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Labour Complications in the Birth of Ideas

Reading the abstract for a Canadian study in the Psychological Science Society’s journal (Bright Minds, Dark Attitudes) that states that people with ‘lower cognitive ability’ are more likely to be prejudiced and that it is likely to manifest itself through right wing ideology, has started me thinking about the anti-intellectual trend in the UK and USA. It’s not uncommon to come across attitudes such as: “They may know everything there is to know about existential philosophy / Beethoven’s late string quartets / particle physics / early Etruscan culture (delete as appropriate) but they are a complete idiot when it comes to understanding my emotional problems / the off-side rule / assembling a flat pack wardrobe / buying presents (also delete as appropriate)”. And this does suggest that there is something along the lines of ‘common sense’ that most people have and that intellectuals don’t. I would say probably that I only have any significant skill in one of the above eight areas of knowledge but that if I work hard I can / could get by in the other seven. I also recognise that expertise in any or all of these areas is unlikely to make me rich or successful. I’ll return to that later though – firstly: the problem with the above statement is that knowing all there is to know about a subject does not make you intelligent, it makes you knowledgeable. Intelligence is about putting together connections between knowledge and one of the fundamental requirements for that is the recognition that everything is much more complicated than it seems. And that’s where the problems lie – recognising how complex things are makes someone much less likely to act. See, for example, this article by George Mombiot in the Guardian about the ‘Bright Minds, Dark Attitudes’ study. I disagree that the liberal inertia he describes is entirely due to timidity. The problem is that left wing ‘intellectuals’ are more likely to see the complexity of a subject and, whilst they may reject a simplistic right wing solution, they don’t want to propose an equally simplistic left wing solution.

However, it does make me wonder if these Canadian psychologists might not also undertake a study about the cognitive ability of people who do become rich and successful and a companion project about the cognitive ability of people who develop ideas that change the world.

And it is a very difficult message to sell to people: life is very complicated and it’s better to develop policy through slow deliberation and a thorough examination of the issue. Especially when politicians and civil servants tend to ignore the bits of any such process that they don’t like and say – well we did implement 70% of the proposals – but of course in way that does what we wanted to do in the first place…

…and of course, it’s complicated because…


Rehabilitating The Public Sector

The coalition government in the UK keep repeating the mantra that we need to replace public sector jobs with private sector ones. This seems to ignore quite an important aspect of the issue: the question of what the people in these jobs actually do. The idea that we can remove public sector jobs without having any effect on the services provided is, of course, a nonsense that every opposition party and incoming government seeks to perpetuate. The quagmire that the government have slithered into over, for example, the NHS, the police, sentencing and the prison system, the universities and defence procurement illustrate this problem: efficiency savings are seldom a realistic option. What then about the option of privatisation?

The idea is that we get the same products or services but more cheaply because the private sector is more efficient than the public sector. Has that ever been the case? Did we get the same service when the railway system was privatised? Has our rail network improved in relation to, say, Deutsche Bahn and SNCF since it has been privatised? Do we get better value for money?

It seems that the first thing private companies seek to do when they take over public sector contracts is to change the nature of the product – to find out which aspects of the service don’t make money and get rid of them or replace them with something cheaper. We really need to be analysing the costs and benefits achieved in some of these sectors. Perhaps the only thing that changes is that any money that was being ‘wasted’ on lower paid staff through less efficient organisational structures is now reallocated to shareholders. Now you might argue that this is a good thing because shareholders are likely to reinvest such money (not necessarily in the UK of course, as off-shore investors like Peter Green illustrate). You might equally argue that low paid staff spend a larger proportion of their wages in the local economy and therefore stimulate demand. I don’t think there’s a purely economic argument here – it’s an ideological one and one which the Labour party has all but abandoned.

