Economic Nonsense: 49. Government was wrong to use austerity to deal with the 2008 financial crisis

Gordon Brown as Chancellor and Prime Minister spent money profusely, believing that he could spend the British people’s money more appropriately than they could spend it themselves, and by a political desire to have a large section of the populace on state largesse and thus supportive of a party that promised big spending.  The result was to make the UK hugely indebted, with an annual deficit that required borrowing to sustain that spending and increase the debt year by year.

The coalition government that followed him took action to reduce the deficit by a reduction in government spending.  This was the so-called ‘austerity’ package, although some critics claimed it was more talk than substance, with reductions in the increase in the debt, rather than in the debt itself.

Crucially, though, the policy was not only one of austerity.  It was accompanied by quantitative easing (QE), or increasing the money supply to reduce the more baneful effects of austerity.  Latterday Keynesians claim that government should have increased its spending to stimulate demand instead of decreasing it to tackle the deficit.  Their critics in turn suggest that it is not demand by government that sustains real economic growth, but investment by businesses in anticipation of future private demand.

The United States followed a similar policy of reduced spending combined with QE, whereas the eurozone countries led by a cautious Germany did not.  They imposed austerity on the over-extended countries of Southern Europe, but without the QE used in the UK and the US.

Britain and America experienced significant economic growth after a few flat years, whereas the eurozone countries did not.  Anti-austerity campaigners have suggested that the recovery is weak, perhaps “not even real,” but the evidence does not support this.  The empirical result suggests that the combination of austerity and quantitative easing has worked, but that the eurozone policy did not.  Significantly, the QE countries did not suffer the big rise in inflation which some critics predicted.  In 2015, the eurozone countries announced their own quantitative easing, some 7 years after the UK and US did so.

The conclusion has to be that government was right to use austerity and quantitative easing to deal with the crisis.  They did not repeat the mistakes that turned a recession into the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Economic Nonsense: 48. Labour Unions are essential to improve wages and conditions for workers

It is actually improved productivity, not labour unions, that has improved the rewards of labour.  People earned less money in former times because productivity was low.  People were paid according to the worth of their input into the production process.  When each worker contributed little, they were low paid.  As technology and production methods improved, so did the worth of each worker’s input, and wages increased accordingly.

Employers compete for labour to produce goods and services and to make profits.  They have to pay wages that attract enough workers, and compete with other employers to do so.  It is true that unions can use coercive methods to impose higher costs on employers, but this limits total employment in those sectors, and thus opportunities for employment to non-unionized labour.  The US auto industry features somewhat higher wages in unionized car plants, but there are far fewer of them than there are non-union plants.

Although it is improved productivity that brings higher wages, the effect of unions is often to lower productivity through restrictive work agreements that spread work out among more employees.  More employees equals more members paying union dues.

In post war Britain, one group that received among the highest reward increases was the completely non-unionized sector of people who clean homes – the ones who used to be called char-ladies.  The demand for their services from businessmen and women who did not have the time to do it themselves, coupled with declining numbers available to do it, led to huge pay increases.

The fundamental truth is that unions do not increase pay for workers generally.  They can increase pay for their own members, but at the expense of non-members rather than at the expense of employers.  Declining union membership in both the UK and the US has been the result in changes in the type of work being done.  Mass manufacturing has become more automated, meaning higher wages for fewer workers, leaving others to seek non-unionized work elsewhere.  Some goods once produced domestically are now bought more cheaply from countries with non-unionized workforces.  The result is fewer union jobs.  In the UK unionization has increasingly become a feature of public sector workers rather than private industry.

Economic Nonsense: 47. The state should pay for university education because it benefits society

University education benefits society in several ways.  A skilled, university-educated workforce can boost economic growth and make society richer than it would have been without them.  Less well-off and less well-educated people benefit from this, just as a rising tide lifts all boats.

The experience of going through university generally produces people who are not only educated in their chosen subjects, but who have been exposed to more cultural influences in the process.  Many people would think a society to be a better one if it contained significant numbers of educated and cultured people.  It provides more opportunities for intellectual stimulation and self-development.

All of this is true to some degree, and benefits society as a whole, but there is little doubt that by far the greatest value of a university education accrues to the person who undertakes it.  There is firstly the personal fulfilment that comes from attaining more of one’s potential, but there are more material rewards as well.

