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Multiculturalism, the NHS and some basic economics for David Cameron | Andrew Graham

A recent hospital stay got me thinking about how I wish my field – economics – more closely resembled modern medicine

I can’t say I regret that Christmas and the New Year have passed, as I spent them in an NHS hospital. I was as the medical world puts it on “drip and draw” (in all directions) and, if you don’t know what that means, use your imagination. Not fun. But, this is not a gripe against the NHS. On the contrary, everybody showed skill, care, intelligence, compassion and informed thoughtfulness, and the tenderness and patience I observed being given to others sometimes brought tears to my eyes.

The top guy, a man of great knowledge, humanity and judgment, was part Russian, part Armenian, brought up in Alexandria; the registrar, a British Kenyan of Indian origin; the anaesthetist, Spanish; the cleaners and suppliers of hot drinks, from Poland; the nurses, inter alia, from Scotland, India, Rumania, Zambia, the Caribbean, Wales and Oxford. One, from the Philippines, is married to a Welshman, whose mother is Indian. All of these people work cheerfully as a team and, in the biblical phrase, are “living peaceably in their habitations” in and around Oxford (though some commute from as far afield as Gloucester and Milton Keynes). These are the same people some in this country think we don’t need or want, or are a threat to our culture. When I was a little down one day, one of the doctors, who was from the Caribbean, quoted Julius Caesar to me: “Danger knows full well that Caesar is more dangerous than he” – a threat to culture?

What is more they are all doing their job because they find it worthwhile and because they know they are part of a group working together for the shared goal, not of maximising profits or personal bonuses, but of caring for their patients. One of the nurses, English, worked for 10 years as a secretary in London for KPMG, but found her work unrewarding and now six years later, with a full three-year university degree behind her, is still earning less than at KPMG. Another had been an account manager for Lloyds in her 20s; same story: the ethical dissatisfaction of one kind of work “selling products you knew people might well never pay off” versus the intrinsic value of what she now does.

Any downsides? Yes. The system was obviously under pressure and my exceptional care was only made possible by actions such as that of the ward sister who dropped in while off duty, found the ward short-staffed and stayed to help because she “believed in leading by example”. Well done her, but overwork is only a short-term solution to underfunding not to mention the wasted millions currently being spent on yet another ill-thought-through reorganisation.

On a smaller scale, while my medical needs were rapidly addressed, it took four days for an endlessly dripping tap to be rectified. But, I reflected, this was OK in terms of priorities. So, in some respects, was the multi-angled arm coming out from the wall with a spanking new TV and phone provided by the private sector and chargeable. Nothing wrong with that nor with the machine (apart from the stupidity of its controls), except that it constantly played an infuriating announcement by Andrew Lansley implicitly claiming that the superb care I was receiving owed something to him.

Hospital provides plenty of time for reflection. One of my saner thoughts has been how much better would be my subject, economics, if it were more like medicine (ultimately driven by concern for the patient). Instead economics has become a branch of higher mathematics, all too frequently ignoring the complexities of real world economies and its economic patients. Hence the absurd financial models that contained no knowledge of history and which, in the midst of madness, assured the banks that all was safe.

As a patient too one appreciates just how much modern medicine, despite its huge hi-tech skills, essentially relies on carefully restabilising the body and then encouraging it to self-heal. Thus modern evidence-based medicine, knowing that the blood circulates, long ago abandoned blood-letting as an appropriate cure. But modern economics? Oh, no. Here blood-letting still rules the day. And as a recent Guardian report showed all too clearly some of that blood is coming from the NHS. In contradiction of the evidence and in denial of Keynesian theory about the economy’s circular flow of income and expenditure, economic policy continues to bow to the ideology of the Conservative party and the demands of the supposedly smart credit agencies, with public spending cut and taxes increased (both reducing the flow) just when the patient’s blood pressure is already dangerously low.

Of course, the canons of high finance are right to say that the public deficit (the gap between spending and revenue) will have to come down at some point – but only once other injections and leakages are pumping the circulatory flow back up. Is this the case now? No. At best private spending is flat and with the rest of Europe engaged in similarly self-defeating blood-letting, overseas spending on British goods is hardly buoyant. If Cameron and Osborne looked at the evidence, they would realise that, with all the main forms of spending tending to reduce the circular flow, a second recession is near inevitable without a change of policy. But their minds appear closed. Debt is so sinful and austerity so morally necessary, they keep their heads down and continue to sacrifice the rest of us at the feet of the financial markets.

Some final messages: to the NHS, a huge “thank you”; to Lansley, don’t screw it up; and to Cameron, be a modern doctor, not a spin doctor and call an end to the blood-letting. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds