Tag Archives: #Freemarketeconomics

The Corporate Superman Myth and the decline of British industry

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Image of Superman taken from bbs.sxrb.com

The of Theory of the business superman or why the British economy is constantly under performing

The readers of Marvel comics are not the only believers in superheroes and supermen, so are British politicians and other members of the various elite groups. Readers of ‘Superman’ realise that it is only a story but that is not true of the British political class, they do believe not only in one but several supermen. In the original ‘Superman’ can be rendered helpless and weak by kryptonite and the belief in British political and business circles that there is a kryptonite in the British society which turns business supermen into ordinary weak fallible human beings. It is this kryptonite which is responsible for the constant poor performance of British business.

What is this kryptonite that turns members of the business elite into mere ordinary mortals, that prevents these supermen from ever shedding their Clark Kent persona and revealing their true nature? This kryptonite is something known to us all, it is high taxes and over regulation, the familiar red tape. Governments have responded quickly to remove this poison from society. Taxes for the productive entrepreneur have been reduced by staggering amounts, from a marginal tax rate of 79% in the mid 1980s to 50% today. In fact few executives pay the 50% income tax, as a pro-business has made it possible to reduce that tax burden to 2%, through offshoring income to what in effect are shell companies. In fact the government through Her Majesties Revenue and Customs (HMRC) have collaborated with rich individuals and big corporations to help them reduce their tax burden.

The other poison which paralyses these supermen the government has reduced to such a minimum that its toxic effects are barely noticed. The government has reduced the cost of labour by removing all those employment protections that pushed up the cost of labour for the employer. Trade unions have been so emasculated by legislation that they can no longer effective bid up the price of labour or even resist the reduction in its price. The recent industrial problems at Grangemouth illustrated this when the government supported the employer Ineos in its planned programme of wage cuts for refinery employers. In the same vein the government has removed most of the employment protections that prevented employers using their workers as they please or how they believe they will be used most effectively. No longer does dismissing a worker involve expensive redundancy payments or trip to the industrial tribunal to defend against the claim of wrongful dismissal. (The government has reduced the possibility of employees taking their employer to an industrial tribunal by imposing a tribunal fee of £1200.)

If the stories of the business superman had any truth in them Britain would now be one of the most productive and prosperous countries in Europe, as it would be not only the fastest growing economy in Europe but also the world. However the reverse has happened economic growth has remained mediocre, increasing numbers of people have been falling into poverty and the productivity of the British worker has fallen. What political and business classes failed to realise was the main cause for failure lie not within a poisonous anti business society, but in the very ordinariness of the business class. Rather than being a superior group they are very like the other members of society, no better or worse. They don’t have any special talents. People such as Michael O’Leary the Chief Executive of Ryanair are unique, few business leaders have their acumen. Rather than liberating the inner superman the changes have liberated the inner Clark Kent. A series of mediocre managers claim the mantle of an O’Leary vastly overpaying themselves and underperforming.

At present I am reading Robert Burton’s ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ and the words that he quotes from an unidentified philosopher on leadership which ‘Of an infinite number, few alone are senators, and of those few, fewer good, and of that small number of honest, good, and noble men, few that are learned, wise, discreet and sufficient, able to discharge such places’ (p.82) these are words that our hero worshipping politicians should heed. What instead of there being a group of supermen running our business corporations, there are instead a group of Clark Kent’s who should never aspire to leadership positions.

What economists of a Neo-Liberal persuasion, politicians and business classes fail to realise is that high status and superior position does not confer greatness on an individual. Yet all too often these people assume the role of Demi Gods, regarding themselves as superior to the ordinary run of mankind. Again I rely on the words of Robert Burton to express the reality of this situation. He writes that where the wrong type of men are in power ‘all things are ugly to behold, incult, barbarous, uncivil,a paradise is turned to a wilderness” (p.86)

Given that men in power whether in business or politics are more often than not men of mundane abilities and wisdom, they are unfitted for roles of leadership. They will abuse the position which they are granted, often using it to extort from the company large sums in payment for their services. There are occasions when it is hard to believe that these people are working in the interests of the company rather than themselves. Given positions of responsibility for which they are unfitted, these men will either through their mediocre performance turn the business is into a underperforming one or through their recklessness bankrupt the business. Despite the claim that in a competitive market economy there is no reward for failure this is untrue for senior company executives. The failing director is dismissed with a generous severance package, so generous that they will never experience want. If the company fails through their incompetence they will have taken steps to ensure that their income and wealth is protected. Any observer of the Stock Exchange will be able to name companies that thorough the incompetence of their senior executives have ended up in the hands of the administrator.

It is not the interest of the common good that these mediocre individuals should be allowed to run large business enterprises as they please. There needs to be some legislative or regulatory framework that forces senior executives to improve their performance. What is notable is that there has been a collective dumbing down of business management since the bonfire of regulations that was the Neo-Liberal economic revolution, as these executives are accountable to non one. The one exercise in democracy the company Annual General Meeting is but a stage managed show in which the company directors talk about how well they have performed.
One change that would improve the performance of these under performing executives is a change in the law that made company directors and other senior executives accountable for the poor performance of the business under their stewardship. A financial charge on those directors incomes and wealth made in the event of the firms failure would see the end of much poor and irresponsible decision making. Bankruptcy law as it protects poor performing senior executives from any financial penalty as all debts to creditors are charged to the failed business, never to the executives who drove the business into bankruptcy.

The author believes that what is desperately needed is a new statutory regulatory framework to force senior executives to work to a higher levels of performance. A system that imposes no penalties for failure allows many corporate duds to thrive in the board rooms of British businesses. Neo-Liberalism goes against the grain of human nature as evidence demonstrates that the corporate geniuses are few and far between, and the so ordinary people that dominate businesses are incapable of performing well in a regulation free world. A much tougher regulatory regime would not prevent the few corporate geniuses such as Michael O’ Leary from thriving. What it would do is prevent British board rooms being dominated by the corporate duds, as is so often the case now.

The Demise of the Liberal Democratic State and the rise of the Corporate State

Francis Fukuyama was wrong the 1990s did not herald the triumph of liberal democracy, but its showy demise. George Bush’s attempt to impose democracy on Iraq by force demonstrated the folly of this premise. Even the democratic programme that he sketched out gave a dominant role to the business corporations that would effectively control the new Iraq. Giving lie the all the claims about remaking Iraq on democratic lines. Prior to the invasion there was a quarrel between two of the main participants in the invasion over the distribution of the spoils  between the victors. British oil companies believed that the post invasion constitution gave too much to American and too little to British oil companies. The chaos of the post invasion Iraq denied the business corporations the influence and income they expected. Although the part of the profitable oil industry that is not under the control of Isis, is run by American oil corporations.

