Tag Archives: Brexit

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.

Advertisements

My missing medicine and Brexit

Yesterday I was confronted by the reality of what will be the post Brexit world. I went to the pharmacist to collect my prescribed medication for treating my high blood pressure. Instead of the expected two packets of pills I received one. The pharmacist said that I should come back in two weeks for the other packet as there were problems with the supply of this drug. When I asked why there was a problem he sad it was the manufacturer, what he suggested was that they were not producing this drug at the moment. This I found very surprising as it’s a very common drug for which there is a constant and high demand. Then I realised its Brexit, we are not beginning to enter the world in which the essentials are in short supply.

One obvious problem it appears is capacity. Uncertainty about the future has discouraged business investment. (Something that in more honest times was termed an investment strike.) I assume that the pharmaceutical company was unwilling to invest in new machinery has they felt little confidence about the prospects for the economy in the future. Politicians are unable to offer any clarity what will be the post Brexit settlement. Correctly businesses assume that confusion amongst the political leadership as to what Brexit means and how negotiations should be conducted means that post Brexit Britain will be an economic mess. Why invest in expensive new machinery if the manufacturer believes the future is bleak. Therefore what prevails in industry is a culture of make do and mend. Under such circumstances there will be recurrent shortages of supply.

This suggests many possibilities such as that one of the machines making this drug has suffered a breakdown and the manufacturer is waiting for the necessary part to repair the machine. The past will probably be coming from abroad as the British machine tool industry has shrunk so much that it is unlikely that there is a British company making the required part. Obviously if the key part is being imported this will add to the delay. Although it is more likely that the manufacturer has delayed the costly repair work and is content to let stocks run down, hoping that when that point is reached economic circumstances are more propitiate and then they will feel the outlay on repairs is justified. One frightening alternative is that the manufacturer of this drug has decided not to manufacture it any more as it takes a gloomy view of the future economic prospects.

In such lean times as the present it is quite possible that the manufacturer has shut down one production line to keep costs down. If the drug that I use offers only a low profit margin to the manufacturer, it will be one of the first to be shut down. If a number of such drug manufacturers take the same attitude a shortage of this drug will soon develop.

There is one further complicated factor, all businesses now operate a just in time policy. This means that they only have enough stock in hand to met immediate demand. Keeping large stocks is expensive and cost conscious firms prefer to keep the minimum stock in hand. When the economic future is so uncertain these just in time stocks will be reduced to the barest possible minimum to reduce costs. If all firms are doing the same shortages will develop and pharmacists will be forced to shop around to find the drugs they need. The pharmacy that I use is part of a large chain and it is quite likely that they also are minimising their costs by holding a minimum of stock in there warehouses. What this means is shortages and delays in obtaining medicine are going to become more common.

When the railways were privatised in Britain it was so poorly managed that Britain became a case study for economists in how not to privatise a transport service. Similarly Brexit will provide a case study for economists as to how a successful economy was turned into a basketcase through the mistaken actions of a group of incompetent politicians.

 

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.

The nonsense politicians speak on economic matters (a decoding of politician’s economic speak)

What people don’t realise is that when politicians speak on economic policy matters, they don’t really know what they are talking about, its just a glorious pretence of a speech. Their speeches are usually peppered with phrases supplied by their speech writers to create the impression that speaker is knows what they are talking about. Often this is done through the spurious use of statistics and handy method of knowing when a politician is pretending to a knowledge they lack is the number of times they refer to statistical evidence in their speech. The more statistics in a speech the more likely the politician is totally ignorant of the issue they are discussing. Politicians differ from economists in that economists know that they know something about the economy but the not everything and the speech of a good economist is cautious. Economists don’t wish to claim a knowledge they lack, whereas a politician would never admit to their ignorance.  Their sense of amour propre would never allow them to appear as lacking in knowledge. They are the solvers of mankind’s problems and unlike the common run of mankind they never admit to any failings.

What I hope to do is this essay is reveal some of the real thinking that underlines much of policy making.

