Archive for October 2011
Oct 31, 2011 – This morning’s front pages present an arresting selection of news clichés…
The Daily Mail reports that the Church of England is at “WAR” with an ill-defined noun (“sleaze”). Slightly more interesting is the information that the church currently invests millions in Internet Service Providers.
The Mirror front page informs us that it’s “WAR” between the Prime Minister and Nick Clegg on Europe. (It’s not a trivial matter that the metaphor of armed conflict is commonly used on complex social and economic issues which have little to do with armed conflict. More on this when I discuss the “war” metaphor in a future piece).
The Evening Standard tells us that somebody important “HAILS” “women power”; the Wall Street Journal reports that a “SHAKY OUTLOOK lingers in Europe”. (If you have a photo of a lingering shaky outlook, please email it to me immediately).
Shake-up in education, shaky outlook in Europe, war between church and sleaze, war between Cameron and Clegg, a hypothetical “crisis fund” to boost pensions, a bit of money to kick-start the economy, charities hit by cash squeeze, Cameron (when he’s not at war) seeks radical reform on adoption, and the Queen hails women power.
All in all, a rich collection of headline bullshit.
Oct 26, 2011 – Today’s Telegraph front page provides an example of the socially-dominant “worker” frame. The headline contains the first clue: “Give firms freedom to sack their slackers”. (This is the “finding” of a “report” commissioned by David Cameron – see update*). The Telegraph explains:
‘Under current regulations, workers are allowed to “coast along” and employers are left fearful of expanding because new staff may prove “unknown quantities” who are impossible to sack, the report says.’
Here’s the frame in a nutshell:
- “Free market” means firms are free to manage their own resources.
- Resources are acquired and disposed of – in a way which minimises costs, maximises “efficiency”, etc.
- Labour is just another resource (as in “labour market”).
“Workers are resources”
Hidden by this metaphorical frame is the human experience of working in a job, and the distinction between meaningful activity and dehumanising work (not to mention work which physically harms). Orthodox economics of both right and left “treat labor as a natural resource or commodity, on a par with raw materials, and speak in the same terms of its cost and supply” (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By). Workers’ rights movements have fought against exploitation of workers (with some important successes) but have tended to implicitly accept this economic framing.
Work “ethic” plus
Linked to the “labour as resource” metaphor – in a sort of unholy neural coupling – is the moral framing of work which comes from religious traditions, most notably from the Protestant (or, rather, Puritan) Work Ethic. You don’t have to consciously subscribe to these religious beliefs to be affected – moral guilt over “laziness” seems to affect practically everyone in our society (but not in all societies – the framing isn’t universal).
And thus we arrive at these strange notions:
- Work is morally virtuous regardless of the experience of the worker.
- Firms should be “free” to make this experience even worse.
And so (to cut a very long historical story short) we get the news frames of guilty “slackers” merged with market fundamentalism. And, to many, it looks just like “common sense”. Meanwhile, metaphorical terms such “flexible labour” (or worse, “cheap labour”) hide the reality of human degradation.
The Independent reveals that the author of the “report” (multi-millionaire venture capitalist, Adrian Beecroft) has interests which include “an online company offering payday loans at huge rates of interest”. The Independent quotes “Lib Dem sources” who called Beecroft an “ideological” figure: “He is a private individual who has produced a report not based on any evidence.”
Yet another case of someone with the “right” ideological views producing a Mickey Mouse “report” which becomes front-page news. For further examples, see my earlier piece on the so-called TaxPayers’ Alliance.
Oct 19, 2011 – The TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) uses the word “transparency” a lot – over 2,000 times on its website alone, according to a Google search. Yesterday, this influential rightwing pressure-group published a new piece – about transparency in public spending. Two comments were posted underneath – regarding the TPA’s lack of transparency. Both of these were quickly removed, leaving no trace. You can read the deleted comments here. (The first one was from me).
Lobbyist/thinktank transparency is currently headline news (see today’s Times coverage and recent coverage on Liam Fox and Atlantic Bridge). A series of Guardian articles (eg from George Monbiot) revealed a lack of transparency regarding the funding of (mostly) “free market”-ideological thinktanks. TPA has consistently refused to disclose the sources of its funding.
Transparency vs “privacy”
These groups seem to rationalise their lack of transparency with the following framing:
- Concentrations of great ‘market’ wealth are equivalent to private individuals.
- These ‘private individuals’ have inalienable rights such as freedom & privacy.
- These ‘private individuals’ don’t have to account for their funding/spending.
- Governments require transparency / ‘private individuals’ require privacy.