  
Perhaps it is in Europe that the evidence of the new nation state is best demonstrated. What is developing in Europe is a new corporate state, a state which functions primarily for the benefit of the business corporations? The financial crisis of 2008/9 illustrates this all too clearly. Due to irresponsible lending practices the banks failed, even if only a few crashed all threatened by the crash. Rather than let the banks fail the governments of Europe injected cash into the banks to prevent them failing. In Britain the bailout was equivalent to 10% of GDP, although given the huge size of the banking deficit the government was effectively mortgaging the countries assets and wealth to save the banks. It was not the banks that had to pay the price of their failure but the peoples of Europe. Europe wide austerity was regarded as necessary to reassure the banks creditors of the financial worthiness of the nations that were the guarantors  of their debts. A government with small debts would be regarded as a better guarantor of the banks credit than one with large debts. Surprisingly the banks got of almost scot free apart from a demand that they increase their cash reserves to 3% of total liabilities and ring fence retail banking, on which the banks are stalling. The Banks are now asking for the government eforms of an increasingly dysfunctional financial sector. In response to the pleas of the banks the demand to increase their cash reserves to their required total has been constantly put back, nowhere more so than in continental Europe. Despite claiming a government of financial prudence Germany has been one of the worst offenders. Only the other week the government in Britain refused to renew the contract of the chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority as the banks had accused him of being to hard on them. In Britain as in Europe, what the banks want the banks get.

There are many serious problems that the government in Britain needs to tackle but one of them is not the reform of the state funded broadcaster the BBC. The agreement under which the BBC is funded is up for renewal soon and the government has used this as an opportunity for root and branch reform of the broadcaster. One of the main backers of the winning Conservative party was News International, the largest shareholder in Sky TV. The directors of this company has long argued for a change in the nature of the BBC, a change that would make it less of a competitor to Sky News. Its former Chief Executive James Murdoch argued for a change that would benefit Sky TV. He said in a lecture that the BBC  had a role as an innovative producer of TV programmes but it was not its role to exploit those innovative programmes. Once those programmes had been developed they should be given to the commercial broadcasters as the role of the BBC was to experiment not create popular TV. Unsurprisingly the main conservative spokesman on the media has echoed these views. He wants to end the BBC’s role of producer of popular programmes that compete with those of Sky TV. There is little doubt that one of the priorities of this government is to repay its corporate sponsors with favours.

Rather than continue with list of items that illustrate the increasing corporatisation of Britain, I want to compare the British governmental system to that of Russia. The Russian system of governance is often referred to as a mafia run oligarchy. All these commentators that do so fail to recognise the similarities between the Russian and British system of governance. Probably the only difference is in the level of criminality of the oligarchs in each country.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 the reformers in charge of the country wanted to adopt the free market of the West, so as to enjoy a similar level of prosperity. However they rushed into privatising their stated owned industries, without realising that the free market economies of the West were only successful because the market operated within a strong legal system that prevented the many abuses that occur in an unregulated market. Given what was literally a ground zero, the oligarchs were able to remake the Soviet economy to their own liking. They bought up the businesses at bargain prices and controlled the various sectors of economy, however for complete control they required control of the governmental system. This they achieved through bribery, intimidation and violence. Now President Putin runs a collective oligarchy, an oligarchy that exploits Russia wealth largely for its own ends. Opposition to the oligarchy is suppressed in ways similar to the former communist system, critics are subject to intimidation, often including violent assaults, and if that fails they are sent either to a mental asylum or camp where the mistreatment continues.

The oligarchs in Britain and Russia believe in a similar free market system, that is a free market in any obstacle to the free operation of business enterprise is removed. Obstacles such as trade unions, labour protection legislation and government interference. In Russia there was little too prevent the rise of the oligarch as in a ground zero economy (one in from which the state was largely absent) there could be no effective opposition and by controlling the government they can ensure that none arises. The task for the British oligarchs was much harder they had to create a society that was favourable to the free market (as they saw it). This meant they had to capture government and ensure that it introduced measures to remove all the obstacles to the smooth running of the market. Chief of these is the trade union movement and not surprisingly one of the first measures of this new corporate friendly government is legislation to further emasculate the trade union movement, so as to ensure that it cannot interfere with the smooth running of the market. The proposed legislation will effectively prevent trade unions from striking, so removing the  threat they pose to employers.

There is however one significant difference between Russia and Britain. Elections in the former are largely controlled by the state and there is never any likelihood that the opposition can come to power. In Britain elections are open and fair and the opposition can become the government. However the two main political parties are coming to resemble each other, when the opposition criticises a government policy, it is not so likely that they disagree with the policy as believing that they could implement it better. Increasingly the two main parties are becoming the mirror image of each other, but are committed to the philosophy of Neo-Liberalism. Unfortunately elections are increasingly becoming a competition between the groups  competing to be the representative of corporate Britain. One of the main concerns voiced by competitors for the leadership of the opposition party is that the previous leader was too distant from the corporate interest. Unfortunately too many politicians now see politics means to win a seat on the board.

The recent history of the Greek crisis shows how dominant is the corporate interest in Europe. When the Greek crisis caused by the nations over indebtedness occurred, the European policy makers could have agreed to a restricting of the Greek debt. This restructuring would have either involved pushing debt repayments in some time in the distant future or forcing the nation’s creditor to take a ‘hair cut,’ that is force them to accept a downsizing of the Greek debt. Either of these policies would have hurt the corporate interest, that is the banks would have lost billions of Euros in the ‘write down’ of the loans that they had made to Greece.  Instead the European politicians forced on to the Greek government a programme Neo-Liberal market reforms. These policies were intended to make the Greek economy more competitive and boost exports. The surplus earned on the export trade could be used to pay of the Greek debts. Unfortunately this Neo-Liberal experiment failed and after five years of austerity, economic growth has stalled and GDP is down 25% making it increasingly unlikely the debt will be paid.The International Monetary Fund states that payments on Greek debts should be deferred for thirty years, as only then will the economy have grown sufficiently to enable the Greeks to begin to pay off their debt.  Despite the urging of the USA the European politicians stubbornly support the banks cause and refuse to allow the Greek nation any debt relief.

Quite possibly the triumph of the corporate state is best demonstrated by the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Programme (TTIP). When this treaty comes into force any business corporation that believes government policies have caused it a loss, can refer their case to an international arbitration panel. This means that if government legislation aimed at limiting the harmful effects of tobacco restricts the sale of this product, the tobacco company can go to the panel asking for compensation or a revoking of the act. There is one such dispute between a South American company and an American Tobacco giant. Soon such actions will become common place  and the sovereignty of European governments will be undermined. In Britain at least too many politicians are in favour of this policy, as they believe their support for TTIP will earn that a well paid position with one of the business corporations, they will willing surrender power for cash.

