Wednesday, 14 January 2009

A Crisis of Legitimacy?

Just a thought...

To keep this blog ticking over I'll putting up a few a few pieces, loosely connected by a theme, which I've put up on Facebook in the last couple of months and should have really posted here.

Yesterday evening I was thinking of putting a couple of articles up connected to the theme of how the economic downturn (perhaps that's putting it mildly) has challenged, or might challenge the hegemony of the unholy alliance of Big Business, the Political Class & Mainstream Media which has dominated Britain and other Western countries in the last couple of decades. Then I saw this today:

Britain loses faith in economy: Global poll shows UK least likely to trust politicians, banks or markets
Julian Glover, The Guardian, Wednesday 14 January 2009

British economic confidence has been shattered by the financial crisis, according to a unique international poll published today. It shows that people here are now less likely to trust banks, the stockmarket or the government's economic management than people in comparable nations.

The research, carried out by WIN, an international network of pollsters including ICM in Britain, used professional polling techniques to assess public opinion in 17 countries, including the major G8 economies as well as China and India.

On most measures, British people emerged as among the most pessimistic of the 14,555 people questioned around the world.

Remarkably, confidence in the banking system appears lower in Britain - 4.2 out of 10 - than in bankrupt Iceland, which polled 4.6.

While around a third of citizens in developing economies such as India and China say the economic situation in their countries could improve in coming months, more than three-quarters of people in Britain expect it to worsen.

Pessimism here is slightly deeper than in competitors such as France, Spain and Germany, and equal to Japan.

British people are also less likely than average to think that their government can manage the situation, despite Gordon Brown's bank interventions and fiscal stimulus.

Asked to rate their trust in the government's management of the financial situation, British people award the government 4.5 out of 10, below the worldwide average of 5.2 and just ahead of Iceland on 4.4.

Only Germany and Japan are gloomier, scoring 4.0 and 3.0 respectively in the poll which was conducted before Christmas and published today.

These results may reflect the severity of the British position as much as any particular distrust of the British government, and the ICM data was collected before some more recent government initiatives were announced. But they do bring into question the prime minister's claim that Britain is particularly well placed to weather the economic storm.

Several of Britain's competitors are more optimistic about their government's capabilities. Americans award 6.3 out of 10 overall, possibly as a result of the changed mood in the weeks following the presidential election.

Asked about their personal financial situation, however, rather than prospects for the country as a whole, British people are more upbeat.

Not surprisingly, pessimism about personal finances is greatest in Iceland, and lowest in fast-growing economies such as India. Britain comes 10th out of 17 countries on personal finance: most people here say their incomes will either decrease (25%) or stay the same (48%) over the next 12 months.

The British are more likely than many to think that this could be a good time to buy a house: 28% say so, against 39% who say it is a bad time, which still leaves Britain towards the top end of the international table, seventh out of 17.

However, trust in financial institutions such as banks in Britain is particularly weak, probably as a consequence of the scale of government intervention in banks required since the collapse of Northern Rock.

Britain ranks 16th out of 17 countries for public trust in its banks, just ahead of Germany and well behind countries such as the Netherlands, Spain and France.

Overall, people around the world tend to have a greater level of faith in their government and even in banks than in the stability of the stockmarket, which on average scored 4.0 out 10 for trust after a terrible performance in 2008.

British people are now particularly cautious, giving the markets a score of 3.2, well below America on 4.3.

Overall, British attitudes to the financial crisis are closest to other old-world economies such as France and Germany, as well as Japan.

Canada, Italy and Spain lead a middle group of more optimistic nations, while developing economies such as India are the most trusting and optimistic.

The research draws upon a mix of face-to-face and online polling, and the variation in results may be affected by this, as well as by different sample sizes.

Long-term differences in national attitudes to subjects such as property ownership, which outlast economic cycles, may also have played a part in today's findings.

But the WIN crisis index, which will now be carried out every three months, does suggest that anxiety in this country is consistently greater in Britain than in its competitors.

• The research was carried out online in Britain by ICM in November, with a sample of 1,050. Worldwide data was collected between November and December 2008 by members of the WIN network. ICM is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

We English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish (not 'Brits', please!) might be more pessimistic than other peoples about the current economic situation, and the ability of our betters to get us out the mess they largely created. However,there is little doubt that people everywhere are wondering whether this is as good as it gets. After years of being told that 'the market' (in fact a corporate bearpit from which Adam Smith and David Ricardo would have looked for exit doors to get out of) should be left alone and throwing taxpayers' money away to prop up those unable to 'stand on their own two feet' was wrong and expensive, the obscene amount of money which have been handed over to large financial institutions and other corporate behemoths in the last couple of years must have caused cognitive dissonance for at least some who acquiesced to the status quo- didn't it?

