30 December 2009

GOD: Grand Old Dollar

Lloyd Blankfein is the FT's man of the year, with a citation that names him the 'Master of Risk' and quotes, apparently without irony, his own opinion that he did God's work for Goldman Sachs. This has set me to wondering which God this might be - certainly not the one I learned about in Sunday School.

The dollar is the God of the global market, but when I last looked this false idol was much closer to Mammon. This blog has already retold the tale of larceny that was the US bailout of AIG. Combined with the 'creation of money' through the purchase of corporate debt it was this 'socialised medicine' for the financial sector that guaranteed their huge profits last year. Blankfein's only skill was to have the friends in the right places, his only risk that he might make an inappropriate remark at a cocktail party or business breakfast.

When the gap between your position and the management of the nation's finances is only one promotion, it does not take a great deal of skill to embezzle public funds on a massive scale. If you must choose a US figure who has excelled economically this year it would have to be the American Everyman who has toiled to create the goods that can be sold for the money the government has allowed its private financiers to create. Or rather their as yet unborn offspring who have already been sold into slavery to fund the lifestyle of Lloyd and his ilk.

Having taken the value of our work they are now in the process of stealing the planet itself through the International Emissions Trading Association. The IETA is a coalition of private companies including AES, Barclays Capital, Chevron Texaco, Conoco Phillips, DuPont, Ecosecurities, Gaz de France, Goldman Sachs, Gujarat Flurochemicals, J-Power, KPMG, Lafarge, Lahmayer, RWE, Shell, Total, Toyota, TransAlta, and Vattenfall. This is an explicit list of the implicit conspiracy of energy, automotive and financial corporations who are controlling the debate about policy responses to climate change, and destroying our chance of a future life on this earth.

This choice by the FT establishes with certainty that newspaper's unashamed support for the worst excesses of corporate capitalism. As the only UK newspaper that can still pay its journalists enough to ensure quality research and writing, this is a disturbing note on which to begin the next decade.

26 December 2009

Thinking Entropically

As my Christmas gift this festive season I hand you an interesting concept, which has kept me entertained during several recent train journeys. It is the concept of entropy. To understand entropy you need to have a scientific mind, so I am at something of a disadvantage. Here is how a scientific friend of mine, Steve Harris, has helped me explain it:

'Thermodynamics is among the most important topics in science; it studies how energy is exchanged between physical systems as heat and work, resulting in changes in pressure, volume, temperature and entropy, the measure of disorder within a system. The laws of thermodynamics provide some of our most basic understandings of what is physically possible.'

He goes on to explain why the laws of thermodynamics - which explain how our physical universe functions - are of fundamental importance:

'The first law of thermodynamics, also known as the conservation law, states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only transformed. However, the second law of thermodynamics—
‘the entropy law’—tells us that in general, the total amount of useful, organized energy available to do work is always declining. For example, a lump of coal is a high-quality, highly organized form of energy; when burned it turns into smoke and heat, which are low-quality, dispersed and much more disordered forms of energy. This process is irreversible; we cannot recapture all the heat and smoke produced by burning and turn it back into a lump of coal. The second law tells us that all energy systems have a tendency to increase their entropy (or degree of disorder) rather than decrease it. This appears to apply to everything in the physical universe. So, although many natural and technological processes do increase order on a local scale—through the growth of plants, say, or the manufacture of goods from raw materials—the material waste and heat produced by these processes steadily, if imperceptibly, increases the general disorder of the physical universe.'

To my unscientific mind this concept is very appealing. My anarcahist inclinations are soothed by the thought that the inherent tendency in the universe is towards chaos, rather than order. The idea of entropy seems intuitively to help explain what is going wrong with our relationship with the planet, and how this relates to our economic activity. It was used in this way by the ecological economists, following up on the work of Nicolae Georgescu-Roegen.

The first law of thermodynamics is about quantity - there is only so much energy in the universe and it can only be changed from one form to another, never created or destroyed. The second law is about the quality of that energy, which changes as its form changes, and with an inherent tendency towards a higher level of entropy, or disorder.

The first economists to consider why our economy was growing out of control and why economists had no concern for the physical limits of the universe soon identified the cause: the pseudo-science of economics pre-dates the discovering of the laws of thermodynamics by some fifty years. Its Promethean optimism about what humans can achieve operates outside physical reality, and has never been brought into line.

There is something intriguing about the relationship between entropy and life itself. Natural processes are able to transcend the movement between disorder and order more creatively than our industrial systems can, an example being the way that nature transforms wastes into life-giving systems, potato peelings into soil, for example. I hope you will be able to do something similarly creative with the concept of entropy itself. It could change your life and could fill a dull moment between meals.

24 December 2009

New Labour; New Redistribution

In an era when investigative journalism is a nostalgic memory and even the best political parties worry more about how they can present a policy than whether it is right, how reassuring it is to find a report that is full of good hard numbers. Such is the recent report on assets and wealth from the Office for National Statistics.

This is a rare and welcome survey, since too much policy attention is focused on income - whether in terms of taxation or inequality - whereas assets are a much better indication of the social health of a society. The graph indicates how unequal the distribution of wealth is according to deciles of the population. So the first bar represents the poorest 10%, the next bar the next poorest 10% and so on, up to the 10% who hold the most assets. It includes physical wealth (like cars and washing machines) and property wealth, as well as potential wealth, like pension plans, and actual savings.

Asset inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient (where 0 is perfect equality and 1 perfect inequality), varies between different kinds of property. The gap between the richest and poorest was least in terms of actual stuff (0.46) and greatest in terms of cash holdings (0.81), with pension savings (0.77) and property wealth (0.62) coming somewhere in between.

The greatest weakness of the report is that it is a snapshot and includes no trend data. So we cannot gain a sense of how asset wealth has been changing during the years of Thatcherite policy. This information is available for income inequality, and is illustrated in the second graph, again measured by the Gini coefficient.

The rise in inequality under the Tories can have come as no surprise, since part of the purpose of the Thatcherite ideology was to reintroduce the economic incentive that fearing for your well-being and fighting your way up the wealth ladder provides. There is not much point in competition if everybody comes out a loser. However, the recent rise in income inequality under Labour is much more depressing. Mandelson's crack that he was seriously relaxed about the super-rich has clearly found its way into policy.

These figures all pre-date the costs of the bank bailout, which, as I have blogged previously, represents a massive transfer of wealth from poor to rich. The debt that has been foisted on us will be repaid at the expense of those who earn, not those who own. Labour's particular new twist on redistribution will ensure that both income and asset inequality increases rapidly over the next decade

21 December 2009

Curiosity Killed the Trac

I am working hard not to go down the route of allowing my personal economic situation - as a university academic - to influence either my views or the content of this blog, but the system for tracking the value of the psychic and intellectual labour of the staff of the UK's universities can be used as an object lesson in the futility of accounting for work.

In the case of our universities, the strategy appears to be to turn creative intellectuals into contracted brains in the industrial vats. The level of animosity has reached such a pitch in the wake of Mandelson's Higher Ambitions report that a couple of weeks ago the country's professoriat - hardly the most radical sector of society - marched on Westminster en masse. Their march was to show opposition to the government objective of turning universities into training institutes for corporations.

According to the latest in a round of futile measurement exercises the Research Excellence Framework, the value of universities is to be measured partly in terms of their 'impact'. I am listing the list of impact measures in full at the end of this post since it gives a clear idea of how universities are being manipulated. I particularly enjoy the way that quality-of-life indicators are included as an afterthought - and we are expected to suggest ways to measure these for ourselves. The drafters of these proposals clearly lost confidence in their ability to translate quality into quantity when it came to life itself.

