Tag Archives: London

There is an alternative – moral economics and economists

Economists see the free market economy as the end point of social evolution. Industrialisation and the market economy are but inevitable stages in the development of society. Sophisticated developed societies are market economies. They are the high point of social evolution, a belief best demonstrated in Francis Fukuyama’s claim that history ended with the development of liberal democracy. All these democracies were of course free markets. Human freedom has reached it’s zenith in the free market. (Milton Friedman even thought the killing and imprisonment of thousands in Pinochet’s Chile, as a price worth paying for the restoration of human and economic freedoms.)

This triumphalism of the market economists is a recent phenomenon. In the period after the second world war and as a consequence of the Great Depression, free market economists were a small discredited minority. Instead economists such as Karl Polanyi, Nicholas Kaldor and John Maynard Keynes who supported the state management of the economy were those held in the highest regard. However with the economic crisis of the 1970s, these economists fell out of favour to be replaced by the free market economists, who persuaded governments institute the new era of neo-liberalism.

Karl Polanyi is now one of those unfashionable economists that is now being studied again after the collapse of the market economy. What makes him so different from the free market economists is that he did not believe that free markets were a product of social evolution. He sees the economy as part of an integral part of a network of social institutions. Changes in the economy were a consequence of changes in wider society and changes in the economy in its turn changed the society in which it was located.

Polanyi traces the origins on the free market industrial society of today to Tudor society. The old military aristocracy was losing power to a new rising class comprised of small landowners and the merchants in the towns and cities. It was the demands of these two groups that kick started the social and economic change that led to industrialisation and development of the free market. Landowners wanted the rural peasantry off the land, so they could introduce new and more profitable farming methods. This was enclosure of common lands. Legislation made it almost impossible for the poor ‘inefficient’ peasant farmers to continue to farm the land. They could not afford the costs of enclosing their farmland. . The great merchants in the cities wanted the end of the guild system, which they believed restricted their ability to make money. Guilds imposed regulatory controls on their members, which the great merchants believed placed unfair restrictions on their ability to trade. These two groups were over represented in parliament. Also the great merchants (Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell) were the source of loans for a government that was always short of money. Consequently the government introduced measures to help both groups.

Once example was the vagrancy laws which could be used to control the landless peasantry. Landless peasants without work and no support within the community could be whipped and driven out of the community, so relieving the landowners of the obligation to support them. E.P. Thompson about the Black Laws introduced in the 18th century) which further disempowered the working poor. These acts introduced capital punishment for offences such as trespass or for destroying a farm gates. These had the effect speeding up the exodus of peasants from the land. Formerly the rural peasantry could collect fallen branches from the woods, now this was illegal. Similarly poaching as means of supplementing a poor diet was now a hanging offence. This created a new class of landless proletariat who would supply the labour for the new industries that were developing in the towns and cities.

This breaking of the link between the poor and the land, created the flexible and mobile workforce that the new industries would need. Obviously there were other important factors that facilitated the industrial revolution such as advances in technology.

If I understand Polanyi correctly the free market and industrialisation, were accidental changes following on from a power grab by the landowning and merchant classes.

Social and economic change produced a new ideology, that of capitalism. In the new social environment, people thought differently. What now ensured societies well being was Adam Smiths ‘invisible hand’ of the free market. Now the price system would be responsible for distribution of wealth, and consequent responsibility for people’s well-being. Poverty now was not deserving of amelioration, it was a consequence of a personal failings. However even Adam Smith was shocked at the brutal way the new capitalists were treating there employees in Glasgow. However the moral coda that he inserted at the end of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ stating that employers owed a duty of care to there employees was ignored. Capitalist ideology dehumanised society, people and land were now valued according to their utility. They were now things, society was commodified, people and land were things that were bought. Valued only according to their usefulness. This was according to Weber the process of disenchantment. What today has become known as financialisation. Society was an inhuman affair in which people only had value in their functionality.

