Category Archives: Railways

Stupid, Stupid Economics

  

Whenever I open the paper I read yet another article that makes me despair of the competence of our politicians in managing our affairs. The latest example occurred when I read that our Chancellor of the Exchequer was going to fund the increase in spending on the National Health Service (NHS) by ending grants given to student nurses to fund their training and instead make them fund their own training by forcing them to take out loans. It does appear on the surface as a reasonable policy as it means it can transfer the £800 million pounds spent on grants to und extra health service spending. However in both parliament and the media this went unquestioned as all accepted his reasoning. However the logic of his actions was nonsensical as any enquiry would have shown.
First of all that £800 million is not going to be taken from nurses training to fund extra NHS, he is in fact increasing overall spending by a further £800 million. The money that would have gone to fund these grants will now instead be paid to the loans company to enable them to lend the money to student nurses to fund their training. Nurse training takes several years and these nurses will not start paying back these loans until some time in the future. Then when they do start to repay them, repayments will only total a small proportion of the total. Sleight of hand and some imaginative book keeping will make it appear that the Chancellor has kept within his budgetary limits on NHS spending when in fact he has done the reverse. When Disraeli said that there are ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ he could have been speaking of the practices of contemporary Western governments as when such stupid economic practises are commonplace. 
The British media is fond of reporting on the nonsense spoken by some of the more extreme of the Republican candidates for the American Presidency but in the words of the Bible, they have pointed out the splinter in their neighbour’s eye, while ignoring the beam in their own eye. Just because British politicians speak in an educated voice, one developed in years of tutoring at elite schools and universities, it does not mean that they are not incapable of speaking nonsense equal to that spoken by Donald Trump. Their education is one of manner not intellect.
Just last Sunday I had to travel 20 miles to collect my daughter from a railway station. The train service that should have come to her home station, terminated at this distant station. When I arrived at the station there were hundreds perhaps even a thousand people queuing in the cold night waiting for a replacement bus to take them to their destination. This is no unusual occurrence as every train traveller has similar stories, in Britain we have come to accept that on Sunday’s and public holidays our railways cease to work. In this case it was said to be a signal failure, when in effect it either routine maintenance work or essential upgrading work that had gone wrong. In Britain the convention is never tell the people the truth.
Perhaps this is yet another good example of stupid economics. British railways to the user provide what at its best is an adequate service, which all too often is mediocre or occasionally awful. Yet our elected politicians see the privatised railways as a success story. What they see is increased numbers travelling by rail as demonstrating the successful of privatisation. Failing to see that this is due the flight from the cities caused by high housing costs forcing millions to live distant from their place of work. These millions then have no alternative but to use the train to get to work. No matter how many complaints about the inadequate service, such as thousands being forced to travel at peak times in conditions worse than those in which livestock are transported, all politicians know the railways are a success story. They just know that railways run by private enterprise are superior to those run by the state, now matter how bad the service appears to customers. Politicians see their role as that of the PR division of the railway companies whose role is to deflect complaints about poor service by convincing rail users that they are not receiving a poor but the best possible service. As with so many evangelical salesman they tell people that their patience and will be rewarded with a place in railway heaven. 

Why is Stupid Economics so prevalent
The question must be asked why is stupid economics so widely practised. There are several possible answers. One must be the education that our leaders received, nearly all studied philosophy at an elite university. There they would have been taught that we live in a post modern age and what were assumed to be economic truths, were only the truths of a former age, that of mass production. Truths such as those that said a universal welfare and health system can be provided out of taxation are the ephemera of another age and have no place in today’s society. Post modernism teaches that truth is relative to a particular historical period and the truths of one age have no place in another time. The truth of post modernism is Neo-Liberalism and the associated in the virtue of the free markets. It is said that this is no longer an age of great truths, whereas it is an age that no longer believes in the big or great government. It is the age of the small state, the unregulated market and unrestricted freedom. The Treasury has even rewritten economic theory to reverse one of the truths of the modern age which is that government spending increases the level of economic activity, now it is claimed to do the reverse. Post Modernism teaches that what you believe is true is true, it’s what in former times was called relativism. Therefore stupid economics must prevail there are no economic truths, there are no grounds from which to crisis erupted the practise of stupidity..

There is one other answer that comes from the education our leaders received at their elite universities. Nearly all studied politics of which a part is a study of voting behaviour. This teaches that people respond not to policies but to emotion and feeling. Therefore rational policy making is less important that engaging with people’s feelings and emotions. As they are so distant from the people that they cannot gauge what the people are thinking from the press and other intermediaries. All to often they equate the headlines in the tabloid press with popular feeling. (Such headlines may coincide with popular emotions and feelings but not necessarily so), what they are seeing in these papers are what a number of university educated journalists believe is the popular feeling. They are looking at a mirror which reflects their contempt for the people, a people incapable of thought. Such contempt is a bad foundation of which o make policy.

