This is the first blog in a two-part series on ‘Bad Targets for Policy’. The second in the series will be on immigration.
We’ve seen a lot of focus on the ‘costing’ of policies in the parties’ manifestos for the forthcoming UK election. But we must remember that money is only a means of keeping account. Accounts are important but they are not reality. An account of debt is important, but it is not a physical reality. When a government has a debt in its own currency which only it (or its institutions) can issue, its obligations are important but not physically binding. They are not even legally binding, since the debt can be devalued virtually to zero by inflation. It follows that the real implications of government debt are not simply consequences of current government spending and taxation and the gap between them. Indeed these may be among the least important causes.
The real consequences of government debt result from the physical burden implied by the future obligation to transfer some control over a portion of real goods and services from the state to holders of the issued debt, either as interest or in repayment of capital. That debt in the nominal quantity of the national currency (the total amount in pounds or dollars say) is only a starting point. Inflation changes the relationship between that number and the obligation in real goods and services; the changing size of the national economy alters the ability to fulfill a fixed obligation. Continue reading Bad Targets for Policy 1: Government Debt→
Just how much cash does the NHS and social care need to prevent the distressing stories of patients languishing on trolleys for hours in A&E departments? Can we possibly afford what it needs, or is it really a ‘bottomless pit’ as often claimed? Do we need to lower our expectations of what can be provided for us? Or does the whole funding system of the NHS need to be overhauled, with charges and/or insurance-style payments? Sadly, we are frequently being directed by politicians’ state-shrinking agendas and commentators’ ignorance towards the wrong numbers and the wrong reading of those numbers, with the result that the wrong answers are given to these questions. The truth is that if we look at things correctly, there is no reason why we cannot have an excellent healthcare system in Britain without any great sacrifice in our enjoyment of the other goods and services that the modern economy has to offer. Continue reading Explaining the NHS Crisis: Lies, Damn Lies and Health Spending→
‘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 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→
The riots that engulfed London and other cities in England began one year ago today. Just to hark back to my piece ‘Riots: Looking Deeper’ on this topic last year, written one week after they started. I think it’s fair to say that it was a reasonable analysis. In particular the Independent Panel set up to investigate their causes stated
Clearly the importance of those attributes becomes even more pronouncedwhen young people are faced with growing up in a time of austerity, a struggling job market and pervasive messaging telling them that criminality provides a fast track to achieving status among their peers. For example, while we know that most convicted rioters were not gang members, we also know that gangs operate in a large number of areas where the riots occurred. Some young people are exposed to imagery and attitudes associated with gang culture from an early age, which glamorise a life of criminality outside the system and which eschews any empathy for the victims of crime.
An article by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (of ‘The Spirit Level’ fame) on today’s Guardian CiF specifically blames inequality. You might care to look here at my general response to that thesis.
…with local authority cuts set to continue the environment will become more challenging than ever before – if we are to avoid a repeat of 2011 councils need to have the funding to invest in key intervention programmes, community development and economic growth; all things that could help to prevent future riots. As things currently stand, government policy could threaten this.
Long piece today by the Guardian’s economics leader writer, Aditya Chakrabortty, on the cost of the banking crisis, bank misconduct and what should be done about it. I agree wholeheartedly with the thrust of this piece, and indeed said much the same two and half years ago in my piece on the Guardian Cif site. Aditya’s piece concludes that
any investigation needs to understand how to reform the finance sector so that crises like these don’t recur; and so that banks actually work in the public interest rather than hire propagandists to pretend they do. Because in the end, financial reform is not about technicalities, but about politics: deciding what role banks should play in an economy, and what kind of economy we want.
However, he says also that:
According to the IMF, the British stuck £1.2 trillion behind the finance sector. Read that again: well over a trillion pounds in bailouts, and loans and state guarantees on bankers’ trading. In just a few months, and with barely any public debate, every household subbed £46,774 to the City. A sliver of that money eventually went unused; as for the remaining hundreds of billions, we have no idea just how much we’ll get back – or when.
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→
David Malone, a documentary film maker, perhaps better known these days as blogger on the financial crisis and its causes – operating under the name GolemXIV – gave a talk in Edinburgh on the 6th of December.
He’s quite a charismatic guy and gave an effective talk in a church with no aids other than a radio microphone. I hope that he will continue to campaign against the current acceptance of continuing economic policies that will undoubtedly make the majority of us worse off. I have offered him this commentary in the hope of improving our mutual understanding of the problems faced and how we might deal with them.
I was at your talk in St John’s in Edinburgh last Tuesday night and was impressed by the eloquence and passion with which you make the case that the current economic situation is a travesty of democracy and fairness. With that view I am in complete agreement, and I think you have the qualities needed to get the required message across. Continue reading Commentary on GolemXIV in Edinburgh→
There is a tendency to consider reactions to the recent riots in London and elsewhere as being either one thing or the other. They are either about condemning and punishing the perpetrators, or as “excusing them” by seeking to explain the reasons for the disturbances in terms of economic and social causes. This is a mistake – it is often appropriate to consider problems at different levels. The atomic structure of a metal is analysed using different techniques than an analysis of its properties in construction. Individuals involved in violence, property destruction and looting must be brought to justice and punished appropriately. Anything else would undermine a crucial plank in our society – our system of individual justice for individual actions. Continue reading Riots: Looking Deeper→
Sharon Shoesmith is accountable for the cruel and tragic death of Peter Connelly. Government ministers are accountable for serious events that occur in their area of responsibility. But what do we mean by accountability? Does it mean that we expect those in ultimate charge to immediately take poison or be summarily executed when things go wrong, whatever they might or might not have done personally to prevent them? As far as Shoesmith is concerned that is exactly what many, including Ed Balls and Kevin Brennan MP writing on LabourList, appear to think. Continue reading Sharon Shoesmith and ‘Accountability’→