Category Archives: Economics & Finance

Reflections on economics, investment and the financial world

Why do governments follow austerity when orthodox economists advise against it?

It’s by turns annoying and amusing: the way people on the left complain that orthodox economics has gone off the rails, and that we need fresh thinking to inform government policies. Apart from coming up with a lot of age-old tropes that economic models do not mimic real behaviour, or take account of information asymmetries, the main item of evidence is the persistance of austerity policies in the developed world.

But the main critics of austerity turn out to be…. orthodox economists. People like Joe Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Martin Wolf. And newspapers struggle to find economists to make the case for the defence. The Financial Times often resorts to Niall Ferguson, who is a historian, not an economist, and no match for a Nobel laureate like Mr Krugman. The British Labour party is even roping in economics professors to bolster its economic credibility.

In fact there is a brand of orthodox pro-austerity economists. These are the old “supply-siders” from such institutions as the Chicago Business School, who developed a line of “neoclassical” economics, and rebelled against what was once the Keynesian orthodoxy. This branch of thinking grew out to the economic crisis of the 1970s, but proved utterly useless when the crisis of 2007/08 hit. Neoclassical economists pipe up here and there in America, but are mostly silent, their credibility shot-through. That leaves the field nearly unchallenged for the neo-Keynesians – at least far as the public debate in newspaper columns is concerned, in Britain, anyway.

Which leaves us with a mystery. Why are governments, from Europe to America (though not Japan, interestingly), ignoring the orthodox economists? Two explanations are usually offered by their critics. One is rank incompetence or wilful blindness. The other is a political agenda that austerity plays to, usually involving making the rich richer. Neither explanation stands up to close examination.

I am wary of accusations of incompetence, especially when made about clearly intelligent people, such as most politicians and technocrats involved in government finance. This is something I learnt as a history undergraduate (I studied both science and history in my original undergraduate incarnation, long before my study of economics as a mature student). Such accusations are bandied about freely down the ages, but never stand up to scrutiny. Mostly the wilful blindness comes from the people making the accusation, who cannot entertain the idea that there is a rival point of view to their own. Modern economic policy is no exception.

The political agenda is a bit more plausible. Perhaps governments are in hoc to big business interests and those of the wealthy? But if the last 150 years of history has taught us anything, it is that if poorer members of society are prospering, the rich will prosper also, and be left in peace. This is even more true of big corporate interests than anybody else. It is harder to make money in a stagnant economy. Those malign influences are there in politics, but their effects are altogether more subtle than doing down poor people to help line the pockets of the rich.

Sensing that these explanations don’t work, many on the left build up an idea of “neoliberalism”. This is a philosophy based on the old supply-side or neoclassical economics that may be waning in academic economics, but still holds a grip on the lesser mortals who staff finance ministries and banks, and other parts of the “elite”. But this too is inadequate as an explanation. Certainly it is possible to identify a series of beliefs and biases amongst policymakers that equate to economic liberalism. But they do not explain austerity as a macroeconomic policy. And besides, we need to understand why the hold of these beliefs is so strong. Clearly some on the left think that an outdated economic orthodoxy is to blame. But surely such theoretical constructs cannot by themselves have such a grip on so many intelligent and practical minds?

Instead of a conflict between different types of theory, what is really going on is a conflict between theory and practice. The theoreticians may be gung-ho about fiscal and monetary stimulus, but the people who implement policy are acutely aware of the practical problems and risks. There are three particular practical issues about which the theoreticians are dismissive, but which weigh heavily on the practical types: economic efficiency; public investment; and financial markets.

First take economic efficiency. Pretty much everybody agrees that, ultimately, living standards depend on economic efficiency, or productivity. This piece of orthodoxy could be challenged, but that is not what most on the left mean (traditional Greens being the exception, along with liberal voices in the wilderness like mine) when they call for fresh thinking. They see slow economic growth as a sign of failure as much as any conservative does; and that ultimately is based on productivity. But economic efficiency is hard work politically. Both businesses and workers like to protect their patches with taxes, government agencies and regulations that keep the winds of change at bay. This is especially the case in Europe and Japan. And yet, in order to achieve long-term growth, these vested interested must be tackled, and reforms enacted. This has been shown in countless contexts in both developed and developing world. Mostly reforms have an economically liberal character – but only because this approach genuinely unlocks long-term efficiency.  Far-sighted politicians and officials want to use every possible chance to advance reforms. That includes the pressures created by economic hard times. Theoretical economists might suggest that boom years are the best time to push through reforms, or that reforms can be covered by macroeconomic leniency. Politicians know that the opposite is the case – it too difficult to muster the political imperative in easy times, or if short-term macroeconomic policies take the heat off.

Reform and austerity are not necessarily the same thing, but they almost always are.  This debate, of course, dominates discourse in the Euro zone, where economic hardship is concentrated in less efficient economies. Critics of austerity there offer no way forward for improved efficiency, beyond the hope that public infrastructure investment will deliver the growth they seek.

Which brings us to the difficulties of public investment. To theoretical economists this is the magic bullet. Public investment in infrastructure both yields gains to long-term efficiency, and a short term fiscal stimulus. The economists are exasperated that so few governments seem to follow their advice. And yet public investment is a graveyard of roads to nowhere and white elephants. When the imperative to  invest is political, the choice of project becomes political too. It is very hard to make sensible choices. China was much lauded for its infrastructure investment programme following the crash. This has now turned into a major headache, as so much of the money was wasted on empty cities and useless infrastructure. Something similar happened in Japan in the 1990s. Finance ministry officials are rightly wary.

And then there are the financial markets. If I’ve heard one economist here in Britain suggest that now is a fabulous time for the government to borrow, or even “print”, money, I’ve heard it from a hundred. With so much demand for government bonds in the markets, and inflation looking mortally wounded, just what are you worrying about? But none of these economists work at the sharp end of government finance. If they did, such sanguinity would remind them of the sort of thinking that got the world’s banks into the disaster in the first place: a reckless confidence that markets would behave in future as they do now.

Alas life is much more complicated than that. Grounds for confidence in the financial markets is stronger in some places than others. Japan has a massive export industry that sees to all its foreign currency needs, so that the state can borrow and even print the Yen with reasonable confidence. Which is what it has been doing, in prodigious quantities, for the last two decades, although to little apparent effect. The US is another country that can feel reasonably secure, even though its balance of trade is less benign than Japan’s. The dollar is the world’s de facto reserve currency. The United Kingdom, however, shares neither of these strengths. It needs to draw on overseas institutions and businesses, and its own private sector, in order to finance its significant current account and trade imbalances. This is not a problem that printing the Pound can help with. The state has been extraordinarily adept at handling this risk over the last few decades. But that is because of the conservatism that is currently attracting so much criticism.

To me the theoretical economists, the practical policymakers, and most of their leftist critics are all trapped by an orthodox way of looking at the world through economic aggregate statistics. This means that they are failing to take on the deeper problems that society faces: economic and environmental sustainability, alienation, and the gravitation of wealth to successful people and places. That has very little to do with the politics of austerity. People on the left who call for fresh thinking should be careful what they wish for.



The economy is for Labour what tuition fees is for the Lib Dems

If there is something that unites British Labour Party people, from rightist Blairites, to Brownites, through to the leftist Corbynistas, it is that the Labour government of 1997 to 2010 should not be held responsible for the financial crash of 2008/09, and the terrible state of government finances that followed. They are made indignant by Conservatives (and Liberal Democrats) who go on about how Labour is to blame for the financial mess the government left the country in in 2010, when the budget deficit had ballooned to over 10% of GDP. But the public finds the Tory line more convincing. And if Labour are to throw off this albatross, it will have to move on from its air of injured innocence.

There are two dimensions to this question. The first is a question of fact, or purports to be: how much responsibility did the Labour government actually have for what went wrong in the economy? The second is what is going on in people’s heads when they think of Labour and the economy, and how the party might address it.

