This is my latest article for the FT.

Has the global preoccupation with extreme inequality peaked? This key question, posed by Labour’s unexpectedly poor performance in the recent UK general election, received little attention. The opposition party’s avowedly egalitarian stance failed to resonate with the electorate in sufficient numbers despite discontent at the government’s austerity programme.

The British public’s preferences apparently ran counter to influential voices worldwide warning of the widening gap between super-rich and poor. These range from US president Barack Obama and the Pope to the heads of the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund.

Anxious discussions about the inequality divide have also become a regular fixture at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The forum even published a report, introduced by former US vice-president Al Gore, identifying rising income inequality as the most dangerous trend for 2015.

This difference in perceptions raises the awkward possibility that ordinary people may not share the concern with widening inequality expressed by the trend’s elite critics. Although the public often tells pollsters it sees the gap between rich and poor as a big problem, this may not shift voting intentions. Or maybe the public is simply more preoccupied with other questions.

Perhaps the dearth of comment on this mismatch is because it is seen as a specifically British enigma. But this ignores Labour’s close ties with fellow egalitarians across the Atlantic. David Axelrod, who was instrumental in Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, advised Ed Miliband, then Labour’s leader, to focus on inequality. Jacob Hacker, a Yale political science professor, had earlier inspired Miliband to promote “predistribution” — the idea of attempting to pre-empt the emergence of excessive inequalities.

The connections have also gone in the opposite direction. Ed Balls, Labour’s former shadow chancellor, was co-author with Lawrence Summers, former US Treasury secretary, of a report on inclusive prosperity published by the Center for American Progress, a centre-left think-tank in Washington DC. Yet Balls lost his seat in the election.

Lane Kenworthy, professor of sociology at the University of California-San Diego, says opinion polls showing public concern about the inequality gap can be misleading. He accepts most such surveys show that most people see inequality as too high. However, when pollsters ask the public what the government’s priorities should be, the topic is rarely near the top of the list.

“When push comes to shove it’s something most people don’t really care a whole lot about,” Kenworthy says. In his view people are more concerned with absolute living standards, economic security and opportunity. He says social democrats and those on the centre left would be better off focusing on these areas. Policies addressed to improving performance in those spheres tend to have the side-effect of helping to reduce income inequality.

Michael Barone, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington DC-based think-tank, takes a harder line, saying people, with the possible exception of those in Greece, are seldom concerned with inequality. He argues it is often those who live in the most unequal communities, such as New York and San Francisco, who “yelp loudest” about inequality. “The sympathetic analysis of the reason is that these people are more aware of inequality,” he says.

It could be, Barone argues, that those who live in such areas make the mistake of projecting their concerns on to the general population. “The ordinary person in America, and I guess in the UK too, is not angry and full of anguish because they cannot afford to spend $2,000 on a pair of shoes,” he says.

Of course, there were other factors in Labour’s poor electoral performance besides its focus on extreme inequality. Nevertheless it is worth looking carefully at what Labour, and indeed most other critics of inequality, argue. It is a common misconception to assume they are advocating equality in relation to outcomes or wages. Such proposals went out of fashion long ago.

Instead, the consensus is that inequality is rising to the extent it is already causing, or may soon cause, damage to society. In other words, it is widely accepted a substantial degree of inequality is inevitable and probably desirable. The increasingly common criticism, at least among policy-makers, is that the trend is reaching the stage where it is damaging the social fabric.

From this perspective it is worth remembering British prime minister David Cameron too has criticised extreme inequality in some circumstances — for example, where people do not have the opportunities to make the most of their talents. The Tories may not be as closely associated with inequality as a campaigning theme as Labour, but the differences on the question can be exaggerated.

A peculiar paradox seems to have emerged: the topic of inequality no longer sharply divides left and right. Instead, a gap seems to have opened up between policy-makers preoccupied with extreme inequality and the public, which is less concerned.

I will be debating social justice at 6.30pm on 6 July at the Bishopsgate Institute as part of the annual City of London Festival.

Reject rigid rules

15 Jun 2015

The critics of George Osborne’s proposed fiscal framework to make budget deficits illegal during “normal times” are missing the point. Its main flaw is not the fixation with balanced budgets but the idea that problems are best tackled with rules designed to outlaw errant behaviour.

