Crecy economics?

Why failure should be instructive.

On 26th August 1364 something instructive happened for our political parties today.

At Crecy in France, after a confused start to a battle between French and English forces, the cream of French nobility threw themselves repeatedly across a muddy field at ranks of English long bowmen. Possibly 15 times they charged across the slippery ground and had their horses shot beneath them before being killed themselves either by the devastating fire of English bowmen or by English knights fighting on foot rather than on horses. By the end of the day the French had lost up to 4000 dead or wounded of which 1500 were knights (leaving many of the great households of France in a chaos of succession for years). English forces lost possibly 400 at the highest estimates.

The Daily Mail might spin this as evidence of plucky England’s supremacy over Europeans, but I see something rather different. (I claim no originality in the following - see my recommendation for Tim Harford’s excellent Cautionary Tales podcast - except a twist on the implications.)

The first charge by the French failed. They were using the wrong tactics for what faced them, just as five and a half centuries later commanders of trench warfare and machine guns insisted on using open ground cavalry and sabre tactics. They regrouped and charged again using exactly the same tactics. Oddly, the result was exactly the same. The French, to the bewilderment and, according to some accounts, distress of the English, then repeated this a further 13 times until it was too dim to see clearly. Bowmen could barely believe the ease with which they could pick off the French knights as they came off their stricken horses and got stuck in the mud in their heavy armour. It was a day of utterly unnecessary slaughter.

The implication of this today?

Since the 1980s most Western democracies have used the same economic policy. They’ve believed that deregulation, small government, low taxation, global free markets and competition will lead to ‘growth’ (measured as increasing GDP). If they’ve expressed an interest in wealth distribution, they’ve argued that the profits accruing at the top will inevitably and naturally ‘trickle down’ so the people at the bottom benefit as well.

There have been numerous national and international failures of this policy. The sub-prime crash being the biggest. We’re now seeing another crisis as a direct result of this policy. Globalising energy markets at the same time as deregulating companies, and in the UK also privatising and selling off national infrastructure, while reducing corporate taxation has created reliance on Russian gas and oil and left no control over the energy companies.

What is the solution to this repeating pattern of failure?

To pick up the same sword and charge up the same muddy field into the same hail of fatal arrows.

And this isn’t simply a critique of what has been dubbed Trussonomics this week. Everyone essentially buys into the same economic model despite the overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t work. Left of centre parties across the world are not, contrary to right-wing media headlines, coming up with radical different solutions, they’re just offering to lay a bit of new turf over the mud in preparation for the next charge.

I’m not an economist (though I did study economics) so I’m not suggesting I know what the answer is but I do know that if you have evidence that a strategy doesn’t work, it is wise to at least question whether there is an alternative approach.

Of course some would question my assertion that the existing policy doesn’t work. And it is true that for a small number of people the economic approach of the last 40 years has been incredibly successful. But isn’t that rather like looking at the battlefield at the end of that long-past day in August, and only seeing a victory for English bowmen?

We are in desperate need of new ideas. Or at the very least some real debate about current ideas. The Labour, Green, Lib Dem, and Conservative parties in the UK, along with most parties across the world, are essentially arguing for a continuation of the same economic policy. Each may well have different approaches to mitigating the ill effects of the policy, but that isn’t the same as having a different policy. (Clearing the dead horses and men with a mechanical digger would have been a quantum leap forward in 1364. It wouldn’t have made French strategy any more effective.)

I can only hope that what we’re seeing at the moment is the last few exhausted charges through the blood-streaked mud as the August sun slips behind the horizon. Perhaps, finally, a look at the battlefield in the cool morning light of a tomorrow may lead to the consideration of a new strategy for the world.