As Adam Smith knew, the experts think they know best, but what do the people say?

The high-powered experts who make up the LSE’s growth commission have proposed a blueprint for reviving Britain. To achieve its goals, though, we’ll have to get rid of those blasted MPs and councillors. What say we?

What makes economies grow? You could say it is the oldest question in economics: the complete title of Adam Smith’s foundational work is An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

It took Smith nearly a thousand pages to set out his formula. This past week, an independent “growth commission” convened by the London School of Economics provided a modern answer – albeit for the UK only – in a mere 36 pages.

Not that the LSE’s commission’s report ever risked being superficial. Its authors include a Nobel Prizewinner, a former chief economist of the World Bank and the first woman to become a deputy governor of the Bank of England. And its attempt to prescribe “the institutions and policies that should underpin growth for the next 50 years” is timely. For the past four years, the policy debate in the UK has been dominated by the question of how to escape from the slump induced by the financial crisis, yet few would deny that the UK needs a long-term economic strategy as well as short-term tactics.

So what is the commission’s answer to the question of what Britain needs to do to reinvigorate its economy in the 21st century? It identifies three critical determinants of prosperity in which the UK is deficient and which policy should therefore cultivate: skills, infrastructure and innovation.

On one level this sounds like a statement of the bleeding obvious. Can you win a Nobel Prize for working out that it would be a good thing if the workforce was better educated, railways and roads got an upgrade, and if private companies spent more on research and development? Where do I apply?

But we should cut the report’s authors a bit of slack. Yes, it is unfortunate that economists’ theories of growth are formulated at such an Olympian level of abstraction that by themselves they generate only the most platitudinous of conclusions. For this very reason, however, the test of a body such as the LSE commission is whether it is brave enough to advocate more specific policies – and on this score, it does not disappoint. The constraints it has identified may not come as much of a surprise; but the solutions it proposes are more controversial.

In secondary education, the authors endorse the academy model of more autonomy and greater centralisation of funding and accountability for schools. They advocate the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank. On innovation, they back proposals for an allowance for corporate equity that would remove the existing tax incentives to finance businesses with debt, and thereby encourage risky start-ups for which equity funding is the only realistic option. These are serious policy proposals, backed by detailed argument; they deserve a serious hearing from the government.

Unfortunately, the commission makes a further, overarching recommendation – one that is not just controversial, but positively dangerous. How, it asks, did Britain get into this mess in the first place? Why did it lose its historical lead in skills, infrastructure and innovation? The ultimate answer, it says, is simple: the root of our problems is politics.

The trouble with Britain is that it allows elected politicians to make policy. Worse still, we allow local politicians a say in things such as planning and schools. And, to cap it all, we have an unfortunate habit of changing our minds and electing different parties every few years. The result is a chronically unstable environment for long-term investment. Public priorities never stay the same for long enough to get anything done, and the private sector is at the mercy of Nimbys and the political cycle.

So, if we want to make Britain grow again, we need not only to make the right policy choices, but to take those choices out of the hands of politicians. We need a “new insti­tutional architecture” that can “put politics in the right place”. Only then will we bid farewell to interminable “flip-flopping”, the inevitable harvest of “political bickering”. Economic policy will at last be in the capable hands of independent experts: an infrastructure planning commission to decide, say, where nuclear power stations should be built, and a national growth council to dispense an industrial strategy.

It is a seductive view of what constitutes economic progress – one that has bewitched well-meaning technocrats down the ages, from enlightened imperialists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued for a “government of leading-strings” for Britain’s colonial possessions, to the socialist planners charged with the instant industrialisation of the eastern bloc’s developmental nation states. If only the benighted people and their annoying representatives would get out of the way, the impartial experts could get on with modernising the country.

The reality is that policies made by unaccountable experts are unsustainable – because they do not reflect what the people want. Only a democratic process, however flawed, can do that.

The LSE commission’s report was published in the same week as it was announced that it will take 20 years to complete the High Speed 2 rail link, in large part because of the need to follow time-consuming planning procedures. Such is the price of a democratic economy. No doubt unelected bureaucrats handing down compulsory purchase orders could do the job in half the time. But policy would no longer be reflecting people’s interests; it would be reflecting what the experts say their interests are.

