors.

It was assumed that by outsourcing expertise to the private contractor the government would cut out the expense of employing its own specialists and it could leave the difficult decisions about  design and production to the private sector companies. Unfortunately these very same companies also practised cost cutting and reduced the most expensive labour costs, which were the design engineers. Outsourcing of design has led to a multiplicity of contractors involved in producing a product that usually fails to serve its purpose. The new army automatic rifle (SA80) costing more than a £470 million is an example of the abject failure of this policy*. It tends to jam when used in action. Special forces units who are constantly in action never use it because of its unreliability, instead preferring to use the American alternative. Having to make do with inferior and unsuitable equipment is destructive of morale and it is said that in the Royal Navy service morale has never been lower, as it is the service most affected by having to operate with poor and inadequate resources.

Generals and politicians have with enthusiasm adopted the cost cutting practices of Neo-Liberalism. This means that in consequence the cost of having realistic large scale training exercises is too great in terms of men and resources. There is just not the money to keep the army trained in is a state of readiness for war. All to often soldiers are given home leave, as this is the least expensive option. One way politicians and the generals have tried to overcome this problem is by cutting the numbers of serving soldiers and instead relying upon the cheap part time reserve solder to fill the gaps in the time of crisis. Forcing experienced soldiers to leave the army because they are too expensive is destructive of morale.

Warrant officers are the unsung heroes of the army. These non-commissioned officers are the men who make the regimental system effective. They have years of service and are the men that keep the regiment operating at maximum efficiency. Officers come and go, but they are always there. However they are expensive and the government and generals decided that they should reduce their numbers in a cost cutting exercise.  A number of warrant officers who received their redundancy notices were on active service in Afghanistan. Many private and state organisations have suffered similar drops in service effectiveness, when they have got rid of much of the middle management.

Neo-Liberal theory emphasises the great value of the entrepreneurial leader, societies movers and shakers, whom Ayn Rand states the billionaire class. This has been applied to the army as the cost cutting has been at the expensive of the junior ranks, not the generals. It is believed that all is needed is the great man who will meld the disparate units that make up an army unit into an effective fighting force at the time of crisis. Skills, training and experience are almost irrelevant in the junior ranks, as what matters is the genius of the leader. Therefore whatever cuts are made they should not apply to the generals, as they are the key personnel who will make the army great in the times of war. In consequence the British army is one of the most ‘over generalled’ in the world. The British army is about the size of the American marine corps which has only a third of the generals.

The great weakness of current British army is that it does not have a large cadre of outstanding leaders. Too many of the current generals are quite undistinguished and there are too many duds amongst them. When an American general addressed a conference of senior British army staff to discuss the lessons learnt from the conflict in Afghanistan he said gentlemen you have failed. It is an open secret that the Americans have a very poor opinion of the British army or more particularly its generals.

There is a very revealing story from Afghanistan which reveals the poor quality of British generalship. There was an airbase in which was the responsibility of a British and American general. The British general was responsible for the defence of the perimeter. He left some watch towers unoccupied.The Taliban spotted this and crept in and destroyed a number of American aircraft. The American General who was responsible for the defence of the aircraft was sacked, although he was comparatively blameless, while the British general was not only not sanctioned but he was promoted to a higher grade. Incompetence does not seem a bar to seniority in the British army.

This is why my daughters friends husbands find that they are doing no real soldiering, it is because they belong a dysfunctional organisation that is unable to effectively utilise their talents. Recently the government was criticised for failing to respond adequately to Hurricane Irma. The Americans and French evacuated their citizens from the islands in the before the hurricane struck, the British did nothing. While much of the blame for the inaction must rest with the politicians, it is also likely that if the defence minister had asked for immediate action, the armed services would have struggled to respond.

