What can we learn from 1977? The need for fresh economic thinking

Economic thought follows a 40 year cycle. It starts with a period of doubt, as the conventional wisdom appears inadequate; this lasts ten to twenty years. A new way of looking at the economy then emerges and this leads to a period of confidence and optimism, lasting twenty to thirty years. And then optimism collapses into another period of doubt as the orthodoxies fail. Currently we are in a period of doubt, which started ten years ago. That was also the case 40 years ago. A chance discovery has just brought this home to me.

Last weekend I was staying at my father's house, and picked up his copy of E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful. That book, published in 1973, was one of the products of the previous period of doubt, and is a topic for a future post. But out of the book dropped a cutting from the Financial Times, dated 24 February 1977 by Samuel Brittan, one of that newspaper's most distinguished writers. It was a bit of a shock, because what it says is so similar to what people like Adair Turner, and me in this blog, are saying now. (Apologies: the scan isn't that great as the text is very small, and it defeated my OCR software, so it may not be that easy to read).

The article is a review of a book Social Limits to Growth by Professor Fred Hirsch, which is largely unknown these days (unlike Schumacher's), but not quite forgotten. Hirsch developed the idea of "positional goods", whose value does not arise from their consumption, but what they say about your social position. He noted that as societies get richer, the more important positional goods become. But ramping up production of these goods is self-defeating, as they then simply lose their value. He suggested that this poses a limit to how far economic growth can go. He also discussed the contradictions of market capitalism, and in particular that it depends on self-interest (some would say greed), but needs this to be constrained to avoid corruption and rigging the system.

Sir Samuel Brittan, as he now is, was one of my favourite economics writers: I read his columns religiously (alongside the American writer Paul Krugman), a process that helped me develop an interest in economics which eventually led to me giving up work and taking a degree in Economics at UCL in 2005. He might loosely be describes as a neoliberal, but above all he was rigorous in his thinking and not at all doctrinaire. He starts the article by posing the question about why economic growth and productivity had slowed, and reflecting on Maynard Keynes's essay Economic Possibilities of our Grandchildren (1931 - belonging to the previous period of doubt and introspection that Keynes did so much to resolve). What is economic growth for? Keynes predicted that at some point it would become pointless. Sir Samuel accepts Hirsch's analysis, and goes on to wonder about whether the market economy was really the paradigm that many idealists made it out to be. He concludes:

The main case for the market system is as a method of cooperation, which minimises coercion (e.g. conscription versus the price mechanism). But no one after reading Professor Hirsch can imagine that it promises a short cut to our economic nirvana or that it can manage without an economically literate public philosophy, which - 200 years after Adam Smith - we have still to evolve.

So what was happening in 1977 to provoke so much doubt? I remember it well: I was at university (studying physics and geology) and very politically engaged. In Britain it was the period of the Labour government of Jim Callaghan. Inflation was persistent; unemployment was high. The economy was dominated by large  industries, many of them nationalised, where union power prevailed. They were generally very badly run, especially the nationalised ones, partly because of union interference. Callaghan's tactic for controlling inflation was to do national pay deals with unions, who were grudging at best, and there was much industrial unrest. He, and his Chancellor Denis Healey, concluded that unemployment could not be tackled through expanding demand, as the conventional wisdom prescribed, referred to as "Keynesianism" as if Maynard Keynes could ever be pinned down to an -ism. Instead they adopted deflationary (i.e. austerity) policies to tackle inflation first. It was a turning point in British economic policy which is often ascribed to the Conservative Margaret Thatcher, who became Prime Minister in 1979.

But in the 1980s the economy picked up, with, apart from the odd wobble, continuous growth up to 2007, featuring steady productivity growth. So that poses an obvious question. Was the pessimism about the limits to growth in 1977 unjustified? And is my current pessimism, if it is correctly called that, justified now?

What was behind that quarter century of growth? In Britain, reform of the nationalised industries, most of which were privatised, was clearly part of it. But the deeper causes were the advance of technology, and the development of globalisation, which meant the increasing use of cheap inputs from Asia. These advances gave people access to advanced technologies that have undoubtedly improved lives. I remember desperately searching for phone boxes to make calls in the 1970s; nowadays almost everybody has a mobile phone, a product that was science fiction in 1977, but made cheap and accessible by technology and globalisation. But the growth was skewed. Whole industries, such as coal mines, were closed down or gutted. Those years are not remembered fondly in many areas of northern England or Wales, which were devastated (in common with many equivalent areas elsewhere in Europe and in North America). Most of the benefits of growth went to better educated middle class people, the yuppy generation, of which I was one.  And a lot, much more than in the previous half-century, went to a tiny elite of super-rich. Inequality rose dramatically up to 1997 in Britain; it has stabilised there since, but continued to advance elsewhere in the world, notably the USA. Progress for working class people was much more mixed. Globalisation, and the backwash of decolonisation, also led to a freer movement of people within and between continents, which built resentment amongst those who stayed with their historic communities. So when the good years came to an end with the crash of 2008, there were all the ingredients for a populist backlash. Moreover, when examining the pattern of growth, much of it depended on Hirsch's positional goods, or services which do not directly support increased human wellbeing (investment bankers, mortgage advisers, lawyers, accountants, cyber criminals and security specialists, and so on).

