Tag Archives: Adam Smith

Donald Trump is a symptom not the cause of our current malaise

Authors such as Erasmus are little read today. Once his ‘Adages’ were the bedside reading for statesman. In this book he uses a series of Adages or popular saying as the source for coded attacks on the follies of the great and the wise of his time. In placing his criticisms in stories about the great men of classical Greece and Rome, he avoided offending the great and good of his day. He was even resorting to publishing the first edition of his book was not published under a pseudonym to avoid the wrath of the powerful. The princes and dukes of Renaissance Italy squandered the wealth of their states in a series of pointless wars. It was this folly which he highlighted time and time again in ‘The Adages’. He despaired of these men who saw the only good as being their personal glory, which they could only be achieved on the battlefield.

What these men lacked was an understanding of how the states they governed functioned to produce the wealth necessary for the well being of the people. Wealth for them was what they used to demonstrate and display their power. Perhaps the best example of such folly was the behaviour of Charles the Bold of Burgundy. His army of elite knights wore armour that appeared to be gold, probably from the gold plate on steel. They made a magnificent spectacle. However this arrogant prince and his armoured knights were destroyed in battle by the peasant pikemen of Switzerland. His now ruined and defenceless state was taken over by his astute neighbour Louis of France and who added it to his kingdom.

The horrors of war were certainly demonstrated in the ‘forty years’ war that devastated Germany in the 17th century. Unparalleled acts of barbarism occurred during this war. As usual the victims were the people who suffered from hunger and the deprivations inflicted on them by the soldiers of the various states that fighting this war. One of the states that suffered most was Saxony, yet it’s Duke and his court enjoyed the luxuries of courtly life untroubled by war. The only inconvenience they suffered was from having to relocate occasionally to avoid being victims of this war.

This horrific war was one of the factors that gave rise to the enlightenment ; philosophers believed that mankind had to be re-educated into a better way of living. If mankind was taught that a better way of life was possible, the bloody wars of the past would not reoccur. They believed that if reason was elevated into being the principle governing all human behaviour, the horrors of the past could be avoided. Leibniz a German philosopher stated that God created the best of all possible worlds and if people lived life according to the laws dictated by the rational God, the best possible of lives would be available to all. Although the enlightenment philosophers were accused of naivety, in that they failed to understand the cruelty inherent in human nature. They were in fact all to aware how easy human society could lapse into barbarism. They wanted to convince people and princes that a better life than that of the brute was possible.

The enlightenment gave rise to an academic industry that generation after generation turned out volumes on how to create a better society. One such philosopher was Adam Smith, who realising the importance of commerce and industry to the well being of the people produced ‘The Wealth of Nations’. While there has always scepticism about the influence philosophers and the teachers of the humanities had on the behaviour of politicians and people, there was a time when politicians deferred to academia. When I was young politicians believed that economists possessed a body of knowledge that if followed would maximise the well being of people. This is the now derided Keynesian economics. Similarly politicians sought the advice of other experts, the Plowden report that led to the transformation of education in the 1960’s was drafted by educational sociologists.

However the politicians can be said to have turned there back on what can be best termed the enlightenment project. A series of economic crises in the 1970s led politicians to believe that any attempt to manage the economy and society to maximise the well being of the people was doomed to failure. Academic economists did not possess the knowledge essential necessary for the management of the economy. Such a role was best left to the collective wisdom displayed by the free market.

Now the circle appeared to have turned, politicians no longer believe that an informed knowledge of the society and economy is necessary. Events for them have proved that it does not exist. Now our politicians behave like some latter day renaissance prince, seeing personal glory as the only ambition worthy of a politician. Managing the economy and society to maximise the well being of the people, is no longer the task of politicians. In Britain politicians regularly demonstrate an ignorance of the society and the economy. Boris Johnson when he said ‘bugger business’ is an exemplar of current political thinking. While Donald Trump is derided for his ignorance of the wider society and countries beyond the American shore, he is little different from leading U.K. politicians. They disguise their ignorance in politer phrasing of their words, they may even eager resort to what appear as learned comments, but their thinking comprises little more than a rote learning of what are deemed the political essentials needed for any politician. In the U.K. as in America ignorance no longer a barrier to high office.

