No Fixed Abode by Charlie Carroll

This odd book is about being a tramp. Decades ago, the experience of being a tramp was not an unusual one. Nowadays, being homeless is unfortunately common, but the tramp era has largely passed in the UK. The confused narrative of Charlie Carroll partly explains why this is the case.

Mr Carroll never felt homeless because he had a home to fall back on. He never felt futile because he had a book to write. Nor did he feel without power. As a result, he was confident enough to speak with Jeremy Paxman, Boris Johnson and the police. While Mr Carroll endured considerable deprivation and fear, his literary experiment remained just that.

The hostility of Mr Carroll to the Occupy Movement is illuminating. As someone who pitched a tent near St Paul’s, he was in a great position to try to engage with the politics of the protest. However, Mr Carroll  is always reluctant to engage in the economics behind increasing homelessness.  So it is no surprise that there is no real attempt to get to grips with important debates about capitalism, austerity and the financial crisis.

The text is an interesting one to read, but Mr Carroll went on an arduous journey that taught him more about survival than it did about life. He wrote down what he saw and heard, but he did not reflect on the biases which shaped his work. As homelessness has mounted across the UK since his publication was released, his book has dated quickly. This is because he looked at broken individuals instead of trying to understand the evolving society which had shaped their awful lives.

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No Place to Call Home by Katharine Quarmby

Katharine Quarmby is a formidable journalist who has worked for The Economist and several newspapers. This text tackles overt discrimination against travelling people in the UK. It highlights examples of political skulduggery by local authorities, while examining how tough life can be for those with a nomadic cultural background.

Quarmby does not simply stress negative experiences like mass evictions. She also pays attention to the rich tapestry of Romany culture. Careful to go beyond the stereotypes perpetuated by the mass media, she gives an insight into the lives of people who have a rich heritage.

Sadly, overt discrimination against the Roma has not been confined to the towns and cities of the UK. The populations of Eastern Europe have sometimes shown little compassion to the ethnic group in question.  The long shadow of the Holocaust also lingers.

At a time when international fascism seems to be on the rise, learning more about the way travelling people are treated is timely. Quarmby may not have composed a particularly theoretical work, but her careful research packs an authentic punch.

Old wine in new bottles? Transport for the North…

During the New Labour era, there was a lot of talk about the Northern Way. The idea was that significant public and private investment could help to bridge some of the massive productivity gap with London. Regional development agencies should collaborate and a better transport infrastructure would facilitate the economic development of the northern regions.

While the discourse of a Northern Powerhouse is louder than the softer noise about a Northern Way, the basic ideas about partnership and governance have not received the upgrade which might have been expected. The focus on city-regions might seem to be innovative, given the abolition of the regional development agencies, but the ineffective lobbying for a modern infrastructure grinds on.

Millions of people in the North of England suffer from an inadequate transport infrastructure. Those who use buses and trains regularly suffer a lot from the legacy of privatisation. Meanwhile, some of the staff on the services have felt obliged to engage in frequent strike action. There does need to be a fresh settlement for passengers and workers in the region.

Changes in the car industry are likely to impact on the way people travel. Electric cars may well have an impact on pollution levels. But there needs to be an upgraded imagining of the northern transport infrastructure which sees beyond money and cost-benefit analysis. As environmental problems mount, new vision will be required to build a sustainable future.

 

The Wolf in the Water by Naomi Alderman

This vivid drama, inspired by Shakespeare, has a claustrophobic quality. It explores the complexities of identity and concealment. At the same time, it questions the social role of money and debt. Whilst the action takes place centuries ago within the Venice ghetto, the themes of persecution and assimilation remain relevant. Naomi Alderman has constructed something which might last.

It was Prime Minister Theresa May who aimed to charm the Conservative Party Conference of 2016 with her troubling assertion that, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” It is one thing to question the logic of economic globalization, it is another to define cosmopolitanism out of existence.

In the modern world, identities may be multiple and fluid. This does not mean that we are unaffected by identity-related awkwardness. But it does mean that there is an escape from the manipulative control of those who want to put us in a box. As individuals we might not manage to get out from the prison of debt, but we can help others to discover that other worlds are possible.

Economics: a crisis of overproduction? [long read]

Economics: a crisis of overproduction?

