Tag Archives: milton friedman

A suggestion from an economist as to how the free market could be made to work for the benefit of all

All the evidence from the economy suggests that the free market system is failing. The list of markets that are failing seems almost endless. Perhaps the most obvious failing market is the housing market. In 1973 a minister (when the state directly provided social housing) could state with some justification that there were no homeless people, today the reverse is true. Yet despite the evidence of thousands either living in temporary local authority accommodation awaiting rehousing andthe  countless others living in unsatisfactory private rental property, politicians deny that the housing market is broken.

Why do politicians not recognise the failure of the free market system? One answer is political fashion, which to paraphrase George Orwell pigs ‘public sector bad, private sector good’. This belief in the supremacy of the market system for providing goods and services can be traced back to one influential thinker, Friedrich Hayek. In his book ‘The Road to Serfdom’  (1944) lauded the supremacy of the free market over any alternative economy model. In this very readable book he states that freedom is the free exchange of goods and services between individuals. When the state decides what people want it is tyranny, an economic tyranny comparable to the political tyranny exercised in the fascist and communist states of Europe. Although to this economist cannot see how the provision of state subsidised social housing is a deprivation of economic liberty.

Hayek was a voice speaking in the wilderness until the economic crisis of the 1970s happened. In Britain in 1976 inflation hit the unheard rate of 27%. Politicians desperately looked for a solution and found one in the writings of Hayek and his prophet Milton Friedman. The next twenty years saw a bonfire of regulations and a rush to transfer what public sector services and businesses to the private sector. What politicians hoped and believed was that the introduction of the free market economy was the once and for all solution to the economic ills of the this decade.

Hayek still grips the imagination of the political classes. The privatised railway system in Britain is one of the most expensive and inefficient in the developed world. Yet despite polling evidence suggesting that a majority of British voters would welcome the re-nationalisation of the railways, the majority of politicians regard this as beyond the pale. Only an outsider such as the current opposition leader would argue for this popular cause. There is one certain outcome from this election and that is even if the opposition won the election, the consensus view within parliament would effectively nullify any attempt to return to a nationalised rail service.

There is one failing in the free market philosophy of Hayek that is always ignored. He assumes that the exchange of goods and services takes place between individuals who are equals. The worker for him is free to bargain with the employers to obtain the best possible wage. In Hayek’s impossible scenario the worker and employer equally benefit from the exchange. What he does not recognise is that there is no equality of power in this exchange. While the employer is free to buy the workers labour at the lowest possible wage he can negotiate, the employee very rarely has the power to negotiate the highest possible wage. History demonstrates that in a market lacking employment protections and trade unions, the worker rather than being able to negotiate the best possible wage has to accept the going rate, no matter how poor. It is a market in which Says law applies. Rather than workers negotiating for the highest rate of pay possible, they have to accept the wage whatever rate of pay the employers are prepared to offer.

When the market works well it is unrivalled as a means of exchange of goods and services. The problem is that in Britain it rarely works well. It is the unequal distribution of bargaining power that prevents the market working to the benefit of all. When one person has significantly more bargaining power than the other, be that person an employer or landlord, the other person is at a significant disadvantage. They will inevitably lose out, whether it be having to accept a low wage or by paying a high rent for inferior accommodation. The only way to make the market work is to introduce some equality of power into the relationship. Only then will the more powerful not be able to exploit the less powerful.

One solution would be to introduce legislation to remedy the imperfections in the free market, as was the practice in the 1950s and 60s. However this is not possible when the majority of political classes are committed to Neo-Liberalism or the free market economy. A majority of the of the current generation of politicians would oppose any such policy. There is another solution that might appeal to the free market politician. Greater equality could be introduced into the market and through the legal system so making the exchange of goods and services a more equal relationship. At present civil law with its remedies for civil wrongs is unavailable to the majority of the population, because of the high costs of legal action. Not only is there the high  cost but the wealthy subject of a legal action can spin out a case almost indefinitely so discouraging all but the most determined and wealthy of plaintiffs. A reformed legal system that made justice available to all could make Hayek’s free market work in a manner which he intended. The free market politician would have no reason to object as such a change would only be to enforce the rights of the individual and not subject the business to the whims of the almighty state.

