Can the UK economy become dynamic again and does it matter if it doesn’t?

10 11 2009

nukesThe Government has finally announced a nuclear power station building programme. Typical of Labour’s record on infrastructural projects it is far too late, too little, underfunded and came in the form of a statement in the House of Commons with no opportunity for a debate or a vote to give it democratic legitimacy, no doubt opening the way for endless legal challenges from the anti-nuclear and nimby lobbies.

It appears to be the very least that the government could do in the face of the expected power supply shortages in the future and the commitments it has made to cut carbon emissions. What it is not is part of any concerted plan to reinject dynamism into the UK economy. We are still lacking any overall vision for how the UK is going to become economically vibrant again. Of course there are  people, some of whom I debated at the Battle of Ideas Conference recently(see here for audio record), who argue that economic growth is a dangerous or futile objective.

In my previous blog I argued that economic growth is a good thing for social, cultural and philosophical reasons as well as the more obvious economic ones. I was struck at the Conference last weekend by two reactions against this point of view from people who did not fall easily into the categories of anti-growth viewpoints I was attacking.

First there were people who agreed in general that global economic growth was necessary, but that this should be mainly in the developing countries. Their argument is that we in the west have pretty much got what we need and we do not require faster growth rates. Secondly there were those, including Martin Wolf, who argued that even if we wanted to it is not possible to reverse the relative or perhaps even absolute economic decline of the UK and countries like it.

The two viewpoints are complimentary in arguing that faster growth, more economic dynamism, is either unnecessary or even if it is then it is not possible. If these views are not challenged and an alternative economic route mapped out, then the UK is condemned to stagnate with no prospect of changing itself in any fundamental way.

The recession has shocked many people in the west and shaken their confidence in the market system and added to a sense that economic growth is problematic. There is an increasing sense that we have reached a ‘new normal’, a position where slow or flat economic growth is likely and perhaps even desirable. There is a danger that this lack of confidence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

With a General Election in the next six months it is time to put on the table what we think should be on the economic agenda. If you have any views about what the economic policies of the next government should be then please feel free to respond. In future blogs I will examine why a fatalistic approach to growth and dynamism in the west is wrong and how we can begin to tackle it.

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The market is not capable of being rational,but people are

28 10 2009

images[1]The news that George Soros is creating and financing a new economic thinktank  called the Institute of New Economic Thinking (INET) should not be a surprise given both the destitution of modern economics and Soros’ own conviction that traditional economics is ‘a dogma whose time has passed’. As I have argued before there is little doubt that rational or free market theories have been discredited by the reality of the financial crisis, although this does not mean that we have really been living through a period of free market economics.

However, while a reassessment of the way forward for economics is way overdue, it seems unlikely, given its brief ,that this new Institute will help very much. For a start, as Anatole Kaletsky makes clear in the Times today, it will be heavily influenced by the Behavioural Economics school of thought. This rightly rejects the spurious rationality of mainstream economics but replaces it with a view based on the belief that people are basically irrational and the future unpredictable.

To gain a genuine understanding of unpredictable reality, some unorthodox economists may employ new mathematical techniques of non-linear dynamics and chaos theory. Others may revive the literary and anecdotal traditions of the great economists of the past, building on the work of sociologists, psychiatrists, historians and political scientists disdained by the present orthodoxy. INET will try to support these new schools of thought.

As I said in my review of a book by influential behavioural economists, 

We can agree with the BEs that the market, or capitalism, is not rational in the way that rational market theorists claim. The most singularly irrational aspect of capitalism is that decisions to invest are made by individual or groups of capitalists rather than by or in the interests of the majority of people. If the prospects for profitable investment look poor, because the expected rate of profit is too low or too risky, then money flows elsewhere. In the past ten years money flowed instead into apparently safe areas such as financial derivatives based on assets like housing etc . This created an unsustainable asset bubble which inevitably crashed and burned. Phil Mullan calls this the over financialisation of the western economies, the tendency for money to try to beget more money without going through the process of productive investment in new businesses.

Crises in the financial sector are an inevitable outcome of the over financialisation of western economies. The exact day when they will happen cannot be predicted, but the continuous instability and the tendency towards crisis contained within it will always remain. But it is not inevitable that we have to have economies of this sort. The danger of Behavioural Economics is that it condemns us to a future where the vagaries of the market are a given and the only question is how to manipulate and control the activities of the irrational people engaged within it.

