Tag Archives: free market economics

A suggestion from an economist as to how the free market could be made to work for the benefit of all

All the evidence from the economy suggests that the free market system is failing. The list of markets that are failing seems almost endless. Perhaps the most obvious failing market is the housing market. In 1973 a minister (when the state directly provided social housing) could state with some justification that there were no homeless people, today the reverse is true. Yet despite the evidence of thousands either living in temporary local authority accommodation awaiting rehousing andthe  countless others living in unsatisfactory private rental property, politicians deny that the housing market is broken.

Why do politicians not recognise the failure of the free market system? One answer is political fashion, which to paraphrase George Orwell pigs ‘public sector bad, private sector good’. This belief in the supremacy of the market system for providing goods and services can be traced back to one influential thinker, Friedrich Hayek. In his book ‘The Road to Serfdom’  (1944) lauded the supremacy of the free market over any alternative economy model. In this very readable book he states that freedom is the free exchange of goods and services between individuals. When the state decides what people want it is tyranny, an economic tyranny comparable to the political tyranny exercised in the fascist and communist states of Europe. Although to this economist cannot see how the provision of state subsidised social housing is a deprivation of economic liberty.

Hayek was a voice speaking in the wilderness until the economic crisis of the 1970s happened. In Britain in 1976 inflation hit the unheard rate of 27%. Politicians desperately looked for a solution and found one in the writings of Hayek and his prophet Milton Friedman. The next twenty years saw a bonfire of regulations and a rush to transfer what public sector services and businesses to the private sector. What politicians hoped and believed was that the introduction of the free market economy was the once and for all solution to the economic ills of the this decade.

Hayek still grips the imagination of the political classes. The privatised railway system in Britain is one of the most expensive and inefficient in the developed world. Yet despite polling evidence suggesting that a majority of British voters would welcome the re-nationalisation of the railways, the majority of politicians regard this as beyond the pale. Only an outsider such as the current opposition leader would argue for this popular cause. There is one certain outcome from this election and that is even if the opposition won the election, the consensus view within parliament would effectively nullify any attempt to return to a nationalised rail service.

There is one failing in the free market philosophy of Hayek that is always ignored. He assumes that the exchange of goods and services takes place between individuals who are equals. The worker for him is free to bargain with the employers to obtain the best possible wage. In Hayek’s impossible scenario the worker and employer equally benefit from the exchange. What he does not recognise is that there is no equality of power in this exchange. While the employer is free to buy the workers labour at the lowest possible wage he can negotiate, the employee very rarely has the power to negotiate the highest possible wage. History demonstrates that in a market lacking employment protections and trade unions, the worker rather than being able to negotiate the best possible wage has to accept the going rate, no matter how poor. It is a market in which Says law applies. Rather than workers negotiating for the highest rate of pay possible, they have to accept the wage whatever rate of pay the employers are prepared to offer.

When the market works well it is unrivalled as a means of exchange of goods and services. The problem is that in Britain it rarely works well. It is the unequal distribution of bargaining power that prevents the market working to the benefit of all. When one person has significantly more bargaining power than the other, be that person an employer or landlord, the other person is at a significant disadvantage. They will inevitably lose out, whether it be having to accept a low wage or by paying a high rent for inferior accommodation. The only way to make the market work is to introduce some equality of power into the relationship. Only then will the more powerful not be able to exploit the less powerful.

One solution would be to introduce legislation to remedy the imperfections in the free market, as was the practice in the 1950s and 60s. However this is not possible when the majority of political classes are committed to Neo-Liberalism or the free market economy. A majority of the of the current generation of politicians would oppose any such policy. There is another solution that might appeal to the free market politician. Greater equality could be introduced into the market and through the legal system so making the exchange of goods and services a more equal relationship. At present civil law with its remedies for civil wrongs is unavailable to the majority of the population, because of the high costs of legal action. Not only is there the high  cost but the wealthy subject of a legal action can spin out a case almost indefinitely so discouraging all but the most determined and wealthy of plaintiffs. A reformed legal system that made justice available to all could make Hayek’s free market work in a manner which he intended. The free market politician would have no reason to object as such a change would only be to enforce the rights of the individual and not subject the business to the whims of the almighty state.

This might seem an incredible statement but the legal system of the Roman Empire particularly that of Justinian was in some ways superior to that of contemporary Britain. Under this system the aggrieved individual could bring their case before the local magistrate. These magistrates seem to have had more power than contemporary British magistrates. They could interrogate the plaintiff and witnesses before arriving at a verdict. From what I understand of the Roman system there was an approximate equality of position of the plaintiff and defendant, something lacking in British courts.

