17 Jul 2018

Trump, the Mercantilist.

I was struck by a economics blog post: [US] Corporations and mainstream media trumpet the “horrors” of higher wages.

Whatever else he is, Trump is a mercantilist

"Mercantilism states that a country will grow richer by increasing its net exports. To achieve this goal, the original mercantilist writers recommended that wages be kept at the subsistence level, not just to minimise the direct cost of labour, but also to maximise the pressure on workers to work. They believed that workers were lazy and had to be coerced to work." - Prof. David Spencer. Six Centuries of Vilifying the Poor.

Trump is desperate to increase America's net exports. The USA imports a lot more from Russia, to take a topical example, than it exports to Russia. Hence the trade war and hence the pressure on US wages, though not CEOs salaries, because mercantilists are willing to pay top dollar to anyone who can squeeze more work out of fewer workers at lower pay.

If Europe, Russia, and China mounted a coordinated response to Trumps's trade war, he'd be in deep trouble. Now we see why he's going around stirring up trouble between us.

14 Mar 2018

Framing the Debate

I'm going to use this post to collect some resources on Lakoff's theory about framing.

6 Mar 2018

Rent Seeking

"Landlords grow rich in their sleep without working, risking or economising. If some of us grow rich in our sleep, where do we think this wealth is coming from? It doesn't materialize out of thin air. It doesn't come without costing someone, another human being. It comes from the fruits of others' labors, which they don't receive. Is it enough to promise 'pie in the sky when we die'? Or does living in a civilized society dedicated to the proposition that all of us are created equal and endowed with certain rights demand something else of us?"

— John Stuart Mill.

14 Feb 2018


Ann Pettifor has a new blog up: Do tax revenues finance government spending? It includes this memorable quote about balancing the books:
When the economy is powering along, when investment and employment and wages are high, when interest rates are low, and banks are supporting the real economy,  not just gambling on property price rises – then hey presto, the government’s books ‘balance’. When the economy is weak, when investment falls, and employment is low, or insecure, or low-paid; when private indebtedness and real rates of interest are high and the finance sector out of control – then government revenues from taxation will fall, and the government’s books will not balance. 
 Ann continues to inspire me with her insights into how money and the economy works.

12 Feb 2018


Capitalism works best when capital is invested in enterprises that employ workers; and when workers are well paid and spend their wages on goods and services. It is a potentially symbiotic relationship.

Low wages and employment practices that are detrimental to productivity and the health of workers are anti-capitalist.

Treating labour as a cost of doing business, rather than as partners in creating profit is anti-capitalist.

Accumulation of uninvested capital is anti-capitalist.

Investments that do not create jobs are anti-capitalist (i.e. gambling on the future price of property, commodities, or currencies).

Removing protections and degrading governance so as to allow fraud and malfeasance on a massive scale is anti-capitalist.

So whatever has been happening as a result of the Neoliberal revolution is not capitalism. It's profoundly anti-capitalist.

5 Feb 2018

Economists, Amazon, and Corruption

In my view, these tweets are some of the most damning indictments of economics in recent times. They show the kind of corruption that is rife in the field. Economists are seldom free agents or objective. They are in the pay of the companies who they are commenting on. In the case below it is Amazon who are promoting this form of corruption.

The irony with Amazon, is that without the sales-tax exemption on internet sales in the USA, they would never have survived.

Amazon are in the news as they look for sweetheart deals to move their corporate headquarters and build new fulfilment centres. The left-wing US publication, Working In These Times, analyses this in a story titled: Cities Scrambling to Attract Amazon Because It “Creates Jobs” Are Being Sold a Lie.

They point out that Amazon's business model means that they have to build more warehouses anyway:
“If your business model is getting things to people within 24 hours, you have to be everywhere,” Jones said. In other words, paying a company to locate a facility they have to build anyway makes no sense."
The article also cites figures that show that the arrival of an Amazon warehouse has little or no effect on overall employment levels. They have a negative impact on wages and conditions:
A 2016 study from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that hourly wages at Amazon fulfillment centers are far below the typical warehouse worker, and employees work more hours to compensate.