What the British army demonstrates is the current British vice, over investment in a poor and undistinguished leadership and underinvestment in its workforce. Almost all British companies have experienced a ruthless weeding out of middle management and of its more expensive and skilled staff. Once the British Atomic Energy Authority was one of the world leaders in nuclear engineering, but since privatisation the new company disposed of the expensive engineers and became largely a commissioning organisation. Now when Britain needs to build new nuclear power stations it lacks the expertise to do so and instead relies upon outsourcing the task a French company EDF. The leadership of the nuclear industry is so poor that it is not concerned that the two nuclear power stations that EDF is building in France and Finland are so delayed by construction problems and cost overruns that are years behind schedule. Just as in much of British industry a poor leadership makes poor decisions.

*The initial model of this rifle used by the army was so poor that it had to be modified and re-engineered by the German manufacturer Heckler and Koch.

*The branch of the armed services that has suffered most from the lack of in house expertise and poor leadership is the Royal Navy. Its new £1 billion Daring class destroyers are so badly engineered that they are prone to break down. The only solution is cut large holes in the sides of the ships so engineers can install new power units. A ‘patch up’ job that will be extremely expensive and could double the cost of equipping the navy with these new ships.

Spurious economic thinking from our politicians. Inflation is not the greatest of evils, in fact the opposite can be true

Over the last few days, there has been series of government ministers trotting out the same tired explanations of why a pay cap is necessary for the workers in the public service. These are two, the first is that the public finances are insufficient to finance a wage increase and that any such increase would only increase the national debt. There was the famous television broadcast in which the Prime Minister told a nurse that there was no magic money tree, an argument she has since undermined by her own actions. However what I want to demonstrate is the fallacious nature of the second reason giving for denying public sector workers a wage increase. This is the argument that it will be inflationary. The incorrect assumption these politicians make is that inflation is always bad. It’s not sufficient to say that taking a certain action is wrong because it can increase inflation. There are circumstances in which inflation can be good.

Price rises are welcome when the price increase is a consequence of the worker/s being paid a fair wage. Wages have fallen so low that nurses and other public sector workers are having to go to food banks so as to be able to feed themselves and their families. One of the unfortunate consequence is that now more nurses are leaving the NHS than are joining it. If we wish as a nation to have a health service that is able to deliver high quality care more money must be found to pay the health service staff. The cost of health care will rise but would this would be outweighed by the benefit to national as a whole.

The government would say that to increase the incomes of the thousands of public sector workers would be inflationary. These workers must continue to bear the pain of low incomes, as to do otherwise would be to threaten the nations well being. This is a totally fallacious argument, as what this inflation would represent would be a change in power relationships within the economy. Public sector workers will now as group have a much larger share of the nation’s incomes. As they spend there increased incomes demand for goods and services will rise and so will prices. One consequence of this is that other groups will find that there purchasing power is diminished.

There will be some unfortunate consequences in that workers in the private sector on low incomes will suffer disproportionately from price increases. However this could be offset by an enlightened government increasing the minimum wage to compensate for the reduced value of their incomes. Many workers will themselves solve this problem by transferring from poorly paid work in the private sector to better paid work in the public sector. There is within the economy an automatic adjustment mechanism, in that private sector employers will have to increase the wages they pay their staff if they wish to retain them. There is no great harm to be inflicted on the economy if inflation increases from its current rate of 2.9% per annum to 4 or 5%. This was the average rate of inflation throughout the 1950s and 60s and economic growth was then at its highest.

From within the private sector there will be siren voices arguing against this saying that they cannot afford to run their businesses with wage costs so high and that they will have no choice but to dismiss workers. Against this argument is the compelling moral one, if they are such rotten employers that they can only run their business if they pay wages so low that the employee is forced to turn to the food banks or to the government for wage supplements such as tax credits they deserve to close. There will be a temporary increase in unemployment and this will require a more generous approach to the payment of unemployment benefits from the government. This will only be a temporary increase, because the increased spending of the public sector workers will kickstart an economy which is at present in the merely idling mode. Economic growth will increase and so will the demand for newly unemployed workers.