There already exist in Britain a network of small claims courts(1). The remit of these courts could be extended to include a new category of civil wrongs. These courts would retain the principle of not penalising the less well off plaintiff, by not privileging those defendants that have legal representation and through preventing the defendant claiming their legal fees from the plaintiff. What matters would be that the court proceeding do not privilege the wealthy, making these courts accessible to the poorest.

There is one example demonstrates the ugly nature of our current legal system. The British Human Right act gives every person the  ‘right to enjoy the privacy of your own property.’ In our unbalanced legal system a rich property developer was able to persuade the high court, that privacy meant the right to develop their property regardless of the noise nuisance it caused the neighbour’s. In a fairer legal system there would have been a counter claim by the less well off neighbour, which would have prevented this nonsense becoming law.

One further requirement would be an amendment to the Human Rights Act, an amendment that included new rights such as a fair recompense for work. These rights could be incorporated in a relatively short document as they are only statements of principle and it would be the role of the courts to define what these rights meant in practice.

What I am proposing is a remedy for market failure. A remedy that restores a measure of equality in  the bargaining process in the free market. Rather than looking to government to remedy market imperfections, individuals working through the court system will able remedy the failings of the free market. Employers and landlords will be less inclined to adopt exploitative or abusive practices, if they know doing so will involve them in having to defend such practices in open court. Instead of a race to the bottom in which employers vie to adopt most exploitative cost cutting practices to save, there would be a move upwards towards a fairer employment regime.

A salutary lesson for this left of centre economist is that the legislature cannot be relied upon to protect the rights of citizens. Individual legislators are too easily corrupted by powerful corporate interests. As the recent past demonstrates they are only too willing to legislate away the right of citizens to further the corporate interest. Not so long ago a senior member of the government (of a party claiming to represent the workers) saw his role as frustrate the EU commissions attempt to increase the rights of agency workers.There is an old adage that states that the person who can be best relied upon to defend your rights is yourself. The record of the Westminster parliament over the past forty years only too clearly demonstrates the truth of this adage.

This is only intended to a sketch of how the free market could be changed to the benefit of all. Today’s news has demonstrated the need to find an alternative to seeking remedies through parliament. The Prime Minister announced that she would be introducing a policy which entitled all workers to a 12 month period of absence to care for an ill relative. What she failed to make clear was that this would be unpaid leave. A meaningless reform on a par with all the rights of the Soviet citizen that were written into that country’s constitution. Rights that in a police state were meaningless.

(1) There are a number of tribunals that at present that consider these wrongs,but I have left out reference to them for ease of writing.

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Why economists lie

I should start with a disclaimer, I am an economist who likes to think that I am generally honest. What I am protesting against is the tendency of many practitioners of my profession to lie. They lie when faced with problems to which they have no solution, by claiming that to have policy solutions that in practice are unrealistic or untrue. 

Rousseau in his writings used the term amour-propre, words which have many synonyms in English and they include pride, self respect and vain glory. It is the last which is a fault that afflicts so many economists. They are the self acknowledged experts on the economy and are never willing admit that they are stuck for an answer. When a problem occurs they will look for an answer from their memory bank and choose one which seems to be offer the best solution. It is not an original solution, but one borrowed from the collective memory bank of all economists. What matters to the economist is that their answer will be judged as correct by their fellow economists not that it is the correct solution to the problem posed by the economy.  Given the complexity of the economy, they can always blame the failure of their policy recommendations on unexpected events.  The familiar its somebody else’s fault excuse is always available as a defence for a failed  policy. In this case its either the fault of the economy when they claim that the fault lies with  unexpected changes in internal or international economy, or its the politicians who fail to understand the policy prescriptions and implement them wrongly. When the great reforms of the 1980s were imposed on the British economy which led to a decimation of the British manufacturing sector; economists introduced another lie, which was that the pain being endured now would lead to a better future in which a revitalised economy which would work to the benefit of all. A future which never materialised.

What I am leading is a campaign for economists to say I don’t know. A willingness to look  at each situation afresh and use the skills of economic analysis to come up with original and new solutions to economic problems. Unfortunately the majority of economists believe that the economic toolset was largely completed in the time Alfred Marshall, whose most influential book the ‘Principles of Economics’ was published in 1890. All that is now required is a tinkering with the toolset left by Marshall to develop the economic policies needed for today. (Marshall systemised the study of market economics, developing a series of tools of economic analysis which are widely used today.)

