Tag Archives: Socialism

The vain glorious and useful idiots of Brexit

Economists often seem afraid to use words in common circulation in their analysis, they will resort to made up technical words, when a much simpler phrase would have been more appropriate and useful. One little known book today is Erasmus’s  “The Adages”. In this book he demonstrates how the simple proverbs and phrases in common usage can conceal profound truths. One of the frequent themes of his essays are the damaging behaviors of vain glorious princes. These princes in their lust for glory start wars which damage their countries prosperity leaving them poorer and indebted. The only beneficiaries are the mercenaries they employ in their armies. These wars were so profitable for the mercenaries that one even took over a city state and made himself the Duke of Milan. What economics lacks is that despite being a science of human society are the terms to describe those irrational behaviours that have a major impact on the economy and society. Just as in renaissance Italy we have leaders that inflict significant damage on their economy in pursuit of vainglorious enterprises, that they believe will earn them a place in history. However what I cannot find in Erasmus is any reference to the ‘useful idiot’ a person that is now very common in our political classes.

A useful idiot is the one who in elieving that they are advancing their own interests are  in fact advancing the interests of another more powerful individual or group of individuals. This  group prefers to avoid attracting to much attention, as it would highlight the fact that their interests are damaging to the health of the wider society.

The most damaging to our economic prospects as a nation are the useful idiots in parliament, who have successfully campaigned for a damaging break with Europe. When one reads of the vast sums of money paid by the Brexit supporting billionaires to those politicians campaigning to leave Europe, it becomes obvious in whose interests they are operating. Senior politicians who supported the campaign are now being paid hundreds of thousands for newspaper columns and books by the very press barons who wanted to exit Europe. Do these politicians really think that their newspaper columns or books are really worth the hundreds of thousands that are paid for them? What can be said is the hundreds of thousands paid to these politicians are but the small change in the pocket of these billionaires? Only the politicians themselves can really think that their talent is worthy of such high salaries. What can usefully be said is the many books being written by these self serving politicians will the very books which will be the first to be pulped next year as most of them will remain unsold.

There are another group of useful idiots in our parliament, these are not the paid proxies of the billionaire class but those naive politicians who having spent a lifetime within the Westminster confuse reality with the world as seen from within the Westminster bubble. They over estimate their powers and the significance of their actions. They seem to have a naive Harry Potter like perspective take on the world, they believe that having access to the levers of power in Westminster gives them the power to change the world. What they despise is the mundane reality of power in which Westminster is but one player, a player that achieves it goals through negotiation and persuasion. They have no time for the mundanity of reality, they are lost in their own fantasy world.

One of the worst offenders are those on the left. They believe that by turning their back on reality they can create the just socialist society of their imaginings. If only they looked at the failing career of President Hollande they would be aware of the fallibility of their beliefs. He was elected promising to create a better France by increasing spending on the French welfare system and to reduce France’s high unemployment levels. To fulfil promises he would have to increase government spending, but this was in the Europe dominated by a Germany committed to an Europe wide austerity programme. Nothing he promised the French electorate could be delivered because his government was committed to the European programme of austerity. Now Hollande is the most unpopular of French Presidents, who if he wished to stand for President at the next election would be rejected by his party.

At present the leadership of the opposition party supports Brexit, because they believe that freed from EU regulation they can remake society according to their values. What they fail to realise is that a Britain shorn of EU membership will be but a small struggling country on the edge of Europe. They to solve what will be a problem of growing unemployment will be desperate to make deals with those businesses that can bring jobs to the UK. In such a situation the various multinationals will be able to dictate the terms on which they do business. What they will demand is a freedom from regulation, particularly employment regulation, together with cash subsidies of various kinds and infra structure  to benefit them. As demonstrated in Wales where the Labour government to persuade Amazon to locate a warehouse there was forced to spend billions on new roads to improve access to the new warehouse. Amazon is an employer noted for its use of exploitative working practices. This Welsh Labour government despite its socialist principles has turned a blind eye to this firms employment practices, so as not to offend a major local employer. A weak desperate government will sacrifice all its socialist principles to attract business to  the country in its desire  to create jobs. These people I class as useful idiots, because they will be doing exactly what the various rapacious multinational corporations want, creating a country in which they can operate largely free of regulation.

