Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The disquieting implications of Margaret Thatcher's distinctly ropey economic performance

Margaret Thatcher, said former trade minister David (Lord) Young, reversed a sixty year decline in the British economy. She bequeathed a “generation of growth” gushed the Confederation of British Industry. She “breathed life into free enterprise,” evinced the former boss of British Petroleum.

But for her, Britain, culturally and economically, would resemble Bucharest circa 1978, minus the exciting nightlife.

So goes the official interpretation of Margaret Thatcher. But reality, says the Left, paints a profoundly different picture. Economic growth was actually no better in the 1980s than the benighted 1970s – both record an unremarkable average of 2.2%.

Between 1990 and 2009, after Margaret Thatcher was deposed, but when her economic tenets were unquestionable, Britain had a growth rate of 1.7%. And that is obviously before the current stagnation.

Far from releasing the forces of enterprise, Margaret Thatcher released the forces of inertia.


It might seem, on the surface, that this battle of GDP figures is about as fascinating as algebra. But it has significant implications. For if, say the Keynesians, the economic boasts of conservatives are hollow, then a kind of ‘Back to the Future’ logic is validated. The post-war era, with its strong trade unions, state ownership, much greater equality and regulation, suddenly appears, not only more appealing socially, but more economically persuasive as well.

But there is a fly in the Keynesian soup. Scroll down one Red Pepper Thatcher article and you’ll find a comment by “Geroge”, an unabashed (and hurried) fan of the blessed Margaret. But he makes an interesting point. You would expect, he says, growth figures in the 1950s, coming just after the huge destruction of World War Two, to be high. Emergent war economies have high growth. Thatcher’s performance three decades later, although comparatively rather shoddy, was not half bad in the circumstances.

All of Europe experienced an economic boom in the post-war decades. It was in the post-war years, writes Thomas Frank in Pity the Billionaire, that France, Italy, Belgium and Sweden, “embarked on their greatest boom periods in modern times”. You could add West Germany, Spain, Austria and, to some extent, Britain, to that list. This, despite frequent corruption and political favouritism; malaises the Right now dubs “crony capitalism”. These apparent impediments to growth made no discernable difference.

Outside Europe, the US, though physically virtually untouched by war, received a massive economic shot in the arm by other countries’ need to recover.

If that boom period was, in large measure, a result of post-war reconstruction, the implications are damning to both Keynesians and austerians/conservatives. The left-wing but anti-Keynesian economist Harry Shutt has argued that the much vaunted three decade long, post-World War Two boom, was due as much to pent up demand after the Great Depression and total war, as it was to wise economic policies.

Revolutionary Road

Seen in historical perspective, the 1950s and 1960s were the only time that capitalism worked for everyone. Growth was high, living standards rose and full employment was a reality. Unemployment in Britain, between 1950 and 1973, stood at an average 1.6%.

The disquieting insight is this – that the good times were dependent on the bad times that preceded them. The growth and economic contentment of the 1950s and ‘60s were a direct result of both the economic devastation of the Great Depression and the physical, near-apocalyptic destruction, of World War Two

In other words, capitalism is a system that relies on periodic bouts of mass destruction to prosper. If the prior destruction doesn’t happen, capitalism eventually stagnates.

Hence Thatcherism, which regards itself as the apogee of economic dynamism, turned out to be such a busted flush economically.

As Shutt has pointed out, government policies in Europe since the Second World War have been about preventing mass destruction from happening again – either economically through the business cycle, or physically, through war. Private businesses have been propped up and bailed-out, stock markets manipulated and consumers artificially created through the spreading of mass debt.

Bluntly put, because nobody, for obvious reasons, wants the initial orgy of destruction to happen, we can’t have the benefits of ensuing healthy economic growth and abundant jobs. So we have had fake, as opposed to organic, growth. And now the mask has slipped.

Thus we are locked into a cycle of diminishing returns, no matter what economic strategy, under capitalism, is pursued.

