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Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Very Basics

It is some time since I simply stated the basic assumption on which this blog is based. Although it was one of the earliest principles of Political Economy to be established, I have repeatedly cited Millicent Fawcett's introduction to the topic in her Political Economy for Beginners, which was published for use in the elementary schools which all children were legally enabled to attend under the Education Act of 1870. The book can be accessed on line via the Library of the University of California. I recently commented that it is highly appropriate that Mrs Fawcett is to become the first woman honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, Westminster.

It is a truism today that when the British economy comes under examination, there is a focus on the deplorably low productivity of employment in this country. Just scratch the surface of any such discussion, and the shocking fact emerges that productivity has scarcely improved [and in some sectors of the economy it has declined] since the financial crisis took hold in 2007.

When she mentioned productivity, Mrs Fawcett also dealt with productiveness; which is virtually never mentioned at all in the current discussions. Yet for Mrs Fawcett - as for me - it is the very key to understanding the basic economic problem that bedevils the country.

Productiveness means the extent to which any economic activity yields a surplus [of output, that can be converted to cash] that is used for investment. The investment may be applied to expanding or updating the plant that yielded the surplus, or to training the people who work there, or to recruiting better-skilled people; or it can be invested in other sectors of the economy. There are three main ways in which such cross-economy investment is facilitated:
1. by firms transferring profits from one part of the complex organisation to another, or
2. by the surplus being given to shareholders or bondholders as dividends or bonuses, which they can reinvest at their discretion,or
3. by firms that retain some profit as reserves or receivers of dividend depositing the money with banks, which the banks then lend to firms with ideas for expanding or improving production.

In any of the above circumstances, there is a realistic prospect that many [though not all] of the investments will improve the productivity of the sector in which the investment is made. Sometimes an investment fails, because it is wrongly timed, or a mistaken choice of technology is selected, or inept individuals are selected to manage the investment; or for a dozen other reasons: and the more risky the investment is, while it may yield spectacular returns, it also carries a higher degree of probability that it will fail.

The crucial fact is that the only way to raise productivity [and production] in general is if the productiveness of the system is properly understood and a sufficient proportion of the surplus that is generated sector by sector is applied optimally to investment in those sectors that will contribute most to the  productivity and productiveness of the economy in the future. In simple terms, unless investment is the absolute focus of business thinking and of economic policy, the economy can not succeed optimally: because everybody in a decision-making role is looking in a wrong direction. Warren Buffet has become an international celebrity by persuading people to let him make investment decisions with their money; and by delivering excellent results [overall] for decades on end. Mrs Fawcett would have approved of him, strongly.

In Britain, especially since the crisis of 2007-8, profitable businesses have been piling up cash reserves and returning cash to investors [through special dividends and share buy-backs]. In the current circumstances, shareholders who receive these cash bonuses use them to meet current spending because real earned incomes have been tightening; rather than making their own independent investment decisions for the future. This situation has greatly been exacerbated by the combination of institutional and policy disasters that have meant that major investing institutions [such as pensions funds and insurers] are discouraged from making equity investments.

Economic policy has become a conspiracy against productiveness, rather than a stimulus to investment. That is contrary to the basics that Mrs Fawcett set out for elementary schoolchildren in 1870: and the shocking fact that cabinet ministers have no notion of the concept of productiveness is a wonderful measure of the intellectual regression through which Britain has descended since the nineteen-twenties, when fantasy Economics was allowed to supplant the truths of Political Economy: because simplified mathematical models were easier to teach than the complex inter-relationships that are exposed in Political Economy.

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