There is one failing of the corporate state and that it is remarkably incompetent, in that it lacks the competence to deal with a major crisis. The banks only survived the crisis of 2008/9 because they were supported by the government. There will be other such financial crisis in which business corporations will only survive with the support of government. There is in Europe the unresolved debt crisis, not the one of popular imagination but the combined private sector banking debt. A debt that in Britain exceeds 400% of GDP and in Germany 324% of GDP.

These business corporations have only a narrow minded view of the world a view one that is focused on their own self interest. The banks in Britain have been campaigning successfully for an end to restrictions on their less desirabale activities and the government has complied. It has largely passed unnoticed but at a recent City of London banquet the governor of ‘The Bank of England,’ said he saw no reason why banks should not be allowed to increase their assets to 900% of GDP.  The majority of a banks assets are loans which are funded by borrowing from others, so if Mark Carney has his way the debts of British banks will rise to astronomic levels. There will at some time be a crash that in scope will exceed that of 2008/9. A crash of these dimensions would force  a collapse of the corporate state as the government will be no only body with the authority and power to avert the collapse and rebuild the damaged society. One economist Anne Pettifor has written a book called ‘The First Word Debt’ crisis, a book which is ignored by all European politicians. Rather than act on the basis of the precautionary principle, the European politicians seem to act on t’he eyes firmly shut’ principle.

All political systems contain within themselves the seeds of destruction, in the social democratic society of the past it was the conflict between the major business corporations and society. A conflict that the former won. The corporate state is more unstable than other political systems as there is no great vision or commonality of view that unites the community of business corporations. The only commonality is their hostility to any regulation of the free market and in reality they are a number of social units all pursuing their own self interest. This means that the corporate society lacks the strong mechanism for directing society to towards a greater end other than mere self interest, lacking this overarching powerful body, society can only fall apart in the event of being struck by an economic or social tsunami.

The great floods that devastated New Orleans demonstrate how the new corporate state fails to cope with  crisis. Cuts made to the emergency and environmental services made at the behest of a business dominated tax cutting government had left these services unable to respond adequately to the floods and their inaction prior to the flooding worsened the devastation. The levies that protected the town were in a state of disrepair and unable to resist the tidal surge and broke. All the world could do was watch in horror as the American government failed to halt the destruction of New Orleans.

The failure to resolve the Greek crisis points to a future crisis in Europe. Greece is but a small country accounting for but 3% of the European Union’s GDP, yet the European Union struggles to find a solution to its problems. It’s only success is in replacing the various democratically elected governments that are hostile to its austerity programme. Greece only rid itself of the military junta popularly known as the Greek colonels in 1974. The Greek army is the one institution that has not been devastated by the Neo-Liberal reforms imposed by the EU  and it may be the only body that is capable of eventually restoring social order after the havoc caused by the latest austerity and reform programme. Possibly this is the future for us all as the failures of the Neo-Liberal or corporatist state can only result in its replacement by authoritarian state supported by the military. The pro business agenda so having hollowed out the democratic state its institutions lack the resources to respond to a major crisis. This is demonstrated by the financial crash of 2008, the Chancellor of the time commented in a newspaper article that the crash was imminent. Yet despite this knowledge the government and Treasury were incapable of taking any action to avoid the crash, much like a rabbit that is frozen by fear when faced with the headlights of an oncoming car.

Machiavelli and the Madness of Politicians

What puzzles me is why when we have the best educated politicians in history, the governments that they lead are so abysmal. At least one European leader has a doctorate and most were educated at the elite universities in their own countries. Why are these so well educated leaders so awful at the business of government? The only plausible answer that I can find plausible is that they are affected with a degree of madness in that they consistently mistake the world of their fanciful imaginings for reality.

Perhaps this is best demonstrated with the current crisis in Greece. The  leaders of Europe insist on repeating the  changes they have forced on the Greek economy which rather than solve Greece’s debt crisis has worsened it. The programme of imposed austerity and so called structural reforms pushed Greece into a situation which resembles the Great Depression of 1929 to 1939. Obviously a country in suffering an economic recession is less able to pay its debts than one that is booming. Yet the so called Troika (the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund [IMF]) and the European Central Bank) insist that the Greeks must accept even greater levels of austerity if they are to receive the bailout funds necessary to keep their banks open. It is obvious to all that this a policy that won’t work, yet our European rulers insist that it must continue.

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Reading this it seems that there is a hint of madness in the decisions of the European policy makers. They were all the time confusing the world of their imaginings with the Europe of today. Anybody can misunderstand the reality they face yet to consistently do so suggests madness. The IMF has twice produced reports saying that Greece is incapable of repaying its debts, the latest report suggests that Greece should be granted a moratorium of 30 years before it has to repay any of it debts. Yet despite the evidence from the Greek economy demonstrating that the policy forced on it by the Troika has put it into long term decline making it less likely to the economy will ever achieve a level of growth that will enable it to repay its debts, they continue to insist that the policy must not change. While it is possible that the European leaders directing the policy of the European Commission can be deluded as to the effectiveness of their policy, what is most surprising is that Christine Lagarde as managing director of the IMF is supportive of this failed policy when her own organisation is writing the reports stating that the policy is wrong headed. Why this level of delusion, why do these politicians fail to see what is in front of their eyes? Why are so self evidently mad?

The best explanation for the behaviour of our contemporary leaders comes from the writings of Machiavelli. In ‘The Prince” there is a chapter in which the following scene is described. The son of one of the Greek tyrants is accompanying his father on a walk. Then as they are walking past a field of wheat, and the son he asks how is it possible to remain in power when their are so many potential enemies in society. Rather than answering his son directly this man picks up a stick and knocks of the heads of the tallest stalks of wheat. European leaders in their dealings with Greece have adopted a similar policy. Whenever a Greek leader appears who might threaten their policy of austerity, they destroy them. The greatest threat the European leaders have faced is Tsiparas  so they had set about undermining him and destroying his power base. In denying the Greek banks access to much needed Euros they have reminded him that they possess the power to close the banks and with that wreak havoc on the Greek economy and society. Rather than risk chaos, Tsiparas has capitulated. The leaders have calculated that the terms that they have forced him to accept will force his eventual resignation and destruction of his radical Syriza party. Not only these politicians cut down the tallest wheat stalk in Greek society, they have made it clear that they will do the same to any other wheat stalks in any other European country that might threaten their authority.