Perhaps the best illustration of the new way of thinking is represented in the writings of those twentieth century economic historians who wrote that the introduction of the Factory Acts were responsible for the slowing of economic growth in the 19th century, as the money that should have been reinvested in the business was instead spent on wages or improving the welfare of the workers. This was the cause of Britain’s relatively poor economic performance compared to foreign rivals. There spokesman was the liberal MP John Bright who argued that the country’s continued prosperity was dependent on the continued exploitation of children in the Mills. An attitude that still prevalent today. During the 2015 election campaign Ed Milliband was criticised by a member of the audience for not understanding that the success of his business depended on his continued ability to continuation of that exploitation of his workers through the zero hours system. Some employers certainly in the medieval period treated their workers equally badly, but they did not boast of the fact, or claim that their behaviour had moral sanction from the nations code of ethics. Then the prevailing Christian code of ethics would have condemned such behaviour. The stocks were often occupied by tradesmen who had cheated there customers. Whatever the failings of the Middle Ages a different and anti capitalist ethics prevailed.

Polanyi writes that the unregulated free market is a threat to social order. The example he uses to demonstrate this is the Speenhamland system which was introduced in the late 18th century. Until industrialisation there was a thriving cottage based textile trade. With the introduction of new technology and the growth of the factory system, these people faced impoverishment. Trade was lost to the new mills taken and payment for whatever they produced was reduced to the price paid for such products by mills. In France the impoverished peasants together with the urban proletariat provided the foot soldiers that made revolution possible. This was avoided in Britain, because the poor could apply to the parish for relief. They never became as desperate as the working poor in France. The parish money enabled these workers to remain in their homes and provided them with sufficient money to satisfy there family’ basic needs. Unlike their French counterparts desperation did not drive them to revolution. There were no equivalence in England of the Chateau burnings of France.

One writer rightly describes Polanyi as a moral economist. All new economics students in the U.K. are taught that moral preoccupations have no place in the study and practice of economics. It is a science different in nature from ethics. Even today economists and writers prefer Polanyi without the moral dimension. Threats to the social order posed by the economy are said to bring forth a reaction, societies develop protective measures that seek to minimise the disruptive effects of the free market. Anybody who has read ‘The Great Transformation’ cannot fail to note his suppressed anger when he describes the impact of the Great Depression on people in Europe.

Polanyi is important today not just because he offers an alternative vision of economics and society; but because he was one of that great generation of economists, who persuaded governments that a new way of managing the economy was possible. A way that would prevent a recurrence of both the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Unfortunately a later generation of economists have persuaded governments to abandon the policies of these economists and revert to the failed economic policies of the 1920s.

One last point Polanyi makes and that is that the market based price system is only a recent historical development. Only in the last two to three hundred years have households satisfied a majority of there needs by exchanging money for goods and services in the market. Prior to take the market only provided a minimum of a households needs. There is no reason why the price system and free market will always be the means by which goods and services are distributed. When the managing director of the IMF warns of another Great Depression, all that can be certain is that the free market so beloved of the Neo-Liberals will disappear.

A Letter to Donald

Dear Donald

This short letter is my attempt to try to come to try to answer the question who is the real Donald, why does he behave as he does and why are you such a threat to the continued existence of liberal democracy. It is my attempt to come to terms with the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. If you met me you would notice a distinct difference in our manner. I am a man who  values modesty in conversation and behaviour. In short I am one of those Englishmen who overuses the world sorry, so I guess you can see why I find your behaviours so hard to understand. Not only that but I am also a liberal so we are so different in manner and our politics.

Although your personality is one steeped in anger, I think your anger comes from a fear of modernity. The world that you knew as a child, the America of the white heterosexual males is now being challenged, Now instead of the television presenter is less likely to be an Ed Sullivan, than a lesbian woman such as Ellen DeGeneres or a woman of colour such Oprah Winfrey. This is becoming an increasingly unfamiliar world to you in which you are not sure of your place in it. Formerly you would have been lauded for being a billionaire and having a much younger and beautiful wife, now many doubt the value of your achievements. This must be confusing to you, their must  be times when it seems that you are adrift in a hostile world. One reaction only is possible for you to this fearful world and that is anger, an anger which is so often caricatured by others as a snarl.

