Happiness is (about to be) overrated

11 01 2011

I have to be careful here. A few years ago I spoke at a discussion on happiness and passed the flippant comment that I had not been happy since 1963 (a reference to Philip Larkin as I am sure you all know). After the discussion I was approached by a man who,  identifying himself as a therapist,  offered to help me with my ‘problem’ of unhappiness.

So to be clear, this piece is not about my own state of mind, which those who know me well will confirm is that of a sunny optimist who can only see the bright side of life. It is rather about the intention of the UK government and others to find a new and better way of measuring the wealth of nations, not through the present measure of growth, GDP, but by adding in some as yet undefined way of assessing the happiness or state of well-being of the nation.

Tim Harford, in his excellent summary of the current discussion, makes the point that all of the information that the government purports to want to find out in its new ‘happiness’ initiative is already available from numerous other official surveys. So, if the information already exists, why has the government decided to make a public issue of surveying ‘happiness’ at this moment in time?

The ‘happiness’ debate is a product of the coming together of two different but connected social phenomena. One is the pervasive sense of ‘limits’ which imbues much of contemporary society, the idea that we are reaching the end of the road of exploitation of the earth’s natural resources, that we need to learn to be more sustainable and less dependent on material growth.

The second is the recession and  the very real impact on our lives, here in the west, of the cutbacks in living standards which we are beginning to experience. When we face a future of stagnant  growth and financial pain how tempting it must be for those in government to try to convince us that growth is not what we need, or indeed that it may even be a hindrance to our happiness and well-being.

I am not suggesting that this is simply a cynical ploy by Cameron and others. They undoubtedly have been influenced, as have many people in our society, by the idea that the value of material wealth is overstated and that we should all be looking to other aspects of our life for solace. (Although, I  doubt that this will lead Cameron and his wealthy chums to forswear their own vast riches along the path to a supposed happier existence.)

It would also be wrong to dogmatically assert that all that matters in life is money. Of course, there are many aspects of our daily life which give us pleasure and a degree of contentment that do not depend on money. Most of us get a sense of well-being from achievement and a feeling of control over our lives. But I am opposed to a happiness index precisely because  those kind of things are not measurable in any meaningful way, they are mainly subjective and often temporary and individualised.

The importance of economic growth and its measurement, in GDP, is that it is measurable. It gives an approximation of how dynamic a society is, how much wealth is being created, how productive its people are being.  Wealth creates possibilities which do not exist otherwise. If you look at the world today the nations which have the most human longevity and the best health are the most developed ones. Generally speaking those countries also have the most stable and democratic institutions and the most flourishing cultural activities. This is because wealth creates spare time and spare cash, time and money which can be used to pursue other things than the mere struggle for subsistence that occupies much of the world’s population even now. Economic development  transforms the nature of work from being dangerous, long and tedious to safer, better remunerated and less time-consuming.

The development of a bandwagon around the ‘happiness’ debate at this time is a tacit recognition by the ruling elites in the west that they have lost faith both in their belief in economic development and in their ability to maintain economically dynamic societies. They would like us all to stop pushing for more, to accept austerity and to learn to love it. It is an acquiescence to stagnation at every level in western society. They would like to encourage us not only to accept this stagnation but to call it happiness.

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Ten key aspects of developed economies, post recession

20 12 2010

There are times when the ideas of the world’s rulers and the institutions through which they govern are adequate to the needs of the era, and there are times–like the present–when they are not.   Walter Russell Mead

1. The shift in economic weight from west to east has been accelerated by the recession and its outcomes, leading to growing tensions

The latest G20 meeting took place in South Korea, a symbolic recognition of the growing importance of the east both from the venue and from the fact that the G20 itself, containing the dynamic eastern growth countries, is now the main international economic forum. The global imbalances between developing countries which helped to fuel the credit boom remain in place. Tensions over currency valuations between the US and China reflect both the interdependence between the two countries and their long-term divergence.

Low interest rates in the US and elsewhere lead to investment money pouring into China. This continues to stimulate the Chinese economy and promotes exports back to the US. This continues to make US exports less competitive. The US tries to combat this through more stimulus to the domestic economy and therefore the requirement for lower interest rates persists. The US would like China to allow the value of its currency to rise, something the Chinese have resisted up until now.

China is by far the largest holder of foreign exchange reserves, with stockpiles of $2,454bn at the end of June, around 65% of which is dollars – almost 30 per cent of the global total. In addition China holds 22% of foreign-owned US government debt or$843.7bn. As Hillary Clinton said recently in relation to China ‘how do you deal toughly with your banker?’