The most common policy is  the ‘wishful thinking’ economic policy. This policy making is usually to be associated with the new right, although the new left can also be guilty of the same. Wishful thinking policy making is based on a wilful ignorance of economic realities or to put it more succinctly a wishing away the facts of economic life. Of all the developed countries Britain has the largest trade deficit as a proportion of national GDP. The simplest and most correct explanation is that the country is no longer producing the goods and services that other countries want. The solution would usually be to develop an industrial strategy that encouraged businesses to focus on producing those very goods and services that other countries want. This is wrong according the EU leavers as what is preventing our exports abroad is EU regulations, which prevents us exporting to countries outside the EU. However there is nothing in EU regulations that prevents the UK exporting to any country in the world. This analysis would only have any validity if there are as yet undiscovered countries to which the UK can export, as all the known and existing countries are already free to buy our goods if they want them.

Another common form of economic policy making in the UK, is that it will be all right on the day policy. This thinking can be summed up in a few words, in the past many serious crisis which have occurred and yet the nation rose to the occasion and survived relatively unscathed. If it had not we would not be enjoying the level of prosperity that we do today. Why look for trouble when it can be avoided. Mrs May’s government will not put into practice any serious measures to prepare the economy for Brexit, as there is the belief that the country which managed the 1940s existential crisis  will somehow manage the 2020s EU exit quite comfortably. Complacency might be another word to characterise this policy. The Chancellor’ claim that his was a budget that prepares for Brexit will be shown be meaningless. No action is proposed to counter any negative impacts of Brexit and the so called reserve to cushion the economy through Brexit will be shown to be largely a figment of the Chancellor’s imagining. Another phrase to describe this type of policy making would be hoping for the best policy making.

Big gesture little action the policy making of fear, the fear that any policy introduced could make things worse. Nothing scares a politician more that being blamed for a bad policy. To be fair to politicians rather than do nothing, they do tend to produce distractors which are small easy to make policy changes, which function to distract from the real problem. This is why the budget is always about small changes in tax and never about big policy measures to tackle the real problems afflicting the nation’s economy.

Elephant in the room economics (very similar to the previous policy), this is when the politician ignores the real problem and instead focuses on a smaller less significant problem which they believe will focus attention away from the major problem. The annual budget statement is a conjuring trick in which the government produces lots of small policy measures that capture the attention and distract from unpleasant reality. The one great problem of today is the growing level of household debt which reached the level of 160% of GDP prior to the crash of 2008 and is today nearing the same levels. Rather than take action to reduce this debt which would in effect make people poorer and be very unpopular, the government prefers to do nothing. It is sleep walking into yet another financial crisis, a policy which also has the advantage of postponing the coming crisis into the future and making it the responsibility of a future government.

I could make this an endless list but my intention is to introduce some scepticism about the grand policy claims of our political leaders on matters economic. There was a famous American journalist Louis Heron, who said his approach to interviewing politicians, was to think ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me’. This `i would rephrase as why is this ignorant bastard trying to pretend to me that they know what they are doing.

A reply to Michael Gove and all those who think the study of economics is of little value

What prompted this post was a comment from a friend to whom I was talking to over coffee. He informed me, politely of course, that my opinion as an economist on economic matters was of little value as it was no better than the common sense opinion of the man in the street. I was as an economist a self interested individual who was only interested in advancing the truths of my subject regardless of the truths of the real world. This friend I should add was a distinguished retired academic from one of our most prestigious of universities. Without trying to sound too paranoid it does seem to be open season on economists. We are one of the most discreditable of professions it seems. Whatever we do we cannot distinguish truth from the fiction.

This discrediting of the profession of economics was set in train by Michael Gove, a former senior politician in the UK and now a columnist. He said in reference to economists in the EU referendum debate ‘that people were fed up of experts telling them what to do’.  He was referring to a Bank of England report which stated that leaving the EU would have a substantial negative impact on the British economy. A report that was considerably over egged by his opponent George Osborne to discredit the pro-leave campaign. Whatever Michael Gove’s reasons, his was essentially a statement of British philistinism something which never lurks too far below the surface in any public debate.

