Tag Archives: good economics

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. 

The Musings of a Bad Economist

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While studying economics in the 1960’s, I always had the feeling that something was missing from the subject I studied. It was not just the absence of left thinkers amongst economists, I had the nagging feeling that there was a lack of a fundamental something. In a subject that is essentially about people there seemed to be a complete absence of the people factor. I was a bad economist who failed to grasp that in essence people were just another unit of production and their humanity did not entitle them to any special privileges. Only a ‘good economist’ (of which I am not one) could understand that the free market represents the epitome of human organisation in the economic affairs. Alternative such as the mixed economy, the planned economy have all failed and it is only the free market that can maximise wealth and human happiness.

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Bad economists such as myself always fail to see the bigger picture, we focus on the misery suffered by individuals as a result of economic change, failing to realise that this misery is the necessary price to be paid for changes that benefit society as a whole. We focus on the suffering caused to people by the changes that have accompanied the introduction of the deregulated and flexible labour market; ignoring the benefit to employers who now have the power to adjust the hours their staff work to fit in with the needs of business. All supermarkets now benefit from the split shift system. Formerly they had to employ staff for fixed hour shifts, so they could end up with having too many shop floor staff in slack periods. Now they can send staff home during the slack periods and recall them for a second shift during a busier part of the day. Then there is the beauty of zero hour contracts, where employers can call staff in when they need them and they can include an ‘exclusivity’ clause which means that the employee cannot take on any other work when not required by their employer, meaning they are always available for work. Being able to treat people as if they where just another resource such as a machine which can be switched on and off when needed, enables employers to maximise their profits. Good economists see the necessity of relieving the workforce of their humanity, as sick and maternity leave do little more than disrupt the productive process.

There was recently a Question Time programme on radio where an employer and ‘good economist’ lauded workers in an American factory where the workers had agreed to incremental increases in the hours they worked (without compensatory wage increases), so that in the end all staff were working ten hours a day for six days a week. They had the good sense to realise that trivialities such as the right to a family life, were merely impediments that prevented the achievement of the greater good, that is the increased profitability of the business. That in turn meant that the owners would not feel compelled to relocate their business to a country where wages were lower, accepting inhuman working conditions were a price worth paying for keeping your job.

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Income inequality is a subject that I constantly fail to understood. The ‘good economist’ sees widening income inequality as an unqualified good. Today company directors pay is about 128 times greater than the average wage of their employees, whereas in the 1980’s it was a ratio of 1 to 35. An economist would explain to an ‘economic dimwit’ such as myself, that the high pay for company executives was a necessary reward for talent. They could point to the recent example of the Co-op, where business consultants decided that the going market rate for a CEO was £3.5 million per annum. If the boss of the lowly Co-op supermarket chain can command that salary, obviously the boss of a giant bank such as HBSC deserves a much higher salary. By paying astronomically high salaries we would attract the best people to run our companies. We would all gain from the high growth that these companies would experience. The fact that I as an individual don’t seem to have benefitted from this upsurge in prosperity is that I am one of the unskilled apathetic who don’t deserve a wage increase.

Perhaps the doyen of free market economists or ‘good economists’ was the Chicago economist Milton Friedman. He understood why President Pinochet’s government on seizing power had to lock up and kill many of their political opponents. It was necessary for attainment of a greater good the introduction of a free market economy. These opponents, many of whom were trade unionists, would have opposed the free market reforms that the government intended to introduce. He could see that in the greater scheme of things, the death of a few trade unionists meant little compared to the increase in wealth for all from that came the introduction of the free market economy. There are right greater than the right to life, if you are the wrong kind of person. Death was merely one way of marginalising opponents of the free market.

When the reforms failed to deliver the promised wealth for all, it was pointed out by economists that it was the fault of individuals not the system. The talented and hard working had become rich, while those lacking the true entrepreneurial spirit remained mired in poverty. It should not be expected that economy should provide for those lacking in skill or drive.

I confess to be an economic slower who would want to reserve all the changes in the labour market, that have led to Britain becoming the low wage capital of Europe. It was not so long ago that a Korean company opened a factory in Wales because wages were lower there than in Korea. To reverse these changes I would introduce tougher wage regulation imposing a minimum wage never the ‘living wage’ and ensure that it was enforced. At present it is left to the goodwill of employers to pay the minimum wage. Since its introduction there have been no prosecutions of employers who flout this law. Job insecurity which imposes untold misery on millions I would reduce by re-introducing the job protection measures removed by successive governments since 1979.

A ‘good economist’ would see this as folly, he would gently take me aside and tell me that my proposals would work to the detriment of the labour force. They would point out that Ian Duncan Smith’s reforms that have reduced many to living in poverty are in reality a good thing, it is misguided individuals such as myself that misunderstand their purpose. Before the advent of Ian Duncan Smith far too many individuals were mired in the dependency culture. They had become individuals with no purpose in life other than to collect state benefits on which to subsist. These apathetic, aimless creatures spread misery, neglecting their houses and letting them and their neighbourhoods deteriorate too such an extent that they resemble Victorian slum areas. Reducing their benefits to a level less than on which it is necessary to subsist means they will be forced to find work. Once in work they will learn the pleasures of a life independent of benefits and they will gain immeasurably in self respect. Pushing these people into a poverty enforced misery will make them change their ways, it will eventually create a race of sturdy self reliant individuals.

Such a person would tell me that I misunderstand the benefit of low wages, it gives the worker the incentive to work harder. They also would say that what is wrong with the low paid worker having to have two or three jobs to make ends meet. It teaches them that nothing comes to them unless they work for it. They are incentivised through poverty level wages to work for self improvement. We need to instil into the workforce the work ethic that would be the most effective driver for prosperity. A living wage would have the reverse effect, it would mean that the lazy and incompetent would get the same wage as hard working and clever. This would be self defeating as the costs of production would be pushed up through having to over pay poor workers, thereby increasing prices, reducing sales, followed by staff lay offs. The poor need to be motivated by fear, they are a different in nature from the talented company directors who need high pay to be incentivised to perform at their best. They are a totally different type of being that responds better to rewards than fear.

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As a bad economist I have this nagging feeling, I do not see after having thirty years of the free market that it has delivered on the promises made by its advocates. Certainly a small elite group have done excessively well out of the reforms, but what of the majority. Incomes for the majority have in real terms remained stagnant since 2003. House prices are spiralling out of control to such an extent the trend to home ownership has gone into reverse. Surveys suggest that the sense of national well being peaked in the mid 1970’s, not in the free market noughties. Is it possible that the benefits of the free market economy are merely illusory? In Stalin’s Russia of the 1930’s one five year plan after another was produced, always promising that at the end of each plan the communist nirvana would be achieved. All that happened was that nirvana seemed to recede further and further into the distance, somewhat like George Osborne’s plans. He promised remove the structural deficit by 2015, now its 2018, whereas in 2017 it will be put back to 2020 and so it will continue. Can I suggest that instead that a change of direction in government policy, one that takes account of the hesitations of bad economists such as myself. Bad economists prefer to look at the world as it is, not try to make it conform to some imaginary model.