2   The US remains the global consumer of last resort

While the US continues its slow decline as a global power it remains the only one with a global reach. It also continues to play its role as the global consumer of last resort. 70% of US GDP is consumption based and its recovery from recession is based on increased domestic consumption not exports.

3. Political incoherence is encouraging the pursuit of narrow national self-interest

Most western economies are struggling to get out of the recession. This has led to a breakdown in international cooperation and the pursuit of what Philip Stephens calls ‘a pinched nationalism’ of countries that have ‘lost confidence’ in their future.

As Sean Collins argues

The underlying pressure comes from the fact that the major economies have not seen a robust recovery, and countries are pursuing their national interests, defined narrowly.

In particular the loosening of US influence has encouraged a breakdown in international cooperation between debtor and creditor nations

 4.  The eurozone may buckle under the pressure

Nowhere is the breakdown of political cooperation clearer than in Europe, whose eurozone countries constitute together the second biggest economy in the world. The long-term contradiction between countries whose currencies are linked but which have separate political systems has come to the fore. Germany, which is the main dynamo of the European economy, has now decided it is no longer going to bail out the weaker peripheral countries, the so-called PIGS. These economies can only exist in their current form on the basis of continued economic support from Germany and other large European economies.

This pursuit of a narrow self-interest by Germany could lead to the break up of the eurozone.

5. There has been insufficient restructuring of developed countries to create the conditions for growth

Wikileaks revealed that even the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, recognises that the UK economy has not been restructured enough to create the conditions for a new growth spurt

As Sean Collins has argued, even the kind of limited restructuring that General Motors has undergone in the US, under US government control, is both atypical and probably inadequate to return GM to its dominant position in the car market.

6. Big corporations are saving not investing

The main outcome of the recession for big western corporations is that they are sitting on piles of cash. In Europe cash now comprises between 9 and 10 per cent of assets on balance sheets and may break 12 per cent in two years time, a third higher than the peak of the previous cycle. As the graphs below illustrate, this cash hoarding is at the expense of investment

The opportunity to take advantage of the new growing markets in developing countries is being spurned due to conservatism and risk aversion.

 

7. Austerity not growth is the watchword

With the exception of the US all western economies are being subjected to austerity packages. While these are being justified on the basis of the need to appease global bond markets there is no doubt that governments really have no idea of what else to do. George Osborne, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, recently had to abandon plans to produce a white paper on growth because there were insufficient ideas to put into it. Austerity is the only policy they have, which leads to a decline in domestic demand, a dampening of international trade and probably an increase in protectionism.

8. The recovery,such as it is, is jobless

Austerity policies and the absence of investment has led to a situation that while most economies are now growing slowly, this has not led to an increase in employment.

9. The debate about our economic future is painfully inadequate

Both free market and neo keynesian economists have been discredited by the recession. Economic debate is now characterised by its pessimism, and a general belief that slow or even no growth in the west is both impossible to avoid and in some cases desirable. The door has also opened wide for those who have psychological explanations for economics, the behaviouralists. David Cameron’s attempt to switch the focus of the economic debate from ‘growth’ to ‘happiness’ is a sign of how bankrupt the economic debate has become.

10. The absence of opposition leaves considerable room to manoeuvre

The absence of any political opposition or economic alternative to austerity means that the elites have plenty of room to manoeuvre in managing their domestic economies: indeed, there is even some popular support for austerity measures.

On that note I would like to wish you all a merry Xmas and a very happy new year!!





Our aim should be a growth economy not a balanced one

17 11 2010

 * This is a seconding speech I made alongside Richard Lambert from the CBI against the following motion at this debate organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering, 

 This House believes that a manufacturing sector accounting for at least 20% of GDP will provide the only basis for a balanced UK economy

Many myths have grown up around the problems of the UK economy post recession-not the least of which is that the recession was apparently caused by some unemployed scroungers in Newcastle. But before we consider what kind of economic policies we need and how we should shape the future we need to avoid falling for the myths rather than the facts.

For example, we all know that it was the financial services sector that provided much of the dynamism of our economy in the past 15 years. It was the fastest growing sector, the motor of the economy, and had enormous positive knock on effects for the rest of the economy, not the least of which was to enable the state to create nearly a million new jobs. Even today, post recession, living standards in the UK are far higher than they were 15 years ago.

