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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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.