The most important Brexit negotiation will be amongst the British people

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There is very little decent media coverage of Brexit here in Britain. Mainly it is two groups of opinionated people trying to annoy each other, or at least to keep up their own side’s annoyance levels with the other side. Actually I have more time for the British negotiating effort than most Remainers, and more optimism that something sensible will emerge in the immediate aftermath. But Britain’s long-term destination remains unclear. And that is only right in the circumstances.

Right from the start I predicted that the key would be a transitional arrangement whereby elements of the Single Market and the Customs Union (not the same thing) would continue for long after the formal exit date of 29 March 2019. The British government is inching towards this conclusion, as a series of position papers published over the summer makes clear. Over the weekend Labour backed this idea too. The logic is overwhelming.

The British way is often said to favour gradual evolution over revolution. British democracy emerged step by step, without a revolution like France or Russia. Britain’s engagement with the European Union was similarly gradual. So gradual, in fact, that many Britons did not realise how much they had become attached to it until the Brexit referendum was lost. Of course this is exactly what opponents of Britain’s participation had predicted all along – the takeover would be incremental until a federal United States of Europe emerged by stealth. It follows that Britain’s disengagement is going to need to be equally gradual – or else we will have that destructive chaos that revolutions bring with them. The more so as there is no consensus vision on what a disengaged Britain should look like. Democracy takes time.

If Britons are coming to appreciate this, the other EU governments, and EU institutions, are being inscrutable. They insist that the arrangements for separation must be agreed before the terms of any future relationship are even discussed. The British government’s position papers were an attempt to get the conversation about the medium-term moving in spite of this arbitrary approach. They may well have succeeded. EU leaders may dismiss these position papers, and in some cases deride them – but the agenda has moved on. That was all that was intended.

The EU side will never admit it, but this is because logic is overwhelmingly with the British government on this. The exit negotiations are focusing on three critical subjects: financial obligations, EU citizens living in the UK, and the Northern Ireland border. In each of these Britain’s future relationship has an important bearing. This is most obvious in the case of Northern Ireland. This depends heavily on on future customs and migration arrangements. But the rights of EU citizens are tangled with the issue of the future role of the European Court of Justice and future arbitration arrangements. And even the financial obligations (the so-called “divorce bill”) can be finessed if some parts of British membership effectively continue beyond March 2019, along with the sort of financial contributions made by Norway and Switzerland for access to the EU market. The EU negotiators will be forced to talk about these things.

The EU needs a deal on Brexit for at least two reasons. First is that commercial disruption could threaten jobs within member states – thought the Brexiteer claim that the other EU countries need Britain more than the other way round is nonsense. Second is the situation of EU citizens who are living in Britain, and the status of Britons living in other EU countries. A legal limbo would be a major headache for everybody. On the other hand the EU governments do not want Britain to continue with all the rights of EU membership and not the obligations. That will make them wary of a transitional deal. But given the precedents set by Norway (in the Single Market and European Economic area), Switzerland (who have similar rights based on a number of separate agreements) and Turkey (in the Customs Union but not the Single Market), it should not be hard to finesse this. Indeed people may ask what the point of Brexit was, and that will suit the EU governments  – in fact the point of Brexit, if there is one, will take time to emerge.

And meanwhile Britain must slowly decide what it actually wants.  There are three main competing visions, which I will name after their role models: Singapore, Switzerland and Japan.

The Singapore idea is favoured by quite a few of the Brexit-supporting elite – those businessmen who came out in favour of Brexit, supported by a number Conservative MPs, and one or two theoretical economists, like Patrick Minford. This is that Britain becomes a global trading entrepot, with a regulatory light touch, and a strong national focus on competitiveness and low taxes. But this is a fantasy, partly because of Britain’s physical location and industrial hinterland – but mainly because there is no sign of democratic consent for this way forward. It would require an authoritarian state to implement (as it does in Singapore, after all) – and Britons do not like being dictated too – as the Brexit referendum showed very clearly.

