According to the current edition of the Economist, Britain appears to be questioning the wisdom of its devotion to ‘the liberal economic credos of its recent past.’ Those are the credos which include free trade with open access to unregulated markets, minimised public sector, and so on and so forth – the whole baggage of neo-liberal economics to which the Economist itself is committed.
This questioning was prompted by popular responses to the threatened closure and disposal by Tata of its British steel operations. They were said to be losing around £1m a day, at least in part as a result of Chinese dumping cheap steel on UK markets. The outrageous suggestion had been made that the Brits should protect their domestic industry by charging an import duty on Chinese steel so as to at least level the playing field. Thus the classic dichotomy was drawn up between the two childishly simple minded economic ideologies: free trade on the one hand; protectionism on the other. These are the tips of the two ice-bergs of neo-liberalism and totalitarian communism. Continue reading There is an Alternative
Our world is headed towards disaster. That appears to be widely accepted; as are the reasons for it and what should be done to change direction to a safer, more sustainable, future. The Green Party exists for little else. All that is lacking is the power to achieve that change. Disaster is defined in many different dimensions: climate change, global population growth, unsustainable inequality of wealth and incomes within and between nations, global food insecurity and many other measures of impending doom. The underlying reason why those in power steer their disastrous course, always assuming they are not motivated solely by their own short term self-interest, is their belief in a fundamentally flawed version of what was formerly known as political economy.
Nobel laureate Paul Krugman flagged up one of the most basic errors of the currently dominant Friedmanite take on neoclassical economics [‘Challenging the Oligarchy’, Krugman, New York Review of Books, 17th December, 2015]. Friedman had argued that the development of monopolistic businesses was of no importance since it made no real difference. Krugman identifies that as one of Friedman’s fundamental errors. A complementary Friedman error was to claim business had no responsibility other than to make as much money as possible for stockholders. No wonder discredited ex-Barclays CEO Bob Diamond regarded Friedman as his ‘favourite economist’!
Market power has huge implications for economic behaviour. Failure over the past three decades to pursue anti-trust regulations vigorously has been a major reason for the economic trends we are now experiencing. Krugman identified two as of major importance: the financialisation of business and the ever increasing degree of inequality. Neither is sustainable in the long term, but it is unclear how their termination will be achieved.
Continue reading Impending Disaster, made in Davos, by Bilderburg
The aim of the UN climate change conference in Paris is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so as to limit the global temperature increase to a maximum of 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Only then could this generation lay any claim to having fulfilled its responsibility to bequeath a sustainable planet earth.
Climate summits are notorious for agreeing targets and then not keeping to them. It is not clear how Paris will be any different. There are huge problems in the way of a committed agreement that could produce an effective and lasting solution. Not the least of which is the fact there will be 196 nations attending, all with different histories, cultures, economies and futures.
An example of these ‘local’ difficulties is the Philippines plan to build 23 new coal-fired power stations in response to growing electricity demand, all too frequent power blackouts and the fall in coal prices. They might, with some justification, argue that if developed nations want the Philippines to invest in renewable alternatives, they should contribute the additional cost.
These practical difficulties caused by the differences between different nations are only part of the story. A bigger problem was identified by MacKay in a Comment in the science weekly, Nature. Agreement would require an ‘upward spiral of ambition’ and the ‘science of co-operation’ in order to ‘harness self-interest by aligning it with the common good’. That head-on collision between the maximisation of self-interest and the protection and development of the common good, is the most fundamental of all the myriad of problems in ensuring the sustainability of life on earth. Solve that and the other difficulties could almost certainly be resolved. But achieving MacKay’s alignment will be difficult. It is not immediately clear how maximising self-interest can be aligned with the common good.
Continue reading Budgeting for Climate Change
What does it mean that the NHS is in deficit to the tune of £930m? It’s not a business trying to make a profit for its shareholders – the deficit doesn’t refer to losses. The forecast is that the deficit will be as much as £2.8bn by the end of the financial year next April. But that’s the difference between the actual costs of delivering NHS services, still mostly free at the point of delivery, and the budgeted costs agreed by the Health Secretary for the financial year. It looks like the Health Secretary got the figures badly wrong.
The budget figures are set and NHS Trusts have to work out how such targets can be met. Clearly a major component of costs relate to staff: doctors, nurses and other staff. The only way the budgeted figures could be achieved is to reduce numbers employed. So those cuts are made as a result of the annual budget process. The shadow health secretary quoted a figure of 6,000 nursing posts, for example, as being cut during the last parliament.
Continue reading Saving the NHS
The Friedmanite Neoclassical Economic Belief System (FNEBS) now dominates the developed and developing world. It is taught across the globe in business schools and universities. It is the orthodox wisdom among the Self-Perpetuating Industrial, Financial, Media, Academic and Political Establishment (SPIFMAPE).
The SPIFMAPE is the shadowy presence in our economy which has the real power and resources to ensure its continued dominance. It includes those Industrialists corrupted by the pursuit of wealth, Financiers who pay the £billions of fraud fines as the necessary entry fee, the Media controllers who shape the news to their advantage, Academics who accept ‘research’ income for conformist enquiry and teaching, and those Politicians nurtured within the SPIFMAPE, warmly accepting the FNEBS, otherwise referred to as in the ‘Westminster bubble’.
