Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Short-term noise: long-term challenges

Sometimes it’s hard to keep your eye on the ball. As the news flak flies about, and event piles up on event, the idea that you can stand back, take a breath and have a think becomes more and more alien. Scrolling down your smartphone alerts, the longer-term trends are hard to keep a handle on. But everyone needs to do that. Beyond the Article 50 shenanigans in Parliament is the ultimate shape of a trade deal between the UK and her future partners and rivals; behind the French and German elections is the question of how Europe defends itself – economically as well as militarily – if the Americans will not; beneath the populist turn in electoral politics lurks a series of very nasty questions about our culture, our shared public space, our very definitions of state and nation. 

That’s why it’s handy to have a historian or two on tap. Not too many, mind: we hold no brief to advocate the mass production of history experts. But you just can’t grasp what’s really going on without a long-term perspective. That might come from disciplines far removed from academic History – from Sociology, Statistics, even theoretical Physics – but it has to come from somewhere if public policy is even to begin answering the really big questions in front of us. Here’s a few, in no particular order, to which we might start raising our eyes.

Why is our labour productivity so abysmal? The UK’s productivity per worker has not moved upwards much since the crisis of 2007-2008 (above, courtesy of the Office for National Statistics page on this topic). That’s not a phenomenon limited to Britain, and indeed even Germany has suffered a sharp slowdown on this indicator, but it is particularly acute in terms of the British workforce. Diagnosing the problem is critical to any roster of solutions. Why has it happened? We’d be tempted to pinpoint long-term sociological trends – the role of chance in spreading inheritance around the system, rather than investing in the skill and endeavor you require if you don’t have any money passed down to you. But so sudden is the change, and so obvious the axe-blow to productivity’s upward drive, that the reasons look more proximate, more precise. Is it the blow to confidence, or the ultra-low interest rates that superseded very low rates as a reaction to the developed world’s economic heart attack? Is investment too low? Is the UK hunkered down in its retail sector bubble, hiding from the chill-but-clear winds of competition? Is the labour market so full of eager young people working long hours waiting tables – performing roles that are notoriously hard to capture in terms of any rising efficiency - that the UK just can't innovate all that much, or even picture the rising tide if it is there? Are wages just too low, too squeezed, even as the quality of the UK workforce rises? It’s hard to tell, and while all this remains difficult to pin down, we’re not going to be able to do much about it.

How can we overcome the new culture of risk? It won’t have escaped your notice that older voters have apparently decided to burn down the entire world. Oh, Brexit’s risky is it? Who cares, let’s have a go anyway. Allowing people to raid their pensions pots might force them to fall back on the welfare system? Whatever: let’s see the cash. What’s that you say? Young people need houses? I’d rather see a field out of my kitchen window, thank you very much. Now, we know that’s a very crude caricature and we’re sorry about that (we’re not, really): but if this goes on, the myth of a generational war of old against young will gain an ever-greater hold on our public life, and make governing much harder. What if average London house prices overtop one million pounds? What if Britain crashes out of the EU without a good deal, there’s a recession, and youth unemployment soars? What if the National Health Service buckles under the pressure of an ageing population that needs more and more help, while their younger relatives are too far away – working two or three jobs at once – to assist? Then there’ll be a war of the generations, all right. So the question here becomes: how can older Britons – indeed, not-so-young citizens across the developed world – be encouraged to think more squarely about their grandchildren's interests? Can they be coaxed, or will they need to be forced, to buy extra insurance for their residential care? Will the Government honour its pledge to cap care charges, so that ageing Britons can take up any extra strain by buying tailored packages to pay for unexpected costs? Will taxes on land and property – overwhelmingly owned by older people – have to go up to take the strain? How can their enormous store of goodwill and knowledge be tapped, helping to relieve the resentment caused by being treated as one of society’s appendages? Again, these are questions, and not answers, but they are at least probably the right questions.

Can we recapture our daring? Many of our problems are indicators of decline – warning signals from a tiring, conflicted, petty and distracted society that is rapidly becoming relatively poorer in the face of developing societies’ deep and sustained challenge. The very values on which democracy depends – a shared frame of reference, accepting at least the good will of your opponents’ arguments, the idea of rational betterment and step-by-step reform – are wobbling, just a little. So the question here becomes: how can we coax our respective political tribes to emerge from their deeply-dug trenches, to engage with each other on the basis that they at least mean well, and that they at least share the same rules? One way to do this might be infrastructure spending, long hoped-for as a point of contact between Congressional Democrats and the new Trump administration in the US – at least before their relations were placed in the deep freeze given the uproar over the President’s use of Executive Orders. Here in Europe, the toxic admixture of single currency politics, essentially preventing peripheral economies devaluing their currencies at the same time as fiscal and structural remedies for their ills are ruled, is a roadblock on progress. But there’s no reason why the EU regional funds can’t be vastly increased, in an era of probably-rising but still very low interest rates; there’s no reason why the UK cannot increasingly tap China’s vast need for investment, and build anew - as the country did in the Victorian era. What we need is the political will to punch through: to ignore the Nimbies and the vested interests, just as this week’s UK Government White Paper on Housing so obviously failed to do. It’s more than possible. Whether it will actually happen is more doubtful.

That’s just three of the key dilemmas before us. We could go on and on. If the US will not upheld the Paris Treaty on climate change, will China take up the challenge? How quickly does China want to step up, lead the world and keep the peace – especially in the South China Sea? Will automation steal more jobs and make the culture wars even more acute? The world of leaders and plots and caucuses really pales into insignificance when compared to these big historical questions. Keep these issues in mind, when the detail of events comes up at you. They’re not background noise. They’re the symphony.