One other factor is the decline in the great institutions that make up the democratic state. Parliament is seen less as the great assembly in which to make one’s reputation, than as a pathway to a profitable career in consultancy or to a directorship in a newly privatised industries. 
  
What these leaders would never understand that there can be a place for nonsense as opposed to stupidity in economic policy making. The former is a practise which contributes to the well being of the country, while the latter is just stupid as does no one any good. A good example of nonsense economics comes from the Second World War. People were urged to contribute their aluminium pots and pans to the war effort to provide the material for constructing Spitfires. In fact the amounts collected could never have helped build more than one Spitfire. Government economists used this policy as a ploy to convince people that they were contributing to the war effort and helping beat the enemy. It was nothing more than a morale boosting exercise, but it was a very effective one, as it made the householder believe than by sacrificing one pan they were helping to beat Hitler. I fear this good practise of nonsense economics is beyond the wit of our contemporary leaders. They prefer to practise the dumb economics of the herd think. 

Nietzsche and the Economists

  

Nietzsche made many criticisms of philosophy as taught in Europe. One of his main criticisms was that it was written in ignorance of its real subject matter, that is man. Free will is one of the main tenets of moral philosophy yet Nietzsche cast doubt on its existence. How free he asked was tge criminal when he conducted his crimes? He argued that psychology taught that many actions of the individual are pre determined by their biological drives. Is the criminal freely committing his criminal acts or is he not acting in a predetermined manner. If this true how can the criminal be responsible for his actions? 

While Nietzsche’s  reasoning was founded on a rather crude biological determinism his argument is still valid. Moral philosophy was wrong when it assumed that an individual was responsible for his actions. Therefore all philosophers such as Kant were wrong when he based his moral philosophy on the categorical imperative. Kant’s categorical imperative states  that one’s actions should be capable of serving as the basis of a universal law,a philosopher’s updating of Christ’s injunction, to do onto as others as you would have done onto yourself. Nietzsche would argue that the individual man was incapable of acting rationally as Kant believed, as his actions were driven by a series of biological drives which could be quite irrational. To put it simply the rational man of the philosophers did not exist, so all philosophy was flawed, because of this fundamental error.

Nietzsche’s scepticism applied to economics

As a student of economics I do believe that although many of the insights that economics has developed are invaluable in understanding the economy, too much of the subject matter of economics is based on assumptions about the nature of human behaviour and the workings of the economy which are flawed and therefore much of economics is just plain wrong. What economists never practise is self reflection, they never question the assumptions on which their predictions about economic behaviour are based.

One of these fundamental assumptions of economics is that the economy runs most effectively when consumers are free to choose without constraint between a variety of options. Economists believe that they know best what they want. They don’t want some remote body such as the government making choices for them. If it does it because of its remoteness from the individual citizen will make the wrong decision. This philosophy underpins much of the reform of public services in the UK, which is about giving the user choice. Now when you go to your doctor you are given a variety of options to choose from. Last week when I saw my doctor I was given a choice of health care providers at which to have my chest X-Ray. Politicians and health care economists see this as an unalloyed good. They believe it is preferable that Individual such as myself have a choice about which health care provider to use. Rather than being directed to be health care provider by the government, to a help care provider that I would not have chosen. However there is evidence that this apparently self evident good is not always a good.

What evidence there is suggests that whatever we want as consumers it is not always choice. Two American economists conducted an experiment into choice. They ran two market stalls selling jam, on one stall they had an almost infinitely large selection of jams and on the other a very limited selection of jam types.  The second stall sold the most jam, as it appeared that when  people faced a large range of products from which to choose an almost they found it difficult to decide which one to buy. When choice was limited they found it easy to make a decision. Tesco Britain’s largest supermarket discovered this truth through its falling sales . In its stores there could be up 30 different varieties of one product on display, whereas it’s more successful rival Lidl would have one or occasionally two examples of one product. Customers did not want a large product range, they preferred the Lidl approach. Lidl also by limiting its product range was able to buy in bulk and could negotiate large discount through being a bulk buyer. This fed through to lower store prices which made Lidl a formidable competitor for Tesco. 