On the first question, Labour have quite a few sympathisers outside the party. And certainly the direct line of attack made by Tories is not all it seems. The Tory narrative is that Labour went on a spending splurge in the boom years, which then  proved completely unsustainable, leaving their successors  choice but to implement austerity policies. Defenders of Labour’s record point out that there was no big government deficit before the crash. It was a relatively modest 2.5% or so in 2006 and 2007, and not regarded as irresponsible at the time. Nobody foresaw the financial turmoil, which originated in American sub-prime mortgage markets.

The Labour defence against this charge is mostly true. But not quite. Gordon Brown, as Chancellor (he became Prime Minister in 2008), claimed to operate government expenditure on a “golden rule” which meant no net borrowing over the economic cycle. But he had taken to moving the goalposts rather than applying the rule strictly. Had he followed his own rules as originally intended, there may not have been a deficit as the economy turned in 2007. But that only accounts for 2% of the problem. There was another 5% that came from somewhere else, allowing for a normal cyclical swing of 3%, and which cannot be blamed on Labour profligacy.

If you take a wider view, however, Labour’s defence becomes more difficult. British government finances were worse affected than other major industrial countries, from France to the USA, and much worse than some, like Canada. There are broadly two reasons for this. The first is that Britain had a bigger financial crisis, because it had a bigger banking sector, especially in international banking, and so was more affected by its collapse. The second is that tax revenues fell unusually sharply in Britain. Both aspects have government fingerprints on them.

Take banking. Labour lauded the rise of the international banks, and celebrated Britain’s “light-touch” regulation that helped bring this about. They gave RBS’s Fred Goodwin a knighthood for no other reason than that he had expanded his bank, recklessly as it turned out – there were none of the usual good charitable works to point to as supporting a general aura of public-spiritedness, as is customary in such matters. Meanwhile, Britain’s success as an international banking hub helped drive Sterling up and manufacturing exporters out of business. Mr Brown tried to wriggle out of responsibility by suggesting that he wasn’t responsible for banking regulation under Britain’s tripartite system of financial regulation (between the Treasury, the FSA and the Bank of England). This is pretty damning, because this system was of his own design, and it was clear that overall responsibility for making sure the system was working lay with the Treasury. It couldn’t be anywhere else.

Then on taxes, Mr Brown engineered a switch from taxes on income, and Income Tax in particular, to an array of other taxes, like stamp duty, that turned out to be about milking financial bubbles. At the time, his reduction of the basic rate of income tax to 20% was lauded as a triumph. This proved a colossal misjudgement, as it has proved politically impossible to raise income taxes, even in supposed more left-leaning Scotland.

On top of this, a broader claim can be made. The world financial crisis was not some storm that happened somewhere else with unfortunate consequences for Britain. Britain was the world’s leading international centre of finance; Britain’s bankers were at the heart of it, Two of Britain’s big banks, RBS and HBoS, collapsed, not helped a Britain’s own reckless mortgage lending, which also affected smaller banks, like Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley. These banks had all adopted highly risky business models, whose main assumption was that global banking markets would be stable. Sitting on top of one of the most prestigious finance ministries in the world, and trumpeting his own reputation as a financial manager, Mr Brown and his acolytes can’t really escape the charge of incompetence for not appreciating these risks. And these risks were plan to some, including his Lib Dem shadow, Vince Cable, whose warnings were pooh-poohed.

Labourites are on stronger ground when they suggest that, once the crisis emerged, their government handled it well. It wasn’t pretty (amongst innocent victims of the government’s shoot-first approach were Icelandic banks and Britain’s own Lloyd’s bank), but largely stands up to scrutiny. Another argument is over whether the Tory/Lib Dem coalition that took power in 2010 was too tight with its austerity policies, compared to how Labour would have handled the same situation. Many independent commentators agree with at least the first part of that proposition, though I don’t.

So, I don’t think Labour were quite as innocent as they claim, even if much of the direct criticism is misplaced. But, in politics, such arguments actually count for little. A more important question is how the public perceives things. This is where Labour’s real problem lies. What the public sees is a classic hubris to nemesis story, which is one of the oldest storylines in humanity, and takes some rebutting. Labour’s problem is their boastfulness before the crisis. Labour appealed to voters because a Labour government meant “no more boom and bust”, unlike with the Tories. And then one of the biggest busts in history happened.

And there is trust issue here. Labour’s position is a bit like that of the Lib Dems over tuition fees. The Lib Dems vowed not to vote for an increase in student tuition fees before the election, and yet later that year they supported the trebling of fees. Many Lib Dems will give you a convincing intellectual explanation as to how this not nearly as bad as it sounds, and that anyway there was little they could do in coalition. But this cuts no ice with the public, because of the way the party presented their policies before the election.

Labour are onto an equally losing wicket if they try convincing the public that the economic crash of 2008/09 was not their responsibility. Ed Miliband, their leader at the last election, was quite right not to even try. Besides, the alternative argument that Labour were the hapless victim of world events hardly counters the public’s perception of the post-Brown leadership (Mr Miliband and his successor Jeremy Corbyn) of being nice but ineffectual. The usual advice for when you are in a whole is to stop digging. The idea that if the party had come out fighting, public perception would be swayed, is pure nonsense.

The only way forward is for Labour to acknowledge their responsibility, and put forward hard economic policies that show they are capable of taking tough decisions if in power. And that means they have to stop banging on about austerity and get tough with some of their own supporters. For now, though, there is no chance of that.


2016 is nothing like 2008, but there’s trouble ahead for the world economy

In my New Year post I did not write much about finance, but made some rather throwaway comments that the economy could take a turn for the worse in 2016.  Having just read Martin Wolf’s rather sanguine piece in the FT, I hadn’t quite understood that my views were in line with conventional wisdom in the financial markets – and this not at all a position I like to be in. But pessimism is in, and reflected by lower share prices worldwide. This has filtered through to left wing commentators, like Will Hutton, who gleefully want to show that “austerity” or “neoliberalism” is leading to a repeat of the 2008 crash (though Mr Hutton is too good a writer to use those particular totems). This is definitely company I don’t want to keep. Time to dig a bit deeper.

It helps to think back to what happened in the last turndown, the crash of 2008 – as this is foremost on people’s minds. At the start of 2008 the banking system was in deep trouble, although on the surface things were quite calm, if gently sinking. “Holed below the waterline” was the description that I used at the time – alas I was not publicly blogging until three years later, or my reputation might have been made. Trust was breaking down because the banks were dealing a lot with each other, or off-balance sheet offshoots, rather than with the public or businesses. And things were starting to go wrong, beginning with US sub-prime mortgages. The huge tangle of interbank transactions and derivatives meant that nobody knew how the losses would play out or where – so everybody was tainted. Things kept superficially calm until quite late in 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed, threatening a chain reaction that would have brought much of the world’s banking system to a screeching halt. Since the banking system is at the centre of everyday life in developed economies the result could have been catastrophic.

That catastrophe was largely avoided, but only because governments bailed banks out to keep the whole system afloat. Even then the damage to the non-banking economy was severe, and government finances, especially here in the UK, were ruined. What was so alarming about the whole episode was that a fairly routine downturn in the business cycle infected part of the US mortgage market, which then completely disproportionately went on threaten the whole system. Defenders of Britain’s Labour government still can’t believe it was anything to do with them – though in fact ten years of complacent economic management had left the country highly vulnerable to such a chain reaction.

Why are people worried now? Well one thing that helped the ameliorate the disaster in 2008 was that emerging markets, especially China, were less badly affected, and in China’s case, government stimulus helped keep things afloat. Now that side of things is unravelling. The Chinese economy is slowing, and in the process it is undermining world markets for commodities such as oil, which presents the threat of widespread damage in the developing world. The Chinese situation arises partly because the country has hit an awkward point in the evolution of its development, and partly because their stimulus package after 2008 was largely wasted and bad debts are threatening its banking system. Indeed the whole soundness of China’s growth strategy is coming into question (its second, state-directed phase , rather than Deng Xiaoping’s original liberalisation from 1978).