This leadership style that Machiavelli demonstrated is not a style of leadership appropriate for a democratic society, which depends on political dialogue and consensus to function effectively. If the opposition is destroyed or emasculated the political dialogue becomes extremely limited, as all the potential leaders realise that only by following the accepted script can their careers advance. Consequently there is a political echo as what leaders hear from the political dialogue is but an echo of their own views. ‘Yes’ men and women become the vogue in politics, individual thinkers self exclude, as they must pursue careers outside politics as the system penalises individual thinkers.  They  realise if they entered  politics would be marginalised in the political set up or more likely as in the Greek example have their political reputation and  career destroyed by a hostile elite of non thinking conformists, who hate any threat to their authority. This gives leaders a sense of omnipotence as all they ever hear is their words repeated back to them. Political difference is viewed in the words of Christine Lagarde, as not being ‘adult’ and not worth consideration. The views of Tsiparas and the Greek leaders were not worth considering as they were not spoken in the language of the elite. They were children who failed to understand the grown up world of the political elite.

Never having to engage in serious dialogue with your rivals and their alternative views, leads to an arrogance of power. By never facing contradiction these leaders cannot but believe in the rightness of their views. These leaders have been driven mad by power, they believe the acquisition of power sanctities the rightness of their views. What they say is true, anything else is heresy. They are like so many  Kim Jong-uns who don’t have to pay regard to any view but their own. Kim Jong-uns that will resort to any tactic to destroy the reputation and career of rivals.

There is one great failing in Machiavelli’s book ‘The Prince’ he failed  warned leaders that acquisition of power does not equate with greatness of mind. What we have in the West is a series of mediocre leaders who have attained power by Machiavellian means, but who lack the greatness of mind to govern effectively. In Britain and Europe the means to power is also the means by which great individuals are excluded from power.  Mediocre thinkers who have attained power by manipulating the political system overestimate the significance of their success, playing the system well does not equate with greatness. The technocrat governments appointed in many southern European countries are not experts in economic management but timeservers willing to do the bidding of their political masters. The technocrats that Europe will put in charge of the running of the Greek economy, will be no more successful than their predecessors. The misery and damage they inflict on Greek society will be hidden behind a serious of dubious statistics that appear to shw success. Britain and Europe are ruled by a number of petty Napoleons who are blinded by power and in the madness, they believe that their insane visions represent what is best vision for humanity. We are ruled by the self deluding inhabitants of a political madhouse.

Superstition not reason is the basis for much government economic decision making

The English have any good luck mannerisms which are intended to ward off bad luck. One which I particularly do is crossing my fingers when I mention something dreadful, to prevent it occurring to me. Another is touch wood, as in I have not caught flu this year touch wood. Surprising this superstition is the basis of much economics practised by this government and to be fair many others.

Economists claim scientific status for their subject on the grounds that it based on quantitative analysis, analysis from which predictions can be made about future events. They will admit that in their predictions they cannot match the accuracy of those of a physicist, but the difference they claim is one of degree not nature. Governments invest billions in IT programmes that use the tools of economic analysis try to predict future events in the economy. It is telling that the most accurate predictions about the economy are made after the event, when there is more reliable information about the event that has taken place. Unfortunately the errors in these programmes have caused real problems in the past, as in 1976 when government statisticians calculated that the country was experiencing a horrendous balance of payments crisis; yet when later revisions of the figures showed that the initial calculations were inaccurate the damage had been done. The  revisions came to late to avert a financial crisis which included a large outflow of currency and forcing the government into borrowing from the IMF and the introduction of an austerity programme which effectively ended social democracy in the UK.

However past history demonstrates that this attachment to facts and figures is more apparent than real. One of the theories underlying the initial Neo-Liberal  free market economics, (practised by all British governments since 1979) was the quantity theory of money. This theory states that if money supply increases faster than productivity, inflation will result as their will be more money chasing the same number of goods. The control of inflation that as now was one of the chief concerns of government policy. In the 1980’s when this theory took hold one of the first policies that the government’s introduced was a policy to reduce the money supply to cut inflation. This in Britain caused the recession of 1980 and the loss of 20% of it’s manufacturing base, and this was decreed a good result, as in the new low inflation economy, growth would soon compensate for the losses of 1981/82. However after several years in power politicians of the Neo-Liberal persuasion seemed to forget about the quantity theory of money, despite it being the guiding principle of their policy decisions in the early 1980’s.

If Neo-Liberal economists wanted a demonstration of the truth of this theory, it is in their actions over the past thirty years. Politicians in Britain and Europe have overseen a huge rise in bank credit with a consequential inflation in asset prices, particularly in housing. According to the latest figures the debts of the UK banks total 340% and 324% respectively of the nation’s GDP in Britain and Germany respectively. Instead of the politicians reacting negatively to this huge rise in bank credit and the inflation that it induces, they have done all they can to keep that inflationary spiral going ever upwards. When in the crash of 2008/9 these over indebted banks should have experienced a painful devaluation of their assets, as many of their debtors defaulted on loans. Instead the governments of Europe  pumped money into these banks to prevent any real deterioration in their loan books. Consequently the banks have continued with their irresponsible behaviour and their loans spiral ever upwards, pushing up house prices. The politicians believe that the inflation in house prices contributes to the ‘feel good’ factor and that any downward movement in house prices would mean instant unpopularity and losing office, which would result if they reduced money supply through a reduction bank credit. Foolishly the Neo-Liberal politicians and economists put electoral popularity above a painful restructuring of the economy, which would mean no longer using inflation as a driver of growth.

Recently the governor of the Bank of England announced that he was happy to see bank deposits (largely loans) to increase to 900% of GDP. Sometime in the future there will be a painful awakening for the over indebted Western European economies. All this is detailed in painful detail by the economist Anne Pettifor in her book “The First World Debt Crisis’.

There is a blindness in economists and politicians to real nature of the problems of debt. Never in any debates in parliament will the huge private sector debt be mentioned. Policy is based on the hope that the problems that this huge debt will cause will never happen. It seems to be if you ignore the problem and hope for the best the debt problem can be wished away. Whether I call it crossed fingers or touch wood policy, it is a very naive belief by economists and politicians that all will be well in the future. It is economics as superstition in that if the real crisis is never mentioned it will never happen.

Going even further I can suggest that there is an element of voodoo about government and inter government policy making. They seem to think if they sacrifice one element of debt it will appease the Gods of economics and prevent them from causing the house to fall down. Rather than sacrifice a chicken they sacrifice public spending. They seem to hope that the misery inflicted on those dependent on welfare will appease the Gods of the economy. If the bankers are the Gods of the economy it has worked, as there have been no adverse movements in the financial markets against the pound sterling. They certainly are satisfied with the sacrifices made by the poor. However they are not the Gods, as is demonstrated by their failures in 2008/9, the Gods (if they exist) are much more abstract figures not to be appeased by minor sacrifices, inevitably they will visit punishment on the foolish and naive governments of the West.

The Lazy Greek A Contemporary Myth

The Myth

When I first went to Greece several years ago I bought like many visitors a guide book. There was in that guidebook a picture of a group of  Greek men at a table in a cafe idling away the time and playing back gammon and drinking coffee. I imagine that image or similar appeared in several guide books and is responsible for the image that most northern European’s now have of the Greeks, that is a people who spent hours idling their time away gossiping.

