Tag Archives: George Osborne

The function of the political lie

A new and unusual solution to economic policy making. ‘Wittgensteinian’ Economics.

Recently I have been reading Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein. In reading this book I realised that Wittgenstein’s approach to philosophy opens the possibility of there being a different approach to economics. What Wittgenstein is always criticising philosophers for is there constant search for the one grand theory, the unifying theory that answers all the questions. There was he argued no grand theory and it was pointless looking for one. This is an approach that I believe should be adopted in economics.

There is at present one theory that dominates economic policy making and that is what might be termed free market economics. One small book Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom’ is the origin of all current thinking on economics. Usually today it is known as Neo-liberal economics, an economic philosophy associated with the political right. Although there is a left of centre variant, new Keynesianism. Proponents of the latter claim to have rediscovered in Keynes writings his love for the free market and put to one side Keynes radicalism.

Keynes radicalism was the consequence of his despair at the misguided policy making of the governments of the 1920s and 30s. Usually the policies of the 19th century Parisian commune are ridiculed by economists. One policy that was held up to ridicule was the policy of having the unemployed dig up the paving stones, only to replace them later. The unemployed were paid a wage for this work. Economists saw this as a foolish waste of money that did little to improve the economy. However as Keynes pointed out this created an income for the unemployed and that there spending could help bring a dormant economy back into life.

What this illustrates is that Keynes was asking a different question to that asked by his contemporaries. He was trying to find an answer to the question, how do we bring to an end the misery of mass unemployment? His academic colleagues were asking a different question, how do we restore a dysfunctional economy back to being a fully functioning one that will in the long term work to the benefit all? Different questions have different answers. While Keynes advocated greater government spending to increase the demand for labour to reduce unemployment; they wanted to cut government spending, believing that only a prolonged period of sound finance and balanced budgets could create the strong economy, an economy which would eventually generate new economic growth and so ending the time mass unemployment. All this government could say to the unemployment was to have patience, as eventually the economy would pick up and they would have jobs. Keynes had one answer to this policy and that was in the long run we are all dead. There was also the unspoken assumption that growth generated by Keynes spending policies would be bad growth, whereas the economy eventually moved into the upswing in the trade cycle that this was good growth. A set of unprovable and dubious assumptions

When George Osborne adopted a similar policy in 2010, that of fiscal consolidation, cutting government expenditure and balancing the books, he repeated all the errors of the politicians of the 1920s and 30s. Mass misery, although this time not caused by unemployment, but low wages and the insecure employment of the ‘gig’ economy.

Wittgenstein’s last book was ‘Philosophical Investigations’ crystallised my thinking on economics. Rather than believing that there was one grand unified theory of economics, there are series of economic investigations which belong to one family, as they all bear a familial resemblance. The economy as subject matter is the familial resemblance. He also writes about the grammar of philosophy, which provides the format or structure for ensuring that the correct questions are asked or the correct philosophical investigations undertaken. What is the nature of good is an incorrect question. The correct question is what actions are understood as good. Asking people what is good is silly, as anybody when asked that question could give numerous examples. They understand the concept good, what they don’t need is a philosopher telling them what good means. Philosophers when asking this question brings itself into discredit, as the answer is either I don’t or a definition that lacks application or validity to everyday life.* Politicians are also failing to formulate their questions correctly. What they ask is that asked by the politicians of the 1930s how can we the economy to health. What they should be asking is a series of questions about the economy, such as how can unemployment be reduced, when looking for policy solutions to all these individual problems they will be answering the big question, of how can we restore the economy to good health.

I can give examples to demonstrate my thinking. The British economy has a number of dysfunctions within it, but ones that the Neo-Liberals believe only require the one solution. These dysfunctions are:

• Slow and anaemic economic growth

• The highest trade deficit as a percentage of GDP for a developed country, as a consequence of a shrinking manufacturing industry

• An unbalanced economy, one in which the financial service sectors are booming and manufacturing is in slow relative decline, an economy also unbalanced in that the southeast and London are experiencing high growth and incomes while the other regions experience the reverse

• An economy that is increasingly failing to deliver for increasing numbers of people, who are denied the essentials of a good life, that is fair incomes, secure employment and good housing.

• Income inequality is now approaching those levels last seen in the dismal 1930s

• The economy is increasingly subject to speculative booms and busts in the various asset market, usually such busts originate in the property market

• A country which shares record levels of indebtedness with Japan. The majority of British debt is private sector debt, which an upward shift in interest rates could make unsustainable, as too many households would have difficulty managing their debt repayments

There are other dysfunctions that I could add to the list, however I had to end the list somewhere. Only today Areon Davis (Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the end of the Establishment) has in today’s Guardian newspaper outlined a different set of market dysfunctions, which could result in a repeat of the 2008/9 financial crisis. Yet the Neo-Liberals politicians always resort to the same set of policy options to deal with each of these dysfunctions. They are

• Vary interest rates, either lower or raise them

• Reduce regulation on business, thereby reducing the regulatory role of the state

• Cut taxes and government spending

• Recently they have added a new measure – quantitive easing, that is increasing the supply of money to the banks

What the British economy requires is a different set of policy options for each of these major dysfunctions. Why do these politicians believe that the same policy options should be prescribed for each policy? A doctor prescribes antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection, he would not use them a patient that suffered a cardiac arrest, yet this is exactly what the government does with economic policy making. It’s always the same prescription, whatever the problem.

The economy is a dynamic organisation that is constantly changing and each change in the economy offers new benefits or brings to the fore new problems. There can be no one theory of everything, while Neo-Liberalism offers some policy options suitable for some problems, that is all it can offer. If instead politicians realised that each new problem the economy threw up was asking a new question of them and not just some variant of an old question policy making would improve. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, economics is a series of investigations that ask different questions, each of which requires a different response.

*I am aware that my brief paragraph does an injustice to Wittgenstein’s thinking, as I have taken elements from ‘The Brown and Blue Books’ and ‘Philosophical Investigations’, which are dissimilar books written at different stages in the development of Wittgenstein’s thinking. However to do so suited my purposes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Faustian Bargain that is the British Housing Market

When economic issues are discussed in parliament they are rarely those that matter. Issues that really matter are also almost absent from the media. There are economic issues that are not spoken of in polite society or parliament, One such problem that is continually swept under the carpet is the horrendous balance of payments deficit, the largest of any developed economy. This debt is subject to constant revision so it is hard to give accurate figures, but the for last quarter of this year it reached 7% of GDP. A figure a third of that caused a financial panic in 1967, whereas today far worse figures provoke no reaction.

Gordon Brown when questioned about this problem, said the world had changed and it was no longer a problem. What he meant was the government of the time could fund the enormous trade deficit from the large inflows of cash coming into the UK from abroad. To put it simply we were using the money invested in the UK to pay our debts to the rest of the world. This particular economist thinks that it is very poor policy to remain the perennial debtor nation that relying on the goodwill of others for the means to pay its debts.