The ever readable Splintered Sunrise gives his view on the potential crisis of legitimacy from over the Irish Sea (picture as in original post!):

The crisis leaves our leaders without a convenient paradigm
December 4, 2008

Yes, yes, I should be doing more on the economic crisis. If I’ve been reticent, one very good reason is that I’m not an economist and, apart from generalities about the system, I don’t have any easy answers. It’s a little comforting, though, that nobody seems to have any easy answers. The political classes of the world appear to be navigating without a compass, having lost their framework but without acquiring an alternative one. You see this in the way that every government seems to have a completely different recipe for dealing with the crisis. The overwhelming impression is that they’re making it up as they go along.

The latest exemplar of this has been the big plan mooted by Barroso, at the behest of Brown and Sarko, for a massive EU-wide stimulus package. This lasted as long as it took Boss Merkel to say to Barroso, “No you don’t”, on the not unreasonable grounds that Brown and Sarko could come up with whatever plans they liked, but they needn’t expect the German taxpayer to foot the bill. Meanwhile, the Bush administration seems to be nationalising everything in sight, which will shock some leftist analysts but not those of us who always knew that the neoconservatives were never conservatives in the first place, least of all fiscal conservatives, but really big government liberals. Meanwhile again, the Chinese government has launched an enormous Keynesian stimulus plan, having obvious not got the memo about the death of Keynesianism. We’ll see in practice, I suppose, how this works out.

The cluelessness is evident across the spectrum. While Brown still claims to hove to Friedmanite orthodoxy, his big idea at the moment seems to be to encourage yet more consumer spending, while pump-priming the construction industry. I can’t see this working, for the very good reason that he’s recycling the essential elements of his voodoo economics over the last dozen years. And yet the Tories lack any credibility - a mere six months ago, Osborne was complaining about the onerous amount of regulation in the financial services industry, while Redwood argued that mortgage lenders shouldn’t be regulated at all. And to this day, Rankin’ Dave Cameron seems to believe that cutting interest rates alone will do the business. None of this is very convincing.

On the more prosaic level, we have √Čamon Gilmore rowing back from his plan to thoroughly Blairise Irish Labour. Say what you like about the Sticks, they’re good at sniffing the wind.

It’s at times like this that I do enjoy going back to the Austrian economists, whose big beef - that most politicians are economic illiterates - is demonstrably true, and who do have an endearing tendency to say the unsayable. Their view is that the main cause of the crisis is cheap money, which is true, especially when you bear in mind that for the last few years the Fed has been printing dollars on an enormous scale - we don’t know how many, because Bernanke won’t say. These guys reckon the best thing for the economy would be a short, sharp recession, maybe lasting a year or so, where unsound businesses would be allowed to fail and a lot of the bad debt cleared out of the economy. Trouble is, a politician would need balls of steel to go down that road. The sharp and painful dislocations it would bring - especially in terms of unemployment - would look suicidal for anyone hoping to gain re-election.

On the other hand, the Austrians critique government attempts to provide a soft landing on the grounds that it will just prolong the downturn, especially as the underlying causes are not being addressed. There’s something to that, especially if you look at Gordon Brown’s attempt to reflate the housing bubble. I would actually argue the housing market is still grotesquely overvalued and needs to sink a lot further, but Gordon can’t say that. That would fall foul of the Brits’ attachment to the house price cargo cult, in lieu of an economy that makes stuff.

More and more I notice that the Old Right and the unreconstructed left do overlap, at least in terms of diagnosis. It’s when it comes to the cure, of course, that the divergence comes. I still believe that there is a serious role for intervention, and the main task should be to divert the economy away from the parasitic financial services sector and towards rebuilding a productive economy. That’s why the Germans have much stronger fundamentals.

This would be bad enough for the Brits. For an Irish economy that has close to zero industrial base, a massive overreliance on inward investment and a European Commission hellbent on destroying Irish agriculture… it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Not to mention Robbo and Marty on yet another tour of the States, trying to drum up investment for the North. Lord, they do pick their moment.

So what is to be done, to quote Vlad? I realise my own economic worldview is informed by a wide range of sources: Marxism, Keynesianism, Greenery, Libertarianism, Mutualism and Guild Socialism to name a few. I do not have all the answers (who does?) but I hope I sometimes ask and address the right questions and hope to meet and work with people who are prepared to think and just know that the current situation cannot go on and that we can all do better than this.

My concluding piece for this post comes from Larry Elliott, whose work with Dan Atkinson, The Gods that Failed, is a witty and damning critique of those who got us in this hole. This is a recent intellectual call to arms from him:

Wanted: the Keynes for our times. Marxists and greens have critiques of the crisis, but what about the centre-left?
Larry Elliott, The Guardian, Monday 22 December 2008

The financial and economic mayhem of the past 18 months has been a crisis for the right. Nationalising banks that have lent irresponsibly was not part of any laissez-faire script.

The prevailing economic model of the past 30 years has run out of road, just as the post-war social democratic model ran out of road after three (far more successful) decades in the mid-1970s. But it is a non-sequitur to assume, as some on the left do, that the world has changed for ever. This is lazy thinking. Without an intellectual critique of what has gone wrong and what needs to be done to put things right, matters will revert more or less to where they were before the flood.