The order of priorities for universities is also made clear by these proposals. First comes subsidising corporate training budgets, then providing free inventions for industry, then helping out the public sector (activities which are defined in a pure managerialist way), then advancing sustainable development, increasing cultural richment, and finally helping society's losers and improving quality of life. This list encapsulates what is wrong with our whole social and political system, for which our universities are now intended to be an uncritical support system.

Part of the fun or working in a university is that you are permitted to spend some of your time devising typologies and taxonomies (I promise that other more useful things are done with the share of your taxes spent on HE as well). One such is the diagram illustrated below of Pasteur's Quadrant. It is intended to distinguish between the different sorts of research that 'scientists' carry out.

Obviously the two-by-two is a gross simplification and the graphic would work better if you thought of the two axes as continua, but there is probably some validity in considering how immediately useful in a practical sense research is intended to be, and to what extent the researcher was concerned to seek fundamental understanding as opposed to a more superficial explanation (or typology?).

The complaint of the Professors and other notables such as Sir Alec Jeffries, so-called inventor of DNA profiling is that it is impossible to know when research in the top left square, the blue-skies square, might generate practical outcomes. Jeffries claims that his own work was based on pure curiosity about the genetic make-up of seals. It was only as a by-product that his research team found that their insights could be used to map DNA found at crime scenes.

The purpose of the REF and other such impact-based measurement exercises is to force academics into the bottom right square. It seems to me that what they are actually doing is forcing academics to focus so hard on proving usefulness and avoiding deeper explanations that more and more are being forced into the bottom left square. This is the square of doom for any intellectual - the place where your work is not only shallow but useless as well. The sort of work that wins the annual Ignobel Prizes.

And in the latest assault on academic freedom researchers are to be 'tracked' according to a new process devised by accountants to require us to justify every minute of our time. In what Professor of Critical Accounting Rebecca Boden has called 'a deeply flawed and inoperable system', we are to keep note of how we spend the hours of our days, as though thinking could be subjected to a time-and-motion study. This will not only kill research driven by curiosity, as Jeffries feared, it will also undermine the place of thinking as a part of academic life.

19 December 2009

Good Cop or Bad Cop?

So what are we to make of the failure of the meeting that was billed as our last chance to save ourselves as a species? The conference was a demonstration of the gap between media spin and political substance in the modern world. Nothing demonstrated this better than the impotence of the man who many of the world's disempowered have viewed as somebody who could wield power to make a difference. From rhetorical bravura to rhetorical bravado, in one short speech Obama demonstrated that, like every other US President, he is utterly controlled by the economic actors who dominate his domestic politics.

The clue to what was going on was given by the separation, in the wake of Obama's arrival, of emissions reductions from the transfer of cash to larger but less diplomatically savvy countries that were once part of the patronisingly titled 'third world'. 'We haven't managed to agree on emissions', went the spin, 'but the other main issue has been resolved'. The creation of US dollars from thin air is not, and never was the purpose of Copenhagen. As followers of this blog will know, creating money in this way is actually driving economic growth and environmental destruction. Worse still, this deal does not offer the bulk of the money until after 2020, by which time it will be much too late to make the cuts necessary to ensure a habitable environment for humankind on planet earth.

The most galling aspect of the conference was to have to accept lectures from the US about leadership in climate change. As the table makes clear, Obama would do well to adopt a position of humility rather than the arrogance he showed at Copenhagen. The numbers make clear who the main culprits are in terms of CO2 per capita, the only just way of measuring emissions. These figures should be the real focus of our attention, and until every number in the second column of that table stands at 1 or less then we are in very deep trouble.
Note: Data are for total greenhouse gas emissions, reported as equivalent to the impact of CO2. Gases included are: CO2, CH4, N2O, PFCs, HFCs, SF6.
Source: World Resources Institute, Washington DC: http://cait.wri.org.

This gives a sense of the scale of reductions in carbon emissions we are talking about. Not giving more money to Brazil or South Africa, not cutting by 9% or 17% or 23%, but completely changing our lifestyle so that we end the 200 years of oil-fuelled over-consumption and return to a balanced relationship with the earth that is the source of all our wealth.

Obama's purpose in travelling to Copenhagen was to sidestep the main issue of actually reducing emissions and shift the debate to an area he could control, i.e. the production of worthless pieces of paper by the US mint, and an issue where he could take the moral high ground, i.e. the regime of inspection. He has also provided himself with a media opportunity that will give him some leverage in taking a bill of sorts through the Senate.

The EU and Japan, who have been acting with a moderate degree of commitment on this issue, have been left sidelined by a degenerate superpower and a group of wannabee nations who ought to know better. Leadership is still possible, although a negotiated settlement may not be. The way ahead is clear: an agreement between the developed nations who are prepared to make cuts and the poorer countries of the world. The contraction and convergence model can be made to work first in a club of nations, with transfers of technology to be exchanged for our excess emissions during our period of transition to a low-carbon economy.

14 December 2009

When it comes to finance, pigs won't fly

Since the bursting of the asset bubble financiers are on a desperate quest to seek other fiddles to generate the vast incomes they have grown accustomed to. Speculating in national economies appears to be the scam of choice. The power-players are the credit-rating agencies. In a world beyond democratic politics, these self-appointed judges of the worth of whole countries have become market makers.

A downgrade in the rating of the economy of Spain from 'stable' to 'negative' as happened to Spain last week, will cause an abrupt decline in the desirability of Spanish public debt, meaning that the Spanish government will have to pay more to extend its IOUs, and have less available for public spending. This has devastating consequences of the people of Spain. The role of economic policeman once undertaken by researchers from the IMF now appears to have been privatised and passed to the men from the credit rating agencies.

These are the new harbiners of doom whose journeys to the developed economies that were beyond the reach of the IMF lead to savage cuts in public spending and the loss of the services that the vulnerable rely on. The suggestion of such a visit is itself enough to send the credibility of a country spiralling downwards, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy, since this will automatically make it more expensive for that country to borrow. These visits are not neutral fact-finding missions but examples of hostile sabotage attacks on national economies.

But for a financier it represents an opportunity to acquire arbitrage profit from the movement in the value of government stock, especially if the financier were to know which way the movement was likely to move in advance. Spain's membership of the euro means that it cannot suffer the sort of speculation against its currency that made George Soros rich on the UK's Black Wednesday, but placing bets on the movement of Spain's national bonds must be just as lucrative.

Most offensive terms of our Mediterranean neighbours have passed into the graveyard of political uncorrectness, but referring to Portuagal, Ireland, Greece and Spain as PIGS is apparently still an amusing pasttime to those in the City. Given the recent political history of these countries, their citizens have little to laugh about. Their historic battle over value between capital and labour is already showing signs of returning, and the spectre of military dictatorship may not be far behind.

12 December 2009

Cuts and the City

It must be because we are living right through the middle of one of capitalism’s periodic adaptations that it is so difficult for people to observe and interpret what is going on. The previous avatar of this oppressive economic beast was the greedy asset monster. The inflation of house prices and stock prices made us all feel like winners, but only some of us could ever afford a yacht and a trip to Dubai. For most the book price of the house we live in was always an irrelevance: what mattered was the fact that we had to work so many more hours to pay for the same house.

This financial bubble has burst and the market alchemists, having lost their power of turning debts into assets, are casting around for the next trick that enables them to extract an unfair share of the nation’s wealth. The massive transfer of value to the banks must be repaid by the sweat of the brows of the country’s workers, apparently. The pain will not be shared equally; those who control capital will still avoid work but have access to cheap finance.