Is it worth paying extra for the improved infrastructure that a centrally run system provides in some instances? At the moment, the consensus seems to be that state run education is a good thing – so where is the serious research and debate about health, higher education, prisons, benefits, transport, police and security? I’ve recently seen some interesting arguments about the quality and value for money that the UK higher education system provides – Howard Hotson’s Don’t Look To The Ivy League in the London Review of Books – and Simon Szreter’s For The Many, Not The Few in the Times Higher Education. It’s sad that the Labour Party doesn’t have the self confidence to question the validity of free market capitalism and to seek to establish an ideology that rejects the notion that money is the only measure of worth. Even within the confines of capitalism we all make judgements about value that go beyond cheapness. When I buy a consumer durable I balance the features provided against the cost and realise that on the one hand, buying the cheapest will usually be a false economy and on the other, that I am sometimes paying extra for a brand name.

To bring this back to the public sector, surely the question shouldn’t be about what provides more value for money but about balancing the cost of the best system in relation to the most economic system and then making a value judgement about what we want as a society. Remember, private sector jobs are often much less valuable, not to mention essential, to society than public sector ones. We should be demanding that our government collects sufficient tax revenue to keep us in the style to which we’ve become accustomed. I want publicly funded and centrally planned schools, transport, energy provision, universities, libraries, police etc and I want my government to be working out how it can make the public sector run better rather than being obsessed with making it cheaper. Producing more fast food, television channels, plastic toys, computer games, garden centres, designer clothes, financial services and wittily emblazoned T Shirts in an enhanced private sector isn’t going to make our society a better place to live. That would stem from better schools, hospitals, transport, parks, housing, justice, equity, universities and democratic structures and the private sector is useless at providing them. The question of what type of economic activity we want shouldn’t be stuck in the economic ideology of public versus private, it should also be about valuable versus worthless, life enhancing versus stress inducing, thought provoking versus mind numbing, socially responsible and forward looking versus blinkered and selfish.

How Does Music Work?

What do we mean by musical meaning?

This seems, quite oddly, to be a question that musicologists are very happy to completely ignore. Perhaps the reason for this is that it is such a complex and subliminal thing. Perhaps we have developed assumptions about music based around harmony and form that assume that if we analyse the harmonic structure or formal structure of a piece, then we have also understood its meaning. We’re all familiar with the idea of music talking to us, of music being a form of expression: but what does it express? When I was studying music at school, I found that a lot of the analyses that I had to read about pieces that related to thematic development, sonata form and so forth only described what it was and had very little to say about what it meant. Since then I’ve written a lot of music, listened to a lot of music and analysed a lot of music. I’ve also read quite a lot about the psychology of music, although I’d be the first to admit that I’m very far from being an expert in the subject area.

However, I’m going to make some suggestions about how we understand music – as much as anything to help me clarify my thoughts on the subject. I’m going to start by describing how I think people interpret the world around them in general.

How do humans construct meaning?

My understanding of how humans interpret the world around them and construct meaning from their perceptions is based on theories of ecological perception, embodied cognition and interpretation through metaphor. James Gibson’s theory of ecological perception proposes that some aspects of the world as they are perceived through our bodies are immutable and universal because the experience of existing within a human body in the physical world forces some types of interpretation upon us. The way that stereoscopic vision and stereo hearing works ensures that we see and hear direction and distance in a consistent and coherent manner. We also develop a complex implicit understanding of acoustics because certain spatial features are always associated with certain acoustic results. We can tell without seeing from the way sound is reflected whether we are in a large or a small environment. Human activity also provides certain fixed and immutable forms of sonic result: we can hear the difference between something being tapped lightly or hit hard. We can generally hear a lot of other information as well: blowing into a tube rather than scraping on a string for example. In any given situation our implicit knowledge of what is, in our experience, possible guides our interpretation of what we actually perceive. And that goes for sounds that aren’t ‘possible’ too. For example, I believe that we understand new electronic sounds through their similarity to familiar acoustic sounds.

Lakoff and Johnson, in their book Metaphors We Live By, have taken the idea that we are hidebound by our experience of being a human body a step further to propose that the way we interpret phenomena that occur outside our body is through metaphorical relationships with our sensory experience. They suggest that embodied cognition and metaphor are the basis for all human thought processes. Thus, my experience of balance within a body is used metaphorically to understand the outside world with concepts such as a balanced diet, the balance of trade. Within linguistics this theoretical position has now become a central tenet for a large number of researchers and these ideas are increasingly being applied to other disciplines including music.