Much of the rest of Britain’s elite favour something of a Swiss solution. This combines a strong tradition of independence and democracy with a free trading relationship with the Union, established on an issue by issue basis, and not by a bulk package arrangement like the EEA. The relationship between Switzerland and the EU is not a smooth one, but by and large it works, and Switzerland prospers. But the Swiss do have to abide a whole raft of EU rules, not least over freedom of movement. It would also be a platform from which the UK may re-enter the EU in future – which is why so many Leave supporters dislike it. Personally, this is what I favour.

But most British voters who supported Brexit probably have something in mind that is much more Japanese, as do many Conservatives, probably including the Prime Minister, Theresa May. Japan is fiercely independent and conservative in its outlook. It maintains a strong separation from the countries on its neighbouring continent – China and Korea, in particular, with whom it has tense relations (though Japanese imperial expansion in the 20th Century accounts for much of that). Controls over inward migration are tight, even in the face of challenging demographics, and social cohesion is highly prized. Multiculturalism is not an idea that they take to. Governing institutions are paternalistic, and democracy is flawed, though not as badly as in Singapore. The Japanese may grumble at this, but not enough to change the system. How very British.

Britain is not Japan, and any Japanese path will have to have some very British characteristics. The first is that Britons may grumble about it, but the country has a strong multicultural dimension. This is a legacy of its Empire, much more than the EU. There is no turning back – but immigration can be slowed, and assimilation of minorities might be more muscular – though this will hardly lead to community cohesion. A further issue is economic. Japan has built up national powerhouses of manufacturing industry, notably in cars and electronics. They have levered their way into export surpluses, notwithstanding reluctant attitudes to free trade. This is a very different approach to Britain’s, which has an open economy, even by European standards. Our manufacturing powerhouses have been sold off or run business models that are so globally integrated that the companies can hardly be called British (consider British Aerospace, at once part of European Airbus and trying to persuade the US armed forces that it is really American). Building something more closed and self-sufficient, in the style of Japan, will be slow and painful. Most people would not give much for Britain’s chances – but with technology rapidly changing the way economies work, that may be excessively pessimistic – in the long run anyway.

So should Britain continue to be a part of an integrated European economy, albeit keeping more of it at arms length than now? Or should Britain stand alone and focus more on social cohesion? In London we, by and large, favour the former. In many other parts of England, and Wales, there is strong preference for the latter. That is what we will have to negotiate amongst ourselves, piece by piece. It will be a long journey. Britain’s negotiation with the EU on Brexit is but a small part of it – and its main purpose is to buy us more time.

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Universal Basic Income is a problem dressed as a solution

Slowly but surely Universal Basic Income (UBI) is becoming a totem policy on the left. Longer standing readers of this blog will know that I am sceptic. But should I be reluctantly reconciling myself to the idea in some form?

Recent impetus for UBI has come from the US, where it is favoured by high tech businessmen worried about the implications of progressive automation. They worry that there is a great hollowing out going on, with mid-skilled jobs disappearing, and the workforce being divided between a very well paid elite of professionals and business owners, and a majority of low skilled proletariat in ill paid and insecure jobs. If the latter can have their income topped up by some form of UBI, then they will be able to afford a higher standard of living, and they will be less beholden to the elite. Many businessmen think that the latest advances in artificial intelligence are about to make the problem much worse – hence the need for such an intervention.

The left is worried by similar issues. The more thoughtful are concerned by a breakdown of consent for the welfare state, where state aid is doled out based on need. If everybody is entitled to the same level of state aid (with allowances for age and disability, perhaps), then there will be less resentment by the slightly better off members of the working class against those receiving aid. Since the left is generally bereft of ideas that are not simply reinventing the 1970s, this one is getting a lot of support. The Green Party in Britain has adopted it; many in Labour (and the Lib Dems) are sympathetic.