In a democratic system we might expect to be able to vote about whether we consider this the best way forward. But no political party has the courage to suggest that a different financial settlement might be preferable – one that removes the mediating power of finance that comes between work and well-being. Lest we dare think of a fairer outcome, the voices from the City are quick to let us know that they will be downgrading our stock unless we rapidly increase the rates of tax we pay. Just as the IMF punishes the countries of the South that dare to put the interests of their people before those of global finance, so the banksters and their spin-doctors terrify politicians with talk of Moody's and Fitch's and the dreadful prospect of ending up like Argentina or Greece.

The media supported the asset phase, with its TV shows encouraging us all to morph into tatty interior designers or pocket-sized Rachmans—and our rag-rolled homes and steam-rollered private tenants bear the scars to this day. Now they have followed the financial creatives into the next phase, persuading us all of the need to live within our means (by which they mean take a smaller share of the pie, not take account of the environment) and willingly accept higher taxes and cuts to public services.

3 December 2009

Shooting the Messenger

As the political and economic implications of climate change become clearer, the response from the politicians and the corporate elite who dominate politics will be to pressurise scientists not to blow the whistle. On Monday I was at a public policy seminar in London where Professor Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre publicly admitted that he and his colleagues had spent years sweetening the pill on climate change so as not to cause political offence and damage his chances of receiving research funding. 'Nobody would be funded to find that globalised capitalism is the cause of the problem', he said, a view which I was able to support based on my personal experience.

And now another leading climate academic has had to leave his job for telling the truth about the sorts of changes that are needed to protect the human species from the corporate machine that is destroying our planet. Dr Clive Spash resigned yesterday from his job at Australia's CSIRO so that he would be free to seek the truth about the economics of climate change.

His excellent report 'The Brave New World of Carbon Trading' is due to be published in a peer-review journal early next year and so has already been subject to academic scrutiny. But because he finds that carbon trading will not be effective in addressing the problem of CO2 emission - and in fact doesn't really make sense in terms of economic theory – his employers demanded that he change his findings.

Spash was told that he was in breach of CSIRO policy, which restricts its scientists from making statements about public policy. Put together with the limitations on research funding for academics identified by Kevin Anderson this removes livelihood options from environmentally focused academic researchers unless they are prepared to toe the corporate line.

The climate change debate is hotting up in Australia, having nearly caused an emergency election last week, so Spash's claims that he was being censored forced his boss, Megan Clark, to publish the report on November 26th, but only on the condition that the scientist would be punished for refusing to change his findings. Under intense pressure, Dr Clark publicly released the report on November 26 but warned Dr Spash that he would be punished for his behaviour and his refusal to amend it. Spash, who has been suffering from stress as a result of his mistreatment, consequently decided to resign.

To find out what all the fuss is about read Clive's paper.

27 November 2009

Dubai to All That

The vaunting towers of Dubai provide an irresistible metaphor for the hubris of globalised capitalism, and the newspapers have been falling over themselves to draw attention to the fact that this small, Gulf emirate is, quite literally, built on sand. For a green economist, however, it is the social and environmental consequences of this artificial paradise that raise the most pressing questions.

In the more 'advanced' economies of the West, the tasteful veil between government and corporation is still maintained - in Dubai this was not the case, and it is difficult when reading some of the press stories to distinguish between Dubai World - the venture capital development corporation responsible for the irresponsible building projects - and the state of Dubai. And surely Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum could have used the phrase 'L'etat c'est moi' with more aplomb than Louis XIV ever dared. Reading about his nefarious dealings makes one wonder whether George Clooney followed the Beckhams in the trek to buy luxury apartments on Dubai's palmtree-shaped beach complex.

With energy no object it is possible to summon extraordinary buildings from sand and to make deserts bloom. The environmental consequences of this profligate use of the planet's dwindling oil resources receive far too little attention. While public debate concentrates on China's carbon dioxide emissions attention is distracted form the fact that the oil-producing states have the worst per capita record in this area. The other side of the coin is the human exploitation: the legions of South Asian immigrants who, like Irish navvies during our own 19th century building bonanza, were responsible for the heavy lifting for low pay that brought this crazed dream into existence.

Dubia is the apotheosis of an economy which is unsustainable in every sense: a grossly intensivised playground where the heedless and amoral playboys and playgirls, spawned by globalisation and a capitalist system that has broken all bounds of social control, enjoy pleasure without responsibility. Its gleaming untarnished towers are like the body of Dorian Gray; the abused workers and corrupted atmosphere are the the true picture, hidden away in the attic of our imaginations.*

Dubai is the sort of development you end up with when you let money make all the decisions. The creation of an elite resort for the super-rich is a perfect illustration of the logic of this late and putrescent stage of capitalism. It tempts you to imagine your way into a near future and imagine children being shown pictures of the artificial archipelago to help them learn the lessons of ecology.

*Thanks to Mary Mellor for this metaphor, whose appeal has helpfully been broadened by the recent movie.

21 November 2009

Bread and Circuses

It cannot have come as a surprise to many people that it is money, not a sense of fair play, that drives the activities of the sports corporations like Fifa and the IOC. The amateur sportsman was always something of an imposter, since only those wealthy enough to have leisure and equipment to train were likely to make it, and so few would call for his return.

However, in spite of the advent of the Olympic mascot and the plastering of TV coverage and the stadia themselves with brand advertising, we seem to have continued to nurse some hope that sport was an arena where honest competition and hard work determined the outcome. This illusion was safely laid to rest on Wednesday when Henry handled the ball in the Irish area. Like so many areas of life, in sport too these days it is only about the money, and with such a large population of potential consumers in France, and so small a number in Ireland, the outcome was always predictable.

The French, it seems, are embarrassed about Henry's behaviour. He has followed Zidane along the path from national hero to national disgrace. In an era when our politicians and our corporations alike display their corruption on a daily basis, we need to continue to believe in our sportsmen's commitment to fair play.

It was Juvenal who coined the phrase 'bread and circuses' to describe the way the Roman empire handed out titbits and entertainments to distract the masses from the fundamental injustice of imperial life. However unfair life as a whole might be, the contests in the arena were to be fair fights - and there was always a chance of escape if you fought bravely enough. The corporate empire displays a similar level of unfairness - with the outcome for most of the world's people determined before they are born.

For so many modern-day drones, football is the circus of choice - the only area of life where they dare to let their emotions flow freely, when relationships are so fraught and work so oppressive. The health of the working population requires that, in spite of the evidence of match-fixing in so many sports, the delusion that sport is still about fair play can be maintained.

14 November 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

A river in spate, a screaming baby, a snowy mountain peak: such things stir irresistible emotions. They move us because they are out of control. We cannot help but respond to these calls of the wild. I was reacquainted with my own wild inner journey thanks to a chance meeting with Jay Griffiths. I was paying a flying visit to CAT to teach a session of a course with the rather unpromising title of 'Emergency on Planet Earth'. Jay provided the cultural spot yesterday evening and she charmed us all with readings from her new book, Wild: An Elemental Journey.

As I have previously described, my own wild journey is somewhat more domestic, since I no longer fly and reaching anywhere even halfway exotic by land is fairly demanding in terms of time, energy and money. My adventure with the field mouse became considerably more wild than I was able to cope with, when it was followed into the pantry by rats who disturbed my nights, spoiled my food and chewed their way through beams and possibly electrical cables too. I colluded with John the ratman and my landlord's partner in their death by poison, feeling a mixture of disgust, relief and guilt when a total of four dead and putrid remains were variously disposed of.

