There are plenty of arguments as to the way forward for the economy. They fall into a number of broad groups such as fiscal and monetary and names of great men crop up from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes (why does one always have to resist the temptation to type “Milton Keynes”) but, and this is just as I see it from my Devonian hideaway, none of these address the unique situation in which the developed western economies find themselves today. Many situations in the past have crept up and found us completely unprepared to deal with them. Often we did not properly understand the cause let alone have any idea of how to cure the problem and them with hindsight, we look back and we are amazed at how incompetent were the reactions. Let me offer two example of what I mean and then we’ll return to this business of “austerity”.
First the Black Death. Here in the UK we had plenty of warning that a plague was advancing – sometimes slowly and sometimes in leaps and bounds – across mainland Europe towards us. We did nothing to stop it arriving. How could we? We did not even know what it was let alone how it was carried across from country to country. It changed everything for years following the event.
You could say that the Black Death was outside our control but what about the Great War? How come we ended up with a line of trenches which divided mainland Europe and took the lives of millions – to what end? Yes, war is the failure of diplomacy and as sure as hell is hell diplomacy was found wanting. Even after that war, serious mistakes were made – mistakes which laid the foundation stones for the second world war. Looking back now we can see with stark clarity what mistakes were made: before the great war, during the great war and between the wars. Diplomacy failing, failing and failing again.
Now, another personal view, the problem is debt – national debt and personal debt – at levels that we never, ever seen before. The position is new and yet all the old economic ideas are being trotted out with one group believing one economic system will provide the solution and another group looking at another economic system for salvation. And none of them will work. If war is the failure of diplomacy, the level of debt we have today is the failure of economics. You could say that every boom and every bust has been a failure of economics in that each time there have been warning signs which have been ignored or, more probably, went by unnoticed.
Common to the Black Death, the Great War and the economic situation today is that we do not know how it happened and we do not know how to put it right.
Like every one else, I have little to offer. In any event, my essentially rural and small community experiences mean I am hopelessly unqualified to make suggestions for urban UK. Since, however, ignorance is no great bar to most commentators in the media generally (including the blogosphere) I have decided to ignore my ignorance and make a small suggestion.
At the macro scale, government can do nothing. If it tries it will have to increase its debt and we shall end up with a Great War equivalent of the Somme where so many died to no purpose. On the micro scale, however, communities can do a great deal.
Take housing – something we all agree is needed. Within any community there are tradesmen, there are people with skills and no jobs, there are people with no skills and no jobs, there are people with a bit of spare cash, there are properties that are empty and need work to make them habitable, there are people who need a home and there is a small unit of government – a Parish or Town Council. If the best that every one of these small units can do is to organise just one house refurbishment per annum then that adds up to a total of about 10,000 ‘new’ homes every year. No problems with the need for expensive new infrastructure, no need for a new school or another hospital or a new sewage system, water main, etc.
All it needs is to relax a few regulations, give these councils a bit more power and start looking at them as organisers and mentors rather than rulers – creating a company to buy, refurbish and let property into which local people may invest: invest in something that they can see and from which they can make a profit. Yes, you can use the power of persuasion at a local level but not at a national one but even then, if you cannot get local people to come up with the funds it could well be because what you are suggesting is not sensible. Wouldn’t it be good if we could with-hold taxes when we feel that what the government is doing is just not sensible.
You can use the same argument for all sorts of aspects of life. It could be that the proper engines of “growth” are these Town and Parish Councils and not central government, bankers or big business after all.
Worth a bit of thought or is it just a crazy idea?