The great change in the practice of economic policy making in the 1980s was the introduction of monetary economics associated with the American economist Milton Friedman. What was not realised was that he was merely adapting the quantity theory of money which was explained in a  book published  by Irving Fisher in 1911 to the world of the 1980s? Plagiarism in economics is not frowned on but worshipped, so long as the correct work in plagiarised.

Perhaps self censorship might be a more accurate term to describe the practice to which I am objecting. However every economist when studying the subject at university will either be taught about the flaws in the dominant model of economic analysis or would have come across them in one of the texts that they have studied. Yet once they leave university to practice their profession, they suppress their knowledge of the weaknesses or flaws of the favoured method of economic analysis. The act of forgetting probably becomes second nature to the practising economist. Deliberately ignoring the evidence that might suggest that their suggested policy remedies are flawed is an act of dishonesty. Lord Oakshott the former Liberal Democrat Treasury Minister once said that the British Treasury is populated by free market fundamentalists. What he was saying was that  Treasury economists were excluding from their economic policy making any evidence or thinking that was contrary to the free market model of economic analysis. This suggests that economic policy making by the government will be constantly subject to error, because of the wilful deception practised by Treasury economists.

Why economics fails

There is it seems a present a desire to doubt the validity of economics and the skills of its practitioners.  Just yesterday there was Chief Economist at the Bank of England issuing a mea culpa on behalf of the profession, in which he apologised for his and their failings and said that economists must do better in the future. He is just another ‘failing expert’, as Michael Gove would have said. When Michael Gove said in the EU referendum debate that the people were fed up with experts and were best of without them, one assumes that he was speaking about economists. However Michael Gove as with many politicians is adept at deflecting the blame for their own mistakes on to others. Politicians are those in charge and they make the decisions on matters of economic policy and not the economists. Yet whatever failures of government policy that occurred in the period 2010 to 2016, Michael Gove and his colleagues will never put there hands up and accept their share of the blame. Politicians such as him have a list of scapegoats to use to disguise their failings and another such favourite is the  EU. Teresa May’s disparaging comments about citizens of the world being citizens of nowhere can be paraphrased to describe contemporary government ministers, they are the ‘ministers of nothing’ knowing and caring little about their departments. Just sitting out their ministerial brief waiting for an upgrade to a more high profile ministry.

While it is the politicians that have been responsible for the disasters of recent policy making, economists still share some of the responsibility, in that they have encouraged politicians to develop an almost papal like sense of infallibility. Neo-liberal or free market economists claimed in the decade 1970-80 to have discovered the holy grail of economic policy making. They claimed that at the heart of any economy there was a self regulating market which when left to itself produces the best results for all. This market mechanism was capable of outthinking any politician. If  left to itself it would settle on the natural equilibrium levels of growth, employment and inflation, which would in turn mean society would enjoy a level of prosperity that it would otherwise never achieved if the economy had been managed by politicians. All the politicians had to do was to create the optimum conditions in which to enable the market to work unhindered, which was quite simply a bonfire of regulations. They can maintain an Olympian disdain knowing that they know  the answers to everything and have to hand the one key policy measure, impose the free market on the seemingly intractable problem.

One thought  that never occurred to these politicians or economists is fallibility of human thought, never in history has mankind ever succeeded in creating the perfect social organism. They seem to have forgotten such schemes are referred to as utopian in the history books, because they are always hopelessly impracticable.

What cannot be said is that there were no warning signs. When with great enthusiasm the Conservative government of the 1980s followed the policy prescriptions of Milton Friedman, failing to notice that his major policy prescription was unworkable. He said that the government should be regulate the economy through control of the money supply. Unfortunately he had not done his homework, as in practice it proved impossible to define what exactly was money supply. The Bank of England came up with at least five possible descriptions of money supply. There preferred choice was description number 3, what was known as M3. The only reason for choosing M3 was that it was easier to calculate than the other possible choices. Then having settled on M3, they realised that it would be extremely difficult to devise ways of controlling this money supply. All possible solutions would involve interfering in how the banks managed their finances. Instead the government opted for controlling by money supply by controlling demand for money. If they changed interest rates this would either or lower the price at which people could borrow, so if they put up interest rates people would borrow less and the amount of money (bank deposits) in circulation would fall. Never once did it occur to the government that controlling interest rates was not the same as controlling the money supply. Interest rate changes could change the supply of money held but it was a very indirect and imprecise control. Unlike what Milton Friedman desired what the government used as a very rough and ready measure to control money.

