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Blatant bribery
July/August 2017

Tim Congdon: Universities are developing a self-reinforcing slant to the Left (illustration by Michael Daley)

Conservatism does not appeal to the young. It reveres the past, established institutions and tradition, whereas the young look to the future, new ideas and change. So no surprise might be expressed that a difference in the voting patterns of young and old was evident in the 2017 general election. Of course, the secret ballot prevents an exact calculation, but enough is known from opinion polls and the geography of voting to be certain that the young voted heavily for the Labour Party.

What is astonishing is the extent of the disparity. An ICM poll on May 29 found that Labour had the support of 61 per cent of possible voters in the 18-24 age group, whereas the Conservatives’ share was only 12 per cent. Further, in contrast to the 2015 general election the young made a big effort to vote, particularly if they were in full-time education. Electoral Commission data show that more than two million people applied to register to vote in the weeks following the announcement of a snap election. The new voters must have contributed to Labour’s remarkable success in university towns, notably in Cambridge (with a swing to Labour of 15.9 per cent), Oxford East (15.1 per cent) and the four Bristol constituencies (particularly Bristol West where the swing was 30.3 per cent).

What is going on here? Much of the explanation is mercenary, crude and possibly transient. The Labour Party offered two bribes to students. First, its manifesto promised that tuition fees would be scrapped from this September. “Freshers” matriculating this autumn would have had little or no debt overhanging them once they started work three years from now, if Labour were in power. By contrast, they might have debts of more than £30,000 each under the Conservatives. Labour’s plan would add over £10 billion a year to public expenditure. On that basis, students voting against Theresa May were like turkeys voting against Christmas. Second, in an interview for New Musical Express on June 1 Jeremy Corbyn said that he was “sympathetic” to cancelling past student debts. He did not make a definite commitment, perhaps aware that the cost would be a once-for-all increase in the UK’s public debt of £30 billion. But it was a blatant bid for the bourgeois university vote in the largest sense.

Another part of the explanation is more fundamental and for conservatives deeply worrying. In electoral terms, students are more numerous than staff and so matter most. But, in terms of their long-term influence on the political climate, members of staff are far more significant. By writing the textbooks that undergraduates must absorb, and in other ways nudging opinion and attitudes, university teachers have great influence on what young people believe. Such beliefs are the ultimate drivers of political commitment.

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August 27th, 2017
7:08 PM
"By writing the textbooks that undergraduates must absorb, and in other ways nudging opinion and attitudes, university teachers have great influence on what young people believe. Such beliefs are the ultimate drivers of political commitment." I'm sure you are correct? However, the following is not the economics that is usually covered in economics text. “This “equilibrium” graph (Figure 3) and the ideas behind it have been re-iterated so many times in the past half-century that many observes assume they represent one of the few firmly proven facts in economics. Not at all. There is no empirical evidence whatsoever that demand equals supply in any market and that, indeed, markets work in the way this story narrates. We know this by simply paying attention to the details of the narrative presented. The innocuous assumptions briefly mentioned at the outset are in fact necessary joint conditions in order for the result of equilibrium to be obtained. There are at least eight of these result-critical necessary assumptions: Firstly, all market participants have to have “perfect information”, aware of all existing information (thus not needing lecture rooms, books, television or the internet to gather information in a time-consuming manner; there are no lawyers, consultants or estate agents in the economy). Secondly, there are markets trading everything (and their grandmother). Thirdly, all markets are characterized by millions of small firms that compete fiercely so that there are no profits at all in the corporate sector (and certainly there are no oligopolies or monopolies; computer software is produced by so many firms, one hardly knows what operating system to choose…). Fourthly, prices change all the time, even during the course of each day, to reflect changed circumstances (no labels are to be found on the wares offered in supermarkets as a result, except in LCD-form). Fifthly, there are no transaction costs (it costs no petrol to drive to the supermarket, stock brokers charge no commission, estate agents work for free – actually, don’t exist, due to perfect information!). Sixthly, everyone has an infinite amount of time and lives infinitely long lives. Seventhly, market participants are solely interested in increasing their own material benefit and do not care for others (so there are no babies, human reproduction has stopped – since babies have all died of neglect; this is where the eternal life of the grown-ups helps). Eighthly, nobody can be influenced by others in any way (so trillion-dollar advertising industry does not exist, just like the legal services and estate agent industries). It is only in this theoretical dreamworld defined by this conflagration of wholly unrealistic assumptions that markets can be expected to clear, delivering equilibrium and rendering prices the important variable in the economy – including the price of money as the key variable in the macroeconomy. This is the origin of the idea that interest rates are the key variable driving the economy: it is the price of money that determines economic outcomes, since quantities fall into place. . . . In other words, neoclassical economics has demonstrated to us that the circumstances required for equilibrium to occur in any market are so unlikely that we can be sure there is no equilibrium anywhere. Thus we know that markets are rationed, and rationed markets are determined by quantities, not prices.”

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