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Sunday, 11 June 2017

Economic Literacy

The amount that has been written about the economy, over more than 2,000 years, is far beyond the capacity of any human to assimilate. Even with the most up-to-date media for abbreviation, synthesis and simplification it is impossible fully to understand Quesnay and Adam Smith and Marx and Keynes [to name just four of the most significant] sufficiently well to compare their ideas and to reach a synthesis of what can be derived from all of them together that could be taken forward as a guide for the businesswoman, the politician or the ploughman of the year 2023.

It is impossible for anyone leading a busy life in this stressful era to obtain a practical guide to navigating the economy from the great authors: or from the data published by the government's statisticians, or from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United Nations or the World Bank. Thus we all have to trust the simplified synopsis that each organisation produces, assuming that these public agencies retain something of their founders' mission to work to the common good of the human species; and then to apply the data as best we can.

Five years ago, the OECD [the second source referred to above] was encouraging George Osborne to press on with his destructive mission to cut government spending regardless of any potential social or political cost. Now they are singing to a different hymnsheet, whose contents are more aligned with the Labour than with the Conservative manifesto in the recent UK election. Superficially transmogrified as a 'journalist', over the past month Osborne has been one of the most trenchant critics of his own party's manifesto: thus the wheels turn to a succession of dramatically changing fashions in economic advice and in political discourse; and these do not necessarily change at the same speed or even in the same direction.

One of the great local stories of my youth in Lancashire was of the distinguished Northrop company that had produced some of the world's best weaving technology in the second great era of the cotton industry, between 1870 and 1950. Then, in the 'sixties, as Britain's competition with the Swiss and German loom manufacturers became more intense, developing countries outside Europe began to make their own machinery. Several such countries simply ignored the inconvenient fact that Northrop and Schulzer [of Switzerland] inconveniently held patents, and they pirated their choice of those patents in their own machinery. Their courts refused to enforce exploitative capitalist monopolies, when the Europeans tried to assert their rights; and that was the end of it. Northrop's market shrank fastest, and the board decided that the company must diversify to survive. Advised at great cost by an early think-tank, they bought a firm that made advanced machinery for the civil engineering and construction sectors. Then they assembled a combined team of technical experts from  the two component companies, retained expensive external consultants, and built their first demonstration equipment: a sort of primitive JCB. The contraption was first demonstrated to the board of the company and an assembly of bigwigs, including potential customers. The machine was started: and it began to bury itself. The front wheels went backwards, the rear wheel went forwards, and it dug itself into the ground, incapable moving anywhere. I have frequently recalled that incident, as a metaphor for the succession  of changes in economic fashion, which are implemented disastrously in economic policy by cobbled-together groups of supposed 'experts'

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