Tag Archives: The British Treasury

The ‘sky cannot fall in’ school of economics.

There is an economic school of thought commonly held by politicians and journalists, which can be best described ‘as the sky won’t fall in’ economics’. What the practitioners of this economics believe is that the economy is a thing that just goes on delivering whatever politicians might do. There foolish decisions have some negative impact on the margins, but come what may the economy will still working as well as ever tomorrow. Such people described the financial crisis of 2008/9 as a ‘once in a lifetime affair’, it was what insurers call the unexpected, an ‘act of God’. What it was not was a crisis brought about by the foolish behaviour of bankers and politicians. The cause of the crisis was not the foolish speculative behaviours of the banking community or in the naivety of politicians in believing that the financial market could regulate itself, no the causes lay elsewhere.

Similarly in the U.K. we are suffering from a surfeit of ‘the sky won’t fall in’ economics from the Brexiteers in the politics and the media. Warnings of the dire impact that a hard Brexit will have on the economy are dismissed as ‘Project Fear’. One leading politician when warned of the damaging impact of a premature exit from the European Union (EU) on manufacturing industry, said that it won’t matter, as manufacturing only accounts for 10% of U.K. output. Only a person completely ignorant of economics could make such a foolish statement.

Yesterday a journalist who normally displays the utmost scepticism about politicians and politics revealed themselves as a member of this school of thought. He in his articles has on numerous occasions exposed the follies of politicians; yet he takes the word of these self same politicians that a premature rupture in trading relations with our biggest trading partner will have minimal impact on the economy. He writes that the day after Brexit the economy will be functioning as normal, planes will still be flying and there will be food in the supermarkets.

Yes the economy will still be there and it will be functioning, but the question he fails to ask is how well will it be functioning. To take his first example, yes the planes are likely to be flying, as it’s inconceivable that the British and European politicians can’t come to some agreement on airlines flying rights. (One must mention a proviso, politicians are just as likely to come to an agreement which is detrimental to the interests of our airlines, as beneficial. He assumes a competence which our politicians in the Brexit negotiations, have been singularly lacking.) What he fails to understand is that whatever results, the British government is exchanging an agreement about rights to fly over Europe that is highly beneficial for our airlines for one that is much less beneficial. What we do not as yet know is how much more difficult will it be for Britons to fly in and out of Europe. Obviously the uncertainty generated by Brexit will the day after Brexit lead to some cancelled or delayed flights. All that can be said is that British airlines won’t enjoy the same access to flight space over Europe than they had before. However what will obvious is that flying from Britain to Europe will become more difficult.

Journalists and politicians of the Brexit persuasion hide behind this uncertainty. I as an economist know that Brexit will be damaging to the British economy and society. Just because people such as myself cannot spell out in accurate statistical format the exact damage that Brexit will inflict on the economy, Brexiteers claim that we should not be believed as we really just don’t know. However to put it in its simplest terms believing the Brexiteers is asking the people to accept that there uninformed guesses are as good as my informed guess of myself and other economists.

John Maynard Keynes was once the doyen of British economists, but he is now so out of favour that his economics has been banished from the Treasury and political circles. As a consequence politicians lack an understanding and knowledge of his great insights to the workings of the economy. What all in politics and most in journalism have forgotten is his insight that the capitalist economy is inherently unstable. In his books such as ‘What is to be Done’ he demonstrated how the misguided decision making of the politicians had brought about the worst of all possible economic circumstances. The Peace Treaty of Versailles might have delivered peace but it also delivered a Europe wide economic recession. Imposing punitive sanctions on Germany wrecked the economy of what before 1914 had been Europe’s largest and most prosperous economy. The knock on effect was Germany no longer bought the goods it had previously, so spreading the misery of slow growth and high unemployment throughout Europe. Added to this British politicians made a series of decisions which worsened the impact of this depression on the U.K. The 1920s in terms of economic growth was a lost decade.