Politicians were obvious to the problems of implementing this policy, is it because the economics of the time was encouraging them not to think and question. They cannot claim not to have any warnings of the volatility of the free market as there were many financial crashes from the period 1979 to 2008.Yet these politicians believing they possessed the holy grail of policy making were  able the collapse of the Asian tiger economies or the dot com crash.  In consequence the great financial crash of 2008 which should have been foreseeable became the catastrophe that came out of nowhere, a veritable economic tsunami.

What economists should also be blamed for is there willingness to overstate their abilities and knowledge of all things economic..The economy is one of the most complex of mechanisms developed by mankind and yet economists all to often suggest that they really do know, when they don’t. I as an economist take my lead from Socrates. The oracle at Delphi told him that he was the wisest of men, yet this was a man who claimed to know nothing. Was not the oracle stating that Socrates was wise because he was the only man prepared to acknowledge his ignorance? I always wished that as a teacher I had told my students that I really knew nothing about economics. Yet as an economist I know a thousand times more things about the economy that any politician. What I see Socrates as saying is not that he lacks knowledge but answers. He was I believe using his ignorance as ploy to unsettle  his rivals, as a reading of any of Plato’s dialogues does demonstrate that Socrates knew quite a lot. Any economist when faced with a problem should be prepared to state his ignorance, as with a rapidly evolving and every changing economy, yesterdays’ knowledge is never sufficient to provide today’s answers. As  an economist what I possess is a knowledge of problems that have occurred in the past which appear to have some similarities with the problem at hand. Using that knowledge I could suggest a variety of policy solutions and recommend that which I think would be most effective. However I know that in what is an ever changing economy events may happen to make my policy recommendations ineffective. Humility should be part of the economists weaponry. I know that I can’t give Michael Gove the definitive answer he craves, the world is much more complex than the one viewed from Westminster or his newspaper column. I do know that my answers are better than his on all matters economic, as some knowledge of the economy and its workings are always better than none.

The last word I leave to Erasmus, ‘only a fool boasts of their ignorance’ or should it be ‘that only a fool takes pride in their ignorance’. A faulty memory prevents me recalling Erasmus’s exact words.

The Economics of the School Playground or Free Market Economics

Recently I met a group of friends who like me are nearer to seventy than sixty. What surprised me was that the ethics of the school playground still prevailed amongst us. As we had not met for several years, there was an immediate struggle within the group for supremacy. One particularly made a determined effort. First through trying to put down what he saw as the weakest member of the group, by making a slighting references to his speech impediment. Once having demonstrated his superiority to over him in his mind, he went on to list his recent achievements to demonstrate his superiority over the others. This competitive behaviour is apparently typical behaviour of men in any social situation. Once he felt that he had achieved top dog status he calmed down and returned to a more normal conversational mode. This is little more than a grown version of the  playground behaviour we indulged in as children. In my primary school it  was superiority in the traditional sports of marbles, conkers or any athletic activity that counted.  There was inevitably one boy who excelled at all things and who had the admiration of all, the alpha boy (male). What struck me was that if the behaviour and the ethics of the playground still governed the behaviour of this group of near seventy old men, surely these playground behaviours must come to the fore in all spheres of activity in which men participate.

Obviously it is possible to overstate the influence of the learnt playground behaviours on adult males; however there do seem to be striking similarities between behaviours of boys in the playground and those of adult males.  Is this not demonstrated in the male obsession with competitive sport? Men are taught from their earliest age that life is a competition in which its necessary to win or at least do well. Losers are beneath contempt, I still remember with horror the way us boys treated the designated loser in the playground. The vital social skill of co-operation is placed well below that of competitive ability. Until very recently economists were men, the Cambridge economist Joan Robinson (1903-83) being one of the exceptions. Does the dominance of men in economics with their competitive behaviours influence there understanding of the economy? The answer is a probable yes. Economists see the competitive market as the infra structure upon which the economy is grounded. All sectors of the economy are nothing more than competitive markets in one guise or another. Economic theory is a theory of winners and losers. Losers play an essential role in the economy as through their failure they remove from the market those producers that are inefficient, those that produce the wrong products and those workers that are less efficient. Unfortunately the losers suffer the penalty of unemployment, but they have a function in that they provide an incentive to those in work to try harder to avoid the penalty of unemployment.