Unlike you I welcome the ‘differenceness’ of modernity, something I first encountered in a trip to Scandinavia in 1966. A difference demonstrated in the design of there housing and the beauty of their cities and towns, a beauty lacking in Britain. Other and later trips to Europe instilled in me an enthusiasm for the different. In 1970 I went to France where I had my first taste of French coffee, it was love at first taste. Until then coffee was instant coffee, either Nescafe or Maxwell House. A harsh tasting drink that you drank to keep you alert and buzzing. This French coffee tasted nice, it had flavour you enjoyed, coffee drinking now became an unalloyed pleasure. Getting to know other cultures and taking from them what I enjoyed has enriched my life.

New York as with London where I taught has become an increasingly cultural melting pot with an increasing diverse ethnic mix of peoples. While the integration of new ethnic groups could present problems of which as a teacher I was well aware. They also brought their cultures with them. Some saw these cultures as alien and a threat to the host society. Yet these cultures embodied a whole new range of cultural experiences that enriched the host culture. One such obvious enrichment was the West Indian carnival in Notting Hill. A diverse open society is a creative society and London at present is the leading cultural centre in Europe. The constant making and remaking of London culture that is the consequence of having to adapt and absorb new cultures is  a source of the creativity that makes London a leading culture centre. However with Brexit the open and welcoming culture of London will be lost as new ethnic groups and their cultures are increasingly excluded from Britain. What is likely to replace it is a cultural resistant to change and closed to new ideas?  In fact many of our new right politicians would welcome this, a London that increasingly resembled one of those dull provincial towns or cities that characterised Britain in the 1950s.

Although you regard Muslims as that most alien of the other, my experience of them is entirely different. I have encountered them as students and friends.   Coming into contact with them made me realise that there was another exciting culture and life to get to know. I have read the poetry of the Sufi master Rumi. No doubt you are familiar with the life of St. Francis of Assisi, but what you don’t know is that this greatest of Christian saints regarded Rumi as a spiritual master. This intermingling of European and Islamic culture has been of benefit to both societies throughout the millennia. The classics of Greek philosophy might have been lost if they had not been preserved in the translations of the Arab philosophers. Unlike you when coming into contact with a new culture, my reaction is not to reject it as something alien and foreign; instead I want to explore it, to learn from it. I have a friend who as you do rejects muslim culture as being alien and benighted, yet even he enjoys the poetry of Omar Khayyam.

What is frightening about your anger and that of your fellow believers of the right is that you have the power to turn back those aspects of modernity that you despise?  This is why you want to make abortion illegal. If women no longer have control of their bodies, they will be unable to live independent lives and will be forced back into the box of domesticity. Similarly there are the new Jim Crow laws of the South, which make it difficult for Americans of colour to vote.  These laws reduce the presence in the political arena of people of colour, a change which is ensuring that the white dominance of the South is continuing.  Another alien group is put back into its box, but this time it is the box is one of servitude. Although this turning back is but a temporary measure, history shows that regimes such as yours can successfully hold back the tide of history for many years.

What worries me is your destructive attitude towards those institutions that make civilised life possible. Liberals such as myself think that John Rawls political thinking provided the essential  template for making of a successful political system. He wanted to answer the question to which all liberals want a solution. How do you construct a political system that gives voice and sanction to people of different and often incompatible views in a manner which avoids the worst of the destructive and divisive effects of political conflict? Societies can be torn apart by warring factions as demonstrated so well in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There the two rival factions, the Capulets and the Montague’s constantly threaten the peace of Verona with their constant feuding.

To this problem John Rawls had an interesting answer. His answer was that the constitution makers should indulge in an act of collective forgetting. When devising a constitution they should strive to forget their own beliefs and prejudices and try to exclude them from there thinking. Then they should focus on the building of a belief and bias free constitution. The emphasis should be on functionality not belief. One such example is the American constitution of 1787. The political system they devised was not free from fault, but until recently it had functioned effectively by containing political conflict within a system that delivered effective governance. Now unfortunately the new right that is the Republican party has set out to destroy that system that worked so well for two hundred years. The behaviour that you displayed towards former President Obama is demonstrative of the destructive behaviours of the new right. One of the main voices accusing Obama of being ineligible for office was yours. This nasty ‘birther’ campaign was a child of your making and did nothing other than to bring discredit American politics.