How does that work with music?

The implications for musicology of this theoretical position have been explored by scholars such as Eric Clarke and Allan Moore and there are a growing number of us who see this as a way forward for understanding musical meaning. One crucial aspect of this is that there are certain characteristics of sound that have basic forms of unambiguous meaning for human listeners. If we have two ears and have lived in the world for a while we can hear direction, distance and environment types. We can also hear the type of gestural shape that caused a sound  – high or low energy expenditure, hitting rather than scraping, even tensed muscular activity rather than relaxed. In music, I can hear the difference between the loose limbed muscular activity and tense, nervous muscular activity – and it conveys the types of character that we associate with those types of gestural activity within the musical narrative. So I can hear anger and passion, sexuality and serenity, all encapsulated within a musical narrative. However, just as if I see a silent film of a person writhing on the ground I might attribute their behaviour to pain when in fact they are laughing uncontrollably, the lack of context often makes musical activity ambiguous or indistinct in its meaning. And just as my impression of what might be happening if I see a group of people in flowing white robes walking into a large building will depend on my cultural background, so will my impression of what’s normal in music and what types of social behaviour it usually accompanies.

But the most important thing about music is that it’s not about a single gesture, it’s about complex sequences of them in complex combinations. Aside from, for example, hearing the sound of three performers combining into a kind of arrogant, loose limbed strut in the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK”, there is also a continually changing dynamic even in the most repetitive of music. I may hear the sound of large scale energetic activity in a Mozart symphony or solitary and relaxed – to the point of lazy – activity in a Debussy piano prelude but it moves beyond an overall character. I’m listening to a dynamic narrative.

Obviously, a lot of that narrative relates to the features that musicology studies already. Structure and harmonic progression are the two key ones. Melody and rhythm seem to be mainly studied in structural terms: where a theme recurs or changes or how a rhythmic pattern is repeated at different points of the structure. There’s very little analysis in terms of what kind of feeling a particular rhythm or melodic shape generates.

What does that mean for musicology?

A few years ago, I took a written analysis of a Beethoven piano sonata and used it as template for composing a piece of electronic music – a Sonata for Yamaha DX7. I copied the thematic structure and development and recapitulation of the sonata form it followed. Of course, it sounds nothing like Beethoven: it uses just one feature of the Beethoven sonata and ignores all the others. In some ways, this is what I think modern musicology is doing. By not developing the language and theory to describe the gestural complexity of musical sound, by sticking to structure and harmonic progression and, more importantly, by studying the score rather than the sound, musicology is missing the point.

Goodies, baddies and ethical foreign policy

There’s been a great deal of ‘holier than thou’ moralising about the hypocritical nature of US and European foreign policy in the face of the popular protests in the Middle East. We’ve been supporting repressive regimes in the region for years to maintain a stability that has helped maintain our economic prosperity and, so the matra goes, we (and the citizens of these regimes) are now going to reap what we sow. Tony Blair promised an ethical foreign policy, although he very quickly went quiet about that, and that is often quoted in this argument but what exactly does it mean? Very simply, I would say: if you want an ethical foreign policy you have to be prepared to be less greedy which means you have to be prepared to be poorer. You put the interests of the many above the interests of the few. Is it as simple as that?

So what is an ethical foreign policy then? Presumably it’s about supporting the goodies against the baddies, about rewarding good morals and punishing bad morals. Providing, of course, that there are goodies and baddies and that we all agree on what constitutes good and bad behaviour. Ethics, however, is about complicated value judgements rather than binary decisions of right or wrong. In Afghanistan the west spent a long time arming the Mujahideen against the Russians because an armed jihad against a foreign occupation force was ‘bad’. Once the Mujahideen were re-christened (unfortunate turn of phrase perhaps) the Taliban we armed the warlords against them and then we became the foreign occupation force facing an armed jihad. In Rwanda, President Kagame’s oppressive, undemocratic and murderous government is supported by western powers because it has brought stability to this troubled country since the 1994 genocide.

