1960s >> 1964 >> no-716-april-1964

Unbalanced exports and experts

One of the toughest problems which faced the Attlee government when it took over in 1945 was the deficit in Britain’s balance of trade. The six years of war had cost this country a great deal, apart from the bloodshed and the suffering which the working class had endured. Britain’s capitalist class had lost a lot of their overseas investments, they had been forced out of several spheres of influence and had seen many of their traditional markets fall under the sway of their wartime allies. The Imperial Preference system, by which they had once set so much store, had lost a lot of its power as a tight trading club.


As the world turned from the production of munitions, attention was focused upon the markets offered by the rebuilding of the countries which had suffered in the war. There was a frantic rush to get into these markets; almost anything could be sold there, provided it got there quickly. The Labour government launched its famous export drive, sending its Ministers around the country to draw homely analogies between the world market and Mrs. Smith’s housekeeping, and sticking up its “Work Or Want” posters. The more we exported, and the less we imported, went the story, the better off we would be.


Some of this propaganda went home. Many workers actually worried about the trade gap and as each set of figures came out, showing how large the gap was, they sank into gloom. It was useless to tell them that the trade gap was a problem for the people who owned the goods which were going in and out of the country and that workers should concern themselves only with their own economic interests. They were convinced that the bigger the gap the more everyone would suffer and perhaps, as well, they thought that the “lousy foreigners” were getting one over on poor, simple, honest John Bull. Amid the gloom, their blood boiled.


The Tories, of course, made a lot of hay while this particular sun shone. The trade gap, they said, was caused by the amateurish methods of the Labour government; there were too many controls, too much nationalisation, it was all something to do with Socialism. Just let a businessman’s government take over and in no time at all the trade gap would disappear.


Well that was a long time ago and it is time now to draw attention to one or two facts. First of all, the trade deficit has not disappeared under Conservative government; it has, in fact, remained as stubbornly as ever. Secondly, the fact that the Tories used to say in the days of Labour government that the gap inevitably meant poverty has not stopped them claiming that we are all having it good—although the gap is still there. And thirdly, the Tories have notched up the biggest trade deficit ever to be recorded for one month. All of which indicates that, however baffling the Labour government found the problems of running British capitalism, the Tories have not found the going much easier.


It was in last January that the trade gap reached its peak. Imports reached a new high of £457 million, while exports fell to £326 million which, taking into account £11 million worth of re-exports, left a “crude” trade gap of £120 million. This figure was especially impressive when compared to the monthly average gap of £45 million for 1962 and £49 million for last year.


By all the standards which the newspapers, the politicians and the city editors have used in the past, this was a crisis for British capitalism. But some of them, when the January figures were announced, revealed that they had adopted new standards, or had at any rate modified the old ones. The Daily Telegraph headlined a gap of only £72 million, without mentioning the fact that this lower figure was arrived at after using a method of calculation which had not been used before. In the Sunday Times, economic editor William Rees Mogg was saying “By this weekend . . . no one doubts that there is a serious balance of trade problem to be contended with,” although The Guardian a couple of days later had it that “People can talk themselves into a financial crisis. But at the moment there is none in sight.” Sir Alec Douglas-Home was keeping his eye firmly fixed on the next election: “Do not let us,” he said, “Talk ourselves into a crisis or write ourselves into one on the basis of one set of monthly figures.” And in this he was supported by Samuel Brittan in The Observer “. . . a crisis is a psychological phenomenon that exists when people think it does.’’


The obvious comment on this latter kind of optimism is that, if it is possible to talk ourselves into a crisis then all that is needed to remedy the situation is to talk ourselves out of it. (Sir Stafford Cripps, when he was Labour’s Chancellor, made a similar statement about a crisis in 1949 but the economic problems of British capitalism, beat him in the end—and no one could accuse Cripps of not being able to talk.) And if crises are only, after all these years, psychological phenomena, why, what the Treasury needs are not economists but psychiatrists, and Mr. Brittan’s column should not be written by a financial wizard like himself but by an expert in mental disorders. What a pity nobody thought of it in the ’thirties! It would have saved the government such a lot of dole money.


This was not the end of the confusion. If the experts could not agree on whether there was a crisis, neither could they agree on what was needed to get rid of it. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research advised the government, in an article written a few days before the January trade figures were published, to increase personal taxation by about £200 million. Three days later the Federation of British Industries was recommending a decrease in income tax and an increase in indirect taxation. Mr. Rees Mogg declared himself “. . . opposed to import controls” — something which, said The Guardian, “. . . is beginning to be talked about again by economists in responsible places . . .” In the end, Mr. Maudling increased the Bank Rate, which some of the pundits had advised him to do but which the National Institute had described as “. . . not likely to be effective.’’


It is easy enough to pick out these contradictions. Whenever British capitalism finds itself in some sort of difficulty there is no lack of inconsistent advice from the experts. Whenever a Chancellor announces a measure which is supposed to relieve a crisis there are plenty of the same experts to crow that the measure is too little or too late, too large or too early, or that anyway they thought of it first. It does not seem to occur to them that, if they cannot agree upon the nature of a crisis, or upon the solution to it, or indeed upon whether there is a crisis at all, the chances of them ever being able to solve the economic maladies of capitalism are just about non-existent.


What the experts never tell us is that the trade gap is a problem which only capitalism can produce. Most of the world’s developed countries are exporters—and even the undeveloped lands have some sort of export trade, if only in some primary crop like cocoa or sugar. But exports do not simply go off into the blue—every one of them is an import into some other country. The £457 million worth of goods which came into this country during January were worth about that much to the countries which sent them here. Sometimes a nation’s exports depend upon its imports; goods which are sent abroad are made by machinery which has been imported or include a vital component which, because it is made more cheaply in a foreign country, has been bought from there in preference to home produce. And with so many countries in this struggle, each of them fighting to get on top, it is impossible for them all exactly to balance their trade with each other. Even if they wanted to, that is; for if they were to try to keep their imports precisely level with their exports, capitalism’s international trade would collapse and many of its industries with it.


This fact, naturally, is ignored by the government, who tell us what all good, docile patriots want to hear—that it is best for our country to be on top, for our country’s trade balance to be in credit and to hell with the rest. At the same time governments abroad, who are competing with British industry in the world’s markets, are telling their workers the same story and the workers are swallowing it and so the whole sorry mess goes on. While the people are busily swallowing the official propaganda, few of them are realising that the crises are interminable, that the experts and the Ministers are unable to deal with them and that in any case the state of their country’s trading accounts has no appreciable effect upon their welfare.


Neither are they realising that it is capitalism itself which creates the balance of payments problem. Why, in the name of sanity, should one area of the world not import more than it exports? Why should the Americas not send out a lot of cereals? Or Africa a lot of raw minerals? Or Australasia a lot of dairy produce? Why should not the world’s wealth be produced in the areas where this can be done most efficiently and easily and sent to the areas where it is needed?


Why? Because at present the world is divided into opposing nations and groups of nations, who unite their interests, often temporarily, against the rest. Because the world is now split into rival trading groups who fight bitter economic wars against each other. Because the world produces its wealth to be sold so that the class which owns the machines and the materials which go into the wealth can make a profit on their investments.


We are now at the very root of the trouble. Until we deal with it the crises, of many kinds, will continue. But whoever may lose his job in a crisis, there is one type of person who will not be unemployed—the person who owes his position to his professed ability to do something about the uncontrollable ups and downs, stops and starts, which are an inevitable part of capitalism all over the world.