Those on the right seem to believe in some magical notion of Britishness. They believe that Britain really is some ‘spectred isle’ which will be restored to its former glory by breaking with Europe. One of their claims is that Britain will be free to trade with all those countries outside Europe, that they could not do as EU members. Again as with their left wing opponents they lack a firm grasp of reality. Unfortunately these dreamers dominate government and seem to think that by destroying all links with Europe, they will restore Britain to its past glory. If or when they achieve their break from Europe they will find that they become are reduced to governing a desperate vassal state, whose real governors are the multinational corporations.

The words Puerto Rico seem unknown to these ‘unrealists’. This country is independent and has a free trade treaty with the USA. Something desired by the ‘unrealists’, however any small weak country is at a disadvantage when negotiating with a powerful neighbour. In consequence  the free trade treaty has kept the country poor and impoverished. It is the location for American multinational companies who wish to operate in a low cost and regulation free environment, which of course is of little benefit to the people there.

What I am trying to suggest is that economics struggles to explain the why and what of human activity that is irrational and self destructive. Reading Erasmus’s explanations of the adages that explain the vain glorious actions of Princes, gives a far better understanding of the behaviours of today’s politicians than does any economic text.

History has it wrong the Soviet Union won the cold war (at least in Britain)

One of the commonplaces of history is that the communists and in particular the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. This victory was exemplified in the pulling down of the Berlin Wall in 1990. However this is a misreading of history. There are two ways of winning a war, one the most obvious is the conquest of the enemies territory, the other less obvious is when the loser takes on the ideas and practices of the winner. A more subtle form of conquest but just as real. Recent history demonstrates in Britain at least there is an enthusiasm for the ideas and practices of the former Soviet Union.  As a teacher I always spent at least one lesson teaching communist economic practice, as I found it fascinating and I thought that the students would benefit from the knowledge of an alternative economic system. Imagine my fascination when recent events recorded in the media demonstrated that he practices of the Soviet Union had been adopted wholeheartedly by the department of education.

The leaders of the communist state realised that they had taken over a country steeped in capitalist values and their major task would be to re-educate the people in the values of communism. In the early years of the Soviet regime trains carried artists and other propagandists from town to town to teach the people communist values and practice. Without this programme of re-education the communist state would fail as the capitalist enemy from within would undermine all the efforts of the communist state at reform.  There had to be  in tandem with this programme of re-education active policing to root and destroy those enemies of communism. Just last week the latest schools minister just like any good communist politician he was claiming that saboteurs were seeking to wreck his programme of educational reforms. In this case it was a small group of rogue examiners and teachers, all of whom he was determined to root out of education system.

The Soviet State believed that schools would play a key role in re-educating the population into the correct mores of the communist state. Not only school students but those at university were expected to study the thoughts of the communist leaders. In addition they to follow courses of the approved and correct ideological content. Marxist studies were a key element of both the school and university curriculum. There was a certain paranoia in the thinking of the Soviet leaders as they saw themselves as the enlightened minority constantly threatened by the actions of the mass of unbelievers; it was the same attitude that prevailed in the Conservative government elected in the 1980s. They saw a failing nation corrupted by the anti capitalist values of social democracy and socialism. Just as their communist predecessors had, they employed the law and aggressive policing to destroy the power of the enemy within, that is the trade union movement. They also realised that the success of their conservative counter revolution depended on the re-education of the populace into the right ways of thinking. Obviously the start was be made with the easiest to re-educate the young that is those at school. This would be achieved by changing the curriculum and by re-educating the teachers.

I was one of the first teachers to be put on the programme of re-education. It was obvious to the government that we were imbued with the wrong thinking and one of the best ways of eradicating this was to introduce teachers to the right way of thinking. When a communist state wanted to re-educate the population they were sent to the camps in their thousands for re-education. When the South Vietnamese State fell to the communists all the army officers and government functionaries were sent to the camps for re-education in the values and ways of communism. In Britain the government made a half hearted attempt at re-eduction, was rendered ineffective hampered by their commitment to spending to cutting government spending so their was only a minimal amount of money to be spent on re-education. I as one of the selected few for re-education attended on training session given by a manager from the private sector in the values of business and free enterprise. Then I had to follow in my own time a modular course of re-education and produce a portfolio to demonstrate my commitment and willingness to teach the new ideas. I guess like many in the old Soviet system I was very sceptical about its value of this programme but I completed the it because it was the only way of saving my job. This made me less than an ideal ideologue for the cause.