What I will do is accuse Michael Gove and all his like minded followers of hypocrisy. This I can sum up in the following phrase, ‘they are happy to have Barney the Bear managing the nations finances but not managing their own’. Michael Gove as a MP and journalist has an income of several hundreds of thousands a year. Although I don’t know him, I imagine he invests part of his income in various fund management schemes. He will no doubt have a financial adviser who recommends the best possible schemes in which to invest. These various investment funds will be managed by people who employ economists. Investment funds and banks of various kinds vie to employ the best and brightest economists who leave our universities. They employ these economists to inform them about matters economic and more importantly to predict future trends in the EU and world economy. Then with this information they are best informed as to where invest their clients money. Michael Gove would expect his fund managers to be the best informed of people, yet he believes that being well informed on economic affairs is not a necessary qualification for a politician who manages the economy. For him as with many of his colleagues all that is required is old fashioned British common sense for the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer. I imagine my friend who although he disparages me for being an economist, does defer to experts such as myself when it comes to investing his savings.

I should add that this nation has a habit of employing Barney the Bear to manage the nations finances. A knowledge of economics is not required of those who become Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the past these Barney Bears were well informed people who took advice from the economists employed by the Treasury before making any decision. Now these Barney’s are likely to be single minded ideologues who having read Hayek and Ayn Rand at university believe that they have acquired the essentials of economic knowledge. Any further that knowledge of economics is a mere ‘gilding of the lily’ and unnecessary for a successful career in politics.

Some economists who have contributed to this disparaging of the profession, through their own arrogance and overestimation of their abilities. These are those economists who can be best described as the ‘forever after economists.’ Just as in the children’s fairy tale where the participants will forever live in a state of happiness and bliss, these economists believe that if their economics is adopted the people will forever after live in a state of happiness and bliss. I can identify three such economists who fit this category, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and the novelist Ayn Rand. While the latter never called herself an economist, she is seen by many contemporary politicians as written the Bible of Economics. What these three people have in common is the failure to recognise that the economy is a human construct which is as fallible as its makers. By ignoring this most basic of truths they could claim that if politicians followed there prescriptions they would create the ‘best possible of all economies’. The very many failures of the economies in which their ideas have been adopted, has demonstrated that the falsity of their ideas.

What is lacking in Britain is any real understanding of the economist and their work? If I was asked to describe what I thought was the role of the economist, I would say it is the reading and interpreting of the economic runes. Reading the economy is much like reading the runes, although the individual symbols are understood  there is some uncertainty about the exact message conveyed by the runes. Uncertainty because a contemporary historian cannot exactly replicate the in themselves the thinking of the rune carver. All of us are aware the individual happenings in the economy, such as increases or reductions in unemployment, businesses closing and opening; but only a specialist in economics can put all these individual happenings into context and explain their meaning. Since economics as with rune reading is subject to some uncertainty individual interpretations can differ, although not usually to any significant extent. Economists after reading the economic runes largely agree that Brexit will have a negative impact on the economy, what they disagree about is how great will be the negative impact. There are always a minority of economists who will misread the economic runes and give a very different interpretation of the message. They should be given exactly the same credence that those very few scientists who deny the reality of global warning are given.

Michael Gove will seize on the fact that a minority disagree with the large majority to say that are no economic truths as economists disagree as to what they might be all they can do is to state their own opinion which may have more or less value.  However as with climate change denying scientists very compelling evidence can be produced to prove them wrong. Similarly there is compelling evidence to suggest that those economists claiming that Brexit will benefit the economy are wrong. What Michael Gove needs to understand is that knowledge, even some knowledge is better than none. Ignorance is never bliss even in politics

Warning signs

Sometimes as an economist you notice things that others don’t. Today I visited the centre of the city in which I live and for the second time this week, I noticed that the cafes and shops were relatively empty. One reason is the belt tightening that invariably happens after the Christmas shopping spree. The other reason is more ominous and that is that the uncertainty generated by fears about Brexit which are causing people to be more careful with there spending. In times of uncertainty it is sensible to be cautious about spending, it makes sense to increase one’s savings to protect against future uncertainties. All the extra spending on credit cards that was recorded last year will come to a halt once people start to fea the future. They won’t want to saddle themselves with extra debts.