This is serious, and no mistake. The role China has played in the world economy in the last quarter century is hard to exaggerate. What is happening there is much bigger than the US subprime crisis that was at the heart of the 2008 debacle. But it doesn’t have the same destabilising features that caused such a fierce chain reaction – which were in plain view as 2008 started. China is not at the heart of a cat’s cradle of complex derivatives sitting in off-balance sheet funds, with almost every international bank taking part. And the huge power of the Chinese state, and the depth of its financial reserves, means that the country’s financial system will collapse slowly rather than suddenly. The western banking system is a much soberer thing than it was in 2008 too, even if many left wing commentators would have you believe that nothing has changed. For these reasons 2016 does not look like 2008. A meltdown, or near meltdown, does not look likely.

But there could be a slower moving form of trouble. Secular stagnation, the affliction of the world economy I referred to recently, is here to stay. Western economies will slow. Worse things may be in store in the developing world. Share prices may well fall badly – many markets have been overpriced for some time.

And in Britain? In my New Year post I suggested that 2016 might be the year the economy here started to turn sour. That comment wasn’t based on any deep thinking. Britain is unusually dependent on the international economy, as is evident from persistent trade and current account deficits, and a value for Sterling that is hard to justify based on its “real” economy. So, with things going awry in the world economy, Britain might be vulnerable. The Pound could come under pressure; foreign investors could desert London’s property market causing a chain reaction; or a downturn in the City’s finance sector could do the same thing. On the other hand, capital flight from the developing world could benefit London in particular, allowing the country to weather the storm. Some left wing commentators have been trying to stoke alarm about the level of personal debt – but that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. Neither should we pay much heed to Labour’s economic adviser, David Blanchflower, who on the radio this morning suggested that Britain was less ready to deal with a crisis than in 2008, because interest rates were already rock bottom. That vastly inflates the effects of interest rate policy on crisis management. David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s luck could hold. I struggle to understand the alarmism on the political left – it will merely undermine its already shaky reputation for economic grasp.

it seems to me that 2016 will be the start of a good old-fashioned cyclical downturn for the world economy, with no more than the usual localised financial crises. Personally I think this will morph into a period of more prolonged secular stagnation that will put paid to economists’ lazy assumption that 1-2% rates of growth are a law of nature.

And that should pose some very challenging questions for the art of economics. But that’s a topic for another day. Meanwhile government bonds are a better bet than shares; cash is not a bad bet either; don’t mortgage up to your eyeballs in property; and interest rates aren’t going up.



Secular stagnation: the dark cloud hanging over the world economy

A dark mood is overtaking those who contemplate the world economy. Today Britain’s Chancellor George Osborne will join a growing chorus of worry. Weak outlook in emerging economies is undermining efforts to revive developed ones like Britain’s. So far the prognosis is stagnation rather than economic disaster – a mood caught by the FT’s Martin Wolf, who tells us not to be too pessimistic. But these are dark clouds and policymakers would do well to prepare for rough waters.

Mr Wolf bases his relative optimism on the fact that world economy has being growing steadily for some two centuries, and with particular steadiness since 1945. Until the potential for further growth is exhausted, which he doesn’t think is anywhere near the case, that growth will carry on. But macroeconomics has changed profoundly in the last ten to twenty years. And even orthodox economists are starting to appreciate this.

The leading piece of evidence is that in the developed world central bank interest rates are stuck at very low levels, even though the recession of 2008-2009 was over five years a go, and there has been steady recovery since. And inflation, as it relates to pay and consumer prices, remains low. What had once been seen as a special case and compounded by policy mistakes, Japan after 1989, has become general. The Economist’s Free Exchange column has run a couple of articles on this. Orthodox economists had simply assumed that the way out of economic doldrums was through conventional short-term policies, such as loose monetary or fiscal policy. Japan’s problem, a whole queue of people, such as Paul Krugman, said, was simply a matter of a “liquidity trap” – when interest rates become too low to reduce. By the time I was studying Economics at UCL in 2005-2008, this was literally in the textbooks. Mr Krugman suggested that the solution was to raise inflation expectations in what seemed to me, even then, as a case macroeconomics gone mad.

But even Mr Krugman now thinks something deeper is afoot. Larry Summers was the first orthodox economist to raise the alarm, and he gave the problem a name: “Secular Stagnation” – or rather he resurrected a theory of that name that had long been treated as a theoretical curiosity. The world economy is profoundly out of balance. This is because the amount people want to save is more than what people want to invest, causing aggregate demand to drain out of the system. This is an idea that Maynard Keynes made famous in the 1930s – but he assumed that such an imbalance was temporary, and specifically a feature of recessions. But what happens if the imbalance continues right through the cycle? We find that attempts to stimulate growth through monetary or fiscal policy run out of steam, and simply lead to asset price bubbles, as surplus money chases the same assets round in circles.

What is causing this imbalance? Unfortunately, notwithstanding the large number of brilliant minds devoted to economics, the massive computing firepower at their fingertips, and the size of what is at stake, there is practically no quantitative evidence. Indeed, macroeconomists actually know little about what is actually happening in the world behind the artificial creations of their aggregated statistics. Instead we have a series of speculations which people gravitate towards depending on political preferences. Here the main ones:

  1. Inequality – the popular explanation on the left, including Mr Krugman and Robert Reich. A greater share of income is going to a very wealthy minority, or is stuck in corporate balance sheets. This is saved rather than spent, contributing to a surplus of savings.
  2. Trade surpluses. China, Germany and (until recently) some oil states have been running up structural trade surpluses, which again creates surplus savings globally. This makes people like Mr Wolf hot under the collar.
  3. Excessive levels of private debt. This theory is favoured by heterodox economists like Steve Keen. Private borrowing as a ratio to income has been steadily rising and is at record levels. Bank balance sheets are clogged so they can’t lend to fund new investment. Meanwhile private individuals are spending too much on debt repayments and interest to spend on consumption.
  4. Modern businesses require less capital, reducing demand for investment. Microsoft and Google required no bank loans and little new capital to develop their businesses, unlike the industrial giants of old. This may be a function of technology, or simply “Baumol’s disease” – the fact that productivity improvements are tilted towards particular industries, whose weight diminishes as they become more efficient. Mr Summers seems to incline towards this explanation, while not dismissing the others.
  5. Demographics. The proportion of workers compared to retired people is diminishing in the developed world and some other countries, like China. This squeezes the supply side of the economy and hence investment.  It also undermines any benefits of productivity growth, the traditional engine of economic advance. This was clearly a factor in Japan, which led the trend.

Is this just a developed world problem? Surely, with so many countries still poor, there are opportunities to raise productivity, and hence global growth in poorer countries? The growth of developing East Asian economies, starting with Japan, and latterly dominated by China, has been an important component of recent world growth. And yet there are few signs than other developing economies can move much beyond exporting natural resources, while China is picking up some distinctly developed world issues. India may be an exception, but the jury is out there.

So what is the solution? That, of course depends on how important each of the above factors is. But there is a big question behind this. Most economists assume that economic growth is a natural state of being, and simply want to remove obstacles to future growth, by raising the level of investment, for example. Others feel that slowing growth is part of a bigger development cycle and something we had better get used to. I incline to this second view.

