Modern Thinking: Atomism and Communication

‘Modern Thinking: Atomism and Communication’ – Although written four years ago for an essay competition, I still think this piece encapsulates as well as anything my approach to economics, politics and social institutions.

Atomised and helpless
Atomised and helpless
Bertrand Russell, the great British mathematician and philosopher, believed that to be ‘modern-minded’ was to make the error of thinking with the fashion rather than ahead of it. When he wrote about this in 1937 he believed that with God’s role as arbiter of truth and beauty having been usurped, ‘detachment and objectivity, both in thought and feeling’ had also been thrown overboard. Russell, as a rationalist and a non-believer, believed it was ‘possible and important’ to preserve them without recourse to a Creator. To do so, he believed, required ‘solitude’ and ‘a certain degree of isolation both in space and time’. While he may have been right when it comes to studying the physical world and creating great art, his advice is less helpful when it comes to human nature and society. Even if we wanted to, as human beings ourselves, we cannot stand apart from other humans and society as a whole. Unfortunately when this recognition came it was in part responsible for a critical wrong turning in our approach to social phenomena. This wrong turning came about because modern thinking, having dispensed with God guiding from above, had already turned to look for causes and drivers of events at the level below that at which they are observed. The properties of substances had to be derived from the properties of their molecules; the properties of the forces that change the world about us from day to day are derived from the waves and particles into which they can be decomposed.

This atomistic approach has often worked brilliantly in explaining the physical world. Since many physical objects and forces have properties that are fixed (or at least change predictably) through time and space, the interactions between them are often manageable. Other ways of expressing this are that such physical systems are ‘linear’; or that the whole is simply the sum of its parts. By understanding how each part works we combine this to understand the whole and make it do what we want. As it turns out, we now recognise many physical and biological phenomena with properties that seem only distantly related to their component parts, and so are extraordinarily difficult to analyse in terms of the behaviour of individual molecules or forces. Fortunately, what is often found with such systems is that, while there is apparent chaos at a lower level of analysis, inputs into the system, outputs from it and large-scale patterns of the system’s behaviour may still be predictable. Since individual humans are themselves complex systems whose behaviour is varied and difficult to predict, it is easy to see that the atomistic approach is likely to be even more unhelpful for the study of social phenomena. Small external or internal events affecting our physical or mental condition can have unpredictable results for our ability to do things or the way in which we find it easiest to do them. Continue reading

Unemployment – Morality, Money and Increasing Returns

Returns to Scale in Frankfurt's business district
Returns to Scale in Frankfurt’s business district ©DWP

The causes of unemployment make it a moral issue. Radical solutions are required.

In an earlier post I noted some features of unemployment from a UK perspective. The main thrust was that a fairly constant proportion of the population in employment (around 72% of those of working-age) hides a serious decline in the availability of adequate work, due mainly to the increase in women in the workforce and the fall in the ratio of full-time to part-time work. In a paper I wrote and referenced here on welfare I hinted at a moral dimension to the issue of unemployment in a capitalist economy (by which I simply mean an economy where physical means of production tend to belong in more or less concentrated hands).

I have now written a rather more formal paper (pdf 198kb) which I presented to the Post-Keynesian Study Group annual workshop in May this year in which I expanded on why we have a persistent problem with unemployment, and why this has a significant moral implications in our attitude to the unemployed. In this light of this I review the inadequacy of current policy and look at some of the more radical solutions proffered. The following is a non-technical summary of the paper.

Resource Use Failure
The failure to make the best of our human resources is not only a failure to make the best of our welfare, but in a society which explicitly assumes that we ‘get what we deserve’, condemns millions to needless poverty, social exclusion, humiliation and increasingly near-criminalisation for the sin of being unable to persuade firms to employ them at a liveable wage.

Standard Thinking
Standard economic thinking about employment holds that it can be increased by lowering the cost of employing labour for firms, sharpening the cost-benefit separation between low-paid work and unemployment for labour-market participants, and weakening links between labour demand and nominal price rises by reducing workers’ bargaining power and by increasing market competition. The approach of many ‘Keynesian’ economists shares this basic view but tends to see these features that lead to unemployment as being so ingrained and so sustained that since ‘in the long run we are all dead’ direct government action is often required.

The Radical View
Other economists hold a more radical view of Keynes’s insights. They argue that unemployment generally arises due to the interaction of money and uncertainty – uncertainty in the sense that ‘we do not know’ rather than that reducible to probabilities. Money greatly expands the opportunities for exchange, for wealth accumulation and for varying the timing of transactions. The result is an economy more complex, more productive, more prone to fluctuations in activity levels and more unequal than one relying on barter and trust. Money provides a buffer for uncertainty for individuals but acts as a magnifier of uncertainty for the economy as a whole. (See previous posts for discussion of the particular nature and problems of monetary economies.) Continue reading

The Callousness of a Conservative

Charles Moore is the official biographer of Margaret Thatcher, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and an Old Etonian. He has nicely epitomised the indifference, evident intentional ignorance and convenient innumeracy of a particular type of Conservative. Writing in his column in ‘The Spectator’ magazine (May 4th) he devotes a mere 262 words to writing-off the problems of those on low incomes in Britain.

