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→
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)
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→
‘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.
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→
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→
[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→
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 Forget GDP – Tory in Fairyland→
Since my post Leveson, the Press and Labour there have been further developments. The Prince Harry photos episode was hardly edifying for the press or the Royal Family. That the Sun editor could claim that publishing these photos of a silly over-privileged young man was somehow ‘about the freedom of the press’ should re-inforce my main point. The primary freedoms most of the current press industry are ultimately interested in are the freedom to make money and the freedom to promote their owners’ interests.
That News International in particular are an organisation whose values are seriously removed from human concerns was re-inforced today by the publication of a seriously awful picture of Cheryl Cole. She had been photographed through a car windscreen bleeding from the nose after an accident. For all the photographer knew at the time this image was taken, this woman had a basal skull fracture and was minutes from death. The fact that she is well known for her celebrity career gives only public prurience rather than public interest to this photograph.
The tendency for the press to close ranks in denial at the overall damage done by a press with skewed ambitions was emphasised yesterday in the Independent editor Chris Blackhurst’s BBC Radio 4 interview on the ‘Section 13’ letter he has received from the Leveson Inquiry outlining the criticisms likely to be made. Continue reading Leveson Heat Rises for the Press→
The first instalment of Lord Leveson’s inquiry report into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press is due in the autumn. It’s vital that Labour are ready to argue for a truly free press. We should be well aware that the political right and the press industry itself have major combined interests in adhering as closely to the status quo as possible. Although the issue of privacy was the final trigger for the inquiry, the most important failure of our press is to provide high quality information about current events and a true variety of interpretations of their causes. We need these if we are to make good collective decisions on important matters. The truth-distorting bile that issues from some outlets has had a measurable effect in false impressions left on the public. Continue reading Leveson, the Press and Labour→
‘We need to be clear how equality, and what kind of equality (including of what), services our notion of the good society.’
To give David Miliband some credit, he is asking the right question. It’s not clear from his New Statesman sally whether he has the right answer.
As characterised by the older brother, ‘Reassurance Labour’ believes that the state is the primary bulwark against the inequities and inefficiencies thrown up by a globalised market economy. It seems that David M. believes that empowered regions and communities should be cast in this role.
Now in general terms, I think David has a point. But there are major gaps in his thinking. As he clearly acknowledges, the state (and frequently bodies stretching their remit even wider – the EU and beyond) must set the framework for individual rights and responsibilities. This is necessary to ensure that the relationship between devolved structures is one of co-operation and constructive competition rather than the beggar-my-neighbour variety.
But there are other crucial relationships about which David says nothing. These are those between the power of business on the one side and communities and individuals on the other. If the state has been unable to resist the power of big business and finance to capture huge rewards while making the public responsible for clearing up its messes, there is no hope for smaller regions and communities. As it stands, Miliband senior’s recipe is one of surrender to the interests of money-profit. Under these conditions ‘growth’ means little more than bigger bonuses and more efficient tax-avoidance. Continue reading What Equality? – Equality of Voice→
I’ve read with interest the recent Labour List posts of Owen Jones and Emma Burnell. I think on the politics Emma is right, but on the economics Owen is right to call for a fresh plan of action.
Politics these days is a performance, and it’s increasingly a self-interested one where concern for the greater good is either absent or on the back burner. How we tackle that is an important issue in itself, but let’s just assume for now that the general welfare of the UK population is really at issue.
Ed Miliband is a human being, with all the faults and idiosyncrasies that entails. When they see him through the lens of the media (as most only do) some people will instinctively find him sympathetic, others will not. On what grounds, who knows? In the end, whatever this effect, it only has to allow Labour to be voted for ahead of the parties of his rivals, Cameron and Clegg. Continue reading Economics and Perception→