The government has to take extraordinary measures to ensure that this money keeps flowing into the country. This is achieved by introducing policy measures to ensure that property prices keep on increasing so making commercial and more particularly residential property prices continue to rise. Falling property prices the week as a result of Brexit caused a panic in government. Action was taken immediately to slow or halt the fall in property prices. The government increased the amount of money banks would have available to lend to the property market. Simply by ensuring that there is plenty of cheap money around to buy property will tempt buyers into the market hoping to pick up bargains, which in turn keeps up property prices

However the government has made what is a Faustian deal with the property market. The deal is quite simple, the government will sacrifice the rights of the young, the low paid and those resident in London to accommodation in return for the massive inflow of cash from foreign investors into the property market. All these investors want is ever rising prices and the government is prepared to acquiesce even if it means denying the young, Londoners access to adequate housing. If large parts of London are subject to significant depopulation due to rising house costs that is acceptable to the government, as the alternative is much worse. The much worst alternative is admitting to the horrendous trade deficit and reducing the import bill through imposing strident cuts in the standard of living for the nation’s people, better to lie and fantasise about the strength of the economy than admit to some painful truths.

One of the most effective ways of pushing up house prices is to reduce the supply of housing relative to demand. This is perhaps the most objectionable part of the Faustian deal, that is deliberately pursuing a policy that will leave millions living in substandard accommodation. Governments no longer build social housing, the once thriving council house building programme has ceased. The consequence is house building has fallen to the low levels ever seen in modern Britain. House building is now left to private developers and the underfunded housing associations. The various right to buy schemes have resulted in the large scale transfer of local authority housing to private landlords. Consequently market power no resides with the private landlord they can constantly increase rents, often charging higher and higher rents for what is increasingly inadequate accommodation. This increasingly profitable private rental sector attracts foreign investors, the people whose money is needed to finance the balance of payments deficit.

Various denial of truth strategies are used by politicians to excuse their inaction in what is an increasingly worsening housing crisis. One of the worse is that if the government intervenes in the private sector it will worsen the crisis. They claim that if the government intervenes by increasing security of tenure or controlling rents, private landlords will leave the market in droves reducing the amount of accommodation available and making many more homeless. This is nonsense as too many landlords have invested too much money to withdraw from the market. Legislation could be introduced to ensure that existing landlords did not withdraw from the market, through the compulsory registration of landlords.

What our political classes are unaware is that Faustus had to pay a high price for the help of Mephistopheles, he had to surrender his soul. Similarly the new Mephistopheles in the guise of international finance requires a high price for its support, the surrender of the integrity of the political classes. To keep the cash following into our economy this new Mephistopheles demands that policy be structured meet to its needs. What it requires are two things the first is constantly rising property prices and the second that in the event of a price crash the government takes measures to stabilise prices, so ensuring that the investors do not suffer too big a hit. The governor of the Bank of England in fulfilling this promise, this week announced a whole series of policy measures to stabilise the property market. The fact that these measures would also protect the house owner  from the threat of increased mortgage costs and possible repossession was only of secondary importance. Even George Osborne (Chancellor) admitted that his new policy to support new house buyers was a measure whose primary importance was to keep up house prices.

What skills does a good economist need?

Humility and the willingness to change their minds

Winston Churchill when speaking of Maynard Keynes (the greatest British economist of the 20th century) said that when four economists are gathered together you will get five opinions and two of them will be from Keynes. What this  illustrates is that what the good economist recognises is that economics is dogged by uncertainty. The economy and its host society is so complex that any unexpected change can result in the policy measures undertaken producing contrary results. When Nigel Lawson in his budgets in the 1980s cut taxes he overstimulated a rapidly growing economy. All that extra money from the tax cuts had no outlet except in for investment in the property market, causing a housing boom that ended in a crash in 1990.  Policy recommendations should be made in the spirit of cautious optimism. With the recognition that policies might need to be changed if circumstances change, as there is no certainty in the practice of economics.

When Mrs Thatcher said, ‘that the lady is not for turning’, she made a terrible mistake. Her policy  of using high interest rates to squeeze inflation out of the economy through depressing demand had the unfortunate consequence of driving the exchange rate. This high exchange rate made large sections of British manufacturing industry uncompetitive. The consequence of this was that British manufacturing industry lost 20% of its capacity, which had the long term consequence of Britain developing the largest trade deficit in the developed world. A problem that still persists today.

A capacity for scepticism

There is no ‘economic cure all’ that can solve all problems, although many economists and politicians foolishly believe that there is such a policy. The latest ‘economic cure all’ is Neo-Liberal economics. In the 1970s the post war economic settlement seemed to be falling apart. In 1976 inflation hit the unheard of high of 27% in Britain. A group of economists the Chicago School claimed to have the answer, they diagnosed the problem as being one of excessive government borrowing to finance its spending programmes. This borrowing increased  demand to a level beyond that which the economy could meet and as supply could not be increased prices rose, as consumers entered into bidding war to get these relatively scarce goods and the consequence was rising inflation. This problem was made worse they said by all the restrictions on the market which prevented industry responding to change by increasing supply to meet increased demand. These restrictions were such as the managed exchange rates, trade unions, employment protection laws and health and safety legislation. If government spending was cut and the restrictions to the market were removed, inflation would fall and the economy would grow ending what was a period of ‘stagflation’. What these economists ignored was the massive increase for the world’s oil etc caused by the American participation in the Vietnam war. There was such a massive expenditure of material in this war that it seriously distorted the world economy.  More bombs were dropped in this short war than during the whole of World War II. When Nixon negotiated an end to the Vietnam War that decision did more than any economic policy measure  to end the malfunctioning of the world economy.

Whether its called the monetarist or the Neo-Liberal economic school of economics, it has failed.There have been three world wide recessions since 1990 each one worse than the previous one. Growth remains minimal, the growth in incomes has stalled yet economists (the majority in the universities and those employed by government and international institutions) and politicians refuse to change their policies. They have invested too much prestige in the Neo-Liberal revolution to abandon it now. A little scepticism about the policies of the present would not come amiss. There are plenty of alternative policies that can be used, it’s only stubbornness and ignorance which prevents them being used.

When politicians and economists state ‘that things have changed’ and that we are in a new economic paradigm, it a sign things are  going badly. It’s a weak defence offered for a policy that is failing and for which no better defence can be thought of. It is the wisdom of parrots as politicians repeat this mantra endlessly without understanding that these phrases are completely meaningless.

A good economist will be well versed in literature, in fact English literature should be an essential part of the course of study undertaken by a trainee economist.