Don’t mistake this analysis as some kind of right-wing mea culpa. It matters a lot that the austerians are stopped in inflicting any more unnecessary suffering on people who had no part in causing the economic crisis. It matters a lot that the work capability scandal in Britain is exposed and stopped. It matters a lot that the sadistic economy-destroying, life-shredding experiment in Greece, Spain and Portugal, is ended.

But the obverse argument of many opponents of austerity (let’s call them Left Keynesians for short) that increased government spending will lead, in time, to the sunlit economic uplands, needs to be seen through. Because, frankly, it won’t. You can reverse austerity, you can re-balance the economy in favour of manufacturing, you can, theoretically, have a new ‘contract with labour’, as Stewart Lansley wants. And you won’t restore growth to anything like the levels of the mid-twentieth century.

I’ve seen the future and it doesn’t work

A week or so ago the Guardian ran an interesting article by the chief economist for HSBC. Once you have stopped laughing after reading someone working for HSBC telling you to “live within your means,” the article is worth pursuing. The author argues that neither Keynesianism nor austerity work as economic salvations and we had better get used to a low growth world.

The conclusion though, coming from someone who wants to preserve the current economic order, is necessarily weird. “Living within our means is hardly easy but the alternative is worse: false hope leads ultimately to financial crisis, political upheaval and social turmoil”.

Financial crisis, political upheaval and social turmoil are precisely what will happen. It is not the result of a choice. Capitalism does not do low growth well. Japan, which entered economic stagnation two decades before the US and Europe, illustrates the point. The country has suffered from dramatically declining living standards and a labour market barred to women and young people. Carbon emissions, meanwhile, which you might expect to fall in a low growth environment, have actually increased

Conscious de-growth is one thing, but capitalism and low growth is a poisonous cocktail.

The revelation that the conviction that high government debt kills off economic growth was actually based on a spreadsheet error, has convinced many that the Keynesian moment has come again. Actually, the post-capitalist moment has come, though few seem to have noticed.

For if capitalism no longer delivers the goods, and doesn’t do so on a long-term basis, the game is most definitely on again.

PS The second part of ‘In Praise of Idleness’  will appear shortly, hopefully

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

More Bad Pharma

This is a longer version of the Bad Pharma article I was posted last year. Red Pepper were going to use this piece but didn’t in the end. So here it is.

“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” everyone’s favourite Marxist film critic, Slavoj Žižek, once remarked. Perhaps a sudden fleeing of the imaginative capacity explains the strangely brain-dead reaction of the science writer Ben Goldacre to the idea that the pharmaceutical industry should, for the good of humanity, not be conducted on a capitalist basis.

The question, posed by the economist Harry Shutt, was not complicated. Given that the pharmaceutical industry appears totally unsuited to being run on a profit-maximising basis in shareholder-owned companies, Shutt asked Goldacre in The Observer, wouldn’t its functions be better carried out by non-profit or publicly-owed enterprises?

Goldacre is clearly a very intelligent person, whose Guardian newspaper Bad Science columns are oases of un-credulity refuting the claims of corporate science. His book Bad Pharma says that drug companies deliberately put dangerous or useless drugs on the market. He’s no fool and no shill so why this did obvious question precipitate such confusion?

Niall Ferguson has invaded my head

First, Goldacre said he was a realist, clearly implying that he’d like a different way of running the industry but that wasn’t possible. But by the next sentence, he revealed that he didn’t want a “central command state economy” (Help! Niall Ferguson has invaded my head), a very jaded straw man and definitely not what Shutt was advocating. This was followed, most bizarrely, by the assertion that people in the drugs industry perpetuate acts of great evil, not because they are innately evil, but because they work in a badly designed system. This is precisely what Shutt was saying – it’s a badly designed system, its acts are not the “fault” of the individuals working in it, so change the system. As an answer, that lacks something. It’s like saying 2+3 isn’t 5, it’s 5.

