Tag Archives: The Guardian Newspaper

A new and unusual solution to economic policy making. ‘Wittgensteinian’ Economics.

Recently I have been reading Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein. In reading this book I realised that Wittgenstein’s approach to philosophy opens the possibility of there being a different approach to economics. What Wittgenstein is always criticising philosophers for is there constant search for the one grand theory, the unifying theory that answers all the questions. There was he argued no grand theory and it was pointless looking for one. This is an approach that I believe should be adopted in economics.

There is at present one theory that dominates economic policy making and that is what might be termed free market economics. One small book Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom’ is the origin of all current thinking on economics. Usually today it is known as Neo-liberal economics, an economic philosophy associated with the political right. Although there is a left of centre variant, new Keynesianism. Proponents of the latter claim to have rediscovered in Keynes writings his love for the free market and put to one side Keynes radicalism.

Keynes radicalism was the consequence of his despair at the misguided policy making of the governments of the 1920s and 30s. Usually the policies of the 19th century Parisian commune are ridiculed by economists. One policy that was held up to ridicule was the policy of having the unemployed dig up the paving stones, only to replace them later. The unemployed were paid a wage for this work. Economists saw this as a foolish waste of money that did little to improve the economy. However as Keynes pointed out this created an income for the unemployed and that there spending could help bring a dormant economy back into life.

What this illustrates is that Keynes was asking a different question to that asked by his contemporaries. He was trying to find an answer to the question, how do we bring to an end the misery of mass unemployment? His academic colleagues were asking a different question, how do we restore a dysfunctional economy back to being a fully functioning one that will in the long term work to the benefit all? Different questions have different answers. While Keynes advocated greater government spending to increase the demand for labour to reduce unemployment; they wanted to cut government spending, believing that only a prolonged period of sound finance and balanced budgets could create the strong economy, an economy which would eventually generate new economic growth and so ending the time mass unemployment. All this government could say to the unemployment was to have patience, as eventually the economy would pick up and they would have jobs. Keynes had one answer to this policy and that was in the long run we are all dead. There was also the unspoken assumption that growth generated by Keynes spending policies would be bad growth, whereas the economy eventually moved into the upswing in the trade cycle that this was good growth. A set of unprovable and dubious assumptions

When George Osborne adopted a similar policy in 2010, that of fiscal consolidation, cutting government expenditure and balancing the books, he repeated all the errors of the politicians of the 1920s and 30s. Mass misery, although this time not caused by unemployment, but low wages and the insecure employment of the ‘gig’ economy.

Wittgenstein’s last book was ‘Philosophical Investigations’ crystallised my thinking on economics. Rather than believing that there was one grand unified theory of economics, there are series of economic investigations which belong to one family, as they all bear a familial resemblance. The economy as subject matter is the familial resemblance. He also writes about the grammar of philosophy, which provides the format or structure for ensuring that the correct questions are asked or the correct philosophical investigations undertaken. What is the nature of good is an incorrect question. The correct question is what actions are understood as good. Asking people what is good is silly, as anybody when asked that question could give numerous examples. They understand the concept good, what they don’t need is a philosopher telling them what good means. Philosophers when asking this question brings itself into discredit, as the answer is either I don’t or a definition that lacks application or validity to everyday life.* Politicians are also failing to formulate their questions correctly. What they ask is that asked by the politicians of the 1930s how can we the economy to health. What they should be asking is a series of questions about the economy, such as how can unemployment be reduced, when looking for policy solutions to all these individual problems they will be answering the big question, of how can we restore the economy to good health.

I can give examples to demonstrate my thinking. The British economy has a number of dysfunctions within it, but ones that the Neo-Liberals believe only require the one solution. These dysfunctions are:

• Slow and anaemic economic growth

• The highest trade deficit as a percentage of GDP for a developed country, as a consequence of a shrinking manufacturing industry

• An unbalanced economy, one in which the financial service sectors are booming and manufacturing is in slow relative decline, an economy also unbalanced in that the southeast and London are experiencing high growth and incomes while the other regions experience the reverse

• An economy that is increasingly failing to deliver for increasing numbers of people, who are denied the essentials of a good life, that is fair incomes, secure employment and good housing.

• Income inequality is now approaching those levels last seen in the dismal 1930s

• The economy is increasingly subject to speculative booms and busts in the various asset market, usually such busts originate in the property market

• A country which shares record levels of indebtedness with Japan. The majority of British debt is private sector debt, which an upward shift in interest rates could make unsustainable, as too many households would have difficulty managing their debt repayments

There are other dysfunctions that I could add to the list, however I had to end the list somewhere. Only today Areon Davis (Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the end of the Establishment) has in today’s Guardian newspaper outlined a different set of market dysfunctions, which could result in a repeat of the 2008/9 financial crisis. Yet the Neo-Liberals politicians always resort to the same set of policy options to deal with each of these dysfunctions. They are

• Vary interest rates, either lower or raise them

• Reduce regulation on business, thereby reducing the regulatory role of the state

• Cut taxes and government spending

• Recently they have added a new measure – quantitive easing, that is increasing the supply of money to the banks

What the British economy requires is a different set of policy options for each of these major dysfunctions. Why do these politicians believe that the same policy options should be prescribed for each policy? A doctor prescribes antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection, he would not use them a patient that suffered a cardiac arrest, yet this is exactly what the government does with economic policy making. It’s always the same prescription, whatever the problem.

The economy is a dynamic organisation that is constantly changing and each change in the economy offers new benefits or brings to the fore new problems. There can be no one theory of everything, while Neo-Liberalism offers some policy options suitable for some problems, that is all it can offer. If instead politicians realised that each new problem the economy threw up was asking a new question of them and not just some variant of an old question policy making would improve. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, economics is a series of investigations that ask different questions, each of which requires a different response.

