It's The Economy That's Stupid

Abie Philbin Bowman made a good point at the gig yesterday. Once, people believed in a mysterious, invisible force. They didn’t understand it, they could hardly even describe it, but they credited it with vast power, claimed it controlled just about every aspect of the world, and declared that whatever it wanted to happen was what must happen. They called it “God”.

Now, they call it “the economy”.

It’s so true. Nobody really understands the economy. We can’t even define it – is it the sum total of human transactions, or just the sum total of human transactions that involve things you can count? But nevertheless we positively invite it to take control of our lives. As someone else said, the problem with calling economics the “dismal science” is not that people think it’s dismal, but that people think it’s science. At best, it might aspire to being a branch of psychology. Yet people actually try to run the world according to its self-defeating prophecies.

A concept tossed around a lot in current economics is “competitiveness”, which sounds like it has to be a simple, positive good. Got to be lean and fit to make it in this world, don’tcha? It seems almost synonymous with efficiency. But when you look at it more closely you realise that there are a lot of assumptions involved here. “Competitive” is sometimes used as a synonym for “cheap”. When it comes to wage costs, it seems competitive always means cheap.

Competitiveness is at heart a sports metaphor, so let us imagine economic activity as a game like soccer or rugby. We – as a country – have to get out there and be competitive. Cool. Let’s go get ’em! We’ll show them who… costs less. We’ll give it 110% all the way through the first half, and right through the second, and on through the third, and… Hold on, three halves? When does this game end actually?

It doesn’t. We’ve taken the concept of competitiveness from sport, but overlooked the fact that a game is a brief interlude of peak performance. You can’t live your whole life like that. That would be, well, a desperate struggle. If democracy and civilisation exist for any reason at all, surely it is to free us from desperate struggle. And yet struggle is precisely what they’re telling us we need.

So it turns out that, like a lot of words used in economics, “competitiveness” translates most accurately as “whatever makes most money for the people who already have most money”.