Various small-scale pilots are being set up in America and Europe. In fact something like it has been in operation in various places in the US for some time. Alaska pays all its citizens a dividend from its natural resources wealth (the Alaska Permanent Fund). The amount is modest and variable: since 2010 it has ranged from $878 to $2,072 a year – but it is popular. Meanwhile a number of Native American reserves pay a fixed income from gambling concessions. The social effects of this are not so benign, which is no doubt why so few UBI never mention them. The money does not make up for a lack of decent jobs and social infrastructure, and the money is spent on things that do not engender long-term well-being, though enriching unscrupulous salesmen.

One thing should be very clear from any but the most superficial analysis. If the level of UBI is to be set high enough to deal with basic human needs, so that it can replace the bulk of state benefits, then taxation will have to be unfeasibly high. So high that instead of fostering consent it is just as likely to breed resentment as the current system, and a massive drive by businesses and rich people to smuggle their profits abroad to evade payment. That is before recipients of UBI start complaining that the system is unfair because their circumstances (living in a high-cost area, educational needs, health problems, disabilities) create greater need. The idea that UBI can replace a whole series of benefits with a massively simplified system is for the birds. I also think such a system would lead to alienation which would exacerbate social ills. Alienation results unless people are engaged in genuine dialogue resulting in some form of contract; the idea behind UBI is to reduce the need for dialogue and contract.

If UBI-max – the replacement of most state benefits -is ruled out, what we are left with is  much more modest. It might replace the personal tax allowance and extend it to those who aren’t working, and re-badge the basic state pension, removing it from the contributory principle (something that the Coalition advanced in the UK in 2010 to 2015). This would effect a modest level of redistribution and ease life slightly for some groups of hard-pressed. No doubt it would mean higher taxes, though some benefits might be clipped to help pay for it. I’m not sure that this is worth it – and it is hardly very radical. The tax free allowance is only worth a couple of thousand pounds a year.

But there is another approach that is worth mentioning – suggested by the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. This goes back to the Alaska Permanent Fund. The state acquires stakes in major businesses, and especially the big monopolistic businesses that are increasingly dominating our daily lives. A dividend would be distributed annually from the income generated by this fund. Over time this fund would grow and start to produce respectable sums.

Mr Varoufakis is a socialist; the idea of states taking over chunks of privately held capital will not bother him. Others might be nervous; the state has not proved to be an effective shareholder on the whole, the less so the more management is politicised. It might also create public acquiescence with monopoly profits, compared to more efficient models. But it is an intriguing idea. It does go to the heart of the problem – the excessive accumulation of capital in the hands of relatively few people, and its control by corporations that funnel disproportionate rewards to a few. It also starts to tackle another often-overlooked problem: how hard it is for people on modest incomes to accumulate savings without them being eaten up by transaction costs. This is why so many private sector pension plans are so ineffective, and why a state-funded basic pension is such a good idea.

How would the state fund its capital acquisitions? There are broadly three ways: appropriation, taxation or borrowing. Appropriation is simply tax by another name – maybe businesses could be forced to offer shares to the state instead of corporation tax; and by the same process a minimum distribution might also be forced. There a couple of problems with this, though. First of all it would confine the fund to domestic assets, when so much of the surplus capital is held by international businesses. Second, businesses come in all sorts of legal structures, some of which are more conducive to income distribution than others. Any attempt to appropriate shares could cause businesses to evade by changing legal structures.

But a sovereign wealth fund funded by taxation or borrowing gets around the need for direct appropriation. The problem is that it would take an awful lot of money before it reached a size that it could generate an income that the public would notice. Take the UK. One thousand pounds for 60 million people is £60 billion. At a 2% yield that is £3 trillion capital value – getting on for twice the level of the national debt. Even a New Monetarist might that feel state borrowing on this level carries risks. Of course the idea is that capital growth will help to fund this over time, and if built up slowly, it would be easier to accommodate – but cash distributions would also be tiny for a long time.