This might seem an incredible statement but the legal system of the Roman Empire particularly that of Justinian was in some ways superior to that of contemporary Britain. Under this system the aggrieved individual could bring their case before the local magistrate. These magistrates seem to have had more power than contemporary British magistrates. They could interrogate the plaintiff and witnesses before arriving at a verdict. From what I understand of the Roman system there was an approximate equality of position of the plaintiff and defendant, something lacking in British courts.

There already exist in Britain a network of small claims courts(1). The remit of these courts could be extended to include a new category of civil wrongs. These courts would retain the principle of not penalising the less well off plaintiff, by not privileging those defendants that have legal representation and through preventing the defendant claiming their legal fees from the plaintiff. What matters would be that the court proceeding do not privilege the wealthy, making these courts accessible to the poorest.

There is one example demonstrates the ugly nature of our current legal system. The British Human Right act gives every person the  ‘right to enjoy the privacy of your own property.’ In our unbalanced legal system a rich property developer was able to persuade the high court, that privacy meant the right to develop their property regardless of the noise nuisance it caused the neighbour’s. In a fairer legal system there would have been a counter claim by the less well off neighbour, which would have prevented this nonsense becoming law.

One further requirement would be an amendment to the Human Rights Act, an amendment that included new rights such as a fair recompense for work. These rights could be incorporated in a relatively short document as they are only statements of principle and it would be the role of the courts to define what these rights meant in practice.

What I am proposing is a remedy for market failure. A remedy that restores a measure of equality in  the bargaining process in the free market. Rather than looking to government to remedy market imperfections, individuals working through the court system will able remedy the failings of the free market. Employers and landlords will be less inclined to adopt exploitative or abusive practices, if they know doing so will involve them in having to defend such practices in open court. Instead of a race to the bottom in which employers vie to adopt most exploitative cost cutting practices to save, there would be a move upwards towards a fairer employment regime.

A salutary lesson for this left of centre economist is that the legislature cannot be relied upon to protect the rights of citizens. Individual legislators are too easily corrupted by powerful corporate interests. As the recent past demonstrates they are only too willing to legislate away the right of citizens to further the corporate interest. Not so long ago a senior member of the government (of a party claiming to represent the workers) saw his role as frustrate the EU commissions attempt to increase the rights of agency workers.There is an old adage that states that the person who can be best relied upon to defend your rights is yourself. The record of the Westminster parliament over the past forty years only too clearly demonstrates the truth of this adage.

This is only intended to a sketch of how the free market could be changed to the benefit of all. Today’s news has demonstrated the need to find an alternative to seeking remedies through parliament. The Prime Minister announced that she would be introducing a policy which entitled all workers to a 12 month period of absence to care for an ill relative. What she failed to make clear was that this would be unpaid leave. A meaningless reform on a par with all the rights of the Soviet citizen that were written into that country’s constitution. Rights that in a police state were meaningless.

(1) There are a number of tribunals that at present that consider these wrongs,but I have left out reference to them for ease of writing.

Why economists lie

I should start with a disclaimer, I am an economist who likes to think that I am generally honest. What I am protesting against is the tendency of many practitioners of my profession to lie. They lie when faced with problems to which they have no solution, by claiming that to have policy solutions that in practice are unrealistic or untrue. 

Rousseau in his writings used the term amour-propre, words which have many synonyms in English and they include pride, self respect and vain glory. It is the last which is a fault that afflicts so many economists. They are the self acknowledged experts on the economy and are never willing admit that they are stuck for an answer. When a problem occurs they will look for an answer from their memory bank and choose one which seems to be offer the best solution. It is not an original solution, but one borrowed from the collective memory bank of all economists. What matters to the economist is that their answer will be judged as correct by their fellow economists not that it is the correct solution to the problem posed by the economy.  Given the complexity of the economy, they can always blame the failure of their policy recommendations on unexpected events.  The familiar its somebody else’s fault excuse is always available as a defence for a failed  policy. In this case its either the fault of the economy when they claim that the fault lies with  unexpected changes in internal or international economy, or its the politicians who fail to understand the policy prescriptions and implement them wrongly. When the great reforms of the 1980s were imposed on the British economy which led to a decimation of the British manufacturing sector; economists introduced another lie, which was that the pain being endured now would lead to a better future in which a revitalised economy which would work to the benefit of all. A future which never materialised.

