Statue of Postman Pat in Bispham, UK
Image: © Chris Heaton

My journey from Post Office apprentice to UK Treasury economist

Andy Ross tells the story of his career, from high school dropout to discovering his affinity for economics to becoming deputy director of the UK Government Economic Service

In the 1960s my mother, a widow with four kids, was legally paid less than a man. And then my failure of the '11-plus' exam piled disadvantage on our disadvantaged family. It meant going to a ‘secondary modern’ school, which was designed to produce subservient workers fit for the disciplines of subservient work. Our personal canings were announced at daily Christian assembly. "Suffer little children to come unto me" rang true for the more sadistic of our teachers.

An early exit from school and a job with the General Post Office (GPO) brought relief. The GPO ran all the UK’s telephones with a quaint mix of workerism, social aspiration and genuine devotion to public service. I earned a much-needed £8 a week as an apprentice. Union membership was obligatory and so working conditions were generally good, each year seeing an automatic increment up a carefully negotiated scale, mapping jealousy protected small relativities in pay across chasms of blue collar status. By and large, we were unstressed and contented workers, with occasional strikes to make sure it stayed that way.

Despite this, the business of telecommunications bored me, but luckily at technical college we had to take ‘liberal studies’. It was like ‘Meat One’ from Tom Sharpe’s Wilt, and the hapless teacher reciting TS Elliot gave up. Our stand-in was a sociologist and his message resonated with my own experiences; lives are mostly determined by things beyond our individual control. And so it proved for so many telephone engineers, made redundant by new technologies and competition: maximising subject to well defined constraints is not a good description of human experience.

By and large, we were unstressed and contented workers, with occasional strikes to make sure it stayed that way.

So with an evening job, a small grant and no fees to pay, I studied social science with textbook in one hand and dictionary in the other. I read Lipsey’s An Introduction to Positive Economics - really an ‘introduction to econometrics without any econometrics’ - and was impressed by its claim to science, and even more impressed by my own mastery of its contents. Starting from ignorance I could, with a few diagrams or equations, cry ‘Make way, I’m a scientist!’

With success at A levels, but rejection from Oxford, it was the London School of Economics for me. The LSE adored maths and differentiating polynomials grew my economist’s arrogance. My earlier experiences faded into mere ‘institutional’ details, messy distractions from elegant models that could be mastered without ever leaving one’s desk. Instead of the messy indeterminacies and frustrations of life, economics offered a haven of harmonious twice-differentiable convexity untroubled by the outside world.

Teaching that sort of economics is also easy. Ahistorical, asocial and with politics ruthlessly suppressed, the only person in the classroom who could know anything at all was me, by then the omniscient teacher. Awkward questions were swatted with put-downs such as: ‘That’s only a value-judgement’, ‘It’s outside the model’ and the ever reliable ‘That violates the assumptions’. Replicating techniques to solve ‘problem-sets’ got the highest marks, though it numbed rather than satisfied curiosity. Students seldom asked me obvious questions such as ‘Why has no-one has ever refused to serve me because their MC just equalled their MR?’, or ‘Why is perfect competition called a theory of price determination when no-one in it can affect price?’

My doubts grew as I delved into second-best complexities, adding-up inconsistencies, re-switching, Sonnenschein–Mantel–Debreu, gross substitutes, unbelievable inter-temporal foresight, and gulfs between game-theoretic models and actual data. I worried that I’d been sold a pup; advanced neoclassical theory seemed more akin to theology than science.

I came to see simple economic tools, selected for particular uses only and applied with awareness of limitations, with good judgement in interpreting conclusions, as the most useful economics. Of course, such low-brow should reflect high-brow wherever possible, but economists too often seem obliged to be too clever by half. Data skills are essential for all economists, but complex logic chains based on heroic assumptions seldom work out well in practice. High theory talks mostly to itself and then only about questions no-one else cares about. So policy economics beckoned as a more promising direction to take, which took me to the Government Economic Service (GES).

I worried that I’d been sold a pup; advanced neoclassical theory seemed more akin to theology than science.

It was exciting to see that economics in government is about dilemmas rather than lemmas, but depressing to see the disproportionate percentage of senior civil servants educated at expensive schools. There were many interesting times, new skills to learn and I met some truly great people, but eventually became unhappy. Gus O’Donnell, when Head of the GES and then as top civil servant, had exhorted pluralism and evidence-based policy, but I believe this emphasis has faded since. Academics should have done more to keep it alive with clearly communicated advice on practical policy matters, but then their careers depended mostly on writing arcane journal articles, which virtually no-one reads.

With George Osborne’s austerity programme in 2010, I personally found it uncomfortable to be what a civil servant ought to be, an impartial servant of government. In my assessment, austerity reflected ideology not evidence or necessity. It’s good politics for rich vested interests perhaps, but poor economics and unnecessary misery for others. Economics textbooks often ignore the strong links between vested interest and policy.

So now I’m back teaching again. Perhaps it’s my age, but I most enjoy discussing economics with those left in academia who still draw on a wider range of perspectives and history. By contrast, as still the chief academic assessor for GES recruitment, it’s depressing to often see candidates whose intellects seem to have been blunted by drilling in sophisticated techniques without enough basics and applications to really understand or go beyond them. That is a great shame, as an intelligent engagement with the subject is a lifelong pleasure.

This article was authored in British English

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