There are many erroneous stories circulating in the press about work shy Greeks, but I intend just to focus on one, that is the pensions story. This one unlike many others appears to have an element of truth.One the reasons the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has given for pulling out of the current negotiations is that the Greeks extend further financial support to Greece is their refusal to reduce the size of their pension bill. At present the pension bill accounts for 10% of GDP, while the average for European member states is 2%. It seems from this that the Greeks are molly coddling their pensioners by paying than far more than other states pay. However this ignores two key facts and the first is that the austerity measures imposed on Greece have reduced the size of the economy by 25% which means if the economy shrinks and the pension bill remains the same, it will become a proportionately greater share of the GDP.  If this is taken into account in pre austerity Greece the pension bill would have been about 6.5% of GDP, a figure not too different from that of the UK and Germany. Also this 2% average is a figure much reduced by the minimal pensions paid in many of the new Eastern European states. These states pay minimal pensions or none to their retired and this drags down the European average.  It does seem that the EU and its member states want to push Greek pensioners not poverty through reducing their pensions  to a nearer the Bulgarian average . Any astute observer would have noticed that reports in the newspapers that pensions in Greece had been reduced so much in response to the demands of the EU that most represented more than the lowest of living wages.

What the EU seems to doing is using Greece as a template for a Europe that is fit for bankers and big corporations but unfit for people. This is not to deny that there is much that is wrong with the Greek economy, but that the wrong problems are identified and the solutions that are imposed to solve the problem are the wrong ones because they are addressing the wrong problems. The austerity programme can be best explained by the use of metaphor, the programme has wrecked a badly built but functioning house and left it its place nothing but some waste land.

In Praise of the Greeks

What economists particularly those in government employ forget is one of the first lessons they learnt,   which s that wealth is anything that is valued by people. Economists much prefer wealth that  can be measured in monetary terms and don’t factor into account in their calculations, wealth that lacks monetary values, yet this wealth can regarded as equally valuable by its receipts. If out of work time was not valued, people would want to work as many hours as possible. Instead much to the frustration of employers they want time at home with family or friends or just leisure time to enjoy.  In consequence there has been a move in northern Europe to increase the economic cost of out of time work to high as possible, so as to discourage workers from taking it. This has been achieved by reducing wages (particularly in Britain) so employees are forced to work for many more hours to earn a living wage. Employers have persuaded successive governments to weaken all the protections that workers formerly enjoyed at work. This means that workers with insecure employment, who are in fear of losing their jobs are much more willing to sacrifice their out of work time to meet the employers demands. Workers for instance on zero hours contracts in Britain risk not getting work ,if they refuse their employers request to come into work, no matter how unreasonable the request. Greece represents a throw back to the time when workers had rights, the right to refuse to adopt modern flexible working practices.

It looks to the politicians of Northern Europe and the USA that Greek society as a whole is conspiring to prevent the obvious and much needed structural reforms, most especially in the labour market. Labour flexibility means in simple terms that workers are at the disposal of their employers, who can use them in what to the most efficient ways, unrestricted by trade unions, politicians or culture. This can mean as in Britain that a split shift system is employed, so staff are only called in at busy times, times such as early morning or evening when the family needs the working parent most. Therefore in a low productivity society such as Greece it was obvious that it would incur debt problems, as it was paying its workers too much for too little work. Greece needed to be carried kicking and screaming into the modern age. Once Greece had adopted the reforms so desired by the Northern Europeans it’s newly productive workforce would produce the surplus goods for export which would reduce the deficit.

Part of the same story was that as the Greeks were paying themselves too much and as the local economy did not produce enough to satisfy their demand, they turned to buying goods from abroad. This obviously created a trade deficit, and the solution to the problems of debt addicted Greeks was to cut their incomes. Incomes were reduced by cutting average wages, reducing pensions and welfare payment and finally the cruelest measure reducing people’s income to poverty levels through unemployment. This shock treatment was deemed essential to reduce the deficit.

There goes unremarked another story, that a large part of Greece’s debt problems had little to do with Greeks over paying themselves or doing too little work. German and other European banks had huge surpluses of cash and rather than invest those funds in industry with it’s relatively long pay back time, they wanted an alternative that generated quick returns. Only speculative investments in property and other assets can earn the big returns, so the German banks in particular made huge speculative investments in the Greek property market . When the financial bubble burst in 2008/9 these banks had potentially lost millions of euros in foolish property investments. They were saved by the European Central Bank who lent millions of Euros to the Greek government to bail out is stricken banks, who were holding millions of euros of worthless investments. Then through a clever sleight of hand these debts were no longer those of the banks but those of the government, as the European money was given to the banks to bail them out, but it now counted as  a government debt. This made it much easier to portray the Greek problem as that of feckless Greeks and not foolish German bankers.

While it is hard to argue that the austerity imposed on Greece which has caused national income to fall by 25% and increased youth unemployment to 50% has been a success. What matters is how this story is portrayed, which is that if you give the workers too many rights and privileges they will abuse them and the economy will lapse into chaos. This is why it matters that British newspapers print nonsensical stories about young women marrying old men so as to earn an entitlement to a lifetime income. There are many similar stories in the British media about the feckless Greeks, which have convinced the British that the problems of Greece are all its own fault. Greece is a useful horror story to be used by employers and governments when workers claim addition rights and protection against abusive employers. They can claim that when workers get too many right they abuse them and the result is national bankruptcy. If workers are given few rights and protections they must understand it is in their own interest and they won’t use them responsibly. In Britain all three major parties accept this mantra and when the last government  restricted workers access to employment tribunals on the grounds that all these needless appeals against dismissal   were costing the employers millions of pounds, this change was understood as necessary by all three main political parties.

Why a paean of praise for the Greeks, a country with one of the worst performing economies in Europe even before the financial crash? One reason they put a higher valuation on non monetary wealth, workers did retire early but this was symptomatic of a country that valued its people above its output. The patronage system did lead to abuses such as over employment, when too many party loyalists were employed in public sector jobs. Yet for whatever its faults it valued its people, compared to their British counterparts they had security of employment and could look forward to a well paid retirement.

Human society is not a perfectible creation, whatever the society there are always problems. What I am stating is that Greek society for all its faults found one of the answers to the problems that society faces. It was a society that attained a more equitable division between non monetary or material wealth and material wealth.  Greeks because of the unique nature of their society were able to enjoy a much higher standard of non material wealth than their Northern European counterparts. It is perhaps no coincidence that Greece as with the southern European nations family relationships flourish they are the nations of the extended family. Only in the Anglo-Saxon country such as the USA could somebody write a book called “Bowling Alone” a book about the loneliness of contemporary life. In Britain the nation of overwork and underpay family breakup is at record levels, with some estimate suggesting that under current trends 1 in 2 marriages will end in divorce. Countries such as the USA and Britain that put little value on non monetary or non work wealth have some of the most serious problems of social disharmony.