One particular imagined scenario gives me pleasure. The City banker with an income of £100,000 plus will now find that as a consequence of the increased wages to the barista, there morning cappuccino will have increased from say £2.50 to £3.00. Having worked with such people I can imagine the indignation they will express at having to pay more for their coffee. Such people will see it as threat to their life style. Rich and super rich people will be able to buy less of the time of the less well off than they did formerly, which will hurt. There will be a return of the servant problem of the 1960s, when the rich found it difficult to recruit people willing to work long hours for low pay in personal service. Once wage rates and employment opportunities were available elsewhere the number of young women willing to enter domestic service dropped dramatically.

What needs to be prevented to stop inflation getting out of hand, is measures to stop the group that has most benefitted from the low wages of the past decade from over compensating for the loss in there purchasing power by disproportionately increasing their incomes. These people are those in the private finance sector, those whose wealth comes from large property holdings and company directors. This can simply be done by re-introducing a progressive income tax, together with a wealth tax and an effective capital gains tax.  The effect of these taxes will make it less desirable to earn excessive incomes, as a significant part of any increase will be taken in tax.  The tax take from this new taxes would help with funding of the public service sector.

There is one group that would be the losers from an increased inflation rate and that would be pensioners such as myself. The income I receive is fixed for a year and it would diminish in value as the year progressed, and although I do receive an increase in my pension at the end of the year equal to the new rate of inflation, that will not compensate for the erosion my income during the past year. However I will benefit from knowing that the health service is better funded and that my generation are the ones most likely to benefit from increased spending on this service.

Why we need economists

Being a former social worker and state secondary school teacher I am used to belonging to a profession that is disparaged in the media. Now I find that being an economist means that I am subject to similar vilification. What made economists (or rather the good economist) so disparaged is that they tell inconvenient or awkward truths about the economy and society. When faced with such truths politicians and the powerful will resort to abuse to silence the truth tellers. What is remarkable is that we have a parliament dominated by graduates from our elite universities and yet they are in greater ignorance of the world around them, than the parliaments of the past! Parliaments that were mocked for having too many of trade unions and country squires, men supposedly lacking in education and knowledge of the world around them.

Having made this declaration I must now produce the evidence to defend my assertion. These awkward truths usually are warnings about coming troubles that politicians would prefer to ignore. When the great crash occurred in 2008/9 politicians claimed that it was a once in a lifetime event that could never have been predicted. An economic act of God. The truth is that all the warning signs were there and instead of acting on them politicians refused to act, as any action taken would have been cutting spending and that would have been unpopular with the electorate. There were two causes of this crash were the banks irresponsible lending policies, such as 125% mortgages. The other guilty party were the governments and central bankers who rather than regulating the market for the greater public good, preferred to turn a blind eye to the irresponsible behaviour of the bankers. Their justification for their inaction was the doctrine of neoliberal economics, which states that economic well being is maximised under the free market economic system.

I suspect that those trade unions and squires of the past would not have been so gullible, as they had a superior understanding of human nature. They from their dealings with bankers would have known that these men were not the giants of the financial world but men as fallible as themselves. These men would have recognised that greed for ever greater and greater financial rewards motivated these bankers.

Awkward truth warning – little has changed since 2008 bankers are still lending irresponsibly and the government is still turning a blind eye to such behaviours. One area of concern is car finance, it is suggested that car dealers in their desire to sell more and more cars are not paying sufficient attention to the ability of their customers to fund their repayments and the risk is that these buyers will default in the future on their loans. This will cause the defaulting customers to return their cars leaving the dealers with an unsold mountain of cars other hands. This would in itself be sufficient to cause another economic downturn. The banks who source the funds which enable the car dealers to offer generous financial terms to buyers, rather than offering a word of caution or refusing to increase there lending to the dealers just continue to shovel cash in their direction.  Other forms of bank lending such as to the property market suggest that bankers have not learnt the lessons of 2008 and unfortunately neither has the government.