Co-operation rarely gets a mention in economic textbooks, except in negative terms;  trade associations and trade unions are seen as nothing than barriers to the efficient working of the market. However this ignores the fact that society as a whole is largely a co-operative enterprise,in which people co-operate for the greater good. Education and healthcare in this country are  examples of collaborative enterprises. Even in the commercial market the rival traders see the benefits of collaboration. When I worked for a London insurance broker, my employers and others collaborated in the financing of the Lloyds insurance market and its management. They co-operated because they knew a regulated and well organised market would attract more business as people with place their money with businesses they trusted. Unfortunately with the deregulation of the market in the 1908s there has been a falling away of standards and trust particularly in regard to the life assurance companies.

There is one example from the playground that male economists seem to have forgotten. Rules are needed to make the games boys play work. One game that we used to play at the Scout hut was British Bulldog. There would be two teams of boys, one trying to stop the other team from  reaching the other side of the room. The easiest way to stop the members of the team trying to cross the room would have been  through extreme violence, such as a punch. To prevent this game degenerating into a fight rules were imposed which prohibited any contact apart from the grabbing and tackling of opponents. Just as British Bulldog needed rules to make the game work, so does the economy needs rules as without them bad practice thrives.

Seemingly economists have voiced their approval of the actions of the playground bully, he who but for rules would have got his pleasure from hurting others. All influential economists are of the Neo-Liberal school which sees government regulation hampering the legitimate activities of business entrepreneur (bully).  Their mantra is that business knows what is best for business. The malign impact of this abandoning of all rules is demonstrated clearly in the food market. There successive governments have since the 1980s weakened or removed much of the legislation governing food hygiene, In tandem with this they have reduced to an almost insignificant number, the number public health and food inspectors. One consequence of this has been shown in the recurrent food scandals, most recently the beef scandal in which supermarkets were found to be selling horse meat instead of beef in many of their processed meat products.  Criminal gangs have also found that lax food and healthy regulation make it possible to relabel and process food that unfit meat to the supermarkets for sale to the public. Food writers write of a food mafia that is exploiting lax food and hygiene regulations to the detriment of public health.

There is hope for change as there are now many more women becoming economists. I don’t want to make the suggestion that women are any less competitive than men, having two daughters I can testify that women can be extremely competitive. However women value co-operative behaviours more highly, they learn from an early age the value of supportive groupings. One example of this co-operative behaviour is the support that mothers offer each other with childcare. All the pre-school child care groups in my locality were organised and run by local women with or more usually without government support (funding). What I am trying to suggest is that the different life experiences of women make them value collaborative behaviours more highly than men.

Many of these new economists reject the  social darwinism of the mainstream, one economist such economist is Ann Pettifor. She has warned of the dangers of the unregulated financial markets in her book ‘The Coming First World Debt Crisis’. These unregulated market she explains are in danger of bringing about an economic crash greater than that of 2008/9. In the UK private sector indebtedness amounts to 2000% of GDP, the highest in the developed world. This level of debt is a threat to the future viability of the economy, yet the government persistently ignores their problem. Lord Oakshot described the British Treasury as the bastion of free market fundamentalism. It almost goes without saying that the senior economists at the Treasury are male and are so wedded to the idea of competitive markets, that they refuse to consider any other than the most minimal of regulation in the financial markets.

This is not to deny that some of the new women economists are of the orthodox persuasion, as a number of them work for that centre of economic orthodoxy the British Treasury. What I suspect is that a greater percentage of female economists are of the non-mainstream variety, than is true of their male colleagues. If men tend to see the world as nothing more than a series of competitive interactions, they will have a preference for those economic practices that encourage competition and they will see any regulation of the competitive market as anathema.  Unfortunately despite its public statements to the contrary, the male dominated Treasury sees little reason to do other than minimally regulate the financial markets, despite the likelihood of an unregulated financial market repeating the experience of the crash of 2008/9.

Ugly economics an explanation of why we are in a mess

Plato developed the theory of forms which stated that all the virtues such as good and beauty were but mere copies of their ideal forms that existed beyond the sphere of life inhabited by humanity. In Plato’s creation myth the demigod who creates mankind makes mankind from the only material available, clay. A being made up of inferior materials unlike the Gods could never see the virtues in their true forms and would never able to appreciate true Good or Beauty. These inferior beings could only apprehend what were in effect rough and ready copies of the true virtues. Men could only know an approximation of the virtues. Although Plato was writing two thousand years ago his theory of the forms describes accurately the state of current economic knowledge, it is but a very imperfect copy of what might constitute true economics.

