Posts Tagged ‘economics’

Every new policy this fucking government comes up with seems to be about taking money away from those who have the least of it to start with, or undermining the infrastructure of an organisation currently delivering something of value to the public. And here they’ve found themselves a great two-for-one deal.

In addition to a series of real-terms pay cuts over the last few years, public sector health workers are now going to be made to hand over a huge chunk of their earnings to the government, to pay for the training that’s no longer being funded. That is, those who even bother training any more, given the lack of support or respect they’re being told they’ll be given.

Still I suppose it’s not like healthcare is a vitally important provision to literally everyone alive or that there’s already a dangerous staff shortage in this field OH WAIT IT’S EXACTLY LIKE THAT

Oh well. At least we’ll have plenty of nuclear weapons for the next decade or so.

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I’m reading Owen Jones’s book The Establishment at the moment. It’s brilliant, it’s horrifying, and my radical lefty anti-authoritarian fury is doing my blood pressure no favours. The depths to which power is entrenched among such a minority, a select handful of individuals spread among various industries and professions but holding “shared economic interests and common mentalities”, is an utter nightmare, and I’ve not seen it exposed to a mainstream audience to such an extent, with so many details laid bare in one place, by anyone else.

Which is what makes articles like this so incomprehensible and frustrating.

The extent to which New Labour has fallen in line with Thatcherite neo-liberalism over the last 18 years, adopting policies that would’ve been considered dangerously right-wing by the Tories barely as far back as the 1980s, is not something that escapes Owen in the slightest, and is expounded on at length in his latest tome. So I’m baffled every time he continues to support them as any kind of left-wing socialist egalitarian alternative to the Tories of today.

Obviously we need an alternative to the numerous problems he correctly identifies with the currently reigning government, but it doesn’t have to be fucking Labour just because they’re there.

If the politics of anarchism were better understood – in a world where caricatures and straw-men hadn’t basically taken over the public perception of what anarchists believe and want – it’d be hard not to be one after reading The Establishment. To be able to write a book like that and still want to find reasons to support fucking Labour is entirely beyond me.

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It’s been a while since I’ve settled on any particular label for my beliefs and ideas about politics and economics for very long.

I mean, “liberal” probably has the longevity title to date but I’m a way out of that one now.

“Libertarian socialist” still feels like a pretty comfy fit. “Anarchist” often works but isn’t that specific and often doesn’t convey a whole lot of useful information to someone hoping to get an idea what I think about stuff.

As far as economics goes, more and more these days I identify as a “You know neo-liberalism? Like, whatever the opposite of that is”.

Except if you were going etymologically you might then conclude I’m a “retro-conservative”, which is one of the few things that sounds like it might be even worse.

The search continues.

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Hyperbrief summary: Conservatives are disingenuous about their views on government intervention and liberals fall for it.

Recommended?: Yep, especially as it’s available free.

Dean Baker is an impressively credentialled American economist. He’s written a bunch of books, many of which are downloadable for free from his website. The subtitle of this one represents what seems a common theme in his work: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. Its basic idea is something that’s been seeming increasingly obvious to me for a while now, as I grow incrementally less dumb and ignorant about politics and economics.

According to the popular narrative, left-wing liberals believe that there are things we can’t get done as a society without relying on government to do them for us, whereas right-wing conservatives support independence, personal autonomy, and minimising government interference in lives of citizens. The public debate is commonly framed in these terms, and both sides tend to argue as if from this premise.

In fact, this is an entirely inaccurate basis for discussion, and liberals regularly leave themselves at a massive disadvantage by capitulating to this idea, allowing conservatives to claim a monopoly on fundamental American concepts like freedom and independence. Conservatives want and demand state intervention in the “free market” as much as anyone, generally to further entrench and concentrate the money and power of the rich and powerful.

One of the book’s main strengths is the consistent recognition that the way things are right now is not the only way they could possibly be. In numerous areas of life, there are clearly major drawbacks to our current way of doing things, and it’s our responsibility to be open to the possibility of substantial change. (I mean, he could do with turning that healthy revolutionary attitude up a notch on subjects like taxes, but in general it’s pretty good, and a lot better than most mainstream conversation.) The intended purpose and substantial downsides to our current systems are examined rigorously, and it’s sensibly analytical about the positives and pitfalls of alternative approaches.