[T]he people who best understand how welfare works are either its recipients or those who work on low wages and are scarcely better off for doing so

he writes. So far so reasonable. He goes on:

These people recognise that being on welfare is — in effect, though not morally — like having a job. There is a wage for it, plus various equivalents of overtime and fringe benefits, and the task is to get as much of these as you can.

There’s a half-truth in there. If work seems like an impossibility, or hardly worth the candle given its poor rewards and insecurity, self-interest would suggest that you look for all the benefits you might be entitled to – although many don’t. But he continues:

 One effect of this has been to destroy the working class. Its more enterprising members have become middle class and the rest have discovered that they can live by not working.

At a stroke of his expensively-educated pen, Moore dismisses the existence of all those struggling to make ends meet in low-paid jobs. Four million Britons over 18 are in jobs that pay £7 per hour or less; seven million in ones paying no more than £8 per hour. (The minimum wage is set at just over £6.) They cannot reasonably be said to have joined the middle class, and if they could ‘live by not working’ they certainly choose not to. Continue reading

The Real Wealth of Fizz

Coca Cola bottle and CashAmol Rajan, whom I have had cause to praise previously, wrote last week about Coca-Cola’s self-serving ‘anti-obesity campaign’. While much of what he writes is refreshingly scathing, I would take issue with the following statement:

[Coke] is a massive corporation that exists to make huge profits. This is fine by me, because I like big corporations: they create wealth, tax revenues and jobs.

Clearly the first part is mostly true. Mostly in the sense that a company also exists to expand the empires, wealth and reputations of its executives – which is generally also tied up with making ‘huge profits’. The problem I have is with the idea that big corporations necessarily ‘create wealth, tax revenues and jobs.’ Whether they create real wealth is often doubtful.

In the case of Coca-Cola what it mostly creates is sweet fizzy drinks and the additional pleasure that comes from drinking their drinks rather than those of any competing suppliers. If we wanted to monetise that real ‘wealth’ it would be in terms of the additional price we are willing to pay for Coca-Cola products over other similar drinks. Note that we have to pay that surplus freely – if we are forced to pay it because of local monopolies or persuaded by misleading advertising than it represents not a social gain but a loss. Continue reading

The (Press) Barons Bite Back

We knew the press barons (and they are literally barons, in some cases – as we shall see) didn’t like the proposed arrangements for organising press regulation agreed last month between the three main political parties. This arrangement was in the form of a Royal Charter (an arcane form of legislation introduced not by the elected representatives of the people, but by the monarch’s Privy Council) which set up a ‘Recognition Body’ which was to certify a new press regulator as conforming to the requirements based on the recommendations in last year’s Leveson Report. These requirements were in particular that the regulator itself should be truly independent of both the press and political influence, that it should have strong powers to enforce sanctions – both financial and in terms of apologies and corrections, that the regulator should set up a low-cost arbitration arrangement to deal with complaints and that complainants need not necessarily be individuals or organisations directly affected. Continue reading

Thatcher and Labour: The Real Lesson

As Kawan Patel suggested on LabourList a few days ago, New Labour was founded on the idea that while Margaret Thatcher might not have ‘saved the nation’ as her Conservative supporters claim, there were things she ‘got right’. I believe that this focus on the specifics of the Thatcherite legacy, such as privatisation and reductions in union power, is wrong. It is what was entirely responsible for New Labour’s failure to reverse inequality and for allowing a massive financial bubble to replace a sustainable industrial infrastructure in Britain. We must learn this lesson.

For a start, the image of 1970s Labour government in hapless thrall to left-wing union leaders leading their unwilling rank-and-file members to destroy the British economy is almost entirely a creation of the press and Conservative myth-makers. The root cause of the industrial unrest of the 1970s that culminated in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-79 was consistent annual inflation in double digits. This was mainly as a consequence of massive hikes in the price of oil. Firms showed no restraint in allowing their prices to rise to maintain their profits; for workers to maintain their standards of living required credible threats to withdraw labour. In doing this they were, on average, successful – but no more than that. In relation to labour productivity, hourly wages were at exactly the same point in 1979 as they had been in 1972. Continue reading

Better Press Regulation should be Liberating

This article is on 3 pages, and you can go to the next page you want by clicking on the relevant  number at the bottom of each page.

papersThe report of the Leveson inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press is expected to be delivered next week. I am publishing here a fuller version of my article that was previously published on LabourList. I was interested to note a report on the BBC News this evening on the Danish Press Council, which operates on a statutory basis and in a way not dissimilar to my suggestions here.

