Changing the economic frame/ Making a political difference
“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.” ( Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532, Chapter 6)
“For the overriding economic problem discussed in this book, the first necessity is not technical devices but the public acceptance necessary to make them work” (Hirsch, Social Limits to Growth, 1977, conclusion)
It has long been understood that it is politically difficult to introduce a new and untried order of things which upsets the economic status quo. With the slow motion economic failure of the 30 year experiment, it is nevertheless important to ask: how can we make a difference politically and begin to organise a better world. The answer is not obvious. We have accumulated so many critiques of neo liberalism that, if they were all piled up one on top of another, they would surely by now reach to the moon. And yet, after several decades, we are no closer to defeating neo liberalism.
This disconnect between critical thought and effective action isn’t a problem for everybody. As we have argued in our blog about Thomas Piketty’s Capital, the sales success of that book can be attributed to the way in which it combines fact driven critique of growing wealth and income inequalities with an utopian solution of higher income and wealth taxes. This solution will never be enacted when we live in post democracy where the mass party is no more and the organised working class have been disempowered
But it is a big problem for the team that wrote The End of the Experiment because we wanted to write a book that moved from critique of the thirty year experiment to new political proposals for action and intervention. Of course we are academic scribblers not political practitioners. But we can break with the dismal TINAF (There is no Alternative Framework) assumption that frames current centre left and centre right politics; and hope that our arguments can have some performative impact in the next phase of ongoing crisis
In our book, the distinctive form of our critique shapes our concept of the alternative. Because the one centralised, Westminster led dogmatic experiment has failed, we recommend much more diversity of regional and local experiments which provide the basis for discovering answers. Because our critique shows that the generic fix of competition and markets has led to sectoral mismanagement, we recommend a different approach which recognises the heterogeneity of the economy and engages with activity specifics in what we call the foundational economy.
The argument on these points in The End of the Experiment is dense but it can be simplified and systematised. The book’s policy argument starts from a contrarian insight about how there is more than one economy. It then focuses on part of the economy by proposing the foundational economy as an alternative object before proposing chain value and social license as policy principles do which could be developed and articulated through local experiments
1) The contrarian insight
After thirty years, it is not difficult to see the problems inherent in the current framing of our politico- economic problems in a country like the UK. It is increasingly realised that our economic problems do not have technical solutions with existing management tools. It is widely accepted that the current UK recovery is consumption based, debt fuelled and unsustainably driven by house price rises: if that observation is set in the context of boom and bust over the past thirty years, the implication is that there is no setting of the macro policy levers (fiscal and monetary) which will deliver sustainable UK growth.
The main stream response is denial. The Thatcherite revolution fails because it is incomplete, the answer is more of the same (and please don’t talk about debt based growth). The generic fix of competition and markets is now applied with more force to energy, banking and every other sector; this structural reform is backed by bolt-ons like industrial policy to deal with market failure in the commercialisation of early stage innovation.
This kind of obsessive compulsive behaviour may be increasingly incredible; but it is at the same time difficult to reframe issues and propose an alternative that works. The difficulty relates to habits of thought and organisational peculiarities which are embedded in main stream British politics.
In terms of overall vision, the centre left’s question has always been why can’t we be more like Germany and their difficulty is that they have no policies which would move the British economy away from financialization and onto a more virtuous productive path. Manufacturing output shows no sustained output growth because the aspirations of foreign owned branch firms are limited as are the capabilities of British firms who prefer to compete in sheltered sectors; adding more finance for production or up-skilling the workforce will achieve little without radical changes elsewhere because UK supply chains are constructed around low skill and investment.
As a way of breaking out of this impasse, we turn to the insights of the French historian, Fernand Braudel. First, “there is more than one economy” because the economy is heterogeneous and includes zones that are not competitive. Furthermore, capitalism is as much about monopoly as competition because local monopolies are what many firms want and the state can franchise. These contrarian insights are the basis for our break with main stream thinking.
In the 30 year experiment, the economy was represented as the unitary sphere of competition where all should submit to the imperatives of globalisation; this conceptualisation was reinforced by the aggregation of everything into national income measures with growth and jobs then promoted as the objectives of policy. Against this we argue that a large part of the economy (more than one third) is sheltered from competition; while growth and jobs are socially meaningless objectives when the income gains from growth are captured by the top 10% of households by earnings and because low wage jobs spread welfare dependence
2) Our object is the foundational economy
After recognising the heterogeneity of economic activity, the question is about how to think about the different zones and their interaction. Our focus is on the zone or sphere which we call “the foundational economy”. The foundational has never been an explicit object of policy and (we would argue) has been mismanaged insofar as it has been subjected to the competition and markets fix.
What’s inside the foundational economy? On our calculations, we include the pipe, cable and wireless utilities that deliver water, energy and broadband, transport utilities like rail and bus, food processing and distribution through supermarkets and most of the lower levels of health, education and welfare. Their outputs are mundane goods and services, from processed food to primary education, which lack the glamour or attractiveness found in high tech or knowledge based “key sectors” like aerospace or the creative industries.
The activities inside the zone are diverse in terms of outputs or ownership because the foundational economy produces a bewildering variety of goods and services under private and public ownership. Yet these activities also have a series of shared characteristics which are the basis for our classification. These goods and services are all foundational because they are necessary to everyday life, consumed by every citizen regardless of income and distributed according to population through branches and networks. They are also typically sheltered and often politically franchised so that the state (through regulation and planning laws) gives the cable tv operator or the big box retailer an effective local monopoly.