There are two requirements for a good political system. The first is how the winners treat the losers. The winners must accept the reality of the rotation of power, that is that the losers might be the winners next time around. They must accept the threat of the loss of power with good grace. While it is legitimate for politicians to seek to retain power, it is not legitimate when they use means which can only be described as illegitimate. American political history of the recent past has been little more than the attempts by the Republicans to change the political system in such a way as to permanently exclude the Democrats from power. Using the conservative Supreme Court to open elections to undue influence by the rich and powerful business corporations is one. These so called ‘super PAC’s  (political action committees) are free to spend as much money as they want to influence an election. The same court has permitted the gerrymandering of the electoral process to exclude potential Democrat voters in the South. When the winner refuses to acknowledge the right to dissent and opposition, the tenor of politics changes it becomes more shrill and intolerant. Politics is conducted in the language of a Fox News presenter or the ‘shock jock’.

What has been lost from contemporary politics is the civility of manner? In the early twentieth century the members of the various political parties in Britain would be at each others throats in the Chamber, but they were able to distinguish politics from the person. These same men would then meet at various country houses for weekend parties at which there was no trace of animosity. This courtesy no longer exists in contemporary politics and you are the exemplar of the new rude and brutal politics. Without the practice of courtesy politics becomes degraded into being an unpleasant fight in a bear pit. When intolerance towards the other is the practice of each party democratic politics becomes impossible. The ‘give and take’ that made democratic politics possible in the past has ceased to exist. The obstructive behaviour of the Republicans toward President Obama which culminated in the threat to shut down government is an example of the new destructive politics. Similarly the behaviour of the Republicans toward former President Clinton demonstrates most effectively the breakdown of the American political system. Shutting down government for a month by refusing funding and impeaching the President over an affair with an intern was the nadir of American politics. All the worst practices of Republican politics have culminated in you. The destructiveness of your political reign is likely to exceed in destructiveness the damage inflicted on American society by the actions of Senator McCarthy. HIs witch hunts inflicted irreparable damage to the lives of individuals, you threaten to inflict irreparable damage to the fabric of American society.

What I believe disqualifies you from high office in a democratic society is your lack of civility. This is incivility derives in a part from your fear of and anger at modernity, as a relatively  inarticulate man it is second nature to express your anger in abusive language and in uncivil behaviour. It is not the belief in reasoned argument that is practice which enables democracy to thrive. All to often recorded parliamentary debates in England and those in the Senate or Congress fail to demonstrate reason. Civility was one of the factors that influenced the construction of the House of Commons after it was destroyed by German bombs. It was deliberately made too small to accommodate 600 MPs comfortably, it small size was intended to ensure that debates would tend to brevity because of the discomfort of being too long in the Commons. This with the regular emptying of the Chamber for numerous votes would be a tension releasing mechanism, so preventing that build up of tension that would lead to outbreaks of bad temper and behaviour, evidenced in other parliaments. Unfortunately British politics all too often copies the worst of American practice and incivility is now becoming the dominant mode of British politics. By civility I mean the civilised behaviour that makes debate and political dialogue possible, not the abuse and demeaning of one’s opponents which is now the common practice of British politics. When Theresa May came to the US it was not just to make a trade deal but to meet a like minded politician, a man who is the master of incivility. Why I want you to go is not just because you threaten the existence of liberal democracy in the US, but because you give encouragement to those many European politicians that also want an end to liberal democracy. Manners are said to make a man, manners are needed to make a President.

Why London so resembles 18th Versailles. The danger of an over large and over powerful courtier class.


When I think of courtiers I always think of the court at Versailles of Louis XIV, a glittering assembly of notables that led 18th century France into ruin and revolution. The courtier in the medieval kingdoms had a role, they were the intermediary between the absolute monarch and the people. They were the conduit between the king and people. If you wanted to access the king it would be through one of the notables at court. These notables would keen the king informed of events in the country so enabling him to effectively react to unfavourable events in the country, forestalling foreign invasion threats. The same notables, as trusted confidents of the king, could be employed in key administrative posts to ensure the effective governance of the country. Under kings such as Richard I, Edward III and Henry V the system worked well. It was the notables who made the personal governance of one man effective. The one flaw in the system was the dependence on personality of the king, a king such as Edward II who chose his courtiers badly could bring the country into chaos. Rule by courtier was perhaps the only effective means of governance in the largely illiterate and divided countries of the medieval era, but in the modern complex society of countries such as late 18th century France, it had become dysfunctional.