Finally, Goldacre says what he thinks should happen – a “competent regulatory framework”. Are you still awake? Don’t worry, the boogie man won’t get you because the good regulation fairy will stop him. Spoiler alert. She won’t.

Imagine, as an experiment, the reaction if state pharmaceutical agencies were guilty of the foisting dangerous or dysfunctional drugs on the market. There would be immediate and deafening calls for privatisation. You get an insight into the balance of power, intellectual and otherwise, by the fact that critics of the misdemeanours of corporate drug companies call merely for better regulation.

Let’s set aside for one moment the integral problem that western “democratic” political systems, and frequently the politicians in them, have been bought by corporations so that regulation is not remotely competent or effective.


For the sake of argument, imagine an ideal world where the state sits benevolently above the fray and government regulation can do its job unimpeded. What would regulation actually do?

Bear in mind the recent claim by two French medical specialists, Professor Phillipe Even and Bernard Debré, that over half of the medicines prescribed in France are either useless or dangerous. 20,000 deaths a year and 100,000 hospital admissions are linked to hazardous medication, they claim. Goldacre’s book, Bad Pharma, is specifically about the dangerous medicines that shouldn’t be out there, but are. “… for several of the most important and enduring trials in medicine, we have no idea what the best treatment is, because it’s not in anyone’s financial interest to conduct any trials at all”, he writes. And that doesn’t take into the account the drugs that, while not harmful, do not serve any medical purpose. “If you can get on to the market by making a me-too copycat drug that represents little or no therapeutic advance and is even less effective than the drugs that it copies, then you will,” says Goldacre.

So competent and effective regulation will, if it does anything, radically reduce the number of pharmaceuticals that are allowed to go on the market. Thereby massively hitting drug company profits and, in turn, the number of people they employ; numbers which are dropping anyway.

Thus, you are soon face to face with a fundamental conflict of our capitalist system. An unavoidable collision between the impulse most decent people share for reducing the anti-social effects of capitalism, against the need for capitalism to prosper so that everyone can have good jobs and incomes. We are, whether we like it or not, materially dependent on the system’s success. But a successful system causes outcomes, such as global warming and prescribing dangerous medicines, that are inherently destructive.

Planned Regulatory Obsolescence

If regulation of the pharmaceutical industry were actually competent, as Goldacre wants it to be, it would prevent capitalism from working. Actually it’s not working well, once high performing pharma stocks have fallen below those of Coca-Cola and Unilever and drug companies are shunning research, but effective regulation would be another drag on profits. A UN report in 2009 found that a third of the profits of the world’s biggest 3,000 companies would be wiped out if firms were forced to pay for the use, loss and damage to the environment they cause. In other words, truly effective environmental regulation would render capitalism impossible.

So regulation is, quite deliberately, not effective. It allows, as research has found, just enough reform to buy off critics without seriously impeding corporate priorities. In the end, Goldacre’s vision of a “competent regulatory framework” is far more utopian than changing the system so that profit maximization is no longer the modus operandi of pharmaceutical companies.

An Alternative to regulation

 Is there an alternative to the futility of regulation that avoids the pathologies of a Soviet-style command economy? Actually there is:  a weapon to bend bad pharma to the public interest that entails no mass expropriations and preserves a market economy.

“A man who causes harm in the course of his work can be sued for the full cost of that harm to the point of personal ruin,” writes Dan Hind in his book, The Return of the Public.  “A man who owns shares in a company that causes the same harm risks only his original investment.” This is the privilege of limited liability, granted by the state, on the grounds that by limiting risk to corporate investors, innovation, in the public interest, is encouraged. But recent experience of the finance industry, as well as pharmaceutical companies, demonstrates that limited liability, far from promoting the public interest, inculcates public harm.

Hind argues that limited liability be reserved for employee-owned and managed companies. Harry Shutt, who originally voiced the incompatibility of profit-maximising pharmaceutical companies with the public good, believes that limited liability should only be granted to companies that represent the community on their boards and serve a defined public purpose.