As an economist you learn to read the runes, in my case as I have no access to government statistics, it is those short comments in the financial section in the newspapers that give the game away. In this case it was a short piece of no more than three or four lines. A financier was asked if the Bank of England was now cracking down on irresponsible lending to prevent a repeat of 2008/9. His answer was no, as the governor knew that if he reduced borrowing he would cause an economic slowdown, which would increase unemployment with all its associated problems. If I read the article correctly little has changed since 2008.

I also realise that the banks have fought tooth and nail to stop the governments of Europe and the USA to make them resilient in the event of any future crisis. British banks have successfully persuaded the government that reserves of 3% are sufficient to enable them to ride out any future crisis. European banks have even smaller reserves. These reserves are either cash or assets that can be easily turned into cash to meet the demand for cash from their customers. (A greater ratio of assets to lending would limit the money banks could lend and in consequence reduce their profitability.) The suggestion is that in an event of a repeat of the financial crisis of 2008 the banks will lack sufficient reserves of cash to enable them to meet their customers demands for money. In a crisis customers fearing the future will withdraw their savings from the bank, either because they doubt the loudness of the bank or they want money in hand to deal with any future crisis. It will only take one bank to close its door for a general panic to ensue with the consequence that the government yet again will have to step in to bail out the banks. If the banks held greater reserves as have happened in the past such temporary crisis could easily be resolved  The banks would have sufficient quantities of cash in reserve to be able to pay those panicking customers who wanted their money back. Once it was seen that the banks had plenty of money the panic would cease. However if banks have insufficient cash reserves the whole system is liable to collective failure. If only one bank has to close its door, because it cannot meet its customers demands for cash, the contagion will spread and there will be a major run on the banks. Yet again the government would have to rescue the banks from their follies of their own making.

However we tellers of awkward truths have a problem. We cannot predict exactly what will happen or  when. We are tellers of possibilities and probable truths and us such we can be easily discredited. Economist predicted that a vote to leave the EU would have a negative impact on the economy. Then when in the days after the Brexit vote, the economy failed to collapse the naysayers could claim that they were wrong and that the collective opinion of economists was worth no more than that of the collectivity of politicians. What these naysayers overlooked was  that the Governor of the Bank of England being all too aware of the negative impact of a Brexit vote took immediate action to offset its negative economic impact. He simply increased the amount of to the nations borrowers enabling them to go on spending spree which prevented the economy from taking a nose dive. What the naysayers don’t realise it that it is a crisis postponed  not as they believe an imaginary economic ghoul or nasty conjured up from the feverish imaginings of the economists.

There is one prominent economist or truth teller who has consistently, warned of the impending credit crisis but is consistently ignored by governments and that is Anne Pettifor. She is never called to sit on the committees that governments set up to advise them on matters economic, as they don’t want to hear her truths. She has written extensively about the impending first world debt crisis, yet like some unheard of  Old Testament prophet her writings remain in obscurity.

Our one weakness as economists is that we cannot say exactly when or how or what we predict will happen. Even more frustratingly we can be right but events prove us wrong. There are no economists that can accurately predict the future, we are the scientists of the possible or the perhaps. The economy is such a volatile and complex construct that sudden and unexpected changes can make fools of us. This is why a leading politician* can say with confidence  ‘we have had enough of experts’ (meaning economists) and be praised in the media for his sagacity and foresight.

Yet our awkward truth remains the economies of Western Europe and the USA are over indebted and not one government has taken any realistic debt reduction measures. The fact that Britain with Japan shares the unwanted title of the most indebted of developed countries has passed our politicians by. They will speak endlessly about the public sector or government indebtedness, but they are focusing on the mice in the room while ignoring the elephant that is private sector indebtedness. Prior to the crash of 2008 government debt was less then a tenth of private sector debt. While great pains have been taken to reduce government debt little has been done to reduce private sector indebtedness*. This indebtedness will possibly rise to unheard of levels as the Governor has said that he is relaxed about the possibility of banks increasing their assets to nine times the size of GDP. Banks assets are loans, so he is relaxed about the banks increasing the nations debt to nine times the total of its wealth!

*Michael Gove a prominent politician who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU

* A policy practice that is common to all Western European governments.