A REPLY FROM AN ECONOMIST TO THE ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM OF DONALD TRUMP AND MICHAEL GOVE

(There were many errors in my first draft, it was written in anger and published without  a thorough checking for error.)

Contention

Economists don’t always have the right answers, they can be wrong at times, but their answers to problems are better than those of ill-informed politicians and journalists. There are plenty of never-never land politicians selling an unreal picture of the world to the electorate. There are many fewer such economists because there work would have undergone informed scrutiny by their peers and much that is dubious would have been discarded. The overwhelming majority of economists believe that Brexit will inflict significant economic damage on the economy, while a significant number of politicians and most journalist believe the reverse (who are lacking any evidence apart from their misguided optimism in the rightness of their beliefs).

Confession of interest

I am one of those experts that Michael Gove spoke abouto he said people are fed up with and who they should be ignored by the people  when making decisions about the future, such as how to vote in the EU referendum. I am one of those people who following Aristotle’s advice  have dedicated the best part of their life to study. What Michael Gove is trashing is the value of learning, I cannot accept that my years of study have been wasted. How can such small minded person go against centuries of a tradition that values learning? He is a graduate of an elite university but he seems to dismiss the value of what he learnt there. I can say to Michael Gove that when teaching in a tough secondary school I never demeaned myself to pretending that I lacked learning. What young people can identify is the phoney, the teacher that pretends to be like them. Michael Gove’s attempt to pretend to be one of the people is as phoney as my colleagues who adopted a fake working class accents and mimicked the words and manners the young in an attempt to win their favour. Behaviour as phoney as that of the Dad who to tries to impress by claiming a knowledge of and love for garage music and rap.

The dangers of contempt for learning

If Michael Gove’s lead is followed as experts such as myself as regarded as just another self interested individual with an agenda to promote, a lot is lost. Economists such as myself are in possession of or can access a body of knowledge about the economy not available to others. Acquiring and understanding the store of economic knowledge takes years and to be honest a life time of study, because the subject is always changing and developing. What Michael Gove is saying is that my learning is of no consequence. I cannot accept that the anti intellectualism of todays politicians will stand future scrutiny. Without wishing to be too unkind Michael is an insignificant figure compared to Adam Smith, Ricardo, Keynes, Hayek, Polanyi and Robinson. With time his anti intellectual populism will be a but a minor blip in the progress of humankind. In studying economics I developed a critical faculty which makes it possible to make reasoned judgements about government policy, rather than relying up prejudice and common sense on which to found my judgements. Paraphrasing a much greater thinker than myself who used this phrase in the context of religious belief, those who don’t believe in God are likely to believe in anything; similarly those who don’t believe the truths of  economics are likely to believe any nonsense about the economy.

One such nonsense is the current belief that there is a real knowledge of the world, which is only possessed by men of business, who deal every day with the complexities of the real world, as opposed to the unreal world of academia. One such person held to possess this knowledge is Donald Trump, the next President of the United States. I would question the breadth of his knowledge, he is a real estate developer. Yet one who has failed in several business ventures and has only been saved from bankruptcy by the protection afforded by US law to such people. If you wished to buy and develop a property you would go to a real estate agent or property developer, but one with a better track record than Donald Trump. Apart from his deal making in which he has a very mixed record I cannot see how Donald Trump has a better understanding of the world than me. As a teacher I would be criticised for living and working in an unreal world, which is a silly phrase as the school is as real as the boardroom. One other silly untruth is that teachers lack the toughness to cope with the real world, all I can say is that these people who say that have little understanding of the difficulties of teaching a group of adolescents. One of the most telling examples of the falsity of this stance is a video on Youtube, where Michael Gove is addressing a group of teenagers. They show complete disdain for his lecture and indulge in all the behaviours of disaffection typical of teenagers. What I am saying is that my experience as  teacher of economics is as valid as Donald Trumps as a property developer, although if I’m honest I think mine is the superior knowledge of the world.