In many ways an ethical foreign policy is simply one that has been thought through sufficiently to be successful – and short term national interest is never the right policy goal for thinking something through successfully. If Britain and the US had started the war in Iraq with a clear policy for bringing stability to a war zone afterwards through massive infrastructure investment, the creation of strong grass roots democratic institutions, financial support for moderate muslim political factions and a clearly stated policy of allowing Iraq to manage its own oil revenues, there wouldn’t be any talk of illegal wars: because it would have been successful in bringing stability and prosperity to the region which, after all, is what the US and the UK want. We went about it in an incompetent way and without thinking it through.

But what about the ‘successful’ but unethical policy of propping up Mubarak, the Saudi royal family, Gadafi and successive military regimes in Pakistan with arms and financial support? Hasn’t Europe and the United States benefitted enormously from that hypocritical and selfish act of foreign policy? Well not if you see the development of Al Qaida as a direct result of the western supported repression of the majority of those countries’ populations. And not if you consider that the long term results of political and economic repression are always instability, violence, corruption and economic inefficiency. There is a jaw dropping irony in the spectacle of David Cameron interrupting a middle eastern tour promoting the sale of British arms, rubber bullets and CS gas to give a speech about the errors of the past and to say that “denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse”.

So why on earth does a democratic society like Britain not base its foreign policy on the achievement and maintenance of stability, peace, integrity and economic efficiency? After all, it seems that ethical behaviour is merely long term intelligent behaviour when it comes to social groupings rather than individual behaviour. If selfishness and short term-ism are signs of stupidity, then why haven’t we learned the lessons of history? The only winners when greed or violence take over policy decisions are excessively greedy or aggressive individuals and the majority suffer because, unlike this privileged minority, they are not in a position to use their financial gains to shield themselves from the instability, violence, corruption and economic inefficiency that ensues. Of course, Britain’s arms trade brings £35 billion a year into the economy and is a major employer and an ethical foreign policy would have an impact on that. What though, is the cost of that trade to the rest of the economy when we take into account the economic instability and corruption that it causes? Once again I come back to the notion of the ‘true cost’ of different types of economic activity (see my previous posts) and the arms trade is no exception.

It would be economic suicide for Britain to leap instantly from being a cynical supporter of despotic and immoral regimes to a peacenik but this isn’t an ‘either / or’ choice. Our current government only seems to have one long term aim: to allow private business unfettered access to every aspect of public life and to steadfastly ignore all the distortions of the ‘free’ market system. They are both representative of, and themselves are, people who will benefit disproportionately from unrestricted capitalism. It seems that despite the trappings of democracy, the greedy and aggressive still manage to get their agenda pushed to the fore and manage to persuade the rest of us to vote for it (or collude in a system that gives them power when we didn’t vote for it).

The Only Good Musician Is A Dead Musician.

I wonder if British universities are finally coming around to the idea that there might be some value in contemporary music. Of course, the music departments that received the highest estimations in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise are all still run on the assumption that the only good musician is a dead musician (as in Bach, Beethoven, Mozart etc). However, of the eight musicians on the Music, Drama, Dance and Performing Arts sub panel of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (which replaces the previous system), three have their specialisms in contemporary music – although none of them specialise in popular music or jazz of course.

How many other subjects at university level, though, have a majority of their undergraduate students (and by this I mean all music related courses) interested in a completely different subject area than their lecturers’ research specialisms? That’s not a rhetorical question by the way, I’m interested.  In fine art, theatre studies, English literature and film studies, do a minority elite study the dead masters of past ages whilst those who are interested in contemporary work have to struggle for acceptance or work in the ‘lesser’ universities? I suspect not.

Of course, there are a few departments in the better universities who have islands of contemporary excellence and there are even one or two where the music departments are dominated by people who study the living or at least the only recently deceased. There are even some good universities where the study of popular music has gained a foothold – but for the most part they are banished to the sociology or cultural studies departments. And for the most part they study the culture surrounding popular music rather than the music itself.