It was always likely that Keynesian economists, such as those who signed a letter in the Guardian and Paul Krugman in the New York Times, would attack the Chancellor’s proposal. And it is true that the thrust of their argument, that the world is too complex for such a simple framework, has a kernel of truth. But the critics miss far more fundamental objections to the balanced budget proposal.

Indeed many of the letter’s signatories are guilty of supporting measures which embody similar flaws to the Chancellor’s proposal. It has become the orthodoxy for economists to support rules designed to guarantee prudence. Anyone remember the golden rule and the sustainable investment rule introduced when Gordon Brown was chancellor of the first New Labour government way back in 1997?

Of those of the current generation of critics who were around at the time it is doubtful there was much opposition to Labour’s rules. Their objection is simply to the precise wording of such maxims rather than to the principle of having them in the first place.

There are at least three fundamental objections to the imposition of any such economic rules.

First, they are either rigid or useless. If Osborne’s balanced budget framework were adhered to strictly it would be counter-productive. There are certainly times when it makes sense to run budget deficits. On the other hand, once a get-out clause is introduced – as Osborne has done with the stipulation that the framework should only apply in “normal times” – it becomes useless. All that is needed to circumvent the framework is to declare that times are abnormal.

There is a parallel here with the eurozone’s original 1997 stability and growth pact. From the start the eurozone had a framework limiting the extent of deficits and debt but these were first broken long ago by France and Germany rather than Greece. Member states have always managed to find ways round rules that stipulate fiscal rectitude.

The undemocratic character of such frameworks is a more fundamental flaw. They involve arbitrary rules, rather than democratically elected MPs, playing a central role in determining fiscal policy. This is apparent in Osborne’s proposal, which includes resurrecting a long-defunct body – the Commissioners for the Reduction of National Debt – with most consisting of unelected central bankers and judges.

Finally, the focus on balancing the budget embodied in the Osborne approach is blinkered. It diverts attention to what is at most a side effect of a weak economy – a large fiscal deficit – rather than tackling the fundamental causes of stagnation. A more rational economic policy would start by considering how dynamic economic growth needs to be restored.

Osborne’s balanced budget rule will simply be a distraction from thinking about the key economic challenges facing Britain. Sadly the mainstream critics are just as narrow in their outlook.

This blog post was first published today on Fundweb.

The no brain election

10 Jun 2015

This is a slightly edited version of my latest Polemic column for Fund Strategy. Although it was only uploaded today it was written shortly after the 7 May election.

There was never any doubt about the result of the British election.

Despite the months of vociferous arguments and heated exchanges the outcome was always a foregone conclusion. Before anyone says it is easy to be wise after the event the victor was not a political party. The real winner was an organisation that was ubiquitous in the election coverage but its role was seldom appreciated: the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

It was hard to avoid hearing it name-checked in the media but, for those unaware of exactly what it does, it is officially an independent microeconomic research institute. Essentially it is a group of experts, unaffiliated with any political party, who do detailed analysis on matters related to tax and public spending.

So during the election campaign it became the go-to body to pronounce on pledges by political parties. A journalist who wanted to assess how much a proposed measure would cost, or how it would affect different groups of people, would invariably quote the IFS. Generally commentators described it as a “respected” or even “highly respected” organisation. It took on the role of neutral arbiter, able to judge the viability of proposals by any party. In that respect it became more of a reference point in the election than the parties themselves.

Hardly anyone seemed to recognise that this development had a dark side. For one thing it meant that the IFS, an unelected organisation, had a position of some power. It meant that a panel of experts would have a large say over which parties and which policies should be considered viable.

This is not meant as an attack on the IFS itself. Its experts are no doubt hugely professional, and I have drawn on their authoritative reports myself in previous articles.

The problem, rather, is what has propelled the rise of the IFS to such prominence. Essentially it indicates a hole in the heart – or perhaps that should be in the brain – of politics. It shows that what passes for political debate no longer represents a clash of principles. The spats between politicians are more akin to squabbles between rival accountants over how best to balance the books of a local corner shop.

