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Bust?: Saving the Economy, Democracy and our Sanity by Robert Peston and Kishan Koria- Review

So long as we have an economic system geared towards the accumulation of wealth rather than the acquisition of it, inequalities will continue to widen. Fortunately, Robert Peston and Kishan Koria have written an extremely readable analysis of our political-economic system, its flaws, and the many ways in which it may yet be modernised and fixed. The book certainly benefits from having been written by someone of Peston’s calibre. He knows most of the political leaders he discusses; he has been writing state-of-the-nation books for twenty years; and he writes in a refreshingly direct style akin to that of his favourite Guy de Maupassant.

What differentiates Bust? from Peston’s earlier books is AI, and it is clear throughout that he and Koria are fascinated by what they believe is a coming technology revolution. They are certain that economic productivity will rapidly be increased by AI: twelve million American workers may soon have been replaced by it; and, by 2030, 40% of all work could be AI-managed. Despite many grounds for optimism – such as potential developments in education, NHS diagnosis, record-keeping and other areas – AI also brings with it many dangers. We may for instance experience a new “Engels Pause”, whereby economic productivity rises while workers’ living standards fall; or even a “not inevitable” dystopia in which the world is thrown into an AI machine war. Certainly, our current government is unprepared for the revolution that is coming; although, as their sci-fi predictions reveal, Peston and Koria may also be somewhat overprepared. It is true that AI will have a transformative effect, but it may well turn out as manageably and naturally as the Internet revolution of the last few decades.

Separately, there is also an interesting and very convincing argument about low-probability, high-risk events. The authors argue that it would have been rational to prepare for events like a global pandemic or a war in Europe, even if, ten years ago, they seemed almost impossible. By the same logic, preparations ought to be underway for a potential climate disaster. The reasoning behind this is explained at length for the benefit of those who refuse to understand it, though what it boils down to is: better safe than sorry. 

Peston and Koria’s real topic of expertise is economics. In outlining the state of the British economy, they make it clear that, on present trends, we have nothing to be optimistic about. Our living standards are 20% behind those of mainland Europe. Productivity growth is “flatter than a pancake”. Austerity, pessimism, falling life expectancy, the biggest house-price/incomes gap since 1876, inflation, outdated tax structures, a lack of post-Brexit investment, poor infrastructure, cumbersome planning laws, unproductive financial institutions and an education system which blocks talent from certain backgrounds – the list is endless, and all of the factors are analysed and explained with a lucidity which (so my PPE friends tell me) most economists lack. 

Peston and Koria believe that we are approaching a national tide-change moment, as in 1945 or 1979. Price controls are returning, and neoliberalism is failing. The idea that “capitalism is a racket”, which has been given more credence by the Conservatives’ excesses than by any of their opponents, can only be solved by a new set of policies which do not fail voters as badly as the last batch did. Many of this book’s proposals – renationalisation, parliamentary reform, trade union rights – are such as should already have been adopted by any genuinely progressive party, and the authors (unlike Keir Starmer and his pitiful “five missions”) benefit from a vision that is genuinely radical. They want to transform a system which “Gladstone would recognise”. They propose, for example, a proportional representation system with the number of MPs slashed from 650 to 220. 

There is, however, something to be said for keeping some institutions as they are – even if Gladstone would recognise them.  Parliament and the monarchy have together prevented revolution, civil war and invasion for three hundred years, and, though they require reform, they should certainly not be abolished. It is right to decry the £100 million bill for the King’s coronation, and the monarchy does need to be radically defunded; but surely its image is not, as Peston believes, so antiquated as to ward off foreign technology and investment, and it has a unifying, stabilising, historical value which no short-term gold rush could substitute. (Admittedly, where the monarchy is concerned, Peston is more of a royal sceptic than an outright republican.) 

The authors’ other, smaller proposals – each of them minor but together capable of very significant change – include an annual government letter explaining what the young can expect from the future, quality work experience, compulsory bank accounts at fourteen, a windfall tax on banks, a regulated cryptocurrency for central banks, digitised records, pay rises for those who commit to work for the NHS for life, GP feedback forms and an EU referendum in 2034. One of their most controversial points is against the NHS’s “free at the point of use” principle. They suggest that, temporarily, while the NHS is restructured and modernised, wealthier patients should pay for their healthcare. If that creates a dreaded two-tier health system, it would only be a rendition of the existing gap between public and private healthcare. The reasoning here is sound enough, but it may not suffice to justify glossing over what is really the NHS’s founding principle: free treatment for all.

A reforming government would probably do best to adopt a practical number of Peston and Koria’s proposals, while maintaining such aspects of the current system as are worth preserving. The difficulty is to decide what should be changed and what maintained. That is the question that we should be asking, and this book is better than any manifesto in providing a most readable, substantial and visionary guide to answering it. 

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