The corporation-as-individual metaphor transfers the notion of “rights” from the domain of individual persons to institutions of concentrated wealth and power – including legal owners, policy heads and PR arms, etc. But these Concentrations of Wealth and Power act like private governments, not persons. They use vast amounts of taxpayers’ money. Trillions of pounds/dollars. And not just in direct bailouts. They’ve always depended on publicly-funded infrastructure. Boeing and Microsoft, for example, wouldn’t exist without the decades of public funding of aerospace and computer research/development.
Private government vs public government?
“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the
conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”
— Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
These Concentrations of Great Wealth and Power affect everything from our work, our food and our health – to what we read in the newspaper. The issue here is transparency and accountability – just like it is with government.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance is quoted in the media on a daily basis – often on the front pages. It’s hugely influential. But it presents itself – misleadingly – as a “grassroots alliance” of “ordinary taxpayers”. It won’t disclose its donors, but the Guardian has listed some of its wealthy/corporate financial backers.
It’s easy to see why the TPA is nervous about comments on its funding transparency. The “ordinary people vs government” line (the TPA’s thick toffee coating over market-fundamentalist ideology) would be undermined by the knowledge that it’s underwritten not by any “alliance” of “ordinary” persons, but by unaccountable, unelected concentrations of wealth and power – like private governments.
Oct 13, 2011 – Today’s front pages – Daily Mail, Times, Telegraph, Independent, ‘i’ – carry NHS stories. The Mail, Telegraph and Times go with a report about the National Health Service “failing the elderly” so badly that it’s “breaking the law”. The Independent and ‘i’ run with a National Audit Office (NAO) report about financial crisis in the NHS.
Curiously, the ideological rightwing pressure-group, TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) has also just (today) published a “major analysis” on the NHS, called Wasting Lives – which supposedly “exposes how the huge increase in healthcare spending since 1999 has had no discernable effect on mortality rates”. The TPA report was covered in today’s Telegraph, Mail, Express and Sun.
The Daily Mail quotes the TPA as saying that “more competition would produce better results for patients”. The Daily Mail also acknowledges (in the same piece) the view that a large part of the problem is Private Finance Initiatives (PFI):
“In some cases, costly Private Finance Initiative deals have landed hospitals with huge debt repayments they can no longer afford. […] Under PFI deals, a private contractor builds a hospital and retains ownership for up to 35 years. During this period, the public sector must pay interest and repay the cost of construction, as well as paying the contractor to maintain the building.”
PFI is currently being reframed by the right (eg TPA and Tory ministers) as a sort of wasteful-government Labour scheme. But it was a neoliberal creation, first implemented in 1992 by the Conservative government. At the time, Labour critics described it as a “back-door form of privatisation“, but the later Labour government adopted it. Two months after Labour took office in 1997, Alan Milburn, the health secretary, announced that “when there is a limited amount of public-sector capital available, as there is, it’s PFI or bust”.
“Limited amount of public-sector capital available”? Hold on, that was 1997, not 2011. In fact, as George Monbiot pointed out, “the problem was that much of what the NHS wanted to do was not attractive to private financiers”.
Incidentally, the ideology (and initial framing) of PFI looks, to me, strikingly similar to that which causes the TPA to assert: “more competition would produce better results for patients”.
Oct 11, 2011 – Newspapers mostly reflect “conventional” economics, whose textbooks describe variations on the “classical” market economic model, and little else. (Some of the more risqué texts might devote a page to Marxism, but that’s the only alternative we’re supposed to consider). Economics is framed as capitalism vs socialism. (Cognitively speaking, there’s a “good” reason for this limiting dichotomy – but I’ll save that for a future piece).
John Lanchester, in his excellent economics primer, Whoops!, argues that the global financial collapse stems from the perceived victory of an ideology (“capitalism”): “That climate was one of unchallenged victory for the capitalist system, a clear ideological hegemony of a type which never existed before: it was the first moment when capitalism was unthreatened as the world’s dominant political-economic system.”
So, a dichotomy framed as a battle with a clear winner. The financial sector, given “free reign” (as well as “free rein”), became more powerful than ever. This is illustrated by Simon Johnson, a former IMF chief economist:
“From 1973 to 1985, the financial sector never earned more than 16 percent of domestic corporate profits. In 1986, that figure reached 19 percent. In the 1990s, it oscillated between 21 percent and 30 percent, higher than it had ever been in the postwar period. This decade, it reached 41 percent”. *
The financial sector rules – like “a class of priests and magicians”** – by instilling incomprehension and awe (even “experts” apparently can’t agree on many of the basics). In this milieu it’s safer for journalists to use conventional “accepted” economic frames – there’s less risk of exposing one’s ignorance. Alternative economic views/proposals thus receive little coverage.