It’s efficient in its writing, more than being particularly charming or witty, or otherwise infused with the author’s personality. Which isn’t really meant as a criticism, just something I noticed in comparison with most other books I’ve encountered that attempt to do a similar job. If you aren’t expecting too much of a casual chat, but want to see someone making their point articulately and concisely, it’s a good read.

One drawback for me was the way the word “state” is almost never used throughout the book without the word “nanny” preceding it. I get that this phrase is what summarises the thesis behind each individual argument, and he’s essentially right about all of it, but referring quite so often to “nanny state conservatives” as the people supporting the policies he argues against starts to feel like unnecessary name-calling – especially when “nanny state” becomes an inappropriate metaphor for what he’s describing.

I’ve never liked it that much anyway, as a term for an over-meddling government. Nannies are people we hire to come into our homes and provide a vital service looking after our children. They might have a stereotypical image as overbearing and overprotective, but that’s not inherent to the job, and they only exist because the tiny humans they’re looking after would be in serious danger of harm or death if a nanny wasn’t around to keep them safe. I guess the idea is that children are genuinely helpless, and need someone to take basically full responsibility for their lives, which is what some people act as if they want the government to do for all of us, but it still feels a bit weak as an epithet, especially when so overused.

Most of the time it’s not so bad, because the over-bearing intervention of the state is the correctly identified problem. But there are times when it talks about the wrong sort of intervention, or even when the government refuses to meddle in ways the book thinks it should – to let rich people get away with things in ways the less privileged wouldn’t be allowed to, say – at which point the overbearing nanny allegory entirely fails.

It’s not like his criticisms of government policy are suddenly any less valid or acutely observed at these points, but the patriarchal actions of a “nanny state” aren’t a good descriptor for the problem.

I was especially interested in the section on Social Security in the US, and how it compares to other systems. According to the figures cited, the administration costs of running Social Security are around 0.5% of the tax revenue that pays for it, compared to a figure of 15-20% of revenue going toward admin costs in privatised social security systems, such as in the UK.

Embarrassingly, given that I’ve worked in the field for several years, I had to google the name of the paper in the citation to figure out that the UK’s “privatised social security system” refers to pensions, in particular the system by which insurance companies sell annuities. (My mind only went to the socialised free-at-point-of-use NHS, which was more of a given when this book was published in 2006.)

But he’s obviously right that all the costs associated with being an annuity provider, such as executive pay and advertising and whatnot, are hugely inefficient. It’d never occurred to me to make the direct comparison to the US’s government system of Social Security; I’m going to need to read up on this in order to better understand the distinctions.

The Conservative Nanny State is a free e-book available on the author’s website. If you have any kind of political investment or personal leanings as regards liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, or any of the ways humanity attempts to get its shit together, you’ve got no excuse not to read this and learn some more about how the system you think you understand actually works.

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There’s an old saying along the lines of: People aren’t interested in socialism, they’re interested in putting food on the table.

I think it’s meant to discourage enthusiastic lefty types from talking openly about their political ideas on the grounds that nobody will be interested.

I don’t buy it. I know how caught-up large numbers of people can become in arguments about political ideas, labels and all, because I’ve been on the internet. People get personally interested in all kinds of things.

But even if it’s true, I don’t know why the general public are imagined to give any more of a shit about capitalism as an abstract political notion, so singling socialism out as beyond the scope of public interest seems unfair.

But maybe there’s something to it. Maybe all this outright radicalism isn’t that useful, and won’t change any minds.

Maybe most people don’t pay that much attention to the minority like us, who insist on taking societal change and complex jargonistic political ideas seriously, because they’re focused on things like how their children are going to be fed and clothed, and how much the taxman is going to take away out of what they earn at their bullshit job.

Except, y’know, all that is exactly the kind of stuff most socialists want you to take an interest in. It’s not just about fixating on explicitly political ideas; it’s about the things people just believe about how the world works, without really thinking about it or questioning it or considering it a matter of politics at all.

What kind of parent you want to be is an overtly political question. The lessons kids learn from their interactions with grown-ups will shape the way they see interactions with everyone else, on a society-wide level, for the rest of their lives. And that’s basically what politics is. The ways you choose to raise your children has a direct effect on the eventual political engagement of at least one future member of adult society.

Will they learn to view their interactions with others through the lens of domination, where the way you get what you want is by beating your enemies until they are totally defeated and you win? (The answer is: probably, unless you shield them from basically all of culture as well as treating them differently yourselves.)

