The Bottom Line

Apologies to the few of you who actually read my blog. I’ve been rather ignoring it lately. Anyway, I came across a youtube video recently that I thought I would post here. I initially saw it here. It might have a bit more hyperbole than I would normally use myself, but I thought it quite compelling.

One of the reasons I found it interesting is that I was recently at a meeting where I met and spoke with another physicist who was working (in academia) as a financial modeller. It was an interesting conversation, but what struck me was that they appeared to think only in terms of the stability of the market. The idea being – I think – is that if the market is stable and optimal, then that is best for the economy. The issue that I could see is that there was no obvious link between the market and the real economy on which it was based. Or rather, there seemed to be nothing in the modelling that essentially said, this market is associated with an economy that ideally should be providing employment, products and services for a particular country. Maybe I’m wrong about this and maybe there are good reason why they do model the markets in this way. It does seem as though, typically, we do ignore many important things when deciding on the value of our markets, which is essentially the case being made in the video below.

Mark Steel at the People’s Assembly

There is a new “organisation” called the People’s Assembly which is, essentially, a movement against austerity. I’ve been rather lax in my reading (at least semi-political reading) and blogging recently and so don’t really know much about it. I do, however, think that austerity has been a disaster, both socially and economically, and so – if I understand the motivation behind this movement correctly – I agree with it wholeheartedly.

What I thought I would do is include, below, the speech given by Mark Steel at the People’s Assembly meeting yesterday. It’s both quite amusing and quite fiery. Something that I won’t expand on much here (but is something I may try and write about at a later stage) is why it appears that the most effective rhetoric for those on the left appears to come from comedians, while the most effective rhetoric on the right appears to come from what, I’ll politely call, firebrands. I’m don’t really understand why there is such a difference in style between the right and the left, but it is something I find of great interest. Anyway, enjoy the video.

Wage stagnation and the financial crisis

There was a very interesting and well-written article that I read a little while ago about wage stagnation, rising profits and the financial crisis. I can’t seem to find it again, so if any else knows the one, maybe they could point it out to me. It was about the US, rather than the UK. The basic narrative was that the increasing influence of neo-liberalism and the reduction in union power (and collective bargaining) meant that corporations were (from the 1980s onwards) keeping more of their profits than they had in the past. So, basically profits were increasing as a fraction of GDP while wages were dropping as a fraction of GDP.

So business owners, shareholders and investors now have more capital than they’ve had in the past. Of course they want to do something with this capital which, presumably, they will invest in the financial sector. Their consumers (who are also their employees), however, have less disposable income than they’ve had in the past. So what happens? Well, the financial industry sees all these people who could use more credit and who might like to buy houses. Sub-prime mortgages come into existence and credit becomes easier. People buy their houses and spend their credit on the very products made by the companies who’s profits are rising as a fraction of GDP. These people are, however, also the employees of these companies and their wages are dropping as a fraction of GDP.

So, at this stage corporations are winning on multiple levels. They’re keeping more of their profits than they have in the past (by not increasing wages at the same rate). They’re continuing to sell their products because of the easy credit that this extra capital allows, so they’re able to maintain their revenue streams and continue to extract their profits. Since this credit is essentially their money in the first place, they’re also earning interest on the money being lent to their own employees.

However, there’s a fundamental problem. If people’s wages aren’t rising while their debts are, there’s every likelihood that many won’t be able to repay their debts. Hence the credit crunch arrives when this starts to happen and the financial sector finally realises that the risk associated with the sub-prime mortgages and easy credit is much greater than they had initially realised.

Now, I appreciate that this applies to the US, but I recently saw an article on the Liberal Conspiracy website about wages and profits in the UK. It discusses essentially the same trend, which is illustrated in the figure below which I’ve taken from the article on their site. It’s certainly my view that we should be aiming to reverse this trend if we want to reduce the problems we currently have in our economy and possibly also in our society.

Graph showing the variation in wages and profits (net and gross) since 1960.

Graph showing the variation in wages and profits (net and gross) since 1960 (credit : Duncan Weldon, Liberal Conspiracy).

The intelligent management of the public finances

This is a topic that I have very interesting. It did seem obvious that trying to simply slash public spending may end up being counterproductive. This post seems to confirm that general view, but I’ll need to read it a bit more carefully to make sure I understand what it is saying and to get a sense of where the number are coming from.

The Uxbridge Graduate

Background

Much discussion has surrounded the contention that high public debt levels are associated with low / no economic growth. Specifically,well-publicised research has suggested that if the public debt to GDP ratio exceeds 90% then economic growth will slow down markedly and perhaps come to a standstill. The British government  has eagerly accepted this finding and has used it to justify its debt reduction strategy, which is that cuts to public spending are necessary if the economy is to return to growth. The government has hence proceeded to cut public spending on the promise that the cuts will reduce borrowing and thereby generate economic growth. However, instead of economic growth, the government’s cuts to public spending have coincided with stagnation and recession.  I suspect this is because the spending reductions have been indiscriminate.

The following sets out my view on why indiscriminate cuts to public spending will often increase the…

View original post 1,257 more words

The integrity of universities

There’s a very interesting (in my opinion) article by George Monbiot in the Guardian today. The article is called Oxford University won’t take funding from tobacco companies, but Shell’s OK. The basic premise is that universities should be acting for the common good, or as George Monbiot puts it


the need for a disinterested class of intellectuals which acts as a counterweight to prevailing mores.