Economics has the potential to be the dullest of subjects. I remember that in the second year of my university course all the second year students had to attend a series of lectures given by one of the world’s greatest monetary economists. They were so boring that students did all kinds of things to distract them from the tedium of the lecture. One particular incident sticks in my mind and that was when a group of bored students launched a giant paper plane from the balcony which soared over the lecture hall.

Literature should be an essential part of the course, because a great novel can better than anything else explain the impact of economic and social change on a people. One of my favourite novels is “The White Guard” by Mikhail Bulgakov. This novel details the impact on one Ukrainian family of the Russian civil war. The play on which the novel was based was Stalin’s favourite play, even although he was on the opposite side of the conflict. The reading of such novels will hopefully lead to the development of some sensitivity towards the human condition in the trainee economist  and hopefully led them when qualified and employed by government to hesitate before recommending policies that cause unnecessary economic and social hardship. One cannot impose a test on economists for the possession of those essential qualities that go to make a wel rounded human being, but hopefully immersion in a course of literature will be a good substitute.

Milton Friedman the Chicago economist provides an example of the extreme insensitivity of which economists are capable. General Pinochet launched a coup to overthrow the socialist government of President Allende. The aftermath of the coup involved the torture and killing of many of those people opposed to the coup. Milton Friedman lauded the actions of Pinochet as necessary for the greater good of society, as the imprisonment and killing of these socialists made possible the introduction to Chile of the free market economy. Only a person of extreme insensitivty would applaud the killing of people as the best means to achieve some ultimate end. I tend to agree with Ivan who at the end of the novel “The Brothers Karamazov” asks God why does he permit the death of a child. (when being shipped of the Labour camps of Siberia he witnesses the pain and a suffering of a woman holding her dead baby). Any economist should ask does my policy proposal cause unnecessary suffering and is there a better alternative that will minimise human suffering. Killing may be necessary in fighting a war but never in imposing economic change on a society.

It may also hopefully prevent economics students suffering from too many dull and boring lectures, as the lecturer will have a better grasp of the English language and human nature than would otherwise be the case.

A good economist will be schooled in philosophy

Any economist must recognise that any policy proposal will be flawed or wrong in some measure. J.S.Mill in the 19th century stated that there could be no science of the humanities because human society was so complex. There were so many possible causes of a particular social or economic event and so many possible unintended effects of a policy measure that the one essential requirement of a science could not be fulfilled and it was impossible to have a science it which it was impossible to demonstrate cause and effect. Mills’ words seem to have been forgotten in the twenty-first century. It is believed that computers that can overcome this problem, as they can make calculations involving thousands if not millions of variables. However what politicians and economists at the world’s Treasuries fail to recognise is that the output of the computer findings are only valid if the calculations on which the predictions are based are valid. What politicians fail to recognise and economist ignore, is that the model of the economy used in the computer does not work, there is something missing. Treasury economists have to insert an ‘x’ factor into the calculations,  a reality factor to enable the computer to deliver a realistic prediction. This x factor is little more than an informed guess. This is why the Treasury computer can only make a correct prediction about economic growth after the event when the necessary corrections can be made to the computer model.

Any student of philosophy learns the limits of human knowledge in the first year of their course. It was a shock to this particular student that philosophy provided few of the answers to the questions that he wanted answering. One such question is what is good, Plato tried to answer this question in this question in his book ‘The Republic’ written in 380 BC and it is a question which philosophers ever since have struggled to answer. Now analytic philosophers tend to think it is an unanswerable question and not one contemporary philosophers should waste time on answering. Instead the quests of past philosophers to understand the nature of the good are to be seen to provide a good schooling in the techniques of philosophy but little else.  Students such as myself had instead to look to theology to provide some answers. The point that I am trying to make is that philosophers understand the frailty of human nature and its limitations. A true philosopher can only laugh at the claims of Neo-Liberal economists who claim to understand the workings of the economy, as the evidence from philosophy demonstrates the continued failure of man to have a complete and full knowledge of  human nature let alone human society. The problem with so many economists today is that although they have studied PPE, they compartmentalise the philosophy they learn and think that its findings do not apply to economics.

Diogenes Laertes in his history of the philosophers recalls how visitors to Democritus frequently  found him laughing in his garden. A thing he frequently did when considering the follies of mankind. If the effects of the wrong economic policies were not so disastrous, I would join Democritus in his laughter.

A good economist is aware of the past and does not think today’s events are unique and without parallel in the past and is prepared to recognise the similarities between today’s events and those of the past.

One extreme example springs to mind, both the governments of the Roman Empire and contemporary Britain regard the provision of cheap food for the people as a priority. Rome was able to supply cheap bread to its people through conquering the countries that were the bread baskets of the Mediterranean and then by  supplying low cost labour for the farms in the form of slaves. Contemporary Britain by contrast encourages the production of cheap food through the provision of subsidies to farmers, one estimate is that now 50% of farmers incomes now comes from EU subsidies. Most of this money goes to towards subsidising what is termed industrial farming, which produces large quantities of food at low cost, but in an environmentally damaging manner. Unfortunately there is evidence that British food suppliers are adopting some of the practices of the Romans. Some of migrant workers on Uk farms  adopted in work in slave like conditions.

What the government could learn from Rome is that using low cost labour methods of production discourages investment and innovation in industry. If there are endless supplies of cheap labour employers see no compellilng reason to invest in expensive machinery, if there are endless supplies of cheap labour. Studies of slave labour have demonstrated how slave labour acted as a deterrent to industrial innovation. A government and business class that believes the only solution to problems in the economy is to make labour as cheap as possible have a lot to learn from the slave economies of the past.

While the one lessons that can be learnt from Rome’s history are negative, much that is positive can be learnt from the actions of the government in the 1930s. This government tried to stimulate an economic recovery after the devastating crash that was the Great Depression. The government then recognised the importance of getting new investment into manufacturing industry so as to kickstart a recovery. Recognising that the banks were unwilling to do this, it set up an industrial investment bank which would lend money to manufacturing industry. Today one of the issues that is delaying the recovery is the comparative lack of investment in industry and manufacturing industry in particular. A recent study showed that only 15% of bank loans went to investment in industry most when into speculative trading in property etc.  There is nothing to be lost and much to be gained by setting up a new industrial investment bank and it could be financed through a levy on commercial banks, as happened in the 1930s.

This list of criteria for judging what is a good economist is not intended to be exhaustive but suggestive.

Why are our leaders so stupid?

What puzzles me is why are people such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson so popular. The first advocates the policies of a clown and the second pretends to be a clown to achieve political success.

