Tag Archives: J.M.Keynes

Why the economic crash of 2008 will not be the last such financial crash.

As an economist I know of several explanations of why economies experience sudden and unexpected down turns, the usual explanation is the bursting of a credit bubble as happened in 2008. These downturns or crashes are always claimed by our political leaders to be unpredictable events, once in a life time happenings, even an ‘act of God’. Even when as in 2008 when the crash was caused by both human folly and greed. This misunderstanding is only possible because politicians have never understood the economics associated with John Maynard Keynes. He stated that economies are inherently unstable and these sudden and unexpected collapses in economic activity are part of of natural economic cycle. Unfortunately politicians act as if the good times will continue forever, a dangerous self delusion.

Although an economist by education, I am a philosopher by interest. Unlike Keynes I want use the techniques employed by the Greek philosopher Plato to explain the instability of the economy. He used myth to explain those aspects of reality that were not easily given to rational explanation, myth could make understandable, what reason could not easily explain. Perhaps the myth of the cave is the best known. A myth he uses to explain the ignorance of mankind as to the true nature of reality. He says imagine mankind as a group of individuals chained up in a cave. These chains prevent them moving and force them to look in one way only forwards.. In front of these men is a wall behind which is a fire. Now behind that wall images of things are passed backwards and forwards, so all the chained men see is a series shadows, which they take to be reality. Mankind for Plato could only see the world of appearances, which obscured the true nature of reality. However as I’m a 21st century economist who does not believe in myth, I will use metaphor as a substitute for myth.

The economy can be seen as a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces seem to fit together to form a picture,. It’s seems to be composed of a series of interlocking pieces that fit together to form an integrated whole. However closer inspection of the puzzle reveals that the pieces do not fit easily together. There are gaps between the pieces they don’t easily fit together. Now if the tray on which the pieces are resting is moved, the puzzle immediately begins to lose shape and the picture eventually disappears from sight. The economy can be seen as a badly formed jigsaw puzzle that is likely to falling apart at any disturbance. Politicians ignorant of economics constantly make foolish decisions, that disturb and disrupt the economic policy. Occasionally they make disastrous decisions that cause the economic puzzle to fall apart,

There have been in our recent history a series of such foolish policy making from our political leaders. The most common fallacious policy is to promote speculative boom in either the property or stock markets as the main driver of economic activity. It is the fools gold of a policy. If economic growth is dependent on a constant inflation in house and property prices, there will be a time when market confidence fails and asset prices collapse and with it the economy. Unfortunately this simple understanding of the economy is beyond the political classes. Politicians seem predisposed to believe that everything in the garden is rosy and nothing bad will occur. A recognition of the fragility on which economic well being is based is too disturbing and unsettling to be accepted as a truth by our blindly optimist politicians.

The jigsaw metaphor can be used to explain how policies should be made to fix an economy, once a downturn has occurred. The broken puzzle can be put together through decisive political action and the economy rebuilt. There might have to be some reshaping of the pieces to make them fit together better, so making the economy more resilient to future shocks. Obviously the one piece that needs to be reshaped is the property and financial markets. Action needs to be taken to limit the activity of speculators in each. This action is a system credit controls and taxation that chokes off any foolish speculative activities. Unfortunately the politicians seem to believe that remaking the economy is an impossible task. What they prefer is the maladroit tinkering that is called Neo-Liberalism or leaving the market to fix itself. This is akin to asking these malformed pieces that remake up the economic puzzle in their own image. As a consequence the speculative economy that caused the collapse of 2008, has been rebuilt by the dominant players in the market, bankers and financiers with minimal interference from the government.

I must confess to one failing which is typical of all economists, I find it much easier to explain why economies go wrong than why they go right. My jigsaw metaphor cannot explain why the economy is subject to exuberant and unexpected periods of rapid economic growth. Perhaps if economists such as I could explain this economic fact, the economy would be in a better position than it is now.

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Why our times desperately need the economics of optimism

Economics can be categorised and divided in a number of ways, but one the most fundamental divisions in economics is between that of the economics of optimism and that pessimism. Quite simply the first tells you how to do things and the second why should not attempt to do things. The former is the economics of change, the latter is the economics of no change. Usually the first is associated with left of centre politics and the latter with right of centre politics. Possibly the best example of the latter is the current policy of austerity practised by the Conservative government. They can say no too many desirable things such as more spending of health care on the grounds that there is no extra money to finance such spending. In the words of the Prime Minister Mrs May,  there is no ‘money tree’. They prioritise sound finance over other social goods. In contrast the social democrats or socialists would ask the question, how can we raise more money to finance increased spending on health.