*I am aware that my brief paragraph does an injustice to Wittgenstein’s thinking, as I have taken elements from ‘The Brown and Blue Books’ and ‘Philosophical Investigations’, which are dissimilar books written at different stages in the development of Wittgenstein’s thinking. However to do so suited my purposes.


The Economics of the Titanic or a comment on Larry Elliot’s article on Brexit economics

When reading today’s Guardian I was struck by an article written by Larry Elliot. It was mocking all the doomsayers who predicted dire economic consequences if Britain left the EU. He quite rightly wrote that since the vote to leave the EU, the economy has  been doing quite well. Unemployment is down, economic growth is higher than expected and sales in the retail sector are as buoyant as ever. There seems to be no evidence of the economic disasters that would occur if Britain left the EU, as claimed by the Remain campaigners. However, he does in his thoughtful article explain that there are still unresolved problems that threaten future prospects of the UK economy, such as the appalling low productivity levels of British workers and the large trade deficit. He does suggest that these problems do have solutions and that the shock of exit will force the government into tackling these problems in the economy that have been ignored by politicians for decades, as they wish to minimise the negative effects of EU exit.

There are just one or two caveats that I would wish to make. He as did I would have read J.K.Galbraith’s “The Great Crash”* when a student studying economics. He would have read that one of the prime factors in causing the great crash was an unsustainable boom in asset prices. One these prices moved downward all the flaws in a weak financial sector were exposed and a panic would set in forcing a crash sale in assets such as shares with the consequent bankruptcy of many business enterprises. There is plenty of evidence of there being a speculative and unsustainable boom in asset prices within the UK economy at present. Despite a few blips property prices have reached new highs. While it is not clear when the downward in the property market will occur it is likely to be sooner than later. Given the natural turn of events financial downturns occur every nine years, 1990, 1999 and 2008, which means that if this cycle continues there will be a crash in 2017. Leaving the EU has created an aura of uncertainty which not only undermines market confidence making a financial downturn more likely but means when it does occur it will be worse that otherwise would be expected.

If I could use a metaphor to describe the foolish actions of our political leaders, I would see it in the actions of the captain of the Titanic. The captain of this ship overestimated the soundness of the construction of this liner. He believed that if the ship collided with an iceberg, the nature  of its construction would mean that any collision will result in minimal damage to the ship. As a consequence he sailed too far north, to close to the area of the Atlantic in which the icebergs where situated and the resultant collision with an iceberg sunk the unsinkable ship. The attitude of the politicians who campaigned for Brexit mirrors that of the Titanic captain. They vastly overestimated the soundness of the UK economy and its ability to withstand economic shocks. Instead of there being a small hole below the economic waterline, caused by exiting the EU which can soon be fixed, there is a much larger one that is capable of sinking the UK economy.

One of the flaws never mentioned by Larry Elliot and the Brexiters is the massive over indebtedness of the British economy. Consumer indebtedness is moving rapidly towards a total of 200% of GDP and the debts of our banks are far in excess of 400% of GDP. Much of this debt, particularly that of the banks is owed to overseas investors. Even in normal times this represents a problem for the UK economy, but in a time of uncertainty it becomes a far more serious one. The value of the pound sterling has fallen since Brexit, this has meant that the holdings of British currency in British banks by overseas investors has decreased in value. At the moment the fall in the price of sterling has stabilised and there has been no rush by overseas investors to withdraw their money. They judge that the advantages of investing money in Britain outweigh the disadvantages. However in a time of uncertainty there is a possibility that the value of sterling will fall further, which will probably occur when the exit negotiations hit some difficulties. Then these foreigner depositors will not be willing to see their cash deposits shrink further in value and so will begin to withdraw their funds from the UK. This can easily develop into a panic and the consequence will be a run on sterling. The UK government would have to apply to the International Monetary Fund for emergency funding to tide it over the crisis. Quite possibly the European Central Bank would be involved as many large European banks are located in London. In this event the price for these loans would be the imposition of a Greece like austerity programme. Such a programme of austerity would devastate the British economy as massive cuts in public spending would be required. One casualty would be the National Health Service as one of the first casualties, as the Greek experience shows that any national system of healthcare is regarded as a luxury that an indebted nation cannot afford.

If Larry Elliot’s memory had served him better he would have remember that Galbraith wrote that there was a relatively long lead in to the crash in 1929. The signs of the impending disaster were visible  long before the crash occurred. Then it was the evidence of the foolish speculative spending made by investors, they would invest in anything in the hope of making a profit. One story sticks in my mind and that is the one property developer marketed Florida swamp land as a desirable housing investment. This obvious fraudulent nature of this development mattered little to investors as they believed what they bought for $1 in the morning they could sell for $2 at the end of the day to some sap. Obviously this could not continue and it would end in heartbreak for many.  A minority of investors got out early recognising that there would  be a stock market crash, investors such as Joseph Kennedy. The soon to be multi millionaire father of JFK. Similarly in Britain there are signs of problems ahead. There has been a marked fall in business investment as manufacturers are unwilling to commit to a future which is so uncertain. A collapse in business investment is as any economist knows is the mechanism which starts a downturn in economic activity and possibly a recession. There was also the short panic that occurred just after the Brexit vote when a number of property investment funds had to temporarily stop withdrawals as they had not the funds available to met the demands for cash withdrawals made by panicky investors. The omens for the future are not good, despite current appearances to the contrary.

Whatever happens in the coming years all that can be said it that they will be years of difficulty for the British people. Years of difficulty brought about by the foolish actions of our political leaders who demonstrate a flawed understanding of the UK economy.

* J.K.Galbraith ‘The Great Crash’ an account of  the Great Depression which started in 1929