31 Jan 2018

Where Does Demand Come From?

Here's the thing. Demand in the economy ultimately comes from workers buying things. That's the driving force of all economic activity. All the capital in the world will not create wealth, if it is invested in something no one buys. Or if it is not invested.

If you cut wages then you reduce demand. If you load workers up with debt so they end up paying interest and have less to spend, you reduce demand. If you close down whole industries, you reduce demand.

Brainwashing workers into believing they "need" the shit you sell is only effective *if* they have disposable income to spend.

It comes down to this: Someone has to buy the shit you sell. Or you are fucked

The only way to increase demand is by giving workers more money across the board. The trick is that if you raise wages by too much it creates inflation - the more people are willing to spend, the higher the price goes.

Having more billionaires doesn't really help.They do spend, but in a narrow range and often not locally. They don't pay taxes and they tend to hoard wealth rather than recycling it as poor people do. And they tend to pay too much, and thus force up prices (think the property markets in London or Auckland). The poorest people spend everything that they get, they spend it locally, and they look for bargains.

If you want to help your economy, you institute measures to help poorer workers. Minimum wage. Handouts. However this can be self-defeating because employers see the handouts as a rationale for paying less. In the UK a lot of people work full-time but cannot afford to live. This cannot be sustainable.

We have the weird situation of falling unemployment with falling wages - supply and demand theory is not supposed to work like this. The demand for labour ought to produce higher wages. When it doesn't, something is wrong. The wrongness is millions going to CEOs and shareholders instead.

In the end business people have to realise that paying out too much in dividends and not enough in wages is self-defeating. Replacing people with robots is self-defeating, because robots don't buy anything. Any reduction in wages is ipso facto a reduction of demand for goods and services. You want to sell more? Pay higher wages. Henry Ford understood this. He paid his staff well enough so that they could afford to buy his cars. But they also spent that money in local businesses, increasing the prosperity of the region and the nation.

The world is awash with unused capital sitting in tax havens gathering dust. But that doesn't increase demand or drive economies. The rational thing to do at the moment is give a greater share of profits to workers. That way everyone benefits. Indeed, it would create more jobs as demand picked up.

This is something that business people have to understand. At present they don't seem to.

29 Jan 2018

Why building more homes will not solve Britain’s housing crisis

In  recent Guardian opinion piece, Ann Pettifor points out that the problem in the UK is not really a supply one. We actually have enough houses. The problem is that foreign capital, often obtained illegally, is flooding into the UK (£100bn in the last 6 years!) and inflating house prices.
"It’s speculation in the property market that is fuelling stratospheric house price rises, not shortage of supply. When the “fuel” of private capital, mortgage credit and cash from the bank of mum and dad is supplemented by government subsidies and tax breaks, house prices rise. Moreover, wealthy global and non-resident buyers have funnelled more than £100bn into London property over recent years, making the problem even worse."

 Pettifor suggests a twofold approach

1. A property speculation tax (PST), as in Germany. "This could be used to levy punitive rates on speculators, or those who own second homes and empty properties, encouraging them to invest their cash elsewhere."

2. A Tobin tax on global financial transactions. This allows for free movement of capital, but prevents it from disappearing from the tax regime.

The trouble is that deflating the housing bubble creates losers. As with any bubble, the last in end up losing money or with negative equity - debts worth more than assets. A lot of pension funds are invested in property.

The overall strategy must be to move capital away from the speculative and into the real economy. Rather than speculating in property prices, inflating a bubble, we need capital to be invested in business and jobs. This will not be simple or easy, but if it doesn't happen, we will continue to have a housing crisis driven by inflated prices rather than lack of supply.


See also: The more the State has withdrawn from housebuilding, the more it has found itself propping up the private market. LSE Blog.