Possession of a university degree in the UK increases one’s employability.  For those in the workforce, aged 18-65, employment among graduates is 87%, as opposed to 70% for non-graduates.  Median salary is higher, too, with graduates on average earning £9,000 more per year than their non-graduate counterparts.  Over a working life this could top £400,000 of extra salary attributable to the degree.  

This constitutes an overwhelming advantage accruing to the individual who undertakes a university degree.  While there are undoubted benefits to society, those gained by the individual are high and measurable.  They make the loans undertaken to finance university, perhaps £36,000 for a 3-year degree, a very good investment indeed.

When people suggest the state should pay for this, they mean taxpayers should.  It seems strange that a person not equipped to benefit from university, someone who leaves school at 16 to become a bricklayer, for example, should be called upon to pay higher taxes so that someone else, already endowed with more academic and intellectual ability, should benefit from what amounts to a ticket to a higher salary for life.  

Some would call this unfair, and suggest that those who gain the most from university education should finance most of its costs.

Economic Nonsense: 46. Profit is a sign of exploitation

No.  Profit is the reward for investment.  An investor defers gratification and uses their money instead to try to make more money later.  Profit is the compensation he or she receives for doing this.  Part of it takes account of risk, the risk that the investment might not pay off or that the investor might lose the money they put up.  Part of the profit is reward for taking that risk.

The notion of profit as exploitation derives from a mistake made by Karl Marx.  He supposed that value resides in objects, rather than in the mind of the beholder.  Because he thought it resides in objects, he asked how it got there, and answered that value represents the labour it takes to make something.  A price charged above the value of that labour represents “surplus value,” and is exploiting the workers who make the object.  Hence comes the notion of profit as exploitation.

In fact people value things differently, which is why they trade.  An object’s value to me might represent the other uses I might have made of the money, had I not expended it in producing the object.  If someone values it more than that they will pay a price that includes a profit for me.  Far from being a sign of exploitation, profit serves a valuable human purpose in motivating people to produce goods and services that are of value to their fellow human beings.  It directs us to serve the needs of others in seeking a return for ourselves.  The butcher, the brewer and the baker might seek their own reward in terms of the profit they make, but in doing so they provide others with meat, ale and bread.

Profit is legitimate, and sends signals to others.  If some areas of production show high profits, others are motivated to enter that field themselves and bring extra production onto the market.  The competition with other producers will generally act to restrain or reduce the high profits.

Economic Nonsense: 45. Unbridled capitalism brought about the Great Depression

In the popular account the stock market went wild in the late 1920s, with people gambling recklessly on stocks and shares, often with money they didn’t have.  Shares could only go up, they thought, but they were wrong.  The market crashed, people went broke, investors jumped off high buildings, and without investment GDP plunged and the Great Depression came about.  If it were true it might be a major indictment of unbridled capitalism, but it isn’t.

People did overstretch recklessly, assuming the market could only rise, helped by easy money from the Federal Reserve Bank, and the Great Crash came in 1929.  It wiped out many investors, but it did not lead to the Great Depression.  That came later as a direct result of bad policy decisions.  Had those decisions not been made, the stock market crash might have instigated a cyclical downturn and corrected itself after a year or two.

The Federal Reserve Bank, observing that people had bought shares with easy credit, decided to tighten credit and restrict the money supply.  This is what you do not do in a recession, when struggling companies need credit to keep going and companies that see opportunities ahead need money to invest in expansion.  It was a disastrous mistake.

The folly was compounded by protectionist policies.  The Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 shut out most foreign goods to boost home-produced goods in the name of protecting American jobs.  Its effect was catastrophic.  It sparked a beggar my neighbour trade war as other countries responded with tit-for-tat measures.  Unable to sell goods in America, they stopped buying American goods.  International trade plunged and much of the world sank into recession. 

There were other contributing factors.  Banking regulation had been clumsy and restrictive, and left American banks unable to play their part in promoting investment and expansion.  Income taxes were massively hiked in 1932, just when tax cuts could have helped.

Unbridled capitalism did not cause the Great Depression, incompetent government did.  It is another piece of economic nonsense that President Roosevelt’s New Deal government activism helped America’s recovery from the Great Depression.  It didn’t.