What I am leading is a campaign for economists to say I don’t know. A willingness to look  at each situation afresh and use the skills of economic analysis to come up with original and new solutions to economic problems. Unfortunately the majority of economists believe that the economic toolset was largely completed in the time Alfred Marshall, whose most influential book the ‘Principles of Economics’ was published in 1890. All that is now required is a tinkering with the toolset left by Marshall to develop the economic policies needed for today. (Marshall systemised the study of market economics, developing a series of tools of economic analysis which are widely used today.)

The great change in the practice of economic policy making in the 1980s was the introduction of monetary economics associated with the American economist Milton Friedman. What was not realised was that he was merely adapting the quantity theory of money which was explained in a  book published  by Irving Fisher in 1911 to the world of the 1980s? Plagiarism in economics is not frowned on but worshipped, so long as the correct work in plagiarised.

Perhaps self censorship might be a more accurate term to describe the practice to which I am objecting. However every economist when studying the subject at university will either be taught about the flaws in the dominant model of economic analysis or would have come across them in one of the texts that they have studied. Yet once they leave university to practice their profession, they suppress their knowledge of the weaknesses or flaws of the favoured method of economic analysis. The act of forgetting probably becomes second nature to the practising economist. Deliberately ignoring the evidence that might suggest that their suggested policy remedies are flawed is an act of dishonesty. Lord Oakshott the former Liberal Democrat Treasury Minister once said that the British Treasury is populated by free market fundamentalists. What he was saying was that  Treasury economists were excluding from their economic policy making any evidence or thinking that was contrary to the free market model of economic analysis. This suggests that economic policy making by the government will be constantly subject to error, because of the wilful deception practised by Treasury economists.

The Great Lie and the Rise of Trump and the alt.right

Economists have to shoulder their share of the blame for the dawning of the age of Trump, May and Farage. Their responsibility lies with the creation of the ‘Great Lie’ which led to the economic and social change which caused the current economic malaise. Governments longer seem to be in control, they seem powerless to arrest the decline in living standards. We now have government that operates on the Pontius Pilate principle, it shares the people’s pain, but it is powerless to anything to alleviate their suffering. In such circumstances when government claims to be helpless in the face of the current crisis, it is hardly surprising that those who claim to have a solution, no matter how wrong headed that solution are now gaining  power.

The ‘Great Lie’  is the one propagated by economists that they have discovered the economic model that if adopted will resolve all the economic and social problems that beset society, that is  the free market. A great lie can be easily identified, it is when economists claim that they have the answer to all society’s problems. Usually such optimistic solutions are called utopian, but economists have greater credibility and there claims are never subject to such scepticism. Economists never seem to accept that the economy as a human creation is as flawed as its makers, mankind. They will never admit that there proposed model for change is but an experiment that may contain as many or more flaws than the system it is replacing.  It is hard to explain why the free market model was so widely accepted, when the very failures of such a system had led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Until the 1970s it had been accepted that the unfettered free market system was subject to extremes of volatility, whose worst manifestation were the periods of economic depression. Times whne unemploynent was high and people were impoverished. Overnight economists seemed to forget all the negatives of a free market economy and all began to speak from the same hymn sheet, the free market one. The deciding factor seemed to be the unending slow growth and high inflation crisis of the 1970s. A crisis whose origin lay in politics not economics, yet this fact was ignored by politicians desperate a for a solution to the current crisis. (For this particular economist the origins of the crisis were in the excessive demand for raw materials that the Americans required to fight the Vietnam war, which pushed up prices for steel to astronomic levels.)

Economics is pervaded by dishonesty, an unconscious dishonesty but dishonesty never-the-less.The free market or monetary economists never admitted that there would be any downsides to their free market model. Humility was the one quality lacking among these economists. They could make valid and reasoned criticisms of practice of social democratic economics, but were completely blind to the failures of free market economics. When such dishonesty is prevalent among government policy advisors, it should be no surpise that the dishonest claim made by the alt. right with its claim that immigration is the cause of all the problems is an acceptable a truth as the one that the free market works,when it it obvious to many that it does not. 