Once we accept that human behaviour is irrational and the future unplannable and unpredictable then we have taken out what is unique about humanity, its ability to consciously and collectively organise and influence the future. One bright spot about the current recession is that it has revealed the bankruptcy of the prevailing economic orthodoxy. It would be a great shame if the vacuum thus created were to be filled by those who have the most disdain for human rationality. This weekend I and many others will be debating the future of the economy with experts such as Lord Skidelsky, Martin Wolf and Paul Mason at this event. Come and join us.





Barriers to innovation and change

22 05 2009

My closing speech at the Battle for the Economy conference

Taking risksWe have to frame this discussion within a cultural and a political context. Our society has become tremendously risk averse at every level. Common sense tells us it is unlikely that we can create a more dynamic and innovative economy when we are afraid to send our children to the park on their own, and how likely are these over protected children  to become confident risk takers as they grow up?

This may seem too much of a generalisation, but if you look at the specifics of what is happening in our economy you can see the links.

Take first of some of the better commodity producing  parts of our economy, the bits which actually make new things. Foremost in these are aerospace, pharmaceuticals, bioscience and energy. Each of these industries has been subjected to intense criticism for their supposed threats to us as consumers or to the environment. The aerospace industry is held responsible for global warming , as is the energy industry. The pharmaceutical industry is held in deep suspicion of selling us drugs which cause more harm than good. The biosciences have been held back by fears of Frankenstein food amongst other things. Many of these negative sentiments have been allowed to go unchallenged by our political leaders, sunk as they are in the mire of market research led policies.

How likely is it that these industries can attract the best and brightest young people to work in them or the support they need in universities or from investors when they are held in such low esteem?

Almost every time a crisis has arisen in public confidence the instinct of our political leaders has been to cut and run: Tony Blair over the MMR scare and nearly the whole political class over nuclear power and GM food. This has helped to create a lack of trust in science  and an irrational approach to what are the most exciting areas of development in medicine and other things.

The lack of leadership has encouraged this mood of anti-science and anti-progress, so much so that when swine flu broke out in a school down the road from me local opinion was divided between those who didn’t believe some scientists’ claims that  it  was a real threat, and those who took heed of this warning, but did not believe that Tamiflu was safe and not a dangerous kin to thalidomide, for example.

Secondly, also stemming from our over inflated sense of risk is the belief that economic growth in itself, whatever the source,  is problematic. There are even people who say that recessions are good for us and for the planet. These anti-growth sentiments fly in the face of reality, as all human progress is built on material prosperity. Yet they are very influential.

Thirdly, many of these anti-growth feelings are wrapped up in the idea of the Green New Deal, which seeks that progress and development be restricted to areas that can be proven to do no harm to the planet. This narrow criterion threatens to divert investment down narrow channels and hold up progress elsewhere.

Any threat to the environment or indeed any other challenge we face, is best dealt with by encouraging scientific and economic development on a broad front. Often scientists and technologists come up with solutions to problems they were not themselves originally looking for. To narrow down the areas of scientific endeavour too much risks those serendepitous discoveries.

Even on the terms of alternative energy itself, encouraging economic growth offers the best way forward. China creates 16% of its electricity through renewable sources, compared with 4% in the UK. This is  because China ‘s demand for energy to fuel its rapidly growing economy is such that it is prepared and able to experiment and innovate on a grander scale then we are here.

Finally, in the UK we have lower than OECD levels of both VC investment and R&D, but this is not because there is an absolute shortage of investment money available. Rather, risk aversion is what dominates large investors. The roots of the financial crisis lay in the fact that vast sums of money were recycled through financial instruments with a view to spreading and avoiding risk, incredible as it now seems.

There may be a case, as people like Lord Drayson are arguing, for diverting more of our State resources into encouraging innovation, but science and innovation need to be unwrapped from the risk aversion which surrounds and infuses them at the moment. Perhaps some of the money which is going into authoritarian measures such as ID cards, or the extension of CRB checks could be diverted into encouraging productive investment instead. In other words, this is a politicial and cultural problem about priorities, not an economic one, and so it needs to be tackled at that level.

It is clearer than ever before that there is a close connection between the failures of political leadership and the problems of our economic set up. You cannot tackle one without the other. The good news is that unlike, for example, a cure for cancer, the cure for our political problems lies in our own hands in the here and now.





What I think about when I think about the economy

18 05 2009

This was the focus of my opening speech at the Battle for the Economy conference on May16. 

Battle for the Economy

During the course of this recession we have all become familiar with the concept of zombie banks, that is banks which are technically bankrupt but which are kept afloat by government support. It has now become clear that we also have zombie governments and zombie political parties, brain dead organisations which have only remained upright through support from the various financial bubbles over the past ten years. Recently, these bubbles have burst and the living dead are falling around our feet.

