The complete failure of the so-called ‘centre’, and what we should do.

If the centre fails, polarization and discord follows. This is a matter of life and death but rather than use evidence to avoid failure, we allow a disparate rabble of unfit politicans to claim the centre, even when the evidence shows that they are not centrists. Their lies are destroying the fabric of society (where society is the collective distributional struggle that everyone needs to win).

Look at the evidence. Blair claimed to be a centrist but all the gains went to the wealthy during the Blair years. As this graph shows, the wealth-to-income ratio between 1997 and 2005 shot through levels last seen the late 1920s/early 30s (data from the Bank of England, also discussed here).

Macron claims to be a centrist but his tax changes preferentially benefit the 1%, see this graph from the FT and Peter May’s recent post.

 

Or if we look at finer (regional) detail, take the example of Hartlepool in the North East of England, near where I live. Look what happened to Hartlepool after they had a so called centrist MP in charge.

https://shura.shu.ac.uk/17175/1/Beatty-TheRealLevelOfUnemployment2017%28VoR%29.pdf

In Hartlepool not only are you less likely to have a job, but you are also less likely to live a healthy life. Compare the healthy-life expectancy numbers for somewhere in the South of England like Wokingham with Hartlepool.

Female: Wokingham 71.1 Hartlepool 57.4

Male:     Wokingham 69.7 Hartlepool 57.7

You can expect 20% less healthy life in Hartlepool than Wokingham. That is what the so-called centrists delivered. It is not just Hartlepool, in nearby areas things are also getting worse. Healthy-life expectancy for males in Darlington has declined from 64 in 2010 to 61 in 2016. In Stockton from 62 to 59.5. Why did the people of the North East have to suffer for a crisis created in the stockbroker belt? The so-called centrists created conditions that are worse for the people of Hartlepool and their neighbours! Is it any wonder they vote for something different, as Mike Segalov suggests in this video clip?

We need to be more careful to define the centre and make sure it flourishes. In economic terms, the centre corresponds to median income. It makes sense to define the centrist politician as someone that represents the median income voter. We should regard left as policy that shifts the distribution towards those below median, and right as policy that shifts the distribution towards to those above. Given that the income share of the one percent has been steadily rising since 1979 (see the graph below) we can see that we have only had right-wing regimes ever since.

Now one of the arguments of politicians is that they are not in control. Somehow the market determines the distribution. But this is a lie. It is fiscal policy that determines the distribution, and it is completely within the power of politicians to determine the outcome. For a few years, I have been teaching econophysics and one of the examples we consider is how spend and tax policy determine wealth and income distributions. The graph below shows the output of a model (line is my model, dots are the actual data from the world income database) where I simply change fiscal policy in 1979. Policy before 1979 led to a falling income share of the 1% (which we might call left-wing), policy after led to a rise (which we might call right wing). It was all about the politics. In a centralist or balanced position the income share of the 1% would neither fall nor rise, it would fluctuate around some stable democratically agreed ‘fair’ level.

 

A question we still need to address is what this ‘fair’ level should be. The evidence above suggests that an income share of the 1% above a certain value is damaging for health and wellbeing. We cannot regard declining healthy-life expectancy as a desirable outcome. Consequently, we need a period of left leaning policy to bring us back to an optimum equilibrium, and then it will be time for true centrists representing the median [1] to ensure that we do not let this happen again. [2]

[1]  On September 16, 2018, 10 years and one day after the Lehman collapse The Observer reported on an Opinion Poll that

“Asked to imagine that a new centre-ground party formed tomorrow, two in five voters (42%) said that they would be likely to vote for it in a future general election.”

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/sep/15/almost-half-of-voters-say-they-would-vote-for-new-party-in-election

[2] I do not agree with everything in this piece but consider it worth reading.

The Unheard-of Centre: Critique of Modern Money Theory

https://arcade.stanford.edu/content/unheard-center-critique-after-modern-monetary-theory

 

Comments

  1. Andrew Dickie -

    Charles, you say ” a centralist or balanced position the income share of the 1% would neither fall nor rise, it would fluctuate around some stable democratically agreed ‘fair’ level.”

    Thank you SO much for defining centrism on the basis of evidence and fairness-driven outcomes, rather than the bogus game of “If I’m in the middle between Lenin and Stalin on the left, and Hitler and Mussolini on the Right, I’m a centrist”, when such a position is not anchored to any evidence or outcomes.

    You are implicitly also opting for a complete mirror reversal of public expenditure methodology, rejecting the usual scrabbling around to see how to fund some service, and instead assessing real needs and requirements, costing those requirements, and then devising a suitable mix of borrowing, taxation and money creation to meet that need.

    Thank you on both counts.

    1. Charles Adams -

      Thank you. As things stand, politics is failing badly to deliver, and a different approach is desparately needed.

  2. Peter May -

    I agree – it is an oh so sensible but never ever heard idea that ‘left’ or ‘right’ should be statistically defined.
    It nicely suggests a sliding scale of fairness, which I think is difficult to argue against.
    While this is true for economically left or right, the grey area is is right authoritarian and left libertarian? on what I suppose would be called human rights.
    I think we have probably to be careful to say that we are speaking about economic centrism. Because there are conflicts in other policy areas apart from the economic (such as Conservative Cameron legalising gay marriage and Conservative May instituting the hostile environment, and Neoliberal Blair wanting identity cards).