What these new economists failed to admit was that in creating a free market economy that the people would be exposed to the negative effects of adverse changes in the market. There would be many more losers in the free market. One such example comes from Sunderland, one of the areas that voted in large numbers to leave the EU. One of the main employers is  the Swan Hunter shipyard, which built merchant ships. In the 1970s it was failing to win orders because it could not compete with more modern shipyards in the Far East. The government realised that if it invested in re-equipping the yard with the latest in ship building technology, it could compete with other major shipyards. This would create many new jobs in an area of high unemployment. In 1979 a Neo-Liberal government came to power who thought any government intervention in the economy was wrong and they withdrew their support for the shipyard. All the new shipbuilding technology was sold to a rival shipyard in South Korea. Swan Hunter survives as a manufacturer of warships and equipment for the North Sea oil industry. However the people of Sunderland seem never to have forgotten the government’s betrayal of them and this year they could demonstrate their hostility by voting to leave the EU, against the advice of the government.

While the economists cannot be held responsible for the decisions of the government, they were the cheerleaders for the changes in economic policy making. One of the greatest of these new economists Milton Friedman supported the government of Pinochet when it tortured and killed its opponents, claiming that Chilean society would be better off without these people. A variation on the saying that you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs, except that in this case the eggs are people.

One chilling example of the eggs being broken is housing policy. Increasing numbers of people, particularly the young are being forced into the private rental market. There they suffer from the twin problems of exorbitantly high rents and insecurity of tenure. When it has been suggested that the solution is to give private tenants security of tenure and to introduce rent controls, the social democratic party in this country has always rejected it as an unworkable solution. They claim that the introduction of such controls would reduce the number of properties for rent and so be against the long term interests of the private tenant. In reality a policy that did both things and which included measures to prevent a reduction in the number of rental properties could be devised. Yet this party clings to the Pontius Pilate principle of politics, vicariously sharing the pain of the private tenant while saying that bad as the situation is there is nothing they can do to improve the lot of the private tenant. When such is the official policy of this party it is no surprise that it is threatened with losing constituencies to the party of the alt. right that claims to have an answer.

There is little doubt that the adoption of free market economics has created an increasing number of losers in society and it is these losers that are looking to the alternatives for a solution. The only solution to the woes of society appear to be those  offered by the xenophobic right; as all the other political parties seem to adopt the same message which is that things may appear to be bad now, but they would be much worse if the government tried an alternative policy.

One solution to the current malaise is for politicians to accept responsibility for their actions, instead of looking for unreal solutions from the world of economics. While it was the unregulated financial markets that caused the crash of 2008/9 the slow recovery has been due to the governments adoption of an austerity policy. If the governments of the West had learnt anything from the 1930s it should be that adopting those economic policies to tackle non existent problems, they should take action to ameliorate the negative effects of the crash. Austerity programmes designed to do little more than cut government debt and increase and prolong the agonies of 2008/9. What is required is imaginative solutions to the crisis, usually not available from economists who are stuck with ‘Big Lie’, that the market will solve the current crisis if left to itself,when it quite obviously won’t.

Why economics fails

There is it seems a present a desire to doubt the validity of economics and the skills of its practitioners.  Just yesterday there was Chief Economist at the Bank of England issuing a mea culpa on behalf of the profession, in which he apologised for his and their failings and said that economists must do better in the future. He is just another ‘failing expert’, as Michael Gove would have said. When Michael Gove said in the EU referendum debate that the people were fed up with experts and were best of without them, one assumes that he was speaking about economists. However Michael Gove as with many politicians is adept at deflecting the blame for their own mistakes on to others. Politicians are those in charge and they make the decisions on matters of economic policy and not the economists. Yet whatever failures of government policy that occurred in the period 2010 to 2016, Michael Gove and his colleagues will never put there hands up and accept their share of the blame. Politicians such as him have a list of scapegoats to use to disguise their failings and another such favourite is the  EU. Teresa May’s disparaging comments about citizens of the world being citizens of nowhere can be paraphrased to describe contemporary government ministers, they are the ‘ministers of nothing’ knowing and caring little about their departments. Just sitting out their ministerial brief waiting for an upgrade to a more high profile ministry.

