Tag Archives: City of London

The Economy does not Exist

Perhaps now being in my eighth decade I can look back with some perspective on society. While I must admit that wisdom does not necessarily come with age, one’s vision and understanding does sharpen over time. What becomes increasingly evident is the follies of mankind and in particular the politicians. One often repeated folly occurs when politicians say that … must be done for the sake of the economy. To their listeners it sounds impressive, but it is just yet another must say meaningless phrase that politicians say. The economy does not exist, it is not a thing as such. It is merely a word that economists give to a series of activities that create wealth, and the means by which that wealth is distributed. The crofter the Outer Hebrides and the investment banker in London will be included by the government statistician as being part of the British economy, but the link between the two is tenuous. Rather it is better to say that the economy is lots of different things that involve wealth creation and distribution, but it is no more than that.

There is a very simple example that illustrates this point. Government ministers take policy decisions that they claim are for the benefit of the economy, but which in reality damage significant sectors of the economy. British governments have pursued policies designed to keep the exchange value of the pound high. The reasoning being that as so many of our goods are imported from abroad, if foreign currency is relatively cheap compared to the cost of the pound, imports will be comparatively cheap. As over 50% of our food comes from abroad, it makes the fruit and vegetables in the supermarket cheap to buy. However this same policy is damaging to our domestic manufacturing industry. If the pound is expensive in terms of foreign currencies, it makes British exports expensive and foreign imported manufactured goods cheap. Consequently British manufacturers are hit twice, their expensive imports are hard to sell abroad and they are increasingly undercut in the domestic market by cheap foreign imports. This is why British manufacturing industry only accounts for 10% of national output (GDP) and why of all the developed countries the U.K. has the largest trade deficit as a percentage of GDP.

What I am trying to say is that by treating the economy as one thing, rather than several things, government economic policy making is condemned to be both wrong headed and damaging. Anyone looking back over government economic policy, will see a series of constant policy errors and misjudgements.Observing this record of failure politicians came to believe that a policy of doing nothing or as little as possible was the best policy option. From this came Neo-Liberalism and free market economics. There was an equally obvious conclusion that politicians could have drawn and that was that governments had been using the wrong economic policies or applying them correctly, which they preferred to ignore. Also it was a terrible misreading of history, a recovery from the ravages of war in 1949s and 50s was only made possible by the government regulation of the economy. Money was directed towards rebuilding the economy away from consumption. Rationing of goods was very unpopular, but it made possible the post war economic recovery.

Today the only economic policy measure used is monetary policy, the government believes that by controlling the supply of money they can best manage the economy. One way they control the money supply is through varying interest rates. Their reasoning is that of interest rates are low people will be encouraged to borrow more and the increase in the amount of money in circulation will increase the demand for goods and services so increasing economic growth. What they don’t understand is that a policy of cheap money can be bad for the economy. Interest rates are the price paid to borrow money and as such the price at which money is borrowed should be high enough to discourage foolish and silly investments. Unfortunately when money costs next to nothing to borrow it encourages many foolish speculative investments. As money borrowed today can buy shares that can be sold tomorrow at a profit. If only a higher price was charged for borrowing money such speculative punts would be discouraged.

Government ministers need to realise that a booming stock market is not the economy, but only one part. The froth on the coffee. When money is made so easily by speculating, why bother with the long term investment that business desperately needs. Such investment does not deliver the quick and astronomic returns of speculation, it only delivers in the future. Why wait several years for a return on your money when a speculative will deliver a profit tomorrow or the day after. Consequently the UK’s investment in infra structure is as low as that of the European basket case, Greece.

