I’ve been thinking a lot about pies this week, ever since the Prime Minister announced that it was her intention, not to divide up the pie among us more equably, but rather to “grow the pie”. Her idea is that you give free rein to the risk-takers and entrepreneurs to do whatever it is they do – basically, to create pie – without being impeded by needless bureaucracy and red tape, so that the sliver of pie allotted to the disadvantaged grows in absolute, if not relative terms. She outlined all this during her keynote speech to the Conservative Party Conference last week. She was briefly and peaceably heckled by Greenpeace who held up a banner asking, “Who voted for this?” The protestors were removed. Ms Truss said she had three priorities: growth, growth, and growth. That reminded me of Mr Blair’s three priorities: education, education, education. Who are the speech writers who cobble together such clanking soundbites? The PM went on to say, “I will not allow the anti-growth coalition to hold us back. Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP. The militant unions, the vested interests dressed up as think-tanks. The talking heads, the Brexit deniers and Extinction Rebellion and some of the people we had in the hall earlier. The fact is they prefer protesting to doing. They prefer talking on Twitter to taking tough decisions. They taxi from North London townhouses to the BBC studio to dismiss anyone challenging the status quo. From broadcast to podcast, they peddle the same old answers. It’s always more taxes, more regulation and more meddling. Wrong, wrong, wrong…”
But back to the pie. What exactly is this pie? I suppose it is a representation of wealth. Gross Domestic Product, perhaps. Energy is a part of it. Actually, energy is all of it. That is fundamentally why we eat pie; it is a source of energy. Mr Putin has switched off some of our energy sources so, it is said, we need to drill and frack for oil and gas, open new nuclear power stations, and keep chasing the disconsolate chimera of nuclear fusion. The PM has advised the King not to attend COP 27 in Egypt.
It all sounds like old hat to me, the sort of buccaneering attitude that created the British Empire three hundred years ago. The East India Company wasn’t much burdened by excessive oversight and red tape. I think we need to dump this concept of “growth”. The fact is, the pie is finite. We are like a colony of bacteria occupying a small and fragile petri dish. We extract nutrients from the agar, exponentially multiply, and discharge toxic waste into our source of sustenance. It can’t go on.
It seems to me that economics is, or should be, applied thermodynamics. Every time we have fouled up – 2008 would be a prime example – it is because we have tried to ignore the basic laws of thermodynamics, that energy can be neither created nor destroyed, and that there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine.
I wonder how many members of the British Cabinet have a working knowledge of, or even a passing familiarity with, the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The novelist C. P. Snow used to buttonhole members of the London literati at cocktail parties and ask them if they knew the Second Law. Snow believed that the gulf between the sciences and the humanities was damaging society. It is salutary to look at the make-up of the British Cabinet in this regard. Currently it has twenty three members, including the Prime Minister, and a further eight ministers attend cabinet meetings. Of this total of thirty one, six studied a STEM subject at university; two physicists, two engineers, a chemist, and a mathematician. The rest for the most part read one of the Humanities, such as history, philosophy, economics, and law. Ms Truss studied PPE at Oxford. The current holders of the great offices of state studied classics and history, hospitality, and law.
If economics is a subspecialty of thermodynamics, then you might argue that anybody who is scientifically illiterate must also be economically illiterate. Judging by the reaction of the markets to Mr Kwarteng’s mini-budget, a lot of financial movers and shakers evidently thought so. But the trouble with economics is that as a discipline it bestrides science and the humanities. It is an art as well as a science. It is a behavioural science, and that is why it is so dismal.