There’s an abundance of economic ideas which fall outside orthodox framing. The main difficulty is ploughing through them to find the ones which seem neither “crackpot” nor scary. Here are a few of my favourites…
Universal Basic Income (UBI)
A Basic Income is an income paid to all individuals, without work requirement or means test (which is what places it far outside conventional economic “wisdom”). People are free – but not obliged – to top it up with income from other sources, eg self-employment or jobs. Over the last two centuries this idea has been independently proposed under a variety of names – Citizen’s Income, Universal Benefit, State Bonus, Social Credit and National Dividend.
Several ways have been suggested to fund a Basic Income. Nobel prize-winning economist James Meade proposed a social dividend funded from the return on publicly owned productive assets. Some economists think that funding should come from redistributive income taxation or a tax on land. These ideas aren’t new – as far back as 1796, Thomas Paine favoured a state-provided universal income to compensate for the inequitable division of land, which he saw as belonging to everyone.
The Basic Income concept makes good bait to dangle in economic conversations. The uninitiated, taking the bait, will argue that it would remove the incentive to work, and nurture an “idle underclass”. In fact, compared to the existing welfare system, Basic Income provides a strong financial incentive for creative and productive activity (some recent research lends empirical support to this). With Basic Income it’s more financially rewarding to move from unemployment into a job – because you keep your Basic Income payments, whereas you would lose your dole. Many common types of work – eg low-paid casual, part-time or self-employed work – increase your disposable income under a Basic Income scheme, whereas the income from such work is subtracted from your dole under the current system. Many worthwhile activities – adult education, voluntary work, starting a business, etc – are penalised or even criminalised under the current welfare system, because they interfere with the condition of “continuous availability for work.” Most wealth-creating activity begins modestly, perhaps not generating enough for a person to survive on at first. Basic Income nurtures such activity, whereas the welfare system aborts it.
Guaranteed Income is sometimes confused with Basic Income, but the important difference is that it uses a means test. Every individual is guaranteed a minimum income (set above the poverty level) – if your income falls below this level, you automatically get a top-up from the government, but as your personal income increases, the amount of top-up decreases. Guaranteed Income, like Basic Income, is not conditional upon work.
Several variations of Guaranteed Income have been proposed, the most well-known being Robert Theobald’s 1964 scheme for “Basic Economic Security”. Theobald was concerned about the effect of technology and increasing automation – he thought it was time to dissolve the traditional link between income and work, since most work would eventually be automated. By 1968, 1,200 economists (including John Kenneth Galbraith) called on Congress to introduce such a system. A Guaranteed Income in fact almost made it into legislation, under a proposal put forward by – wait for it – Richard Nixon. A book was written about it in 1973, by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who was appointed to Nixon’s White House Staff as Counselor to the President for Urban Affairs). His book was titled: The Politics of a Guaranteed Income: The Nixon Administration and the Family Assistance Plan (1973).
Negative Income Tax
One variation on Guaranteed Income is the Negative Income Tax, which would provide government top-ups, via the tax system, to those below a certain income level. It should be pointed out to those who see this as a “soft” leftist idea, that Negative Income Tax was proposed by one Milton Friedman. In many ways, we’re outside the right/left framing dichotomy here. Friedman’s apparent intention was to create a system that costs less than the current welfare system (but which also avoids the degrading nature of welfare).
Willingness to Work?
Many so-called “guaranteed minimum income” schemes restrict entitlement, among the unemployed, to those “willing to work” – a condition similar to that of current welfare systems. The Belgian political theorist Philippe Van Parijs argues that when we assess willingness-to-work, we should make the distinction between pointless, dead-end jobs and useful, fulfilling or “stepping stone” jobs – and that the best people to make this distinction are the ones doing the jobs. This is in stark contrast to conventional economic framing, in which all market-created jobs are viewed as “good” and “worthwhile” – by definition.
A different type of non-coercive redistribution of wealth comes from the old Individualist (as opposed to Collectivist) Anarchist approach of allowing free trade to drive down the cost of “borrowing” money. This idea originated with early anarchists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Josiah Warren and Benjamin Tucker.
Free trade is supposed to drive down prices through open competition, but according to Proudhon, Warren and Tucker there is a fundamental flaw in the existing system: a lack of competition in the issuance of currency. The current legally enforced money-issuing monopoly (eg the Bank of England or the Federal Reserve) keeps interest at an artificially high level – if free competition were allowed in the creation and distribution of alternative currencies, the cost of credit could in theory fall to a rate well below 1% (the cost of administering the credit; true interest would be zero).