NONSENSE AND THE PRIVATE HOUSING RENTAL MARKET

  

While watching television last night I briefly caught an announcement  by a newscaster about the leader of the opposition’s policy towards the private rental market. Apparently he had announced that his party would if elected, would  impose some modest rent controls in the private rental market. This in the interests of balance was countered by the newscaster saying that this was contrary to the advice of an esteemed economist, who said that such a policy woukd be self defeating as would reduce the supply of rental property. Today on  a politics programme I saw the panel of politicians as a body denounce this policy as being contrary to economic common sense, as everybody knows that if rents are controlled landlords will withdraw from the property market.   Today every politician, journalist and most economists have come to believe that the only role for government is to remove those restrictions that impede the working of the free market, not add restrictions that do the reverse. What the opposition leader had stated was free market heresy, the free market is sacrosanct and nothing should be permitted to interfere with its workings no matter how well meaning. To parody the lines of an old song, it was like the man who turned up to a funeral in brown boots, showing a marked sign of disrespect as everybody knows that only black boots should be worn at a funeral, and he was showing disrespect to the free market.
What really puzzles me is the assumption made by economists that landlords will automatically leave the rental market if they are faced with rent controls.  At present landlords particularly in London because of the shortage of housing can almost charge whatever they want. If any restrictions reduced the present exorbitant rents to a lower but still profitable level, what incentive would landlords have to leave the market? Given the relatively modest levels of profit  in other sectors of the economy, it is unlikely that they would find any other sector of the economy that would offer anything similar in terms of profit.
Implicit in the thinking of the anti rent control politicians and economists is the notion of a landlord’s strike. The assumption is that on the announcement of a policy of rent controls thousands of landlords will exit the private rental market, leaving a shortage of such properties. All these landlords have outgoings, usually quite considerable, particular their mortgage payments. Quite often these payments particularly if the property was bought recently they have high mortgage repayments to finance. It strikes me as strange that these landlords would sacrifice the income they receive from their tenants and risk not being able to make their mortgage repayments in a fit of pique. It seems to make little sense that landlords would sacrifice a substantial income to make a point.
The defenders of the sanctity of the market do not seem to realise that they are portraying landlords as the most despicable of people. They suggest at the merest hint of rent controls they will protest by making thousands homeless by emptying their properties. I cannot think of a better argument against the free market, if landlords are really that cruel and callous they should not be owning that most precious of assets person’s home? How can the defenders of free markets claim moral superiority, when any threat to the possibility of profitability is meet the threat to make thousands homeless?

Gullibility and the economy of fools

Jeremy Bentham is an almost forgotten philosopher today, yet of all the 19th century philosophers he was the most fascinating. He has an extremely logical turn of thought and it caused him to undertake actions that most would find peculiar.  One such action was his insistence on eating his meals back to front, he always had the desert or sweet dish first to be followed by the savoury dish. He argued that it was as logical to have the sweet first, as having it as the second dish, he could see no rational reason for always having the savoury dish first. Economists were influenced by his thinking and they adopted his ideas in their theories of market behaviour. Jeremy Bentham argued that good actions were those that gave the greatest pleasure to the greatest number. Similarly the free market gave the greatest satisfaction to the people as it was in the free market that people could satisfy their wants by determining what was made and sold. However there is one flaw at the heart of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism and free market economics, both assume that the individual is capable of making a rational decision about being what is in their best interests. Our knowledge of human behaviour teaches us that in fact people often make important decisions for the most stupid of reasons. Economists and Jeremy Bentham cannot account for human gullibility and stupidity which undermines the whole accepted free market arguments. 

  

taken from aspirant forum.com

What fascinated me was the medieval obsession with collecting Christian relics. The relics would be held in veneration and became the site of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage was a very profitable business for churches and monasteries, where the relics were displayed, as pilgrims made large donations to these churches and monasteries. The more holy the relic, the more profitable a site of pilgrimage it became. In the spirit of money making pirates employed by the city of Calvi in Italy stole the bones of St. Nicholas from the Turkish town of Myrna, to display in the church in Calvi. This was such a profitable business that monks became involved in forgery to create more and more spectacular relics. One such relic was the Veil of St. Veronica. St. Veronica is supposed to have wiped the face of Christ clear of blood and perspiration on his way to crucifixion at Golgotha. The veil then bore the miraculous imprint of Christ’s face.  This obvious forgery was on display in Rome for hundreds of years. Even today the medieval forgery that is the Turin Shroud is still on display and venerated by pilgrims. This very profitable medieval industry founded largely on fraud and human gullibility stands in contrast to the so called rational consumer of economic theory.

Today human gullibility is the foundation for another large and profitable industry, the trade in the relics and artefacts of celebrity. These items are valued for their proximity to the person of the celebrity, much as were the relics of the medieval saints. Recently a wooden spoon signed by John  Lennon and Yoko Ono was sold for between £600 and £800 at auction. Graceland the last home of Elvis Presley is the object of pilgrimage. Visitors often leave speaking in awe of having experienced something of Elvis Presley’s life, an awestruck experience that would have been similar to that of the medieval pilgrims. 

  

A letter from John Lennon to Phil Spector blaming The Who drummer Keith Moon and singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson for urinating on a console at an LA recording studio is up for auction, with an estimated value of £6,000.
(Read more at http://www.nme.com/photos/the-weirdest-most-expensive-beatles-artifacts-you-can-buy/)

If so many of our acts are a consequence of gullibility or stupidity, the arguments for the primacy of the free market are undermined. If people are capable of spending large sums of money illogically there needs to be a corrective to the free market. Rather than the wisdom of the crowd, it is better to speak of their ‘unwisdom’. Once  their existed that corrective, the government, it was thought that this body had the overview and long term wisdom to make certain decisions better than the individual. Now that belief has disappeared and wherever possible government services are put out to tender in the free market. There is no leading politician that believes that energy supply because of its importance is best supplied by the government. One consequence is that while the former nationalised energy industry was one of the leaders in nuclear energy engineering, the now privatised industry has lost that expertise. The new nuclear power stations will be built by a combination of expertise from French and Chinese engineering firms.