Rather than continue with this programme of ineffective  re-education the government resorted the negative tactic of weeding out unsuitable teachers. They created a new inspectorate who role was to ensure that school worked in conformity with the new rules and values. This body weeded out many staff who were resistant to the new ideas. Many creative and talented teachers left the profession, rather than be forced to teach the new orthodoxy with it series of box ticking exercises. A flight similar too but much smaller in numbers than the flight of intellectuals from Russia in 1920s. Now as in much of the old Soviet State promotion is gained by adherence to the values and practices espoused by a series of government ministers. Promotion now is largely dependent on a display of the toadying factor.

Teachers are still regarded as potentially the enemy within and are subject to a series of punishing controls, usually in the form of inordinate amounts of paper work. Just as a worker under the Soviet system was expected to attend regular party meetings to demonstrate their commitment to the system, so a teacher is expected to produce mountains of paper work to demonstrate their commitment to best new system.

What as an economist struck me was the similarity of the economic models they employed. In the old Soviet Union Gosplan Moscow decided on the targets for all Soviet Enterprises and there were a series of Gosplans at different levels of government that added more and more detail to the plan to ensure that the central directives were met. Not only that but there were Gosfinance and Gosresources, that decided the money and resources to be allocated to the education sector. Since there were at least three separate bodies in Moscow deciding upon targets, finance and resources it was inevitably that these directives issued by these three bodies were often in conflict. Also it must be added that these detailed central plans always specified quantitive targets to be met to demonstrate that the planned targets were being met. Managers of local public enterprises struggled to meet these targets set by these different bodies so they often resorted to all kinds of practices in an effort to appear to be meeting these targets. Since it was easier for a shoe factory to meet the target to make by making only shoes of one type, a factory would often turn out only right or left handed shoes.

The similarities with the education system in Britain today are striking. The department of education set targets for schools to achieve. These targets are always expressed in quantitive terms, as they are easier to measure and check. Quantitive targets such as a setting numbers to pass tests in English and Maths. However the Education Minister and his planner set the targets  independent of the Treasury which controls funding and resource allocation. The consequence is targets being set that are impossible to achieve with the funding and resources available. This has led to the development of a new profession the private consultants who teach how to achieve the impossible targets.

Just as in the old Soviet Union the performance of individual schools is measured against a set of targets set by the central government. This means the emphasis in schools must now be on achieving government targets and so teaching practice is changed to enable the school to score as high as possible in tests, as high scores earn score additional scarce funding and resources.  In the Soviet Union factories made only left handed shoes, so schools similarly  turn out students with only the left handed education. Right handed education that is creative thinking cannot be measured so it is increasingly left out of the curriculum. Creative subjects such as art and music are downgraded within the system so the most able are encouraged to do the book ticking knowledge based subjects. In the Soviet Union what mattered was the quantity not the quality, the same is true of British education. What matters is the attainment of government targets not the quality of the educational students receive. Many of the targets are of have little real educational value but what matters is appearance, these statistics that can produced to show how successful is the minister of education and his latest reform programme.

What demonstrates most clearly the success of the Communist model is that Britain is eager to emulate the methods of teaching used in the schools of Communist China. Britain invariably lags behind China in the PISA tests. These are supposed to be impartial means of assessment by which the performance of a nation’s school students are  judged. Everybody outside the Government and the Department of Education knows that Chinese score highly in such tests because only students at the best selective schools in Shanghai are entered for the Pisa them. What matters to the Chinese is prestige and they would never think of entering students from those schools whose relatively poor performance  who would drag down the nations scores. Given that in a Soviet type education system all that matters is the appearance of doing well, rather than the more difficult task of actually doing well, in Britain the government is now importing Chinese teachers to help remodel our schools to be more like those of the Chinese.