Usually the economics of pessimism holds sway in economics, so I will explain that first. One of the earliest exponents of this school was the clergyman Thomas Malthus. The originator of the theory of diminishing returns. He stated quite simply that there was a finite quantity of productive resources and if the population increased indefinitely the same quantity of wealth would be divided between more and more people and so each successive generation would have less than the previous. There was he believed a  saviour which prevented the mass impoverishment of all, a natural system of checks and balances that kept the population numbers in check. These were disease, famine and war.

Today’s economists of pessimism believe that there is a similar limit on to the good things in life and for the sake of the well being of society the poor must be denied a fair share of these good thins. There is just not enough to go around.  Far better that wealth is restricted to the deserving few, the wealth creators, without whom we would all go hungry. These are the billionaires that the popular right wing novelist  Ayn Rand lauds in her books. Wealth is the just reward for their zeal and enterprise. She does not deny that the masses deserve some share of the  wealth. However all they are entitled to are the ‘crumbs’ that fall from the rich man’s table. What these economists call the trickle down theory.

In the simple story told by Ayn Rand, if the super rich were prevented from enjoying their obscene wealth, they would cease in their work of wealth creation. In one of her books she describes how the billionaires disappear from society and go into hiding. Without their enterprise societies collapse and thousands of the poor starve to death. Only when the billionaires cease their strike do things return to normal and the surviving poor are now able to benefit from that minimal income that the generous billionaires think they deserve.

There is interestingly another strand to this economics of pessimism, traditional Catholicism of the Catholic ultras. This although a Christian philosophy of life and economics, is in practical terms is little different from that of Ayn Rand. Mankind they believe is corrupted by original sin and human society is but a corruption construction made by sinful man. Any attempt to reform or improve this damned and corrupt society is doomed to failure. Only God has the power and knowledge to create the good society, or heaven on earth. Any attempts to redistribute are income doomed to failure by the very nature of this dysfunctional society. They are likely to have the unintended consequence of making things worse for all as increased taxes to will add to the costs of production so making businesses inefficient so reducing output making all poorer.  All that is permissible is individual acts of kindness or charity. In a corrupted society inequality is inevitable, as are the vast inequalities of wealth and income. Changing or improving a society of people damned with original sin is impossible and should not be attempted.

Although the economics of pessimism has usually been the dominant mode of economics, there was a brief period during the 1950s and 60s, when the reverse is true. Usually this philosophy is associated with J.M.Keynes, but there were others such as Michael Polanyi. Briefly economic practice was directed to making and preserving the good society or the welfare state. Economic policy making was intended to  five combat what William Beveridge defined as the “Giant Evils” in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. Perhaps for the first time in its history the economy was directed in a manner which benefited the majority of people rather than the lucky minority.

Then when the economic crisis of the 1970s hit the Western economies it was easy for the economists of pessimism, to demonstrate that the crisis was caused by the profligate spending urged on governments by the economists of optimism.   Since then the pessimists have prevailed.

Now when faced with a crisis in Western economies, economies that fail to generate sufficient employment and income to meet the needs of their people, government policy can be summed up as either ‘can’t do’ or ‘won’t do’. As the governments have shown little interest in the welfare of their peoples, populist movements have developed. Movements that threaten governments with their ideology of economic pessimism. European right wing populist movements with the exception of the British, are threatening to intervene in the economy to protect and maximise the welfare of the people. If governments persist with their policies of ‘can’t and won’t do’, they will be replaced by those that can. What the populists of both the right and the left espouse is an economics of optimism or more simply the economics of ‘can do’. While some doubts must be expressed about the politics of the populists, what they do believe is that governments need an activist economic strategy. If the National Rally of Marie Le Pen ever attain power they will find that they need to intervene in business to protect the welfare of the people of France. Employment protection measures will be re-introduced, employers will find it impossible to pay less than a living  wage. Taxes will be increased on business to finance health and social care. Policies that are normally associated with the left. Societies may become less free and more intolerant but people will accept that if it means a better standard of living. What is forgotten is that the popularity of Hitler in Germany came improving the material well being of the German people. In return they tolerated the cruelties and barbarism of the Nazis.

The Dead Economist’s Society*

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.