But the way forward surely does not lie in grand, sweeping policies based on a single, overarching theory. We have to tackle smaller problems as they arise, bearing in mind the overall sense of direction. With that in mind, I think these are the main areas to watch:

  • Private debt. You don’t have to subscribe to Mr Keen’s ideas to understand that growing levels of debt are part of the problem, whether symptom or cause.
  • Big business. These are accumulating too much power, and skewing the distribution of resources.
  • Asset values. In much of the world, excessive asset values, especially land values, are a sign of economic dysfunction. This is especially the case in Britain. This is not a simple matter of supply and demand – excessive debt is part of the problem.
  • Migration. This is one of the ways that economic pressures can be relieved. But as we know all too well, a host of problems follow in its wake.
  • Government debt. In the short to medium term, for most developed economies, high levels of government debt will be much easier to sustain than conventional wisdom suggests. And yet in the long term this could lead to economic breakdown, as is happening in some South American economies.  The left have a strong theoretical case in opposing austerity, but undermine it by opposing almost any reform designed to improve economic efficiency and promote sustainability.

It is also important to point out the dogs that won’t bark. These are things that economists bang on about which don’t matter so much in our “new normal”:

  • Free trade. Free trade is an important part of the current global system, and it won’t help to reverse it. But the rapid globalisation of supply chains which was such a feature of the last two decades, is going into reverse, as the East Asian economies mature. This is one reason why growth is slowing – but it is the reversal on a phenomenon that was always going to be temporary. Further liberalisation of trade poses challenging questions, as TTIP and TPP are demonstrating, and may simply benefit big business.
  • Inflation. It used to be thought that inflation was a matter of managing expectations by the central bank, and of paramount importance. This is still true in some less developed economies. But in those exposed to global trade this is an entirely unhelpful way of looking at things. More powerful forces are keeping prices stable and inflation is less and less an issue that central banks need to act on.
  • Interest rates. These are set to stay low for a long time yet. The betting is that the recent rise in the US will be just one of a long line of failed jail-breaks, started by the Bank of Japan in the 1990s.

We live in interesting times.





Osborne uses an accounting trick to implement People’s QE

When Jeremy Corbyn, was running his successful campaign for the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party, he floated the idea of “People’s QE”. “QE” stands for Quantitative Easing, the means by which central banks try to loosen monetary policy in an economy without reducing interest rates – handy when interest rates are near zero. It attracted quite a bit of attention from economists, much of it quite approving. That is because the idea touches on one of the most important aspects of modern economic policy: the suggestion that governments can sustain quite big deficits simply by “printing” money. In the end we find, not for the first time, that the current Conservative government acts much further to the political left than it talks, as did its Conservative-Liberal Democrat predecessor.

Back in the 1980s, when monetary policy first became the height of fashion, we had uncomplicated views about what it was about. Although most money was in bank accounts, economists painted a picture as though it was all in notes and coins, and the various actors behaved as if they were kids spending pocket money (and even then was probably too simplistic…). They talked of a “money supply”, which could be manipulated, and the size of which affected spending behaviour. We are older and wiser now, though many economists and journalists still talk about “printing money”, even though physical money has almost no role to play, and bank accounts are different in very important ways. Even trained economists who should know better sometimes trip themselves up in this way. For example there is much excited talk about how commercial banks create money rather than the central bank – which turns out to be a red herring on reflection [That link from Paul Krugman includes a broken link to a masterful essay from James Tobin in 1963, read it here]. It is better to look on monetary policy as a series of policy instruments under the control of the central bank, which have not entirely knowable effects on the economy at large.

The most important of these instruments is the short-term interest rate the central bank charges to commercial banks in their interactions with it. These ripple right through the economy. But when they are very low, as they are now in the UK, it is very hard to lower them further. Some European banks are using negative interest rates without the sky having fallen in, but these negative rates aren’t very high – fractions of a percentage point. So how to “loosen” policy – that is encourage a greater level of economic activity? Here the invention of QE comes in, pioneered, as so much of modern policy, by Japan in the 1990s and early 2000s. This is often talked of as if it means printing physical money and handing it out to the kids to spend on sweeties. What it actually means is that the central bank goes into the market and buys bonds, usually government bonds, like British gilts.

How does that help? Well the people who held the bonds now hold cash instead, which they should spend on something else – which might include new capital investment, after it has changed hands a few times. And it might reduce bond yields, which will reduce long term interest rates right across the economy, and increase asset prices. This creates a “wealth effect” that might encourage the mass affluent to spend a bit more money on stuff that people make. Or all that could happen is that there is a merry-go-round of money chasing various flavours of pre-existing asset to create an asset price bubble. It’s not very clear what has happened to the Bank of England’s QE over the years. The bank produces various statistical associations as evidence that it has helped stimulate the wider economy. Others are sceptical.

Which is where People’s QE comes in. What if, instead of buying government bonds in the market, the money went into extra government spending, such as infrastructure investment, or even current spending. Because the Bank controls the currency in the UK, it can fund the government’s deficit without the need to borrow money from investors. It borrows money from itself. This amounts to supporting looser fiscal policy (i.e. government tax and spend), which should provide a more predictable stimulus to the wider economy.

Mr Corbyn’s advisers developed the idea with the suggestion of administrative structures to channel the extra money into infrastructural investment. This puzzled some economists. There is no need for such engineering. All the government has to do is spend the money, increasing its deficit, issue bonds as normal, which the Bank of England then buys in the existing QE programme. If the Bank is buying bonds, the government is less beholden to the bond markets. In Japan, which has been practising QE on a massive scale, the government now issues little net debt to the bond markets, making large deficits sustainable.

But how does this work? Surely it is something for nothing? The answer to that is that it only works if there is slack in the economy, and the government steps in to create demand because businesses are investing less than the public is saving, creating an imbalance. If this is not the case, you can get inflation, which is what happened to Germany and Austria in the 1920s, Zimbabwe more recently, and is happening in Argentina now. Alternatively you get a asset price bubble. Which in the modern, globalised financial and trading system is in fact more likely for developed economies – though this seems to be a blind spot for many economists, who think that asset markets are too efficient for that.

But in the developed economies, including the US, the Eurozone and Japan, as well as the UK, there does seem to be scope to do this kind of stimulus. There is a lack of business investment, while, it appears, too much money ends up in the hands of rich people, who don’t spend it. Nobody knows how long-term this problem is, but it does look as if large government deficits are much easier to sustain than before. If the bond markets refuse to fund all of the deficit, then central banks can simply “print the money” as the popularisers would put it. Prominent British economist (Lord) Adair Turner (whom I am something of a fan of) suggested that this could be a long term policy in a recent book.

In Britain there is an accounting wrinkle which is having an important impact. The Bank buys government bonds, but it holds them rather than cancelling them, so that it can sell them should it want to tighten policy. So the government still pays interest on the gilts the Bank holds, and this used to count towards the publicly declared deficit. But the Coalition government changed the rules, so that it does not count the interest on the Bank’s holdings against the deficit. That reduces the fiscal deficit and allows the government to spend money on other things instead. Also the effects of QE on longer term gilt yields reduces the deficit projected by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), which plays such a pivotal role in longer term government spending plans. According to the FT’s Chris Giles £22.4bn of the £27bn that the Chancellor, George Osborne, “found” to allow him to loosen austerity measures in the Autumn Statement resulted from these accounting tricks. This boils down to People’s QE, and Mr Osborne used it to fund his U-turn on tax credit cuts, amongst other things.

The problem, as Mr Giles points out, is what happens when the Bank feels the need to tighten policy in, say, a year or two’s time? Then the whole thing goes into reverse. Politicians have seen gain in blurring the distinction between fiscal and monetary policy. That could return to haunt them, at both ends of the political spectrum.


Have big organisations had their day? Alas not in the public sector

In a recent bog post David Boyle, whom I regard as a fellow campaigner for a new economic paradigm, describes the phenomenon of the “empty corporation”. He mentioned this after trying to deal with two large British companies: Barclays Bank and TalkTalk, the telecoms company. These companies offer their customers no human contact, and are unable to solve more than very simple problems without causing their customers a lot of work. And yet these businesses conform to our idea of high productivity, which is the holy grail of economic development. Examining how these companies work gives us clues about how economic development needs to change direction.

