Hitler lived out his final days in the foothills of the Patagonian Andes pottering around his plantation in a gardening smock with Eva Braun. The Japanese are a quirky set of sexless robots too busy upgrading their manga subscriptions to care about producing the next generation. A new study of the Zapruder Film shows that, if you look carefully, it is actually the driver of the Dallas limousine who turns around and shoots JFK. And, finally, an actor/comedian/pop star says it would be nice if everybody had a nice life all of the time. You would have thought the world had a pleasing regular rhythm to it the way these stories rise and fall like dead fish from the bottom of the ocean.
These days, economics can only dream of this kind of regularity and rhythm. The rules of supply demand have all but disappeared from our lives. For instance, there was a day when, if the economy wasn’t so great and unemployment was high, prices would fall as both buyers and sellers of goods and services reacted rationally and adjusted their behavior accordingly. I distinctly remember haggling with a salesperson in Dixons during the recession of the early 1990s for a ten percent discount on the sticker value of sound system. And I got it.
But now none of this works. People in the UK are working harder than ever before but their real wages are increasing at a crawling pace of about one percent a year. The gap that is opening up is like nothing we have seen before and symptomatic of something very strange; economics has stopped working.
To fill the gap we have policies like Quantitative Easing, which pump-primes the economy with made up money, and schemes like Help To Buy, which attempts to reignite the problem that got us into this state in the first place. And it’s not like these policies are unique to the UK. The US, Europe, China and – above all – Japan are all doing the same. The result is a twisted and distorted system where the old rules of free market economics have simply broken down. If you were a physicist you would be wondering whether the speed of light really was constant.
Even attempts to revert to confrontational tribalism have stopped working. Russell Brand’s editorship of the New Statesman set me on edge waiting for Mary Berry to hold a press conference from the Claridges tearoom to call for the immediate redistribution of profits from the Great British Bake Off. But the social media response to Brand’s 4,500 word thesis was as incoherent as the original. There was much talk of the coming revolution but nobody on the left (defined only as those people who don’t see themselves ‘on the right’) could agree what it looked like. They had been led to the top of the mountain but there wasn’t anything there when they arrived – a basic error of leadership. The episode had the whiff of the scene in Citizen Smith when Robert Lindsay’s Wolfie was asked when the Tooting Popular Front’s revolution was starting – “About six, maybe half past depending on when everybody can get there.”
Meanwhile, in the real world, away from the undefined Utopia proclaimed from West End hotel rooms by multi-millionaire anarcho-syndicalists, the Unite Union had to climb down from the rejection of the INEOS rescue deal to save Grangemouth petrochemical plant faster than any shop steward has ever shouted “Everyone out!!!”. In the face of private capital, labour does not have an argument, least of all from union leaders who think the rhetoric of the 1970’s applies to the financial realities of today. The traditional negotiating voice of workers has dwindled to a whisper.
We now have a twisted system of inadequate political and social responses to the financial crisis which says that we have learned nothing whatsoever from it – all we have done is to seek to dampen its effects so that we can avoid confronting it. At the same time, increasing calls for the post-crisis props to be extended and institutionalised is creating a democratic deficit – people now do not have a say in the things that really control their lives; there is no democratic control over QE for instance. By taking away the forces that would have, in previous times, allowed the recalibration of society we are brewing up a longer-term problem that leads you to an uncomfortable conclusion. If there was ever a time when free market forces should be allowed to let rip in a society it is now.