The financial crisis has been interpreted by some as a sign that we should look for a different way of organising the UK economy, hence today’s debate. There has been a growing distaste for the financial services which created prosperity, summed up by Vince Cable’s attack on the ‘spivs and gamblers’ in the city, and a more general sense that greed is to blame for our problems.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that what has happened over the past two years was because of an over reliance on the financial sector or the product of outrageous greed. The problem with the financial sector was not its dynamism per se, but that ultimately it fuelled a bubble which then burst-as bubbles tend to do. The problem was  not the dynamism which it brought to the country, ie the growth itself -which most of us enjoyed the benefits of- but the fact that it was based on a credit bubble and was ultimately unsustainable. Had the bubble not burst we would I am sure all still be happily doubling up on our credit card bills and inflating our house prices.

The point is that it would be a mistake to infer from the financial crisis that any one type of business would be necessarily immune from this kind of bubble. Currently it looks as if there is a bubble emerging in the BRICS, the developing countries, as huge amounts of money are moving into manufacturing and other businesses there. We saw in the recent past how a bubble emerged around the digital industry at the time of the dot-com boom and bust. There is nothing about the specific character of any  industry which can guarantee stability or prevent bubbles. The problem of investment bubbles is a general one, outside the scope of this debate

Secondly, the idea of balance is itself problematic, as it implies that balance is more important than growth. The concept  of a balanced economy has two major problems. Firstly it runs against the tide of globalisation. The world economy has become globalised and operates increasingly through an international division of labour. Countries which develop a particular area of expertise, such as the Finns in electronics or indeed the UK in financial services, can then sell their products globally.

Secondly, balance also carries connotations of the status quo ante, of going back to some prelapsarian state  when the making of things rather than money was virtuous, almost a romantic idea of how economies work. At this stage it is far more important for us to be trying to identify what we can bring to the world market in a better way than our competitors, to identify what can provide the engine of growth we need to break out of the current stagnation. Balance also contains within it the idea of sustainable growth, code for a slow or even stagnant economy. Consciously or unconsciously it is an endorsement of the lack of dynamism of our economy and offers only a further diet of austerity.

Of course, it may turn out that manufacturing can play this locomotive role , or the digital sector I work in and which the Coalition Government is very keen to push, but it might also continue to be the expertise we have in financial services, on a non bubble basis. Or indeed it could be a combination of one or other of them.  Indeed, I must confess an enthusiasm for engineering more generally, I would certainly like to see more large-scale infrastructure projects being backed by the state for example.

To sum up, it would be a mistake to put arguments for promoting manufacturing in order to achieve balance in front of arguments for growth. We need to focus on value, however it is created. Better a one-sided growth economy than a balanced stagnant one.





Austerity blues or going for growth?

20 10 2010

The discussion dominating public debate about how far and how fast we should be cutting the fiscal deficit is a giant displacement activity, which has dangerous consequences. The real problem facing the UK, and other western countries, is how to regenerate economic growth.

Whenever there is a sharp economic recession,  governments respond by artificially stimulating demand in the economy, through increasing public spending, interest rate cuts or tax cuts. Once the crisis starts to recede these emergency measures are gradually withdrawn. Almost all of the current public debate about the economy is about the speed of withdrawal of the stimulus. Nobody knows what the right speed is so this one will run and run, at least until the economies are back to normal.

However, it is what constitutes normal in this regard that we should be most interested in. Most western economies have seen real economic growth rates stagnate over a long period of time. Indeed it is this very stagnation which helped to fuel the spectacular credit boom that ended, at least temporarily, two years ago.

There are two ways in which the current preoccupation on cutting the fiscal deficit is dangerous. One is economic and one is social. The economic danger is that by focussing on public spending cuts we are ignoring the need for the state to actually invest far more in key areas of the economy than is the case now. The state plays a pivotal role for example on giant infrastructure projects which private business shies away from. In the UK this includes amongst other things new roads, railways and nuclear power stations. An obsession with cutting public spending does not create an atmosphere which is very conducive to more long-term spending commitments. Indeed it is often the longer term projects which get cut first as they have a smaller political constituency to offend.

The social danger is that the focus on cutting public spending is incredibly divisive and demoralising. Most people in the UK are now indignant either about how far their benefits are going to be cut, or why the benefits of others are not being cut more. While this creates short-term divide and rule advantages for the government, as people are blaming each other for what is going on, it has longer term dangers. An introverted obsession with minor changes in universal benefits or the funding of education does not help us address the bigger problem of how to inject a shot of dynamism into the UK economy. We are not yet asking the right questions about the future of the UK. If all our energies are devoted to holding on to meagre state benefits, rather than working on the bigger prizes that real economic growth can bring, then there can only be more stagnation to come.