If you’re going through tough times, is it demeaning to ask for help? Does it always feel shameful to have to rely on charity? Or is it a normal and beneficial part of life that a safety net should exist to support those who can’t fully support themselves and their own families, for whatever reason and over whatever length of time? It’d be odd to claim that everyday folk don’t take a direct personal interest in this kind of thing, and this is exactly what many people are talking about when they talk politics, socialists included.

There certainly exists plenty of socialist rhetoric which won’t mean much to anyone not already entangled in political intrigue, about uprisings of the proletariat and whatnot, but a lot of what I see is inspired by real-world relatable issues, to talk about those issues in a political context. Sometimes talking about socialism literally is talking about putting food on the table.

People might not care about “socialism” as an abstract set of ideas in political philosophy, or be swung by its promises in a political theoretical sense. But they already have strong feelings about the things it represents.

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So here’s another reason why the economy is dumb.

Smoking, it’s generally agreed, is pretty bad. All the sensible medical advice these days is that anyone who does it should try to do less of it, ideally none at all. There’s some room for nuance there, but that’s mostly an uncontroversial interpretation of the evidence. Even the most spirited defense tobacco companies seem to fall back on nowadays is that it’s something everyone has the right to do – as in, the government shouldn’t be able to use force or the threat of force to coerce you into not doing it. (I agree with this, though again, nuance can still be discussed.)

Imagine some magical switch was suddenly flipped, and now nobody wants to smoke any more. No cold turkey or withdrawal or cravings; everyone is instantly a non-smoker and has no desire to change.

This would have massive global health benefits, add countless millennia to people’s collective lives, and be an unprecedented economic catastrophe.

Nobody smokes anymore? Well, so long to that trillion-dollar a year industry, along with the tens of billions in tax revenue in the US alone.

Nearly a million jobs would be wiped out too, as well as numerous entire businesses.

If a hugely beneficial thing somehow happened, we would be completely unprepared for it and it would fuck everything up. There would be severe negative repercussions, making things worse for almost everyone, resulting from a straight-forwardly positive development.

And it really would be positive! All those folk who were spending their careers helping to provide people with an injurious and useless habit can go do other things now! Everyone can carry on just as awesomely as before, but without this one dumb factor that used to shorten their life and take their money! All the effort that was going into preparing and distributing toxic firesticks can be diverted to stuff that might improve the quality and length of people’s lives instead! There literally should not be a down-side!

There’s no reason this should harm our prosperity – we could support our current levels of thriving in the past, even while a bunch of people were devoting all their working hours to making cigarettes, and millions of other people were wasting their time smoking them and shortening their lives. Nothing meaningful has been lost, and the potential for a great deal of heretofore untapped productivity has been freed up.

It’s an abject failure of our current approach to collective organisation, if we’d find ourselves doing worse than we were doing before, after a big positive change. And at least in the short-term I suspect that’s what would happen.

I don’t know how you make the economy less stupid. That’s some higher-level thinking I’m not prepared for just yet. I just do the bit where you point out how much things suck in case people hadn’t noticed.

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So high-frequency trading is pretty clearly insane and has fuck all to do with useful economic activity. There are billions of dollars to be “made” out there, but they only reward whoever has the shiniest computers, fastest microwave connections to the stock exchange, and smartest algorithms; and they all come at the expense of those who think they can keep up but fall behind due to inferior ability to play the market.

Huge amounts of human endeavour are being poured into this system by those who hope to get personally rich from it. Not to blame them exclusively for that; they exist in a culture which tells them every day that making money is the most patriotic and noble thing you can do and so long as you stop somewhere short of literally drowning puppies in the process you should feel great about it.

And yet nobody’s producing anything useful while all this is going on. Nothing’s being built or designed; the creative or communal aspect of the human spirit is not being enriched. Just billions of dollars being thrown around, won and lost, inflicting massive rewards or punishments on the participants so chaotically that I’m not sure we’d notice the difference if it were truly random.

Obviously this is all crazy. But the mistake people make is in thinking it’s crazy like, say, quantum mechanics is crazy. Quantum mechanics is crazy, in the sense that it’s a bizarre and inexplicable and counter-intuitive system, which nobody would have designed anything like that, but it also has an unavoidable connection to the real world. It models our best current understanding of how the world just is, at a fundamental level. Whether you believe it or not, whether you want to rearrange things in a way that strikes you as more sensible or not, quantum mechanics is going to carry on, because that’s just how things are.