When the post-war Golden Age ended in the mid-1970s, the right had just such a critique. It was ready because it had spent the past 30 years arguing that demand management would lead to inflation, that the strength of trade unions was eroding profits and that higher taxes to pay for bigger government was starving the private sector of investment. Most of the heavy lifting was done by the free-market thinktanks, which in the title of Richard Cockett's excellent book on the subject, were prepared to "think the unthinkable". These thinktanks were well funded by business and could draw on academics to shape the policies of the Reagan and Thatcher governments.

The contrast with today is striking. There has been no equivalent of a Chicago school for the left to provide the intellectual justification for more interventionist government. There has been scant evidence of the left-of-centre thinktanks tugging New Labour back as it moved steadily over the past 15 years towards the acceptance of market-based solutions to almost every problem. And with the exception of Jon Cruddas, Vince Cable and a handful of other members of the awkward squad, there has been no real interest in alternative thinking at Westminster.

That is why the government is ideologically bereft as it tries to manage the crisis. Labour has control of the banks but wants to give it up as quickly as possible. It wants the banks back on an even keel financially but it also wants them to slash their lending rates so borrowing returns to the levels of last year. The thinking, such as it is, amounts to the hope that with lower interest rates, tax cuts, and a few tweaks to financial supervision the clock can be turned back to July 2007.

This was not Thatcher's approach in 1979. Instead of exhorting the trade unions to behave better next time, she used the Winter of Discontent to impose statutory controls on their activities. Capital's Winter of Discontent has been much longer, much more widespread and much more damaging than the events of the winter of 1978-79, but the response has been far less robust. Indeed, this is shaping up as a missed opportunity of catastrophic proportions.

At this stage, it should be said that the non-mainstream left has been active since the Berlin Wall's collapse heralded the era of market fundamentalism, and both the Marxists and the greens have a critique of what has gone wrong and what needs to be done now. And these critiques deserve to be taken seriously. After all, it is easy to imagine Marx surveying the events of the past 18 months and concluding that the new global economic order created since 1990s was capitalism's last roll of the dice, and that the imbalances, the debt mountains and the eventual freezing up of the banking system were all symptoms of an irreparable system.

Growth fetish
The greens say this is where you get to if you make a fetish of growth. Living beyond our means not only results in higher levels of debt and balance of payments deficits, but is symptomatic of a reckless disregard for the carrying capacity of the planet. Attempting to re-invigorate an economic model built on ever higher levels of consumption is wrong.

So, the Marxists have an explanation and the greens have an explanation. Where, though, is what we might call the traditional left - the democratic socialists, the Keynesians, the non-revolutionary wing of the progressive movement. The answer is that during the 13 years of Tony Blair's leadership of the Labour party, it was pretty docile.

There could be a simple explanation: the arguments traditionally put forward by those who believed in managed capitalism, the mixed economy and regulated markets have been found wanting. By a process of social Darwinism, the ideas promulgated by the free-marketeers at one end of the spectrum, and the Marxists and the greens at the other have survived because they make more intellectual sense.

Alternatively, there may just have been a colossal loss of nerve on the left, which trickled down from a leadership demoralised by four election defeats and which saw embrace of the market as the way to political success. The control-freakery of Labour's high command meant they were not open to ideas from maverick MPs, academics or leftist thinktanks; access to ministers meant thinking not the unthinkable but the boringly predictable.

This has had unfortunate long-term consequences. The ability of mainstream progressives to develop a critique of the neo-liberal world order is illustrated by the development NGOs, which felt less obliged to cosy up to policymakers and, from the mid-1990s onwards, attacked the Washington consensus. All sorts of radical ideas were floated: that free trade might not always be good for vulnerable economies; that there was a role for an activist state in development; that privatising health and education would lead to more sick people and fewer children in school.

The crisis thus presents a golden opportunity and a threat to the left. The financial meltdown has morphed into an economic downturn of brutal severity; on the other hand, the window of opportunity will be brief, much time has been lost and there is not a lot of money around to fund blue-skies thinking. US academia at least has Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman; there is, sadly, no sign of a British Keynes for the 21st century.

Scholars, politicians and thinktanks have little more than six months to come up with ideas to influence policy before and after the election. They should concentrate on a few areas.

One would be finance, where the argument should be moved on from the need for faux-Keynesian fiscal policy to what Keynes actually stood for: permanent and tough controls on the financial sector so policymakers could pursue goals of social welfare and full employment. That means nationalising the banks, credit controls and action against tax havens - as a bare minimum.

A second would be housing, where the notion that the private sector will build enough homes for almost two million families has been blown out of the water. The government should be buying up land from stricken construction firms and organising a house-building programme of its own.

Finally, there needs to be a vision of the good society, the world the left wants to create. The free-market right has one. The Marxists have one. The greens have one. Unless the social democratic left has one - and can articulate it fully - it is finished.

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