The key to this is the insight, offered in recent book by information scientist César Hidalgo, that the human brain can only handle so much complexity. And the human brain is at the apex of any system for managing complexity. Whatever power Artificial Intelligence (AI) and computing may have to transform life, they remain a long way from handling complex situations reliably. Groups of people can manage more complexity that individuals, but this is a process of diminishing returns; it ceases to be true of large groups. That is fundamentally why large organisations do not handle complexity well. So how do they succeed?

They do so by simplifying things. Manufacturers build standard products in large numbers. Service providers try to pull off a similar feat, by offering a standard service, handled by a relatively simple set of rules, with the minimum variation due to context. Further, they produce these products and services by fragmenting the more complex parts into simpler steps. By doing so they are able to develop “economies of scale”, first admiringly highlighted by the founder of modern economics, Adam Smith, in a pin factory. That makes them highly productive and competitive, within a tightly defined remit.

Anybody who has worked in a large organisation (as I have within in financial services) will recognise this drive to simplicity. Failures are usually attributed to excessive complexity. Every so often there is a reorganisation to re-simplify things. Hierarchies and bureaucracy is put in place with the aim of preventing complexity from growing – though this sometimes backfires by doing the opposite. Even so large organisations often become unstuck because vital processes are neglected (a recent example being TalkTalk’s inadequate defence against hacking) or parts of the organisation interpret their an over-narrow remit without comprehending the full context (VW’s problems with emissions standards being a case in point here).  It seems impossible to get the balance between inadequate and excessive control.

And yet officialdom often favours large corporations. That is mainly because they have a similar problem with complexity. They find it much easier to handle a smaller number of large organisations. They are many examples, but one that sticks in my mind is the almost vindictive campaign by officialdom against smaller abattoirs after a scandal of lax standards. This still afflicts British agriculture; we may question whether it really has produced much in the way of safety benefits. But it has made the blame game easier to manage. There is a further, and sinister twist. Large corporations, especially in the USA, have discovered how easy it is to manipulate new regulations by lobbying officials and politicians. The payback on investment is apparently enormous.

The problems of excessive scale are even more apparent in the public sector than in the private one. A recent case described by Guardian journalist Deborah Orr is particularly poignant. She told of a woman falsely accused by a neighbour of antisocial behaviour. It was quite clear that this neighbour had mental health problems. Officialdom, in the shape of the housing association that managed the property and the police, where utterly unable to cope. They could not see beyond an isolated series of incidents, which each had to be dealt with according to a set process, regardless of human impacts. In the end her neighbour was evicted – but only because his rent was behind; at no point did anybody think of getting down to the root of the problem – the neighbour’s mental health problems, which are presumably being inflicted on somebody new. The theme of Ms Orr’s article is the lack of compassion in the modern world. To me it is simply the inability of large organisations, like the housing association and the police, to manage context and complexity. There is no place for compassion is such places. Compassion means allowing the impact of context, and that means losing control.

These problems are made worse by organisations attempting to be more “productive” by reducing levels of staff, and “de-skilling” – using less qualified, and cheaper, staff, working within tightly defined rules. Unfortunately this is one area where the wrong lessons from the private sector are being imposed on the public sector.

There is a sort of defining paradox about the problem. On the one hand we have workers working very hard, and very productively, and on the other we have the organisations they work for failing. This almost always arises because the sum of all the things that the workers are doing fails to add up to what they are collectively trying to do. There is even a name for the discipline of trying to resolve this type of problem: “process management” – which I personally have found an essential set of ideas as a manager. Unfortunately people charged with process management are usually given too narrow a remit to get to grips with the real problems their organisation faces. And all too often these problems are insoluble for large organisations – because solving them means depending too much on the exercise of judgement at a junior level (including the “compassion” of which Ms Orr speaks), the full consequences of which the wider organisation will be unable to handle.

Economists should ponder this paradox when they tut-tut about poor growth in productivity, as they are prone to do. Most still believe that productivity comes about with simplification and scale. But each of our lives is complex, from the billionaire to the welfare claimant. Offering us a bewildering menu of simple, standardised products and services is often not what we need, even if each of these services is very cheap, because it is produced to high standards of productivity. At least the billionaire can employ a small staff of professionals to try and make sense of it all. Alas the welfare claimant often needs interaction with just the sort of trained and empowered professional whose jobs are being de-skilled. Productivity, as it is usually understood, may be self-defeating. We need a new way of looking at it.

In the private sector the processes of technological advance and competition will eventually drive positive change. Big corporations will try to slow it down by creating monopolies, by making life difficult for their competitors, or by misusing such concepts as intellectual property rights. But the life expectancy of larger organisations is already shortening. A long last technology may be taking forward individual empowerment at the expense of centralisation. It is always dangerous to predict where technology will take us, but the smartphone, blockchain technology (pioneered by BitCoin), and additive manufacturing (3D-printing) are surely pointing towards a more distributed model of capitalism. Meanwhile the struggles of large companies to secure customer databases and fight disruption from cyber attack are pointing the same way too. With inevitable exceptions, the big commercial corporation may have had its day.

Alas there is no sign that policymakers understand that scale is a problem for public services, even though almost very day provides evidence that it is. Each failure is greeted with promises that some tweak in the system will sort the problem out. You would think that after so many years of such failed promises that people would start to twig. And yet, alas, no.


Is the world heading for a new financial crash?

Yesterdays’ Guardian carried an article entitled Apocalypse now: has the next giant financial crash already begun? by Paul Mason, who is Channel 4’s economics editor. The same paper carried an article last week by David Graeber: Britain is heading for another 2008 crash: here’s why. So it’s clearly becoming fashionable for left wing types to start spreading stories of doom. Could they be right?

Mr Graeber is not a professional economist (neither am I, I should make clear); he’s an anthropologist, in fact. He has written engagingly on financial matters though, notably his book Debt: the First 5,000 years. His enthusiasm is for the big picture and the global explanation. I found his book a huge let-down because he was incapable of analysing more recent financial events at any level below sweeping generalisation.

And so it is this time. His central argument is that enthusiasm for governments to cut their financial deficits means that private debt, at less affordable rates of interest, will pile up. The key strand of evidence is this graph, which shows public, private and external deficits:

Graeber graph

He notes that it is symmetric, because it is based on an accounting identity. So, if the external balance is constant, which it roughly has been, any reduction in public deficit must be matched by an increase in private deficit. Ergo, we are simply swapping public debt for private debt. And since, as everybody knows, the crash of 2008 came about because of excessive private debt, another one is inevitable. He calls this the Peter-Paul principle (ie. robbing Peter to pay Paul).

Oh dear! It’s hard to know where to begin. As anybody with an understanding of mathematics will tell you, accounting identities don’t tell you as much as you might think. They are tautologies: you can’t use them to predict anything useful about the world. I remember, back in the 1980s, another accounting identity, this time on money, growth and inflation, getting people into trouble, as monetarists used it to “prove” that inflation and growth depended on money supply. Alas all it showed was how uselessly elastic are the concepts of money supply and velocity of circulation. A moment’s thought tells you that Mr Graeber’s argument must be flawed. He is suggesting that the amount of debt in the economy remains fixed – and yet it clearly goes up and down. Actually, the amount of debt is fixed – it is a net of zero! For every debtor there is a creditor; gross debt, however, must be independent of the sizes of the sectoral balances. The Peter-Paul principle is not the great taboo of economics as Mr Graeber suggests. It just doesn’ tell you very much. Not nothing, as the FT’s economics writer Martin Wolf, has shown – but it has taken him in a different direction. He suggests that if government austerity is not matched by extra private sector spending, the economy will shrink. An altogether more subtle point.

