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.

4 thoughts on “What can we learn from 1977? The need for fresh economic thinking”

  1. Their is now talk about what makes you happy in life, be it having a holiday, family association a host of different things and materialism being a passing thought . Health, fresh air being better than being surrounded by goods.

    1. Indeed. Some aspects of wellbeing (including fresh air and health) are perfectly compatible with and often facilitated by growth, others (like more leisure time) aren’t. But some suggestions for advancing growth (longer working hours, promoting harmful industries) are clearly incompatible. Funnily enough I was part of a Lib Dem policy group on the subject of wellbeing back in 2011. We recommended a focus on wellbeing rather than economic growth. The policy paper was passed by conference, but there was significant scepticism and it never really took hold. One of the most important issues is relationships and community. One of the problems is that a focus on consumption drives people into a desire for positional goods, which does not advance overall wellbeing in the long run.

  2. “In Britain it was the period of the Labour government of Jim Callaghan. Inflation was persistent; unemployment was high.”

    Yes there was an inflation problem. But , no, unemployment wasn’t high – by neoliberal standards! In addition we have to look just how the unemployed were counted then and how aren’t counted now.

    https://www.economicshelp.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/uk-unemployment-71-17.png

    ” But in the 1980s the economy picked up, with, apart from the odd wobble, continuous growth up to 2007 “

    We had continuous growth before the 80s too “apart from just the odd wobble”!

    https://www.economicshelp.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/real-gdp-growth-55-14-600×567.png

    There’s been a bit more of an ‘odd wobble’ since 2008 but nevertheless, according to official figures, we are still at about the same GDP per capita level as we were then. So, this means we all feel about as well off as we did then?

    It should. But we obviously don’t. Maybe that’s a question to be answered?

    1. Yes the unemployment rate 1977 would not be considered high now. But it was high by the standards of the previous decades and rising and people were worried about it. I am as interested in the mood as anything. People thought it was a problem. Looked at with hindsight we can see that a much bigger shift was going on, and that rising unemployment had longer term secular causes, rather than necessarily being a failure of short term management. There’s a lesson in there!
      And your GDP graph shows that the decade from 1973 was pretty much lost, compared to the period after – with only one serious blip afterwards (early 1990s) before the crash. Of course the averages conceal much.

      Why do so many feel worse off even when GDP per head has recovered from 2008? I suspect median incomes would show a different story. Too much of the recovery has benefited a minority. That’s not just the rich, but probably a large slice of moderately affluent older people too. A mjnority can be worse off even when the mean has advanced.

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