South Korea offers an instructive comparison. After the Korean War in 1951, it was a basket case. The country’s economy had been devastated by war. Now South Korea is one of the world’s major manufacturing nations. This was a country which the government actively interfered in the economy. What it employed was sectorial economics, in which the government decided on which industrial sectors to promote and how to support them. Samsung was originally a manufacturer of agricultural machinery, who following the dictates of the government concentrated on the manufacture of electronic goods. Samsung is now one of the world’s leading manufacturer of electronic goods. Neo-Liberal Britain’s last major manufacturer of electronic goods GEC disappeared long ago, after its directors made a series of foolish acquisitions.

The only large British owned and managed manufacturing industry is in engineering, where there are two remaining industrial giants. BAE and Rolls Royce. It is no coincidence that these two companies have been in receipt of government largesse in the form of defence contracts. Sometimes politicians cannot see what is in the front of their noses.

Obviously South Korea is not without its problems, it does as does all developed countries have a severe youth unemployment problem. However in ten years time South Korea will still be a major manufacturing nation of hi-tech goods, the same cannot be said of the U.K. Quite possibly it will continue on the path of slow decline, which has been its history this century. Only if politicians stop believing that there is an economy and instead acknowledge the economic reality, they might develop policies that promoted economic growth and welfare and not the reverse.

*This essay owes a considerable debt to Markus Gabriel’s book ‘Why World does not Exist’

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Stoicism and epicureanism philosophies for today

Recently on radio there was a programme about the Roman philosopher and politician Seneca. What occurred to me was the similarities between the world in which Seneca lived and the one in which I live today. He witnessed the decay of the old Roman Republic into an authoritarian state which was at first ruled by the rich oligarchs, a rule which evolved into the rule of one man the Caesar. Several books I have read suggest that we are living in the last days of liberal democracy and that our political system is being subverted by the rich oligarchs who are turning our society into one that bears strong resemblances to the Rome of the last days of the Republic.

These similarities are no more than that, Britain is not becoming a society ruled by a new class of Caesars. Violence is not employed by the rich oligarchs to destroy their enemies, no opposition politician has suffered the indignity of being murdered and having his skull converted into a wine cup by his enemies. These oligarchs to gain power have used more subtle methods. They have corrupted the legal system with their wealth so all kinds of judicial restraints have been developed to silence their opponents.  One such restraint is the super injunction whereby a powerful individual or business can prevent any reporting or discussion of their alleged wrong doing as it is claimed that it will unfairly damage their reputation. Such stories can remained suppressed for years.  The other powerful weapon wielded by the oligarchs is the destruction of their opponents reputations. This is conducted through the publication of hostile articles in the media, which they largely control. It a weapon whose power cannot be underestimated, as when the politician Nick Clegg was asked to explain why so many MPs voted against their principles and backed the government over its policy to leave Europe, he said that they were scared of ‘The Daily Mail’. While there is no equivalent of the Roman mob who could be incited to attack opponents of the oligarchs there are the internet trolls. They can be whipped up into a frenzy and encouraged to launch virulent attacks on the oligarch’s enemies.

When hearing this programme I wondered if stoics such as Seneca who lived under the cruelest of authoritarian rulers could provide evidence of how to live the good life today in a society which is becoming increasing dominated by rich unpleasant oligarchs.

Stoicism taught that the world was created by logos (the spirit) and that logos remains force which continues to direct the development of the world and humankind. The logos determines everything, so people have a choice either to ignore logos and risk being crushed under its onward movement or change their actions and behaviours to accord with the movements of logos. What stoicism taught was that history was pre-determined and wise individual was the one who accepted their lack of control over their lives, Happiness was gained attained by those who cultivated an air of indifference to those things that they could not control. A person who valued material wealth above all else would suffer great pain from its loss. This cultivation of indifference reaches its extreme limits in the writings of Epictetus. He advises the father not to kiss his son goodnight or show any kind of affection, as that son might be dead by the morning. At its simplest stoicism was a philosophy of pain management. In the Roman society of the Caesars  it was rule by Caesar a capricious individual who if he wished could tomorrow deprive you of your wealth or even your life, therefore one should not be greatly attached to either.