Whereas high-frequency trading is crazy like stoning gay people to death is crazy. It’s something our species invented, and which we’re quite capable of subsequently identifying as complete bollocks and rejecting as unworthy.

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I mean, the science is pretty clearly in, so we know the social and economic benefits of providing everyone with a basic income would be vast. Apparently another bonus is that it makes people “more entrepreneurial“, whatever that means and whatever’s so great about it. Sounds less exciting than escaping the constant anxiety of being homeless and starving if the intrinsically fragile capitalist economy has a bit of a bad day and decides to fuck you up, but sure.

But another thing that’s actually interesting about it, is that a basic income makes sense of a bunch of other policies many economists have recommended, but which often make bleeding-heart lefty types like me bristle.

F’rinstance: charging people a flat fee to see their GP or attend A&E. All the articles I’m finding about it seem to be at least a year old, but I’m sure this cropped up again somewhere just recently.

Basic economics tells us that an increase in something’s price will reduce the volume of its consumption; an increase from free, to a nominal fee of £10 a visit, would ease the burden faced by the NHS and reduce the volume of people using its services, but only those people whose problems are worth less than a tenner would be foregoing any medical attention. Care is still available to anyone who’d really benefit from it, but those who don’t really need it won’t go along anyway on the grounds that “might as well, it’s all free”.

The point of having money, after all, is to allow people to express preferences in a meaningful, concrete way. People who wouldn’t “prefer” to see a doctor than whatever else that small nominal fee could provide – coffee with a friend in Starbucks, say – probably aren’t going to die or deteriorate abruptly based on that decision, since it can’t be bothering them that much.

The problem, as things currently stand, is that the people who’d end up “preferring” to do something else with their nominal fee wouldn’t be choosing between a hospital visit and some overpriced caffeine; they’d be choosing between a hospital visit and the gas bill for keeping their home warm. Or the food they were planning to buy for their children this week. Or the bus fare to get to the Jobcentre so the bastards don’t fucking sanction them again.

Some people are so rich they can have basically all the things they want, and the use of money as a way to express preference becomes meaningless on this scale, while some people are so screwed over by the system already that they don’t get to make choices between preferences in a way that’s remotely fair. Even if you try and means-test it, it’s another hurdle requiring poor people to prove their neediness once again before granting them access to basic medical care.

If only there was some way to make sure people didn’t face that kind of harsh, brutal, unjust, life-or-death dichotomy, and were free to make genuinely economically rational choices about how to allocate the resources available to them.

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The whole idea of a moral basis to capitalism seems inherently broken to me.

The Pope recently made his first “apostolic exhortation”, which is totally what I’m going to start calling my tweets in future in a further attempt at self-hype and aggrandisement. (“Apostles, I exhort you. Look at this picture of my cat making a derpy face. LOL. Please RT.”)

In this exhortation, he talked about poverty, and wealth inequality, and all the stuff that’s increasingly been interesting me lately. Pontiff Frankie Prime seems to genuinely give a crap about the whole poverty deal, at least by Papal standards. I get the impression he genuinely sees people suffering because of economic injustices and wants to prioritise improving this situation, even if he is only doing a minuscule fraction of what’s within his power from that massive palace of his.

Anyway, his description of the tyranny of “unfettered capitalism” got a lot of people agitated, and often with good reason. I’m not sure that his proposed improvements to the global economy are cogent, or that his statement of the problem is even internally consistent; part of what defines capitalism is the fetters, in the form of property rights and so forth.

I don’t have any especial interest in analysing the Pope’s proposed economic policies, not least because by his own admission he’s not really trying to speak in economic, academic terms. But I just listened to a Freakonomics podcast which discussed the Pope’s ideas with a number of economists, and a few things bugged me about the defenses of market systems that ensued.

Joseph Kaboski, an Economics Professor and a Catholic, argues that ethics comprise an important part of a market economy. He provides a simple example in which they come into play, of someone getting over-charged at a car dealership because they didn’t speak great English, and so weren’t in a position to fully inform themselves of the details which would have helped in their negotiations. The point he’s trying to demonstrate is that “ethics are important in markets”.