As with so many aspects of life, the lesson is about balance. We do not need to travel to the ends of the earth to learn about the wild, which is right here on our doorstep and inside our selves. Society and culture are concerned to maintain an appropriate distance between ourselves and the wild. Wiser cultures than our own cherish those gifted persons - shamans, medicine men and wise women - who can travel further into the wild without becoming destroyed by it.

The learning that has stayed with me from Jay's stirring reading is her description of the Nazis as people who could not tolerate wild wandering. She identified the aberrant nature of their key target groups for extermination: the Roma people; those who wandered in their minds; those who strayed off the straight sexual path; and the wandering Jewish race. She did not link this - as Simon Schama does in his weighty study Landscape and Memory - to the primeval forest and the barbarian heritage of the Teutonic people which the Nazi regime sought both to celebrate and to repress through its obsessive bureaucracy.

We might, as questioners were tempted to do last night, see a parallel in the bland uniformity of the market system, which forces the wild in us to escape into violent computer games or derivatives trading. Giving way to the wild risks insanity and isolation; repressing it creates violence and stifles creativity. Where the wild things are, it turns out, is everywhere there is life.

7 November 2009

Revolving Doors and Revolting Publics

The outcry against our politicians, which has been focused on their scandalous expenses claims, is surely a result of the growing sense that they are a class apart. They work hand-in-glove with the 'captains of industry' to ensure that our legal, economic and social structures work for the benefit of this tiny minority - and against the interest of people and the planet.

I spent some time this week responding to the consultation document on the Research Excellence Framework. This is the structure that will decide how valuable the research produced in our universities is, and therefore how public grants and promotions will be allocated between researchers.

We have moved on from the judgement of our peers about the quality of our work to a system of impact assessment. This might not be such a bad thing, since it encourages academics to think beyond their ivory towers. But the indicators used to measure impact are frightening, focusing heavily on the ability of academics to generate patentable scientific ideas that can be sold to support industry.

Close relationships between 'industry' (undefined) and academia are encouraged - including secondments. Academics who take a critical view of the business community, or who see their research as a service to the citizen, will receive short shrift in the next round of spending allocations. This is a natural consequence of the shifting of universtities out of Education and into the Business department. The taxes paid by citizens are now used to subsidise research that businesses will later exploit to increase their profits.

The forthcoming report of the Public Affairs Select Committee raises related concerns about the influence of industry lobbyists on legislation. PASC notes that 'Ministers can, within all existing rules, use their former ministerial position to help them to gain access for private interests' and has 'specific concerns about former Ministers who take up paid employment after they have left ministerial office but while they remain Members of Parliament paid from the public purse.'

Examples cited include that of Stephen Ladyman, who left the Department of Transport and accrued a consultancy with the road-pricing company ITIS. Lord Bach, Minister for Defence Procurement, moved into 'industry' working for Selex Sensors and Airborne Systems, and then came back through the revolving door to a job as a government whip. And king of the dungheap you will be unsurprised to hear is Tory Blur himself, who is receiving expenses from the British government to tour the Middle East apparently to spread peace but opening doors for the expansion of Tesco in the area as a nice little sideline.*

Thanks to Barbara Panvel for these examples. A new website tracking government corruption will be established soon and will be linked from this blog.

5 November 2009

Queasy Come; Queasy Go

I want to think again about quantitative easing - the government's new favourite policy that enables it to make money by decree. This is necessary because the favoured method of money creation in this late form of financialised capitalism is by banks lending it and then accepting each other's debts. Once they realised their mutual debts would never be paid this source of cash dried up, and so the government stepped in to spend money directly into the economy. In essence, this is exactly the sort of money system that green (and other) critics of debt-based money have been calling for.

So what's the problem? That is easy to answer: the money that is being created is not being spent on the real economy, but rather injected into the financial upper circuits of the global economy, where it does nothing of real value (it would be far better if the policy worked as illustrated in the cartoon). As Colin Hines argued back in the spring, this money should be being spent on building the infrastructure for a low-carbon economy.

In fact it is being used to buy two sorts of debt. Most is being spent on government debt, which means that the government's debt management agency can afford to sell more government bonds without having to offer impossibly high rates of interest on them - the more UK national debt there is out there the more expensive it becomes to create more. Some is also being used to buy junk corporate debt, thus 'helping the banks to rebuild their balance sheets', otherwise known as 'new lamps for old'.

The pushing of all this new money into the financial system was proposed on the basis that it would miraculously find its way into the real economy. There is no evidence or even convincing argument as to why that might happen. In this form of capitalism, the reverse process is dominant - with money being sucked out of the real economy into financial operations where more money can be made more rapidly.

The policy has two real consequences - both iniquitous. As more cash floods into financial organisations, they use it to buy assets of various sorts, so QE causes a new asset bubble. This value can then be used by the wealthy members of society who own assets to purchase other assets, such as more property or land, hence exacerbating the inequality that already haunts our economy.

Secondly, the policy extends the gap between the money supply and the real economy. The money that has been created is a claim on future goods, and hence this policy is creating a pressure for more economic growth, with the consequent exploitation of more energy and resources. Hence QE to support the finance sector is an environmental disaster in the making.

As it is being used currently, quantitative easing is magnifying the worst consequences of the financialised economic system we are suffering under. The one glimmer of light is that it has proved beyond question that money can be created in this way, but when it is, it should be used to invest in positive outcomes for society, rather than to support the unequal distribution of resources.

4 November 2009

The Grand Larceny

When I was young we once played a fantastic game with this name. It involved drawing up a list of items which would be very hard to access, then assembling a week later in teams and thieving said items. The most daring raids garnered the most points. I was a wimp even in those days and spent much time gathering many, many milk bottles.

I'm not proud of relating this tale, but even now I remember the excitement of the game - the edginess and competitiveness attached to doing something that was not permitted and involved the thrill of the chase, since some items were unique and had to be stolen before others reached them.

This game was brought to my mind recently, when I read for the first time about the true nature of the extraordinary deception that was practised on the US people under the guise of 'rescuing' financial institutions. Here is the story that set my teeth of edge, and reassured me that there are some journalists who still understand that their job involves investigation and not mere reportage.

The reporters from Bloomberg have picked over the ashes of the dodgey deals between the US Treasury Department, Goldman Sachs, the New York Federal Reserve Bank and the insurance giant AIG. The latter had been creating the infamous ‘credit default swaps’ that bundled up worthless unpayable loans as assets. After the bubble burst, AIG had been trying to persuade the banks to share the losses by taking less than the full value of these ‘assets’ – the article mentions a rate of only 60% of the stated value.

This was all happening a year ago – when most of us were looking on aghast at the instability and destructiveness of the financial system – but the sharks were looking for a killing. The then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (the former CEO of Goldman Sachs) used his political power to force AIG to recompense the banks in full. On the basis of this, current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (then President of the Federal Bank of New York) refused to accept any deal with AIG, precipitating its collapse. This collapse was only prevented by an injection of public money amounting to $182 billion dollars.

So here is the larceny. A massive sum is transferred from the working people of the US to a few powerful and extraordinarily rich men. We cannot trace the exact details of how two former bankers who now run the US economy receive their ill-gotten gains, but the picture is fairly clear even without this detail. We are no longer watching politicians bailing out banks; we are being governed by bankers for their own benefit.

2 November 2009

Bloated Economic System Produces More Hot Air

If you have, like me, been wondering how climate change can so suddenly shift from being a consequence of a bloated and over-industrialised hypercapitalist economy to being the result of our decadent eating habits, you may find it useful to have a quick trawl through the report that has caused the recent furore. And before you go any further you should keep in mind that the authors of the report have both spent their careers at the World Bank. So they are unlikely to conclude that climate change might result from a design flaw in the existing economic system.