Economists by recommending the break up of public sector monopolies its several competing private suppliers to offer the service user more choice may be mistaking the public mood.  Until 1993 railway services were provided by the state owned British Rail. Then the state monopoly was broken up and rail services and divided up among various competing rail companies, so to give the rail traveller a choice of service provider.  After 22 years of privatisation the majority of the people want railways to be renationalised. Rail fares are now some of the highest in the world and the conditions travellers are subjected to are distinctly second class. The term ‘cattle truck’ as a description of how people are transported at peak times is a frequently used term. Also the costs to the government of a privatised rail service are much higher than the costs of running the former nationalised rail service. Private firms require from the state a huge subsidy to run what they claim is an unprofitable public service. They claim that they need subsidies to break even or to make a modest profit. Yet all the companies make a significant profit,a profit that up is massaged downwards for reasons of public relations and tax avoidance. Only a free market economist would find something of value in a rail service which charges some of the highest fares in the world for what are some of the worst of travelling conditions. 

  www.bringbackbritishrail.org

Economists lack the skills of self reflection, they never question the core principles or truths on which the subject is founded.  These founding principles of economics are little more than assumptions about human behaviour which are frequently wrong, which be proved on reflection. Until economists can apply a little Nietzschean scepticism there subject will continually provide the wrong answers to the questions asked of it.

Why the British will never have an efficient or effective railway system.

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In Britain we have some of the highest bus and train fares in the world, yet the service we pay for is one of the worst in the developed world. Wherever you look in the UK the public transport system is a mess. How is it that the sixth wealthiest country in the world is unable to develop a system of public transport that works? Economists will give an answer couched in economic theory but I think the answer is to be found elsewhere, in the British political culture. I take as my starting point a comment made by Saul David about the Victorian army, the officer class as a whole disliked clever officers. This belief has persisted through to today our contemporary governing classes. A characteristic demonstrated most clearly by our First World War Generals. One German soldier observing the conduct of our troops at the Battle of the Somme, said they were ‘Lions led by donkeys’. Then General Rawlinson who commanded the conscript army at the Somme believed the conscripts were incapable of mastering good soldiering skills, so ordered them to advance in line abreast much like Wellington’s soldiers towards the German machine guns. The result was a slaughter. This same lack of imagination, the inability to consider alternatives is still the cultural mindset in today’s governing classes. Once this group fixes on an idea it refuses to change, whatever the evidence to the contrary. Within Westminster the privatisation of the public services such as railways is the current ‘idee fixe’ despite evidence of the many failings of the rail system. Just like a World War 1 General bringing out a dubious set of statistics concerning German casualties after yet another failed offensive, transport ministers can produce one dubious statistic after another to demonstrate the success of the privatised railways.

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There can be several from our current political leaders who fit the General Rawlinson typology of unthinking leader. My favourite example is the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ed Balls. He when pressed by members of his party to renationalise the railways, in response uttered the memorable nonsensical phrase, that he favoured a ‘non ideological’ approach to the management of the railway service. What he meant was that he did not want the state management of the railways, believing instead in the superiority of current market based approach. He stated that in future government owned ‘arms length’ railway companies (the only similar business is the state owned mutual, that is Welsh Water, run independently of the Welsh government) would compete with private companies for rail franchises. Many have pointed out the impracticalities of the scheme. Samuel Johnson memorably described the philosophy of Rousseau as ‘nonsense on stilts’, a phrase I would apply to Ed Balls approach to railway management. It is hard to think of a more unrealistic approach to the running of the railways.

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Interestingly it was criticised not for its impracticality, as it fell within the accepted parliamentary consensus of views, but for its lack of ideological purity. Within Westminster and Whitehall it is considered a heresy to believe that the state could provide any public service better than a privately owned business.

Any thought given to Ed Ball’s scheme will demonstrate its impracticality. This and the previous Labour government have stripped the department of those top level ciivil servants, who could prepare a tender for one of the rail franchises. Instead the government would have to call on one of the many private consultancies that advise the rail industry to prepare its tender. Given that there is no existing government rail company (the state owned East Coast railway will cease to exist when its franchise runs out) it would be an imaginative paper exercise on what a hypothetical state owned railway company. Perhaps the best sign of a failing political system is when politicians resort to meaningless paper exercises as a substitute for decision taking.

Charles Dickens in his novel ‘Bleak House’ described the template for the model of British political governance. In the case of ‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce’ the case continued interminably only to cease when legal fees had swallowed up the capital in the contested inheritance and the lawyers could no longer be paid. Fortunately for transport consultants their excessive fees will never exhaust the available funds as the fund is constantly replenished by tax payer monies. What successive governments fail to realise is that it matters little to this army of consultants whether or not a project is ever finished as they still get paid, they as with the lawyers in ‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce’ consultants have an interest in spinning out the consultation process for as long as possible. Already the unbuilt HS2 (the proposed high speed rail link between London and Birmingham) has incurred costs of £1/4 billion largely in consultancy fees without a rail being laid. Each time their is significant opposition a new consultant’s report is required to answer the questions raised by the opposition. When HS2 is finally cancelled it will be the final proof of the inability of the government to undertake large scale transport infra structure projects.