When I read economics what is striking is the lack of beauty in the subject, unlike for example physics there is no beauty in its formulations. Physics reveals the beauty of the universe, whereas all economics does is to reveal the ugliness of human society. The words of Gordon Gecko that ‘greed is good’ can be taken as the principle from which all current economic analysis derives. Our current Chancellor of the Exchequer believes that rewarding greed through  tax cuts for the wealthy is good, whereas helping the poor through welfare payments is bad, as it merely rewards a group of losers who are deprived of the incentive (compulsion) to work to provide for themselves and their families.

As a NeoPlatonist I recognise that although all the human sciences cannot be one or another form of moral philosophy; I do believe that a good social science should be informed by at least some of the virtues. Whenever I read an economic text it is very rare that I am grabbed by the beauty of the writing. All too often it is a struggle to get through some poorly written text.  A text that is peppered with difficult to understand economic terms, words that disguise the emptiness of the written text.  I believe that a text that is ugly in its construction can only create something that is ugly.

Good writing is that which contains understanding of beauty and as such moves the reader bad or ugly writing lacks any of the other virtues and as such has lost  touch with humanity. The government by constantly referencing ugly economics to justify all forms of unpleasant policy measures. One of the hidden scandals is the number of disabled and ill people who have succumbed to sudden death, as a consequence of sudden and unexpected benefit cuts. There are those ill and disabled who have resorted to suicide in consequence of the sudden loss of the income on which they depend.  Normally in such situations policy measures that have caused death would produce some contrition within political classes. The harsh welfare polices of the past few years have produced no such reaction. Instead ugly economics gives the justification to such measures, as what counts is the effectiveness of the whip that compels people to work. Government policy seems to a perverted inversion of Plato’s theory of forms. The supreme good is the balanced budget and subordinate policies such as welfare cuts are intended to make possible the attainment of this supreme goal. If this is the supreme good of human society it must be a very poor or mediocre society that sees this as its supreme good, a society which has rejected any sense of the grand vision that society’s of the past embodied. Athen’s with the construction of the Parthenon is one example of the grandeur of the human vision, contemporary Britain in which the only large constructions are shopping centres or malls sense to represent the very rejection of the grandeur that is humanity.

If Britain is to be judged by it’s leaders it is a nasty society bereft of any of the virtues that make a great society. A society which uses hunger as a scourge to make the poor work lacks any of the virtues that make a great society. All it’s leading politicians are like Socrate’s Alcibiades, a physically beautiful young man in appearance but in an inversion the Silenus dolls were ugly only on the inside he was ugly on the inside. Physical beauty concealed an ugly soul. It is not a true demonstration of the ugly society that politicians take great pains over their appearance, maintaining their youthful image through jogging or other forms of exercise and cosmetic surgery, What matters is their image, how they appear on the media. All our leaders tend to exhibit that fatal Alcibiades trait, beautiful on the outside ugly on the inside.

Perhaps it is being too unfair to blame the proponents of ugly economics for the mess that we are in. Could it not be equally possible that it is the ugly society which has created an ugly economics to match its essential ugliness. If economists are merely responding to the demand from the major power holders in society for a theory to justify their existence, they are culpable of devising a message that enables the ugly society to thrive. Their privileged role as the sanctioned intelligentsia serve to suppress any alternative voices. They are like the garden weed that denies those food plants we desire the space in which to grow and thrive.

The Economic Devil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Philosopher and the Economist

Over the last twenty plus years their have been a series of financial crisis each inflicting damage worse than the previous on the world economy. Yet economists see no need to change there understanding of economics as they believe that in the years before 2008/9 they had discovered the ‘holy grail’ of economics, that is the free market economy. The two schools of British economics Neo-Liberalism and its free market cousin, New Keynesian have an enthusiasm for the largely unregulated market system, seeing it as the best possible of all possible economic models. Yet evidence suggests otherwise and as an avid student of philosophy I would say that all understandings of human behaviour and society are imperfect and that no one understanding of the nature of the economy is without significant flaws. 