However, this issue is more complicated than necrophilia. Musicians not only have to be dead to be good but they have to compose rather than perform, write scores rather than improvise, use traditional orchestral instruments rather than electric or electronic ones and produce music for passive listening rather than active participation (leaving aside the question of being male and European). And music is a class issue too – there’s a particular culture of thinking that the mainstream of classical music is a higher form of art – requiring more refined mental abilities that other forms of musical appreciation. This has a rather weird corollary that sees more ‘intellectual’ subsets of art music such as the works of Ligeti, Stockhausen or Carter as being ‘too difficult’.

As a class issue, it seems that art music remains a signifier of membership and support of the status quo and that differing aspects of it demonstrate various levels of sophistication and differentiation: knowing about Monteverdi and Gluck marks somebody out as being more sophisticated in some ways than a Mozart buff – and yet perhaps suspiciously more sophisticated. The same is true of popular music in relation to forms and levels of bohemian character, rebellion and political or social extremism. Instead of signifying membership of a subculture, we now use music, like other aspects of culture, as a basket of goods that reflect both our ‘taste’ and our position in society. Delete as appropriate: I wouldn’t like to be thought of as someone who likes Shostakovich / Abba / Led Zeppelin / Darkthrone.

By the same token, it would seem that if you want to get to the top in the academic world of music, you should choose the right subject area as well as being clever. In fact, working in the right subject area can also be seen as a marker of being clever because it is associated with sophistication. Academics are always talking about sexy subjects and cinderella subjects but usually in terms of research funding or student demand rather than some deeper, intrinsic ‘value’.

So does this mean we have to think the unthinkable? Does it mean that the prestige of some aspects of academic subjects over others might be determined by prejudice and snobbery rather than relevance, complexity or academic rigour?

Pay public school kids to go to Post 1992 Universities?

The government is proposing that universities charging over £6000 in student fees would have to offer discounts to minority groups that are under represented at their institution. The idea being that the Russell Group of top UK universities would have to provide financial aid to poorer or disabled students to salve the conscience of the Liberal Democrat widening participation guilt. I’m only half joking when I suggest that post 1992 universities should respond to this government proposal by extending the discount offer to public school educated children – a minority group who are obviously under represented in these institutions. It would after all provide a reciprocal edge to the widening participation agenda that this initiative purports to address. It would encourage these financially stable and, usually, well qualified students to seek out the ‘islands’ and ‘archipelagos’ of research excellence that exist in these universities and reward them with their better retention (from the financial stability) and higher grades (from the training in assessment techniques that public schools offer). There is, however, a problem. These areas of excellence are never in ‘proper’ subjects.

Last week the Russell Group published a guide to their admissions procedures. The Guardian wrote:

It asks students to question why they are not taking traditional subjects: “Are you trying to avoid a challenge?” It states that while there is no “set definition” of a “hard” or “soft” subject, so-called “hard” subjects are like the ones the top universities prefer and are more theoretical. It gives media studies, art and design, photography and business studies as examples of “soft” subjects and states that they are “vocational or have a practical bias”.

In a separate article they wrote:

[Michael] Gove said he had warned the last government that state-school pupils were being “misled” about qualifications. “A generation have been betrayed by Labour ministers who denied poorer children the chance to go to top universities,” he said today. Gove said the government was trying to reverse the “dramatic” rise in the number of children taking “less rigorous, non-academic qualifications”.

It does seem to be a particularly ‘conservative’ viewpoint that says: let’s assume that the hierarchy of academic subjects and university reputations that exists at the moment is the right one and that we want it to remain the same. Therefore the right strategy for government is to encourage people to conform to the rules as they currently stand. Never mind that the Russell Group universities think that doing A level law is less useful than history if you want to do a law degree.

Is there a hierarchy of subjects from heavy weight to light weight? Is media studies easier than English literature? Is psychology easier than chemistry? Is hospitality and catering less important than the history of art? There’s a parallel here with canon formation in music, art and literature in that it is ideologically determined. Surely the whole ideology of higher education and the nub of the arguments about research impact are based on the judgement that vocational subjects are less serious than theoretical ones. Creative writing is less academic than literary criticism. Music performance is less academic than musicology. Thinking is more important than doing… and part of me screams out ‘yes’… in HE. But thinking about doing is as important as thinking per se. And why is it better to learn to think theoretically and critically about history than it is about cultural theory? The judgement is not only that vocational subjects are less serious than theoretical ones, but that new subjects are less important than old ones.