*This blog also appeared in The Independent

** I will be chairing a debate on this subject at The Battle of Ideas next week





Ditch the austerity rhetoric, Britain needs growth

19 08 2010

If, as opinion polls suggest, there is a majority in this country who accept that the Coalition Government’s austerity drive is necessary, then this would be one of the worst developments in the UK for some time. Why? Because it would imply that collectively we have turned our back on seeing growth as the way out of our problems.

An austerity mentality is the last thing we need at the moment. Penny pinching will not solve the problem of where the UK’s next economic impetus is going to come from. Businesses in the UK are sitting on piles of cash. The trend in results from Britain’s blue chip companies in recent months has been hugely increased profits, not just in the financial sector, but even in areas which apparently have been struggling such as aviation. These businesses need to feel that investing that cash in productive activities is the way to go, not storing it up like some 18th century miser, or perhaps worse, waiting for the next speculative bubble to erupt so they can pile in for more short term profiteering.

There are of course clear limits as to what this government, any government, can do to grow the economy, short of taking control of industry and investment directly. But political leaders are there to lead, to act as the collective voice for the aspirations of the country. By that measure the main aspiration of this country appears to be to stop a tiny minority of disabled people from ‘scrounging’. How lofty and inspiring!

The Coalition’s main claim to policy success in its first hundred days has been yet more reorganisation of education and the NHS, following on from years of New Labour tinkering. In those areas of the economy which desperately require leadership from the top to make things happen, such as investment in nuclear power and other large scale energy projects, it has vacillated.

Undoubtedly the Coalition’s biggest success so far has been to present public sector cost cutting as essential. But while everybody agrees that ‘scroungers’ and ‘bureaucrats’ should be cut, the logic of the 25% of cuts demanded from government departments is that 1 in 4 teachers will have to go, , one in four trains, one in 4 doctors if the ring fencing around the NHS is removed, and so on. Cameron and Clegg are fooling themselves if they think that most people are prepared to accept deterioration of public services and personal sacrifice without objection.

The Coalition is now worried enough about the success of its own austerity rhetoric that it is trying to row back a little. Nick Clegg said in a speech this week that the Coalition is ‘not just about cuts’. If the Coalition wants to avoid years of political misery all round it needs to ditch the austerity rhetoric and set some positive economic objectives, with as much government back up as possible. Economic growth will lift us all out of the mess we are in.





Why austerity won’t work

2 06 2010

Before we all put on the hair shirt and make a virtue of cutting public services the question has to be asked, will it work? Will  cutting public spending help the UK economy to revive? Is austerity necessary to keep the creditors, in this case those who lend money to the UK government,  from the door? Or is there something else going on here?

To understand what is at issue here it is first of all necessary to separate out the question of government borrowing from the problems facing the rest of the economy. The current obsession with the government deficit is because the overall amount that the government has to borrow to finance its operations has grown as a proportion of the economy over the past two years. This is due to a widening of the public spending deficit, that is the gap between what the government raises in tax and what it spends.

The main reason there is a higher deficit is that the recession led to a drop in government revenue from tax. As the recession hit, less people paid income tax as they were unemployed or took pay cuts and companies were paying less tax on lower profits. So the immediate question is, now that the economy is coming out of recession why not wait until the public spending deficit narrows again? And why does public spending have to be cut instead of more borrowing to finance the gap until income balances expenditure again?

The answer to the last question is that it does not. There is no reason why the current level of the deficit is any more or less sustainable than a higher or lower figure. In the abstract there is no level of government debt which is unsustainable. In fact Japan for example has had a much higher ratio of government debt for many years than the UK economy has now without it leading to any kind of crisis. People only fear lending money if they do not think they will get it back. The doubts over the UK economy are whether it can grow fast enough to repay the debt.

The fear is that money markets will stop lending to the UK or raise interest rates on their loans to a point where they become unsustainable. But even this fear has to be tempered by the fact that the average length of loans to the UK government is 13 years. This means that only around 7% of the loans have to be rolled over each year and thus being open to hikes on interest rates. There is therefore no immediate danger of the UK government being unable to finance public spending at its current level, even if that means having to pay a higher rate of interest on a small portion of the debt.

So why the obsession with cutting the deficit? Given that the problem was created in the first place by a fall in economic output, would it not be better to focus instead on how to grow the economy back to the point where current public spending is sustainable again? This is where the real debate should be, and where the real problems lie.