Just think back to what election manifestos used to represent. Essentially they were broad statements of principle from each political party. Today they are treated more like a set of accounts or business plans. The inevitable refrain to a proposal from any politician is to ask whether the measure has been properly costed.

This lack of principles represents a serious problem for several reasons. First, it indicates the paucity of ideas in contemporary politics. All of the main parties seem conspicuously vision-lite. The vociferousness of the debate is inversely proportional to the differences between the parties. Politicians of different stripes may appear to detest each other but it does not follow that they disagree on matters of substance.

The absence of fundamental debate means that democracy is inevitably degraded. Genuine democracy is premised on having a lively battle of ideas. It is about much more than just having elected parliaments.

Probably most directly relevant to Fund Strategy readers in their professional capacities Is the impact of this lack of principles on economic debate. Without competing visions of society any discussion can only be a narrow, technical affair. There is no force propelling politicians to take up the key questions. The most important challenges seldom get raised; let alone resolved.

Indeed the superficial character of the debate is so long-standing that it hardly gets noticed. The focus is overwhelmingly on secondary factors such as the budget deficit or government debt. It is seldom understood that, to the extent these matter, they are symptoms of underlying problems rather than key challenges in themselves. For example, public debt levels are high because successive governments have preferred to simply spend money rather than promote a much-needed economic restructuring.

When key questions are occasionally raised, such as Britain’s poor productivity levels, politicians are generally at a loss to know what to say about them. This is a long-standing problem that governments of all stripes have failed to address. There is relatively little debate about how the state can play a role in helping to create the conditions for durable investment in some sectors while unwinding others.

So the lack of proper political debate should not be dismissed as either or a shame or a sideshow. It has damaging consequences. It means fundamental questions seldom get raised let alone resolved.

The only winners in what was tragically a sham of an election were Britain’s technocratic elite. They found their reputation enhanced just as politicians were ever more discredited.

If there was one clear winner there was also an unambiguous loser: the general public. It was in effect disenfranchised by an election bereft of ideas. That puts us all in a weaker position to tackle the formidable challenges ahead.

Bobbing around the river Elbe in a barge is probably the best way to get a sense of the huge scale of Hamburg’s port (Hafen Hamburg). It is hard to avoid using superlatives to describe the sights: massive cranes, huge numbers of containers, enormous dry docks and gigantic ships. There are also cruise liners, ferries and even an old Russian submarine. Close by is the Kiez red light and entertainment district, centred on the Reeperbahn, which is designed to service different kinds of needs for visitors.

The port’s vital statistics are also impressive. According to the Hamburg Port Authority it has a surface area of 72 square kilometres, its own 140km road network, 304km of railway track and over 130 bridges. Every year about 10,000 ships use the port and the total cargo handled in 2014 was 145.7m tons .

The port area of Germany’s second largest city is of course an expression of economy’s formidable trading power. Although its GDP is substantially smaller than that of the world’s global giants (America, China and Japan) its current account surplus is easily the largest in the world. In other words it exports more than it imports by a significant margin. Its output of machinery, vehicles, chemicals and household equipment are an expression of the economy’s industrial competitiveness

A large current account surplus is associated with high levels of savings. In effect the Germans bank a high proportion of the proceeds of their strong exports. From a German perspective its export performance is a sign of competiveness and the high savings rate is an indication of national prudence. It follows from these assumptions that countries such as America and Britain, with their yawning deficits and low savings, are irresponsibly living beyond their means.

Germany’s critics, particularly those of a Keynesian persuasion, see it rather differently. In their view the problem is not deficit countries consuming too much but Germans consuming too little. Germany’s large current account surplus and substantial savings amount to stealing demand from the rest of the world. If Germany would only buy more foreign goods, so the critics argue, the global economy would achieve a better balance. Since China’s surplus has decreased substantially in recent years the Germans face the brunt of such attacks.

Both sides in the debate, with their shared emphasis on consumption, are one-sided. It is telling that it would be possible to use the same evidence to draw conclusions opposite to those of the Keynesians. If America and Britain, for instance, made themselves more competitive their deficits would presumably narrow. Through this alternative route the world economy could theoretically also move closer to equilibrium.