Mr Mason’s line of argument is sounder, in that it is based on more factual evidence rather than airy assertions. His line of argument is that aggregate debt has continued to rise, but the world economy has stalled, so that debt will be unrepayable, and so there will be a financial crisis. But this is still lightweight fare, based on aggregated data, which may be unreliable, and not on the specifics of who owes what to whom. The problem is that the world financial system is a very complex thing. It very hard to attribute cause and effect – or rather it is all too easy, it is just impossible to prove that you are right. The financial crash of 2007/2008 came about with the convergence of a number of things, of which the reckless build-up of private sector debt was only one (rising oil and food prices, reckless use of off-balance sheet finance by banks, persistent trade surpluses from China and oil states, a false sense of security from central banks – to name but a few).

One thing we can say is that the world in 2015 is very different from that of 2007, when the last crisis started. It is commonplace in left-wing circles to suggest that nothing has changed in the world of international banking since the crash. Well some banks are making money again, and some bankers are taking outrageous bonuses. But there are many fewer of them; there is much less profit sloshing around. The banks have been forced by regulation and bitter experience to be more prudent. Off-balance sheet finance, at the heart of the 2007 crisis, has been drastically reined in. And the world financial situation is very different, with low oil and commodity prices, a fading China, and the US fast becoming self-sufficient in hydrocarbons.

But that may not offer us much reassurance. We may not be heading for another 2007/2008 but we could still be heading for something nasty. There are four things that could be a sign of trouble:

  1. There are asset bubbles in some places. What is referred to as “emerging market” assets are the most spoken of: debt, shares and property located in China and various parts of the developing world. But there are others: London property and US shares come to mind. Some suggest that developed government bonds are in a similar bubble, as their prices are historically high, but Japan has shown that these prices can stay high for a very long time indeed.
  2. Central banks are running with ultra low interest rates, meaning that the main arm of monetary policy is not available. Quantitative Easing (QE) is problematic. This leaves them without the firepower to deal with a crisis as it emerges – or so many people think. In fact the dynamics of monetary policy have moved well beyond textbook theories about money supply and inflation expectations, leaving us unable to understand how things work.
  3. The maturing of China and the rise of shale oil and gas in the US have changed world financial and trade dynamics fundamentally from the pattern of the last two decades. I suspect the new pattern is more stable than the old one in the long run – but any such change tends to cause dislocation. It may, for example, become much more difficult for many countries, including Britain, to finance their deficits (the blue bit in Mr Graeber’s graph could shrink).
  4. International politics has become more fractious, making international deals more difficult to do. And populists from left and right are making it harder for governments to intervene to stabilise financial markets – often portrayed as bailing out bankers at the expense of ordinary taxpayers. That will make any future banking crisis harder to manage.

So I share some of Mr Hunt’s and Mr Graeber’s worries. I have my own airy narrative. Since the the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates and gold underpinning was broken in the 1970s, by President Nixon who needed to fund the Vietnam war without raising taxes, the world has been addicted to an increasing cycle of debt. Some of this debt might be regarded as lubrication for the wheels of capitalism. But also there seems to be a bit of Ponzi scheme about it, with debt being repaid by the issue of yet more debt, rather than through substantive economic advance. In the long run, that cannot be stable. And yet it may take a long while yet before the trouble starts to show up.



4 liberal themes on economics and public services: my contribution to Lib Dem Agenda 2020

Agenda 2020 is the consultation exercise being carried out by the Liberal Democrats to set the framework of policy in the period up to 2020, when we next expect parliamentary elections. At this stage the idea is to keep the thinking at quite a high level. This is always quite hard for political activists. We somehow got onto VAT on tampons in the consultation exercise in Bournemouth. Then again, I’m always saying that political types on the left are too abstract. I haven’t submitted the following contribution yet, but the idea is to be strong on general direction, with only a few pointers on the detail. I’m afraid that it’s still a bit longer than my normal posts.

Economics, public services and wider Liberal Democrat policy

Economics and public services should be at the heart of any political narrative. Too often in the Liberal Democrats both topics have been neglected. The party has opted for a simple middle ground between the Conservatives and Labour. The 2015 General Election was no exception, at least as far as the headlines went. The time has come for a much more robust narrative. Here are some ideas on what this might look like.

The story so far

After 1945 the great Liberal thinkers Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge founded a post war consensus on economic management and public services. This was based on the state taking responsibility for managing the business cycle through fiscal policy, and a greatly expanded set of state services, funded by much higher taxes (compared to pre-war levels), to fulfil a series of new entitlements, designed to ensure that everybody obtained a basic level of wellbeing. These ideas were taken on by the Labour and Conservative Parties, and developed into an overbearing state, which also took over a series of failing businesses, from railways, to steel, to even aero engines.

By the 1970s the state had lost control of its finances and the country was heading for towards economic collapse. Public services had been captured by vested interests, with very little regard for their users. In reaction to this emerged a new conventional wisdom, initiated by Margaret Thatcher and expanded by Tony Blair. This new thinking was again based on liberal principles, and it is often referred to as “neoliberalism”.  The idea was that citizens should be empowered as buyers in a market economy, with the state stepping back to provide only basic services and a basic safety net. Much of the regulation of the business cycle would be taken up by monetary policy, so as to reduce the role of the state. Marginal rates of tax on income were cut, though overall levels of tax increased, if anything.

Probably not coincidentally, this change to public policy was accompanied by dramatic shifts in technology and global trade. Society changed substantially, mostly for the better. Living standards advanced, life expectancy improved, and pollution was cut. But now the country, in common with the rest of the developed world, seems stuck. Most economic growth just benefits a rich elite; businesses hoard excess earnings rather than invest or pay their workers more; property prices escalate. The number of badly paid jobs rises; most younger people are shut out of decent jobs and decent homes. Demand for health and care services grows, while public resources do not keep pace. And prosperity is restricted to a small number better-off areas, especially in the south east of England.

Liberals should worry. Power is being concentrated among a wealthy elite of people connected to big businesses. This trend Is abetted by a highly centralised national government that would rather deal with these large businesses, or else large public agencies like the NHS, than directly with the public. The power of the markets works for many people, but it is failing many more. Many people have inadequate leverage in the markets for jobs and homes in particular, leaving an unequal power balance in both domains. This state of affairs breeds fear and insecurity, which in turn leads to the rise of the political extremes of right and left, which threaten social cohesion.

In the meantime thinking on economic policy has not caught up with these profound changes. Most economists still think of the economy in a highly centralised way, in terms of aggregates across the whole economy, rather than the fate of its component parts. And thinking about productivity is stuck with ideas appropriate to manufacturing industry and economies of scale – and not to the efficient use of the human resources the country actually has to hand, in an economy increasingly dominated by personal services. The left rails against a series of pantomime villains, but resists any serious progressive reform of public services. This old thinking simply concentrates more power and wealth into the hands of a well-connected elite. Public services are dominated by functional silos based on political empires, not people’s actual needs.

We need fresh thinking, and my suggestion is to organise this around four liberal themes.

Liberal theme 1: green growth

Green growth means the advancement of human wellbeing while reducing the consumption of physical resources, especially non-renewable energy. The twin objectives are to ensure that everybody has the chance to live a healthy and fulfilling life in a comfortable environment, while easing the stress on the local and global environment.  There are two aspects to this: developing and implementing technologies that are more environmentally efficient, and breaking the idea that ever increasing consumption is the path to improved wellbeing. This requires a profound change in outlook – though one that is already taking place.