Some people argue that public spending is so high that it ‘crowds out ‘ investment in the private sector. In other words that taxes taken from the private sector and spent by the government prevent real investment taking place. There are two problems with this argument.

The first is that there is no shortage on money in the private sector which could be used for investment. The UK’s private sector is swimming in money. Nor is there a shortage of labour, the other necessity for economic growth to take place. Chris Dillow makes the point that adding together all those who could be available for work the real number of unemployed in the UK  is closer to 6 million, and that does not include those who are on incapacity benefit mainly because they get more money. So if there is no shortage of labour and no shortage of capital why can there not be faster growth? This is a subject which we have looked at in detail in previous articles . But suffice it to say that the reasons have almost nothing to do with too much spending in the public sector.

The second problem is that there is a strong case to be made that, as James Heartfield has pointed out, such is the intertwined nature of the private and public sectors in the UK, that lower public spending is likely to impact negatively on the private sector rather than positively. Around £80 billion of government spending goes straight back out to the private sector in the form of government contracts. In addition, the state supports private industry in many ways, through transport, communications, training, education, health and even direct subsidies. In fact, the first round of public spending cuts last week fell heaviest on some of the schemes that Labour had brought in to help promising parts of the private sector.

In the absence of belief in, or any plan for, faster economic growth the focus inevitably turns towards saving. When George Osborne talks about retaining the confidence of those who lend money to the UK he means he shares their lack of confidence in his ability to grow the economy and therefore has to cut consumption instead. But let us not believe that cutting consumption is the only way forward. It is only so if you have no plan to increase production.





Why should anybody oppose public spending cuts, and how?

18 05 2010

Naturally, nobody welcomes having services they benefit from taken away. The bulk of public spending, about 63% of the total, goes on health, education, pensions and social security. Everybody at some time in their lives will benefit from these services. The problem is that the current  level of government spending can only be sustained either by borrowing more money or increasing taxation.

The government, and most economists, believe that borrowing more money would push the country even deeper in debt, which would worry  those who lend us the money so much that interest rates would soar. Eventually, according to this argument, the loans would dry up and we would be faced with default and have to be bailed out, like Greece, leading to even deeper cuts. While we await the specific details of the new government’s plans to tackle this problem it looks inevitable that it will involve a mixture of higher taxes and some cuts in public spending. (For a full treatment of the background to this approach see Sean Collins)

Given the way that financial markets work, looked at in this way it is quite a plausible scenario. So how should we think about what will be in effect an austerity budget that George Osborne , the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will be producing in  a few weeks time? We could all simply take the view that we do not want our public services to be reduced at all.  It would certainly be a good thing if there was a more general opposition to austerity measures,  to any attempt to take this country backwards in terms of the quality of life.

However, in the absence of an intellectual case against the cuts, any such anti-cuts campaign will almost inevitably take the form of special case arguments, as has happened many times in the past. This can take many forms. A popular one is that management should be cut, not ‘shop floor’ workers. Another is that this or that other part of the state, usually defence or the civil service, should take the brunt of the cuts, rather than health, education or welfare. This approach does not oppose public spending cuts per se, but tries to divert them elsewhere. However this pans out, the result is job losses somewhere along the line and a net increase in human misery.

So is it possible, or even desirable,in the light of the undoubted economic problems facing this country, to make a case against public spending cuts per se?  Before we begin to answer this it is important to grasp one vital truth about public spending. All of it is financed out of the proceeds from private business, whether  industry or services,  through corporate or individual taxation. If these parts of the economy are struggling, as they are today, then the proceeds from taxation will stagnate. The current severe deficit problem was created because tax revenues fell in the past few years, not because public spending rose. While increased borrowing can make up for this increased deficit for a while, eventually the borrowing becomes too much and we are back in the Greece scenario.

So the real question about defending public spending is how to regenerate and revitalise the productive parts of the economy to the point where increased revenue from taxation, and therefore more public spending money, becomes plausible. That is why the most effective way of opposing public spending cuts is to argue for policies which encourage faster economic growth. Here is where we begin to part company with the government concensus about austerity. A key element of pursuing faster economic growth is for the state to invest more public money in science and technology education, in the encouragement of research and innovation and  in new infrastructure. This approach would involve some reorganisation and reprioritisation of public spending, away from consumption and towards investment.

Most importantly, the government must generate enthusiasm for a more dynamic economy and society. This would mean challenging the risk averse, pessimistic and therapeutic aspects of British culture. It would mean rejecting the view that economic growth should be green and sustainable, all code words for slow. It would mean restoring the pursuit of excellence as a goal of society and it would aim to bring out the best in people.