While the evidence I present is only anecdotal this is how economic downturns start. Consumers become more and more cautious with their spending  because they fear for the future. This action becomes something of a self fulfilling prophecy as failing consumer spending means that firms cut back on there spending on staff and purchases of stock. Gradually at first but then more rapidly people become poorer, because of falling spending by businesses and the down turn in economic activity can  within a short time develop into a recession.

These downturns occur because of flaws in the economic system,  as happened with the financial crisis of 2008/9 or because of misguided economic policy making. The second is happening now. There should be a golden rule in politics, that governments never take action that might be detrimental to economic welfare except in the most extreme circumstances. The problem about such actions is that there is no way of foretelling whether the action taken by the government will lead to an uncontrollable downturn in economic activity or whether it will result in a more modest adjustment.

There is a terrible warning that all politicians regularly fail to heed. When the Prime Minister Jim Callaghan returned to the country in 1976 from an overseas trip, there was a crisis developing in the financial markets. He made a foolish remark in response to a journalists question about the crisis, he said ‘what crisis?’ This gave the impression that the government was not in control and the financial crisis rapidly got out of hand.

Yesterday the Prime Minister Theresa May had her Jim Callaghan moment. She stated that Britain will be leaving the single market, giving the impression to informed observers that she had little grasp of economics. The EU is the largest market for British exports and announcing that she intends to make it more difficult for British firms to access that market, is an act of supreme folly. Today two banks announced in response to her speech that they are moving some banking operations to Europe. There will be many more such announcements in the following weeks and months. This will generate fear and uncertainty amongst British consumers, leading to large cuts in there spending, as they save more and more for the expected rainy day. The consequence is that it likely that later this year  that the economy will tip into recession.

Unfortunately the folly of her decision is compounded by the school boy howlers  made by her ministers. Today the Foreign Secretary compared the attitude of the French President to Brexit to that of a Second World War prison camp guard. Such remarks will merely serve to convince the financial markets that this government has little understanding of the economic reality and has but a very weak grasp  of the essentials of policy making.

As I said in the second paragraph my evidence is anecdotal but the incompetence of this government makes me fear for the future.

The vain glorious and useful idiots of Brexit

Economists often seem afraid to use words in common circulation in their analysis, they will resort to made up technical words, when a much simpler phrase would have been more appropriate and useful. One little known book today is Erasmus’s  “The Adages”. In this book he demonstrates how the simple proverbs and phrases in common usage can conceal profound truths. One of the frequent themes of his essays are the damaging behaviors of vain glorious princes. These princes in their lust for glory start wars which damage their countries prosperity leaving them poorer and indebted. The only beneficiaries are the mercenaries they employ in their armies. These wars were so profitable for the mercenaries that one even took over a city state and made himself the Duke of Milan. What economics lacks is that despite being a science of human society are the terms to describe those irrational behaviours that have a major impact on the economy and society. Just as in renaissance Italy we have leaders that inflict significant damage on their economy in pursuit of vainglorious enterprises, that they believe will earn them a place in history. However what I cannot find in Erasmus is any reference to the ‘useful idiot’ a person that is now very common in our political classes.

A useful idiot is the one who in elieving that they are advancing their own interests are  in fact advancing the interests of another more powerful individual or group of individuals. This  group prefers to avoid attracting to much attention, as it would highlight the fact that their interests are damaging to the health of the wider society.