There is a paradox in modern housing policy, writes Daniel Bentley. The aim of rolling back the state from housebuilding has turned its role from one of subsidising supply into that of facilitating ever greater amounts of spending power, making housing unaffordable for so many.

27 Jan 2018

What's wrong with Bitcoin?

Bitcoin has been in the news a lot recently and I was mostly ignoring it because I already have a perfectly good medium of exchange called Sterling and don't feel the need for another one. Plus I don't have capital to invest.

The main idea seems to be that we cut govt out of the loop. But why on earth would we cut govt out of the loop? Govt, in the UK, provide us with free education, healthcare, policing, roads, etc. It's the "What did the Romans ever do for us?" argument (remembering that in the Life of Brian the Romans represent Government per se). Neoliberals have portrayed tax as an intolerable burden from which people must be relieved. In fact, tax is the way we contribute to society and keep the country functioning. If you want to know what small government with low taxation looks like, then read Charles Dickens! He very accurately portrays the social conditions that prevail under the Libertarian ideal.

But the real problem with Bitcoin is a design "feature" - there is a finite supply. With fiat currency there is literally no limit to how much money can be created. Bitcoin is finite. Let's simplify it to make it easier to see.

I launch my new crypto current the J. There are 100 J in the world, and I hype the shit out of it on the internet as the next big thing. The potential for the J is limitless and no one will ever have to pay tax on it, because it's run on a server on a ship in international waters. (This is by the way a theme from an excellent novel called The Cryptonomicon)  I open the bidding on J at £1 and I buy the first 50 myself. I invest £50. Demand is high for the J so people are willing to pay more that £1. They end up paying an average of £2. My £50 investment just became £100. All the J is now owned, but people start to buy stuff with it or cash it in. So small numbers of J become available at a time.

Word is out that you can double your money by investing in J. So speculators get interested and they buy up all the available J at £4. They think "the price can only go up". My £50 is now worth £200. With this net worth I start to talk to venture capitalists about my next project. This steep rise in value attracts more speculators willing to pay too much. They all want to get in on this *easy money* and are willing to risk more and more. The price hits £10 per J. I convert my J into £500 cash, put it in the bank in the Cayman Island: 1000% profit in just a year or two. My J are bought up at even higher prices, but it reaches a peak of £20 per J.

At the peak, people don't think the J is worth £20 so they stop buying. The price levels out. The early investors also start to sell. The price drops. The last people in realise they are losing money now, and they sell to minimise their losses. The value of the J plummets overnight, back down to £1. Everyone loses their money, except me. And I have already started a new cryptocurrency called the K. And the K is the next big thing...

There are currently about 2000 different cryptocurrencies. And if crypto loses it's savour then it will be some other get rich quick and bypass taxes scheme. 

This kind of financial instrument is a variety of Ponzi scheme. It's named after Mr Ponzi who took investors money and used to to pay dividends to himself and early investors. As long as he could attract new investors at an exponential rate, he was able to pay out high returns to earlier investors. But exponential growth is impossible so it collapsed and most people except Mr Ponzi lost their investment.

Ponzi schemes are dishonest and illegal. One of the benefits of govt is that they protect their citizens from such schemes.

The worst scenario happens when people borrow money to invest - this is what happened in the Tulip Bulb Bubble in the 17th Century and in USA Stock-market in the 1920s. You borrow at 10% interest, but the investment is paying 20% while the bubble is inflating. So the investment pays the interest and you still make a profit, without risking your own capital. The deflating of the bubble is more catastrophic because as soon as growth falls below the interest on the loans, those speculators are bankrupt. These were the guys jumping out of windows on Wall St in 1929.

But of course the Bitcoin bubble didn't deflate all the way to zero. A lot of people still believe. So we don't know what will happen next. It is entirely possible that the bubble will inflate again and that when it bursts a whole new cohort will lose their investment.

This boom and bust cycle, which UK Finance Minister Gordon Brown once declared to be at an end, is built into Capitalism. A guy called Hyman Minsky called it the Financial Instability Hypothesis. The New Yorker magazine ran a long-read story on Minsky and the sub-prime mortgage scam in Feb 2008. Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in September of that year, sparking the Global Financial Crisis.