Goodland and Anhang have not carried out any new research. Had they followed research methods established by others to attempt to measure the CO2 impacts of farming methods it would have been impossible for them to find a jump from 18 to 51 per cent in the proportion of climate-forcing gases that are the responsibility of domestic ruminants. Their shocking statistics result from reinterpretation of previous research and changed assumptions.

Of the things that make me nervous about this new 'science' the first, which is a political rather than a scientific insight, is that the person who first put the issue of farting cows into the climate change debate was former President Bush. It may be the alacrity with which the 'findings' were beamed around the world that makes me wonder who has the most to gain from a shift in responsibility for the global catastrophe from a fossil-fuelled economy to individual consumption decisions and agrarian practices.

Reading the report in more depth than the journalists appear to have bothered to do immediately makes clear that the real problem is the industrialised nature of the global farming system - itself so intensive in the use of oil - together with the clearing of carbon-storing forests to make way for mass grazing to feed the US hamburger market:

'Livestock (like automobiles) are a human invention and convenience, not part of pre-human times, and a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe. Moreover, while over time an equilibrium of CO2 may exist between the amount respired by animals and the amount photosynthesized by plants, that equilibrium has never been static. Today, tens of billions more livestock are exhaling CO2 than in preindustrial days, while Earth’s photosynthetic capacity (its capacity to keep carbon out of the atmosphere by absorbing it in plant mass) has declined sharply as forest has been cleared. (Meanwhile, of course, we add more carbon to the air by burning fossil fuels, further overwhelming the carbon absorption system.)'

The equating of living sentient beings with machines in this quotation is distasteful, and representative of the reductive thinking that fails to distinguish between technical measurements of gases and social and cultural systems.

Methane is known to be a gas that is more powerful at forcing climate change than CO2, but it also disperses more rapidly (8 years compared to 100 years, according to the best current scientific modelling). The reason for the sudden massive increase in the harmfulness of methane as calculated by the report's authors is a decision to take a shorter-term perspective on climate change and hence to increase the multiplier applied to methane as compared with CO2. Presumably this is governed more by the need to reach immediate GHG targets than by a concern for our grandchildren.

'The new widely accepted figure for the GWP of methane is 25 using a 100-year timeframe — but it is 72 using a 20-year timeframe, which is more appropriate because of both the large effect that methane reductions can have within 20 years and the serious climate disruption expected within 20 years if no significant reduction of GHGs is achieved.'

This ability to use maths to shift problems through time is the speciality of the economist, and allows massive leeway for interpretations favourable to the dominant economics paradigm. (Another example highly relevant to the climate change negotiations is the questionable technique of discounting.)

The most serious omission from the article appears to be any attempt to measure the carbon impact of the production of alternative foods that should replace the meat and dairy industry that provides basic nutrition to the mass of the world's population today. It includes consideration of the processing of by-products of the meat industry - such as turning hides into leather - but does not consider the carbon produced in the manufacture of alternatives to these products.

The report makes a direct appeal to corporations to take up the route of 'non-meat meat':

'among the least risky strategies might be for a company subsidiary to build a chain of fast-food outlets featuring soy burgers, soy chicken products, sandwiches made with various meat analog products, and/or soy ice cream. If the chain’s growth were rapid, then other food companies would be tempted to copy from the first mover.'

Nothing could make clearer the difficulty those within the existing scientific and economic paradigm have in grasping that the real problem is structural. More than cows and their problematic digestion, it is the unquestioning commitment to chains, fast foods, and growth that is really driving the upward curve of GHG emissions.

The hyping and rapid dissemination of such research into pseudo-scientific news stories trivialises a vital debate and allows the disinterested and those in denial to claim that, since the scientists cannot agree with each other, there is no point in their engaging with this issue at all. There are so many scientific uncertainties in just this one small corner of the climate change discussion that it is no wonder that most people - even those who can find the time and mental energy to struggle their way through a report like this - are left feeling utterly disempowered.

At this point I always revert to what I can do in my own community. We debated this issue in the Stroud coffee house more than a year ago. Between biodynamic meat-eaters and committed vegans we agreed that we should all avoid the globalised industrial meat system, as much because of its inhumanity as its climate impact. We should also eat fewer meat meals, and the vegetables we eat as a substitute should be locally grown, without oil-based fertilisers and pesticides, on our local allotments and community farm. (Graham Harvey reaches much the same conclusion in his book The Carbon Fields)

As Copenhagen approaches we can expect to see more examples of attempts to skew the debate away from the bloated and inherently unjust global economy and towards individual life-style choices. We should not be convinced by the World Bank that it is our consumption choices, rather than the economy whose design they defend, that are the root cause of climate change.

30 October 2009

A Tale of Two Sectors

I am posting from distant Brno, which is a civilised country where you can travel miles on a tram for fifty pence and people still stop work to lunch together while resting and talking. So the gloom that surrounded the latest ´growth figures´ for the UK economy seemed less important than usual.

What are these guys measuring? You begin to think that they have been convinced by their own fantasy. The reason economists did not predict the continuation of the Recession may be that they genuinely believe that what is happening in the City has some relevance to the British economy. The confusion between counting artifically inflated monetary values and accounting for real economic activity seems to have impaired the ability of the statisticians to assess what is really happening.

The capacity of the private sector to "create wealth" has always been related to its ability to find various methods for creating money. The latest is to lean on the government to use money that has been queased into existence from nowhere to buy various bits of corporate debt, thus flooding the stock market with cash. Presumably this is some desperate stratagem to prevent the yachted classes from quitting the country.

According to the economistic mythology, those of us who work in the public sector do not create wealth. Education and health are not wealth, they are mere by-products and as nothing compared to a healthy balance-sheet. It may be this sort of prejudice that is stopping the government from using the money it is creating to invest in the future of our country by building up the public sector. This would be the normal policy in a time of Recession when private sector incomes are squeezed and public sector incomes make up what they lost during the boom times. This is illustrated in the graphic taken from an IFS paper by Richard Disney that looked at the public-private sector wage gap in the 1990s.

But this Recession is rewriting the rulebook. Private-sector managers are insisting that their bonuses continue, and these growing returns are being funded at the public expense. On the one hand we are being forced to forego the public investment we need to build a low-carbon infrastructure and improve health and education; on the other, we will be required to pay more in taxes to repay the debt incurred to keep the structure of inequality.

Perhaps most serious of all, the private-sector managers who have been injected wholesale into the public sector have brought their old ways with them. So they are responding to the recession by forcing cutbacks before they become necessary. This may partly explain the appalling recent figures, although most of these cuts are yet to bite. So we can expect to managerialised into an even deeper and longer recession ones the plans laid in the public sector this autumn come to fruition in the new year.

26 October 2009

What if Business is the Problem?

Of course, for me this is a rhetorical question. My whole work as an economist is predicated on my belief that business itself is the problem. But I work in a Management School that was formerly a business school and is still dedicated to producing young people to manage business. Our courses focus heavily on international corporate business culture and structure - although the vast majority of our students will not join these sorts of companies.

My research is supposed to be directed by the Association of Business Schools which produces a list of journals to which I am intended to aspire. Clearly, my work will not find favour, since it has at its heart a critique of business. Business has taken control of government and has now taken control of the universities as well. Universities once found their political space within a department dedicated to education; they now reside within the department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. So if business were the problem, it clearly would not be any of my business to identify this, or to study the reasons why for the sake of the public benefit. Well at least not in my day job.