When I was at school in the 1950s I remember being told about Columbus’s voyage to America. The Headmistress told us that it was a particularly daring adventure, as people at the time believed the world was flat and thought that Columbus was in danger of falling off the edge of the world. The  truth was very different as I discovered later. Columbus was an experienced sailor who knew about the fishing grounds off North America that European sailors visited each year that the Atlantic Ocean was bounded by a large landmass to the West. Also it was known at this time that the earth was round. The classical Greeks had realised that the earth was round because they knew there was a horizon, beyond which the eye could not see, therefore  the earth surface must be curved.If was the geographer Eratosthenes (276BC to 195/4 BC)  who calculated with an incredible degree of accuracy the earth’s circumference. It is highly unlikely that Columbus was unaware of that the earth was round. My teacher was typical of those of the time that believed that people of the past had a childlike understanding of the world, whereas in fact the opposite was true.

We assume today that our knowledge and understanding is superior to that of the past. Yet our politicians constantly disapprove this notion. In the USA Donald Trump is likely to become the Republican Party’s candidate for the Presidency and Boris Johnson possible future Conservative Party leader What both these leading politicians have in common is an anti-intellectualism, both of them in their campaigns seek to  appeal to most primeval of voters instincts. Trump blames the Mexicans for crime and wants to erect a wall to keep them out, and Johnson believes that Obama’s part Kenyan ancestry makes him anti British, because of the injustices the British inflicted on Kenyans during the days of Empire. To say that both these politicians are intelligent men who are just using anti immigrant and anti foreigner feeling to win support and that they don’t really believe what they are saying does these two men a disservice, they believe what they are saying. They are both populists who believe in simple solutions to difficult and complex problems, both of them personify the  anti-intellectualism which is dominant in the our society. The political dialogue in both countries is dominated by the anti-intellectualism of those such as the Tea Party whose policies are moving closer to the mainstream in both countries. UKIP a party that gets much media coverage seems to be campaigning for things such as ending the smoking ban in pubs. Sam Goldwyn once  said a movie never lost money for underestimating the intelligence of the average cinema goer, now in politics the belief is that no politician ever fails for underestimating the intelligence of the average voter. There is a change in society that has made stupid politics the dominant strand. Possibility it is linked to Walter Benjamin’s insight (when writing about the cinema) that contemporary media  leaves little time or scope for reflection, as the media image is all involving leaving no opportunity for distancing necessary for reflecting on the projected image.

If I was to compare contemporary England with medieval England, I would say that the former is technically sophisticated but intellectually unsophisticated. This is not to say that there are not a community of intellectuals whose thinking is far superior to that of those of the medieval era, but these people are excluded from the public debate, which is dominated by the advocates of stupid politics. Obviously Trump and Johnson are not stupid men, they just find a politics of idiocy the most effective means of self promotion. What is most disturbing is that these men intend to pursue the policies they advocate, without regard to the damage caused to society through the introduction of their simplistic policies.

As an economist I can see the dangers of practising stupid politics. Britain has endured years of austerity because the government believes in a nonsense called ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, that is cutting government expenditure will increase growth. Despite this policy having no economic credibility the opposition’s chief economics spokesman, a man who had a top class degree in economics from Oxbridge immediately signed up to the policy. Knowing it was fallacious economics made no difference, he did not want to appear out of step in with all the others who were practising stupid politics. Bonhoeffer said that the success of the Nazi’s was due to fact that good people did not speak up, similarly stupid politics is prevailing because the intelligent do not speak up. In England it is the noise and abuse made by the practitioners of stupid politics that scares of the intelligent when we most need them.

Intelligent women for example are put of entering the English Parliament because of the sexist behaviour in the bear pit that is the House of Commons. When female opposition MPs speak, male MPs on the government benches often  make crude sexual gestures with their hands and shout sexist abuse. Also any show of intelligence is likely to get a politician pilloried in the tabloid press as a geek, as happened to the last leader of the opposition. Anti-intellectualism is rife in the English political culture and it’s preventing intelligent government.

What really provoked me into writing this article was a tweet by the illusionist Derren Brown, in which he referenced a You Tube in which two evangelical preachers explain why it is necessary for them to own private executive jets. One says it is so he can get some quiet time in which to talk to God, as he would be unable to do that on a flight with other passengers who would disturb him. Christ when he wanted a quiet place for meditation found a quiet spot in a garden or in the countryside, surely these two men could have done the same. These two men are Christian literalists they believe that the bible is the word of God and that all should to obey the word of God as explained in the bible. These two Christian literalists are following a practice condemned as being wrong as far back s the early Middle Ages. St. Augustine in his book on Christian teaching explained that the bible should not be taken literally, the word of the bible required explanation by the Christian teacher. Following St. Augustine’s advice all medieval bibles contained commentaries on the page side by side with the biblical text. These commentaries were there for the preacher to help him explain the text to the people. What these evangelical preachers are doing is practising a type of Christianity that even the least educated of medieval priests would have recognised as wrong. If these men had been medieval clerics they would have been relegated to some obscure rural parish where they could have done little harm. Yet these men are seen as representative of true Christian belief, religion seems to mirror the practice of stupid politics.

This simplistic religious view of the world that divides the world up into good and bad guys is very influential. George Bush’s crusade against the evil of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is representative of good versus bad guy politics. Isis and other Islamic fundamentalist groups embody the same good bad guy philosophy. A philosophy that justifies the cruel treatment of all unbelievers whether they be Christian, Yazidi or Shia Muslim, as they are already condemned by God for rejecting the true religion and as such are wordless people. One of the main targets for Islamic fundamentalists are the Sufi Muslims who practice a more sophisticated and humane religion. The simplistic belief of the fundamentalists contrasts unfavourably with the sophisticated Islam of the medieval  period as demonstrated in the poetry of the Rumi  (1207-73) or the philosophy of Averroes (1126-1198). Christian thinkers owed much to these men, Francis of Assisi’s thinking was greatly influenced by the poetry of Rumi. Depressingly anti-intellectualism is not only a feature of Western politics but also in the politics of much of the Muslim world.

There are many sophisticated and intelligent clerics today but they do not get a hearing in today, because their speech is too subtle and nuanced for a world that wants simple truths. Rowan Williams the very intellectual former Archbishop of Canterbury was pilloried in the press as a bearded weirdy. They were not interested in the message from an educated Christian, for them Christianity is that of the simple minded fundamentalists.

There is no doubt that the public appetite is for stupid thinking, there is a wanting for people offering a few simple homespun truths that they claim will solve the world’s ills. Does not the constant diet of super hero films coming out of Hollywood demonstrate that something is very wrong in our culture? Hollywood appears to have opted out of making adult films, as it has correctly judged that the audience for its films want simple child like stories. The only hope is that the world particularly the Western world will tire of simple childlike stories and politics. When politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson get chance to put into practice their childlike policy solutions and those policies prove to be a resounding failure, the pendulum will surely swing in favour of a more grown up politics.

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.