All this leaves me thinking that UBI is a symptom of the problem, and not the solution. The world is becoming too dominated by big institutions, such as companies like Google or governments and state agencies. These try to simplify processes in order to make them manageable – and this leads to excessive accumulation of power by elites, in government and business – and the alienation of the majority. UBI is just another simplified solution designed to fit this general pattern. It is advocated by people that support such one-size-fits-all approaches – be the monopolist businessmen or advocates of a mighty central state (such as socialists) .What we actually have to do is tackle those excessive concentrations of power. And that is much harder.

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Neoliberalism’s three blind spots and how we move on

In my last proper post I examined the idea of neoliberalism, a set of ideas that is at the heart of modern economic policy. I concluded by saying that most people think it has failed. But how can we move on?

The first point to make is that the two central insights of neoliberalism seem as valid as ever. The first is that markets provide the best way of processing information on complex human needs and how to meet them – and they do this far better than bureaucracy. The second is that governments and regulators are beset by dysfunctional incentives – and tend to serve the interests of elites and client groups, rather than the people as a whole.

This is the starting point for those that continue to defend the philosophy, though rarely by that name. They suggest that the problems that have arisen since the 1990s have much more to do with the advance of technology and globalisation than anything else. This is a rather pessimistic view. It suggests that society in the 1990s was faced with the choice of embracing technological change, with the benefits to health and wellbeing that resulted, or a futile attempt to keep change at bay for the sake of social stability. It is hard to think of any society that has successfully followed the latter path. The collapse of blue-collar and white-collar middle-income jobs was pretty much inevitable. And countries that seem to be more successful in embracing this change, like Germany, have done so by adopting policies that have undermined their global neighbours’ attempts to do the same thing. Germany preserves swathes of middle-ranking jobs only by exporting large quantities of manufactured goods to other countries compared to what it imports. By this pessimistic view, the world is being swept forward by technological change and governing elites are powerless to stop it. We may be alarmed at the political backlash, but any new leadership that this sweeps into power will most likely make things worse than better.

There is doubtless some truth to this. It is very striking how the political backlash seems bereft of new economic thinking. The right wants to create higher national boundaries and limit free trade between countries. This thinking recalls policies that deepened and prolonged the Great Depression in the 1930s. The left wants to expand state control. The Labour manifesto in Britain in the recent general election recalls to me the failed development policies in places like India in the 1950s and 1960s before a turn to neoliberalism unleashed massive growth. That isn’t entirely fair, of course, as both left and right also indulge in some new thinking. But it is really quite worrying that the only new idea on the left that has any currency is universal basic income – an idea that has no chance of meeting the huge expectations being placed on it.

But there are clear problems with neoliberal thinking. I think the three key blindspots are capital markets, Baumol’s disease and human organisational capacity. Add these together and you get pointers to what a post-neoliberal economic philosophy might look like.

First: capital markets. Hayek’s insights on the efficiency of markets does not to apply to assets, as distinct from goods and services. The market value of assets does not reflect their future economic worth. Bubbles build and burst, creating ruin in their wake. The problem is as old as the capital markets themselves – but that does not stop these markets from causing society’s resources from being allocated inefficiently. Another problem is that asset price inflation reinforces a gap between the haves and have-nots, and, in Britain, between the young and the old. Neoliberals (like the Economist newspaper) often say that the sky-high prices of land in popular cities simply reflect the laws of supply and demand, and that we should build more homes where people want to live. Whatever the truth of this, it is surely clear that excessive levels of personal debt are a large part of the problem – as well as the issue of human organisational capacity that I will come to. This causes the prices at which supply and demand balance to be much higher than they would be otherwise.

