Coronavirus: What will be the economy of the future?

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The discourse at Holyrood’s economy committee brought back thoughts of bygone days at St Andrews University

There have been many distinguished rectors of the University of St Andrews. When I arrived in Fife, for study and distraction, I recall that it was John Cleese who occupied the post.

Silly walks and voices were disavowed, as he took the task exceptionally seriously.

As I also recall, I once attempted to persuade a prominent, veteran newspaper columnist of the time to stand for the post.

He declined, elegantly, noting that he was now a confirmed teetotaller – and suggesting that it would “go against the grain and probably the grape” for any right-thinking student to be so represented.

However, perhaps the most erudite in the long list is John Stuart Mill who served from 1865 to 1868.

‘Chortling in his joy’

John Stuart had an exceptionally rigorous upbringing, supervised by his Scottish father. From an early age, he studied Greek and Latin. At playtime, for recreation, he would turn to algebra, chortling in his joy.

Modern educationalists might frown upon such a firm approach. But it certainly produced an intellect, of note. If also a somewhat gloomy and sonorous outlook.

Mill propagated the principle of utility, the liberal theory that society should be ordered to generate the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

I thought of JSM today as I listened to the discourse in Holyrood’s economy committee anent the fiscal and employment implications of coronavirus.

The economy secretary, Fiona Hyslop, was in fine form, lightly swatting aside an inquiry from Tory MSP Dean Lockhart as to how Scotland could afford the largesse supplied for the economy by the UK Treasury.

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Fiona Hyslop said the focus, for now, was on health and economic issues rather than constitutional ones

These, she airily declared with a slight smile, were constitutional matters for another time. For now, the focus must be on tackling the health crisis and its concomitant economic crisis.

There were useful exchanges on the need for business support; on issues like tourism; on sectoral and regional concerns.

But perhaps the most fascinating discussion concerned the question of what sort of economy we envisage in the future.

Will it be back to normal? Globalisation, international trade, driven by demand and competitive pricing?

Or might there be a new normal, as in social and health concerns? Might we start to measure the economy in a different way, taking account of factors other than production and supply?

By now, I envisaged JSM producing a rare smile. Told you so, he would be saying. In Greek or Latin, according to whim.

Our MSPs discussed today what might be the industries, the economic sectors, which will appeal to that new normal. Green projects? Social enterprises? A focus on domestic output, rather than global trade?

Andy Wightman of the Greens joined in, zealously proposing a change of direction.

Environmental impact

Will it be possible, one might ask, to factor the cost of environmental impact into the price of a contract reached with a far-distant factory in a far-distant land?

We have become used to considering attached issues – such as a country’s record on human rights or equality. Should we also consider other factors, such as the environment or the treatment of workers or attendant food hygiene?

Ms Hyslop argued, in general terms, for a society founded upon wellbeing. Not long ago, the first minister gave a lecture in Edinburgh on that very topic.

The broad concept is that we calculate the value of an enterprise or initiative on a different range of parameters. On the human impact. We place a value on services and endeavours which tend to be neglected by standard economics.

The starting point is that we manage what we can measure. We adapt policy to make a certain set of numbers go in a different direction. With this hideous plague, that means the R number or mortality.

With the economy, it tends to be Gross Domestic Product (or, previously, Gross National Product.)

Should we use a different calculus, one which takes account of the wellbeing generated? Or is that too woolly to work?

It is at least worth a glance, perhaps, while we are on the cusp of this new normal. It is worth a thought. John Stuart Mill and his Scots dad would approve.

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