Removing the automatic conferring of limited liability would restore the non-profit impulse that was once a significant part of the pharmaceutical industry. Before it was floated on the stock exchange in 1986, the Wellcome Foundation, wholly-owned by a charity, was one of Britain’s largest pharmaceutical companies. The Royal Marsden Hospital in London – part of the NHS - is, still today, a major source of research into drugs combating cancer, financed by a combination of state and charitable contributions.

Without the cover of limited liability, shareholders would, as Shutt has said, “rapidly become an endangered species”. Profit maximising for external owners, the root cause of “bad pharma”, would be transcended. Of course, if “drugs for drugs sake” becomes a thing of the past, so will “jobs for jobs sake”. You can’t evade the material dependence of virtual everybody on capitalism’s smooth functioning, nor the implications that would result if we collectively decide that its smooth functioning has too many damaging side-effects.

Enterprises without external shareholders, could becomes places where the concerns of citizens and workers are heard. If the effects of corporations, such as pharmaceutical corporations, have enormous social effects, then they should serve, institutionally as far as it is possible, all of society. And that doesn’t mean the patina of regulation.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher is dead. But our necrophile politics isn't

I was going to compile a collection of Margaret Thatcher myths which have sprung up like mushrooms after a shower in the past week. But Red Pepper got there first. It’s a good article but some points need elaboration or contestation.

The most egregious Margaret Thatcher myth is that she liberated the consumer. Just ask private renters, whose ranks are swelling daily, if they feel cherished (or even acknowledged) as consumers and brace yourself for an expletive-laden reply. The much-vaunted privatisation programme didn’t liberate the consumer. It created cartels or monopolies and captive markets, exploited by victorious corporations. There was a timely article in the Guardian newspaper on Saturday about how the six big energy suppliers in the UK have doubled their profit margins, on the back of bloated consumer prices. Thatcher privatised gas and electricity and their cost to the consumer has more than doubled in the past five years.

Rail privatisation – actually enacted by her successor John Major, though Thatcherite through and through – has resulted in ballooning taxpayer subsidies and the highest ticket prices in the world. Water bills in England and Wales are to increase by 5.7% this year. In Scotland, which retained state ownership after Thatcher privatised water in the rest of the UK in 1989, there will be no increase.

Another trademark Thatcher policy – bus deregulation – led to competition for a short time, swiftly followed by a small number of companies – in many towns, just two – becoming dominant and hiking up fares. The technical term is oligopoly.

There are five large bus companies, four big banks (too big to fail but getting bigger anyway), four big supermarkets, four big accountancy firms, and six big energy companies. There’s a pattern here. Competition in capitalist economies inexorably leads to takeovers and concentration, thus negating the original competition. It’s illuminating that the answer of the Right to the failures of privatisation and finance is more competition. Smaller banks, for example, giving the consumer more choice. To start the process again in other words. Unfortunately the end point will be the same.

It’s worth noting in passing the argument of David Schweickart in After Capitalism that worker-controlled firms would preserve genuine competition because they would be less inclined to grow and absorb the competition. Less competition means less of its opposite, monopoly.

Tell Sid he needn’t have bothered

The Thatcherite dream of a share-owning democracy – encapsulated in the ‘Tell Sid’ advertising campaign – is now so contradicted by reality that it is not even espoused by the Right. Turn up to a shareholder meeting and get outvoted, by a factor of 10,000-1, by a hedge fund based in Dubai. Although it is ironic that the value of shares, for the ordinary punters that do own them, has been maintained by huge state subsidy – otherwise known as Quantitative Easing

But on one point the Red Pepper article is wrong. The author – Alex Nunns – argues that Margaret Thatcher didn’t make people richer. The rich got richer and the poorer got poorer. But spiralling inequality and rising overall wealth are not mutually exclusive. Both happened in the 1980s. Some people, not just the already wealthy, did get richer and progress. Real wages rose.