The fundamental flaw in the debate is that both sides downplay the importance of production. A far better starting point would be to examine the productive weaknesses of the main western economies. For over three decades now the main western economies, including Germany, have all suffered from insufficient investment and economic atrophy.

Rather than trading criticisms it would be far better if each country focused on addressing its own economic shortcomings.

A slightly edited version of this piece was published on Fundweb on Friday.

This is my Polemic column for the May issue of Fund Strategy.

Writing about economic and investment topics in recent years I have kept stumbling across some initially unexpected themes. It is time to start pulling them together.

The most striking is what could be called inside-outerism. This is the pervasive tendency for elite functionaries and thinkers to view themselves as embattled critics of prevailing orthodoxies. In a recent blog post for Fundweb I wrote about one of the most high-profile British examples of this: Adair Turner. His glittering CV includes a stint as the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, and the chairmanship of the Financial Services Authority when it was Britain’s main financial regulator.

Perhaps the most consummate American example of inside-outerism, at least in the economic sphere, is Joseph Stiglitz. He is a Nobel laureate in economics, a former chair of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers and a former chief economist at the World Bank. Yet he constantly casts himself as a marginalised figure in economic debate.

Indeed this phenomenon goes beyond economics. For example, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, recently described himself in a Guardian interview as “anti-establishment”. Across the western world it is common for leading politicians and officials to view themselves as opponents of the mainstream.

It is important to recognise the peculiar character of inside-outerism. It is entirely different from the earlier cases of people from privileged backgrounds rejecting their past to join radical political movements. The contemporary trend is for people currently at the peak of politics, official institutions or even academia to regard themselves as outsiders.

This is an odd phenomenon regardless of the content of their arguments. Even if the inside-outers were right on many points it would still beg the question of why they perceive themselves as anti-establishment.

To answer the question it helps to ponder a parallel development. That is the common tendency for those who view themselves as progressive to condemn what is sometimes called neo-liberalism or market fundamentalism. Such critics range from radical academics to George Soros, the billionaire fund manager and backer of such initiatives as the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

The essential thrust of their argument, that most western economies are free markets with the state playing a minimal role, is difficult to maintain. For example, total state spending in the America (including federal, state level and local spending) was 37% of GDP in 2014 or $6.4 trillion (£4.3 trillion). That is not a typo: the figure is in trillions rather than billions. Another indication of the size of the US government is the 26,417 pages in the Federal Register, an official record of federal government, is 2013.

It should be noted that the focus here is what exists rather than what is desirable. There are cases to be made both for and against extensive government spending. But in terms of what actually exists it is odd that so many authoritative figures insist that America and Britain have free market economies.

The final part of the jigsaw is the characteristic view the inside-outers have of the proper role of the state. Typically they argue that official institutions should play the central role in tackling any challenge. Any kind of instability, such as financial crises, invariably leads them to call for yet more regulation as a solution.

In this respect I was struck by a recent letter in the Financial Times penned mainly by radical academics including David Graeber, the thinker behind Occupy Wall Street. It argued that the European Central Bank should bolster the eurozone economy by creating new money to finance government spending. In other words, one part of the state, the central bank, should create money to bolster spending by another part.

Once again the point here is not to examine the pros and cons of such a proposal (although it is easy to spot potential pitfalls). It is that the inside-outers seem to see expanding the state’s role as the solution to virtually every problem. In the past, in contrast, radicals typically saw a greater role for the public or alternatively they demanded the reform or even abolition of state power.

It is now possible to start explaining the enigma of inside-outerism. The perspective is an inside one in that it typically looks at the world from the viewpoint of state functionary or professional technocrat. State officials hold this view but many academics and senior journalists share the perspective. On the other hand, the views of business, let alone the mass of the population, generally have a marginal influence in the current environment.

However, this technocracy has a profound lack of confidence in its ability to manage society. It feels that events too often have a tendency to spin out of its control. That is why its instinct is to propose ever more regulation at any sign of difficulty. That also helps to account for its perception of itself as an outside force.

The reasons for the technocracy’s profound crisis of confidence will have to be explained at another time.