But being “important” is a vague concept – what role do ethics actually play here? It’s clear that unethical behaviour would be an option for some unscrupulous person in this situation, and that it harms some innocent bystander as a result (and arguably damages market efficiency) – but none of that needs to matter to the unethical actor. He’s just made a tidy profit off of some hapless loser, beyond what was merited by the quality of the product – and he’s strongly incentivised by the system in place to do so whenever he can get away with it. Unethical behaviour makes those doing it better off.

There’s no solution proposed to this. It’s not even recognised as a problem. Another contributor to the episode, Jeffrey Sachs, says that “our indifference, our brazenness, our hard-heartedness, is no favour to ourselves or to the functioning of our societies”. But sometimes brazen, hard-hearted, unethical behaviour is a favour to ourselves, at least in the short-term. It might screw over the functioning of society if we all act that way, but why should I care? I got mine, Jack.

Obviously I think I should care. There is a moral obligation, I’m not going full relativist here. But when people who flout that obligation flourish as a direct result, and do better than those who act more ethically, the system is inherently broken. There’s no point arguing that your system will work fine if people would just behave more ethically, when the system is designed to reward those who don’t. There needs to be something built-in to the system so that socially harmful and undesirable behaviour isn’t massively appealing to anyone with flexible morals.

On a briefer note, here’s another quote from Kaboski, amid some more detailed statistics of how much things have been improving lately:

More people have escaped extreme poverty in the past 25 years in part through the growth of China and India than in any period of human history.

There are aspects of this whole debate to take heart in. Things do get better. But I call bullshit on this limited success as a vindication of any given application of capitalist market economics in recent years. There are still billionaires collectively hiding trillions of dollars offshore, for whom sums of money equivalent to whole countries’ GDPs act like a meaningless high-score, and there are still thousands of children starving to death every day.

It might be better than it’s ever been. It’s still not fucking good enough.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Do we have any obligation to care what the Pope says about anything, given the global extent of the child abuse network he oversees?

2. What would “unfettered capitalism” actually look like? What, if any, role would the government play in such a system?

3. Shouldn’t we have figured out how to sort out all the money without being dicks about it, by this point in our civilisation?

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Society has problems that need fixing.

The people we ostensibly put in charge of fixing society’s problems have a great deal of power to enact their proposed solutions.

The perceived problems faced by society, which it’s assumed need to be addressed by those in charge, include such items as: the unjustified claiming of “free money” by those who haven’t proved themselves to deserve it; long-term unemployment; and criminal behaviour by juveniles.

Popular salves for these maladies include, respectively: imposing benefit sanctions for transparently idiotic reasons; forced placement on full-time, unpaid workfare schemes; and solitary confinement of children, a practice widely regarded as torture.

I talk semi-regularly about aspects of our society that I truly believe will be looked back on with horror, disgust, and bewilderment in a century or so, and I want to explore that in some more depth.

Even people who haven’t experienced it directly will be familiar with the racist grandparents trope. People who grew up in a different era often don’t have the same sensibilities to certain issues that we do today, and maybe they can’t be expected to. It doesn’t make them bad people, but they were raised with a certain set of attitudes being strongly normalised, and it’s not always easy to see, decades later, why the way you’ve always acted is suddenly so offensive to people, or so drastically needs altering.

It can be hard to articulate to someone behind the curve just why it’s important to adapt like this. “Just don’t be racist” doesn’t seem like it should need spelling out; and yet if something was “just the way things were” seventy years ago, it may not be obvious that the world has changed for the better.

I’d be amazed if there weren’t things that my generation’s grandkids end up being impatient for me and my peers to adapt to, but which we struggle embarrassingly with. The thing I particularly imagine them wondering about us is:

Was that really the best you could do?


All that technology and productivity and abundance and capacity to do amazing things together, and you couldn’t find any better way to induce better behaviour in kids, or deal with supposed “freeloading”, without shitting all over thousands of other people who were just trying to get by?

You really didn’t have any better ideas for how to help lift up the lowest among you, and give everyone a chance to thrive?

There was really no interest in picking a military strategy that didn’t involve the useless mass murder of random foreign civilians?

Were you guys actually, really, honestly trying as hard as you can to not totally fuck everything?

Really, though?

When they get around to asking us that, I’m not sure what our answer is going to be.

But maybe I’m just projecting, because I’ve already been asking it for so long myself.

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