So it did not surprise me to read that a report from Scientists for Global Responsibility has found that the objective scientific research we expect from our academics is being increasingly distorted by the priorities of the funders, either business itself, or government which, is dominated by business interests. Universities are also being encouraged to act like businesses. In my case, the Dean who was brought in to assure that this happened to our teaching and research has experience of neither himself, having spent his career as a civil servant at the Welsh Office. I have no idea what expertise he was supposed to bring to an institution focused on teaching and research.

As Stuart Parkinson, co-author of the report, comments, ´The trustworthiness of science and scientists is at stake.´The credibility of government is no longer worth defending, sadly. Although the report draws attention to the appointment of Lords Drayson and Sainsbury as consecutive science ministers, this is really the least of our problems.

As debate over climate change hots up with the approach to Copenhagen, the increasing polarity between profit and survival is felt as keenly in our research institutions as anywhere. When business is the most powerful player in our society, and its profit logic is the central cause of a destructive expansionist economy, how can we hope to develop ideas to counter this when are universities have already been subsumed into the government department dedicated to business support?

17 October 2009

Norms and Normality

Where I live, in Stroud, a delightful town of white stone cottages that nestles into the Cotswold hills and is shortly to be twinned with Rivendell, we are distantly aware that we may not see the world through exactly the same sort of lenses as other people. It isn't exactly the land that time forgot, more likely the place where we remember what times were like before selfish individualism was the dominant ideology, and try to recreate those times.

At least that is what I like to think. There is nothing backward-looking about our culture. It is sustainability with a soul - taking the best form the past and being creative about innovating a future we can all share - the low-carbon high life.

But last weekend I learned something that gave me a bit of a shock. I do stray into the urban jungle of our local city of Gloucester on a fairly regular basis, just to keep my feet on the ground. While there last weekend I was told that they have a phrase they use about us and our kind: NFS, or Normal for Stroud! This applies to anything involving lentils or beards or free-thinking, I assume.

At first I felt rather upset, but then I thought maybe it was a backhanded compliment of sorts. Our urban neighbours were acknowledging that we live in a different way, we have a different set of what sociologists would call 'norms'. These may make us something other than 'normal' but the fact that we are an identified group proves that our changed values are starting to have an impact on those who live near us.

As behaviour changes in an adaptive response to the climate crisis, some communities and organisations will lead the way. For a while they will not be 'normal', especially as the norms that define our normal today tend to be competitive, exploitative and destructive. I like to think that where Stroud leads the world will follow. I'm not sure whether the invention of NFS proves that this is the case, but it certainly proves that we are being watched.

14 October 2009

Not a Common Occurrence

I confess it doesn't quite reach the level of the election of the first black man as President of the United States, but in my world the award of the Bank of Sweden prize for economics to a woman is a pretty earth-shattering event. The prize is frequently, but wrongly, referred to as the Nobel Prize for Economics. Nobel wouldn't have dreamt of endowing a prize for economics when he set his awards up in 1895. It is a latecomer - arriving only in 1968 - and an imposter.

The prize was given to Elinor Ostrom, whose work was summarised thus:

'Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories. She observes that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest, and she characterizes the rules that promote successful outcomes.'

So what did Elinor Ostrom do to achieve this level of esteem amongst the five men who make up the nominating committee? It is surely an indication of the lack of confidence amongst orthodox economists that they have chosen not only an academic whose work could be claimed to undermine the central tenets of a market philosophy, but one who has never actually resided in an economics department. (If she had, she would, of course, have found it very difficult to carry out this sort of work.)

Elinor Ostrom is, and always has been, a political scientist. This is entirely appropriate in a year when politics has dominated the choice of prize-winners - and perhaps it always does. So what can we ascertain from the choice of this year's award-winner? Well first it should be said that Professor Ostrom obviously could not be trusted to take this weight of responsibility alone. She has been forced to share the prize with a rank outsider, Oliver E. Williamson, who, I cynically surmise, was chosen alongside her because some of the committee couldn't stomach awarding the prize to her alone. As a student of Ronald Coase, his work is in a tradition that directly opposes that of Ostrom herself, arguing that the assignment of clear property rights is enough in itself to deal with most environmental problems.

If the committee is representative of the economics profession then there is some evidence here of the sackcloth and ashes that many feel its orthodox members deserve. Ostrom's work is also motivated by concern for the environment, and particularly the depletion of natural resources, hence her focus on fisheries and natural environments. We wait to see whether the obvious connection between market economics and environmental destruction is translated into the freedom for those of us who teach the subject to adopt a heterodox approach.

9 October 2009

What People Want

We hear a lot about what women want, but do not find a corresponding amount in terms of what women get. Power is still predominantly a men's game - just observe the token woman who still routinely appears on question-time-style panel debates. Women need to move on from using their excellent communication skills and hone the skills of power. Personally, I have never spent any time on 'women's studies' because the fact that so many women (and so few men) do is part of the reason there are so few female economists and politicians.

But I'm going to break my rule to address a new report by the Centre for Policy Studies that is ruffling feminist feathers. The report is based on a survey of 4500-odd men and women and found that, of the mothers interviewed, 12 per cent did not want to work. We were not given figures for the number of men - with children or otherwise - who did not want to work.

Because that is the problem, really, isn't it? This discussion, like the debate last month about whether the children of working women do worse at school, is framed in terms of a nuclear family, with two heterosexual parents, one of whom has a penis and thrives in the workplace, the other of whom has mammaries and yearns to make pretty cushions.

Starting from that assumption you can arrive at a whole lot of different conclusions, and generate the sort of heated debate between old-school feminists, who found their own freedom through work and now argue that vast sums in taxation should be spent bribing other women to do the same, and Tory ladies whose well-paid husbands can afford to subsidise their lives spent at the gym or the WI.

According to the BBC's account of the report: 'The poll found only 1% of mothers and 2% of fathers (with children under five) thought the mother in a family, where the father worked and there were small children, should work full-time. Nearly half said she should not work at all.' But how many thought the man should not work? Or that they should decide to genuinely share parenting? Were they even offered this option?

Nobody asks the men if they want to go to work - especially men outside the chattering classes who do the most unpleasant work. No one is thinking creatively about how bringing up children can be shared within a loving community of men and women. Even the feminists do not question how their daughters will feel about balancing their wish to be loving mothers and their desire to function in the world, when they have spent their working lives struggling to park them in childcare while not challenging the model that says men are more likely to be working than women.

The person who seeks self-actualisation in the post-modern, managerialised workplace is a very sad person indeed. The image of the population as no more than millions of Dobbie-style house elves, eager to meet every latest target, is a false and depressing one. This discussion of work is mythologised (see my rather dated attempts to unpick some of these myths here) and does an injustice to the millions of working people in this country - of both sexes - for whom work is a humiliating daily grind that crushes their creativity and erodes their self-respect.

7 October 2009

The End of Hegemoney?

Now that the cracks caused by the earthquake that struck the global economy last year have been papered over to the satistfaction of most casual observers, and with stock markets forging ahead (fuelled by the quantitatively eased money that cannot be found for the public sector), the more interesting consequences of the financial crisis are beginning to unwind.

The most potentially momentous is the threat to the hegemonic position of the dollar in world capitalism. Way back at the G20 in April - when our attention was successfully diverted by the trivial tittle-tattle about bankers' bonuses - the Chinese kept their eye on the ball. They joined the Russians in proposing a new neutral international currency to replace the dollar. This call was repeated yesterday by a UN panel - was it a coincidence that this happened on the same day that news leaked about secret deals between the oil states, the Chinese, Russia, France and Japan to end the rule of the petro-dollar by trading petroleum for a basket of currencies? And from a UK perspective, notice which of the 'leading world economies' is missing from this list.