 
Image taken from drury.edu

John Locke in his discussion of the nature of philosophy (Essay on Human Understanding) makes what I believe the most compelling case for the inclusion of philosophy in the economists tool box. He compares the role of the philosopher to that of the under labourer. The under labourer on the 17th century building site cleared the ground in preparation for the building work to come. Similarly the philosopher clears and tidies up the area of study for others, they clear the intellectual clutter from the site making clear to other, making clear the areas of study and highlighting the key questions to be answered. Their role is to dismiss all those questions that prompt research that hinders or obstructs the progress of research. In the science of the 17th century this would mean excluding astrology from the in study of astronomy, as the study of this distracted from the real science of the universe. While it might be argued by economists there is no equivalence of astrology studies in economics today, their still practise their subject in a way that prevents real solutions being found to the current economic malaise.

As a Lockean philosopher I would ask why do economists not recognise that the economy is an integral part of the wider social organisation that is society. What they should be asking is how does the wider society impact on the economy? What are the consequences for the economy in changes of human behaviours and attitudes, do these changes contribute to the current economic malaise? Why leave the builders out of the study, after all the economy is but a human construct?
Just as with the fashion in clothes it is at affected by changes in people’s tastes and attitudes.

Perhaps the most significant change in people’s attitudes and behaviour is the shared undertandin of the purpose of the legal system. Initially lawsand the legal system were seen as indispensable to the working of society, as they prevented those disruptive behaviours that would prevent a settled society from existing. These crimes when committed could attract severe sanctions, in the most extreme cases a life sentence. However there has developed in recent years a new understanding of the role of law. Law is now seen as a means of facilitating certain approved behaviours which are known by the generic term entrepreneurship. Laws aimed at eliminating bad behaviours by this group have been removed or emasculated, as it is believed that the free market is the best means of regulating such behaviours. The assumption is that competition in the market will drive out bad entrepreneurs and the law that by intervening in this Darwinian market will result in interventions that damage the economy. Consequently laws on employment protection and the governance of companies are either abolished or have their impact minimised. Now the legal profession is tending towards the belief that the free market and not law is the best guarantor of good behaviour in business and that their role is to stop groups such as environmental activists interfering in the market. In Britain there any many legal restrictions that can be imposed on such awkward groups.

One such consequence is that company law has been rendered largely ineffective. Originally the public company was developed as a means of enabling businesses to raise large sums of money from the public to finance large scale business investment. This organisation has now evolved primarily into a means of tax avoidance or for the owners a means of avoiding legal responsibilities and liabilities. When companies go bankrupt through mismanagement ,the directors are free to walk away from the company free from any legal sanction. No blame attaches to them. It is the legal entity the public company that has gone bankrupt, not the directors. The structure of the public company encourages irresponsible and reckless behaviour by company directors, as was demonstrated during the crash of 2008/9 when no senior banker was held to accountable for reckless or irresponsible behaviour.

This widespread practice of wrong doing throughout the corporate sector has had very negative consequences for the economy. Increasingly people come to distrust the large business corporations all they see is a group of greedy individuals exploiting their customers for their own benefit. Such people have achieved the impossible in making people yearn for a return of the once much derided nationalised industries. The directors of the privatised rail industry have been responsible for massive increases in rail fares making British railways the most expensive in Europe. Fares on British trains can be six times the price of their equivalent in Italy. This behaviour is producing a reaction in the community at large, in Western Europe groups such as Momentum in Britain or Podemos in Spain are campaigning to end this abuse of the system.

However my intention is to demonstrate how the tolerance of widespread mismanagement, corporate greed and wrong doing impacts on the economy as a whole.This is most clearly demonstrated in the finance industries. In the days of my childhood one of the most trusted figures was the ‘man from the Pru’. He called every month to collect a small payment from my parents for life insurance, savings and house insurance. My parents knew that a reputable firm such as the Prudential would always pay out whatever the circumstance, they had faith in the company. The first sign that all was not well in the finance industry was when England’s oldest insurance company ‘The Equitable Life’ went effectively bankrupt, as it lacked the funds to pay the pensions it had promised. There then followed a long series of scandals in this industry due largely to a combination of mismanagement, individual greed and irresponsible behaviour. The consequence was the development of a widespread distrust of the financial services industry.

