Nitty Gritty

by Quinn

The more it
The more it
The more it

“Tiddely what?” you may well ask, and were you to do so you then would be joining a long and illustrious list consisting of Piglet, Dorothy Parker and myself among others. But this week’s snow has drawn a predictable response from our brainless media whining and opining about how unfair it is that the world isn’t perfect, or at least our rain sodden scrap of it. The Daily Mail, for example, reported that the authorities inability to prepare for the snowfall had cost the UK economy £1.2 billion on Monday, and their article contained some interviews with angry business leaders bemoaning the situation.

I don’t know how accurate these figures are – we are talking about the Daily Mail here after all – but I’m interested in that paper’s take on the issue, for in an editorial at the weekend (that I can’t appear to find online) the Mail discussed the current economic pressures on the private sector, and in doing so it fell into the common practice of pointedly referring to the private sector as the “productive, wealth-creating” part of the economy as if they are in some way synonymous, and presumably as opposed to the public sector which neither creates wealth nor is productive but which instead imposes only costs and creates a burden.

It’s a popular enough use of language but one that has long puzzled me; for in the planned economy of the Soviet Union didn’t those state-controlled industries produce things – albeit mainly tractors – and create wealth, even if they did so relatively inefficiently and in a manner I don’t wish to replicate? And if we take just one means of creating wealth – the manufacture of steel – and consider the method of taking worthless iron ore stuck in the ground and, by a process of digging, smelting, galvanising and whatever-else-it-is-you-do-to-it ending up with valuable steel, then this was a process that in the UK was at one time done by British Steel, a part of the public sector. Is it plausible to argue that UK steel manufacturing only became part of the wealth creating part of the economy once it was privatised? But fair enough; British Steel was privatised, the work of its successor, Corus, is now the preserve of the private sector, and so if we are talking about the British economy now and handing out prizes then the private sector should get the credit for that particular method of creating wealth.

But let’s return to the snow and the economic consequences of inadequately preparing for it, something that the Mail claims cost the economy £1.2 billion in a day. This is perhaps a further damning indictment on the failing public sector and the costs it imposes on business. But hold on; if failing to grit the roads can be said to have cost the economy £1.2 billion, couldn’t it also be said that when successfully gritting the roads – something that happens most of the time – the local authorities and the Highways Agency actually contribute £1.2 billion to the economy? After all, unless you consider salted and snow-free roads to be the natural order of things with which only the clumsy interventions of the state can interfere with, then whenever the snow falls and the gritters and snow-ploughs successfully swing into action the public sector is actively participating in the creation of that wealth.

And what of those roads in the first place, that are built and maintained by the public sector, whatever the weather; don’t they help to create wealth? And what about universal access to education, and health care, and the rule of law? Surely the public provision of these goods is not merely a burden but a contribution to the economy as a whole, and to the wealth creation that both the private and public sectors participate in? And while it could be argued that the private sector could make a better fist of providing these services, such work is currently the preserve of the public sector, and so if we are talking about the British economy now and handing out prizes then the public sector should get the credit for these particular methods of creating wealth.

To refer to the private sector as the wealth-creating sector is misleading at best, and there is much more to be said about the very simplistic way the term “wealth creation” is misused and bandied about; but that can wait for another day. Come on now, this is only my third post in the past two-and-a-half months, and this will do for the time being.