Politicians have constantly complaining about economists, usually for not giving them the answers they want. Only recently Michael Gove a leading Brexit campaigner complained that the people were fed up with experts. What he was complaining about was the fact that economists who had previously supported the government weren’t making the upbeat predictions about Brexit that he expected. The loss of these expert cheer leaders must have been galling.
Michael Gove is typical of many politicians in their misunderstanding of economics. While throughout the course of his political career economists tended to speak with one voice, that of the Neo-Liberal free marketers. Free market economists of the Chicago school dominated the universities and the professions and maverick economists were marginalised or silenced. Economics Journals now refused to print articles that did not fit in with the mainstream view. Only by exposing free market economics could academics hope for preferment in their profession. However that did not mean that economics had completely lost their integrity, all economists still believe that their subject is an evidenced based one. Surprising to the Brexiteers these economists could not agree that leaving the largest and most prosperous free market in the world was a good idea. Only the most ideological and extreme of economists could believe in the Brexit fantasy.
What economics has lost is it’s robustness. Although economists have as a profession tended to be of the right and free marketers, they have in the past accepted that there is a space in their subject for alternative voices. Unfortunately in the 1980s these alternative voices were suppressed. Their books disappeared from the university curriculum. Now these alternative voices are needed as the government seems to have emptied the basket of free market policy measures and needs an alternative approach to policy making. If only government ministers and their civil servants were familiar with the writings of the non free market minority of economists of the past they would not be short of policy alternatives.
One such past economist is Michael Polanyi. Michael Polanyi argued that the unregulated free market was the worst possible of economic systems. What he suggested was that the state could be better at second guessing what people wanted, than did the market. In a free market the rich and powerful have undue influence over how the goods and services that the economy produces are distributed amongst the people. Not only could they claim the lions share of the wealth, but they could also deny the majority a fair share of the nations wealth. The health care system in the USA provides an example of his thinking. There the well off can have access to the best health care in the world, but also deny access to adequate health care for the less well off majority. Health care in the USA is run by for profit health care providers. The poor have the most health problems but they are the least able to pay for treatment. Since the provision of health care to the less well off is a loss making service, it is not provided. The poor and less well off instead have to rely upon the health care provided by those hospitals run by charitable institutions. These institutions are poorly funded and cannot provide the best of care. Michael Polanyi would argue that health care is a universal good, as all have a right to good health care only a state run health care service can provide health care for all.
When only one voice is heard the result is bad policy making. Michael Polanyi has long since been forgotten and the government only gets policy advice from free marketers of the school of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. (However today’s politicians are ignorant of the latter’s seminal work ‘Monetary theory and the Trade Cycle’. A book which if they read, they would realise that he would regard their current policy of quantitive easing and low interest rates as wrong headed.) Now all too often government policy has been that of trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Every government embarks on a new policy to make health care more market efficient, each reform costs billions, yet is considered as necessary by each new government. Never does any health minister ever stop to think that their policy might be wrong and that there are alternatives to remaking the NHS into a faux free market, by continually dividing and re-dividing health service care providers into competing groups of buyers and sellers. Never do they consider that each new bureaucratic structure they impose on the NHS, is yet another costly diversion of resources away from front line services.
What economists know but politicians do not is that evidence demonstrates that a health service run by health care professionals is more cost efficient that its for profit alternative. For example health care professionals might adopt some wasteful practices such as the over ordering of medicines, but this is less costly than its alternative. If this over ordering is to be eliminated a new and expensive bureaucracy of stock controllers, accountants and financial controllers is required to take over the purchasing and distribution of medicines. The cost of these bureaucrats far exceeds the cost of any over ordering of medicines. In the well managed private hospitals of the USA administrative costs account for 40% of the costs of running the business. Unfortunately in the U.K. the government with its various reforms is trying to divert an increasing share of the health care budget to these financial controllers in the name of cost efficiency.
Although Michael Polanyi was once was a well known economist, he is now virtually unknown. Contemporary economists are overwhelming free market economists and little is published that is contrary to their consensus view. What is now needed is a ‘Dead Economists’ society. A society that will popularise the policy prescriptions of these long dead and forgotten economists. There are a number that I can recall such as Michael Polanyi, J.K.Galbraith, Piero Staffa and John Maynard Keynes. If politicians were familiar with Friedrich Hayek’s work other than his short populist text, ‘The Return to Serfdom’, they would realise that he would have been critical of much their ill thought out policy making. There are numerous economists who have written about solutions to many of the now problems of facing the U.K. economy, but ignorance of them means they are never considered. What politicians want are the simple easy to under policies of the type offered by the free marketers, they have little patience with good economic practice, as it can be difficult to understand and ones that do not provide the simple answers that make good headlines in the popular press. Donald Trump is not a maverick politician contrary to the mainstream, but rather the exemplar of a mainstream politician that has little time for the different reality that is the real economy.
What adds urgency to my writing is an article published by the Institute for Public Policy Research that the Bank of England which states that the government is ill prepared for the next recession. They have exhausted all the possibilities that can derived from expanding the money supply, through a policy of quantitive easing and low interest rates. What they state is that the government’s policy cupboard is bare and they now lack the anti recessionary policies to deal with any future economic downturn.
* I don’t wish to claim originality for my title. It is one that I have borrowed and adapted from Larry Ridener’s website, Dead Sociologists Society, one which I used to good effect during my teaching career.