Green growth may or may not entail economic growth as currently measured. That depends on how advanced wellbeing is reflected in the monetary economy. In the short to medium term it entails a substantial level of investment, in more efficient homes, power infrastructure and transport infrastructure, as well as research and development. If properly carried out these investments will entail improved economic growth. Longer term growth requires the harnessing of human resources more effectively. This means a wider distribution of information management and decision making, or:

Liberal theme 2: small is beautiful

Large organisations, be they businesses or government agencies, are one of the main threats to green growth and liberal values. They concentrate power in the hands of the elites that control them, leaving the majority of their employees disempowered, and unable to react most effectively to the world as they find it. The elites are geographically concentrated, leading to geographic concentrations of power and wealth, and the hollowing out of communities elsewhere. This hollowing out leads to a waste of human resources, which must be tapped if green growth is to take root. Furthermore, large commercial organisations have a tendency to hoard surplus earnings (often abroad) rather than invest them, acting as a further drag on the economy.

Of course large organisations also play a vital role in any efficient economy; they are the best organisational form to take on some functions. But these are not as many as often supposed. A liberal government must change the legal and regulatory environment so that it favours large organisations less. This will include reforms to political structures, banking and taxes.

It will also entail a substantial reform of public services:

Liberal theme 3: public services that solve problems

It should be obvious that the main reason that public services are inefficient is that they do not work together to solve people’s problems. Housing, mental health, addiction, crime and poor physical health are very often bound together in one person’s feeding on each other – and yet we persist in trying to deal with each of these issues separately, in separate chains of command all the way to Cabinet. Often the key is making all the relevant services work together in such a way that the user moves to a better way of life, with less call on the public purse. Usually what happens is that the relevant agencies work against each other.

Public services should be organised to meet the needs of people, and solve problems rather than playing pass the parcel. This should be the foremost area for the development of policy, based on best existing practice. There may be a number of possible approaches.  Some of things are clear, however:

  • Changes will be easier to implement if responsibility for public services is more localised and more integrated.
  • Some form of empowered professional intermediary will usually be required to assess the users’s needs, to coordinate the different agencies and, where needed, to negotiate the compliance of the user. Empowerment will mean some form of budgetary control. This means a step back from the current tendency to disempower and de-skill such intermediaries, like social workers and probation officers.
  • Large scale functional outsourcing will usually take services in the wrong direction. Repeated tendering also leads to a dumbing down, a tendency to gloss over more complex issues. The greater use of local social enterprises may well be a better approach in a framework that ensures proper accountability.

Public services should help with some of the most difficult problems relating to poverty; but this has to be in a wider context wealth and income distriubtion. We also need:

Liberal theme 4: redistribution to correct imbalances

A well-ordered, liberal society might not require the redistribution of income and wealth. And liberals dislike redistribution for its own sake – different levels of wealth may simply reflect freely made choices over how to balance accumulating money with other things life has to offer. But in our society imbalances of wealth and income pose a threat. The less well-off are denied the opportunities that should be theirs. Excessive wealth can be used to buy political influence and monopoly power, reducing choices for others. The accumulation of wealth may also lead to excess savings and economic stagnation. Liberals must embrace redistribution, albeit warily.

Redistribution needs to work at two distinct levels: personal and geographical. The wealthy must be taxed on both income and assets (land, in particular), and the worse off must be compensated through access to benefits and rights to state services, especially housing. Children must be a particular focus of redistribution as early years are critical to life chances.

Also funds must be redistributed from wealthy regions and districts to those less well off, to offset the negative network effects of clusters of wealth.

At both levels redistribution arrangements must be designed so as not to create dependency. Those less well-off should be encouraged to improve their lot – but at the same time the level of redistribution must fall as the need for it falls. Systems of redistribution based on universal rights (like the state pension) have their place, but have limits too. Truly liberal systems of redistribution will require careful design.

A policy programme to match

At this stage the idea is to sketch out broad political priorities, and not detailed policy programmes. I do not believe that in most cases a radical departure is needed from adopted Liberal Democrat policy. The high level emphasis will need to be rethought, however.

The main policy implications of taking forward the four liberal themes are:

  1. Political reform, and especially the devolution of power to regions and districts. This is essential to create the right political environment. This may be combined with a new federal settlement for the UK and reform of the House of Lords. Electoral reform is important to ensure a plurality of power – but the priority must be to implement proportional voting systems at local level rather than at Westminster. A further important strand of political reform should be restricting the influence of wealthy individuals and organisations, especially through political donations.
  2. A programme of green investments must be instituted, including high quality social housing.
  3. With public service reform the emphasis should be on bottom-up initiatives – but national funding structures will have to be reviewed to facilitate this.
  4. The tax and benefits system will need to be re-examined. The Lib Dem commitment to increasing personal allowances must be rethought, as it is inefficient as a redistribution policy. Restoring tax credits is a higher priority. Taxation of land in some shape or form makes sense, though we may get no further than reforming Council Tax.
  5. On overall fiscal policy it is best to manage down expectations of additional government spending – though the principle that the government (including local governments) can borrow to invest must be clear.
  6. The banking system must be reformed to allow new, locally-based lenders to come into play. Investment in the “real economy” should be encouraged to create new assets, While avoiding a merry-go-round of existing assets.
  7. The UK should act internationally through the EU to curb tax avoidance, especially by large corporations. Trade agreements and relations with the EU should be viewed through the prism of promoting smaller businesses, and not simply advancing the interests of large multinationals.

Of course there are many more important policies that have a bearing on the economy and public services – not least reducing the level of carbon emissions. But overall such a policy platform should be quite distinctive from the orthodoxies of right and left, and yet fully in tune with modern times.


Labour changes the meaning of austerity

So far, so good. That’s my verdict of the remaking of Labour under its new leader, Jeremy Corbyn. I’ll say more about the big picture later in the week, after Mr Corbyn’s speech later today. This time I want to focus on economics and the performance of the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, who spoke yesterday.

Like Mr Corbyn, Mr McDonnell is a serial rebel and a political outsider – and he is very much Mr Corbyn’s right hand man. That is why he was given the job of Shadow Chancellor over the much more politically correct Angela Eagle. Both Mr McDonnell and economics are central to the Corbyn project.

The first thing to note is the new regime’s ambition in taking on economics. The previous leader, Ed Miliband, was a bit embarrassed to talk about economic policy. He did not try to defend the previous Labour government’s economic policies, nor seriously criticise them for matter, in spite of the opprobrium being dumped on them by the coalition parties. He was late in developing his own economic proposals, and when these came out, they appeared to be “austerity-lite”, and not seriously challenging the government’s narrative.

Mr McDonnell, on the other hand, wants to take control of the economic narrative. He is enlisting the help of heavyweight economists to both support his own plans, and to undermine the government’s version of events. In this he is capitalising on a remarkable fact. Academic economists have been very critical of government policies and “austerity” generally. Indeed government policy seems to be more based on 200 years of Treasury orthodoxy than modern economic insight. This is an opportunity to undermine the government’s reputation for competence, and make it look ideological.

Labour is still left with the two paradoxes of anti-austerity economics that I referred to in a previous post.  The first is that by opposing austerity Labour will have to make its peace with the global financial markets that it so despises. Mr McDonnell tackled this head-on in his speech, and in an interview with the Guardian newspaper last weekend. He has nominally adopted the government’s trajectory for reducing the UK’s fiscal deficit, with its aim of bringing it into surplus by 2020. With a huge rider: he will exclude borrowing to fund capital investment. Depending on how loosely “investment” is defined, this is perfectly sensible public policy, and not, in fact, very different from Mr Miliband’s. It reduces dependence on international finance – remembering that the Bank of England’s Quantitative Easing policies may come to the government’s aid if the economy takes a turn for the worse.

There is, of course, a problem. It means signing up to austerity as most people understand it. And yet opposition to austerity remains his rallying cry. One of the many weaknesses of the left is its love of abstract nouns, especially as things to oppose – austerity, neoliberalism, inequality, and so on. Ordinary working people don’t understand what they are on about, but the activists work themselves up obsessively – and at the moment austerity is public enemy number one. But Mr McDonnell and Mr Corbyn have an ingenious answer to this: just change the meaning of “austerity”.