What cannot be stated often enough is that the economy is not a thing that will constantly deliver, regardless of the poor decision making of our political and business leaders. Just as with any human construct it has flaws and one flaw is its propensity towards instability. This unstable economy can be as easily pushed into recession, through the follies of our leaders as it can be thrust into exuberant growth through the ingenuity and good decision taking of the same people.

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and all the other entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley kickstarted the information technology revolution, which led to a sustained period of economic growth. One only temporarily halted by the bursting of the dot.com bubble. A bubble caused by foolish speculators bidding to much for dot.com businesses. When it became obvious that these companies would never earn the expected profits, it became obvious that these companies had been overvalued, so there share prices collapsed, causing a loss of business confidence and a recession.

To this economist one the main causes of sudden changes in the business cycle are human folly and ingenuity. The economy is not a perfect construct it has weaknesses and foolish decisions made by politicians and businessmen can expose those flaws which leads to economic collapse. Similarly it has strengths which men and women of ingenuity can exploit to create immense wealth, which benefits all.

In answer to Michael Gove and Simon Jenkins, despite what you think, the ‘economic sky can fall in’. It’s the actions of men such as you that make this more likely to happen than not. Unfortunately the leading politicians in Britain at present seem to lack amongst them, people of realism and ingenuity that could prevent ‘the sky from falling in’.

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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.

How to spot a bad economist

What cannot be doubted is that if a mysterious plague had wiped out all living economists twenty years ago, the world would be a better place than it is now. Economists despite their supposed understanding of the economy have consistently failed to predict any of the major crises that have occurred. Just before the crash of 2008/9 economists were speaking of a new paradigm in which the old rules no longer applied. The huge debt or credit mountains that had developed in the financial sector were no a cause for concern but a welcome development. It was evidence of the efficiency of the banking sector in creating credit to meet the needs of industry and consumers. Banks were at the forefront of the technological advance, an example for the rest of the business to follow. The new paradigm was of course no such thing, old fashioned credit bubbles had built up within the financial sector and would inevitably burst as they did causing a near melt down of the banking sector. There were a few economists that spoke against the new paradigm but the majority  were in favour of it. Since the few perceptive economist were ignored by governments it only goes to demonstrate that we would have been much better off without the profession of economists. What is most worrying is that economists have become cheerleaders for the worst economic practices and behaviours instead of being its critics. Very few economists wanted to spoil the party, most choose to go along with the partying.

As one of the few economists (letters published in the national media), who predicted the bust of 2008, I think the role to which I am best suited is to identify those traits in an economist which clearly identify them as a bad economist. While I am not in a position to advise ministers on the choice of economist, what I can hope is that my advice will get wider dissemination and over time and will eventually reach the political classes, so enabling them to make a better choice of economist to advise them.

A bad economist can be identified quite simply, they claim to have the answers, they just know. They never express any doubts ,they are unique in that they always know what will happen in the future. Usually they are one trick ponies, they  have learnt and rehearsed the arguments for their particular brand of economics and see no need to ever change their views. What these economists lacked was what I experienced, student’s on my economics course were pointed in the direction of  J.S.Mill in the 19th century philosopher, who argued for  the impossibility of there being a science of society and in particular a science of economics. His argument was that it was impossible to make sound predictions about what would happen in the future, as there were too many variables (people) who behave unpredictably, unlike the natural sciences where the subjects studied do behave in predictable ways.

The British Treasury as one of the doyens of economic forecasting has spent a century or more proving J.S.Mill correct. The Treasury has never produced one correct forecast about the future of the British economy. They at the best make predictions in line with what has been the trend of the past few years. The only accurate forecasts they make are those that are revised after the event, when adjustments can be made to the forecast on the basis of what really happened. Despite its massive  investment in technology the British Treasury has always been caught by surprise whenever a crisis occurs. It failed to predict the financial crash of 2008/9, the bursting of the dot com bubble in 1999 and the property crash of 1990.

