A cautionary tale for all humankind for all time.
Truly, Kwasi and Liz are the stuff of legend. If they had lived deep in antiquity they would still be remembered in fables and folk-tales, not as role models but as a warning to us all. For besides trashing the British economy in a few brief days – a feat surely without precedent? – they managed to flout the bedrock moral principles of compassion, humility, and the sense of oneness with the natural world, and left the rest of us to pay the price. For good measure they exposed once more the deep flaws in the discipline of economics, and, more broadly, in conventional education. For both were educated at one of the world’s most prestigious centres of learning, and Kwasi starred in University Challenge as his supporters never stop reminding us, yet both proved to be seriously daft, condemned by thinking people (which doesn’t just mean by experts and intellectuals!) the world over.
On the moral front, despite Kwasi’s claim to “understand” the sufferings of lesser mortals, and Liz’s claims to care, neither of the deadly duo shows compassion. Their single-minded dedication to “Growth, growth, growth” by indulging the rich and with no well-defined goal in mind was and is bound to push many thousands closer to the breadline and indeed over it, forever spoiling their chances of fulfilment, though that for any leader who really gives a damn should be the absolute no-no.
Neither did either of them, not for one second, show anything resembling humility. Indeed, they exemplify the sin of hubris, which the Ancient Greeks saw as the greatest folly of all. Kwasi has already been air-brushed from history but at the time of writing Liz hangs on – sort of apologizing to the British people but also implying that she and Kwasi failed in their grand endeavour only because they “moved too fast”, and the dullards who make up the bulk of humanity could not keep up. Sorry about that Liz! I’ll be sure to pull my socks up!
As for the natural world: forget it! Global warming can be put on hold. God will suspend the laws of physics while the Tories sort themselves out. Won’t He?
In like fashion, in their “mini-budget”, Kwasi and Liz managed to fall into all the deepest traps that lurk within the discipline of economics. And the deepest of all, as discussed in The Great Re-Think, is to suppose that economics is or can be a science, which it isn’t and can’t be – although, deceptively, it can be made to look like one. As the Cambridge economist Joan Robinson pointed out in Economic Philosophy in 1962:
“ … lacking the experimental method, economists are not strictly enough compelled to reduce metaphysical concepts to falsifiable terms and cannot compel each other to agree as to what has been falsified. So economics limps along with one foot in untested hypotheses and the other in untestable slogans”.
Economics texts look like science because they are festooned in maths – but the maths is employed merely to flesh out the assumptions of the economists. Joan Robinson avoided this trap because, as she said:
“I never learned mathematics, so I had to think”
This mistake (treating economics as a science) is further compounded by the folly of supposing that science leads to omniscience, and enables us not only to predict the future but to shape the future just by applying some supposedly science-based algorithm (in this case the doctrine of neoliberalism). But as has long been widely recognized, the insights of science must always be partial and provisional – so even if economics was a proper science it would still leave us far short of perfect knowledge. (More on such things later).
But then, even if we did have perfect knowledge of the world we still could not predict the future with perfect accuracy because cause and effect are not simple. The universe does not run like clockwork, as Newton suggested it must. In nature, as has long been clear, cause and effect are “non-linear”. In the real world, as opposed to the abstract worlds of physicists or indeed of fundamentalist economists, anything that is happening now could, in reality, unfold in many different ways. So it is that modern weather forecasters, brilliant though they are, processing gigabytes of data, are able to tell us only that some possible outcomes are more likely than others. In human affairs, further complicated by human ideas and ambitions and wishful thinking, cause-and-effect is even more non-linear. Or as Robbie Burns observed in “To a mouse” in 1785,
“The best-laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley”.
Put all this together, and we see that the idea that any particular scheme of politicians is bound to lead to their desired outcome (in this case something called “growth”) is naïve in the extreme. And when the best-laid scheme in those politicians’ heads is to apply the long-discredited formulae of neoliberalism, we move well beyond naivety and deep into the realms of absurdity. But this is what Kwasi and Liz sought to impose on us.
Finally, though, to be fair to bona fide economists, we should acknowledge that neither Kwasi nor Liz is an economist. Kwasi read History at Oxford and Liz read PPE at Oxford and although the E stands for “economics” no-one seriously suggests that a notional third of an undergraduate course does or can produce the finished article. And besides, by all accounts, the E in Oxford’s PPE does not attempt a broad survey of the world’s many and various economic approaches, or explore the intrinsic weaknesses of the whole discipline. Instead, I’m told, it offers a grounding in neoliberalism, as if neoliberalism was the denouement of all serious economic thought (although as I argue later, neoliberalism as practiced is particularly crude and the combination of neoliberalism with scientism is perhaps the deadliest disease of all, a threat to all life on Earth).
Indeed, as Alexander Pope observed in 1709:
“A little learning is a dangerous thing ;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.”
Liz and Kwasi should have drunk far more deeply before they launched their fantasies on the rest of us – or at least listened to those who have already imbibed.
So what can we do now, as we survey the debris? I suggest that what we really need – or at least the best we are likely to achieve – is a version of Green Economic Democracy, as discussed later. To be sure, unlike Liz and Kwasi I do not even pretend to be an economist. But then, as Kate Raworth commented in Doughnut Economics (2012):
“Every now and again, being untutored can be an intellectual asset”
Kwasi and Liz, half-educated as they are, have shown the truth of this too.
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