    1. Charles Adams -

      Libertarian – authoritarian is another axis. As it is possible to be both left libertarian and left authoritarian it seems to be that left and right can only be defined in terms of economic fairness.

  3. Pingback: Charles Adams – The complete failure of the so-called ‘centre’, and what we should do. – Brave New Europe
  4. Neil Robertson -

    Hi Charles,

    I really like this evidence-based definition of economic centrism.

    An emphasis on the well-being of the median earners would be welcome because it cures two other ills simultaneously: If median incomes are increased it would also re-distribute that part of the top 1%’s wealth that derives from abusing/under-valuing the labour of others. If the median earners in society are making a decent living it decreases the (entirely counter-productive) vindictiveness towards those receiving benefits and allows these benefits to be set at a level that allows dignified living without triggering resentment from those in work.
    I would imagine that using this analysis on the last Labour manifesto would reveal it to be fairly centrist?

    1. Charles Adams -

      Yes, current Labour plans are roughly centrist, not as left wing as say 60s Conservatives.

  5. Johan G -

    Hi Charles,

    I like the piece. If I were to be pedantic, and hopefully this will appeal to your physics background, could left (right) wing policy be described as regions where the rolling-averaged first derivative of the curve are negative (positive)?

    Using that, the government between ~ ’97 and ’03 could be argued to have been (just) left of centre.

    But also using that definition, the GFC could be seen as a left wing event because it wiped a load of income share out for the top 1%…

    1. Charles Adams -

      As the economy is like an oil tanker a change in the slope would be a first sign, so yes.

      The argument of Piketty and others (which is supported by the historic evidence) is that rising inequality will always end in crisis, financial or war. Crises partially reset inequality but not without unneccessary suffering, so it is better to redirect the tanker before it hits the rocks.

      1. Johan G -

        Absolutely. I was not arguing in favour of crisis creation, more refining (for my own benefit as much as anything else) the explanation you have given here. And then pointing out some holes in my own definition.

        I am too young to really remember the early Blair years other than I remember a feeling of things generally getting better, but that could have just as easily been me growing up and gaining awareness.

        I like the tanker metaphor — possibly even more apt (and ironic) when applied to global warming.

  6. Paul Wright -

    This is a brilliant piece of work. It provides the basis for what many of us have felt for a very long time, that centre politics is actually politics of the grasping right. And boy what a lousy job they have done for us.

    I can only hope that the metropolitan Rawnsley,s, D,ancona’s, Behr,s and many other so called centrist journo’s read this analysis, – like many Westminster bubbled MPs they still don,t think that Blair, Cameron et al have done anything wrong!

    Thanks Charles great work, all MPs should be made to read it.

    1. Charles Adams -

      Thanks Paul, I will keep working on how to get all MPs to read it. If you want to send the link to your MP please do.

  7. Ivan Horrocks -

    Excellent stuff, Charles. And as an aside your econophysics sounds like a fascinating approach to teaching this stuff. Of course, where politicians and parties of the right have been clever is claiming ownership of the centre, when, as you illustrate with examples in this blog they are in fact still positioned firmly on the right. That was a deliberate and well planned and coordinated move, of course, ably supported and promoted by much of the media, and for Blair at least, trialled very successfully by Clinton and US democrats some years before. And like the Democrats, as New Labour became ever more enarmoured of wealthy individuals (such as Bernie Ecclestone etc), and ever more desperate for funding from such sources, as well as handing more and more of the policy process to the consultancy industry, and delivery to the likes of Capita, so it was inevitable that the narrative became permanently distored and then accepted as fact (witness the so called ‘Overton window’). Your blog could serve as a great starting point for any MP/policy makers, and indeed media commentators and the like (Paul Wright mentions of few I’d suggest) who considers themselves centrists to check where they actually stand – in economic terms at least. But at the moment – and possibly for several years to come – I suspect Brexit is so all-consuming there’s not much chance of that. Such is the wreaking ball that particular excercise in democracy has become.

    1. Charles Adams -

      Thanks Ivan. Brexit is an unnecessary side show keeping people away from the real issues. The people intrinsically know that the reappearance of Blair proposing a people’s vote is not a solution to the real problem. Neither leave or remain is a solution to “a problem” that was not even a problem for most people before 2016.

      The referendum was a mistake, people broke electoral laws, the result is void. The solution is to simply revoke article 50, and for politicians to get on with the more important work that will restore their reputation for good leadership.

      1. Jennifer (aka Jeni, Havantaclu) Parsons -

        Charles – Theresa May won’t. Nor will Jeremy Corbyn, even if given the chance, which he won’t be.

        Centrism is the busted flush on which both these people – and their respective Parties – stake the lives and livelihoods of all of us.

        And we have to stand and watch as disaster – only 100 days to go before Brexit – approaches with the inevitability of a tanker crash when the captain has lost control of command.

      2. Simon Cohen -

        ‘Brexit is an unnecessary side show keeping people away from the real issues.’

        Absolutely, Charles, and it’s draining the energy out of the Labour Party by creating more division. This very thing gives neo-liberalism more ‘legs’ and more time. I’m sure some of ‘them’ are conscious of this and use it as a form of what has been called ‘non-linear warfare’ which leaves the electorate confused and unable to distinguish the main foci.

        Superb article by Peter, I should say! Labour needs to be getting out into communities and laying out these arguments with this sort of clarity. It simply hasn’t succeeded yet in countering the mainstream distortions and intellectually lazy economic journalism by the main media channels.

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