Tag Archives: unemployment

Why I am such a poor economist

Actually I think I am quite a good economist, but I fail to match up to the standards by which professional or academic economists judge other economists to be good. This failing in my practice of economics began to develop in 1966. Then I was appalled by an article I read, which was written by two economists from my university advising the government of the island of Mauritius on how to improve their failing economy. It was a blue print for the most severe form of what today would be called Neo-Liberal economics. A reform programme that if implemented would have impoverished thousands if not millions of Mauritians. There was also a professor at my university who advocated an increase in unemployment as the best means of ending the inflation that beset the British economy of the 1960s. Today most academic economists now see increased unemployment as a useful policy tool in management of the economy. Then in the 1960s, it was heresy, as too many people remembered the misery caused by the mass unemployment of the 1930s.

Unemployment has always been seen as a necessary feature of a functioning market economy by economists. They believe that a certain level of involuntary unemployment is a required to make the market function efficiently. If there are people unemployed there will always be workers available to for expanding firms to recruit and there will always be workers made newly unemployed by failing businesses. Unemployment when explained in these terms can be seen as justified, as the free market model suggests that there is but a short time in which workers remain unemployed. Unemployment then is a short term pain suffered by a few, their temporary period of pain was for the benefit of all.

However the economy never worked in the way described by economists. There were a number for whom unemployment was a temporary situation, but there were many for whom unemployment was for the long term and who were subject to life of poverty and misery. What economists failed to take into account was there was always a mismatch between the location of  unemployed workers and the location of the expanding businesses. Large scale unemployment always occurred in areas where many businesses were failing or where many had already failed.

Economists had an answer to this problem, the unemployed workers should move to the areas in which there was work available. This is a solution of unbelievable callousness, it treats people as if there were a resource similar to other non human factors of production. One that should be used as the business though fit. Never have economist recognised the inhumanity of their policies. One can be sure that all economists are unfamiliar with Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. A book in which he describes the miseries suffered by the ‘Oakies’, the people forced off the land in Oklahoma by the Great Dustbowl and forced to look for work in California.

What makes me a bad economist is that I can’t accept the inhumanity of my subject. The golden rule of economics is that labour or humanity is just a resource like any other and should not be treated differently. This is very much the accepted rule today. It is unusual to find any economist speaking against the closure of any business and the unemployment it creates. All they see is human resources freed to work in more profitable sectors of the economy, the recent spate of closures of retail businesses to economists just part of the structural change in the economy. Put simply online competition in the retail trade has forced many high street shops to close, which they see as a consequence of the essential restructuring of the market.

One might add that in a British economy that is struggling there are few of the profitable sectors of business that will recruit these workers. Usually redundant workers find work in which they are paid an average of 30% less than in there previous work. Skilled workers are forced to take relatively low paid work in call centres and warehouses. There is no happy ending to a period of unemployment that the economist claim.

There is to an economist such as myself (one who sees unemployment as an evil to be avoided wherever possible) an alternative explanation for the closure of these high street shops. For me an equally important factor in this situation is the inflexible and dysfunctional commercial property market. The shops are always situated in central areas of towns or cities where the shop sites command premium rents. Economic theory states that when the demand for a resource declines its price should fall. Recently the House of Fraser appealed to its landlords for a reduction in their shop rentals in light of there falling profits. There landlords will ignore their plea and continue to demand sky high rents. All these city centre or high street sites are owned by large property companies whose only concern is to extract the maximum possible rent from these sites. It matters little to them if the shops fail and thousands lose their jobs. What matters most to them is the rents remain high, even it that means the site remains vacant. These people are eternal optimists and will wait as long as it takes to find a new tenant who will pay there extortionate rents. What makes me a bad economist to my peers is that I would seek a different solution to the problems of the failing high street. The solution for me is to introduce some form of rent control, there are plenty of mechanisms that can be used to ensure that a fair rent is charged for a property. This would benefit the economy as it enable many viable businesses to survive that would otherwise be put out of business through excessively high rental costs. Also it would preserve many thousands of jobs that would otherwise be lost.

Before anybody criticises me for being unfair to the commercial landlords through forcing them to let properties for uneconomic rents. It should be noted that all our city centre properties are owned by a few large property companies. These companies operate an informal cartel in which they co-operate in their self interest to maximise their rental incomes. In the past it was quite usual for such cartels to be regulated by the state to prevent them from abusing their powers.

Where I differ from so many economists is that I believe that policy measures or economic practices that create unemployment should not be a first resort. The first option businesses consider to increase profits, should not be to shed staff. The hollowing out of a business whereby labour costs are reduced to a minimum through shedding staff and premises closed to reduce costs to increase overall businesses profitability should be made difficult to undertake*. When hollowing out of a business occurs it is not just the staff who suffer, but the customers who experience poor customer service or a reduction in the quality and range of goods on sale.