Austerity or innovation?

What kind of society do we want to live in? In Britain we have reached a crossroads. One path is the one that most politicians seemingly want to take us down, the road to austerity, public spending cuts, wage restraint, the sharing out of misery. At the moment these are the loudest voices. The other, less mentioned path, is the path of economic growth, innovation, technical and scientific progress, and rising living standards.

We have been preparing for the path to austerity for some time. Even during the boom years loud and influential voices proclaimed the pointlessness, misery and environmental damage created by materialism. In the process reality has been turned on its head. The truth is that all human progress, in health, education, science, technology and democracy is built on rising living standards. The poorest countries in the world are not paradises , they are inflicted with disease, despotism, ignorance and the desperate routine tragedy of the needless death of their children.

The new politics of austerity are the politics of low expectations. Such politics do not expect us to lift ourselves out of a recession through hard work and application. It does not inspire us to have a positive sense of where we are going as a society, nor does it challenge us to put the pursuit of science and innovation at the core of what we do.

The alternative

What is the alternative?  Politics and politicians have shrunk to insignificance and to levels of humiliation unknown in the modern era.  At this point it is vital that those of us who believe in the potential of humans to fix things and to change our circumstances for the better, should raise our voices louder than ever and act wherever possible to influence an agenda of change.

I would say there are three big issues facing us which are both economic and political and how we act on them will determine the future:

1) any western economies, with the UK at the forefront, have become relatively less and less productive and more dependent on financial services, credit and state spending. What can we do to encourage innovation and an increase in productive activity, and what are the barriers to this? Societies which are economically sluggish are rarely vibrant or dynamic in other ways and our culture of risk aversion is holding back the future.

2) China and other developing countries are demanding (and rightly so) to reshape the world order. This will create enormous tensions at a global level.

3) the lack of any contestation to managerial capitalism has shrunk the worlds’ options and led to the diminishing of politics and human aspirations in general. Anti economic growth sentiments have become rife in response to the perceived failures of the market.

So, I think it is important to remember that when we talk about the economy, we are not just discussing numbers and statistics, but the substance of our lives and the future of our people.

Have a productive day!





Economic recovery-cheerfulness is not enough

15 05 2009

Here is a link to an article I wrote on whether we are seeing the light at the end of the recessionary tunnel. Tomorrow I will be speaking at this conference, hope to see you there.





The Battle for the Economy is on

24 04 2009

Battle for the Economy, Institute of Ideas

EVENT
Battle for the Economy
16 May 2009 (9.30 am-6.00 pm)
Googdenough College, London

On Wednesday we had a nothing budget from a politically exhausted and demoralised government.  There was a populist and financially meaningless tax rise for the rich but almost no recognition in any of the measures, or in the debate around the budget, of what we could be doing to tackle the deep seated problems of the UK economy.

This would not be so bad if there was an opposition with better ideas waiting in the wings. However the Tories have promised only one thing, to take a harder line on public spending than Labour has projected to do. In fact even this is not a real difference, for if Labour did win the next election against the odds it too would cut spending. The only reason Labour is not saying that now is to avoid alienating even further an already deeply discontented electorate.

Recently there have been efforts to suggest that the recession is coming to an end. It is certainly possible that the rate of decline is slowing . That does not mean that the recession is over, nor that there is any certainty of an early upturn. What is certain however is that the most important problems are still not being addressed. In the UK that includes the whole issue of excessive public spending.

In the coming year there will be a great deal of discussion about cutting  public sector spending. The public sector will account for around 48% of the UK economy by next year and there are no doubt parts of it which we could do without. The question of the role of the state in our society could do with a thorough examination, but it should not begin with what are the easiest parts to cut, but what kind of state we need and what role it should play.

It is issues like these which need to be subjected to the maximum public debate.  From the various discussions I have taken part in recently it is clear that many people have very strong views and opinions, some of them quite sensible, about what should be done. The dead nature of our political process means that there is very little opportunity for serious public discussion which can involve us all.

On May 16th (2009) The Battle for the Economy  conference, organised by the Institute of Ideas will begin to do just that. As you will see from both the speakers and the sessions, the Conference will directly address difficult issues led by speakers who are well informed about the background to the problems we face. I would urge you to buy your ticket now.





May 16, come and debate how to fix the recession

30 03 2009

On May 16 there will be a conference in London to debate the recession and how to fix it. I would urge you to attend. We need the fullest public discussion on what can be done to make the UK in particular recover from the economic problems we have got into.