The embarrassing visit by Hilary Clinton to Beijing in February, where she effectively begged the Chinese to continue buying US debt, indicated the desperate position of the US economy - and polity. With quantitative easing on a grand scale being the only thing keeping the once-mighty dollar afloat its credibility as the foundational currency for the world economic system is utterly undermined. If China ends the rather one-sided deal by which it acquires pointless bits of paper in exchange for massive quantities of consumer goods, the financial crisis will return with a vengence and the US economy will be sucked down into the whirlpool of its own debt.

But are the Chinese seriously proposing the Yuan as a viable alternative? Can the currency of a state capitalist economy play the role of currency of first preference in the global economy? China is now selling its own debt in Yuan rather than dollars and because their currency is backed up by real economic power it should prove popular with investors. But the Yuan is not subject to even the limited influence of speculative movement by international capital. It is non-convertible and still politically controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. It is this control that has enabled China to expand so successfully, because it never faced the risk of having its currency picked off by global capital if it looked too threatening, as happened with the once fierce Asian tigers and the Russian rouble in the late 1990s.

So what is China's game? What does it plan to do with the power its people have won for their state through their hard manual work over the past 30 years? For the sake of humanity let us hope that they plan to use this power as political leverage over the US at Copenhagen. The US needs to be helped to manage its way down from the position of bloated, gun-toting pariah that controlling the world's hegemonic currency has left it in. If the US offers a serious movement on carbon reductions in December, perhaps the rest of the world can allow it a graceful descent, rather than the catastrophic demise which China could precipitate at any moment if it were to flood the market with US Treasuries, or refuse to buy more.

The asset bubble that led to last year's financial crisis began way back in 1971, when Nixon reneged on the Bretton Woods deal. The supreme economic dominance that the US has enjoyed since then was won by foul means, not fair ones. The people of the world and the planet itself have borne the cost in wars the US should not have been able to afford to fight and a lifestyle that was never earned from its own work or resources. But secret deals between the leaders of a small number of powerful nations is no way forward for a peaceful and stable world. We need to repeat the call for a global financial structure to be negotiated democratically, not fought out between Washington's Dogs of War and the dinosaurs of the Chinese Communist Party.

5 October 2009

True Blue Never Fails

At last the Tories have come out of their policy closet and given some detail on what they actually plan to do after the next election. And we see that they are the same old party. Their response to a recession is to cut public spending and pick on the vulnerable. Cuts in the health budget and tax breaks for business: business as usual for the true blues.

The slogan for the first day of 'business' was peculiarly misplaced: getting Britain working. It is hard to see how forcing the sick and disabled from one form of social security benefit to another is going to create the millions of jobs that our economy is short of, according to the conventional economic paradigm, based as it is on wage slavery. Any attempt to resort to the traditional pasttime of threatening the marginal with starvation is more likely to get Britain robbing.

Why is it that those on the right are so desperate to force others into unpleasant, poorly paid jobs, that generate little of value and a great deal of carbon dioxide emissions? Could it be that they detest their own jobs and feel others should suffer alike? Light greens are much more likely to offer to share some of their work through reducing work hours, or their income through a citizens' income scheme. Darker greens would argue for freeing access to resources - especially land - so that people can provide for their own needs outside the market system.

And what of the Tories' promise to be the 'new green'? This fake and shallow veneer has rapidly peeled away. 'The environment' will barely feature at this week's conference as the planet's fair-weather friends revert to type and blow on the dog-whistle of oppressive Victorian policies that works so well within their electoral niche.

As Colin Hines argued back in the spring, within the conventional paradigm the obvious answer to the two-sided crisis of environment and economy is to send the quantitative easing money in the direction of real green jobs, with real green consequences: retrofitting Britains' tragically leaky housing stock would be a good place to start.

It's hard to know whether the reason this will not happen is that Boy George can't work out the economics - or whether he just can't resist his in-built propensity to beat up on the working people of this country. Or perhaps I should say the people who would be working if the money that might have enabled this had not all been spent on those who live from rents rather than wages.

30 September 2009

Money system of last resort

In a system that relies on debt to create money, as capitalist money systems do, there is always a temptation for individual banks to take imprudent risks and be unable to repay their creditors. Because greed tempts bankers to destabilise their own business, and a run on the bank leading to bank collapse would undermine faith in the whole system, capitalist economies have a 'lender of last resort'.

The lender of last resort in the UK economy is the Bank of England. When banks hit sticky times they turn to the Old Lady for a shot in the arm, and she must oblige. This is exactly what happened last year, when banks had massively over-borrowed, they were loaned vast sums by the Bank.

You may be left asking where this money came from: who were the creditors? The answer is that, because there was no one left to lend money, the government itself acted as what we might think of as the 'borrower of last resort'.* When all else fails, a government can decide to create money by political fiat - the quantitative easing policy. And who do they borrow money from? The answer, I'm afraid, is you and me - and we are now being asked to pay this back through spending cuts, higher taxes and more work.

Leaving aside the question of whether the UK is really capable of paying back this level of debt without unacceptable suffering and civil unrest, let us consider for a while longer the concept of a borrower of last resort. When demand in the economy is so low that we are in a self-reinforcing downward spiral, as we are now, a capitalist economy requires the government to step in and borrow, just as it would expect the central bank to step in and lend to banks. So rather than cuts and austerity in the public sector we need to see borrowing and investment.

So far I have only considered the last resort in a financial sense, but what about the ecological crisis we are facing: the ultimate situation of last resort. Surely it is time for the government to act as borrower of last resort and produce a massive spending package to create the infrastructure and home renovation projects we need to achieve the carbon reduction targets that are now enshrined in law? Mad as it may seem, if you insist on creating money as debt, that is the only way that we are ever going to be able to buy ourselves a future.

*Thanks to Richard Douthwaite for this useful thought - and so many others.

26 September 2009

Time to Buy Gold

Once upon a time I was taught by Danny Blanchflower. No, I have never played football, I'm talking about the economist of that name - well his name is really David Blanchflower but he told us that only his mother still calls him that. He was moonlighting from his day job at the University of Guildford to teach we humble Open University students.

He was ambitious and found himself a job at an Ivy League College in the States. Some time spent on the other side of the Atlantic is an essential stepping stone to a successful career as an economist, and membership of the Monetary Policy Committee a proof that you have arrived. So Blanchflower is an entirely pukka economist - the fact that he has published his latest tirade against spending cuts in the New Statesman is more an indication of the pusillanimous behaviour by the mainstream media than that he is a radical outsider.

What Blanchflower is trying to say, or scream, is that the recession is not over. If you look at the figures this is clear. Just look at the one graph that I've included with this post. It plots a comparison between the Baltic Dry Index and the price of gold. The first is a direct measure of how much stuff is trekking around the world; the second a measure of investor fear. When the shit really hits the fan you should put all your spare money into gold (I won't charge you for that nugget of advice since I know that if you read this blog you don't have any spare money!).

Of course I also agree whole-heartedly with Blanchflower's critiques of the economics profession. I remember him as a fairly conservative person, who thought I was a crazed hippy, but he did ring alarm bells about the house-price boom and he did call for cuts in interest rates long before his fellows on the MPC - and at a time when they might have made a difference.

He thought I was naive, but I would like to repay the compliment. Is it not rather naive to expect economics professors and politicians to come out and criticise an economic system that is deliberately constructed to suit their interests? And even more so to think that either party will give a damn about youth unemployment and the psychological pain caused to a 'lost generation'?