Introduction – The Press: Free for Whom and Free from What?

Press regulation as self-regulation is no longer, if it ever was, acceptable. It has utterly failed to prevent harm, to deal with the consequences of harm, and most importantly, failed to give us the high quality information and varied interpretation of current events and processes for which a ‘free press’ is valued. There is strong evidence for this in observing some extraordinary misapprehension of facts about our society.

As reported by a Cabinet Office briefing in 2000, when questioned people estimated on average that 26% of the population belonged to an ethnic minority. The real figure then was 7.1%. They thought on average that 20% of the population were immigrants. The figure at that time was just 4%, although it has now increased following EU expansion. A recent YouGov survey conducted for the Fabian Society found that people systematically overestimate government spending on unemployment benefit and the police by a factor of eight, housing benefit and child benefit by a factor of three, and sickness and disability benefits and defence by a factor of two. Yet when it comes to those parts of public expenditure where direct experience is common, such as the NHS, education and state pensions, the average estimate is reasonably close to the reality. Whatever our preferences, if we aren’t getting accurate information we cannot collectively make good decisions on important matters. As Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, has pointed out

‘[T]he liberty of the press…is the right of the community as a whole. It is…our right, the right of every citizen.’ Continue reading

Welfare Myths and Welfare Facts

Job Centre on Christmas Day
Ready to Work!
I am publishing here a paper on ‘Welfare Myths and Welfare Facts’ (pdf 65kb). This is a summary, but please read the complete paper.

The belief, held by nearly one third of the population according to polling figures, that at least half of welfare claimants are either fraudulent or are refusing suitable work when offered, is demonstrably wrong. It is clearly fuelled by misleading and misrepresentative information fed to us not only by most media outlets but by our own leaders, probably as a ‘divide and rule’ strategy.

The total cost of out-of-work benefits is much smaller than is frequently claimed, including by those who are in a position to know better. A significant proportion of out-of-work benefits are ultimately paid for by their recipients through their lifetime NI and tax contributions. The large majority of those actually receiving JSA are intent on finding work and actively seeking it, but a proportion of them are currently doomed to failure – some probably permanently – through no conscious decision of their own.

As a result, the lowering of benefits and the threat of benefit withdrawal is increasing hardship for many, while probably doing little more than increasing ‘churn’ in a sluggish labour market. Given the current low level of benefits in relation to a generally acceptable minimum income and the dubious fairness of an absolute obligation to work for others for a breadline wage, further downward pressure on benefits seems to have little justification morally, socially or even economically.

The only real way to see more of the long-term unemployed improve their own lives and their contribution to society is the provision of more and better-paid employment opportunities. Along with this will have to go resource-intensive engagement with those who are poorly equipped to support themselves, never mind to play a productive role in society.

Download the full paper: ‘Welfare Myths and Welfare Facts’ (pdf 65kb).

Equality of Voice and ‘Devo-localism’

Dependent Smurf
Don’t I get a say?


That’s where the real constitutional debate needs to be – around a radical constitutional option that puts Scotland back into the hands of its people: devo-local, if you like. Trevor Davies, The Scotsman 10/5/2012

 [Politicians] see themselves as propping up something which is tottering rather than letting citizens build anew something that is soundly based. Charles Moore, Daily Telegraph 13/7/2012


Power wielded from the centre is slow to react, inflexible and discriminates poorly. Yet political power at all levels has been steadily eroded as a consequence of the economic demands of global corporations and the economic strain on central government to provide for these corporations and mop up the damage they cause. No redistribution of political power from centre to periphery can be sustainable without addressing the centralisation of economic power. The willingness to address the latter is surely what will separate the left ‘devo-localist’ from the right. Continue reading

Forget GDP – Tory in Fairyland

Lagavulin Distillery, Islay
A sucessful export industry

There’s a funny little Panglossian piece by Tory peer and former minister Michael Bates on ConservativeHome. If it’s any indication of the thinking going on among ministers at present, however, it’s deeply worrying. The ex-Paymaster General displays an extraordinary lack of understanding of basic economic accounting and logic.

His main idea is that despite the current GDP figures, ‘the economic recovery is underway’. Now, while it’s true that GDP is in many senses a flawed measure of annual additional national wealth since it ignores (and may count as positive) environmental and human costs, it is the best available measure of what’s really going on in the economy. Contrary to the Tory peer’s claim, use of this measure is not ‘a bit like judging the health of a private corporation by its turnover alone’. The calculation of GDP specifically cancels out all the in-between costs in exactly the same way as a business cancels out turnover and costs to arrive at a profit figure. As a result GDP measures only those payments that are made in exchange for ‘final goods and services’ that are actually used, whether by the purchases of ordinary citizens, in the provision of public services or the investment of companies. Continue reading

People, Money and Power