What are the criteria being used to ‘judge’ academic subjects? Could any sane person argue that, in terms of understanding contemporary culture, the study of English literature tells us more than the study of film, television, advertising, computer games and social media? Surely they’re all vital subjects. I can understand that, from an ideological perspective, someone might consider a complex work of literature to be more valuable than a complex work of cinematography – but surely it is exactly that: an ideological perspective. I can also understand that someone may legitimately think the opposite.

There are many ideological forces at work in HE arguing, for example, that science is more important than art or vice versa: that high art is more important than popular culture or vice versa – the list is endless. Unfortunately the idea that these are ideologies rather than truths isn’t popular. Of course, societies have to make ideological decisions about how they are run and a higher education system does have to make these types of judgement. The conservative position of maintaining the status quo may also be characterised as ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – but wasn’t it David Cameron who described us as ‘Broken Britain’? Surely we need to establish some serious criteria about how we value different aspects of our education system? This relates to how we value vocational subjects in relation to academic ones, emerging subjects in relation to traditional ones and how we value the small number of universities at the very top of the sector in relation to the larger number in the rest of it.

Michael Gove is suggesting that the majority of students are wasting their time with “less rigorous, non-academic qualifications” like A levels in Law or Business studies (and presumably all BTEC National qualifications).  He intimates that they should feel betrayed by universities that offer vocational degrees like Media Studies, Music Technology, Film & Video, Business Management etc – and presumably ashamed that they are studying anywhere other than at a Russell Group university.

According to a report by the Centre for the Economics of Education, Russell Group graduates will generally earn more than those from what it calls ‘Modern Universities’. However, according to a report by Universities UK and Price Waterhouse Cooper, the ‘graduate premium’ (increase in lifetime earnings that accrues from a degree) for a history degree is far lower than that for a business studies degree (roughly £50k as opposed to £180k). So doesn’t that mean, in Michael Gove’s terms, that Russell Group universities are betraying students by encouraging them away from business studies (and incidentally, even an economics degree produces less of a graduate premium than a business studies one)?

That would suggest that either the government hasn’t thought this through and it’s based on a narrow, elitist, upper middle class view of higher education, or its a deliberate attempt to denigrate the ‘lower’ tiers of the higher education system.

Are we then moving towards a divided sector of shorter and cheaper vocational courses that concentrate on job training and longer, more expensive degrees that provide a broader education? One thing that can’t be denied is that currently all degree courses have to provide students with ‘graduate’ attributes such as critical thinking, research and self organisational skills. Do we abandon that in favour of courses that provide a narrow range of job specific skills – the very thing that the Russell Group and Michael Gove are rubbishing? It would seem that the policy implications are not to abandon it but to create a two tier system. The top tier would include academic subjects and would continue to take three years to provide a broad education that instils general graduate attributes as well as subject specific knowledge. The lower tier would provide shorter, vocational courses with fewer transferable skills – something more akin to specialised job training than education. Surely this is going to institutionalise the notion of a divided labour force and further reduce social mobility?

I don’t think that education should just be about employability but I understand that for a lot of people it is. What I don’t see, though, is any sense of policy coherence here. If the government do, as they appear to, see employability as central to the higher education agenda, why not use the evidence of employability and earnings from different degree subjects when making recommendations about which courses students should take? Why put employability at the heart of the quality debate and then dismiss the idea of vocational courses?

And Justice For All…or how Metallica provide the key to progressive economic theory.

In a nutshell…

The notion of fairness has become a buzzword in contemporary British politics and this, combined with the oft-stated vacuum left in politics since the collapse of socialism / communism as an ideological force, provides the basis for this piece. I suggest that the simple theoretical basis for a progressive opposition to free-market capitalism should be the idea of ‘true’ economic costs. The social impact of economic activity (pollution, public health, traffic congestion, violence etc) should be reflected in the cost of that activity and therefore the price that consumers pay for it. The very simple ideological stance that lies behind this proposition is that it is unfair for someone to profit from activity that harms the rest of society.

What’s wrong with economics?