It is a critical distinction – and, as it happens, one of which Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations remains the original exposition.

Felix Martin is a macroeconomist and bond investor. His book, “Money: the Unauthorised Biography”, will be published by the Bodley Head in June

Adam Smith. Image: Getty Images

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Trade unions must change or face permanent decline

Union membership will fall below one in five employees by 2030 unless current trends are reversed. 

The future should be full of potential for trade unions. Four in five people in Great Britain think that trade unions are “essential” to protect workers’ interests. Public concerns about low pay have soared to record levels over recent years. And, after almost disappearing from view, there is now a resurgent debate about the quality and dignity of work in today’s Britain.

Yet, as things stand, none of these currents are likely to reverse long-term decline. Membership has fallen by almost half since the late 1970s and at the same time the number of people in work has risen by a quarter. Unions are heavily skewed towards the public sector, older workers and middle-to-high earners. Overall, membership is now just under 25 per cent of all employees, however in the private sector it falls to 14 per cent nationally and 10 per cent in London. Less than 1 in 10 of the lowest paid are members. Across large swathes of our economy unions are near invisible.

The reasons are complex and deep-rooted — sweeping industrial change, anti-union legislation, shifts in social attitudes and the rise of precarious work to name a few — but the upshot is plain to see. Looking at the past 15 years, membership has fallen from 30 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2015. As the TUC have said, we are now into a 2nd generation of “never members”, millions of young people are entering the jobs market without even a passing thought about joining a union. Above all, demographics are taking their toll: baby boomers are retiring; millennials aren’t signing up.

This is a structural problem for the union movement because if fewer young workers join then it’s a rock-solid bet that fewer of their peers will sign-up in later life — setting in train a further wave of decline in membership figures in the decades ahead. As older workers, who came of age in the 1970s when trade unions were at their most dominant, retire and are replaced with fewer newcomers, union membership will fall. The question is: by how much?

The chart below sets out our analysis of trends in membership over the 20 years for which detailed membership data is available (the thick lines) and a fifteen year projection period (the dotted lines). The filled-in dots show where membership is today and the white-filled dots show our projection for 2030. Those born in the 1950s were the last cohort to see similar membership rates to their predecessors.

 

Our projections (the white-filled dots) are based on the assumption that changes in membership in the coming years simply track the path that previous cohorts took at the same age. For example, the cohort born in the late 1980s saw a 50 per cent increase in union membership as they moved from their early to late twenties. We have assumed that the same percentage increase in membership will occur over the coming decade among those born in the late 1990s.

This may turn out to be a highly optimistic assumption. Further fragmentation in the nature of work or prolonged austerity, for example, could curtail the familiar big rise in membership rates as people pass through their twenties. Against this, it could be argued that a greater proportion of young people spending longer in education might simply be delaying the age at which union membership rises, resulting in sharper growth among those in their late twenties in the future. However, to date this simply hasn’t happened. Membership rates for those in their late twenties have fallen steadily: they stand at 19 per cent among today’s 26–30 year olds compared to 23 per cent a decade ago, and 29 per cent two decades ago.

All told our overall projection is that just under 20 per cent of employees will be in a union by 2030. Think of this as a rough indication of where the union movement will be in 15 years’ time if history repeats itself. To be clear, this doesn’t signify union membership suddenly going over a cliff; it just points to steady, continual decline. If accurate, it would mean that by 2030 the share of trade unionists would have fallen by a third since the turn of the century.

Let’s hope that this outlook brings home the urgency of acting to address this generational challenge. It should spark far-reaching debate about what the next chapter of pro-worker organisation should look like. Some of this thinking is starting to happen inside our own union movement. But it needs to come from outside of the union world too: there is likely to be a need for a more diverse set of institutions experimenting with new ways of supporting those in exposed parts of the workforce. There’s no shortage of examples from the US — a country whose union movement faces an even more acute challenge than ours — of how to innovate on behalf of workers.

It’s not written in the stars that these gloomy projections will come to pass. They are there to be acted on. But if the voices of union conservatism prevail — and the offer to millennials is more of the same — no-one should be at all surprised about where this ends up.

This post originally appeared on Gavin Kelly's blog