The moral of the story is that government regulations can be effective in preventing con artists from running Ponzi schemes and in regulating financial institutions to prevent the worst excesses of irrational exuberance amongst investors. By subverting this and setting up as a de facto Ponzi scheme, Bitcoin is likely to produce more instability and chaos. And it doesn't solve an existing problem. Well no legitimate problem. It's used to circumvent laws - making it the ideal way for criminal gangs and kleptocracies to launder money while avoiding the regulations that now apply to banks (not that this has stopped them using banks at times - if you have billions to launder, then banks seem only too happy to help).

13 Oct 2017

Ann Pettifor as Imagine2027.

I went to see Ann Pettifor speak last night. She was speaking as part of a series called Imagine 2027, organised by The Cambridge Commons and Labour History Research Unit of Anglia-Ruskin (the other university in Cambridge). The idea is that speakers will set forth what needs to happen over the next ten years for positive social change.

I've read many of Ann's articles and watched videos of her speaking, so I had some idea of what to expect. And she was everything I expected. I thoroughly enjoyed the talk and her answers to the questions. The Q&A went on for about an hour.

The event was videotaped so hopefully it will appear online at some point.

Ann talked mainly about two things:
  1. What money is
  2. The finance system should serve the real economy. 

What Money Is.

"Money is credit"

"Money is just a promise to pay" - quote from Joseph Schumpeter 

"Money triggers economic activity".

"Money is never scarce".

Ann spoke a lot about how most money is created by credit, by borrowing. When the government found £1,000 billion to bail out the finance system in 2008/9 it did not suddenly strike oil or gold and get rich. It simply entered the number in a computer and transferred it to the banks. The banks had to put up collateral and in some cases the government took ownership of the bank for a time, but the £1000 billion came into existence in an instant. The phrase "magic money tree" was not mentioned, but it might well have been, because all money these days is like this - we create more money by borrowing from banks. When we buy something on the credit card we create money. And so on.

My take-away from the night however, was that money is underpinned by institutions. By five institutions in particular:
  1. A central bank, which in the UK is quasi-independent, but in fact publicly owned which manages interest rates and provides reserves and guarantees for private banks.
  2. A currency, which is supported by tax payers paying their taxes in that currency
  3. Accounting systems to keep track of everything
  4. A criminal justice system capable of enforcing contracts. In the UK a branch of government. 
  5. A banking system to facilitate the transfers of money. 
If we look at this we see that money is dependent on the state. And furthermore it is ultimately dependent on tax-payers, who support the currency by paying their taxes in that currency. If we paid our taxes in US dollars, the UK Pound would cease to exist.

As we have seen in the last decade the private finance sector is actually a liability to this system. We spent £1000 billion bailing out the big banks to preserve the banking system after they recklessly destroyed vast amounts of wealth. Also we have to guarantee savings, because banks are unreliable these days. So finance is a liability. Finance makes a lot of money day to day, but as it is presently run is inherently destabilising and has cost us all dearly. 

Someone asked the obvious question about the private "crypto-currencies", such as Bitcoin. To which Ann stated, quite firmly that she believed them to be "Ponzi schemes" and "scams". They are based on the same monetarist theory that has been so disastrous in other areas. So expect no help from that direction. 

Making Finance Serve Us.

We lost control over our monetary system to the private finance sector ca. 1971. Ann emphasises the stability of the post-war economy (1945-1970) and the lack of recessions during that time, and though she didn't mention it, the vast sums we owed to the US to pay for the war. In 1945 government debt was 250% of GDP and this was addressed by expanding GDP massively by investing in infrastructure (hospitals, roads, schools, universities, etc). I think she simplified this period considerably. For example, the inherent instability of the US gold standard helped to undermine the system when the US started fighting an obscenely expensive war in Vietnam and needed more money, but could not create it (and were impeded by the French buying up gold at the same time). So it wasn't a perfect world and the system was ready to fall when it did. Simply recreating that system would be doomed. But there were real advantages that we could incorporate into what we do now.