While it is the politicians that have been responsible for the disasters of recent policy making, economists still share some of the responsibility, in that they have encouraged politicians to develop an almost papal like sense of infallibility. Neo-liberal or free market economists claimed in the decade 1970-80 to have discovered the holy grail of economic policy making. They claimed that at the heart of any economy there was a self regulating market which when left to itself produces the best results for all. This market mechanism was capable of outthinking any politician. If  left to itself it would settle on the natural equilibrium levels of growth, employment and inflation, which would in turn mean society would enjoy a level of prosperity that it would otherwise never achieved if the economy had been managed by politicians. All the politicians had to do was to create the optimum conditions in which to enable the market to work unhindered, which was quite simply a bonfire of regulations. They can maintain an Olympian disdain knowing that they know  the answers to everything and have to hand the one key policy measure, impose the free market on the seemingly intractable problem.

One thought  that never occurred to these politicians or economists is fallibility of human thought, never in history has mankind ever succeeded in creating the perfect social organism. They seem to have forgotten such schemes are referred to as utopian in the history books, because they are always hopelessly impracticable.

What cannot be said is that there were no warning signs. When with great enthusiasm the Conservative government of the 1980s followed the policy prescriptions of Milton Friedman, failing to notice that his major policy prescription was unworkable. He said that the government should be regulate the economy through control of the money supply. Unfortunately he had not done his homework, as in practice it proved impossible to define what exactly was money supply. The Bank of England came up with at least five possible descriptions of money supply. There preferred choice was description number 3, what was known as M3. The only reason for choosing M3 was that it was easier to calculate than the other possible choices. Then having settled on M3, they realised that it would be extremely difficult to devise ways of controlling this money supply. All possible solutions would involve interfering in how the banks managed their finances. Instead the government opted for controlling by money supply by controlling demand for money. If they changed interest rates this would either or lower the price at which people could borrow, so if they put up interest rates people would borrow less and the amount of money (bank deposits) in circulation would fall. Never once did it occur to the government that controlling interest rates was not the same as controlling the money supply. Interest rate changes could change the supply of money held but it was a very indirect and imprecise control. Unlike what Milton Friedman desired what the government used as a very rough and ready measure to control money.

Politicians were obvious to the problems of implementing this policy, is it because the economics of the time was encouraging them not to think and question. They cannot claim not to have any warnings of the volatility of the free market as there were many financial crashes from the period 1979 to 2008.Yet these politicians believing they possessed the holy grail of policy making were  able the collapse of the Asian tiger economies or the dot com crash.  In consequence the great financial crash of 2008 which should have been foreseeable became the catastrophe that came out of nowhere, a veritable economic tsunami.

What economists should also be blamed for is there willingness to overstate their abilities and knowledge of all things economic..The economy is one of the most complex of mechanisms developed by mankind and yet economists all to often suggest that they really do know, when they don’t. I as an economist take my lead from Socrates. The oracle at Delphi told him that he was the wisest of men, yet this was a man who claimed to know nothing. Was not the oracle stating that Socrates was wise because he was the only man prepared to acknowledge his ignorance? I always wished that as a teacher I had told my students that I really knew nothing about economics. Yet as an economist I know a thousand times more things about the economy that any politician. What I see Socrates as saying is not that he lacks knowledge but answers. He was I believe using his ignorance as ploy to unsettle  his rivals, as a reading of any of Plato’s dialogues does demonstrate that Socrates knew quite a lot. Any economist when faced with a problem should be prepared to state his ignorance, as with a rapidly evolving and every changing economy, yesterdays’ knowledge is never sufficient to provide today’s answers. As  an economist what I possess is a knowledge of problems that have occurred in the past which appear to have some similarities with the problem at hand. Using that knowledge I could suggest a variety of policy solutions and recommend that which I think would be most effective. However I know that in what is an ever changing economy events may happen to make my policy recommendations ineffective. Humility should be part of the economists weaponry. I know that I can’t give Michael Gove the definitive answer he craves, the world is much more complex than the one viewed from Westminster or his newspaper column. I do know that my answers are better than his on all matters economic, as some knowledge of the economy and its workings are always better than none.

The last word I leave to Erasmus, ‘only a fool boasts of their ignorance’ or should it be ‘that only a fool takes pride in their ignorance’. A faulty memory prevents me recalling Erasmus’s exact words.