With a title like that you can see, perhaps, why I got a rather lack lustre 2:2 in Economics (the People’s Degree as I prefer to call it). Throughout my undergraduate degree I continually and ineffectually tried to make the point that economics was based on the most ludicrous assumptions about human behaviour and motivation: that humans use the money available to them in a logical, informed and consistent way to maximise their material satisfaction. This is the utility theory of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill that forms the basis of modern economics. Obviously I’m not alone in my views in this regard, as Yanis Varoufakis, professor of political economics at Athens University, pointed out on his blog: “For some, science is as good as its predictions. On that account, seismology and economics are comparable failures. Neither has ever managed usefully to predict a major ‘event’.”

If the assumptions of utility theory are correct then the obvious objective of economic and political behaviour should be to maximise economic growth, the activity that will provide the maximum amount of money so that people can maximise their material satisfaction. That strategy of maximising human happiness through global capitalism might, however, be perceived to be falling slightly short of this utopian ideal – and that’s where the complexities really start.

The theories about why the free market system isn’t delivering on its promises are many and varied. When I was taught economics, one of the crucial arguments centred on the idea of perfect competition. As far as I can see, the essence of the perfect competition issue is that free markets would function as they are meant to if people weren’t people and the world wasn’t the world. As there isn’t a perfect and costless flow of information between people of equal intellectual ability in a market where capital can flow instantly and costlessly between these participants, then there has to be some inequality and some regulation: the bigger the imperfections in the market, the bigger the inequalities and fluctuations. I think we can look around in the world and assume that competition is pretty imperfect.

At this point I’d like to go back to the idea of economic growth and examine how much sense it makes to use economic growth as a measure of either our happiness or the government’s success. Can there be such a thing as growth that’s bad for society or an economic contraction that’s good for society? Let’s consider an example. If everyone in the country who didn’t have loft insulation was to put it in they would save money on their electrical bills and those savings would pay for the cost of the insulation and then continue to save those individuals money. The amount of money being spent (on electricity) would have been reduced – negative growth – and yet everyone would be just as warm. Of course, the income to the electrical company would have gone down and so their shareholders would suffer a reduced income too. There’s a whole load of theory that involves terms like indifference curves and marginal utility that I’m going to skip over but which states the bleeding obvious in theoretical language: the satisfaction (or utility) that a poor pensioner gains from saving £10 on their electricity bill is greater than the loss of satisfaction that a wealthy shareholder experiences from losing £10 from their share dividend. So this would suggest that this bit of negative growth created more satisfaction than it destroyed: that society was better off after an economic contraction.

With that in mind, I want to explore the idea of good growth and bad growth. Forgetting about the niceties of economic theory for the moment, can’t we also agree that growth from an increased arms trade or the increased sale of the crappy plastic toys that encourage perpetual drip feed consumption in kids is ‘worse’ than growth that stems from renewable energy companies or pollution reducing technologies? Economics doesn’t think so.

Why hasn’t anyone fixed it?

Why then, is economics so useless? In physics, we (well OK they) built the Large Hadron Collider and are developing new fundamental theoretical principles because of tiny discrepancies in the measurements of subatomic particles. Their theoretical principles were seen to be inadequate and something had to be done about it – but economics doesn’t seem to care about the cracks in its façade. The ideas of utility, satisfaction and demand have been known to be flawed since economics began and yet economists don’t scratch around examining their first principles.

The problem is that the majority of economic theory is a lobbying instrument for free market capitalism. The flawed assumptions that underpin it create the appearance that current economic activity flows ‘naturally’ from the human condition and that there is a scientific basis to free market capitalism rather than an ideological one. But I don’t want to anthromorphise capitalism. It does not have a ‘will’. There is no conspiracy. There is just a status quo whereby economics courses produce people who understand capitalism and capitalism provides them with employment. More importantly, the more you understand it, the more it rewards you and therefore the less inclined you would be to undermine it.