And there is something else: the technology that underlay the growth may have been secure and lasting, but its other foundations were not: the post-Keynesian economic consensus, and the availability of cheap Asian imports. In order to keep the economic engine rolling governments allowed the build up ever larger quantities of private debt. A liberalised financial system, regulated by floating exchange rates, that eased the flow of capital between countries, helped this process along. But this is unsustainable in the long run. At some point policymakers have to confront the macreconomic problem behind it: which is that we are trying to expand the supply of goods and services faster than demand. Without artificial, government-provoked stimulation, the economy sinks. This is what is meant by secular stagnation. Meanwhile, as the Asian economies catch up with the west, the availability of cheap imports, so important to growth in that period, is fast diminishing, and is not being replaced by the development of other regions of the world.

What people failed to see in 1977 was how much of an impact that technological change would have on people's lives, and how this would continue to improve human wellbeing. That potential for further improvement remains. But what the doubters were right about is that the conventional way that economists link human wellbeing to economic growth was breaking down in the developed world. It is now in complete ruin. But most policymakers are still in denial.

We need new economic thinking based on wellbeing and sustainability

If the political right and left can agree on one thing, it is the centrality of conventional economics - the quest for economic growth and rising productivity. For a few moments after the great crash of 2008/09 people suggested that conventional economics had had its day. But it just bounces back. And it fails to address the real needs of 21st Century society.

The right, the centre-right and even the centre-left remain entranced by economic liberalism, which the left refers to sneeringly as neoliberalism. This focuses on markets as the most efficient way of processing information on human wants, and that carefully designed incentives are the key to public policy in areas where markets fail. The centre-right and the centre-left are divided over the scale of government, but even the centre-left are wary about putting up tax rates, as a disincentive to work. The financial crash has not shaken their confidence, beyond showing the need to get banking right, though they are quietly putting even that thought on the back burner. If anything undermines confidence it is growing inequality. And yet while overall economic growth keeps going, at least in Britain and the US, they see no reason to question the foundations of their thinking.

That the left is as attached to the old economics as the right may seem surprising - they often claim that capitalism has failed and must be replaced. And yet their various policies need plentiful taxes, and they need a growing money economy to deliver this. They have received a boost from such conventional economic luminaries as Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz, who emphasise Keynesian fiscal expansion, and are critics of what the left calls "austerity". Indeed opposition to austerity is now the rallying cry of the left. That this implies subscription to a prosperous capitalist economy is a paradox that does not seem to trouble them.

There are two basic, and linked problems with all this. Firstly that, for a variety of reasons, the potential for economic growth is sharply reduced in the developed world. Policies aimed at stoking it up are doomed to failure - usually in the form financial bubbles. Second is that it is largely addressing the wrong questions.

What are the right questions? Simple. How to promote human wellbeing. How to secure the future of the planet.

Consider human wellbeing first. Conventional economic theory puts the idea of "utility" at its heart. Utility is shorthand for the point of it all. But it doesn't waste much time asking what this is, it just assumes that there is a hidden force behind market demand whose implications can be modelled with some relatively simple mathematics. And yet human wellbeing must surely be the point of all, and it is well worth taking a detached look at what this might be. This is, in fact, a flourishing field of study in modern economics - though it has failed to touch what I have called conventional economics.

This study highlights how important are things that are not easy to integrate into the market economy, and not related to quantity of consumption of goods and services: family life, local communities, public goods, and so on. After certain basic needs are met - sustenance, shelter, health care - higher levels of consumption do not securely lead to better wellbeing. And so an ever higher level of overall consumption - the central tenet of conventional economics - ceases to be important. This is actually quite obvious if we look around us. Public policy types might bang on about the need for ever greater economic productivity to promote our wellbeing, but this seems far from  most ordinary people's minds. The great modern invention is the smartphone - but its big impact is on how we run our personal lives, not how we participate in the conventional economy. People seek out goods produced in environments of low productivity (organic goods, hand crafted clothing, etc.) because they confer higher status, or carry some other aura. And so on.