A good lie told well, the secret of managing the economy

  

Image courtesy of randalrauser.com

What every economics student used to learn at university was how difficult it was for leaders to make policy decisions on the economy. The effectiveness of policy measures were uncertain and the time lag in implementing these measures meant that when they came into effect they were often  addressing yesterday’s issues. What we learnt was how difficult it was to understand and manage that highly complex human institution, which is the economy. In one of our seminars it was decided that there were no economics was not a science comparable with physics and that economic  theory was at best a good guess as to how the economy worked. Consequently economics  for the student in the 1960’s was very much a work in progress. It was Churchill who said that if you asked four economists for a solution to a particular pressing economic problem you would get five answers and two of these answers would be from Keynes. (Keynes was the outstanding British economist of his  generation. This humility did no fit well with the demands from politicians for policy solutions, as exemplified in the words of Margaret Thatcher who said she wanted answers not problems. There was a group of economists responded eagerly to such requests and began to supply answers that were not hedged about with caveats about what might possibly make the policy ineffective. 
Economists had to know and there was a school of economists that knew. These new economists where named variously as the Chicago School of Economists, Monetary Economists, Free Market Economists or Neo-Liberal Economists. They took inspiration from the economist Milton Friedman the doyen of the Chicago School, who in turn was inspired by the economist Friedrich Hayek. What this group offered was a solution to the one problem that dogged the Western economies of the 1970 and that was inflation. They offered two solutions to the problem of inflation, they said that inflation could be controlled by controlling the money supply and by supply side economics.  
Monetary economists could supply answers to for example that of inflation, which reached 27% pa in 1976. Politicians could understands that if the money supply increased faster than the supply of goods, more money would be chasing relatively fewer goods and so prices would be pushed up. If money supply was cut inflation would fall and the economy would continue to grow on a smoother trajectory. What they did not want to know was as any non monetarist economist could tell them demonstrated a relationship between increased money supply and inflation is not the same as demonstrating a cause. 
However once politicians began to follow the policies advocated by these new economists, it became obvious that these new economists did not know. Britain was one of the first countries to practice monetary economics as suggested by Milton Friedman. In doing so one huge problem was discovered no Treasury economist was able to define what made up the money in circulation and what was the total money supply. The government came up with five possible measures and from this they selected one as their preferred measure which they called M3. M3 was chosen which was the total of currency in circulation plus bank deposits. They chose this one because it was the easiest to measure, after all the banks regularly published accounts showing their total bank deposits. They then made one huge assumption that all other measures of money supply would change in the same way as their preferred measure. However there was no evidence that all the other possible measures of money supplies the bank identified, would change in the same way as M3. It was a hope that all the unmeasured changes in money supply would follow M3, but the evidence for this was lacking. 
In desperation the Treasury and Bank of England gave up trying to account for changes in money supply and instead adopted a new practice. Admitting they could not count the money in circulation they opened for controlling the demand for money by changing interest rates. They believed that the supply of money was determined by the demand for money, therefore by controlling the latter they would control the first. Ever since the 1980’s changes in interest rates have been the main instrument for controlling the economy. Nobody today every mentions that the central plank of government economic policy is based on a theory for which evidence is lacking, simply because they cannot identify or correctly measure the key determinant, money supply.
Something very similar happened after the great financial crash of 2008/9. There were three deficits that could make recovery difficult the government or public sector debt, the private sector debt and the banking sector debt. The smallest was the government debt amounting in 2009 to about 60% of GDP and the largest was the banking sector deficit of 540% of GDP(as identified in a report by Paul Tucker, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England.) It is obvious that the debt that is in most urgent need of attention was that of the banking sector, yet the government of the day and succeeding ones chose to ignore it and focus instead on the government debt. The latter is the easiest to reduce as all the government had to do was cut its own spending, whereas the more serious bank debt was much harder to tackle. The government would have to take on the big banks and the City of London, very powerful opponents of whose power the government is in awe. Also if the government was serious about reducing bank debt it would negatively impact on the property market, as cutting the debt would be achieved by reducing the loans the banks could make in total. If there was less money available for house purchases, prices would fall. It is a truism of British politics that the easiest way to achieve electoral unpopularity is to preside over a fall in house prices. Consequently Britain remains with Japan one of the most indebted of the developed nations.
While these facts are known amongst the community of economists there is a conspiracy of silence in parliament about the true nature of Britain’s debt problems. There is no leading political figure that wants to be responsible for the painful economic adjustment that would result from putting the bankers house in order. Instead they focus on how they will reduce the least significant of the three debts and the noise of the debate on government debt crowds out any possible alternative debate on the real nature of the debt problem. 
The economic debate as understood by politicians is what matters, as they determine economic policy. The fact that the economic debate is founded on on misinformation and lies is irrelevant. What matters is that the economic lie is the one that every one accepts. In consequence the economic debate is about the wrong debt and the government has pursued the unnecessary austerity programe that impoverishe  an increasing number of people, while turning a blind eye to the excesses of the financial industry. Lies matter because they can be based on simple easily understandable untruths, whereas the truth about the problems of the economy is complex and hard to understand. To admit to truth would deny the politicians the opportunity to offer simple policy solutions that they could sell to the electorate. As the political debate of today is conducted in the simplistic language of the tabloid newspapers the truth about the real nature of Britain’s economic problems will remain concealed. Concealed that is until some major economic crisis forces the political and media classes to recognise the true nature of the problems facing the British economy.