Note. Despite their claimed difference between the Communism of the former Soviet Union and the Neo-Liberalism of the West are vastly overstated. They both claim to be ideologies of freedom but are in fact authoritarian ideologies that intend impose their limited understanding of freedom on their host societies. Under Neo-Liberalism we should all have the freedom to buy and sell without hinderance. One hinderance is what are regarded as the bedrock of democratic society, the freedom of association.  Political movements that intend to enact a reform of society, will according to the Neo-Liberals hinder the workings of the free market. They wish to impose restrictions and costs on business that will increase costs and reduce the supply of goods available to consumers. Therefore such movements should be discouraged or prohibited as they interfere with the workings of the free market to the detriment of all. It is the increasingly authoritarian nature of the British Neo-Liberal model of society that means that British society increasingly resembles that of the Soviet Union.

Why is the politics of our country so focused on headline grabbing? Is politics any longer an activity for grown ups?

Recently a prominent member of the opposition complained about the behaviour of the back bench MP’s of the governing party. She said that their behaviour was that of a group of three year olds. What she was referring to was the infantile sexual gestures made by these men whenever a woman spoke. This seems to be symptomatic of a change in the behaviour in the commons, the practice of politics does seem to have become more infantile. What makes this more surprising is that this change has occurred when we have the most educated parliament in our history. There are more graduates with good degrees from good universities in our parliament than ever before.  What I will argue is that politicians have since the 1980’s increasing  adopted a self denying ordinance which prohibits them from engaging in what most would consider politics. Instead too much political debate is devoted to trivia. Possibly the best example of the new politics comes from the USA, where Congress under pressure from the food industry decreed that the tomato topping on pizzas would count one of the five day fruits  or vegetables needed for a healthy diet. The fact that this decision was meaningless in terms of improving the health of nation mattered little to Congress.

This self denying ordinance which effectively prevents politicians from decision taking dates back to the 1980’s and the revolution in political thinking that was Neo-Liberalism. Prior to that time the management of the economy was considered part of the practice of government, now it was to be considered as something alien to the art of good government. As the former practices of economic management appeared to have brought the economy to its knees.  The economy was to best left unregulated, as government intervention no matter how well intentioned only had a negative impact on human welfare. This ‘avoidance of doing’ became so ingrained that the policy of doing nothing began to be applied to other parts of government. Politicians of both the right and left developed a phobia about the nanny state. 



http://www.mitchell the taxman

One of the best examples of the fallacious nature of the current political debate is that on alcohol consumption. In 1914 strict licensing laws were introduced to limit the hours in which licensed premise could sell alcohol as it was feared that the excessive consumption of alcohol was a threat to the war effort. These strict limits on the sale of alcohol were largely kept in place until 2003 when most restrictions of the sale of alcohol were removed. Now alcohol could be served 24/7 and it was argued that this would lead to the adoption of the ‘civilised drinking practices’ of the Europeans. It would lead to the introduction of the European cafe culture. Instead it led to introduction of the vertical drinking establishment in which the number of table and chairs were reduced , which enabled the pub/bar to cram in as many drinkers as possible. These pubs can be compared to the assembly line, the process of serving alcohol was simplified down to its minimal elements so as to speed up the sale of alcohol. The consequence was a massive increase in the consumption of alcohol with all its attendant social and health problems. 

There is one simple example that illustrates this change in social behaviours towards the more negative. In the 1950’s being drunk and disorderly was a criminal offence, now such disorderly behaviour has become normalised and being instanced by a as a senior officer in London’s police force said they no longer considered the stopping of such behaviour part of their role. Was this officer merely recognising the inevitable in that alcohol based disorder has become so common a behaviour that the the police can no longer control it? 

The reason I have highlighted the alcohol issue is because it’s a useful illustrative of the fallacious nature of so much political debate. I saw a late night TV programme in which politicians were debating the merits of raising the price of alcohol to reduce its consumption. All of the politicians on the panel agreed that it would be wrong, because it would penalise the less well-off sensible drinker. They argued vehemently that these sensible drinkers would be unable to afford their usual tipple. My reaction is the one my was wife has when interviewing parents about their misbehaving children hi say that they don’t want to upset their child by stopping them from doing what they want, event if it’s wrong bad and that is – who is the adult here? When the price of alcohol is increased,  it will mean that the less well off will be able to buy so much alcohol, but that is the purpose of the legislation. 

