Ed Miliband's challenge

Shifting economic paradigms won't be easy.

Ed Miliband told us in his speech to the Labour Party conference earlier this week that he wants to see a new type of economy: one with different aims and values from those that prevailed during much of the last 30 years. Bringing about such change will not be easy. In a new IPPR paper, David Nash and I show how resistant to change economic paradigms can be.

As Martin Kettle argues, if Ed Miliband wants a new type of economy in Britain, he will have to argue long and hard for it. He will have to continually highlight the flaws in the existing model and he will need to make a persuasive case for the alternative. This week his framing of this important argument was not strong enough and as a consequence, it has been more easily criticised and caricatured than it might have been.

Distinguishing between "predators" and "producers" was an unnecessary hostage to fortune as the shadow cabinet discovered when defending the speech to the national media. The arguments of thinkers such as Will Hutton, Anatole Kaletsky and William Baumol over different models of capitalism got obscured as Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan resisted the temptation to list good and bad businesses. And without a stage managed letter to the Financial Times from company CEOs calling for a level playing field on apprenticeships or placing workers on remuneration committees, the new policy nuggets were easily picked off by a hostile media.

Nonetheless, Miliband's analysis of the flaws in the existing economic model was sound as the Telegraph's Peter Oborne has recognised. After all, it allowed the worst financial crisis since the 1930s to develop and this was followed by the deepest recession in the post-war era, both in the UK and globally. There is also a growing recognition that, even in the good times before the financial crisis, the economy was only delivering for the wealthiest in society. In the UK, living standards for those on median incomes stopped improving after 2003 - a full four years before the crisis.

And yet there is nothing to suggest that a paradigm change is imminent. Indeed, apart from some toughening of the regulations covering the banking sector (and then less than might have been expected three years ago), it is largely business as usual. There has been no great change in the way economic policy is designed and implemented, no change in the objectives of economic policy and no change the dominant strands of academic economic thinking.

Perhaps, things have not been bad enough for paradigm change to occur. Unemployment has increased sharply, but at around 8 per cent it is considerably below the 20 per cent plus levels seen in the Great Depression: levels that eventually helped create the conditions for the Keynesian Revolution in economic thinking and policymaking. Nor does the combination of 5 per cent inflation and 8 per cent unemployment feel as bad as the 27 per cent inflation and 6 per cent unemployment that were experienced in 1975.

More importantly, there are not enough new economic ideas waiting in the wings to coalesce into a new economic paradigm. Keynes said that it takes a theory to kill a theory and Kuhn argued that a paradigm cannot be displaced by anomalies, only by another paradigm. But the economics profession continues to resist change because it has invested so much intellectual capital in the wrong models and is reluctant to admit its mistakes.

In the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher, Keith Joseph and others in the Conservative Party were able to work with critics of Keynesian thinking, such as think tanks like the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies, to develop the ideas of the Chicago monetarist school into policies that could be implemented in the UK. The politicians helped give support and credibility to the new way of thinking, and in return benefited from appearing more up-to-date in their ideas than their political rivals in government.

Ed Miliband's primary problem is that there is no new well-developed economic model - comparable to monetarism in the 1970s - sitting on the shelf waiting for him to pick it up and champion it. He therefore faces a tough decision. Does he want to tinker at the edges with the existing model - a bit more banking regulation here, an employee representative on a company board there? In some ways, that would be the easy option. But it will hardly distinguish him from David Cameron and George Osborne.

Or is he prepared to make the case for more radical change and to champion those independent voices in economics that are not heard enough? This might involve rethinking the objectives of macroeconomic policy, for example by giving the Monetary Policy Committee a dual mandate to target inflation and full employment (in line with the US Federal Reserve's mandate), or requiring explicit targeting of asset prices. It might involve developing new objectives for economic policy that take account of the distribution of income; of non-monetary measures of progress such as wellbeing; or of future resource constraints. Or it might involve abandoning altogether the solutions proposed by traditional economics in favour of new ways of economic thinking, which better describe the real word, such as complexity economics.

Such an approach would be riskier. It would be a real call for a new economic paradigm and shifting economic paradigms is not easy. There would be an inevitable backlash from beneficiaries of the status quo - the wealthy and the right-wing press.

But the prospect of a decade of stagnating living standards for the bulk of the population suggests a big change in thinking is required. History suggests a shift in the economic paradigm requires political support and if Ed Miliband is prepared to take up the challenge, he could help to forge a new approach to economic policymaking in the UK. The added bonus for him would be greater differentiation between current Labour Party thinking and both its own past and the government's approach.

Tony Dolphin is Chief Economist at IPPR

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear