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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.