Friday, October 30, 2015

Economics and education

"Most of us have long lamented the general public's lack of understanding of economics", writes Chris Dillow - before linking to a study suggesting that it is the under-development of the average human brain that lies at the core of the problem. This is exacerbated by politicians who have a vested interest in reinforcing misconceptions, such as the the notion that a nation's finances are like a household budget. I really like Chris's writing but this isn't very helpful. If you want to assume people don't get economics because they aren't able, go ahead - but I'd suggest the reason is more straightforward: they don't get it because nobody bothers to explain it to them properly. Two points here:

 1) It isn't taught in schools very widely. In Scotland it is possible to do it as a certificate subject but not only is it not compulsory, hardly any schools do it at all. I'm not sure what the situation is in England except to say that I do know it doesn't form part of the core curriculum either. Given that this is unlikely to change, not least because there isn't really anyone demanding things be otherwise, any economics education would have to come from somewhere else. Chris probably rightly rules out politicians and the MSM here, which leaves only 'public economists'. But there's a significant problem here...

 2) 'Public economists' are a rather other-worldy bunch who really need to learn the humility of a good teacher. The bad teacher assumes that the reason the class hasn't followed what he or she is saying is because they're just plain stupid. Well, they may well be - but the good teacher at least allows for the possibility that perhaps the reason the class hasn't grasped the curriculum is because it hasn't been explained to them very well.  How many public economists are good teachers in this sense?  I'd suggest not many.  There are quite a few who I won't name but are the sort of people who spend an inordinate amount of time on social media complaining, or crowing, about how unbelievably thick people who disagree with them are.

Take, for example, the idea that the government's finances are like a household budget.  This is obviously wrong.  "When I find money is tight, I just print some more".  You can't because you don't have a currency-issuing central bank in your living room.  But economists, like good teachers, should use bad analogies, work with them - and then explain why they are wrong later when understanding has developed, rather than dismissing those who use them as thickos.  Why, for example, are there so few economists (are there any?) pointing out that many of those who claim to be "living within their means" have debt in the form of mortgages that are often easily in excess of two and a half times their annual income?  And why is there no 'anti-austerity' politician making the point that when Britain emerged from the Second World War with a national debt roughly around this proportion, the government built the NHS from the ground?  Why is there no-one to say that what this present government is effectively saying is that, "Sorry kids but Christmas is cancelled this year because we're making it a priority to pay off the mortgage earlier than we have to."?

More generally, why are there absolutely no anti-austerity politicians in the British Isles, even among those who say they are?  Corbyn isn't against austerity - he just want different people to do it.  The SNP aren't either.  They actually practice austerity in the form of budget under-spends while complaining that it's the rest of the UK that should be doing the more elastic fiscal policy.  The failure is pretty comprehensive and I blame the teachers - or rather the economists that should be teachers but have for whatever reasons failed in their responsibility.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Milne on the USSR

Like many, I thought Corbyn's decision to appoint Seamus Milne as the Labour Party's director of communications was a bad one - for me primarily because it looks like the consolidation of a faction that makes winning an election even more unlikely than it did before, rather than anything to do with his views on history.  However, following a conversation on Twitter, it is his views on history, specifically that of the Soviet Union, that this concerns.

What it relates to is the objection to the epithet 'Stalinist' to describe this journalist's views on the 'Red Terror' on the grounds that all he has insisted on is that Hitler was worse than Stalin and that attempts to equate them is a distortion of history.  The purpose of this short post is really just to explain why I don't agree that this is all he was doing.  If it was, I would find a fair bit of common ground.  That Hitler was worse than Stalin is something I agree with without equivocation and would also agree that, in as far as the Second World War is now seen by some as two totalitarianisms slugging it out on the Eastern Front, this represents a (very) vulgar interpretation of  the 'totalitarian thesis'.  (Although I think the tendency he describes is rather more commonly found among journalists than proper historians.)

There are a number of fairly well-known objections to the thesis.  Among these is that it is a static concept that cannot properly deal with what happens when some supposedly 'totalitarian' regimes succumb to the forces of routinisation.  Is it really satisfactory, for example, to describe Brezhnev's USSR as 'post-totalitarian'?  Then there's the fact that the total control of these regimes has purported to have attempted has never really been a historical reality.  Should we then describe 'totalitarianism' as an aspiration?  I'm not sure that makes much sense.  But my principle objection to the equation of Hitler and Stalin under this category is that it doesn't even properly use the concept as it was originally stated.   The thesis holds that 'totalitarian' regimes have more in common than separates them, not that they were the same thing.  The notion that Stalin was at least as bad as Hitler because he killed more people is a vulgarisation of this.  I do agree with Milne that this simple-minded interpretation does indeed seem to have gained an unjustified currency and I also agree that it shouldn't, not least because it is simply wrong.  Hitler and not Stalin started a war that led to at least 50 million dead and it is indeed right to remember that among these are included around 20 million Soviet deaths, including some three million Red Army POWs.

That Hitler was worse than Stalin is not a controversial view in my world but the objection to Milne is that it seems to me that he goes some way beyond that.  Churchill also took this view but could anyone seriously argue that you couldn't put a fag-paper between his and Milne's view of Soviet Communism?  One objection is that Milne seems to accept the vulgar terms of the debate and has produced in the past something even more vulgar.  The linked piece was from 1990.  The following year, evidence from the Soviet archives tended to suggest that Conquest's 20 million figure was more likely to be accurate than the 3.5 million he suggests.  I didn't get the impression from some of his post 1991 articles that he has taken this on board at all.  I don't think it is unreasonable to suggest that he has shown a tendency to down-play Stalin's crimes and he also seems to have an unfortunate habit of juxta-positioning this with acknowledging the USSR's considerable industrial modernisation under Stalin.  This is obviously a fact of economic history but the context in which this observation is made - and without noting the horrendous human cost of this - should, I think, make people uncomfortable.

Is it unfair to dub Milne 'Stalinist' for this?  I'm prepared to accept I could easily be wrong about this but I don't think it is.  Put it another way, if a similar process was applied to the Third Reich with someone suggesting that Hitler didn't kill as many people as is generally assumed whilst simultaneously inviting us to recognise he build some awesome roads, I don't think many people would have any difficulty in recognising that for what it was.

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