Those who know the FNEBS appear to really believe in it; and those who don’t know it, accept it as a truth. However, J K Galbraith identified such matters as ‘institutional truths’: that is not a truth at all, but a downright lie that people must buy into if their careers are to progress within their chosen institution.
Continue reading TTIP – Plutocratic Victory
After the Libor rate fixing scandal, and the PPI mis-selling fiasco, we now have hysteria over gas and electricity companies fixing market prices to their advantage at the expense of the general customer. Well of course they’ve been doing that, it’s what they do. They aren’t charities. They charge whatever the market will bear. That’s how markets work. If the markets were competitive it would be a different story and the customer would reap the benefit. But with the fixable, non-competitive markets which have been allowed to proliferate over the past thirty years, the customer loses out to the supplier. And since the suppliers are driven by the Friedmanite rule that they exist to make as much money as possible for shareholders, it’s the shareholders who really gain at the expense of customers. But since shareholdings are largely controlled by financial intermediaries, investment banks, hedge funds and the like, it is they who are the ultimately winners at the consumer’s expense.
But it’s worse even than that.
Continue reading The Cure for Monopolistic Exploitation
Globalisation reduces the cost of goods and services as their production migrates to the lowest cost parts of the world. The lower prices are a benefit for everyone and the low cost parts of the world, which are only now beginning to industrialise, gain tremendously in terms of economic growth and employment. So globalisation is a good thing, But there are some downsides. Jobs disappear in the advanced economies as production moves to the developing world. Up to now, the advanced economies have grown, bar a few booms and busts, more or less continuously, for the past 250 years in UK’s case. But the migration of jobs now seems likely in the advanced economies to be permanent and to be bringing the growth phase of their economic development to an end.
Permanent changes like this are difficult to forecast, and even appear difficult to recognise when they have happened. The initial response is to identify the change as a blip. Commentators today are identifying this quarter’s UK GDP data as indicating the end to the ‘double dip recession’. If miniscule GDP growth is recorded two quarters on the trot, commentators will surely be referring to ‘green shoots’. But it is equally likely that the slightly encouraging data this quarter is a blip and from now on, the lack of economic growth will be the steady state in advanced economies, which might more aptly be described as post-industrial.
Continue reading The Real Costs of Globalisation
Almost 18 months ago Glencore first featured on this blog – Glencore and others are screwing the world – a posting which highlighted the predatory nature of financial monsters like Glencore. The Financial Times had reported Glencore’s ability and willingness to fix commodity prices for their own profit and everyone else’s loss and how they were expected to increase their monopolistic stranglehold in key markets. Glencore was in the news at that time because of its imminent initial public offering of shares to the London Stock Exchange which was expected to value the company at between £60 billion and £73 billion and facilitate its further expansion through mergers and acquisitions. The FT also reported how the world’s largest commodity trader had paid “almost no corporate taxes on its trading business for years in spite of bumper profits.”
The FT’s report described how Glencore had exercised their monopolistic power to raise prices in the Russian wheat market for a quick profit, at the expense of those millions already struggling on the breadline. That was revealing of the sort of business Glencore is, and the sort of business practices it was prepared to embrace in order to make its money.
Continue reading The Glencores, Xstratas and Blairs
‘Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences are usually the slaves of some defunct economist’. Practical men, say, like Bob Diamond. You can’t get much more practical than a man of limited intellect who takes from his place of work £17m a year, less a bit for having led a banking operation now officially recognized for its lack of ‘skill, care and diligence’, not to mention its criminal fixing of international money markets. Bob, himself, admitted his favourite economist is none other than Milton Friedman of the Austro-Chicago school of laissez faire, free marketeers.
Friedman’s influence still dominates government, finance and business, not just billionaire bankers. When he first came to the fore it was as a monetarist. The way to a small government and light touch regulation was to grant maximum freedom within a tightly controlled framework: the quantity of money in circulation. According to Friedman ‘too much money chasing too few goods’ would inevitably cause inflation. With Thatcher and Reagan, that simple aphorism replaced the Keynesian economics that had ruled since the second world war. But it didn’t work. There were too many unknowns about the quantity of money and the velocity of its circulation, and that rendered monetarist policy ineffective. Friedman himself expressed his disappointment at the ineffectiveness of monetarist policy.
Continue reading The Defunct Professor Friedman?
Keynes referred to them as the ‘madmen in authority’, referring to the policy makers and top financial and business executives, who rule our world. Maybe ‘madmen’ doesn’t quite capture their essential characteristics today. After all, mainstream economists would argue they are not mad, but wholly rational in their unwavering pursuit of self-interest without regard to any broader, more enlightened consideration. In a talk to TED’s global conference (TED – Technology Entertainment Design – bills itself as a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading), economist Tim Harford identified a ‘terrible affliction’, one that the ‘madmen’ might be suffering from. It was both ‘debilitating to individuals and corrosive to society’. He referred to as ‘the God complex’, the symptoms of which could be simply described as: ‘no matter how complicated a problem, you have an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solutions.’
The UK coalition government has more than its fair share of sufferers: Andrew Lansley at Health, Michael Gove at Education, and, of course, Prime Minister Cameron, self-confessed expert in how to manage hospital wards, deal with binge drinking, solve racism in football and make child adoption processes fairer and faster, to name but a few recent self-confessions. These are individuals convinced of their infallibility, despite the complexity of the issues they confront, and not prepared, unless forced, to consider the possibility they might be wrong and other solutions might be better.
Continue reading God Complex ‘Drivers’ to Extinction