One of the biggest economic questions of the decade is undoubtedly whether China will succeed in changing its development model. Since the late 1970s the Asian giant has enjoyed spectacular success in transforming itself from a poor rural economy to a dynamic industrial power. The time has come to shift the balance even further towards improving the quality of its output rather than simply catching up with the West.

This should mean more innovation and better technology. It also means raising labour productivity by investing more productively rather than simply throwing huge resources into prioritised sectors.

To a large extent the Chinese leadership recognises these challenges. There are already significant signs that it is becoming more innovative and moving towards developing more advanced forms of technology.

The problem is that the challenges facing China are often misunderstood. For example, last week the Financial Times ran a series arguing that China has reached what is called the Lewis turning point. That is essentially the point at which it can no longer grow simply by shifting surplus rural labour to the cities. China will have to raise urban wages and raise industrial productivity to continue developing.

In putting this argument the FT is following research from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and others. Although there is debate about whether China is still yet to reach the Lewis turning point – named after Nobel laureate Arthur Lewis – it is widely seen as a valuable concept.

Before examining why this conception of China’s economic challenges is flawed it is worth doing a back-of-an-envelope calculation on the country’s labour situation. It is hard to imagine how, at least on the face of it, a country with a population of more than 1.3 billion people can be facing a labour shortage.

According to the latest statistics from the World Bank just under half of China’s population is rural. That amounts to about 640m people. However, a disproportionate share of that population is either elderly or children since a large number of those of working age migrate to work in cities. The FT quotes an estimate from China’s National Bureau of Statistics that 278m people lived outside their home towns for at least six months last year.

It is also worth noting that some people classified as living in the countryside work in the service or industrial sector. The true share of agriculture in the workforce could be as low as 20 per cent.

The flaw in the notion of the Lewis turning point is that it conceives of the challenges facing China in primarily demographic terms. It sees the main constraint as one of the number of available workers.

But that is an upside-down way of viewing the problem. It would be more accurate to see the challenge as one of increasing productivity across China. That way the whole of China’s enormous labour pool, amounting to many hundreds of millions of workers, can be harnessed more efficiently. It should be possible for China to produce far more than it does at present with the existing number of workers. Indeed, with the right investment it could even produce multiple times what it does at present even with a substantially smaller labour force.

China should also move much faster to abolish hukou: the system of household registration that ties an individual’s access to education, healthcare and housing to their home town or village. This represents a formidable barrier to labour mobility and hence to raising productivity.

The economic and social challenges facing China are far more pressing than any demographic shifts.

 This blog post was first published today on Fundweb.

My latest book review for the FT was published yesterday.

Russian oligarchs, in the popular imagination, are often seen as exemplifying the worst qualities associated with wealth. They are frequently linked to ostentation, corruption and even outright gangsterism.

The reality, of course, is more complex. Oligarchs emerged in the 1990s alongside the tumultuous transition to a market economy that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. That does not excuse all their actions, but it does help put them into context. The more recent generation of wealthy Russians seems anxious to avoid the gross excesses of some of its predecessors.

Once Upon a Time in Russia tells the story of the Russian oligarchs by focusing on two of the leading figures from 1994 onwards. Boris Berezovsky went from a career as a mathematician to making a huge fortune, largely as a result of gaining control over former state assets. He was also a close ally of Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian republic, and an early supporter of Vladimir Putin, the current president. However, Berezovsky died in mysterious circumstances at his home in Ascot in the UK in 2013 after a dispute with the Russian authorities and losing much of his fortune.

Roman Abramovich is the other high-profile figure in the tale. The senior school dropout started his career by running a toy company before making his fortune in the trading and transportation of oil. He was an early protégé of Berezovsky before famously falling out with him. Abramovich was the victor when the two tussled in an English court in one of the most expensive legal cases in history.

There are many secondary characters, but in a way, implicitly at least, this is also the story of Putin’s rise to leadership in Russia. First as prime minister and then as president, he succeeded in taming the power of the Russian oligarchs in the early 2000s. They were allowed to keep their wealth on the strict condition they accepted his government’s authority.