The meeting of the G20 in Pittsburgh was apparently intended to address the imbalances and distortions in the world economy. But the vision does not seem to extend beyond talking about limiting the bonuses of bank executives and the media is dominated by headlines about Iran. In one sense this is not so illogical: another foreign war would boost economic activity for certain sectors and might well put some of our young people back to work - and remove others permanently from the risk of unemployment.

But genuine attempts to address the causes of the economic crisis are either not being made or not being reported. The elite leaders of global capitalism are still seeing their role as trying to persuade us that all is fine and we should just carry on shopping as usual. I wish Danny well in his attempt to appeal to a more democratic tradition, where we still felt our power might be expressed through the ballot-box rather than the credit card.

23 September 2009

Underwear Economist

I've always been the sort of person who wants to get to the bottom of things. When my book Market, Schmarket was published in 2006 I had included an exploration of the excessive focus on prices in modern markets and the way this led to an undermining of quality. I unwisely focused the discussion around the underwear market, specifically that for women's knickers.

Needless to say, this attracted more attention than the other 250-odd pages put together and turned me overnight into the underwear economist - the doyenne of the news in brief column. The article published in the Welsh national newspaper under the title 'Knickers to Global Capitalism' was proudly displayed on the board outside my office door for several months. I am even more proud to think that I may have played some small role in encouraging John-Paul Flintoff to embark on his personal spiritual quest that resulted in making his own y-fronts.

My services were put to good social use when a colleague who works for a charity working with street-sex workers in Bristol asked my advice on knickers that would be long-lasting and capable of dealing with some fairly rough treatment. My answer at the time was People Tree, although I have since discovered the intriguing campaign group Pants to Poverty and we also have the delight of Green Knickers.

It is clear that in this area, puns are as cheap as the underwear itself. But, if I can be excused, I think it is encouraging that such a fundamental item of clothing, and yet one that can so easily be hidden from the public gaze, has been the subject of such intense web- and soul-searching.

22 September 2009

Seeking In-Vestas in the Future

Our man on the ground at the Isle of Wight Vestas site (well, mostly up a tripod watching for coppers, as it happens) reports that the action to keep the wind turbines in this country is happening now and bodies are needed.

More information is avaiable from the workers' website

18 September 2009

Anticipating the Irrational

I have always argued with the neoclassical economists over the power of 'rational expectations', mainly because I don't think most human beings act according to rational impulses most of the time. For those who are not well versed in economics jargon, rational expectations theory suggests that many players in the economy - employees, employers, politicians, consumers, and so on - are making informed guesses about what will happen in the future and base their current behaviour on this.

An example might be somebody deciding not to put their house on the market because they think prices are likely to rise next year. Or employees demanding wage rises because they expect prices to rise, or accepting lower wages because they expect prices to fall. Clearly, there is a lot of politics at play here, since a media which manipulates public opinion may - if the rational choice theorists are correct - influence their demands in the free-for-all that is the capitalist conflict over economic value.

But what I notice at present is how those in the private and public sectors are behaving quite differently in an economic crisis. Now that unpleasant material is flying in all directions from the metaphorical fan, the private sector players - who are there because they are comfortable with risk - are exercising the utmost political pressure to gain advantage for themselves, primarily by refusing to play the game of fair shares (continuing to claim their bonuses) and scaring and bullying the government into subsidising this.

Meanwhile, those in the public sector - who are there because they are risk-averse - are anticipating cuts and radically reducing costs in preparation for cuts that haven't arrived yet. Thus in my university we are preparing to cut expenditure by 15% over the next three years, although no figures are available for investment in universities for next year. In other words our apparently 'rational' behaviour is itself causing a significant shrinkage of the economy, and guaranteeing an extension of the Recession, making it likely it will turn into a self-reinforcing negative spiral.

Perhaps this is unsurprising. Those who came with the theories about rational expectations were themselves academics. They live in a world of brainy, cautious, forward-looking types and they have simply modelled the world they know. It now becomes clear what deeply irrational behaviour this can generate.

Rational expectations grew from one basic assumption: people behave selfishly. This assumption is in itself self-reinforcing, since is is hard to behave with generosity and grace when everybody else is scrabbling for the fastest buck, and harder still when the prevailing ideology tells you that this is irrational behaviour.

University planners may feel more comfortable that we public-sector employees cut our own throats before politicians do it for us. But by causing such a massive shrinkage of the public sector - which should actually expand during a recession - they are guaranteeing that the Recession will be longer, deeper, more costly and more painful. Having worked in a university for seven years I would not have expected rational behaviour from the bureaucrats who dominate the higher education sector, but to see such short-sighted and self-destructive reactions is depressing indeed.

15 September 2009

PM Uses Three-Letter Word

Downing Street correspondents have reported today that the Prime Minister Gordon Brown was able to use the three letter word 'cut' for the first time. His closest advisors had been working for several weeks to bring about this development, which is now heralded as proof of the success of the government's education policies.

Opposition Leader David Cameron, who has been able to use the word cut for nearly two months, has poured scorn on this achievement, while government critics have argued that Cameron's precociousness is evidence of the superiority of the country's public schools.

Molly Scott Cato, who speaks for the Green Party on economics, has been using two words in conjunction for the best part of a year. The first word, 'can't', involves the sophisticated usage known as a contraction, while the second, again only a three-letter word, 'pay', nonetheless indicates a wide range of vocabulary for one so relatively inexperienced.

A group of unemployed graduates who were questioned suggested that the Prime Minister had actually been referring to the leader of the opposition when he used the word, and that it had been misheard and might, in fact, have actually included four letters. A government spokesman was unable to substantiate this rumour.

11 September 2009

Extraction of Value(s)

Two reports are published today that are implicitly linked, and yet I wonder how many media commentators will make that link explicit? The first is the lengthy and damning report into the buyout of MG Rover by the team led by John Towers. Known as the Phoenix Four, since the final collapse of the car company in 2005, their reputation has turned back into ashes.

Yet what we witnessed during the five years of scavenging, while the suited vultures stripped the value out of Rover was no different in type from what happens every day in capitalist business: the extraction of the value of workers' expertise, skills and commitment by a small number of people who have the control of capital. That's why the system is called capitalism rather than labourism.

Ok, in this case the scale of the rip-off draws public attention, and the fact that Rover was an inconic national company that had also received public support added to our interest, but the model is the same in every shareholder-owned business in the world.

Which brings me to the second report, published today by Demos, and called Reinventing the Firm, it presents a strong case for the movement of a much larger proportion of what is currently the private sector into some form of worker ownership. There are several strong arguments presented, an interesting one being the nature of current ownership. Since shares are now so commonly held by institutions (70% as compared with only 25% in 1963) power over companies is now distant, consolidated and purely profits-driven. Why should a pension-fund manager whose bonus and continued employing relies on delivering a fixed percentage return show any regard to the human or environmental consequences of his investment decisions?

The report also makes clear the significance of the broadly defined mutual sector of the economy, which has annual revenue of £84bn. and £476bn. in assets. This is a whole alternative economy and one which has performed better financially during the economic crisis, and routinely performs better in ethical terms. Demos cites an index of productivity performance since 1992 which shows that mutual companies have out-performed the FTSE by an average of 10 per cent over that period.

Worker ownership is not a panacea - we all know examples of people who merely exchange hiearchical exploitation for self-exploitation when they set up a social enterprise or co-operative - but it is certainly a model for reorganising corporate life that has demonstrable advantages over the limited liability corporate model. It is time that co-operatives ceased to be Britain's best-kept secret and moved into the mainstream of our economy.