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Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Back to Basics: Political Economy [1]

As an independent backstreet blogger I am fascinated to observe the clouds of intellectual debris that flit through the internet in thousands of blogs written by people who desperately want to be regarded as innovative mainstream Economists. Most of them are academics who have contracted duties in a university or a research unit; and some - especially those who produce branded research for a bank or a commercial think tank - have a direct business interest in publishing their opinions. The academics are desperately keen to be quoted by other bloggers and their output is already systematised so that those with academic ambitions cite the number of references to their output that are made by other participants in the racket, just as they do in respect of the 'peer reviewed' academic journals. Soon indexes of citations will list references to blogs alongside references to more formal articles; and citations in blogs written by senior professors will have a higher allocation of points.

The most tragic aspect of this ballooning exocrescence of academic blogging is that almost all the participants display the usual sycophancy to the seniors who can help their careers, who might deign to mention the mini-bloggers in their own blogs.Therefore they are anxious not to step outside the orthodox boundaries of the subject as it is set out by the dominant professors. The majority of the bloggers also display a painfully serious intent to classify themselves in sub-schools within the ever-more-diffuse 'discipline' of Economics, built on phrases like dynamic stochastic general equilibrium that attracted well-deserved ridicule when it was uttered in the House of Commons: but are commended in the hypoxic atmosphere of an academics' conference.

The more intelligent mainstream Economists are forced to realise that Economics fuelled the hubris that caused the credit crunch, but they cannot yet face the fact that the 'discipline' itself has failed. Such an admission would require them to admit that they have spent their careers on presenting doctrines that have condemned their fellow citizens, and themselves, to a lower standard of living in future than should have been available to them.

Economics fails most obviously at the interface between macroeconomics and microeconomics. In principle, socialist planning is a system for directing firms' and individuals' activities day by day, with the intention that each participant delivers outputs that serve as inputs to a planned macroeconomic aggregate. Keynes was in his prime precisely at the time when Stalin's Soviet Union was claiming success for its planning mechanisms: while the world became aware of the brutality with which The Plan was enforced and the disasters [including deaths through famine] that were caused by its inefficiencies. Keynes's wife was a Russian refugee, whose table-talk frequently included information and anecdote about Soviet repression. In The Economic Consequences of the Peace [1919] he had forecasted a strong reaction in Germany to the way the country was treated by the victorious allies at the end of the First World War, and fourteen years on he took no pleasure in seeing the fulfilment of his prediction by Hitler's National Socialists. The Nazi's economic programme was built onto a Four Year Plan controlled by a Commissioner, Goring, who took draconian powers over businesses and the trade unions. The principal objective of that Plan was to prepare the economy to support an aggressive war in Europe.

Keynes was a Liberal who deplored the emergence of tyranny in Europe and during the nineteen-thirties he was concerned that Britain must avoid an economic collapse that would allow communist or fascist ideas to capture any significant proportion of the electorate. Keynes's mentor, Alfred Marshall [1842-1924], was the great founder of authoritarian academic Microeconomics: within a decade of his death it was painfully clear that his Economics provided no prescriptions for solving the practical problems that were causing mass unemployment in democratic societies. Keynes recognised that the macro-economy, the environment in which firms and the buyers of their produce operate, must be managed actively by the state. He suggested techniques for creating employment by government intervention through taxing and spending, and by adjusting the supply of money and by manipulating the factors that determine the rate of interest.

Keynes was crucial to the management of the command economy that supplied the country and its armed forces during the Second World War, and he worked hugely hard at international negotiations in planning for the postwar settlement. The extreme demands that were made on his mind and body were at least contributory to his death from heart failure very soon after the war. Had he lived for another decade he may have addressed the mechanisms by which macroeconomic devices could be made to articulate efficiently with microeconomic systems; but posterity was denied that guidance.

 The lack of  effective articulation between macroeconomic interventions and the achievement of intended outcomes by firms and people has been ducked by the entire 'Economics profession' through the six decade since Keynes died. Whenever the data disclose a trend that the government decides must be addressed by a shift in macroeconomic policy, it increases or reduces the money supply, raises or lowers rates of interest, increases or reduces taxation, increases or cancels government orders to firms, and/or to increase or reduce the number and rates of pay for state employees. Recently in Europe restrictive policies have been imposed on the economies of Greece, Ireland and other heavily indebted states. Within the eurozone, in cases where the elected governments have hesitated to act in the required manner, a change of government has been imposed; composed of  technocrats: - which means Economists.

Because it is outside the eurozone, Britain still has monetary independence and control of most taxation. The current coalition government came together [and will probably stay together] because the party leaders recognise that the economy is in a very perilous situation. The government is taking radical steps to reduce the rate of increase in state spending to a level where  - in an ideal world - the economy in total would be growing faster than state spending, so that government spending and borrowing would become smaller percentages of the gross national product. The appearance of 'stable economic growth' that was delivered by the Blair-Brown regime was derived from increased direct spending by the government and by increased consumption by the increasing numbers of employees who were taken on in the civil service and in state agencies: supported by strong but ultimately unsustainable growth in demand arising from the bubble in the financial services sector.

De-industrialisation had been occurring by default in Britain since the collapse of traditional textiles in the nineteen-fifties: But after Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979 it became deliberate policy. Coal mining, railways, shipbuilding, steel making and heavy engineering were regarded as the natural breeding grounds for militant trade unionism, so it was fashionable to argue that they should be cleared away like mosquito-breeding swamps. When the Second World War ended significant sectors of UK industry were old-fashioned and inefficient compared to newer factories in the USA and to the newly reconstructed plant in Germany. Rather than direct the bulk of the nation's disposable income into re-equipping the world's leading shipyards, aircraft factories, motor plant, electronic and chemical industries, successive Labour and Conservative governments raised taxes from industry to support the welfare state. While Germany developed the regional banks that supported the development of the Mittelstand of small and medium firms that supplied specialist products and services for industry and commerce, British banks took an increasingly dim view of industry. Within a democratic structure, Germany provided means by which firms could be funded to deliver desired growth. Britain had no such system; but nevertheless enough of industry survived, and new industries grew up - without government support - such that even now manufacturing is still a greater contributor to net national income than financial services ever could be.

Under the 2010 coalition government state spending is being held in check and employment in the public sector is being cut. Ministers talk often and grandiloquently about how the country will achieve macroeconomic salvation through the growth of real-world enterprises: but they become increasingly vague when pressed for details, and show that they are ineffectual in directing funds from state-controlled banks to promising businesses. This is the nub of the present problem: how are individual  firms to be enabled to deliver the contribution that they can - and must - make to recovery? What policies can build a proper articulation between the macro-economy and the firm? This vital topic must be the subject for further bogs in the coming days.

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