Stupid, Stupid Economics

  

Whenever I open the paper I read yet another article that makes me despair of the competence of our politicians in managing our affairs. The latest example occurred when I read that our Chancellor of the Exchequer was going to fund the increase in spending on the National Health Service (NHS) by ending grants given to student nurses to fund their training and instead make them fund their own training by forcing them to take out loans. It does appear on the surface as a reasonable policy as it means it can transfer the £800 million pounds spent on grants to und extra health service spending. However in both parliament and the media this went unquestioned as all accepted his reasoning. However the logic of his actions was nonsensical as any enquiry would have shown.
First of all that £800 million is not going to be taken from nurses training to fund extra NHS, he is in fact increasing overall spending by a further £800 million. The money that would have gone to fund these grants will now instead be paid to the loans company to enable them to lend the money to student nurses to fund their training. Nurse training takes several years and these nurses will not start paying back these loans until some time in the future. Then when they do start to repay them, repayments will only total a small proportion of the total. Sleight of hand and some imaginative book keeping will make it appear that the Chancellor has kept within his budgetary limits on NHS spending when in fact he has done the reverse. When Disraeli said that there are ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ he could have been speaking of the practices of contemporary Western governments as when such stupid economic practises are commonplace. 
The British media is fond of reporting on the nonsense spoken by some of the more extreme of the Republican candidates for the American Presidency but in the words of the Bible, they have pointed out the splinter in their neighbour’s eye, while ignoring the beam in their own eye. Just because British politicians speak in an educated voice, one developed in years of tutoring at elite schools and universities, it does not mean that they are not incapable of speaking nonsense equal to that spoken by Donald Trump. Their education is one of manner not intellect.
Just last Sunday I had to travel 20 miles to collect my daughter from a railway station. The train service that should have come to her home station, terminated at this distant station. When I arrived at the station there were hundreds perhaps even a thousand people queuing in the cold night waiting for a replacement bus to take them to their destination. This is no unusual occurrence as every train traveller has similar stories, in Britain we have come to accept that on Sunday’s and public holidays our railways cease to work. In this case it was said to be a signal failure, when in effect it either routine maintenance work or essential upgrading work that had gone wrong. In Britain the convention is never tell the people the truth.
Perhaps this is yet another good example of stupid economics. British railways to the user provide what at its best is an adequate service, which all too often is mediocre or occasionally awful. Yet our elected politicians see the privatised railways as a success story. What they see is increased numbers travelling by rail as demonstrating the successful of privatisation. Failing to see that this is due the flight from the cities caused by high housing costs forcing millions to live distant from their place of work. These millions then have no alternative but to use the train to get to work. No matter how many complaints about the inadequate service, such as thousands being forced to travel at peak times in conditions worse than those in which livestock are transported, all politicians know the railways are a success story. They just know that railways run by private enterprise are superior to those run by the state, now matter how bad the service appears to customers. Politicians see their role as that of the PR division of the railway companies whose role is to deflect complaints about poor service by convincing rail users that they are not receiving a poor but the best possible service. As with so many evangelical salesman they tell people that their patience and will be rewarded with a place in railway heaven. 

Why is Stupid Economics so prevalent
The question must be asked why is stupid economics so widely practised. There are several possible answers. One must be the education that our leaders received, nearly all studied philosophy at an elite university. There they would have been taught that we live in a post modern age and what were assumed to be economic truths, were only the truths of a former age, that of mass production. Truths such as those that said a universal welfare and health system can be provided out of taxation are the ephemera of another age and have no place in today’s society. Post modernism teaches that truth is relative to a particular historical period and the truths of one age have no place in another time. The truth of post modernism is Neo-Liberalism and the associated in the virtue of the free markets. It is said that this is no longer an age of great truths, whereas it is an age that no longer believes in the big or great government. It is the age of the small state, the unregulated market and unrestricted freedom. The Treasury has even rewritten economic theory to reverse one of the truths of the modern age which is that government spending increases the level of economic activity, now it is claimed to do the reverse. Post Modernism teaches that what you believe is true is true, it’s what in former times was called relativism. Therefore stupid economics must prevail there are no economic truths, there are no grounds from which to crisis erupted the practise of stupidity..

There is one other answer that comes from the education our leaders received at their elite universities. Nearly all studied politics of which a part is a study of voting behaviour. This teaches that people respond not to policies but to emotion and feeling. Therefore rational policy making is less important that engaging with people’s feelings and emotions. As they are so distant from the people that they cannot gauge what the people are thinking from the press and other intermediaries. All to often they equate the headlines in the tabloid press with popular feeling. (Such headlines may coincide with popular emotions and feelings but not necessarily so), what they are seeing in these papers are what a number of university educated journalists believe is the popular feeling. They are looking at a mirror which reflects their contempt for the people, a people incapable of thought. Such contempt is a bad foundation of which o make policy.

One other factor is the decline in the great institutions that make up the democratic state. Parliament is seen less as the great assembly in which to make one’s reputation, than as a pathway to a profitable career in consultancy or to a directorship in a newly privatised industries. 
  
What these leaders would never understand that there can be a place for nonsense as opposed to stupidity in economic policy making. The former is a practise which contributes to the well being of the country, while the latter is just stupid as does no one any good. A good example of nonsense economics comes from the Second World War. People were urged to contribute their aluminium pots and pans to the war effort to provide the material for constructing Spitfires. In fact the amounts collected could never have helped build more than one Spitfire. Government economists used this policy as a ploy to convince people that they were contributing to the war effort and helping beat the enemy. It was nothing more than a morale boosting exercise, but it was a very effective one, as it made the householder believe than by sacrificing one pan they were helping to beat Hitler. I fear this good practise of nonsense economics is beyond the wit of our contemporary leaders. They prefer to practise the dumb economics of the herd think. 

Bad Economics and bad politicians, why the West is heading for yet another financial crisis

When I read any accounts of the debates conducted by the Republican candidates for the role of President, I am filled with despair. They all demonstrate astounding degrees of economic illiteracy, a tendency all too common demonstrated by politicians this side of the Atlantic ocean. The only economic topic deemed worthy of debate here is how to reduce the government debt. Economic illiteracy rules out the obvious solutions such as reversing the trend to reduce the tax take from the super rich and business corporations, as one conservative politician said increasing tax on the rich is immortal. Instead in one of the richest countries in the world there are constantly circulating in the media stories about how this poor country cannot afford to provide for the welfare of its citizens.

Economic illiteracy also prevents politicians in Britain discussing the more serious deficits that is those of the private sector and the banking sector, which are x2 and x5 greater than the government deficit. Only a self denying ordinance based on nonsensical theories about economics could possibly explain this strange politics.