A digression on the unfairness of contemporary politics…

In 1918 the Labour Party adopted, as the fourth clause in its constitution, a commitment to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. In 1995 they removed that commitment, despite, for the first time, including the label socialist in the replacement clause. Everybody recognised that this was a radical change. Despite the socialist label, it reflected the general European move at the time that involved the abandonment of the only widespread economic theory that presented an alternative to free market capitalism. The long decline and subsequent collapse of communism in the Eastern Bloc was the slightly earlier and more dramatic manifestation of this move.

In Britain now the mantra of politicians from all parties is ‘choice’. Ironically, the triumph of the market economy over communism has led to a gradual reduction in the range of choice to political consumers: all of our current political parties support the free market system of economic activity. Even in the face of the catastrophic failure of that system we recently witnessed, the political parties concentrate on arguments about how to get things back to the way they were before.

The liberal left (for want of a better description) of society should be looking for an intellectual basis to an economics of fairness, justice and social responsibility. An ideology needs a theoretical basis and that basis should be: how can we measure economic activity in terms of the social ‘goodness’ of its results and penalise irresponsible and socially costly behaviour? These aren’t new ideas particularly and books such as E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful (1973) have been arguing for a long time that alternatives to free market capitalism need to be based on an alternative economic theory. An ideology of fairness and social responsibility – and we do need a mainstream political party that is based on such an ideology – can’t be based on an economics of greed.

Charging for true economic costs…

So what would this economic theory look like? There are already theoretical tools that can be used: cost benefit analysis for example. This is the process by which the social costs and benefits of a project such as the building of a new airport are translated into monetary value and used to assess its worth. We might, for example, use the amount by which residential property prices are lower near an airport as a measure of the social cost; or the increased healthcare costs or carbon trading pricing as a measure of the cost of extra air and noise pollution. Of course these are generalised and inaccurate but so are the pricing mechanisms in the rest of the economy. The point is that there’s a need to develop appropriate theoretical tools and, once the principle is accepted the practice will follow.

Perhaps the form this would take would be a variable purchase tax that was applied to all economic transactions at different rates. To some extent we do it already for cigarettes and cars – smokers are, in effect, taxed through duty for the increased health care costs and air pollution (although petrol duty doesn’t get spent on making pollution better – maybe we should be planting new forests with that money to produce oxygen). If the social costs of banking transactions were reflected in share prices and interest rates then it wouldn’t be possible to make large profits from sub prime mortgages, the arms trade or lending to corrupt regimes.

The reason that I’m suggesting this should be realised through the price mechanism rather than through taxes on businesses is because we are not a closed economy. Any company that wanted to trade in the UK (or EU if the idea were to spread) would have their goods or services priced to include the social costs, the true economic costs of their production. UK or EU companies trading abroad could compete freely in market economies without this price mechanism.

Rewards for true economic benefits…

The flip side of this is that the pricing mechanism could also provide rebates to producers who create social benefits. Healthy foods would be cheaper than unhealthy foods. Public transport would be cheaper than car usage. Products that generate less pollution would be cheaper than those that produce more. And, as per my last post, businesses would pay some of the costs of the research that produces the knowledge they use to make profits.

Is that it?

Of course, a suggestion like this raises as many questions as it answers. There are costs of implementing any such system. The more complex, and therefore accurate and equitable, the calculation process involved in establishing these costs, the more expensive it will be. If we make materials used in the production process subject to this price mechanism as well then surely British (or EU) manufacturers will be priced out of the export market. Who decides what social goods are? There’s a whole new political discussion to be had.

This isn’t designed to be an economic system that solves all the fairness issues of the capitalist system at no extra cost. It’s a system that offers an alternative by trading fairness and social responsibility for overall economic growth. The market economy is making the UK more unequal all the time and that is creating greater social division, more crime and a more selfish, hedonistic and less informed population. The price of making the economic system more fair and socially responsible and thereby curing those ills rests in the realisation that monetary wealth is only one factor in the creation of “utility” or satisfaction.

It seems essential to me that any political party that seeks to promote responsibilities to balance rights, fairness to balance enterprise and social good to balance individual gain, must develop a theoretical basis for its economic system that is not based purely on financial greed. Metallica may not have had the reform of market capitalism in mind when they produced their 1988 album entitled And Justice For All but it does provide a suitable slogan.