To them, the word now applies not to tightening the government’s finances overall, but to cuts and tax rises that might affect low and middle income workers. There will be cuts, said Mr McDonnell, but not to the numbers of policemen, nurses or teachers. Instead the cuts would be to “corporate welfare” – tax breaks to businesses, as well as raising taxes on the rich. He was careful not to be too specific about all this.

There are some pretty solid grounds for scepticism here. Mr Corbyn has brandished the figure of £93 billion for corporate welfare, a figure conjured up by the Guardian. Mostly these are allowances or direct support for investment, exports and research and development – all things Labour will want to encourage. And the small print of the Guardian’s report suggests not that this is low hanging fruit waiting to be plucked, but that it is, to switch metaphors, a rather overgrown hedge that can be trimmed a little. There is reason to doubt how easy it will be to target other measures to raise taxes, or clamp down on avoidance, without collateral damage to the small and medium sized businesses that the economy so needs. This is what undid Francois Hollande’s Socialist government’s attempt to do much the same thing.

But it isn’t nonsense either. Big business, and the pampered elites that run them, are not a benign force these days. They contribute to the hollowing out of much of the economy by destroying middle ranking jobs and sucking the soul out of towns and villages away from the main commercial centres. They also siphon profits out of the economy rather than reinvest them. Labour will do well to be wary of big business, unlike the earlier regimes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. But finding policies that will tilt things against big business without damaging the wider economy will not be easy. I think that tax treatments for intellectual property and debt interest are a better place to look than the Guardian’s corporate welfare list. And international cooperation on corporate tax avoidance will help (especially if we can move to unitary taxes, such as the US states apply among themselves).  But such policies will take time.

All this takes us into the territory of my second paradox for anti-austerity economic policy. It calls for more economic growth, and yet bears down on much of the private business that will be needed to generate it. This will be the next challenge for Mr McDonnell and his colleagues. It is fair enough to bear down on many businesses, especially the giants. But Labour also needs to show encouragement and support for more positive businesses, through investing in support infrastructure, improving access to credit for genuine investment, improving public procurement, and through reducing the burden of petty regulation. As yet I see no sign of this – but it is early days.

I remain highly sceptical of the new Labour project. But its leaders have made a competent start, and there is undoubted fresh air. The floor is still theirs.


Information science can help us understand economics

HidalgoI have just finished reading César Hidalgo’s Why Information Grows – the Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economics. This is a flawed work. But the author is on to something – and something rather important.

Mr Hidalgo’s key insight is that it helps to understand economics as part of the advance of order, or information, against the tide of ever increasing entropy – the advance of disorder that is the central insight of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

I don’t disagree with the disappointed reviews I have read of this book in The Economist or on Amazon. Some interesting ideas that lead to… nowhere much. His final section, a postscript nominally about acknowledgements, does much to explain how this came about. He describes how the book was written. Apart from Mr Hidalgo’s use of the words “bleed” and “vomit” to describe the process of writing, and his need to describe all the coffee shops where he wrote the book, he tells us how the book evolved. He started to write about economic growth, realised he was onto something much bigger, adapted and …

I have abandoned the book. Any bleeder knows that books are never finished, only abandoned. Yet I hope to have reached a point at which the orphan I produced is mature enough to find a home in most people’s heads.

Alas for most people he has not achieved that maturity – the ideas were to big to catch and consolidate in the time he had. But I am glad that he did “abandon” when he did, rather than keep his insights private for another few years while that extra maturity came about. It has found a home in my head.

The advance of order and information on Planet Earth is the great wonder of our existence. For some it is proof of God, for it can only be the work of an imagination. But for others, who do not believe in such a God, or for whom God works in altogether a different way, this wonder is a puzzle. Mr Hidalgo describes in general terms how such a thing can come about. A system out of equilibrium can generate order from its unravelling; this order can be stored in solid matter as information. We advance because our Sun is in the long process of self-destruction and because our planet has solid matter in which the information can be stored.

This advance of information took place though the formation of life on earth, and on to the civilisation created by humans. Mr Hildalgo’s starting point for the book was his realisation that this is that economic advance (a word I prefer in this context to “growth”, the word he uses) is another facet of this process, and that this insight helps us to understand economics. But his postscript describes how he was overcome by the banality of this observation, and how then strove to describe something altogether bigger.

If he is going to talk about economics, he needs to move beyond his understandable feelings of its banality towards an understanding of what economics is for, and then trying to work with that. He hints at it but leaves no time to develop his thinking properly. He is right that the idea of economic growth is not much in itself. But what economics should be about is advancing the wellbeing of humanity without destroying the planet that it inhabits. And that must be seen in terms of the growth of information, and not, as far too many people see it, as the consumption of energy and the creation of physical artefacts.

Now let’s move on. Mr Hidalgo’s thoughts on economics flow from an appreciation of the critical constraints on the growth of information in human society. This is set by the physical capacity of the human mind to retain and process information. People can organise as teams in order to acheive beyond their personal capacity, but this too has constraints imposed by what organisations and social networks can do. He draws on the insights of the great lawyer-turned-economist Ronald Coase, amongst others, to explain the implications of these constraints. These show why it is so difficult for “developing” economies to catch up with the developed world, for example. It is through understanding how organisations and networks manage and create information that we can understand the direction needed for human advancement.

Interestingly he does not feel the need to discuss whether massive computing power and databases help in this process (or I missed it if he did).  We tend to associate the word “information” with them. But these things are really very limited in their power to think and imagine, and we often confuse information with data. Still, there is an interesting discussion to be had about the role advancing artificial intelligence might play.

Economists often show what is referred to “physics envy”. This is the wish to reduce their discipline to some elegant natural laws which are susceptible to mathematical treatment. And yet, as somebody who has studied physics for real, I wonder at how little comprehension of physics economists generally have. By and large they haven’t got beyond the First Law of Thermodynamics, and systems in equilibrium. And yet physics (and chemistry come to that) only gets at all interesting and useful when you get beyond these basics. I remember that light bulb moment when studying Chemistry A-level when we moved from the stable predictable world of thermodynamic equilibria to the crazy world of kinetics, where most of the real value lies. And yet the economic models the world uses, and around which the world of economics revolves, are fundamentally based on equilibrium thinking.

So if economists have physics envy, Mr Hidalgo’s ideas are exactly the sort of direction they should be looking to move forward. But, alas, macro-economists in particular would prefer to pontificate about comfortable aggregates like GDP, inflation, productivity and money supply as if these were genuine physical phenomena.

An information-based outlook would change the way we viewed economics. We would see that Saudi Arabia is not a rich country, but a poor one, as its economy is based on oil rather than the enrichment of information. And we might understand better why making organisations, and systems like national economies, big often makes things worse rather than better. It does so because these big places tend to concentrate their information development into tight networks at the power centres, leaving much of their human potential under-utilised.

It isn’t that theoretical economics itself offers any basis for so-called economies of scale. In fact the idea goes against the oft-used maxim of diminishing returns, which economists like more for its convenient mathematical consequences that any real grounding in reality. But economies of scale are the language and self-justifying belief system of political and commercial power. Advancing productivity, it is said, is the key to economic success. Bigger systems are more productive. So we must make everything bigger. For an example of this, look at the case being made for expanding Heathrow Airport. Economists are unable to present a serious counter-narrative, it seems, though a few are uneasy about this logic leading to monopolies.

The most important thing about Mr Hidalgo’s work is that it starts to give us a strong theoretical language with which to tackle one of the biggest social and economic issues of our time – the under-utilisation of human resources through the consolidation of large governmental and commercial networks – which lies behind growing inequality. It also helps us with another issue – the commonplace assumption that we must choose between improving the lot of the poor and protecting the future of our planet.

By thinking about information and networks, we break the stranglehold of thinking about the world in terms of money and physical things. That holds a lot of promise.