Category Archives: Business and Society

Socialism, Free Markets, Capitalism and Christopher Snowdon

Bustling market in Xi'an, China. <a href='http://www.diarmidweirphotography.co.uk'>www.diarmidweirphotography.co.uk</a>
Bustling market in Xi’an, China. www.diarmidweirphotography.co.uk

Why do I consider myself to be of the ‘left’ rather than the ‘right’, despite the tendency for each term to be converted to a straw-man for all the pet hates of those attaching to the opposing label? For me, to be of the left designates a prioritisation of co-operation over competition. It is to believe that human satisfaction and happiness depends more on the former than on the latter and it is to believe that co-operation comes logically and practically before competition. Co-operation should therefore be actively promoted. How much competitive superstructure is to be placed on the co-operative base is then entirely up for debate, much of it empirical in nature.

Free exchange of goods, services and labour is the essence of co-operation, and as such genuinely free markets, which being an expression of ‘the propensity [in human nature] to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another’ (Adam Smith) are completely compatible with maximum co-operation and thus, I would argue, with any viable conception of socialism. The competition that arises from free exchange, to provide better quality goods at lower cost, is on the face of it, also pure social benefit. This can be misleading, however, if reliance is placed on the abstract economic concept of perfect competition – where all market participants are equal in access and power, fully informed, infinitely lived and have perfect foresight. This concept requires isolation of the market from the human, the social and the physical world. To harness markets for benefit therefore requires a huge degree of co-operation in terms of setting up the infrastructure and regulation of market institutions. Continue reading Socialism, Free Markets, Capitalism and Christopher Snowdon

Equality of Voice – An Introduction

Stating Your Case - The Common and Most Basic Capability
Stating Your Case – The Common and Most Basic Capability

Everyone in British politics, right and left, is now talking about inequality and social justice. But there is much confusion and obfuscation. Specificity is required. Social justice has rather different implications depending on whether it comes from the right or the left of the political spectrum. Leaving aside issues of capital ownership, right social justice essentially relies of the economic concept of the ‘marginal productivity of labour’ (MPL). An individual’s share of society’s material rewards should exactly represent his or her individual contribution to the output of society (usually in effect the output of their employer). Continue reading Equality of Voice – An Introduction

If ‘Neoliberalism’ Is So Great, Why Lie About It?

What is it about ideological free marketeers and their shaky relationship with the facts? Everyone likes markets and free exchange is one of the best manifestations of human co-operation there is – so why tell lies about their limitations and the infrastructure required to make them work for our benefit?

Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute is keen to adapt the often pejorative label of ‘neoliberalism’ to his cheery brand of paid-for market propaganda, and promotes it under this banner in an article in the online i newspaper. He defines a neoliberal as

someone who thinks that lightly-regulated markets, free trade and free movement are the best way to create wealth and innovation domestically and globally, but that the state does have a role to play in redistributing some of the proceeds to the least well-off. Continue reading If ‘Neoliberalism’ Is So Great, Why Lie About It?

A Banking Debate

Wall Street, NYC
Wall Street

Introduction

Since the financial crisis of 2007-8, one suggested target reform has been the monetary system itself.  This reform is based on the recognition that money in the modern economy is a rather peculiar phenomenon.

There are two popular conceptions of the nature of money, both of them incorrect.  (Note that when we talk about money, it is entirely artificial to separate cash, in the form of bank notes and coin, from what we hold in bank accounts. To all effects and purposes, for the vast majority of us, they are the same and completely interchangeable.)

The first conception is that money is a fixed quantity determined by the government, which is either accepted by convention or because you can go to your bank and get a certain quantity of gold for it. (Presumably not many people have actually tried this!) The second is that banks can issue new money to lenders as a multiple of pre-existing deposits, depending on how often depositors demand cash. This is frequently referred to as ‘fractional reserve banking’. Continue reading A Banking Debate

Smaller, Greener Banking: A Response to FOE Scotland’s Report

Response to Smaller, Greener Banking: Banking for Sustainability in a New Scotland: A Discussion Paper by Ray Perman and Friends of the Earth Scotland

Smaller Greener Banking - FOE Scotland
Smaller Greener Banking – FOE Scotland

The authors of this report claim that ‘there has been a failure of government policy to decide the role banks should play, and therefore what sort of institutions they should be.’ and that ‘we have ended up with a banking system dominated by a small number of giant banks…’ These institutions are only able to survive because they are ‘too big to fail’, yet they offer poor customer choice and service, have acted illegally in rigging markets and indulge in ‘socially useless’ activities.

So far, the main government response in the UK and Scotland has been to create new banks such as the UK Business Bank, Scottish Investment Bank and the Green Investment Bank, rather than to reform the existing ones. Continue reading Smaller, Greener Banking: A Response to FOE Scotland’s Report

‘Chasing Goldman Sachs’ by Suzanne McGee – A Review

A Review of ‘Chasing Goldman Sachs: How the Masters of the Universe Melted Wall Street Down…and Why They’ll Take Us to the Brink Again’  by Suzanne McGee (2010, Crown Business)

'Chasing Goldman Sachs'  by Suzanne McGee
‘Chasing Goldman Sachs’ by Suzanne McGee

This book is an excellent complement to the academic stuff I’ve read on the causes of the financial crisis. These latter accounts are very detailed in terms of ‘what’ happened but tend to be light on the ‘why’. ‘Chasing Goldman Sachs’ goes a long way to filling that gap.

The academic consensus view seems to be that driven by an increase in demand for safe places to save there was a huge increase in deposits held by financial institutions and collateralised by Asset-Backed Commercial Paper (ABCP). A significant proportion of this paper was comprised of securitised mortgages – many packaged in such a way that their quality was opaque. The toxicity of these was enhanced by dodgy ratings and shuffling to off-balance-sheet vehicles. When problems with some of these mortgages arose it took a while for holders of these ‘shadow-banking’ deposits to sort out whether or not their deposits were collateralised by bad assets or good ones. There was a panic and large-scale dumping of these deposits which led to loss of liquidity in the market for short-term interbank loans. Without these loans banks find it very difficult to balance their books at the end of each day as they are obliged to. (A good guide to all this from the academic point of view and to further more technical reading is at http://www.nber.org/papers/w17778.) Continue reading ‘Chasing Goldman Sachs’ by Suzanne McGee – A Review

Understanding Money

Understanding Money – a non-technical account of the essential role money and its creation plays in a modern economy. This article was previously available as a pdf, but I have now posted it as a blog in its own right. Since it was originally written in 2010, I have made a few revisions and additions.

 

Introduction

The genius of Lehman
The genius of Lehman

Most of us have little idea of what money is and where it comes from. When we think of money, we think of bank-notes and coins. We know that most money is held in bank accounts, but even then we have an image (although most of us are probably aware that it isn’t quite an accurate image) of these notes and coins being held for us by the bank or lent out by the bank to make money for them (and hopefully us, if the money is held in an interest-bearing account). In fact the reality is about as far away from this as it is possible to imagine.

Of the total amount of money (adding together bank-notes and coin held by the general public and the value of all bank accounts in the UK), the bank-notes and coin make up only around 3% ! The reality is that the vast majority of all money exists only as a record held in someone’s name by some bank or other. How can this be? Where does this money come from? Where does it go? In this article I will attempt to answer these questions, and in doing so explain the benefits and the potential downside to our monetary system. Continue reading Understanding Money

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. Continue reading Modern Thinking: Atomism and Communication

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. Continue reading Unemployment – Morality, Money and Increasing Returns

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 Real Wealth of Fizz