The most damaging to our economic prospects as a nation are the useful idiots in parliament, who have successfully campaigned for a damaging break with Europe. When one reads of the vast sums of money paid by the Brexit supporting billionaires to those politicians campaigning to leave Europe, it becomes obvious in whose interests they are operating. Senior politicians who supported the campaign are now being paid hundreds of thousands for newspaper columns and books by the very press barons who wanted to exit Europe. Do these politicians really think that their newspaper columns or books are really worth the hundreds of thousands that are paid for them? What can be said is the hundreds of thousands paid to these politicians are but the small change in the pocket of these billionaires? Only the politicians themselves can really think that their talent is worthy of such high salaries. What can usefully be said is the many books being written by these self serving politicians will the very books which will be the first to be pulped next year as most of them will remain unsold.

There are another group of useful idiots in our parliament, these are not the paid proxies of the billionaire class but those naive politicians who having spent a lifetime within the Westminster confuse reality with the world as seen from within the Westminster bubble. They over estimate their powers and the significance of their actions. They seem to have a naive Harry Potter like perspective take on the world, they believe that having access to the levers of power in Westminster gives them the power to change the world. What they despise is the mundane reality of power in which Westminster is but one player, a player that achieves it goals through negotiation and persuasion. They have no time for the mundanity of reality, they are lost in their own fantasy world.

One of the worst offenders are those on the left. They believe that by turning their back on reality they can create the just socialist society of their imaginings. If only they looked at the failing career of President Hollande they would be aware of the fallibility of their beliefs. He was elected promising to create a better France by increasing spending on the French welfare system and to reduce France’s high unemployment levels. To fulfil promises he would have to increase government spending, but this was in the Europe dominated by a Germany committed to an Europe wide austerity programme. Nothing he promised the French electorate could be delivered because his government was committed to the European programme of austerity. Now Hollande is the most unpopular of French Presidents, who if he wished to stand for President at the next election would be rejected by his party.

At present the leadership of the opposition party supports Brexit, because they believe that freed from EU regulation they can remake society according to their values. What they fail to realise is that a Britain shorn of EU membership will be but a small struggling country on the edge of Europe. They to solve what will be a problem of growing unemployment will be desperate to make deals with those businesses that can bring jobs to the UK. In such a situation the various multinationals will be able to dictate the terms on which they do business. What they will demand is a freedom from regulation, particularly employment regulation, together with cash subsidies of various kinds and infra structure  to benefit them. As demonstrated in Wales where the Labour government to persuade Amazon to locate a warehouse there was forced to spend billions on new roads to improve access to the new warehouse. Amazon is an employer noted for its use of exploitative working practices. This Welsh Labour government despite its socialist principles has turned a blind eye to this firms employment practices, so as not to offend a major local employer. A weak desperate government will sacrifice all its socialist principles to attract business to  the country in its desire  to create jobs. These people I class as useful idiots, because they will be doing exactly what the various rapacious multinational corporations want, creating a country in which they can operate largely free of regulation.

Those on the right seem to believe in some magical notion of Britishness. They believe that Britain really is some ‘spectred isle’ which will be restored to its former glory by breaking with Europe. One of their claims is that Britain will be free to trade with all those countries outside Europe, that they could not do as EU members. Again as with their left wing opponents they lack a firm grasp of reality. Unfortunately these dreamers dominate government and seem to think that by destroying all links with Europe, they will restore Britain to its past glory. If or when they achieve their break from Europe they will find that they become are reduced to governing a desperate vassal state, whose real governors are the multinational corporations.

The words Puerto Rico seem unknown to these ‘unrealists’. This country is independent and has a free trade treaty with the USA. Something desired by the ‘unrealists’, however any small weak country is at a disadvantage when negotiating with a powerful neighbour. In consequence  the free trade treaty has kept the country poor and impoverished. It is the location for American multinational companies who wish to operate in a low cost and regulation free environment, which of course is of little benefit to the people there.

What I am trying to suggest is that economics struggles to explain the why and what of human activity that is irrational and self destructive. Reading Erasmus’s explanations of the adages that explain the vain glorious actions of Princes, gives a far better understanding of the behaviours of today’s politicians than does any economic text.