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Ronald Regan image taken from the internet

America provides a good example of nonsense economics. Before George Bush Snr. was chosen as Vice President by Ronald Regan he described his economics as ‘voodoo economics’. What Ronald Regan was proposing was to cut federal taxes, spending on environmental and welfare programmes while increasing spending on defence and military aid to friendly states. Ronald Regan also said while doing these he would cut the government deficit. What his advisors had failed to understand was that defence spending was one of the great sources of ‘pork barrel’ politics. Many Congressmen and Senators had large defence industries in their states and what they wanted was massively increased spending on defence. The voodoo or nonsense was that while they paid lip service to cutting government spending, they constantly voted for the opposite. Under the presidency of Ronald Regan the government deficit spiralled upwards and none of the constant hand wringing over the problem did any good. It was not until the Presidency of Bill Clinton and the introduction of more economically literate policies that the budget deficit declined.

It is a truism but economic good sense is always rejected by politicians if it goes against their long held prejudices. Unfortunately British politics as with American politics is dominated by nonsense economics. One of the most common foolish prejudices is that if its not hurting its not working. This is a very selective hurting as the hurt about which British politicians enthuse is the hurt that they inflict on the poor and those on middle incomes. Great efforts are made to ensure the pain is not registered by the better off, who benefit from tax handouts or tax cuts to protect their income.

Hubris a neglected economic concept

While some economics is nonsense there are significant truths in the body of economics that politicians ignore at their peril. The temptation for any politician is to rewrite economics according to their own prejudices and personal beliefs. They can achieve this because the economy has constantly grown since the beginning of the century (apart from a few downs) and they can claim that this growth is a result of their policies. It is extremely hard to disprove such claims as the economy is such a vast complex mechanism and it is extremely difficult to distinguish cause and effect. Once in an economics seminar I and my fellow students argued for over an hour whether or not it was possible to identify the effects of a particular economic policy as by the time it began to take effect the economy had changed and it could not be known to what extent the improvement in the economy could be down to a particular policy measure or a change in the economy. The smartest of politicians took advantage of this uncertainty to rewrite economics according to their own personal preferences, as it was extremely hard to produce evidence to prove or disprove their theory. They were aided by a certain complacent belief amongst economists that the economy was self sustaining and that even the worst of economic policies would only have a small negative impact on the economy. In addition there is the Lysenko factor, that is many economists are only to willing to rewrite their economics in deference to the wishes of their employers, as that the way to preferment and prestigious academic positions.

Once politicians realised economics could be bent and reshaped according to their own personal whim, they began to treat economists as propagandists and not advisors. Economists became a servant of their political masters to be used and abused as they pleased. Whatever the failings of particular economists they are nothing as compared to that of the politicians. The arrogance of politicians is such that they are unaware of the dangers of the policies they practise. The classical Greeks had a word for this hubris, that is when ambition led men to overreach themselves. Greek tragedies featured a hero in conflict with his fate and often the Gods. In tragedy of Orestes it is foretold that Orestes will kill his father and marry his mother, yet in spite of this he continues on his path to his tragic fate, when after realising that he has killed his father and married his mother he is despair puts out his eyes. In the UK we have a number of Orestes that manage our public affairs, who as with him are blind to their fate, despite the warnings of economic soothsayers blindly commit themselves to a policy that will lead their nation into disaster. If they cared to look beyond the hermetically sealed world of Westminster they might realise that there are dangers out there of which they are ignorant.

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The chorus from Orestia

Recently I read that the British government pledged £1.2 trillion of monies to support the banks in the crisis of 2008/9. The significance of that figure is that it was almost the same in total as the country’s national income. In other words the government was willing to pledge the whole of the nation’s income to bail out its banks. Fortunately the bank creditors were sufficiently satisfied with this pledge not to demand it be honoured, it is very unlikely this pledge won’t be cashed in during the next crisis. Our politicians being supremely self confident don’t realise that they have put in place a process that will lead to the destitution of the UK.

The cause of the next disaster will be the over extended British and Western European banks. At the root of this crisis is what is termed Fiat money, money that is no more than a promise to pay. Our banks can create money by making an entry in their computer records and the only limit to their powers of credit creation or money making is what they think is reasonable. What the banks believe is reasonable is what others may term unreasonable. In 2008 the banks backed their loans or bank money with cash reserves of 2% so for every £100 of bank money they created they only had £2. In the event of a crisis the banks quickly ran out of money to pay their customers who wanted their money back and a run on the banks and a collapse of the world financial system was only avoided by the prompt intervention of governments.

Our arrogant political class has learnt nothing from the crisis of 2008/9 and foolishly believe that by manipulating the money supply and interest rates they have beaten one crisis and have the tools to beat the next. Only the foolishly arrogant could believe this as all indicators show the economies of the West are desperately weak. Interest rates (that charged by the Bank of England on loans to banks) for example cannot be increased from there historically low levels of 0.5%, without fear of that increase sparking a major recession. The complacent politicians have even encouraged the governor of the Bank of England to announce that they see no reason why our ‘financially sound’ banks should not be allowed to increase their assets to total x9 our national income (GDP). Those assets will largely be loans or bank money, which has no value other than that given to it by the banks. Already with the slow down in China there is evidence that the new recession is starting, given the arrogant blindness of our political leaders they will be helpless to prevent a rapid spiralling downwards of economic activity as they have not the policy tools at hand to prevent it.

Can I finish this essay with another metaphor, that of the ship of fools. This was a popular subject for art in the medieval world and these pictures showed a boat crewed by all the political leaders of the time, kings, great lords and Popes, often this ship was shown heading to disaster on the rocks pictured in the background of the painting. The current ship of fools is driving Western society on to the rocks of yet another economic disaster and it is their arrogance that prevents them from seeing that their world is being put in peril from there foolish misdirections.

Words of advice from a sceptical economist to any aspiring politician

No politician has requested my advice but as so many people particularly journalists proffer uninvited advice, I feel free to offer my own. Sceptics have a special duty to offer advice as they stand apart from the common run of intellectuals who are always promoting their own ideologies and schemes, as we offer a warning as to the traps into which a politician can fall.

Any politician when entering the great Houses of Parliament or the chambers of the other legislatures will be in awe of the senior practitioners of the craft of politics who display a mastery of the chamber. This mastery only extends as far as the boundaries of the legislature. In Britain it is acknowledged that George Osborne (Chancellor of the Exchequer) is the master of the house, he dominates debates and sets the agenda for policy making. However this does not mean that this mastery is any more than a dominance of the members of the house,he like many masters of the politic art achieves his dominance through his avoidance of any of the intractable problems that face the country. The palace politics of Westminster and other chambers is dominated by series Ozymandias who pretend to a control of events that they in reality lack.

Ozymandias image taken from blogspot
Ozymandias image taken from blogspot

The sceptic’s duty is to remind the politician that they don’t know and not to be taken in by the many Ozymandias that dominate parliament, who show their ignorance. Greek sceptics such as Sextus Empiricus were the philosophers who claimed that the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle and Zeno were unsound and did not embody the universal truths their adherents claimed. Rather than trust to a new unproven truth of a philosopher they recommended that the people stick to the tried and tested ways of their ancestors. A contemporary sceptic such as myself would amend the original sceptic philosophy to say that all philosophies and ideologies while not containing within themselves the ‘big answer’ to life and society’s problems, do contain many partial and useful truths. It is the task of the sceptic to suggest methods by which the few partial small truths can be disinterred from the big lies contained within political ideologies and philosophies.