Ironically, this appears to be “true” free-market economics taken to its logical conclusions. The anarchists claimed that zero-interest currency would eventually remove all forms of usury, including “profit”, from economic transactions. Adam Smith’s principle of “labour being the true measure of price” would thus come into effect through free competition driving out all usurious components of price. Workers would be fully compensated for their work at last, and not a Marxist or Collectivist in sight.
Rusting bank notes – Stamp Scrip
“I believe that the future will learn more from the spirit of Gesell than from that of Marx”
— John Maynard Keynes
In 1891 an Argentinian businessman and economist named Silvio Gesell went one step further than the Individualist Anarchists by proposing a system of negative-interest currency. The most well-known form of this currency was “stamp scrip”, which required a stamp to be affixed to the back of a money note each month, to revalidate it.
Gesell believed that money is fine as a medium of exchange, but that it tends to be used as an instrument of power, capable of dominating and distorting the market. For example, money can be hoarded – temporarily withheld from the market for speculative purposes – without exposing its holder to losses. Real material goods, on the other hand, can’t be hoarded without significant costs – either in the natural deterioration of the goods, or in the cost of storage.
In order to encourage the natural circulation of wealth instead of speculative hoarding, Gesell proposed “rusting bank notes” (a metaphor for negative-interest money), to bring about an “organic reform” of the monetary system. With money behaving more like real material wealth, the distortions in the system caused by hoarding and other forms of usury would be removed. This, he argued, would result in people receiving the full proceeds of their own labour, and would enable large sections of the population to quit wage slavery and work in an autonomous manner in private and co-operative enterprises.
A successful experiment with Gesell’s theories took place in the Austrian town of Wörgl in 1932, during the depression. Wörgl effectively ran out of money, so the mayor of the town printed his own. The resulting currency, Wörgl stamp scrip, was designed to automatically earn negative interest. Each month its holders had to pay a stamp fee of 1% of the value of the note, so people spent the money as fast as possible. This resulted in a huge increase in “real wealth” – new houses, a new water system, repaved streets, a new bridge, a ski jump, etc. But when hundreds of other Austrian towns came up with plans to copy the successful Wörgl scheme, the central bank panicked because of the threat to its monopoly. It soon became illegal to issue alternative currency in Austria.
The Digital Economy
Apart from the possibility of alternative electronic currencies, the “digital economy” hasn’t delivered much of revolutionary economic impact (except in the sense of concentrating wealth more “efficiently”). The first electronic money-trading system was opened by Reuters in 1973, shortly after the dismantling of the gold standard and the Bretton Woods system (which regulated international currencies). From earliest records up until then, 90% of capital transactions had involved the “real economy”, ie trade and investment, with only 10% being speculation. By 1995 a staggering reversal had taken place – trade and investment accounted for only 5% of capital transfers, with 95% being short-term speculation.
Electronic trading networks have developed a virtual economy in which most of the money is made not through actual investment, but through transacting in a sort of abstract wealth. For example, huge profits have been made from rumours about indirect effects of future transactions – but the future transactions don’t necessarily have to happen for the profits to be made. Massive profits have been made from currency speculation, conjured up by supercomputers which transact fast enough to exploit microfluctuations in exchange rates.
Very little of this virtual-economy profiteering produces anything of value in the sense of “real wealth” – ie things of real value to human lives. Short-term financial speculation tends to create economies of high profit, low investment and low wages – in other words, it’s detrimental to the lives of most people. We have some strange notions about the respectability of certain types of income. When poor people receive modest welfare payments, they’re labelled “spongers”, but when speculators bleed vast sums from the digital economy, without producing anything of value, we congratulate them on their skill.
The Tobin Tax
James Tobin, a Nobel laureate economist, foresaw the detrimental effects of escalating currency speculation during the 1970s. He proposed a small tax on foreign currency transactions that would put “sand in the wheels” of international speculative finance, and thus help to prevent instability in the global financial system. It would also generate a vast amount of revenue.
This idea has resurfaced as an Internet phenomenon, the Robin Hood Tax.
Final thought to ponder (on Guaranteed Income)
“A system that is less expensive than welfare and also less debasing to the poor, it seems to me, should not be objectionable to anybody but hardcore sadists.”
— Robert Anton Wilson
* Quoted in Whoops! by John Lanchester. Johnson’s figures are for USA.
** Description of financial sector as “class of priests and magicians” is from Whoops! by John Lanchester
*** Much of the above article is adapted from a piece I had published in the Idler magazine, Winter 2002