I have to say that I agree completely with this. It has always surprised me how disinterested UK academics can be. I had always assumed that university academics had a role to play in defining what is acceptable in our societies. They are meant to be the intellectual members of our society; the people who think. If academics are reluctant to be involved in this, then who else is going to do it? This isn’t to say that everyone should bow to the views of academics, simply that academics should feel free to question what is accepted in our societies.

There are probably many reasons why UK academics are reluctant to engage in discussions about our society. One may simply be that academics have become very focused. They see themselves as experts in quite specific areas and so don’t see it as appropriate to engage in areas outside their expertise. There is some merit to this, but it is a bit disappointing – in my opinion. Another may be that there is now quite a lot of pressure on academics. Universities have become very bureaucratic and there is quite a strong publish-or-perish attitude. Academics don’t have much spare time to contemplate the merits – or lack thereof – of our societal mores. Universities have also become much more like businesses. The goal is to maximise teaching and research income and, hence, academics are discouraged from doing anything that doesn’t enhance a university’s ability to generate income.

Personally, I think the latter is the main reason why universities (in the UK) are no longer hotbeds of dissent. We are publicly funded and hence need to do what is expected of us. I’m often very critical, for example, of the Research Excellence Framework (REF2014) and even though most seem to agree, the typical response is “we just have to do this”. Well, yes, but do we have to do it happily. If we think it is damaging what we regard as strengths of the UK Higher Education system, shouldn’t we be making it clear that we’re doing it under duress. There’s also this view that we have to do what is best for UK PLC (i.e., what will best help economic growth in the UK). In a sense, I agree with this. What I disagree with is how we’re influenced to do this. University research has, for many decades, had a very positive impact on economic growth. However, this didn’t happen because politicians told universities to do this. It’s because people recognised the significance of some piece of research and used it to develop something that had economic value. It’s also largely unpredictable. It’s certainly my view that telling us to start predicting the economic benefit of our research will do more harm than good.

The final thing I was going to say regards the main thrust of George Monbiot’s article. If there is increasing evidence that global warming is happening (as there is) and if there is evidence that such warming could lead to life-threatening climate change, shouldn’t the universities where this research is taking place act as though it’s important. Maybe universities shouldn’t be accepting funding from oil companies, if their own research indicates that we should significantly reduce our use of fossil fuels. I have heard some argue that we shouldn’t worry about the provenance of our funding as we’ll typically do good things with whatever money we can get. I think this is naive. The idea that one can take funding from oil companies without being influenced by the source of this funding seems highly unlikely.

Income inequality in the USA – A Bill Moyers Essay

Since today is Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, it seem appropriate to post this video, by Bill Moyers, about income inequality. Bill Moyers is an American TV host and commentator and this is what he is calling an essay on The United States of Inequality. I appreciate that this is about the US, but much of what is said – in my opinion – applies equally to the UK. It focuses primarily on Silicon Valley where there is apparently a huge – and growing – income divide. What I found interesting is that they included a number of senior business executives who seemed well aware of this issue and were more than willing to acknowledge that this is a big and growing problem. If business executives acknowledge the problem and accept that it is growing, it seems to me that this implies that we can’t rely on businesses to solve it alone. Their obligation is to their shareholders and investors, and maybe to their customers. They obviously have to treat their employees in a manner that is consistent with good labour practice, but they’re not obliged to pay them more than they need to and they’re not obliged to create jobs if they can get what they want more cheaply (and efficiently?) elsewhere. We need, in my opinion, labour policies that aim to address unemployment and income inequality as well as take into account best value for investors and shareholders. I accept that it is not easy, but I would hope that many would agree that the future stability of the UK economy may well depend on how we address the issue of rising income (and wealth) inequality.

Thatcher is dead!

With a blog name like To the left of centre, you might imagine that I would write some gloating post about the death of Margaret Thatcher, but I can’t quite bring myself to do so. I’ve only written about her once before, when I commented on the large increase in income inequality that occurred during her time as prime minister.

Something that has struck me, while listening to the various people commenting on her life, is that very few (if any) seem to say anything really nice about her. Many thought she was “strong”, “decisive”, “inspirational”, “determined”, “a great polician” but noone seems to have said “nice”, “cheerful”, “friendly”, “generous”, “compassionate”. Listening to radio 4 on the way home last night, someone – when asked if she could have done some things differently – suggested she could have bullied her staff and colleagues less. Someone tried to say something positive by commenting on how she would sometimes change her mind. He went on to say that you could arrive one morning to discover that her views had changed and that she now agreed with what you had said the previous day. She wouldn’t acknowledge that it had been your idea; but it still felt good to have contributed! Sounds like a remarkably unpleasant person. It’s possible that this was the only way that a woman could ever have become prime minister at that time, but that doesn’t suddenly excuse her behaviour. It just just doesn’t reflect well on our society, which is probably no better today to be honest.

All I seem to be able to take from the coverage of Thatcher’s death is that she seems to have been quite an unpleasant person who divided a nation. Still, some think she was one of our best prime ministers. If my characterisation has some merit, I find it hard to understand how this can be true.