In a society in which social and economic inequality is increasing to such an extent that it is likely that the great majority of people will be poor, in which the poverty that characterised earlier societies will begin to characterise the Britain of tomorrow. Material riches of even the most modest kind will be denied to a majority of people, so an indifference to material wealth will help them cope with a life of relative poverty. People would not be depressed for a lack of things of this world, as they have minimised their attachment to them. However such poverty does bring real suffering and why stoicism will help with managing the discomforts and unpleasantnesses of poverty it is not an answer to pain and suffering. Poverty is not caused by the movements of the logos, but through the greed of the rich oligarchs. A more activist philosophy than stoicism is required.

Stoicism was usually a philosophy of the educated rich. These people who had ample wealth could afford to affect to be indifferent to material wealth, as even under the worst of the Caesars very few of them lost their wealth. The poor of Rome preferred the fairy tale religion of the Olympian Gods. They would turn out in their thousands to celebrate the festivals of the old Gods, as the theatre of these festivals offered them some escape from the misery of their lives.

One positive effect of adopting stoicism as a philosophy would be an ending of the cult of celebrity. All these endless talent shows would lack an audience, as people would not longer see a rags to riches story as real, as celebrity would be due not to talent but the arbitrary movement of the fate. Also a people that attached little value to material wealth would have little interest in programmes which celebrated individual talent as a means to material wealth. Celebrity culture acts as a safety value, it releases the pressure that builds up from social discontent. The poor can be pacified by the fairy tales of celebrity that claim that no matter how poor there are celebrity offers an escape from poverty. People will instead have a keen sense of reality and are less likely to taken in by stories of celebrity success.

Stoicism can perhaps be called the philosophy of unpleasant reality and as such it will always lose out to philosophies of hope. In the Roman Empire such a philosophy of hope was Christianity.  Contemporary Britain lacks such a philosophy of hope which will act as a catalyst of change. There are many alternative philosophies in our society but they do not have the messianic appeal of Christianity with its potential for change.

There is another philosophy that was popular among the Romans of this time and that was epicureanism. This is a much misunderstood philosophy it usually thought of as the philosophy of hedonism, as Epicurus taught that the good life should be one of pleasure. However it was a very different pleasure that he had in mind. Individuals should take pleasure in the essentials of life, pleasure should be derived from enjoying a modest diet, dressing modestly, these things were sufficient to enable the individual to live a good life. If one took pleasure in the luxuries of life, life was reduced to a constant craving for more and more of sensual pleasures and this craving made life one of misery. For Epicurus only a person living a modest life could be described as happy.

Epicureans were often persecuted by the authorities because by only valuing a life lived modestly they threatened a society that valued overindulgence and sensual pleasures in all forms. At Roman meals the rich had vessels placed near the table at which guest could vomit into, so as to make room in their stomachs for more of the extravagant dishes that would be placed before them. They took pleasure in all kinds of sensual pleasures as demonstrated by the popularity of gladiatorial sports. Pleasure was gained from watching the pain and suffering of others. Epicurean philosophy through offering an alternative to the dominant philosophy of excess was seen as a threat to a society that valued excess.

If epicureanism was more widely known, there would be one major beneficial effect. The rich billionaires rather than being celebrated for their wealth, would be seen rather as slaves to it and as such to be pitied. There is one marvellous passage in Thomas More’s Utopia where it is seen as slavish behaviour to wear gold and valuable stones as jewellery or chains of office, they are seen as slaves to their possessions. If the rich billionaires who dominate contemporary society were seen to objects of pity, rather than celebrity, their malign influence on politics would be much reduced. Politicians would not seek out their company and not be so desperate to give them favours.It goes without saying that in contemporary Britain and the US the billionaires can buy policy favours, with what to them is the small change from their pockets. Unfortunately the most successful of our politicians worship wealth and despise modesty. Politics for them is a means to acquiring a substantial fortune.