When politicians deny the truths of learning they became prey to the teaching of messianic and charismatic charlatans such  as the  novelist – Ayn Rand author of ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ whose followers include Sajid Javid and all politicians of the Neo-Liberal persuasion. Her book paean to billionaires who she believes are the heroic figures that make our civilisation great. The central figure of the book John Galt a man of independent means who is puzzled as to why billionaires keep disappearing from society. He is taken to a mysterious canyon remote from Washington, where the billionaires are hiding, seeking sanctuary from a rapacious Washington. These  billionaires are fed up with being oppressed by a government that so taxes and regulates them, that they are denied their role as the creative driving force of society, a rapacious government has reduced them to impotence. It does not realise that without their enterprise, society would fall into stasis and decline. When these billionaires go on strike society collapses and thousands of the useless poor die as a poor and weak government is forced to withdraw the income on which they depend for their survival. Eventually a discredited government is forced to welcome back the billionaires on their terms and these billionaires put society back on its feet and society develops and prospers. Many politicians of the new right are followers of Ayn Rand and her influence can be seen on government welfare policy. The Ayn Rands in government believe in a policy of brutalising the poor to the extent that they are forced to work at any price for anybody. It’s a cure for the wasteful culture of dependence, to such as ‘Sajid Javid’ homeless and misery is a just punishment for the useless poor. When governments ignore the truth tellers they are prey to the charlatans and other paddlers of fantasies and falsehoods.

Economists do possess a knowledge of the economy which is invaluable  for the effective running of government. One such economist is Anne Pettifor who is constantly ignored by governments because she tells them truths they don’t want to hear. Economists such as her can be compared to the Old Testament prophets who were constantly ignored by the rulers of Israel.

Anne Pettifor -is the author of ‘The First World Debt Crisis’. While most politicians are aware that economic growth is driven by consumer spending and debt, such as the popular car leasing system, they have little awareness of the dangers of this policy. The growth of consumer debt is so large that it has created a credit or debt mountain of unsustainable proportions – UK bank debt in 2009 – 586% of GDP it falling to around 400% of GDP in 2009 (Dominic Raab), but has since risen. Even Germany has similar problems the collective debts of its banks are over 300% of GDP (much of the money lent to Greece was recycled back to the German banks who had made too many ill-judged loans to the Greeks, so as to prevent them experiencing a liquidity crisis).The UK vies continually with Japan for the title of most indebted country of the industrial developed world.

David Cameron was right that Britain was maxed out on its credit card, he was just wrong about which credit card.

Rather than tackle the problem the government spends billions on quantitative easing to provide the cash to keep the banks afloat. At the height of the financial crisis in 2008/9 Gordon Brown was willing to spend a sum equivalent to the almost the total national income to keep the banks afloat. The official policy is to kick the problem can down the road leaving it to a future government to tackle the problem.

Why do governments fail to tackle this problem? They fear the electorate reaction, if they brought the credit boom to an end. Loans of various kinds account for a significant proportion of people’s spending and to reduce lending would in effect to reduce people’s incomes in that they would be unable to spend as much as previously on various consumer goods. What they are most scared of is cutting spending in the housing market which would lead to a fall in house prices. The belief amongst politicians is that falling house prices equal lost election.

The best informed of politicians know that the risk is that the whole financial house of cards will come tumbling down in a crash as bad as that of 1929, yet they prefer the risk of a future catastrophic crash to taking action now.

The right and wrong of economics

Although I can as an economist make more accurate predictions about the future than any politician there are limitations to the usefulness of my predictions. I cannot say exactly when a predicted event will occur or how great will be its impact on the economy. The economy is a dynamic social institution that is constantly changing and changes can maximise or minimise the impact of the predicted event.

