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.