This might come as a bit of a surprise from a man who has spent most of his life on stage singing ‘silly love songs’ but one of the great passions of my late teenage years was economics. Yes, that’s right…economics.
Hard at my studies
The seventies was a particularly interesting time for world economies. The OPEC oil embargo nearly brought western economies and governments to their knees whilst the miners’ strike led to power cuts, the three day week and me doing my homework in candlelight. This perfect storm finally led to ‘stagflation,’ an ugly word which encompasses slow economic growth with high inflation and unemployment. Every day the newspapers had horror stories proclaiming the end of the world was nigh and I was hooked.
I was encouraged in this passion by an enthusiastic, rather left wing, economics teacher. With patches on the elbows of his jackets he would take us to picket outside city centre banks to show our disdain for the South African Apartheid regime. All of this whilst also filling our eager minds with supply and demand graphs, the power struggle over ownership of production and the boundless wonders of Keynesian economic theory.
The last term owes its name to the Cambridge Economist John Maynard Keynes who believed that it was in the government’s power to regulate the economic activity of a country by pulling on various levers leading to the ‘multiplier’ effect.
If there was too much unemployment the government should create jobs by borrowing money, even if that meant simply paying people to dig holes and fill them in again afterwards. The people in these new jobs would spend their wages on other products, creating demand and more jobs. Thus, the initial government expenditure would be multiplied many times over, thus stimulating an economic recovery, increasing tax returns and eventually paying off the borrowed money.
Walking through the courts of academia
Armed with my complete knowledge of how an economy worked I decided to continue my studies at Cambridge University, the home of Keynesian Economics. That’s where the trouble really started. I arrived at the university with an almost evangelical belief in my economic understanding only to find when I got there that there were other economic theories which explained the world in a completely different way.
They even gave me a degree
The Thatcher government of the day had put it’s faith, quite literally, in Monetarism. Monetarism was the direct opponent of Keynesianism and the trouble for me was, once one of its evangelists had explained the theory, well, they sounded right as well. Two completely different and opposite theories and both sounded right. Confused, I struggled on for a few months before giving up completely and changing my university course to one which involved going on visits to local forests.
That’s the trouble there are always at least 2 sides to every story, how do you know who’s got the right answers?
In Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome as well as being taught the three R’s, reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, one of the most important subjects was rhetoric. Here young men, and it was usually young men, were taught how to argue, how to take facts and figures and create an argument that would persuade people to believe your point of view. That skill is still taught in many schools through debating societies. The interesting thing about these lessons in rhetoric is quite often the student will be told which side of the argument they need to present. Whether they believe the premise or not doesn’t really matter, what matters is their ability to create a narrative so strong that people believe every word.
Politicians make a career out of rhetoric. They stand before us and tell us their truth and every couple of years we have a vote to decide who we believe. After that we basically let them get on with it. Then a couple of years later we have to make a judgement on how they have performed, or more likely on how they tell us they have performed.
Usually there is such a time lag between what we were told and what we are being told that it’s easy to forget exactly what we were promised. Anyway, they will persuade us with their rhetoric that when they said what we ‘thought’ they said in fact they were saying something completely different.
I think that’s why this pandemic is making people stop and think about what we are being told because the world is changing before our eyes.
Usually even if the numbers don’t quite add up at the end of a government’s term in office no one can quite remember what we were promised. In a pandemic its not the words that count, it really is the numbers.
It’s the number of people who died, the number of people hospitalised and trying to regain their health. It’s the number of people in care who haven’t seen a loved one or the number of people who are allowed to attend a wedding or a funeral. It’s the number of people who have lost their jobs, it’s the disastrous growth figures for a country’s economy.
Of course, the easiest way for any government to respond to criticism and to show that the correct decisions have been made is to compare how we have coped with this crisis compared with other countries. That’s something that we did for weeks here in the UK… until we stopped doing that.
In the USA, the richest country in the world, the figures look terrifying; nearly 8 million people infected, over 200 thousand deaths. Some argue these are the worst figures in the world. The rhetoric used by others is that it could in fact have been much, much worse if the crisis hadn’t been handled so well.
I think this is where we need to be careful, we need to be vigilant and wise. Whilst remembering there are 2 sides to every story sometimes people don’t directly ‘lie’ to protect their interests, all they need to do is make you doubt the truth. This strategy is explained in a book ‘Merchants of Doubt’ which claimed for decades companies in various toxic industries ran campaigns to sow doubt in the scientific evidence showing the dangers of their products. For example, while scientists were telling the world that smoking was killing people tobacco companies ran adverts featuring doctors recommending their favourite brand of cigarettes.
So, what do I want to hear from our leaders?
I now realise that to say I want the truth is too simplistic. I do not envy their job and I think we all understand that many of us are making it up as we go along so why shouldn’t they?
What I want is for politicians all over the world to realise that this is not about them, their financial backers, their belief system or ego or how they are perceived in a newspaper or on television. This is about all of us. No one escapes the impact of a global pandemic including them.
In the world of economics Keynesianism and Monetarism still fight for supremacy, probably bombarded on all sides by new economic theories. I’m sure this is the same in the world of fighting global pandemics, but for all of our sakes can we please forget the words and concentrate on the numbers because in this case the numbers really do not lie.