 

 

“And then the vulgar economist thinks he has made a great discovery when, as against the revelation of the inner interconnection, he proudly claims that in appearance things look different. In fact, he boasts that he holds fast to appearance, and takes it for the ultimate. Why, then, have any science at all?”

Marx to Kugelmann, 11 July 1868 (Marx, 1977: p525)

 

 

“The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”

Ezra Solomon, quoted by Martin Wolf in Financial Times (January, 2015)

 

 

“In this regard, Foucault accepts and operates within this view of the market as the paramount and invisible machine of knowledge production.”

(Tellmann, U. 2009: p24)

 

 

It has become a modern commonplace to note that the discipline of economics is in crisis (see Conway, 2009; Pettifor, 2012; Giles, 2017; Taylor, 2015). Even before the international recession of 2008, it is worth noting that a few learned economists were concerned about the unsatisfactory state of their subject (Krugman, 2009; Lawson, 2003). The widespread failure to predict the severity of the crash brought the weaknesses of conventional economic thought to the fore (Krugman, 2009). Large international economic imbalances and a huge credit-fuelled property bubble were not regarded as serious obstacles to progress because of naïve faith in globalisation (Greenspan, 2005). This inaccurate complacency about modern globalisation was not shared by all sociologists, for example (Hirst and Thompson, 1996). The outcome of the eventual disaster was complex and confusing for economists, but not without promise. Firstly, the voices of radical critics of the system rose in volume (Mészáro, 2008; Jefferies, 2012). Secondly, those percipient thinkers who had noted the instability of the long credit fuelled boom had their credibility enhanced (Krugman, 2009). Thirdly, the contribution of new institutional economics then received some welcome recognition (Krugman, 2009b). Fourthly, students of economics demanded a more pluralist curriculum (Inman, 2014). It looked like economics was on the verge of becoming strong enough to mount some kind of sustainable recovery. Supporters of the Democrat candidates for the American Presidency took the opinions of economists seriously in the hotly contested primaries of 2016 (Matthews, 2016).

 

 

The academic debate over austerity also lent some support to the idea that economics might change its spots. Not all economists were convinced by the arguments advanced by those in favour of immediately cutting state spending to reduce the size of the deficits produced by fighting the possibility of a depression. Many of the true believers might not have realised what the consequences of austerity would be for the most vulnerable sections of the population of the UK (Caruana-Galizia, 2017). When presented with negative European policy outcomes, even the mighty IMF retreated from the simplistic advocacy of ‘slash and burn’ policies (Pop, 2013). Furthermore, the meticulous activity of a bright student of economics illustrated that the complacency of powerful economists may be shattered (Alexander, 2013). Ambitious policy entrepreneurs should be careful that their empirical evidence is of the quality which means that ‘replication’ is a feasible task.

 

 

Since the productive revolt of the students, progress has been neither linear nor swift. Heterodox economists might have demanded a reformation of economic thinking (Macfarlane, 2017), the profile of behavioural economics might have been raised (Partington, 2017) and healthy scepticism towards experts might have mounted (Montaigne, 2017), but the ultimate result of the creative activity on the left is that the wide gap between orthodoxy and heterodoxy remains unbridged (Wren-Lewis, 2017). Ordinary citizens remain confused and some are in thrall to the one-sided texts produced by celebrity economists (Mason, 2015; Varoufakis, 2017). Some working class people have defiantly ignored their own economic interests at the ballot box in the United States and the UK (Packer, 2016; McKenzie, 2017). Attempts to simplify matters for public consumption may have involved the smuggling of populist bias into the explanations (for a semi-nationalist interpretation of the Euro crisis, see Varoufakis, 2015).

 

 

While there is some transformative work being done in the sphere of economics (for example, Hickel, 2017; Mazzucato and Semienuik, 2017) there is still far too little stress on the uncertainty and humility which should be attached to an area of thought in which costly errors have been made (Pettifor, 2012). Perhaps economics is simply suffering from a glut. Low interest rates and unorthodox measures in advanced economies have returned the international economy to a strange kind of health, but the unfortunate politics of the day are a morbid reflection of the underlying contradictions. Economic texts may have become a commodity to be marketed like cornflakes or poetry (Marx, 1977: 513).