What characterises the political debate debate on this issue is the avoidance of any action to reduce alcohol abuse. Politicians debar themselves from any action that would limit alcohol consumption, such as increasing the price of alcohol by increasing taxes on it, reducing the number of places that are licensed to sell alcohol or limiting the hours for which those premises can sell alcohol. These politicians through believing any regulation of the free market is misguided have in effect prevented themselves from effectively intervening in the alcohol market. Their role is reduced to one in talking about alcohol they have no other role. 

The political dialogue about alcohol consumption demonstrates how out sourcing decision making to others removes any meaningful role the for politicians in so many areas of society.Their self denying ordinance not to interfere means they are reduced to talking  about the problems that affect society, while playing down the ineffectiveness of their role. This is why they command of the media is so vital to them, media noise will hide their ineffectiveness and insignificance.

Why have politicians given up on the exercise of power

Today’s politics cannot be explained without reference to the traumas of the 1970’s, when economic crisis threatened the stability of Western society.  It came to a head in Britain in 1976 when the government was forced to ask for a record loan of £2.3 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to avert national.bankruptcy. The IMF saw the problem Britain faced as a fundamental structural dysfunction. The political and economic institutions of Britain were not fit for purpose.  They insisted as a start of the necessary reforms that the government cut its spending programmes. Cuts in government spending would mean the transfer of investment from unproductive government programmes to productive private sector businesses. 

Neo-Liberals the over mighty state, caused the crisis as it had expanded far beyond its area of competence. Industry was shackled by regulation and suffered from too much political interference. What was required was what is now termed as supply side reforms. The labour and financial markets were to be freed of regulation which would create an economy flexible enough to respond to economic change. If for instance the government put money into a failing business such as British Leyland, it was investing in a business in which the returns were minimal and by keeping those workers on in a failing business it was preventing them from moving into a more productive business, so holding back economic growth. 

This new political philosophy not only demanded that government should get off the backs of business, but that it should get out of those parts of the economy and society, where it would be better managed by business. This meant  the wholesale privatisation of the nationalised industries and the outsourcing of many government services to the private sector. What was a crisis of political confidence meant that politicians were now willing to abdicate much of their powers of decision making to others. These others are referred to collectively as the free market. 

One consequence is that decisions that would have been taken in parliament are now taken by ministers in negotiation with outside contractors. Prisons and probation services are now the responsibility of various private contractors, not something that is considered to be within the remit of MP’s. Politicians have constantly acquiesced in the diminution of their authority. The Department of  Trade and Industry once one of the mightiest of departments is now a departmental backwater serving only to facilitate the requests of various business corporations. 

Given that parliament has diminished itself and become only a peripheral player in society, politicians will constantly over compensate for their insignificance by shouting as loudly as they can to draw attention to themselves. This means that they must constantly attract the media with new policy statements (of little real purpose) to demonstrate that, yes they still do matter. 

Coda 

There is an alternative reading of the history of the 1970’s which suggests that the problems of Western Democracies were not a product of structural dysfunction, but events unrelated to structural dysfunction.  One such event was the attitude of Jimmy Carter’s government in Washington towards the Labour government in London. They were concerned about there being a socialist government in London, which could act contrary to American interests. Great Britain with its command of the North Western European sea ways off Europe was a key strategic asset for the Americans. London was also home to the largest CIA station outside the USA. They wanted a friend in London, which could not be a socialist government.   When the financial crisis occurred in 1976 they saw it as an opportunity to destabilise this government. When the London government asked for American financial support they refused and discretely encouraged the financial speculation that threatened to undermine the British economy. This worsened the financial crisis forcing the London government to ask for an IMF loan, which came at a heavy price. The price was the acceptance of the free market ideology of the Neo-Liberals and an end to any possible policies of state socialism. 

There are other events, but to discuss them would needlessly lengthen the essay to no purpose and would not alter the conclusion of my essay, that the immaturity of the current political debate is in a large part due to the loss of confidence within the political classes. Politicians need to find a new sense of purpose, possibly hope can come from the margins, with parties such as the Greens with their plans for a renewal of British society.