The noble courtiers of late 18th century France who demanded and got a monopoly of governance prevented effective governance of that country. Despite their vast wealth they resisted any tax on their wealth, which would have solved the chronic budgetary crisis’s, resulting from a century’s long warfare with most countries in Europe. Not unlike the super wealthy in today’s Britain they demanded exemption from tax on themselves, instead preferring to shift the burden of taxation on to the less well off majority. Courtier governance inevitably failed and the revolution of 1789 initiated a new era of governance. It is to this class of dysfunctional courtier class that the current class of consultants compare.

What they both share in common is the belief in their right to direct government policy and the right to exact a large fee for the privilege of employing them. Possibly the best example of the new courtier class in action can be taken from the privatisation of Royal Mail. Numerous investment banks advised on the privatisation of Royal Mail, luminaries of the financial world such as Goldman Sachs and Lazards. Estimates for the charges made by these banks are £30 million. Not only did the banks profit from the charges made for their financial advice but they also benefitted from being awarded 30% of the initial share offer. Since the banks that advised on the price for the sale of the Royal Mail were also those entitled to the right to buy a significant part of the shares in the newly privatised Royal Mail they were not going to set a share price that would involve them in a loss. One estimate in The Guardian newspaper suggested that these companies made a gain of £28 million on the shares they purchased, in the initial days after the sale. While Lazard’s advised the government that a valuation of £3.3 billion was the right price at which to privatise the Royal Mail another bank J.P. Morgan had suggested a valuation of £10 billion. All that can be said that at a valuation of £3.3 billion the advising banks made a substantial profit.

It is not unfair to suggest that the class of consultants as with the courtiers at Versailles are an expensive hinderance to good governance. Governments have acquiesced in the demands of the various classes of consultants to have an increasingly large say in government policy making. It is impossible to think of a single policy that does not bear the imprint of the various members of the class of financial and political consultants. The construction of HS2 has not started but already millions has been paid to financial consultants on the project. In a written reply to the MP Cheryl Gillan, the Minister for Transport admitted that £253.23 million has already been spent on the project. While no figure is given for the cost of consultant’s fees, it is right to assume that they accounted for a substantial part of the £1/4 billion costs. This is on a project that may never even be started. The 19th ‘railway king’ and fraudster George Hudson, who was responsible for constructing much of the railway system in the middle nineteenth century, at least in return for his thievery left behind at least a 1000 miles of railway. He would if alive today would be admiring of the inventiveness of the way in which the class of consultants can legitimately make rip off the state and yet give so little in exchange for their services.
The aristocrats of the Court of Versailles effectively obstructed any policy measures that were not in their interest so obstructing the effective governance of the country. What happened was bloody revolution in which some members of this class lost their lives and most all their wealth. A dysfunctional group such as the consultant class which acts as an increasing expensive barrier to good governance should not be able to continue to dominate the process of government policy making. However this is to ignore the nature of financial consultancy. Although they are courtiers who dance attendance on the courts of Westminster and Whitehall, unlike the notables at the court of Louis XIV they have real power as they are the financial ‘shakers and movers’ who dominate the contemporary political scene.

The influence of these financial ‘courtiers’ is best seen in the government’s policy towards tax avoidance. Governments have constantly called on the investment bankers for financial advice, including revenue collection. It is hard to avoid the view that much of this advice is self interested. George Osborne recently had a statute put into law which made it much easier to avoid tax. If the business claimed that the money earned in the UK was really revenue earned by a subsidiary company in a tax haven, they could avoid tax on those earnings. What can never be known is when does advise giving slip over into policy making. The relaxed attitude that HMRC has towards tax avoidance by powerful business corporations, suggests that these financial advisers do more than just advise.

Effective governance can only be restored as in 18th France with a political revolution. Such a revolution need not be bloody, it could be a constitutional revolution. A start could be made in the insistence of transparency in government policy making. All these policy decisions that seemingly are designed to be of benefit only to the class of consultants would be open to scrutiny and as such likely to be less damaging to the public interest. This should only be a start what is further needed is a reform of the system of choosing government so independent minded politicians are chosen as our leaders. What is needed is an end to the love affair between Westminster and the City of London.