The problem for me is the inhumanity of much economic theory and practice. I cannot accept economic policy and business practices that damage society’s well being as ever being justified. Not only is much of current business practice as sanctioned by economics harmful to individuals but it is also harmful to the state. When workers are paid wages that are insufficient to support themselves and their families, the state has to step in to provide in work benefits. The cost of these in work benefits are very substantial and represent a huge subsidy to bad employers, as state struggles to ensure that these low paid workers get a living wage.

What I have to answer is why economists are so indifferent to the suffering of their fellow inhumanity. Why don’t economists care? The answer I think can be found in the writings of Wittgenstein. He introduces the concept of the language game, language for him is not universal there are groups with society that have their own language or language codes which have meanings that are understood only by them. One such group are economists we use words and phrases that have no meaning to outsiders, such as monopsony, giffen goods and zero lower bound. Some I can easily explain to non economists others I would find it practically impossible so to do. Economists have their own unique language embedded in which are truths only known to economists. The supreme good in which economists believe is the free market. The greatest gift that mankind gave to itself was the creation of the free market which ensures the most efficient and equitable distribution of goods and services. All economic policy making should be directed towards ensuring the most efficient operation this free market. Other economists such as myself that don’t share this belief are dismissed as poor economists.

There is one example from the 19th century which best demonstrates how economists think. When the Irish potato famine was at its height in 1846, the government suggested that it should import wheat from Russia to distribute to the starving Irish. Economists, landowners, land owing politicians and farmers objected. It would be an interference in the free running of the market and no good ever comes from government intervention in the market. Governments they said do not understand the workings of the free market. These objectors argued it would lower the price of wheat in the British market and put British farmers out of business. This they argued it would be bad, as it would reduce the number of farmers working in the industry and reduce in the long term food production in the British Isles, so causing problems in the future. Anybody familiar with Irish history knows that the government rejected the proposal to import wheat to feed the starving Irish, preferring to let them starve. To those who would say this is an unfair depiction of the mind set of economists, my rejoinder is that they know nothing of the thinking of the economists employed by HM Treasury.

Economists always have a defence against the claims that the practice of economics is an exercise in inhumanity. They will claim that the free market will in the long term provide all the benefits and goodies that it is possible for an economy to provide. All that is required in patience however Keynes provided the best retort to this thinking he said ‘that in the long run we are all dead.’

*One easy means of making hollowing out a less popular practice, would be to reintroduce the employment protection policies of the past, such ending the practice of zero hours contracts and other short term employment contracts that make it easy to dismiss staff. Re-introducing fair redundancy payments for dismissed workers would be another.

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Thinking ourselves into poverty

If there were two words that I could use to describe the current state of economic thinking, they would be pessimism and helplessness. All economists can offer is an indefinite period of continuing misery, which they call austerity and that this misery is unavoidable and necessary given the conditions that prevail in the world economy. The Europeans in particular must suffer for indulging in a frivolous life style in which they squandered money on welfare, education and health services, money which would have been better spent on investing in industry. Now it’s payback time. What Europeans did not realise that there is an economic Darwinism, that governs the world economy. Those nations that are uncompetitive fall by the wayside and must suffer the consequences of which the main one is a dramatic fall in living standards. Europe having become uncompetitive through increasing its labour costs by taxing employers to pay for welfare spending etc. must now pay the price. The price is increased unemployment, poorer working conditions and lower pay and only then will Europe become competitive in the world economy.

What economists never say is that they are advocating for Europe a return to what used to be called the ‘second world’ standards. In the initial period after the Second World War there was a category of development status between first and third world, it was the second world. Second world economies were those of Eastern Europe where the standard of living was modest, people were poor but not in want, that is they were fed, housed and clothed but lived a life devoid of luxuries such as car ownership. Labour was cheap in these countries and businesses would never lose out to foreign rivals because of high costs.

The best way of understanding contemporary economics is by way of metaphor, contemporary economists can be compared to high priests in the blood stained Aztec, Mayan and Inca cultures. Then the people believed that the natural catastrophes that they suffered were the actions of malevolent Gods, who punished the people for offending them. Only the priests understood how to manage these supernatural malevolent forces which was through human sacrifice. The priests decided when sacrifice was necessary and how many should perish. The Mayan had one cruel ritual in which two teams of young men played a form of hand ball, in which the losing team were beheaded. This ritual blood letting would appease the Gods and stop them inflicting suffering on the Mayan people as a whole. Today rather than priests it is the economists who understand and manage the malevolent forces that threaten our well being. Only they have the knowledge necessary to appease the angry Gods of the free market and that is yet another form of human sacrifice. Fortunately the sacrifices to be made are of income not life. People must be prepared to accept drastic cuts in their standard of living for the betterment of all. In a world beyond human control the only way to control or assuage those violent forces that threaten human well being is to appease the Gods of nature or market through human sacrifice.