Sextus Empiricus Greek philosopher of scepticism a source of inspiration to the author
Sextus Empiricus Greek philosopher of scepticism a source of inspiration to the author

If the Neo-Liberal or free market philosophy that dominates political discourse really contained the big truth and not the big lie, Neo-Liberal Britain would be a prosperous and happy nation. Instead it is a nation in which there is much social division, great income inequality and much poverty. One ill is the dysfunctional housing market, a market which is making London uninhabitable for middle and low income families. Yet even within this malign philosophy there are valuable truths, which can guide good policy making. One truth is that the government cannot fine tune a complex mechanism such as the market to achieve such ends as full employment without there being adverse consequences, such as increasing inflation pressures in the economy. The big lie of Neo-Liberalism is that because the markets are so complex and incapable of being fully understood by politicians they are best left unregulated, which can result in powerful market players abusing their power to the detriment of others. Powerful players such as the landlord who can exploit their monopoly of the housing stock to force tenants to pay exorbitant rents that can equal half of the tenants income. It is the role of the politician to choose a middle position between over intervention and non-intervention to deliver legislation and policy changes that benefit the community as whole.

In today reform obsessed society it is easier to identity problems with any existing government policy or public service organisation and even easier to suggest reforms. However these reforms are unproven and are usually rushed into operation without any real consideration of their impact on society. What appears to be broken and dysfunctional may be less broken than the reformers suggest and often delivers a better service than the organisation that exists after their reforms.

Perhaps the example of the private finance market most clearly demonstrates this point. The banks and members of the financial services complained that the restrictions under which they operated in the 1950s and 60s hampered them when competing with their international rivals. What the banks complained of bitterly was the way in which the government restricted their ability to create credit (money) , the government would compel banks to limit their mortgage lending to avoid an inflationary increase in house prices. They complained that their foreign rivals were not subject to such restrictions and were able to take business that would have otherwise been that of the British banks, although there was little evidence of this happening then. A more telling example could be found in the Stock Exchange, there was an individual called ‘the government broker’,who dealt exclusively in the buying and selling of government stocks. In the morning he dealt with customers on the phone and in the afternoon he donned a top hat and morning suit and went to the stock exchange were he would conduct government business from his stand. Bankers and other financiers looked at the American financial market with its corporate giants and wanted the same freedom to practise free of regulation. In 1986 the government obliged and removed all restrictions on the financial markets in the so called ‘big bang’. Businesses merged and grew and new mega giants came to dominate the financial world. However this legislative free-for-all had a down side, with no restraints on bad behaviour either legislative or cultural the worst happened. One consequence was one financial crash after another. Lloyds Insurance market which was once the byword in financial probity crashed because of the reckless and sometimes fraudulent behaviour it’s the underwriters. Seemingly sound banks got into trouble over reckless speculation, one of the first to go was National Westminster which lost billions on foolish American purchases. It was only saved by being purchased by the Royal Bank of Scotland. Then there were the series of bank failures in the crash of 2008/9, in which the banks were only saved from collapse by government money and guarantees totalling about 10% of GDP.

What appeared in 1986 to be a cosy gentleman’s club was in fact an efficient financial system that worked, it only fault was that it did not enable its members to earn the mega bucks of the American investment bankers. This market had evolved since the 18th century from coffee houses and financial exchanges and developed a series of working practices that protected and benefitted the customers of the financial sector. The relatively small size of the members of the market meant that the collapse of one did not equate to a financial catastrophe, as it did not as today bring down with it with it the other over indebted giants of the market. When a series of fringe banks crashed in 1973, they were easily absorbed by the larger banks and their customers suffered no real loss. The separation in the Stock Exchange of the role of broker and stock jobber had prevented the manipulation of shares to the detriment of the customer. Now with the merger of the two roles there is frequent evidence of insider trading and share manipulation by the banks which are to the detriment of the customer. There was the infamous Goldman Sachs case in which company emails revealed that the bank had sold ‘crap’ shares to their customers, whose sale benefitted only the Goldman Sachs traders. The overnight scrapping of the old established practices in 1986 which ensured the probity and soundness of the financial markets, created a market in which the reverse is true and which is prone to sudden and catastrophic breakdowns. A market which is so dysfunctional that it can only continue to exist through the continued explicit and implicit guarantees of government support which will compensate all in the event of a crash.

As a sceptic I am tempted to say that all reform is misguided, but that is wrong as society is constantly changing as governments have to adapt policy to changed circumstances. What I as a sceptic say is wrong is the belief that only ‘big bang’ reforms or those starting from ‘ground zero’ assumptions are wrong, it is the nature of reform that is wrong not reform or change itself.

Only if a politician understands the character of the reformer will they be able to judge the value of any proposed reform. All reformers are either ‘missionaries’ or ‘salesmen’ which is why such bad judges of the reforms they suggest. Once that is understood many proposed reforms can be seen as unsound, as they self interested proposals that only benefit the ‘missionary’ who have their sense of being the prophet that saves society from itself confirmed or the salesman who gets a cash benefit from the successful promotion of a reform.

The reforming Neo-Liberal economists are missionaries, they are on a mission to save society. These missionaries will always claim adopting their methods will result in some desired end. In the 1960s they were campaigning for an end to government policies that ensured full employment, they argued that allowing unemployment to increase to its natural level would reduce inflation. In the 1970s they argued for an end to the managed exchange rate system which they claimed would lead to an ending of international financial crises (history soon demonstrated the fallacy of this claim). Then in the 1980s that introducing the free market into the public services would reduce their cost and improve their effectiveness (as a rail user I and many others would dispute this claim). I compare them to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claim that only by adopting your religion will you get to heaven, the Jehovah Witnesses among the political reformers claim that only by adopting their practice and method will the best of all possible societies be attained. What they also have in common is that both their claims are faith and not evidence based.

The best example of the salesman type of reformer are the financiers of the City of London who argued successfully for the removal of all restrictions from the financial services. They as with the successful salesman gained an increase in income from the sale of their ideas. Obviously salesman are most frequent type amongst the financiers who recommend the privatisation of various government services. These financiers will gain from the consultancy fees from advising on the sale of a public service or as in the case of Royal Mail from handling the resale of its assets. (The financial advisors were guaranteed a proportion of shares in the newly privatised Royal Mail at a price they suggested. They were then able to sell the shares they had acquired at a much higher price making a large profit.)

From the viewpoint of this sceptical economist all proposers of reform should be regarded with extreme scepticism. Those reforms proposed by the missionary or the salesman are particularly suspect.The motives of any reformer should be treated with scepticism as it is more than likely the proposed reform includes a strong element of self interest.