Perhaps it is in public health that the consequences of human gullibility are the most obvious.  The smoking of tobacco was popular when I was a teenager was seen as cool, as exemplified by the advertising phrase the ‘cool taste of menthol tipped cigarettes’.There was complete ignorance of the health risk of smoking, it was only after many years of government action to inform people of the dangers of smoking, that that cigarette consumption dropped. The reverse has happened with alcohol consumption, a market in which all restrictions on its sale and consumption have been dropped. Consumption as a consequence has risen, along with the incidence of cirrhosis of the liver and throat cancers. What is perhaps most distressing is the fact that gullibility has prevented what would have been the elimination of that disease of childhood measles. Many such as myself thought measles as being a minor rate of passage of childhood, not realising that this was an illness that could cause blindness, brain damage and disability. One maverick researcher claimed that he had evidence that the vaccine that prevented measles could  cause autism in children. This research having been published in ‘The Lancet’ caused a moral panic, chiefly through the writings of journalists in nationally read newspapers. Inevitably vaccination rates dropped and measles became yet again a scourge of childhood. Fortunately this panic is largely restricted to the Anglo Saxon world. There have been outbreaks of measles in several British cities bringing disability to an unfortunate minority of children. The same has happened in California, where measles is a threat to the children of the best educated classes, proving gullibility is not the prerogative  of the poor and ill informed. Despite the original research being discredited, the fear of the MMR vaccine remains and children are again threatened by this dangerous illness.

Nietzsche would have enjoyed exposing the naivety of economists and politicians who trust the wisdom of markets. Neither understand the nature of humanity and why their policies for the economy and society are flawed. While this essay may appear misanthropic, that’s not really my aim. What I want is a return to the old belief that there is such a thing as human wisdom and that it should be a guide to public policy making. Instead we have a democracy of fools, one in which only those policies that can be understood by the simplest and most unreasoning of men are adopted. 

Possibly it’s unfair to suggest our politicians are gullible fools, it’s more correct to say that they act as if they are such. The popular press provides an example of this, if you read a tabloid newspaper the impression it gives is that it’s been written by people who left school at the earliest opportunity and with a minimal education. In fact the vast majority of journalists writing in such papers are graduates, often from the elite universities it just that they write as if they were uneducated, as they believe what their readers want are simple uniformed opinions. A training at a tabloid newspaper is highly valued as trainee journalists believe that it teaches them the skills needed to be a good journalist. What is teaches them is how to write a column that appears to have been written by an uneducated person, as that type of column is believed to appeal to the widest readership. Similarly our politics is peopled by graduates from the elite universities who believe that the same patronising approach is required in politics. As one famous film making said money is never lost through underestimating the public taste.

      

What economists will never tell you and what politicians prefer not to know

Gordon Brown when  Chancellor of the Exchequer was responsible for the infamous quote, ‘No return to boom and bust’ and then when the economy went bust in 2008 he had to retract his words. There was even the Stalinist rewriting of history when all references to this quote were removed from the Treasury website. Possibly Gordon Brown is amongst the cleverest of  the Chancellors of the Exchequer that we have had this century, yet he got it all so wrong. 

What his Treasury advisors should have told him was that the trade cycle is an unavoidable feature of capitalist economies and that all politicians can do is ameliorate its worst effects. There are invariably periods of boom followed by bust. A quick glance at history would have shown Gordon Brown the truth of this. In 1990 there was the collapse of the property boom, which bankrupted many property companies and in 1999 there was the collapse of the dot.com bubble. The latter bankrupted GEC which at the time was Britain’s largest electrical engineering company. A bankruptcy caused by paying too much to purchase a series of over valued software businesses. It does seem that with the bust of 2008, these financial crisis’s seem to occur every nine years. Unfortunately the current Chancellor of the Exchequer seems to be demonstrating a similar naivety to his predecssor about the economy. He claims to have put the economy on a sound footing and his preventative measures will prevent a repeat of the crisis of 2008/9. If history repeats itself there will be a financial crisis in 2017, something of which he appears oblivious. 

Why is there this constant misreading of history? One reason is the arrogance of both economists and politicians. Economists having discovered in the free market the equivalent of the economists  philosopher’s stone cannot believe that there are times when the market will fail. If the free market is the best possible of organising economic activity and can’t be bettered, it is foolish to look for non-existent flaws. Any economic crisis is not caused by any dysfunction in the market it is the politicians who fail to implement policy correctly, it’s human not market failure. There are  economists who claim that the financial crash of 2008/9 was not due their lack of regulation in the financial markets failing to rein in  the irresponsible banks but through there being too much regulation of the banking industry. Although economic reality intrudes all too often when the economy takes a down turn, economists prefer to ignore this inconvenient fact.



Peter Cook in a scene from the film ‘The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer’

Economics should not shoulder all the blame for the belief in what can only be best described as a preference for the economics of fairy land. The message has to be doctored to meet the demands of the economist’s political masters. Economists must be on the message politicians only want good news.

The new politics can be best explained by reference to a Peter Cook film, ‘The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer’. In this film Michael Rimmer on becoming PM cuts the defence budget to finance a tax give away. When faced with the disgruntled generals he shows them a film of the marvellous new weapons that he has purchased for the military. The generals immediately praise him for his policies, even when he tells them that the weapons they have seen featured on a film don’t really exist. What matters is what appears to be, given the guarantee of their jobs and incomes the generals are only to happy to acquiesce in the disarming of Britain. All party leaders now have their coterie of ‘spin doctors’, whose job is to make bad appear good. Politics is increasingly coming to resemble the public relations industry and as a consequence policies are never subject to proper scrutiny, as any policy debate within a political party is increasingly seen as an example of disunity. It is one of the many assumed truths that voters don’t like political parties that appear disunited, so politicians will do all they can to avoid appearing disunited, so any of story will do as long as all party members stay on message. 

Not only is this a society in which appearances matter more than the truth, it’s also a society that prefers to avoid unpleasant truths. The economist or politician that disrupted the pleasant complacency by voicing inconvenient truths is vilified and silenced. When Alistair Darling (Chancellor of the Exchequer) in 2007 spoke of an impending financial crisis he found that he was a lone voice speaking the truth. There was no politician or economist who spoke in support of him. Some politicians and economists would have known he spoke the truth, yet all preferred the  pretence of the ’emperor’s new clothes’, that is were willing to keep up the pretence that all was well. Not even opposition politicians spoke in his defence, as they did not to be seen to be going against the preferred wisdom of the times.

What I am saying is that as economists and politicians have abolished the trade cycle, at least in their imaginations, any economic downturn will be the unexpected event that catchesus all by surprise. It should not have happened, it came out of nowhere, was the reaction to the crash of 2008/9.,Famously the Queen asked why no economist correctly predicted the crash. She failed to get any meaningful reply from the collectivity of academic economists, as any truthful response would have meant admitting that all their theorising and policy recommendations were wrong. 