Ben Mezrich relates the story in the form of a true-life novel. The bestselling author has used the device before, including in The Accidental Billionaires, which provided the basis for The Social Network, the Hollywood film on the creation of Facebook.

Mezrich uses interviews, first-person sources, court documents and newspaper accounts as the basis for his narrative. In many cases he imagines what the characters would have said to each other, what he calls “recreated dialogue”, while he acknowledges “settings have been changed, and certain descriptions have been altered to protect privacy”. This approach has some advantages as well as considerable disadvantages.

The clearest benefit of the approach is that it makes the story more accessible. It is easier to grasp the main elements of the narrative and get to know the protagonists.

Sometimes it also provides insights that are harder to glean from factual accounts. For example, the willingness of the Russian authorities to sell state assets at such knockdown prices in the 1990s can seem crazy in retrospect. Even the most avid advocate of privatisation is likely to blanche at the memory. But it becomes a little more understandable once the mindset of the Russian authorities at the time is understood. The government was experiencing substantial financial difficulties and, at least according to Mezrich, feared the return of communism.

An important disadvantage of the approach is that inevitably some details are imagined rather than real. Mezrich cannot possibly know for certain what Putin was thinking at a particular time or even some of the dialogue related in the book. Even assuming Mezrich did exemplary research — and no doubt he did an immense amount of work on the project — there is a degree of poetic licence. Indeed, the “Once Upon a Time” part of the book’s title could itself be taken as an acknowledgement of the work’s partly fictional character.

It should also be recognised that easy accessibility has a downside. Fully understanding the transition from the Soviet Union to a market-orientated Russia means examining a host of cultural, economic and social factors. Even if it were possible to insert a microscopic spy drone into President Putin’s private office it would not reveal the whole story. Russia’s unprecedented transition is too complex to be reduced to a straightforward narrative.

Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs and the Greatest Wealth in History, by Ben Mezrich, William Heinemann, 2015, RRP£18.99/$28.00

The idea that a Hounslow-based day trader caused the American stockmarket to drop by 10 per cent in a few minutes on 6 May 2010 is absurd. Even if his actions acted as a catalyst for the drop – itself a questionable claim – they were certainly not the fundamental cause.

Yet it is widely accepted that Navinder Singh Sarao, the trader for whom the American authorities have requested extradition, is partly responsible for the “flash crash”. He is officially charged with devising a computer program that manipulated the futures market and had a subsequent knock-on effect on the stockmarket. In effect he bet that the S&P 500 would fall and allegedly created a program that made it look like prices were likely to drop.

Even assuming the charges are true it is hard to believe a lone trader in a West London semi-detached house could cause a market loss of almost $1trn. Futures contracts would have given him more leverage than investing directly but it is unlikely his actions caused such a huge fall. He may be guilty of market manipulation but, with only a few million pounds at his disposal, he was a relatively small player.

Although some commentaries have expressed cynicism about the case few have asked fundamental questions about why the market is prone to such falls. In particular, how relatively small interventions can appear to have such a dramatic impact.

There are two key factors at work. First, the huge amount of liquidity held in financial assets. This volume has increased sharply over time relative to the size of the economy. The ratio of total debt to GDP in America has risen strongly since about 1980. The stockmarket too has trended strongly upwards.

This massive surge in market liquidity over time is a symptom of underlying weakness rather than strength. It shows, among other things, that firms would rather hold or manipulate financial assets than engage in capital investment. This itself betrays a fearful attitude towards the future.

With so much liquidity around there is more potential for volatility. Many factors could cause waves in the markets under such circumstances. These could include the acts of a dishonest trader or the prospect of the disorderly unwinding of quantitative easing.

But there is an additional key factor besides the sheer volume of liquidity sloshing around. That is the pervasive fear of uncertainty that has long gripped the markets.

Such anxiety should be seen as a particular example of the angst that has permeated society more generally. We seem to live in a time when people are often particularly fearful about the future. This manifests itself in all sorts of areas from reluctance to let children play unsupervised to the obsessive drive to regulate the behaviour of football fans. Any type of action seen as posing a potential risk is viewed with extreme caution.

In the financial markets such free-floating anxiety can manifest itself as a propensity to be easily spooked. The effect of relatively minor developments can be magnified to prompt market turmoil. Small ripples can be transformed into tsunamis.