One final word of advice the reforms that a politician proposes to introduce will inevitably be wrong, in that it will disadvantage one group in society. The role of the politician is to choose the least wrong of all possible options, the one that will wreak the least damage on society. Hopefully the reform may even produce more benefits than injuries, although recent policy measures in Britain have tended to damage rather than mend the social fabric.

‘And you thought the economy was safe in their hands’

One of the dominant  issues of this election campaign is the fitness of the contending leaders to manage the economy. Quite rightly people complain of this being a boring election campaign, as the big issues that concern us are largely ignored. Given the superficial nature of the campaign what is never mentioned is the incompetence politicians of all parties have demonstrated when managing the economy. Although my essay is about the UK, the issue of economic mismanagement is a characteristic of all governments of the Western world, there are no politicians of the calibre of Franklin Roosevelt or George Marshall. Instead we have a Rand Paul, David Cameron and Angela Merkel none  of whom have an understanding of the current economic crisis. 

When I was a teenager the recurrent problem was the balance of payments deficit, there were continuing runs on the pound sterling and the government was constantly having to change  policy to deal with this problem. Now I am in my sixties the problem of the recurrent trade deficit seems to have disappeared, sterling crises are now a thing of the past, although in fact nothing is further from the truth. In the last quarter a balance of payment deficits was recorded that equalled 6% of GDP, whereas in the 1960’s the deficit averaged 0.2% of GDP. Now the deficit is 30 times greater there is no problem! When a senior politician was questioned about this he said ‘times have changed’ and having the largest (in percentage terms) trade deficit in the Western world no longer mattered. Has the world really changed that much or was the senior politician being hopeless naive about the problems of the current trade deficit?
  
Any reference to an economic textbook will appear to explain this miracle. Today we live in a world economy with freely floating exchange rates. If a country is in deficit the value of its currency will fall (currency traders mark down what they see as weak currencies) making its exporters cheaper and its imports more expensive, so its exports will increase and its imports decrease until the balance of payments is once again in surplus. However this automatic self regulating mechanism has not worked in the case of the UK, as the trade deficit has continued to grow. At one stage the pound sterling had fallen 20% below its 2008 peak and yet the trade deficit continued to grow. Despite the failure of this automatic stabiliser and the growing trade deficit there was no sterling crisis. Foreigners did not clamour to sell devalued pounds on the foreign exchange markets. In fact the growing trade deficit coincided with a increase in the value of the pound sterling.
How has the UK got away with running the world’s largest trade deficit?

Politicians would claim it due to their superior  economic management that there have been no crisis to resemble those of the 1960’s or that of 1976. Whereas in reality they have ignored the growing problem that could provoke a crisis greater than that of 1976. 
The UK is at the heart of the world’s financial system and as such it is able to use the foreign currency deposited here to finance its trade deficit. Quite simply the UK is recycling the foreign currency it receives to pay the country’s debts. One economist has quite rightly called it a ‘ponzi scheme’, as to pay our way the UK has to attract an increasing amount of foreign currency  to finance its ever growing trade deficit. If the flow of funds ever slowed down or stopped the UK would be in serious trouble. This is one reason why all governments have made it their priority to ensure that the city of London remains the chief financial centre in Europe. Their greatest fear, if they would have the courage to admit it, is that Frankfurt might come to rival London as a financial centre which would undermine  their current economic strategy.
What are the politicians doing?

Nothing would be one answer, but the truth is that they actively pursuing policies that make the situation worse. Instead of taking on the really difficult task of eliminating the trade deficit, they are promoting the British ‘ponzi’ scheme. Politicians realise that they must continue to keep the funds flowing into London, if they are to avoid being forced into making the difficult decisions that would make them unpopular. Gordon Brown when Chancellor of the Exchequer went out of his way to attract foreign funds to London. He introduced the ‘light touch regulation’ which made London an attractive destination for those foreign depositors that wanted a safe haven for their money, but one from which they could easily withdraw it when needed. Yet it also made London at the same time the world’s largest tax haven. It should be explained that the so called tax havens of the Caribbean and the Channel Islands are only nominally the countries where the offshore money is banked. What they really are accounts held in London but spuriously named as accounts held in Bermuda etc. Consequently London has not only become the home for legitimate investors but also the place which at one remove is the destination for the world’s illegitimate funds. 
  

City of London (Wikipedia)

British governments have a long record in aiding the world’s undesirables. When the European Union (EU) proposed stringent measures to control money laundering in banks, Britain opposed the measure and succeeded in preventing their introduction. 
George Osborne the current Chancellor has been working hard to persuade the Chinese to allow London to become the official foreign exchange centre for the trading of the Chinese renmibi. If he succeeds there will be all those renmibi’s deposited in London that could be used to pay for our imports from China. 
Why is this policy so foolish?
Obviously any policy that depends on the rest of the world depositing ever increasing amounts of their money with us is foolish. There will inevitably be other financial centres developing that attract the world’s funds, London cannot for ever be the world’s number 1. Foreign investors are not  the foolish suckers that are  attracted to ponzi schemes, they can read the market as well us any London banker. It has been forgotten that in 1990 one astute fund manager (George Soros) almost bankrupted the UK with his astute speculation in the foreign currency markets. The UK will be the recipient of the world’s funds as long as it suits the rest of the world, but that won’t be forever. Unfortunately the government and all the leading politicians have never considered this possibility and prepared for that eventuality.
The UK being the world’s foremost banker is very susceptible to changes in the world’s currency markets. Any large outflow of funds would be catastrophic for the following reason. London borrows short and lends long, what this means is that money that is deposited in London on short term notice is then loaned out  for longer periods time. At the height of the property boom 80% of the  bank’s loans were made to the property market. Not only is it difficult to get money back quickly which has been invested in bricks and mortar, but the value of those loans is subject to market volatility fall rapidly in  a crisis. The prices in the British property market are subject to a speculative surge that can easily reverse itself. In consequence not only will the banks have trouble repaying those loans, but the value of those loans will have decreased, making it impossible for the banks to repay their foreign depositors. To repay these loans the banks would have to rely upon the Bank of England drawing on its foreign currency reserves to bail them out. History demonstrates that those reserves can soon be exhausted and in such a scenario the UK would need the largest loan in the IMF’s history.

Mark Carney (Governor of the Bank of England) has imposed reforms on the banks making them hold greater reserves to fund a run on them in a  crisis. However it has been suggested that in a crisis of the type that occurred in 2008/9 these measures would be inadequate.
Perhaps the worse consequence of this policy is that the government will be tempted to implement more and more foolish policy measures in a desperate attempt to attract more and more funds to this country. This is why the UK is always the one country no matter which party is in power to oppose any meaningful reforms of the worlds financial markets, as they are terrified of any change that might reduce the flow of foreign funds to London.