 

 

Clearly, the issue is not that individual economists are performing badly in terms of their output. The reality appears to be that too many economists are being obliged to advance their disparate agendas through hastily written blogs, opinion pieces, journal articles, and books. Power and money can always condemn a profession to push forwards too swiftly (Tellmann, 2009), whilst participation in a “society of the spectacle” may induce ‘creative’ individuals to work far too hard to keep up with the Jones (Debord, 1967; Florida, 2003; Veblen, 1899). One consequence of these overdetermined factors (Althusser, 1962) is that there is seemingly a surplus of choice for the citizen reader. In other words, it may well be that “the epidemic of over-production” (Marx and Engels, 1848: chapter one) has finally arrived.

 

 

Major dilemmas flow automatically from the apparent excess of economics. It is as though the profession has been subject to inordinate stimulus from ill-timed tax cuts. Like people treating the stock market as if it were simply a casino (Strange, 1986), individual economists can lose their bearings in the intense atmosphere. The point is that they cannot keep in touch with the work of all their peers because there is far too much activity going on. Furthermore, competition between excellent economists may limit opportunities for sustained collaboration. Finally, the social media may distort “animal spirits” (for importance thereof, see Keynes, 1936) outside the confines of the speculative financial sector.

 

 

While the potential for another major real-world crisis builds, the theoretical capacity to see precisely when one coming is not being enhanced. This can lead directly to a failure to foresee specific events. However, in numerous other cases it may lead to economists spotting crises which do not happen in time for the prediction to be valuable (Dorling, 2014: p231). Many of the optimistic predictions being made can even be viewed as promoting outcomes which are desired (Gramsci, 2005 edition). Several governments are not trying hard enough to safeguard their populations against future economic shocks (Dorling, 2014; Stiglitz, 2017). The abject failure of economics to evolve into a predictive science does not imply that it is incapable of generating insights of considerable interest. But it does suggest that when the ship is struck by the inevitable iceberg there will be insufficient lifeboats to go around.

 

 

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again.”

Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays (1955: p78)

 

 

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The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays (1955) by Albert Camus translated from the French by Justin O’Brien.

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Economics edited by Saugato Datta

This text, subtitled Making Sense of the Modern Economy, is composed of material produced by The Economist. Karl Marx once described the publication as “the European organ of the aristocracy of finance”, but it has changed with the times. Instead of featuring a series of debates among entitled and affluent experts, the focus is on defending and promoting a particular brand of liberal economics to a wider audience.

This 3rd edition is of real interest because it looks at the period after the financial crisis. It also aims to deflect criticism from those economists who may have been partly responsible for the meltdown. Furthermore, it seeks to portray the evolving discipline in a positive way.

Perhaps the aspirations of the writers were too high. Namedropping famous economists and providing plenty of data was never going to restore confidence in a profession that had taken such a battering from reality. Some of the pronouncements lacked any empathy for those impacted by the Great Recession. And a description of studying the economics of prostitution in New Orleans managed to seem uninformative and unpleasant:

“In many respects, the paid-sex industry is much like any other business. Pricing strategies are familiar from other settings. Despite evidence of a myopic attitude towards risk, there have been plenty of examples of that in the finance industry too.”

Reshuffling the Cabinet in the context of heightened ‘power dependency’

Academic Martin J. Smith wanted to explore the reality of the British core executive (1999). He was critical of those who viewed the top of the state in terms of fixed powers. More power does not necessarily flow to the Cabinet when a Prime Minister is weak. Nor does authority automatically pass to civil servants or special advisers if the politicians are in trouble. Power is not a zero-sum game.

Obviously, the complexities of Brexit and the general election result have combined to make Theresa May vulnerable. However, during a reshuffle a prime minister can use their power of patronage to reassert their authority. Nevertheless, changing the composition of a team can lead to a lack of discipline from disgruntled individuals on the backbenches down the track. As May lacks an overall majority without the influence of the DUP, she cannot afford to offend too many delicate egos. Furthermore, a refresh should not be purely symbolic. In a democracy, a government must have a compelling agenda to generate renewed support for its policies.

Due to some of the friendly media, May will probably get some praise for being able to carry out a reshuffle at all. However, this political capital will dissipate if her new team does not do more than simply look the part. Many voters feel utterly disenfranchised. Large sections of the electorate think that the social fabric of the country is being torn up. While the fortunes of the unbalanced economy will prove to be important for the fate of her administration, May must hope that she can learn not to shoot herself in the foot going forward.