The bottom line was that we want finance to serve the real economy.

A major policy discussed was the control of capital flows across borders. And a question brought out how we might do this. We could impose a so-called Robin Hood Tax on large sums of capital being transferred out of the UK. So that when some large multinational was moving vast sums out of the UK to avoid paying tax on them, there would be a small tax on that transaction.

Another was the issue of sovereign debt, but at this point I became lost. I was not clear what point Ann was making, other than that she considered sovereign debt good. Something to do with how it impacted the money supply.

The last point, and perhaps the most important, is that we need to focus investment on employment

If we invest in employment then we create a number of virtuous loops. The employed person is productive and less reliant on the state. They pay taxes to fund government spending. They also spend their money and this creates profits for retail and drives production. Above all we need well paid employees spending their wages in the (real) UK economy. That is what happened after WWII. Full employment, good wages, low crime, and strong economic growth.

Of course endless economic growth is a myth and a problem that was not discussed. But, for example, imagine if, having nationalised Royal Bank of Scotland, they were directed by their new owners (us!) to invest in green energy and jobs for Scottish people? Instead they continued to invest mainly in derivatives and other areas of the economy that produce nothing and create no jobs (except for a handful of bankers). So no benefit has accrued as a result, except that the share-holders of RBS have got their dividends. And they're probably not even paying tax on it. Here's another idea that just occurred to me - all shareholder dividends of UK companies should be taxed at source, like PAYE (and yes, taxed twice if they go offshore).

Whither The Revolution?

Ann's personal revolution was the Jubilee 2000 Campaign which she directed. It resulted in world governments cancelling £100 billion in debt to poor African nations that could not afford to pay the interest, let alone the principle.

However, while her ideas are revolutionary, she clearly doesn't see herself in a leadership role. She is an educator and adviser, but her call is for us to educate ourselves and for us to organise ourselves, not to follow her. And one cannot help but be a little disappointed by this. Movements require leaders and organisation. In Malcolm Gladwell's terms, a revolution requires connectors and persuaders and ideally someone at the head who is both. Someone who articulates a vision, has a practical program to achieve it, and who provides the focus for organising the mass demonstrations required. Not an easy role, I imagine, but a necessary one I think.

When our political leaders are so very disappointing (venial, dishonest, ideologically driven, parochial, self-serving, etc etc) we might well look outside the mainstream of politics for leadership. Ann is just as charismatic in person as I had expected her to be, and is someone I'd happily get behind if she ran for office (I struggle to think who else I might say this of). Of course I have long been a convert to these kinds of revolutionary ideas in their broad outline, so I am biased.

However, I ran into an old acquaintance outside the lecture hall and we were both bothered by the lack of an obvious movement to get behind. Some years past, in a rash mood, I joined the Labour Party, but it simply translated into being bombarded with requests for donations and invitations to fund-raisers. Inspiration factor zero for me and I quickly removed myself from all their mailing lists (which took a while).

If not Ann Pettifor (and I would ask her, Why not Ann Pettifor?) then who? Whose banner ought we to follow? Jeremy Corbyn? He may well look good in the aftermath of the inevitably train wreck that is Brexit and the collapse of the Tory Party due to infighting, but I don't think he is the revolutionary leader we need. He may well tip the government back towards liberal social policies, but he's not planning to take back control of the monetary system (as far as I know).

But at least we have someone who is capable of articulating the vision and who is quite high profile for a left-wing intellectual these days. At least there is a coherent alternative to the Neoliberal gibberish we have been drowning in. At least there are people, like Ann, who are telling us that the status quo is not inevitable and that things can change. She reminded us that in the past things have changed, and that it is people who change them. So at least there is that. 


The video is now online. Poor sound quality unfortunately.

For Q&A and an extra interview see: https://imagine2027.org.uk/podcasts/ann-pettifor/