To cut a long story short, modern developed economies (especially the Anglo-Saxon ones) place far too much reliance on private debt, and this leads to instability and inequality. The risks associated with state debt, by comparison, look easier to manage. One leg of the neoliberal system of economic management, monetary policy, is broken.

The second issue is what economists call Baumol’s disease. This idea has been in circulation for decades, and is taught to economics undergraduates. It is amazing how little its implications seem to be understood. Baumol pointed out that as productive sectors of the economy develop in efficiency, the less productive sectors bulk up in proportion. Agriculture used to account for the bulk of the British economy; but as it became more efficient it eventually sunk to a small fraction of it. The same is now happening to manufacturing. As we become more efficient the bulk of jobs will be in sectors where high productivity is impossible or undesirable. And in the current situation they will increasingly be in sectors where market solutions have been found wanting. These include healthcare, education and law enforcement. These sectors are dominated by government and the public sector. We must expect the public sector to grow, and we must learn how to manage this, rather than trying to push the boundaries of the state back.

My third issue is what I have rather clumsily called human organisational capacity. The human brain can only handle a limited number of connections efficiently. And humans are at the centre of human organisations. Artificial intelligence won’t change that; it will simple extend the reach of what individual humans can do. This human capacity sets limits to the size and scope of human organisations. Organisations that grow eventually face a stark choice. They either become staggeringly inefficient, or their operating systems have to be very lean, requiring few people to operate them. Commercial organisations are forced into the latter category by competition. Dealing with a large corporation now, like Google, Amazon or PayPal is extremely frustrating for ordinary human beings, unless you manage to stick to the automated procedures that they prescribe – which are unable to handle any degree of complexity. Modern technology is allowing these commercial organisations to extend their reach by cherry-picking things that are simple to deal with, and leaving behind the difficult ones. This is creating a hollowing-out effect that is one of the big drivers of inequality.

Governments, meanwhile, are left to pick up the pieces. But they are subject to similar limitations. They have to choose between monstrous inefficiency or simplification. As tight finances force them into the latter course, power accretes to an elite in geographically concentrated centres of power. Neoliberals tend to shrug at this, and simply say that this is price we pay for a more efficient society. But I think it points in a different direction: to towards the decentralisation of political power, and the development of local democracy. One country has taken this idea further than any other: Switzerland. But if you go there you do not find grinding poverty as people are forced to choose between local control and drawing the benefits of modern society. You find one of the most prosperous societies in the world, with economic activity geographically spread out. One key thing to note: the Swiss have not just found ways to devolve political power to relatively small units, but they have also found ways to involve their citizens in taking responsibility for the society that they live in.

All this raises many, many questions. But the overall direction of travel is clear. We need to expand the scope of the public sphere (I am being careful not to use the word “state”), but also to shrink it geographically and allow people to take more ownership of it. Markets are useful, but we need democracy too.

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Vince Cable and economics – what he says in Newswire

No time for a proper post from me this week. But I was intrigued by an article in Mark Pack’s Newswire (a Lib Dem newsletter), with an extensive quote from Vince Cable.

This shows how hard he is to pin down into conventional categories of economic thinking. But that’s for the best possible reason – he has studied and thought about the issues for a long time, and observed economic policy in practice in many different situations.

Here it is:

The roots of Vince Cable’s political beliefs

Placing Vince Cable on the left-right political spectrum never quite works because he combines both a passion for intervention to deal with market failures with a suspicion of the failings of big government. The roots of that combination are well illustrated in his excellent memoirs, Free Radical. They highlight how his work on development issues in Africa helped give him both those passions – seeing both the need for action and the consequences of government failure. Writing here exclusively for Lib Dem Newswire, Vince Cable sets out the roots of his political views in more detail.

My earliest political views were a reaction to the extremes I encountered growing up. My father was an upwardly mobile, working class, Tory who sought to inculcate some good values (hard work, thrift, respect for the law) and some bad ones (racism, which split the family when I married an East African Asian, my late wife Olympia). He died after contracting pneumonia delivering leaflets for Mrs Thatcher in the snow. My mother secretly voted Liberal, defying his instructions to vote Tory.