But there is a trap lurking in the promotion of wellbeing economics. Some want to reduce human wellbeing to numerical measures that can be used as a sort of replacement GDP. And yet the key to human wellbeing is human agency. It is something we must all learn to acheive for ourselves in our own way. The use of numerical measures implies that it becomes the responsibility of public policy makers - and that will be ultimately self-defeating. Public policy is better directed towards limiting human misery and providing basic needs - and not taking direct responsibility for human happiness. It is vital that people learn to take responsibility for their own lives, and not just blame everybody else for their problems.

And then there is environmental sustainability. The threat to the planet that we inhabit from excessive human consumption should be obvious to all. The threat to the atmosphere from an imbalance in carbon emissions is only the most immediate and serious aspect of this. And yet a public philosophy based on ever higher consumption cuts across this. Of course the unit impact of that higher consumption can be moderated. Energy efficiency is hardly incompatible with economic growth. And reduced environmental impact and economic growth are not necessarily incompatible. It is just very unhelpful to keep focusing on consumption for its own sake.

What difference does all this make? Here are thoughts, each of which needs to be explored in greater depth - something I hope to do in future blogs.

  1. The state can't keep growing. Tax revenues are dependent on the money economy (indeed you can argue that the whole point of money is to pay tax). If that's not going to grow, and we can't assume it will, we must find better ways of solving our problems than expanding the state's resources. I think that means a more joined-up and localised approach, drawing strength from local communities.
  2. We need less debt. Debt as currently conceived is a dehumanising process that increasingly leads to financial bubbles. Finance should be based much more on risk sharing instruments such as equities. We should approach this by steadily reducing creditors' rights, as well as bearing down on the tax privileges associated with debt.
  3. We need to rethink housing tenure. Our homes are central to our feeling of wellbeing. But clearly things are wrong. Property ownership seems to be privileging a lucky few. In the rented sector too much power is put in the hands of landlords to trash the lives of their tenants. Somehow we need to improve tenants' rights while ensuring that there is a sufficient supply of decent homes.
  4. We also need fresh thinking on employment. The employer-employee relationship is too often exploitative. And yet flexibility of employer-employee relationships often leads to a more efficient use of resources (consider Uber and its ilk).
  5. We should stop worshipping scale. Large organisations, from government agencies to big companies seem to be privileged. We lazily assume that scale leads to efficiency. It sometimes does. But too often it simply destroys local knowledge and human relationships.

I could go on. Tackling these problems will require reform of political institutions and public services, as well as the system of legal rights in which our society works. But a future where we are both happier, and reduce the strain on our environment is surely attainable. I think this is a fundamentally liberal idea - but it is possible to build broader political coalitions behind reform. But we badly need to move on from the staleness of the current political debate.

 

Wanted: a new approach to economic management. Liberals should lead the way

The 1940s fighting the 1980s. There is something desperately stale about the debates over economics in the Labour Party right now. It is a battle between two approaches that have run their course. Meanwhile, on the Conservative side, the 1980s approach is unchallenged. On the principle that these things change every forty years or so, we should be setting our sights on something fresh. What will it look like?

Followers of David Boyle will recognise this narrative. The 1940s ushered in the era of social democracy. This featured economic growth through increases in mass production and mass consumption. An aggressive private sector was balanced by a growing state sector, both in terms of state services and transfers to the less well off. National governments reigned supreme, operating within an international system of fixed exchange rates. Keynesian economic management was unchallenged. Many important national issues were settled by negotiation between government, employers and trade unions - the balance between the three varied from country to country.

In the 1950s and 1960s living standards in the developed world - mainly the USA, West Europe and Japan - advanced steadily across all levels of society. But in the 1970s things fell apart. Environmental constraints took the gloss off the idea of ever upward consumption, especially of energy - as oil prices escalated. The Bretton Woods exchange rate system collapsed, taking the lid off disciplined monetary management. State run services became monstrously inefficient. State bureaucracy was vast and notorious, with not a little taint of corruption, especially (in the UK) over public housing. Arbitrary and misconceived development projects abounded. A massively expensive foray into nuclear power was perhaps the most egregious in this country - a huge waste of public resources for which nobody has ever been held to account.

This led to an economic crisis as the government wrestled with unreconcilable demands, ushering in a period of simultaneous inflation and high unemployment, supposedly impossible under the conventional Keynesian economics of the time . In Britain a major feature of this crisis was a rampant trade union movement, which openly flouted the rule of law with its use of mass strikes and picketing to support inflationary wage increases. Government finances became unsustainable, with the IMF having to stage a rescue in the late 1970s.