When these activities are bracketed together, the foundational economy appears as a large and strategic zone for several reasons. Large because the foundational economy employs one third or more of the UK workforce; strategic because the cost, quality and security of foundational goods and services (such as energy supply and health care) are key determinants of citizen welfare. Indeed foundational activities are funded by a kind of lien on tax revenue and household expenditure; foundational expenditure accounts for 30% on average of weekly consumption in households who have little choice about paying utility bills or buying supermarket groceries.
After a period when low cost provision of many of these goods was taken for granted, the price and security of foundational supply is increasingly an issue. The crisis of foundational supply is related partly to the limits of our small planet and partly to the failed thirty year experiment; thus, our privatized utility operators like BT are investment averse and British infrastructure is increasingly being half-heartedly renewed by billing the customer or taxpayer for investment.
3) Our economic principle is chain value
Our argument on the foundational economy starts from a distinction between two concepts of value (point value and chain value) which is then developed into an argument about how the foundational economy is being mismanaged on point value principles and would be better managed on chain value principles.
Point value means that the measure of success is least cost or highest profit in an individual transaction (or basket of transactions) at a node in an economic chain. Point value is an active and now ubiquitous principle in the calculations of private and public sectors.
It is represented in the public company imperative of shareholder value through quarterly earnings and higher stock price; or in private equity through cashing out by selling a portfolio company to meet the equity investors’ demand for high returns which are levered up with cheap debt. But it is also represented in the public sector response to budget cuts and value for money when, for example, in adult home care the local authority cuts the hourly rate paid to the agency supplying care workers.
Point value has considerable intellectual prestige; because it is in one form materialised in all the post 1930s business school calculations of return which take account of the time value of money; as with discounting to calculate net present value. At ordinary rates of interest, such calculations are socially questionable because they devalue the future by attaching a very low value to returns more than 5 or 7 years away. Practically also, they are place bound because point value represents a trader mentality which ignores broader social consequences.
Point value is embedded in private business models which then pass problems down the chain as with supermarkets which use their power to capture supplier margins. In the public sector, the problem is that the state gains on one account only to lose on another account. Thus, wage cuts will reduce the cost of providing council services but increase the demands for housing benefit and other kinds of welfare support. Pervasive point value therefore spreads unsustainability as private and public actors trumpet their point success when supply chains are undermined and the welfare bill spirals out of control.
So our alternative is back to the future with the alternative principle of chain value. We should recover the idea of value as a stream of benefits for (internal and external) stakeholders over time. Benefits are not only financial and measurable through one master calculation because there are several orders of worth and long term uncertainty requires defensive prudence. This requires a different kind of economic calculus which balances the interests of different stakeholders (rather than privileging the investor); and introduces political objectives around the ideal of connected economies which deliver both the benefits of re-localisation and of national standards and inclusive national networks
One of the central problems is that much of this calculus about interconnection is not actionable within the current British system and is equally unlikely to be realised through the forms of decentralisation which are currently on offer. The British way after the 30 year experiment is to dispense with intermediary institutions and combine self-governing operating units with centralised political power which micro manages in an interfering way; hence the decision makers are the PLC board or the Academy School governors subject to interference by Vince Cable or Michael Gove. As for devolution and decentralisation, in the bi partisan view, articulated in the Heseltine and Adonis reports, this is a matter of handing decision making and central money to dominant regional elites with very few questions asked.
4) Our political principle is social license
The operationalization of chain value thus requires not so much more government as a different concept of what nested levels of government are and can do. As well as very much less reliance on governance at operating unit level which always promises much more than it delivers.
We are against the post 1979 concept of business friendly government which has dominated in the period of the thirty year experiment. In this frame, government’s role is facilitative as it creates the space in which the incentives of markets and competition do their work; hence the structural reform agenda of lower taxes, market liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation. The only acceptable forms of local and regional policy are infrastructure and training which make the market work better (and now help create competitive agglomerations); industrial policy is about rectifying market failure in commercialising innovation.
Against this, we make another back to the future argument which revives the 1930s ideas of US thinkers like Berle about how business and community are in a relation of mutual dependence because all business exists under a social contract whereby the corporation should offers responsible behaviour in return for the privileges which allow market access and secure profit taking. This is especially so in the foundational economy where the privileged business gains a local monopoly on the household spend of an immobile population in communities and user groups
Hence our arguments for social license in the foundational economy with the aim of enforcing the obligations of business to the community (which are much broader than those of customer care). The explicit analogy is with the mining industry where a social license about benefits for the local community is the quid pro quo for the right to exploit immobile natural resources. Social licensing in the foundational economy would impose relevant conditions on specific activities. Thus, councils would be obliged to pay living wages while supermarkets should attend to local sourcing; this would need to be backed by social innovation to change business models.
All this has fierce political pre- conditions in that change through experiments with scope and scale requires decentralisation with intermediate institutions under electoral and civil society pressure for change. But, if we do not have the answer and favour diverse experiments, then regional and local government can begin right away with experiments in areas, like adult care, where resistance to change is weakest. The question is whether regional and local governments, under pressure from civil society, can rise to this challenge and through experiments and “ actual experience” demonstrate the potential of this approach in ways which increase not just “public acceptance” but public demands for change.