My best teenage friend was a card-carrying Communist like his father, a shop steward at York carriage works. His revolutionary zeal got him expelled from college, allegedly for arson. He tried to re-educate me in sound ideological principles but concluded that I was a ‘bourgeois liberal’ with Menshevik tendencies.

When I went to university I sampled both the Liberals, becoming their President, and also a student branch of the social democratic wing of the Labour party. Sensing that they were saying the same thing but using different language, I tried to achieve a merger. Both sides were outraged and the merger collapsed ignominiously, 20 years ahead of its time. I joined Labour, beguiled by Harold Wilson’s white-hot technological revolution.

As a young economist, educated by the disciples of Keynes, I was then exposed to real world economics as a Treasury official in Kenya. Experience of African development quickly taught me that textbook ideas of ‘planning’ – or Keynes for that matter – had little relevance. The state was usually a vehicle for predation and patronage. Wealth was created by farmers, especially by entrepreneurial African small-holders; by mainly Asian businessmen; and by professionally run multinationals. And then looted by politicians and civil servants

I moved on to Latin America where the fashionable nationalistic ideology of ‘self-reliance’ merely entrenched vested interests and reinforced extreme and often appalling inequalities. Much of my development writing would now be described as ‘neo-liberal’ but I think is right in that context.

The country which most influenced my thinking was India which I have visited many times over 50 years for family and professional reasons. I have seen India’s remarkable transformation, much of it based on the adage that ‘the economy grows at night, when the government goes to sleep’. I have always been torn between torn between my admiration for India’s democratic and dynamic ‘anarchy that works’ and my admiration for the technocratic revolution in modern China which has produced an economic, poverty reducing, miracle, albeit seriously illiberal.

Between the travelling I got involved in British politics and became a Labour councillor, helping to run Glasgow. The establishment was pure Tammany Hall, so I moved to the Left where the idealistic and capable people were. I marched proudly down Sauchiehall Street alongside the charismatic Communist leader of the shipyard workers, Jimmy Reid and Tony Benn, and contributed to Gordon Brown’s Red Papers on Scotland.

I led a somewhat schizophrenic existence teaching students Adam Smith’s economics in the morning and practising municipal socialism in the afternoon. I found a more comfortable place campaigning for Britain to join the EU alongside Labour figures like John Smith, for whom I later worked as a Special Adviser, and Liberals like David Steel.

My Fabian, centre-left, eclectic, version of social democracy didn’t long survive a move to London where the Militant Tendency and assorted Trots, including today’s leadership, were in control of the Labour Party. In the civil war which followed, I joined the SDP, albeit after some heart-searching, unsuccessfully contesting my home town of York in the 1983, and then the dispiriting 1987, election.

In the long period in the political wilderness before becoming MP in Twickenham I had two other formative political experiences. One was spending several years working on global environmental issues in the late 1980’s: helping to write the Brundtland Report on Sustainable Development and then one of the first intergovernmental reports on climate change. The other was when Shell recruited me into their long-term scenario planning team, later to be Chief Economist. I found the management culture admirably professional and honest, albeit conservative, and I like to think I helped to steer them towards a future in emerging economies and to a greater sense of social and environmental responsibility.

For the rest, my record as a Lib Dem MP after 1997 is reasonably well known. As an economic spokesman, my approach initially reflected the social liberal consensus of the time. The financial crisis changed everything. My intellectually eclectic background in economics helped me to see ahead and better understand the nature of the crisis, to write coherently about it – in The Storm – and to advocate correct but controversial measures like nationalisation of the banks and the taxation of property wealth.