In today’s papers an open secret is being exposed and that secret is that London is one of the major centres of money laundering for criminal enterprises. In this instance the police forces of Latvia and Moldavia exposed this criminal behaviour of the London banks. It was the poor underfunded police of two poor European countries that exposed this activity, not the well funded City of London police. Perhaps the relative poverty of the police and politicians there means they are of higher moral calibre than those of the UK. Only where wealth is so celebrated as the chief of virtues could such corrupt practices be sanctioned.

Billionaires by their very nature will always seek to corrupt those around them. What is the threat to our democracy is the willingness of our politicians to be corrupted by them.  An annual salary almost three times the median wage in Britain is seen as inadequate by most MPs. Too many of them seek sources of income from outside politics making them susceptible to persuasion or corruption. Now the successful politician is seen to be the one who uses their position to acquire the most wealth; the practice of politics taking second place to money making. Reform has become redefined as making changes in the law or society that benefit the MPs wealthy benefactors. Epicureanism with its emphasis on modesty if more generally accepted would give us a generation of politicians less susceptible to corruption and a political class more deserving of respect. Those few politicians uncorrupted by money are drowning amongst the swill of corruption that is contemporary politics.

Social democracy was formerly the force which ensured that the market economy worked for the benefit of the majority not the minority. Unfortunately nominally social democratic politicians have abandoned the substance of that philosophy believing that Neo-Liberalism was the philosophy of today. In the heyday of social democracy many politicians of the right subscribed to its tenets and contributed making Britain a fairer and better society. With the discrediting of social democracy it is unlikely that those moderate politicians of the right would ever subscribe again to its tenets. Epicureanism has none of the baggage associated with social democracy and could be easily adopted by those moderate politicians on the right. In a country with a political class in thrall to the philosophy of greed what is needed desperately in a philosophy of compassion and fairness to counter that extremism.

(Gauis Gracchi was the unfortuante Tribune of the people who lost his life and head.)

Housing: an example of the misuse of government policy

I realised that on reading my essay through there was a repetition of themes in my writing. It is not the bad behaviour of the banks that drive me to write, but the attempt to explain why, in spite of the economy growing have we all become poorer, that is apart from a tiny elite. When I started work in the 1960’s there was full employment and everybody had the benefit of being housed well. Now that world has disappeared and neither of the last two statements are true. Why? I think an analysis of the housing market explains how this change occurred. When what was once seen as a necessity of the good life housing, is now seen as a commodity to be exchanged on the money markets. There has been a devaluation of human life.

After years of housing booms and busts it is impossible to believe that governments once took action to suppress house price bubbles. Their intention was to keep house prices at affordable levels. All these controls on the price of houses were scrapped by the Conservative governments of 1970 and 1979. Now the governor of the Bank of England is talking again of reintroducing such regulations to rein in future housing price bubbles.

The ending of any controls was in part a consequence of a long campaign by the banks and the rest of the financial community that chafed at any controls that limited their ability to make money. They could guarantee negative press headlines about credit squeezes, so making their cessation much easier. one phrase coined at the time of controls, was mortgage famine. The public were easily persuaded to that credit controls only had a negative impact. At the same time Social Democracy was going out of fashion in the political classes. This meant that controls and regulations that were an integral part of social democracy had to go. It was easy to claim that al the crisis’s of the 1970’s were consequent on having a Social Democratic system and the system that was the source of all our problems should be replaced by something better.

Why did the banks so hate directives and all the other controls that limited price inflation in the housing market? These self same banks at the same time campaigning for a control of inflation in the wider economy. The reason is quite simple, money was the asset in which bank’s traded and they wanted some stability in that commodity. Also inflation in the wider economy added to their costs, unlike house price inflation from which they could directly benefit.

