lördag 6 september 2008

The Cupboard is bare

The cupboard of ideas, that is. The British economy is going through a bad patch and headed for worse. The essential emptiness of the New Labour project is now revealed. There is talk of the "total destruction" of the Labour Party. The Conservatives have got nothing to offer. Cutting waste and inheritance tax are their big ideas, as though cutting taxes on the dead will do anything for the living. If the Liberal Democrats have anything useful in their cupboard,, it is at the back of the top shelf, and well hidden. The Green Party is too small to matter. They have a few good policies, also on the top shelf and their members do not understand their significance. Some politicians talk about raising the retiring age and making benefit scroungers go back to work, though they do not explain how that is meant to happen with unemployment now above 6%. The party conference season is beginning. I fear it will just reveal the emptiness.

How has this come about? Intellectual laziness, mainly. People will not ask questions but accept what they hear and read. It starts even before school. "Shut up and stop asking questions" is the stock response to naturally curious children. It continues in the classroom, where children are scared to ask questions for fear that they will be made fun of by their classmates or teachers. Instead, they sit and pretend they understand. By the time they are ten, the habit is grained in.

The economics columnists are a high-level example of the malaise. Why they say tends to consist of perceptive observations, faultily analysed to the point that their pieces do not cohere. Often, it would be possible to challenge them with a question or two which would force them to admit that they did not understand what was going on. A famous economist, Professor Wynne Godley, once wrote that "economics is in a state of great confusion... with no accepted body of theory". If I recall, the article was in the Financial Times and it was in the early 1980s, perhaps 1981. At a popular level, the lack of understanding is evident in the on-line comments and letters to the press. And then the whole political debate ends up by being about personalities, which effectively puts a stop to discussion about policies.

I would like to be able to say that the forthcoming party conferences will be interesting. They will undoubtedly be turbulent but they will not be enlightening in the way one would want.

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