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Thursday, 1 November 2012

Leaving Politicians To It

A Greek journalist faces arrest and imprisonment for publicising a list of reputed avoiders of foreign-exchange regulations, with the imputation that many of these people were corrupt and/or tax evaders. Successive Greek governments have held, and apparently ignored, the list. A new super-tough budget has been laid before the parliament which will further impoverish the residue of the middle-income groups and increase unemployment throughout the age spectrum. Yet the challenges to the government come as ritualistic strikes and occasional riots, rather than as any movement with the potential to bring down the government. The so-called 'technocrats' [some of whom are classic eurorats] will continue to perform the charade of compliance with German demands for austerity that does not affect their own caste.

The British parliament last evening voted to demand that the Prime Minister should use his entire power and influence to bring about a real-term reduction in the European Union budget. A significant minority of the Conservative Members of Parliament voted for the motion; which nobody expects will have any effect other than to deepen ancient fissures within the tory party. Earlier in the day the government had orally accepted and institutionally shelved a Report by Lord Heseltine that proposed a reversal of forty [or more] years of centralising bureaucracy which was dedicated to the systematic destruction of industry around the country. Some parts of the former deputy prime minister's Report will receive some lip service: the Prime Minister may attend one or two meetings of a National Growth Council before it is handed down to Clegg and allowed to run into the sand; and there may be announcements - vitiated in the event - about the manner in which flows of funds already announced to support 'investment' will be publicised so that they can appear to be responding to the Heseltine proposals. As usual, the politicians will ignore the best advice and steer a course that avoids obvious day-by-day responsibility for company failures and the increasing dependency of the economy on imported manufactures. The process that Harold Macmillan condemned as "selling the family silver" back in the nineteen eighties continues, as beloved brands [most recently Branston Pickle] follow the utilities into alien ownership so that an outflow of revenue to brand-owners augments the flood of payments for imports.

Britain desperately needs a growth policy: but even more it needs a capitalist policy. The term capitalist is massively misunderstood. One of the most capitalist regimes in world history was that run by Stalin; in that no regime has comparably sacrificed human living standards, human rights and human lives in the interests of investing in the growth of industrial production. Since the invention of Economics, with its atomistic obsession with transactions and its determination to submit transactions to 'free market' conditions, 'capitalism' has been retained only as a term of political abuse. One needs to go back to the Political Economy that pre-dated Economics, as exemplified in the school textbook by Millicent Fawcett that featured in my last blog, to get an  understanding of why the concept of capitalism is a good and necessary central feature of economic thinking.

Heseltine's plan, even if it were to be adopted, would be useless without a monitoring organisation to ensure that all the investments that it supports are capitalistic. Heseltine comes close to recognising that it is essential to rebuild and consolidate the nation's capital; its capacity-to-produce material things. To do that the system needs to deliver the services [appropriate education, excellent workplace training, access to applicable research, real-world banking, positive and powerful trade unions, supportive planning rules and flexible trade regulations] that conduce to making things. In one of the last textbooks of sensible political economy Mrs Fawcett emphasised that a country will fail unless its economy maintains and develops - continually - enough capital to provide all that people demand [and can pay for]: either by producing the required commodities and services within the country or by selling exports that directly pay for the things and services that are imported. It will be a hugely difficult and prolonged task, to compensate for half a century of borrowing [both within the economy and from foreigners] and asset sales to pay for imports. It has seemed comfortable to generations of politicians to observe reports of a growth of transactions - which have increasingly represented statistics of material imports and of contracts that simply churned debts - and accept a delusion that the economy was growing. In a world where 'capitalism' and 'capitalist' have been terms of abuse, a concern with material reality became an irrelevance.

 In future bank lending, government investment, and investment by the few valid pension funds that survive, and all other flows of investment should be steered towards investments that really do strengthen the nation's capital. That requires not merely a radical shift of policy but also an intellectual revolution. The renewal of the economy cannot be entrusted to machine politicians. British politics will go the way of Greek, unless the inexorable decline into poverty is halted. Capitalism is the only way out of the crisis.

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