Margaret Thatcher was immensely and deliberatively destructive. It wasn’t just the mines. Between 1980 and 1983, capacity in British industry dropped by a quarter. There were deep recessions and massive spikes in unemployment twice under her premiership. But there was also something to put in the place of that which was being destroyed. Privatisation, finance and a property boom. “What is the explanation of this curious combination of the permanent unemployment of 11% of the population with a general sense of comparative prosperity on the part of the bulk of the population?” asked the Fabian, Beatrice Webb, in 1925. There was something of that “curious combination” about the 1980s, and that goes a long way to explaining why she won three elections, albeit on a little more than 40% of the vote.

Enemies without benefits

But now, it seems to me, the current Thatcherites in power in the UK are entirely negative. There are unmistakable Thatcher re-treads – the ‘aspiration’ rhetoric, supply-side, tax-cutting and red-tape shredding, solutions as the panacea for economic stagnation, and a ‘Help to Buy’ scheme for council house tenants where once there was the flagship, ‘Right to Buy’ scheme.

But these pretences can’t displace the fact that only 20% of council tenants are in full-time employment, real wages have been stagnating or falling since 2003 (in that way, Britain is completing its Americanisation) and renting a home, as opposed to taking out a mortgage, has become common practice. A new source of growth and economic expansion – which Thatcher had up her sleeve – is nowhere on the horizon. You can’t do Thatcher twice. There’s no such thing as Big Bang mark 2.

Thatcher’s acolytes in government are, in some ways, more punitive than she ever was. The sanction regime for unemployment benefit claimants is more ruthless than anything seen in the 1980s. There are food banks all over the country now. I don’t recall them in 1988.

In truth, Margaret Thatcher’s vision of popular capitalism has died.

What we have in its place are necrophile politics and economics. Social attitudes – in terms of sex, sexuality and culture generally - have moved on in the last thirty years, but politics and economics are stuck as if in a time-warp. Even Franklin Roosevelt reaction to the 1930s Great Depression – funding huge cultural and conservation schemes – seem somehow more modern, and alive, than the current forlorn hope that the ill winds will eventually blow themselves out if we all work harder.

Whilst this once formidable Tory trailblazer is dead, her ideas are more resurgent than ever,” wrote Lynne Segal in another Red Pepper article. Despite flurries of resistance, she went on, “the left has yet to strike any real chord with the broader public.”

That is true, sadly. We have Thatcherism by default because there is no agreement about what to put in place of its rampant failure.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

In praise of idleness and other scandalous ideas. Part One

In 1932, the philosopher Bertrand Russell argued that the priorities of modern industrial society needed a thorough reappraisal.

“I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous,” he wrote in the essay, In Praise of Idleness. “The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work.”

This is Bertrand Russell being interviewed:

Now, 81 years later, Russell’s words appear as scandalous as when they were first uttered. Perhaps even more so.

To question work now, its moral necessity and the virtue-inspiring discipline it inculcates, is to place yourself beyond the pale of sensible discussion. The one activity the ruling Conservative party in Britain is determined to eradicate, with seemingly widespread public support it should be said, is the possibility of doing nothing. Of not working. Unless, of course, you are very wealthy.

In pursuit of idleness

After the courts ruled the government’s workfare programme (temporarily) unlawful in February, government minister Iain Duncan Smith, responded that the days of doing nothing for benefit were “over”.

When justifying the suffering caused by the Conservative/Lib Dem work capability tests for the disabled, then employment minister Chris Grayling lamented the thousands of people left stranded at home on benefit. Doing nothing.

If doing nothing is a now a capital offence, that doesn’t let those in paid employment off the hook. "The only way we can pull out of this [the economic crisis] is by everybody working harder,” opined foreign secretary William Hague last May. 

Work is such an unimpeachably good thing, it retains its allure even when making it mandatory destroys paid employment. There is ample evidence that the UK government’s work programme, which compels young people to work for corporations for free at public expense, has enabled participating companies, such as Asda and Superdrug, to withdraw paid over-time for their regular workforce, or not hire seasonal staff. But the work programme has retained absolute government backing and public support.