The Coalition was a classic head-heart dilemma. My head told me that joining the Coalition was right and that we had no alternative but to address the massive budget deficit which was the legacy of a crisis of financial capitalism. My heart was definitely not with the Tories. But I found a useful role as an interventionist Business Secretary promoting industrial strategy and state-led banking, German-style innovation and training policies and applying a pragmatic, problem solving, approach to government. In a sequel to The Storm After the Storm – I set out where I think we should be going as a country, now, in terms of economic policy.

There is one more important strand in my approach to politics. I have long been interested in, and worried about, the politics of identity. Bringing up a multiracial family and fighting racism; experience of the tangled web of religious sectarianism and incipient nationalism in the west of Scotland; immersed for over 50 years in the movement to anchor Britain in Europe: these have been major, often dominant, concerns. I wrote the first of two pamphlets for Demos in the mid-1990’s on identity politics and have seen its growing influence, culminating in the Brexit vote.

My first venture into fiction, the novel Open Arms – due out in a few weeks – involves the interplay of identity politics and personal relationships. And in the real world, I anticipate that the future of the UK and our party will be determined by whether national identity or a broader, more outward-looking, more European, view of the world dominate politics.

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The rise and fall of neoliberalsim

The left loves to frame politics in terms of abstract nouns. And as is the human way, they are happier talking about what they are against rather than what they are for. Two abstract nouns in particular are top of the left’s hate list: “austerity” and “neoliberalism”. For the left’s challengers, it is usually best ignore this war on the abstract. It convinces few, after all – the left is much more effective when it campaigns on the concrete: food banks and bedroom tax, for example. Yet abstract ideas have their place, and it is worth exploring them more deeply sometimes. Austerity I will leave for now; I want to look a little more deeply at neoliberalism.

To most on the left “neoliberalism” is a scattergun term to brand all right and centre economic thinking that prevailed from the 1980s, after the collapse in confidence in the system known as “Keynesianism”, though Maynard Keynes would have disapproved of much of it. But if we are to understand what was actually going on we need to distinguish it from neoclassical economics, which was an important strand of thinking in this period. As its name suggests, neoclassical thinking harks back to classical economics, that evolved in the late 19th and early 20th century, before Maynard Keynes revolutionised economic thinking. This saw economies as self-correcting systems that did not need state interventions. At any point an economy is in an equilibrium, and any attempt to shift it would be self-defeating. Attempts to kick against this system would simply lead to such ills as inflation and unemployment.

Keynesianism fell out of favour in the stagflation of the 1970s, following the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of managed exchange rates and the an explosion in the price of oil.  Some economists used this to go back to classical ideas, saying that Keynesianism was a big mistake. In America these economists were often based in Chicago and the Midwest – and were known as “freshwater” economists in contrast to the “saltwater” sort on the American east and west coasts. They turned to the idea of “real business cycles”, which proposes that the fluctuations from boom to recession  are driven by changes to the “real” economy in equilibrium – and not a process of disequilibrium, as Keynes had suggested. So, for example, in pre-industrial societies the cycle might reflect the effect of weather and plague. In the modern age economists call this changes to technology. The true heroes of a neoclassical economy are the entrepreneurs who advance the productivity that make us all wealthier – the American author Ayn Rand was something of a hero. The state and taxes were loathed.

In spite of some rather superficial empirical studies which provided some evidence to support it, real business cycle theory is almost self-evident nonsense. Modern economies are almost never in equilibrium; state interventions are frequently helpful. Neoclassicism kept going because it was politically convenient to a certain class of wealthy American, who funded supportive institutions – and it was, and remains, politically influential amongst US Republicans. It lost all credibility to everybody else in the aftermath of the financial crash of 2008-2009, when the neoclassicists had nothing helpful to say. It was also clear by then that their advice in such places as Russia (post the fall of communism) and Iraq (post the US invasion) had been disastrous – they had advised the Republican US government to stand back and let things take their course – it was the economic wing of neoconservatism. Still, almost no idea is completely without merit. Technology has important implications for the workings of macroeconomics, and yet it is almost universally ignored by macroeconomists, who think that the economy worked much the same way in 1900, 1950 and 2000, and that all changes are explained by decisions in fiscal and monetary policy. In fact if you want to understand why Keynesianism worked so well in the 1950s and so badly in the 1970s, technology provides the most convincing explanation.