The crisis of the 1970s brought about the rise new thinking. This I will call "neoliberalism". This word has become something of an all-encompassing hate-word on the political left, which has drained it of much of its meaning - but it remains a convenient term. Neoliberalism encompassed a wide variety of perspectives from the far right to the centre-left. It was essentially a rebellion against excessive state power. The state's attempt to manage the economy was doomed to fail, they said, because of inadequate information and distorted incentives. In its place they advocated solutions based on markets - seen as the most efficient way of to reconcile information on supply and demand - and carefully designed incentives. Taxes should be cut to improve incentives to enterprise and hard work. At its heart was a liberal idea: personal choice should be at the heart of everything.

In Britain neoliberal thinking took off with the administration of Margaret Thatcher, who came to power in 1979. It was given a new lease of life by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's New Labour project, as they tried to combine a large state with neoliberal principles of management. How successful , or not, all this was is a matter of deep controversy. But in the early to mid 2000s things seemed to be going well enough, with a record of continuous, steady economic growth and generally improving living standards. Then things started to fall apart with the financial crisis which started in 2007, the aftermath of which still seems to drag us down.

But the styles of economic management only tell part of the story. Behind them lie important important developments in technology and patterns of world supply and demand. In the 1950s technology delivered a host of mass-produced household products, from cars to fridges to brightly coloured fabrics, which provided the basis of both expanded production and consumption. By the 1970s the markets for these products were becoming saturated, with a greater focus on quality and status rather than quantity. From the 1990s the world saw the rise of globalised supply chains, and the explosion of information technology. While economic growth in the old developed world can be questioned (much of it went to a rich elite, or went up in smoke in the crash), there was astounding growth elsewhere, notably in South Korea, China and India. This latter growth followed the adoption of neoliberal policies (though alongside a strong state) and is better evidence of their efficacy than progress in the old developed world.

But regardless of how successful they were, many think that neoliberal ideas have run their course. They do not offer an adequate template for future economic management. Low pay or unemployment is rampant; property values disappear out of reach to most younger people, unless they are helped by parents; large swathes of the country seem stuck in permanent depression; many public services, especially health, are cracking up under increased demand with which the tax base cannot keep up. Meanwhile questions of environmental sustainability persist, especially as it is clear that current levels of global carbon emissions will eventually kill the planet. It is not clear how neoliberal policies will be able to meet these challenges. And many neoliberal ideas look like downright failures - especially financial liberalisation and the attempt to manage public services through markets and numerical incentives.

So it is not surprising that many on the left look back fondly to the heyday of social democracy, conveniently forgetting its failures and the underlying circumstances that made it feasible (expanding demographics; low manufacturing productivity; and so on). But ultimately this is even less convincing. It is quite laughable that the left refers to itself as "progressive". So what will the shape of the new economic management be?

The first point to make is that the point of it all is improved wellbeing for the general public and especially the least fortunate. We need to completely detach this from the idea that improved wellbeing is based increased levels of consumption of physical things like food, raw materials and energy. This may be so for the poorest in society, but that is a problem of distribution. Most people have more than they need, and many grotesquely more. This is a simple observation, but given how much of the current economic debate revolves around increasing levels of consumption and raising productivity, it does point to the need for a new mindset. Incidentally, reduced consumption of physical things is not necessarily incompatible with conventional economic growth - but focus on growth is not helpful.

The second thing to observe is that improved wellbeing will come from stronger individual empowerment, and stronger local communities. This is common sense, but it is supported by plenty of academic research. It seems to me that the main barriers are unequal power relationships, and dysfunctional services. And these in turn come about through an excessive concentration on specialisation and scale. The neoliberals were right about big, boneheaded national governmental institutions - and even their imitators at more local levels. These are incapable of the effective coordination required to help most people in need. But so many of our private sector choices seem to be based on similar inhuman systems - national and international chains incapable of responding to the needs of whole people. The advance of these institutions is hollowing out local communities while failing to deliver what people really want.

This requires a new management approach that is less focused on national and international institutions, and more on the health and wellbeing of people and their communities.  I will build on this in future blogs.

But one thing is very clear. Such a new approach is fundamentally a liberal one. The conventional left, in both its "hard" (think Jeremy Corbyn) and "soft" (think Ed Miliband or Andy Burnham) forms is still to attached to national institutions to be controlled by a small, enlightened elite and serving a grateful nation. Conservatives may be suspicious of the state, but they are very attached to large commercial corporations and global financial markets, which are surely part of the problem and not the solution. There is some hope in the Green movement - though its British incarnation needs to reverse out of the hard left blind alley in which they currently find themselves. But political liberals, especially those who understand community politics, are the closest to reaching the answer. I want to help move them along that path.