Never mind that Asda and Superdrug get something for nothing, courtesy of the taxpayer. Never mind that their paid or potential employees lose out. As long as the unemployed work.

The Old Left and the work obligation

It has to be said that this veneration of work contains a slither of old Left thinking. The old Left, in an attitude stretching back to the nineteenth century, was very insistent that everyone should be obliged to work. No-one, said the old Left, in a taunt aimed at top-hatted, cane wielding capitalists, should live in luxury on the labour of others. But this expectation of universal labour was predicated on first abolishing exploitation. Now there is an expectation of universal work, regardless of the existence of exploitation. In fact, the expectation of work has become more emphatic as exploitation has intensified (this might be related to the fact that exploitation has virtually expired as a concept).

“At all levels there is a denial of exploitation, oppression, imbalance of any kind,” says Eliane Glaser in her book, Get Real.

In America in the 1890s, Glazer points out, the poorest in society worked longer hours than the richest. By the 1990s the richest 10% were working longer hours than the poorest.

Work has now achieved the status, described by Mark Fisher in his book, Capitalist Realism, of “post-ideological”. Like recycling, its benefits are assumed unthinkingly. But this is, Fisher says, “precisely where ideology does its work”. 

The virtue of work is an assumption even of a significant strand of anti-capitalist thinking – the school of “economic democracy”, or workers’ control.

“Without the pride and self-discipline that good work instills, the human spirit shrivels,” says David Schweickart in After Capitalism.

The fact that the virtue of work is so fervently believed in by utterly diverse elements of the political spectrum perhaps indicates a widespread desire not contemplate something, to blot out an uncomfortable thought.

What is work for?

What that taboo is, I would suggest, is the ultimate purpose of work, as opposed to the qualities it inculcates in the worker. This is the subject of Russell’s essay; the disconnect between the ascetic belief in the virtue of work and what he terms “the social purpose of production”.

Considering post-revolutionary Soviet Russia, Russell remarked: “industry, sobriety, willingness to work for long hours for distant advantages, all these reappear”.

What will happen in Russia, he asked, “when the point has been reached where everybody could be comfortable without working long hours?”

This is a question that we in contemporary advanced capitalist countries really need to ask of our own societies. Because we have reached a condition of “post-scarcity” – a state of affairs that could not be ascribed to Bertrand Russell’s 1930s’ England. “Post-scarcity” was a term coined by the social ecologist Murray Bookchin to describe the US of the late 1960s. It meant that society had advanced so far technologically that it was quite feasible to produce the goods that were needed with a fraction of the labour that used to be required in the heyday of heavy industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Productivity has increased exponentially since the sixties (though the rate of growth has been slower in the neoliberal era than its social democratic predecessor). General Motors is now making almost double the amount of vehicles it was in 1955 with a third of the workforce. The archetypal postmodern corporation, Apple, employs only 60,000 people globally.

At a time in history when, as Dan Hind says, “the machinery of material production no longer needs more than a handful of us,” it is naively stupid to expect that merely exhalting work will shift this fundamental historical situation. Making paid employment more crucial to survival than it already is – 500,000 people in the UK are ‘employed’ because they work 6 hours a week – will not create the sustainable jobs that people, or a capitalism that craves effective demand, need.

There is another reason why idolising work is fundamentally out of time. Compared to Russell’s day, there are urgent and mounting environmental problems. To take just one example, arctic sea ice is melting more rapidly than virtually anymore anticipated. More work – “altering,” in Russell’s phrase, “the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface” – is not part of the solution, it’s a major part of the problem. Ecologically, we, as a society, need less work to be done. We need to de-grow.

All this amounts to asking an elemental question, “one that Marx and Keynes asked repeatedly,” says Glaser, “but which seems to have mislaid amongst the papers on our desks – what is the point of work?"

Here is part two 

And the final part