THE WISDOM OF Socrates was famously summarised as his ability to know that he knew nothing. So in modern times he would probably be an economist.
Few saw the credit crunch coming. Since it arrived, opinions as to the severity of its consequences, its effects on different nations and the prescriptions to remedy them have varied wildly.
Last week, it was revealed that France and Germany are emerging from recession, each recording fractional amounts of GDP growth in the last quarter. This was seized upon as evidence that the old industrial engine at the heart of the eurozone is as robust as ever. Britain, by contrast, with its financial services-dependent economy, is all hollowed out.
Except, only a few months ago, the old industrial engine at the heart of the eurozone was known to be heading for the scrapheap of history. France and Germany, reliant on manufacturing exports, had seen global demand for their produce disappear and their economies were not flexible enough to adapt. Britain's nimble market economy, by contrast, was going to enjoy a surprise recovery.
Except, a few months before that, Britain's ultra-free market economy was the epicentre of the credit crunch, certain to be laid waste, while France and Germany, with their state safety nets, would be spared the worst.
Except, a few months before that, the sclerotic, state-heavy continental model was doomed unless it followed fleet-footed Anglo-Saxon economies down the path of liberalisation.
And that is only within Europe. A similar game of intellectual ping pong has been played out with the relative strengths and weaknesses of Asian economies being compared with each other, the US and Europe.
What conclusions can be drawn from such a confusing picture? One might be that, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues on these pages, we should be wary of experts. Alternatively, we might be in awe of how tough a job it is making sense of the global economy.
Another is that we should stop comparing national economies as if they were running a race. Plainly, they are not. Supply and demand do not respect borders. For one country to have a surplus, another must be running a deficit. It is imbalances between economies that puts prosperity at risk; the way different nations structure their economies within the globalised market probably matters less than we like to think.
If we stopped comparing the "competitiveness" of national economic models, we could devote more attention to what kind of society we want, and what economic policies will get us there. That, indeed, is probably the economic equivalent of another famous Socratic injunction: know thyself.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017