Expert View: The world looks better when it's grey

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The Independent Online

Maize is the fool's gold of politicians. It was in the news last week, as the chosen UK experiment for GM. This brings back chilling memories of Kruschev's visit to America. The Politburo boss dismissed the supermarket shelves stacked with food as staged propaganda. But when he was driven through the vast prairies of the Midwest, he was bedazzled by the endless golden maize, and fell into one of the greatest traps in history. On returning to Russia, he ordered vast tracks of land to be converted to an inappropriate crop.

Maize is the fool's gold of politicians. It was in the news last week, as the chosen UK experiment for GM. This brings back chilling memories of Kruschev's visit to America. The Politburo boss dismissed the supermarket shelves stacked with food as staged propaganda. But when he was driven through the vast prairies of the Midwest, he was bedazzled by the endless golden maize, and fell into one of the greatest traps in history. On returning to Russia, he ordered vast tracks of land to be converted to an inappropriate crop.

How soon we forget past follies. I recall a trip to East Germany's biggest cement plant. The village was cloaked in white dust, while the adjoining three lakes were known by locals as the "blue one", the "green one" and the "orange one". The workforce had been North Koreans who lived behind barbed wire. When the wall came down they fled. The greengrocer's had photos of varied vegetables in the window, but only mouldy cabbages for sale.

Comical. But don't forget, we had similar disasters here. The 1960s and 1970s were the golden age of the "grandiose projects of the grandees". In a think-tank lecture last week, Professor John Kay cited two worthies, Lord and Lady Plowden, titans of the worlds of education and energy, who "between them caused more damage than any other couple in British history". Mr Kay estimates that the advanced, gas-cooled reactors programme cost £100bn in today's money, with no tangible benefits derived. Consider also the endless disasters of defence procurement, and subsidised shipyards producing unsellable ships.

Times have changed in London, as well as Moscow. But not all is for the best. We live in an age where the US business model has triumphed. I have no doubt it is this model that the placard-wavers in Parliament Square are referring to when they write "capitalism should be replaced by something nicer". To many of us, contemporary US capitalism seems red in tooth and claw. Financial gain is the overriding motive, all interference by government is suspect, and markets are efficient.

Mr Kay challenges the US model's supremacy. Take "greed is good". So many entrepreneurs, who are the captains of US capitalism, seem to have a strange disregard for the money they amass. Is Warren Buffet, the world's second-richest man, really doing it for the money when he still lives in an ordinary suburban home and eats in a 10-buck diner?

I think there is a danger in Mr Kay's arguments that in caricaturing US capitalism, he is creating a straw doll to knock down. America remains an economy with plenty of government interference, lots of individuals who are motivated by something other than greed, and a remarkable degree of protectionism when it suits it.

But he is right that we need to avoid polarised concepts - defunct centralised planning versus triumphant US style-capitalism. There cannot be one answer in economics which is, after all, a reflection of human behaviours. Societies are complex, and economics must be embedded in society. If we are to progress in our consideration of alternative models, maybe we need to recognise the existence of hybrid institutions.

The curse of the US age is that we can start to view the world in black and white. Can we get back to third ways?

christopher.walker@tiscali.co.uk

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