So, what is neoliberalism? It is an altogether more subtle economic analysis that sought to built on the insights of Maynard Keynes rather than throw them out. Indeed their ideas evolved into something referred to as “neokeynesianism”. At its heart are two ideas. First is that markets function as processors of information, and are the most efficient way that information about supply and demand can communicate and coordinate in our highly complex society. This is an idea developed by the Austrian economist (and sparring partner of Keynes) Friedrich Hayek, and who is the patron saint of neoliberalism (and much more pragmatic than his leftist critics pain him – he formed a common front with Keynes during the war). The second is that the incentives of people who manage institutions that are not subject to market forces, such as regulators and governments,  are generally not aligned to the public good. These insights lead to the conclusion that even well intentioned state interventions often do more harm than good – and that it is best to try and design such interventions so that they work closely with market forces, aligning incentives and making better use of information.

Neoliberals sought to repair the tattered state of the Keynesian conventional wisdom with the idea of “equilibrium unemployment” – a state of the economy at which any increase in demand would simply lead to inflation – with the insight that the level of this equilibrium could be much higher than what was conventionally regarded as full employment. It depended on the state of labour markets and technology – best addressed through “supply-side” policies, which often meant deregulation. In the 1970s, they said, the trouble arose from over-managed labour markets (the effect on trade unions in particular) and technological disruption (especially the relative rise of energy prices) that rendered much of the industrial economy obsolete.

In terms of economic management, neoliberals liked free capital markets, including floating exchange rates (in contrast to Keynes’s preference for managed international capital flows, exemplified by the Bretton Woods system). They disliked the use of fiscal policy (i.e. the deliberate management of government budgets to regulate deficiencies in demand), as it was rendered useless by misaligned incentives – there would be a tendency to let booms run too long. They did like the idea of “automatic stabilisers”, being tax and benefit policies that tended to increase or reduce demand according to the state of the business cycle – and as such accepted a large state sector – unlike the neoclassicists. Instead they preferred to regulate demand through government intervention in interest rates, delegated to arms-length central banks (an idea which neoclassicists hated, incidentally – they want to leave interest rates to the market).  Like their Keynesian predecessors, they thought that inflation was the critical sign of whether or not supply and demand in an economy were in balance – though they developed the idea that inflation could be built on expectations, as well as simply mis-matched supply and demand (i.e. if people expected inflation to be high, they would demand extra wages, turning this into a self-fulfilling prophecy). For all their scepticism of government, they still saw it as playing  a central role in the management of the economy – and searched for optimal levels and designs of intervention.

Neo-liberalism became the conventional economic wisdom in the 1990s, all the way through to the great financial crash. This period saw an unprecedented advance in living standards across our globe. So why do most people think it has failed? Because the picture in developed economies in that period is much more mixed. In the US in particular, the economic gains have been concentrated amongst the wealthy, with large companies amassing unprecedented levels of profit. The destruction of many industries through technological obsolescence and globalisation left a huge legacy in ruined lives and failing local communities. And finally there was the crash itself, which most neoliberals had failed to see coming and to head off – and whose fall-out they proved ill-equipped to deal with.

And yet. The main advance in human well-being in the neoliberal ascendancy came in the developing world – and the adoption of neoliberal insights was clearly responsible for this – in China, India, and many other countries. And the failure of attempts to defy neoliberalism, in France under Francois Hollande and, more dramatically, by the Kirchners in Argentina, has led to local revivals of neoliberal ideas. Something has clearly gone wrong, but is the whole system really rubbish?

I will examine that question in a future post.

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