There is a concept rarely used in contemporary economics and that is the natural monopoly. A natural monopoly occurs when the market conditions favour there being only one supplier of the service or product. This type of market occurs where there are very high capital costs to providing a particular product or service. One such example is the huge costs of a railway system, there are the costs of purchasing rolling stock ( one of the new HST125 train engines cost Great Western £5 million) and the cost of the construction and maintenance of rail track. It is this reason why the nationalised British rail scrapped the North Devon railway line, because it was competing with the South Devon line to take passengers to Cornwall. It was uneconomic to have two competing rail lines. There is at present one railway between London and Leeds and it is perfectly feasible to build a competing line covering the same route. There would then be two companies competing to take passengers on this route, but given the huge costs of running a rail system, any price war between the two could bankrupt them. More likely they would be too aware of the disastrous consequences of a price war and they would come to some agreement to divide the revenues between them. Another way of staying in business is to keep investment to a minimum. This is what happened in the period 1919-1948, prior to the nationalisation of the railways. While other developed countries had introduced the new rail technologies, British rail companies were still operating steam engines (The technology of the 19th century).

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This is were the comparison with World War Generals comes in, they failed to recognise the realities of contemporary warfare, that was the machine gun and barbed wire, contemporary politicians fail to recognise the realities of the rail market. When the government in 1993 privatised the railways they failed to recognise that railways were a natural monopoly and that there could only be a monopoly provider of rail services. Politicians never read history and if they had they would have been familiar with the story of George Hudson and the railway crash of 1859. Prior to 1859 there was the railway mania when rival companies set up competing rail companies to the same destinations. The market could not support so many rail companies so many rail companies made little or no profit train services a situation that could not continue. When this became knowledge there was a financial panic which saw many rail companies bankrupted. After that there was the consolidation of the railway system to reduce competition so much so that by 1947 there were only four railway companies each being a regional monopoly. However the political classes have the collective memory of the codfish, which is reputed only to be able to remember the last 10 seconds of its life and being ignorant of the past they embarked on the folly of rail privatisation.

Once the process of privatising the railways began the politicians and civil servants preparing the legislation began to realise the difficulties of grafting a competitive model onto a natural monopoly. Whatever they did there would still be a monopoly provider of rail services on particular routes. The solution they adopted was to have time limited franchises, so they could claim that there would be competition for the franchise whenever it came up for renewal. Not competition today or tomorrow but in five years time. A very unusual competitive market that limited competition to specific time slots.

Whatever the benefits to society of a rail network most of their services run at a loss. Therefore the government devised a system of subsidies to be paid to rail operators, while it was claimed that it was a subsidy for running unprofitable services, it was in reality a subsidy to make each rail franchise profitable. No private rail operator would bid to run a rail service unless it could be guaranteed a profit and that was guaranteed by the subsidy system.

To disguise the uncompetitive nature of the ‘new competitive rail market’ all contracts between the government and rail companies are secret. The excuse given is that businesses who bid for rail franchises require commercial confidentiality, as a knowledge of one businesses costs would enable a rival to set costs below that of a rival. Publication of the details of a contract after completion would confer little benefit on rivals, because all cost calculations etc. will change over time. The real reason for confidentiality is that these contracts would not stand up to public scrutiny. Secrecy is the best guarantor of continued bad practice.

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Passengers forced to get on the temporary bus service between stations, because of some failure on the rail network, should recognise that the failure lies not with the rail operator but with the politicians who devised the system and who are committed to its continuing into the indefinite future. It is in the nature of business to provide the minimum service it can get away with, as reducing costs is the most effective way of increasing profits. It is in the nature of feral profit takers to behave in this way to expect them to behave contrary to their nature is foolish. The fault lies with the politicians who decided that this unworkable system of rail management is the only one that is possible. They cannot conceive of an alternative system. There are probably clever cynical politicians who realise the rail management system is an ungovernable mess, but realise that to speak the truth would damage their career.

Cleverness is still frowned on in the army, which continued the ignoble British tradition of sending too few under equipped troops into conflict, as demonstrated in the Afghan conflict. In the Helmand province an area of British army governance, the lack of numbers and attack helicopters prevented the British army from effectively taking on the Taliban. Only when the well equipped American marines arrived were the Taliban driven out of Helmand province. When intelligence is a quality frowned on in the governing classes, it is doubtful that any government could deliver a high tech infra structure project such as HS2.