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There is a crude economic determinism that governs economic thinking. People are pawns in the game of competing market forces, if those forces turn against a people they must expect to suffer. Economists can read the runes and advise that sacrifices have to be made to avoid the direst of economic consequences. Any reading of an economics textbook demonstrates the view that the economy is a force outside or beyond human control, and that human life must be managed according to its dictates. There are the laws of supply which demonstrate that if prices are too high (incomes) demand will fall and products will remain unsold (unemployment). Only when prices (wages) are cut will demand rise (employment levels increase). This even has a name it’s called Say’s Law.

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One example is the economic austerity that is deemed necessary to reduce the out of control government deficit. It makes sense that if we reduce our spending our debts are reduced and as government debt total is about 80% of GDP, obviously we the British must cut our spending until the debt is back under control. Actually this is nonsense economists are lying. They are well aware of the much greater national debt and that is the one run up by the banks which totals about 400% of GDP. If the UK GDP was £1.5 trillion government debt would total £1.2 trillion while bank debt would total £6 trillion. Economists rarely mention the latter, it is deemed irrelevant relevant to their analysis. What matters is not the truth but what authoritative voices say is the truth. Economists as with the ruling caste of priests in Mayan culture could manipulate data to further their interests. If there was a bad harvest the solution was not to arrange a fairer distribution of food, but to appease the Gods by increasing the number of human sacrifices. Economists as with the Mayan priests practice a philosophy of non answers, ritual substitutes for action. Enforcing a policy of austerity on the majority benefits the economists and the financial elite of which they are members, as it is a ritualised substitute for taking sanction action against the real debt, bank debt. Cutting bank debt would mean reducing the cash balances of the banks and as the largest depositors are the rich they would suffer disproportionately.

Rather than seeing us as the victims of economic forces beyond our control, the economy should be seen as a human creation subject to human control. The economy is a organised set of human relationships designed by people to achieve particular ends. If it is a human creation, it is infinitely malleable and it can be designed to serve a variety of ends. Either the economy is designed to benefit a privileged elite or to benefit the majority. There are
There are other ways of understanding of economics other than accepted Neo-Liberal model. To outline the alternative I want to borrow from the writings of the 19th philosopher Hegel on phenomenology. He believes what we experience as reality, is reality as perceived through our conscious mind a reconstruction of reality, nothing more. We live in the world of our imagination. Hegel’s theory of phenomenology is fraught with difficulty when applied to the natural world, as our perceptions of cold and heat are not subjective. However it does offer insights into understanding society, something not visible but understood through our consciousness. Is it not true that we know the social world subjectively? It is a projection of our minds, yet it is also a imagining rooted in the common reality of our culture. If we admit that any individuals understanding of society is subjective, the apparent realism of free market economics with their laws of supply and demand disappears, it becomes just one of many understanding of social reality. Admittedly an understanding that one of the most authoritative groups in society that the interlocking elites of economists, financiers, traders and economists. There can therefore be other equally valid understandings of the economy. Why should the understanding of Andy Haldane (Senior Bank of England economist) be privileged over the understanding of a joiner, engineer or doctor. This economists understanding of the economy is but one of the valid views, there is no reason why the joiner should not have an equally valid of the economy. What I have in mind is the ends or purposes of an economy, rather than the techniques of economic management, in which Andy Haldane will be superior. Ends do inform technique so the separation is not complete. The joiner would see making people unemployed in large numbers as an invalid technique of economic management.

Rather than there being one authoritative understanding of economics there needs to be an acceptance of their being a number of equally valid interpretations. In a free society there would be representatives of different economic understandings participating in the political debate that decides economic policy making; instead of as in the UK where only representatives of the Neo-Liberal economic tendency are heard in the political debate. Holders of dissenting views are not usually imprisoned in the UK, the exception being is if their campaigning is perceived to be too,effective. Yesterday representatives of Occupy London and Jenny Jones London Green Party Assembly member were arrested for demonstrating in Parliament Square and intimidating the MP’s going about their business. Other ways are usually found to exclude or marginalise holders of dissenting views.

In a democracy the economic understanding of the economist or financier would be challenged by the holder of an alternative view. The financier would want freedom from regulation which which restrict their entrepreneurial activities arguing that by so doing the society as a whole would benefit from their wealth creating activities. This would be opposed by a trade unionist who would argue that the removal of restrictions on the entrepreneur would harm the community. They may want to use low cost methods of manufacture that are dangerous and pose a threat to the health of the workers. They may want freedom to employ labour as and when they need them, but the trade unionist would point out that this would be extremely harmful to the individual worker who would be denied a regular wage with which to support their family. The needs of people cannot be switched on and off to suit the whims of an employer. While neither side would ever accept the standpoint of the other a compromise could be achieved whereby the excesses of each could be curbed. A process not too similar Aristotle’s mean, whereby he saw virtue situated between two extremes. Courage was the virtue equidistant between foolhardiness and fear. Courage has elements of both, the courageous person knows fear but has the ability to overcome those fears. Perhaps the ideal state is one that practises Aristotle’s mean, all be it an economic mean.