Last year The Observer published one of my letters in I which predicted an economic downturn in 2017. I made my prediction on the basis that all free and largely unregulated markets are liable to exuberant booms that always end in a crash. Past history shows that such crashes occur every nine years, that is 1990, 1999 and 2008/9.

This contention is supported by the economist Hayek. What he stated was that there is a period when the benefits of innovation are exhausted and economic growth falls and the economy falls into recession. This has happened to the UK as the benefits from the mass production of consumer goods begin to tail off. Since the mid 1980s there has been too many car manufacturers in Europe, making cars that were needed. The consequence was retrenchment in the car industry and in Britain the disappearance of the native car industry. When industry fails to deliver alternative sources of income need to be found. In the UK, USA and Western Europe that has been the development of the speculative industry, increases in income no longer come from employment but from the increase in the value of assets, such as houses. A speculative economy is particular prone to booms and busts, as there become periods when it is generally believed that prices have peaked and they can only go down. These downs are quite spectacular and cause widespread distress.

However although I can predict with confidence that a downturn will occur, there are a number of proviso’s that I must make about prediction:

There is no iron law that states a downturn will occur every nine years, but evidence from the past shows that this is likely, it is events that may change the date of the crash.

Brexit – if Teresa May calls an early  election the uncertainty generated by that can bring the date of the crash forward to whatever she makes that announcement.

Events may occur that halt the downward trend – if the government panics at the thought of there being held responsible for the negative effects of Brexit and states that it will do whatever deal is is necessary to ensure that Britain remains in the single market, this could result in a boost to business confidence with businesses now rushing to make the investments that they had postponed due to the uncertainties of Brexit. This rush to investment will lead to a temporary boost to the economy that will delay the economic downturn. However it will only postpone the crash.

Conclusion – Economists are not infallible but they are closer to infallibility that most politicians. What economists possess that politicians do not is an understanding of the workings of the economy.

The Economic Devil

There is one great flaw in economic analysis and that it that it has no theories that explain generalised wrong doing within the economy. Instead it recognises that there may be individual wrong doers but that wrong doing can be systemic throughout a particular sector the economy. Unlike Christianity it lacks a devil, Christians can account for wrong doing by referring to the malign influence of the devil, whereas in economics the assumption is that there are only occasional examples of wrong doing. There is on earth an economic Garden of Eden that is the free market system ensures no evil practices will prosper. Competition will force all businesses to adopt the highest standards of conduct through fear of losing sales to more ethical competitors.

Christians would have no difficultly in understanding that the greed of bankers was a key factor in precipitating the crash of 2008/9. It was their desire to accumulate larger and larger bonuses that encouraged them to undertake increasingly risky investments, investments that offered the possibility of greater and greater profits and bonuses. Self restraint was a characteristic absent from the traders and bankers money in the City of London. When it is phrased in these words the Christians seem to have a better explanation for the crash of 2008/9 than do economists. Fundamentalist Christians might suggest that the devil who had corrupted the behaviour of bankers and that this corruption directly led to the crash. Faust sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the love of Helen of Troy and as such was committed to a life of sin. It could be argued that the bankers sold their souls to the devil in exchange for untold wealth. Certainly there behaviour in that time suggested that they were little more than the servants of the devil.

Fortunately economists don’t have to re-invent the devil to explain the wrong doing that takes place within the economy. The corruption of the spirit comes from the belief that the main purpose of all human activity is the accumulation of wealth. It is the quest to maximise income and profit that will lead to the adoption of unethical behaviour. Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations 1776) stated that when a group of businessmen are gathered together their purpose is not to promote the common good but to further their own selfish interests. He was familiar with the practices of 18th century merchants who would divide a market between themselves; where each would be guaranteed a local monopoly so they could charge the highest possible price for their goods without having to worry about being undercut by a low cost rival.