Religious mysticism and economics

IMG_0420
Javanese Mystical Beliefs The New York Times

All my adult life I have been trying to come to terms with what I learnt in my undergraduate philosophy classes. Coming from a relatively isolated rural Anglican background I had a belief in moral absolutes such as good and truth. Such terms where regularly used in conversation in my rural community, local villains were known as such and there was no ambiguity in our moral understandings. However at university I was introduced to a critical philosophy that undermined my belief in moral absolutes. One such example were the writings of Gilbert Ryle in which he dismissed the concept of a moral good. Good he explained was a term incapable of definition, as people would give differing explanations of what good meant, therefore could could be no more than an emotion. The same philosopher dismissed human consciousness as the ‘ghost in the machine’. He was sceptical of the notion of a special quality called consciousness existing apart from the biological mechanisms, which produced emotions and feelings. The idea of self was suspect, it did not fit with the understanding that biologists had of the human being. Consciousness and self were unscientific, their existence could not be proved, so it was illogical to believe in them. I guess I like many students felt the moral tectonic plates shift beneath my feet and realised the moral truths in which I believed had no firm foundation. Using the biblical analogy I was living in a house built on the shifting sands of contemporary morality.

However these relativist philosophers had not abandoned any notion of moral good. In practice they saw good as having some functional value, they behaved as would good men and women. They were fair in their treatment of us, turned up regularly to lectures etc. If they had behaved immorally the whole system would have collapsed. The first lesson I absorbed as that even if they did not see good and truth as moral absolutes, they saw them as having a practical utility.

I never really abandoned my Anglican beliefs, although I ceased to be a practising one. The 1960’s and 1970’s were an age of secularism and I used to enjoy discomforting my friends by telling them I was a Christian. Christians were for them a kind of pre-modern being, who were as distant from modern man, as were the Neanderthals from Homo Sapiens. Intelligent people for them could not believe in the myths and fairy stories of which organised religion was composed.

What I have sought since my university days is some intellectual underpinning or substance for my pre-modern beliefs in good and bad. I could not accept that there only purpose was that of enabling men to live together in an organised society. Interestingly I did learnt of one community in the Pacific, where stealing and dishonesty were valued. However this particular community, because of its dysfunctional nature was dying out.

Obviously I read widely, there is probably not a major philosopher of whom I do not have some knowledge, but it was not until I studied theology as a postgraduate that I began to make progress in finding solid ground on which to found my beliefs. The answer lies in the paradoxical nature of the unknown God, whose is both unknown and known. All theologians are to some degree negative theologians, they admit God is beyond human understanding, yet they claim some knowledge of this unknown God. Bertrand Russell scoffed at these theologians who believed in an unknown God as he pointed out that it was absurd to claim belief in a being that had no existence. However he misunderstood what theologians mean when they say they have no knowledge of God. God is unknown because he cannot be known through the usual methods of human understanding, as he exists beyond human existence. There can be no book of God as it is impossible to describe or explain what God is in language. There can be no science of religion, the science of observation or the laws of cause and effect have no relevance to the study of God. Yet this God can be known to the individual, but not through the usual means of human understanding.