Such instability points to fundamental weaknesses. Scapegoating a relatively small-scale trader is a way of evading the challenges posed.

This blog post was first published on Fundweb on 28 April.

Let’s boldly go

16 Apr 2015

This was first published as my Polemic column in the April edition of Fund Strategy.

It may seem a stretch but the death of Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr Spock in Star Trek, reminded me of a key debate in economics. Even those who are not science fiction fans should bear with the argument as it has far-reaching implications.

Spock has become an iconic figure in popular culture. Even those who have never watched the original 1960s TV series often have an image of him as the ultra-logical alien aboard the USS Enterprise.

This is where the economic debate comes in. Critics of free market economics often cite him as the epitome of “rational economic man” or Homo Economicus. The implication is conventional economics makes the erroneous assumption that people always behave rationally.

Diane Coyle, one of Britain’s most accomplished economic writers, is among those who has used Spock to make this point. Back in 1997 she argued in the Independent that a flawed assumption of mainstream economics is that people are fully rational: “They assemble all the available information, they consider the possibilities and they make the choice that maximises their own gain. Mr Spock, the Vulcan first lieutenant in Star Trek (traditional Vulcan greeting: live long and prosper), is the ideal economic agent. The profession assumes that we all think like Vulcans.”

Although I am generally a fan of Coyle’s writing she is way off the mark here. Spock is actually half Vulcan and half human. This is more than just a nerdy point. A recurring theme in the original Star Trek TV series was the conflict between Spock’s rational Vulcan side and his emotional human side. The character did frequently assert the power of logic but often he found himself inwardly torn.

In fact the “real” Spock, that is the character as he actually appeared in the TV series, resembles an economic agent more closely than the caricature. Those economists who focus on humans as rational agents do so as part of a model rather than a literal representation of reality. Their working assumption is people generally behave rationally most of the time. No serious commentator would claim everyone always acts perfectly rationally.

But the problem goes deeper than a caricature of the notion of rational economic man. The critics generally present themselves as radical opponents of free market economics. However, the thrust of their argument is deeply conservative: downplaying or even rejecting human reason.

Proponents of behavioural finance and neuronomics (the application of neuroscience to economics) typically take a dim view of rationality. They accept reason may play some role but generally argue decision-making tends to be warped by substantial cognitive biases. Since I have talked before about the limits of behavioural approaches let’s look at an older form of the argument.

Karl Polanyi, a Hungarian-American economist, attacked the idea of humans as rational economic agents in his work The Great Transformation. He was essentially a moderate socialist who associated rationality with the kind of abstract free market economics common in the Vienna of his youth. In his view, free market economics made the fatal error of seeing markets as natural entities rather than as products of human intervention.

But on closer inspection Polanyi is not just attacking a particular brand of economics but the core idea of human reason. For the thinkers of the Enlightenment – the intellectual and cultural movement that swept Europe and America in the 18th century – the power of reason was a defining quality of human beings. It was by harnessing this power that humans could achieve a freer and more prosperous world.

Polanyi’s work is therefore not so much an attack on the free market but a rejection of Enlightenment thought. His eschewal of this central principle tends to lead to much more downbeat views on the capacity of humans to achieve greater prosperity. It also suggests our ability to understand how the world works is constrained.

Such pessimism was understandable in the midst of the Second World War when Polayni wrote his book. This is particularly true of someone who spent his early life in Vienna.

However, Polanyi has influenced later generations of thinkers who are, if anything, gloomier than him. For example, Joseph Stiglitz, one of the world’s most prominent economic thinkers, wrote the foreword to a new edition of The Great Transformation.

If anything, the advocates of behavioral finance and neuronomics take a darker view still. For instance, Dan Ariely, one of the superstar pundits of the behavioural approach, twists a famous quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to make a point about the limitations of human capabilities: “We are not noble in reason, not infinite in faculty, and rather weak in apprehension.”

Unfortunately we live in a world in which such cultural pessimism has taken hold in economics and other disciplines. It would be a great step forward if we could boldly go forward towards a world in which people thought more like Spock.