What should economists and policy makers learn from the financial crisis?

Ben Bernanke, Mervyn King, Larry Summers, Olivier Blanchard and Axel A. Weber talk at the LSE about the lessons of the crash.

They packed us in like late boarders on a budget flight. I shuffled shoulder-to-shoulder down the narrow passage between the rows of folding chairs in the LSE’s Old Theatre, where in an hour’s time Mervyn King would take the stage with Ben Bernanke, Larry Summers, Olivier Blanchard and Axel A. Weber to discuss the financial crisis.

A returns queue stretched out the door and back into the main lobby where students camped with blankets. I took my seat beside a young man clutching the syllabus of his development economics course while another, to my left, texted Chinese characters. Mobile phones and open laptops flickered like moths in the lamplight as the audience waited.

Anticipation hung in the air and it wasn’t surprising. Since the UK Budget and the crisis in Cyprus it seems that “policy makers” have grown complacent to inflicting pain and, when faced with protests, comfortable with popping in their earplugs. Although the US has embraced stimulus, the country has accrued debt in exchange for small boosts in growth, while some figures point towards the bank bailout (over which Bernanke presided) costing the country 20 times as much as it did in the UK.

Would the outgoing governor of the Bank of England (King), the Chairman of the Federal Reserve (Bernanke), the chief economist of the IMF (Blanchard) a foremost central banker (Weber) and a former US Treasurer (Summers) offer optimism to a jilted audience?  It was hardly Question Time, but there was a sense that we deserved some answers.

The esteemed panel didn’t offer much in the way of revolutionary talk, but humility and an openness to change both arrived as common themes. Each offered filial praise to King, who will step down as BOE governor in June. (Summers credited him with both the industry's most formidable intellect and elegant accent).

For Ben Bernanke, who spoke first, this financial crisis was “a classic” but also “novel” in the complexity of its aftermath. Bernanke’s pet project is the Great Depression and he drew insight from looking back to the other American-born crisis that left the world reeling, and the subsequent currency fluctuations associated with the dropping of the gold standard, which Britain abandoned in 1931. As head of the Fed during the Wall Street crash, Bernanke has been criticised for buying up the troubled assets of AIG and Merrill Lynch. While a lesson in economic histories is fascinating, I couldn’t help feeling he’d shirked the more riveting contemporary account many were hoping for.

The closest he came to outlining an actionable “policy” was an encouragement of “domestic objectives” achieved through “domestic tools”, discouraging emerging markets which rely too heavily on exports.  Fair point: as we’ve seen, demand is less an abundant meadow so much as a grassy cliff on the other side of which lies a self-sufficiency void. It’s wise to be sceptical of heavy capital investment in export processing zones, inherently vulnerable to demand bubbles, but is that really possible in a globalised world? It’s hard to imagine corporations pulling back from cheap labour, or the governments of sweatshop nations turning them away. Export-based economies are often touted as the cure-all investment for third world poverty (think of Bangladesh and post-quake Haiti) and foolish as that may be, until economists put forward a real alternative it seems unlikely to change.

Olivier Blanchard, speaking next, managed to charm with his five take-away lessons to be learned from the crisis: 1. Humility (economists got it wrong); 2. The importance of detail (the minutia of financial systems matter); 3. Interconnectedness (the world is one big economic family); 4. Macroprudential reform (better risk management) 5. The re-examination of central banking (how free should they be to set their own rates?).

Such decent and technical points will surely keep the generation of future economists filling the seats beside me busy – but the most important sting was the first. Blanchard spoke eloquently on the myth of progress (some people already knew) and the myriad problems associated with a rhetoric of upward ascension. It is true and terrifying that economists often forget we aren’t just getting better and better at doing things – and that history often repeats itself.

General conclusions drawn by all were that the crisis will force a reconstruction of macroeconomics and redefine the role of central banks. Though none seemed keen to embrace the policies of frugality (and implicitly backed a Keynesian approached to recovery), the evening lacked the damning tone towards austerity which would have pleased many listeners.

It was left to a nasal Larry Summers to do most of the plain talking; speaking in lofty, maple syrup-coated sentences. While the panel debated how they would each reconstruct macroeconomics, Summers chipped in:

I think there’s a central question: do we define macroeconomics as being about... cyclical fluctuations around something that was determined someplace else, where the goal – if you were successful – was to reduce their amplitude, or as tragic accidents where millions more are unemployed at costs of trillions of dollars that are avoidable with more satisfactory economic arrangements?

Until we adopt the second vision I think we are missing our principal opportunity to achieve human betterment. And as long as this question is conceptualised as ‘what new friction should we insert into the existing model’ I don’t think we’re gonna get to the kind of perspective that I’m advocating.

Economics is perhaps the eeriest of sciences: a lingering, omnipresent force without big bangs or supernovas or medical breakthroughs, but rather a complex and continually shifting clockwork that occasional implodes and shakes the world to its foundation.

For all but the economically adroit (I include myself with the amateurs), a lecture such as this haemorrhages hope like a picked scab. The distance between the policy makers and the people, from their academic language to their casual in-jokes and lack of clear solutions, is troubling. Should it have been a grave affair? Perhaps not, but it would be nice to see someone look a little scared. Down here in the audience, things don’t feel so relaxed.

To hear a podcast or to watch a video of this lecture click here.

US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke speaking at the LSE on 25 March, 2013. (Photo: Getty Images)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.