Despite their record of failure the British Treasury has no hesitation about advising the government on economic policy. They never feel any sense of doubt and they have been the driving force behind the adoption of free market economics. They were in the 1980s advocating an end to security of tenure (be it home ownership or lifetime tenancies), they argued that there was a problem of accommodation blocking in the areas of economic growth, as people hung on to their accommodation denying them to those workers needed by the growing businesses. The Treasury believed security of tenure was the enemy of economic growth. They were one of the leading advocates in government that led to those policies that effectively led to the end of security of tenure for the majority of people. It was not so long ago that the Treasury were congratulating themselves on the success of their policies, as they claimed that insecure tenancy system of private rentals system had freed up accommodation for the large influx of the migrants from the European Union. The victims of the housing chaos, that is the young professionals and families being priced out of London would disagree.

The next criteria for identifying the bad economist is a wilful forgetting of their past errors, they can never admit that they have been wrong in the past. There are never any failures in their curriculum vitae. Treasury economists despite their mixed record move to senior positions in the finance sector, where the businesses that hire them foolishly believing that they are buying into their unrivalled expertise in economics.

Another of the criteria for judging whether an economist is bad or not, is do they over rely on economic modelling? Do they have an inability to speak in understandable English or do they rely on incomprehensible economic terminology to convince their listeners of  their expertise? When trying to sell a policy that the purchaser (the politician) themselves could have thought of themselves these economists use baffling economic terminology to dress up what is a very simplistic policy proposal.  I can never forgive the tutor who recommended a book on market economics written by an eminent Chicago professor of economics. A book that for all its use of difficult economic terminology taught me nothing that I did not already know. Not only that it was in hardback and cost far too much; however it was a lesson well learnt. I saw my role as an economics teacher to translate the economic texts I gave my students into comprehensible English. Close reading of the texts showed how authors would use economic terminology to cover up gaps in their knowledge and understanding. Now that I am retired I wonder if this use of unnecessarily complex language was not a deliberate ploy to hide their failings as economists.

One other criteria is does the economist sound like so many others in the profession? All to often rather than analyse a problem and make reasoned suggestions, economists will take short cuts and rely upon repeating what is the common stock of economic knowledge. If they repeat it in their reports they know that they are immune from criticism, as no other economist will criticise them for repeating the mantras from the economist’s creed. While the agreed understandings and beliefs of the profession are not quite the holy writ, no criticisms of it will be tolerated by members of the profession. In conclusion it can be stated that a bad economist is a lazy thinker, someone who relies on the knowledge of the herd, one who follows convention.

Einstein once said that to do the same thing over and over again and yet expect different results each time is the height of folly. This happens regularly at the British Treasury which  insists that public services should be put out to tender and run as private enterprises, each year the Treasury finds new sectors of the public service to be farmed out to the private sector. Most recently it was the prison service, individual prisons are now to function as private companies. These new prisons will be judged on there reoffending figures. Incomes for the enterprise will depend on reoffending rates, those with the best record for reducing reoffending will get the biggest bonus payments. Profitability will depend on their success at cutting reoffending.  The only problem is that human behaviour does not respond this profit and loss model in the way the politicians assume.  If an effective method of reducing reoffending had been discovered it would have been introduced to the system long ago, as it would have been the most effective of reducing crime and costs of criminality. What methods of reducing reoffending that have been discovered are expensive to implement and one of the criteria for the new Prisons Ltd is that they keep costs to a minimum. This cost minimisation criteria goes contrary to the demand to reduce reoffending. This demonstrates another criteria naive over optimism, it is seeing the solution to complex social problems as being the adoption of simplistic business models.

When I attended my first philosophy lectures I remember Professor Oakshot talking about the various philosophical models adopted in the past. One was that adopted in the medieval period  was to examine human behaviours from the perspective of a super human being, a God’s eye perspective on mankind. Obviously mankind was found wanting or to use Augustine’s phraseology human behaviour was all too often dominated by the lower appetitive instincts. If today such a super human judged mankind he would recommend the elimination of the tribe of economists. This action would bring immediate benefits to human society and if it did not bring heaven down to earth it would lead to human society becoming much nicer.