Today there is a report in the newspapers that house builders are restricting the supply of houses so as to force up the price of houses. The former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone produced a report that claimed that house builders in London made a profit of 26% on each house sold at a time when the average company profit was 10%.

While there is no devil in economics but there is the devil like ethos which is summed up in the words profit maximisation. Any behaviour is deemed acceptable if it results in increased profits for the business. A practice demonstrated when international firms operating in the developing countries hire mercenaries to eliminate local politicians and trade unionists that might campaign for better wages or environmental protections that would increase their operating costs.

Bad behaviour amongst business executives is not unknown to economists, its just that the current generation of economists assume that such behaviours have only a small impact on the economy and its host society. Yet a recent writer on the Italian mafia asserted that London was responsible for facilitating the activities of the various Italian drug cartels through money laundering, which gave the gangs clean money with which to finance their corrupt practices in Italy and other European countries. The very opaqueness of the banking system makes it impossible to know the extent to which such bad practices are common in the London financial markets, whether it is one or two bad apples or the whole barrel that is rotten.What evidence there is suggests the latter.
What I am arguing for is a recognition that there is a devil in the economy, there is an ethos that perverts its workings so as to favour the selfish interests of small groups at the expense of the majority. I would suggest that Gresham’s law needs updating, in its original form it states that bad money drives out good. Gresham was thinking of Henry VIII and his constant debasement of the currency. A contemporary Gresham’s law would state that bad economic practices drive out the good. I do have some experience of this as when I worked in the City of London in the 1960s, new sharp practices began to creep into the city. At first the old established city firms resisted employing these sharp practices, but when it was clear that these new practices were very profitable the old ethical behaviours were soon abandoned.

The old city insurance firms were very conservative in their practices they never employed aggressive selling techniques, such as cold calling. New comers to the market employed much more aggressive tactics and took an increasing share of the insurance market forcing the old established insurers had to follow suit. This had one unfortunate consequence as life insurers competed with each other by offering more and more generous end of term policy benefits. To finance these generous payouts the insurers had to raid their cash reserves. This had two effects the first was to reduce the viability of the company forcing a wave of mergers as these firms sort tried restore their viability through consolidating into a few large companies so building up their depleted reserves. The second was that the life insurance industry was unable to pay such large end of policy benefits and were guilty of overselling their products. This led to the pensions scandal when it was revealed that the many millions who had on exchanged their occupational pension for one provided by an insurance company believing that their promises of a much higher pension, discovered that their private sector pensions generated a pension far less than that offered by their former occupational pensions. What has happened is that the old conservative but financially sound companies of the past have been replaced by more aggressive but less viable businesses. The trusted figure of the man from the Pru is now a figure from the past as he has been replaced by the salesman eager to win your custom.

Christianity has another lesson for economics, according to Christianity mankind is tainted by original sin and only an outsider untainted by human corruption can save them, that is God. Similarly the market system is tainted by an original sin, greed or perhaps more accurately original greed. The economic devil an integral part of the free market, this devil is ever ready to corrupt the participants in the market with the promise of riches. The business ethic, that is the desire to maximise profits is all too often little more than a disguise for this primal greed. Personalising the faults of the market system in form of the devil (even if it’s a metaphor for greed) has one important role it will constantly reminds politicians that the free market is not the solution to all problems, but is yet another flawed human creation that is corrupted with all the sins of its makers. The unregulated free market is a threat to social order as all manner of unethical behaviours are made possible, if there are no laws or regulations to prohibit them. The behaviour of the bankers and traders in the financial markets in 2008 and since demonstrates the folly of leaving the market and its members to set their own rules. Once this is accepted the government will return to its former function of legislating to stop powerful players in the market from abusing their power at the expense of other members and outlaw the most undesirable of economic behaviours. What politicians fail to realise just are there are crimes against the person and property, there also the economic crimes, which are also a threat to the person and property.

Note. A more sophisticated version of the threat that an unregulated market poses to the social order is to be found in Michael Polanyi’s ‘The Great Transformation’.