Knowing God is a peculiarly individual experience, it is not as Kierkegaard states something that can be picked up from an afternoon’s study. There are no texts of instruction as such or a required reading list. Following Kierkegaard we cannot use direct language to speak of God, he cannot be described, but instead the language of God must be indirect language. The great religious teachers of the past are largely ignored but to learn the way to knowing truth or God it is to them that one must turn. It’s a knowledge quite unlike the knowledge of science or the humanities. Indirect learning or knowledge is the means of accessing these higher truth. The twentieth century philosopher Jasper explains that myth is one very successful way in which these truths can be accessed. Probably he’s thinking of Plato’s myth of the cave, in which he compares humanity to a group of men chained in a cave facing a wall behind which is a fire. Behind that wall are passed images which cast shadows of the cave wall and the chained men believe that those shadow images are reality. When one of the chained men escapes and goes into the sunlight and returns to tell the chained men what he has seen they refuse to believe him; they prefer the shadows or appearances with which they are familiar. What Plato is demonstrating is that the knowledge for understanding everyday existence is inadequate for the task of understanding what he and his Islamic successors (Sufis) would term the real. Plato has another a myth that explains the link between the real and the world of appearances in which we live. The creator God fashions the world and humanity out of clay and he uses as his model for creation the ‘real’. We are but copies of what the creator God could see, but which are concealed to us. Plato never believed the myths he created were ‘real’ but they was the only way he could explain, the complex nature of reality and existence. Jaspers put it more succinctly, there are some truths that can only be told through the use of myths.

Plato’s separation of the world into two spheres that of appearance and reality has remained influential. It is an understanding of existence that has been developed within the religious traditions of both Christianity and Islam. Rather than myth the Sufi sages use poetry, metaphor being a substitute for myth. One of my favourite phrases is taken from Rumi’s poem ‘The North Wind’

‘No matter how hard you stare into muddy water
you will not see the moon or sun’

It’s one of the best summaries of the Platonic need to search for truth beyond the world of ‘appearances’. However describing this world as one of ‘appearances’ does contradict our understanding of reality. Doctor Johnson gave the best retort, when he criticised Bishop Berkley’s theology, which saw the world as a product of God’s imagining. He said the pain he felt when stone he knocked his foot against was all too real, and was not a product of somebody’s imagining. All I can say is that Plato was trying to describe a level of reality that as it was not immediately visible and it could be distinguished from a reality that was all too apparent, which appears to us.

A person such as myself is described as a mystic, a term which I feel is derogatory as I believe my approach to knowing truth is quite rational. There is however a good reason for writing about my understanding of mysticism as a economist. Mysticism gives a very different understanding of the world to that of a practitioner of a science of the world of appearances. Economics judges the world in quantitive terms, using terms such as cost, loss and profit; it has no place for values. Therefore its practitioners are capable of making the most inhumane decisions, as they lack any sense of value. Milton Friedman could approve the torture and killing of trade unionists because their destruction paved the way to the free market. Ian Duncan Smith the minister for welfare can pursue a policy that through the removal of benefits impoverishes the poor and which even in extreme cases has led to suicide, as a means of incentivising people to return to work. To an economist misery and suffering are good if they produce the right result. Religious mystics could never accept such an inhumane belief system, they value the individual human too highly. Inflicting suffering is never an option for them, one hungry child is never the justification for this cruel method of incentivising work. Only an economist of the Neo-Liberal persuasion could be indifferent to human pain. Economics will constantly fail as it lacks a value system that would enable it to satisfy human wants. What economics so lack as a contemporary science is a knowledge of the old.

Notes
Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BCE) Classical Greek philosopher
Jelaluddin Rumi (30 September 1207 – 17 December 1273) Islamic jurist, theologian and mystic
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (5 May 1813 – 11 November 1855) was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic and religious author
Milton Friedman (July 31, 1912 – November 16, 2006) American economist

The Musings of a Bad Economist

20140311-163343.jpg

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.

20140311-163805.jpg

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.

20140311-164119.jpg

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.

20140311-164321.jpg

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.