Tag Archives: Chancellor of the Exchequer

An Irreverent Explanation of the Politician’s Ways of Managing the Economy

There are many ways to explain the politicians peculiar grasp of economics. One of the best ways of doing so is through metaphor. A great many of our politicians are lovers of Opera, particularly those in the Conservative government. Imagine their horror and anger if a football manager were appointed Director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. They would want to know why this uneducated person, who lacking any knowledge of the culture of Opera had been appointed to the post. There reaction would be similar to that of economists, when they hear the name of the person appointed to the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer. Taking the analogy further a football manager might know a little about Opera, it is quite likely that they could be familiar the popular opera Carmen. However their lack of knowledge of Opera would make them totally unsuitable for the post. Again with politicians they might well know a little economics, but not enough to qualify them for the post of the nation’s director of economic affairs.

Metaphorical football managers have always been appointed to the post of Chancellor. Never is a knowledge of economics required as a prerequisite for the post. What is required is that the person appointed is a master of the political game. In the past it mattered less that metaphorical football managers were appointed Chancellor, as they would seek advice from those who understood economics and economic management. Advice would come from Treasury economists or from academics recruited as advisors. Unfortunately now these football managers no longer believe that they need the advice of experts. It as if the uninformed Director of the Opera House decided that as he knew something of the opera Carmen, this was sufficient to qualify him for choosing the forthcoming season’s programme. Now exactly the same happens in the management of the economy.

However I should not be too dismissive of all these metaphorical football managers. They can make surprisingly good decisions. Gordon Brown instinctively knew that British membership of the European Monetary Union was wrong. He asked for evidence from economists to confirm whether or not his gut feeling was correct. They duly delivered. Britain was spared the austerity programme which membership of the Euro required and until the crash of 2008, Britain’s economic growth was greater than that if its European rivals. Only in 2010 when a politician who was an eschatological economist became Chancellor did Britain’s economic performance dip below that of its European rivals.

Eschatological economists are those politicians that believe rather than preparing for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, they should be preparing for the coming of the free market. Much as with those Christians who believe the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven will remove all ills and evil from the world, they believe that the free market economy will remove all the evils of the socialised economy from the world and deliver the greatest possible benefits to mankind. Just as with the Christians they know that there Kingdom is at hand. However their Kingdom is not the gift of some supernatural deity, but one that can be created by men themselves. When they faced with the criticism that all the deregulation of the past twenty years has failed to deliver the promised world, they explain that the changes have not gone far enough. What they argue is that we at present are experiencing the painful birth pangs of a new society, all we need to do is be patient and wait for the reforms to bear fruit.

While it may seem odd to describe the dull and rather grey people who dominate politics as being in the grip of some earthly charismatic religion, it is the only way to describe their behaviour. They as with all true believers are impervious to reality. They know the truth and they won’t be deflected from the true path. Perhaps the best way of illustrating this truth is by referencing the last two Chancellors of the Exchequer, both of whom are eschatological economists. They both believe the best society is one run on free market principles. One characteristic of a free market is small government, that is a government that is restricted largely to a few basic roles necessary for the survival of human society. Roles such as the maintenance of law and order and national defence. In there perfect society the government is but a bit player in the economy. All the real decisions of significance are undertaken by businesses and consumers.

What is most significant is that these people disregard the negative impact their shrinking of government programme. One of the main methods of doing this is to reduce government spending. As a government with a small budget is but a bit player in the economy. This is achieved bu cutting the funding available to public services. Anguish expressed about longer hospital waiting lists, the shortage of medical staff and hospital beds don’t resonate with them. What matters most is that they reducing the government budget. These problems they believe are but a small price to the benefit of creating small government. They know that we will all benefit in the long run, once they have achieved their aim of introducing the truly free market economy. Us foolish people don’t understand the benefits that will accrue from the changes that they are introducing.

There is one instructive example from history that can be used to explain the behaviours of our current generation of eschatological economists/politicians. The early Jewish followers of Christ in Jerusalem were the Ebionites. These people believed in the imminent coming of the Kingdom of Heaven and the return of Christ. They gave away most of their wealth to help provide for the poor. Since they expected Messiah to return soon, there was no need to take the practical measures necessary to feed and support themselves. Unfortunately the inevitable happened and these distressed and newly poor began to suffer hunger and all the problems of poverty. They had to beg for help from Christian groups in other cities. Unfortunately the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of its peoples led to the disappearance of the Ebionites from history. All that can assumed is that they adopted a more practical lifestyle, as a means to ensure their survival. The behaviour of these Ebionites has similarities with the behaviour of contemporary Brexiteers, who are equally impracticable.

This weekend a series of studies were published demonstrating what would be the effect of Britain being a third country outside the EU. Customs barriers would immediately be put in place, as goods going between Britain and the EU would have to submit to customs checks. These will mean delays in the handling of goods, particularly as the British government has not put into place the necessary infra structure to handle the import and export of goods. The result will be food shortages in our supermarkets, as 50% of our food comes from abroad and mainly from the EU. Other problems will result such as shortages of medical supplies. Our Brexiteer politicians deny the reality of this scenario, as just as the early Christians believe that could neglect the practicalities of every day life and just prepare for the return of Christ, so the Brexiteers refuse to engage with the practicalities of leaving Europe. All the practical problems highlighted in various government reports or those from industry are dismissed as imaginary. All we have to do is wait for that blissful day when we exit regulation bound Europe and again become free. As with Ebonites all that it is necessary to do, is to wait for the blissful day to arrive, no practical measures are necessary.

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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.

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.