What the banks wanted was the freedom to manipulate the housing market to benefit themselves. They wanted a rapid turnover of the housing stock at ever increasing prices. It was the activity of the usurer, buying and selling the same product over and over again at higher and higher prices. More houses were built each year but the number built fell far short of the ever increasing demand for them, so in it seemed as if same house was sold over and over again. The demand for houses was constantly pushed ever upward by the banks providing more and more money for ever higher mortgages. If this seems to be an over statement consider this example. I lived as a teenager in a small Sussex village and I can remember being told by an awestruck fellow villager in the mid 1960’s that certain new build houses were now selling for prices in excess of £3,500. Now such houses are selling for prices in excess of £250,000. The house in which I lived as a game keeper’s son was sold recently for a £1 million. I do not know how many times the houses on the village green changed hands.

Unfortunately the bankers greed led them to taking a series of foolish actions that led to the crash. In what were now the outdated building societies it was the savers money that was lent to out borrowers, but unfortunately relying upon savers meant that the money for loans was limited, much more was needed to finance the house price bubble. The banks had the solution which was to borrow on the wholesale money markets. If it had not been taken to extremes it would not have been a sound policy. The money borrowed had to be at a lower rate of interest than that lent out for mortgages to be profitable. Cheap money is that lent for short periods of time, sometimes for as short as overnight. To finance the ever expanding mortgage market the banks borrowed increasing large amounts of money from the short term money markets, while the banks lent out the same money for periods of up to 25 years. The banks were reliant on the short term money market to constantly replace the loans they repaid to finance their mortgage lending. Surprisingly this is not as irresponsible as it sounds, what was irresponsible was borrowing such disproportionate amounts in this way. The problem with financing mortgages in this way was that the profitability of such transactions is dependent on the price differential between money borrowed and money lent. The narrower the differential the less profitable was the mortgage business. At the height of the housing boom I was told by a banker that the banks did not make much money from the mortgage business. At first I was baffled, but I realised that the banks profit margins were being squeezed in two ways; first the huge demand for short term loans were forcing up the price (interest rates) of these loans and that competition in the mortgage market meant the banks could not increase their mortgage rates to compensate for higher loan charges for fear of losing customers to other lenders. Banks such as HBOS were having their profit margins squeezed and were at the same time over dependent on borrowed money. They were a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Banks such as HBOS depended for their survival on their ability to borrow billions on the short term finance markets to finance their mortgage trade. If they were denied those funds the bank would collapse. This happened in the period 2008 to 2009. The housing bubble burst and banks were suddenly unwilling to lend to each other, as they did not know which banks were financially viable. In the event no British bank was viable, but none were so indebted as HBOS. The rest of the story is well known, the government rescued the banks by giving them billions to keep them viable.

For the millions already impoverished by the banks playing the housing market it was a double whammy. Now not only did the ‘excluded’ have to pay exorbitant private high rents but they were further impoverished by the government’s austerity programme that reduced their incomes.

Having a nominally Social Democratic Party in power made no difference as Neo-Liberalism was so firmly entrenched as the governing political philosophy. Any action to regulate the banks to put them on a sound financial footing was deemed much worse than almost bankrupting the nation to bail them out. Without any justification the latter was deemed the better option as the default assumption is that the government is incompetent in economic matters and management of them such be best left to those ‘who know’, the bankers. It was no surprise when Gordon Brown appointed a banker, Lord Myner to clear up the mess left by other bankers.

Given that the financial sector seems to have effectively bought up Parliament; E.P. Thompson’s words are very prescient. He thought contemporary politicians are as corrupt and self interested as those of the eighteenth century. Parliament then was was part of the ‘old corruption’ in which the landed interest purchased control of government and he thought current parliaments should be viewed as part of the ‘new corruption’, as control of Parliament has been purchased by the financial interest, ‘the City of London’.

Unlike the majority of my fellow economists I believe than the solutions to economic problems lies with politics not economics. What is needed is political reform that removes the hands of ‘the City of London’ from around the throat of government.