“Untergang der Titanic”, conception by Willy Stöwer, 1912

Can I put it in terms of the Titanic metaphor, would the passengers of that ship wanted to know that it would shortly strike an iceberg, which would cause the ship to sink and most of them to drown? No they would have preferred ignorance, so as to enjoy the last moments of their life without it being spoilt by a knowledge of their impending doom. However what they would have wanted was the captain and crew to have prepared adequate means of evacuating the ship in the case of it sinking, so as the minimise the loss of human life. Economists by ignoring the existence of icebergs (economic downturns) fail to prepare adequately for them and fail minimise their negative effects on society. 


Why are we are where we are today. Some answers from Alfred Marshall, David Ricardo and Charles Dickens

Philosophers define our contemporary society as post modern, but economics remains apart as it belongs to what those philosophers disparaging call the modernist tradition. A science of humanity that believes its analysis and truths are true for all societies and their economies, whereas post modernists believe the truths of economics are only relative, rooted in a particular society at a particular time. Philosophy and other post modern sciences seem to have passed economics by, left it in some historical lay-by. Unlike other human sciences the truths enunciated by Alfred Marshall are held to be valid today as when he first enunciated them in the 19th century. Teachers of economics such as myself taught generations of students Marshall’s theory of the market. They copied us in replicating Marshall scissors diagram of demand and supply not realising that they were doing the same as their 19th century peers. Today after many minor modifications Alfred Marshall’s theory of the market forms the central core of contemporary economics. It is this theory that I shall take as my starting point for my new perspective on economics.

Economists believe that in the free market they have discovered the fairest way of allocating resources, one that can be rivalled nowhere in the efficiency of its distribution mechanism. According to economists this how the market works. All goods and services are sold by price and if consumers want them they are free to buy them. There are no restrictions to the freedom to buy and sell, it’s the key economic freedom. This is the only economic system that maximises consumer satisfaction and gives sovereignty to the consumer. Price is the key factor that enables consumers and suppliers to get the best deal in the market. The market is incredibly flexible as both consumers and suppliers constantly responding and responding again and again to the signals given off by changing prices in the market. The market for smart phones illustrates how the free market works.

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Initially all mobile (or cell phones) were relatively simple devices that allowed users to make phone calls, store a list of contacts and enable the user to send text messages. Further improvements were made to the phones and a revolution occurred in the phone market when Blackberry and Apple introduced their smart phones. Now people wanted smart phones because of all the extra facilities they offered, emailing services, instant messaging (BBM), cameras and the millions of apps on Apple’s and Samsung’s phones. Consumers saw these phones as being so desirable that they were willing to pay up to £400 for them, whereas the best of the old models Blackberry phones had sold for les than £200. The bottom dropped out of the market and simple mobile phones can now be bought for less than £20. Producers reacted by cutting down on their manufacture of these simple phones as there was little profit in making them and increasing their manufacture of up market phones as they were so profitable. Firms such as Apple and Samsung are constantly innovating and improving their phones so they retain their position of market leaders and earn a premium price for their products. This strategy has been so successful that Apple has an income greater than that of many countries. Those companies that can read the market correctly and anticipate consumer demand can make fortune. This is a win win situation as these profitable companies are those companies making what people want.

Nokia the firm that originally dominated the mobile phone market saw sales plummet as consumers did not want its old fashioned phones. It had to cut back on phone set production to match its shrinking share of the market. Declining sales and loss of income would probably forced it to close, if it had not been purchased by Microsoft. The market is a harsh master towards those companies that don’t read the signals correctly. Those signals are simple to read if Nokia was having to cut the prices of its phones it failed to understand the message which was nobody wanted their phones now. Another term for this is consumer sovereignty, the market is the only mechanism which enables manufactures are other producers to keep up with the ever changing needs of the consumer. There are in history many examples of economies that are not run on the free market model collapsing because of the discontent of their people. East Germans living in a communist society were discontented with the limited variety of goods available in their country and once they had the chance they opted to join free market economy of West Germany.

Having demonstrated the superiority of the free market I must now point out the flaws in what seems to be the perfect economy. In fact economists frequently refer to perfect competition, which demonstrates all the perfections of a competitive market, an ideal to which all economies should strive. Unfortunately in real economies there are imperfections in the market which can result in the minimising of consumer satisfaction and sovereignty.

One of the best ways of explaining the fault line that runs through the market is to look back at the work of another nineteenth century economist, David Ricardo, on the price of labour. He distinguishes between two prices paid for labour, the first is the natural price and the second is the exchange or market price. Natural price is that price which is sufficient to cover all the necessities of life, while the exchange price is that paid for labour in the market. Throughout most of the latter part of the twentieth century the exchange price of labour was higher than its natural price. This was an era associated with rising living standards. However increasingly since the early 21st century for many people the exchange price of labour has fallen below its natural price. Increasing numbers of people are classified as the working poor, relying on food banks and social security payments to feed, clothe and house their families. The current debate about the living wage is about the failure of the market to pay increasing numbers of people an income that is equal to their natural wage. Britain as with many other developed European countries is reverting to an older historical pattern in which increasing numbers of people experience poverty and want.

This can be clearly demonstrated by one example. When I was teaching in London in the 1970’s the exchange price paid for my labour exceeded my natural price; I could if I had wished bought a house as did many of my colleagues. Today the exchange price of a teachers salary is so far below its natural price, that it only yields enough income to pay for one room in a shared house.

There is another fault line running through the market and that is that for many the much valued economic freedom does not exist. Free market economists when they use the term effective demand acknowledge this. We may all want to live in an idyllic country cottage in rural Berkshire but only those who have sufficiently large income may do so. However it is not just about pointing out the impossibility of achieving our dreams. There are obstacles in the market that prevent many even making the most minimal of choices. Dominant market players such as landlords abuse their market power. They charge such exorbitant rents that many are only able to afford the poorest of accommodation and the cost of that accommodation may be so high that other choices are denied to the individual. Stories frequently appear in the media about tenants having to choose between a whole variety of necessaries, paying rent, buying food or clothes or paying heating bills. Economists will never admit it but for many the so called freedoms of the market are illusory, in reality the necessity of survival means they have no choice.

What economists and our political leaders educated in the Neo-Liberal tradition need to recognise is that the free market that they worship does not work. What is needed instead is a MODIFIED MARKET a market that delivers all the benefits of the free market but one from which intervention by the state has removed the most pernicious of abuses associated with the free market. If only everybody who participated in the market could earn the natural price for their labour those abuses would disappear. There is no reason why a country as rich as Britain could not achieve this end. After the much poorer Britain of the 1950’s achieved that end.

Readers such as myself of 19th century novelists will realise that destitution was an ever present fear. Charles Dickens due to his father’s mismanagement of the families finances ended up working in a shoe blacking factory, while his father sent to debtors prison. The memory of which haunted the adult Dickens. Unfortunately the circle of history is turning and a run of bad luck could result in many a contemporary Dickens suffering a similar fate.