This justified widespread distrust of the financial services sector has led to some unfortunate consequences. People began to look for alternatives to saving their money with these institutions; they looked for investments that would offer far better and safer returns than those promised by the financial institutions. The one alternative for most people was property, asset prices rose more rapidly in the housing market than in any other alternative market, so any investment in property appeared to be a win, win situation. There is no other market in which the value of the initial investment would increase so quickly. Many entered the rental market as the returns on rental properties were astronomic, it was a market in which it seemed nobody could lose, except they did. There is the now forgotten property crash of 1990 and the more recent one of 2008/9. The problem was that the increase in house prices was due to a speculative boom, caused by more and more money chasing an ever more slowly increasing supply of homes for sale. A market based on speculation will always be subject to booms and busts. The supply of money for this speculative investment will always slow at some stage, usually due to some downturn in the economy or the realisation that much of the property in which the money is invested is not worth the money paid for it, as in the sub prime market in the USA. Such as downturn is occurring now and there will be a crash in the property markets in either 2016 or 2017. What cannot be predicted is the scale of the crash.

Unfortunately this rise of the property market has coincided with the decline of the manufacturing sector. Manufacturing now only generates 10% of UK’s national income. In the housing market much of the investment is recycled money as the same properties are sold over and over again at ever increasing prices; whereas the manufacturing industry creates new products for sale, which generates ‘real’ extra’ income. With the decline of manufacturing people could look less and less to an increase in income, as most new jobs created were in the less productive service sector. As people could no longer rely on ever increasing incomes that looked to speculative returns to boost there spending. The market that offered huge speculative returns was the housing market.

There are two negative impacts on the economy from the growth of the housing market. Funds are attracted to the higher speculative returns in that market, rather than the lower returns from investment in manufacturing industry. At the time of the crash in 2008 over 80% of bank loans where made to the property market. A manufacturing industry starved of investment funding can only decline. The consequence is that Britain has become increasingly dependent on foreign manufacturers to supply the goods it needs. Britain now has the largest trade deficit as a percentage of national income for any developed industrial country.

This has resulted in a disastrous change in government economic policy. Now as so many people are dependent on speculative booms in the housing market for extra income (loans secured against the increase in property values), the main role of government economic policy is to support the speculative boom by adopting a series of policies that constantly increase house prices. What never occurs to the government is that this is a foolish policy that can only end in tears,as happens when the market crashes. No government minister or Treasury official seems to have noticed that each successive crash requires greater and greater sums of government money to bail out the losers in the crash. Figures for the money used to bail out the bank’s etc in 2009 are notoriously opaque. One figure I came across was that in 2009 the government pledged £1.2 billion to support the bank. This figure was about a 100% of national income, fortunately it was no called on, it remained just a pledge. If the bank creditors had demanded that the money be paid into the banks coffers, Britain would be in a far worst situation than is Greece.

What I am trying to say is that as a philosopher I look beyond the current economic toolkit to try to understand the nature of our current economic malaise. It is by asking different questions that I arrive at different conclusions to those proffered by orthodox economists. The main solution to our problem is to stop the speculative frenzy that is the property or more accurately the housing market. If the banks and other lends could not increase by astronomic sums the amount they lend to the property market, there would be no money to fuel this frenzy. This could be done quite simply by increasing the reserves the banks hold, one economist has suggested that the bank’s reserves should be increased to 10% of total assets (or loans). If this happened banks would have to go to the market to raise huge sums of money to increase their share capital. It would not happen and banks would be forced to withdraw funds from the housing market. There would be a painful crash in that market, but once that the effects of that crash had receded the economy could be rebalanced towards manufacturing. An increase in manufacturing activity would have many beneficial effects, one of which would be the reduction of our horrendous trade deficit, as people rather than buying imported goods bought domestically produced ones.

There would be a price for making this change, there would be a fall in the incomes of many people, as they could no longer rely on loans to boost they’re spending. It is quite likely that there are a number of senior politicians that are aware of this and for that reason they are afraid to end the speculative housing boom. Conventional knowledge states that any government that presides over falling house prices is committing electoral suicide. Instead they hope the great crash will happen on somebody else’s watch. To put it another way fear of electoral suicide makes cowards of all politicians.

What I am saying is that while economists fail to consider factors such as a change in the attitudes and behaviours in the population at large and in particular that of the political and cultural elites, they will never come up with solutions to the current economic malaise. This type of thinking that does take into account these cultural changes was known as political economy, yet this school of economics has long been abandoned by practising economists.

Returning to my initial thoughts on Locke and the under labourer, perhaps what really needs to be cleared away is the current economic orthodoxy, which acts as an intellectual road block to prevent the development of any new approaches to solving the current economic malaise.