Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

How Broadcasters should handle the Prime Minister lying

This post is about the Brexit Dividend and how broadcasters should treat it. However I want to start with an extreme case: Donald Trump. He is the right place to start because he became POTUS in good part because of how the media treated him and his opponent. He gained publicity by saying outrageous things. That increased his poll rating, so he started getting favourable coverage because his poll ratings were going up. (I explain how this works in more detail here.) Once he was the republican candidate, the media’s obsession with balance meant they spent as much time talking about the trivial issue of Clinton’s emails as Trump’s lies, whether he pays any taxes, bribes officials and assaults women.

One of the most remarkable polls during that campaign was that more people trusted Trump than Hillary Clinton. How can someone who lies all the time, almost every time he says anything, be trusted more than Hillary Clinton, who has had countless Republican inspired investigations into her affairs and has never been convicted of anything. For some time cognitive linguist and philosopher George Lakoff has pioneered the idea that (among many other things - see for example a Guardian article with Gil Duran) lies that are repeated often enough become associations in people’s minds that they find it hard to combat. So the phrase ‘crooked Hillary’ that Trump repeats all the time has a purpose beyond firing up the base. Equally when Republican’s start investigations into her affairs that alone puts an association of guilt in people’s minds. That is a key reason why before the election they trusted Trump more than Clinton.

In the United States Trump played the media big time, and continues to do so. If the media is not careful the same thing could happen here. The phrase ‘Brexit dividend’ is the equivalent of ‘crooked Hillary’. If it is repeated enough, a sufficient number of people will begin to associate Brexit with a ‘dividend’, whether that dividend is real or not. And in case someone reading this does not know by now, the Brexit dividend is a complete fiction.

To see how May’s claim that there is a Brexit dividend should be handled, read this in the FT and this from Sky News. (HT Femi) The FT article does not have ‘Brexit dividend’ in its title, and this is important. As Lakoff argues, the more often people see those two words together the more likely they are to associate them, so do not put it in a headline as many people just read headlines. (Putting it in inverted commas does nothing.) He suggests what he calls the ‘truth sandwich’ approach: begin with a truthful statement, then report the dishonest spin, and then fact check the spin. Leaving out that first stage plays into the hands of whoever promoted the spin.

Who are the heroes and villains in this example of barefaced lying (see my definition of barefaced below). For villains we have to start with Theresa May herself: if this is a sop to the Brexiters in exchange for a soft Brexit that is no mitigation. Boris Johnson of course for suggesting the idea: the court might like to take a large number of previous offences into account. The right wing Brexit press for whom lying is just part of their game.

Heroes include Paul Johnson, who toured the broadcasters on Sunday to emphatically say there was no dividend, and Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston for saying it was complete nonsense, as well as the two references already given in the FT and from Sky News. I hope there were other examples that I did not happen to notice.

What about the BBC? It did have Paul Johnson on, and Laura Kuenssberg did at least ask the existential question, although she felt unable to answer it. (There are not ‘economic’ and ‘political’ truths: arithmetic is arithmetic, lies are lies.) But there are unfortunately other occasions when the Brexit dividend was treated as if it was real and put into headlines (e.g. here), missing out the first layer of the truth sandwich. And of course the Marr interview on Sunday, where he did not even question the concept. All too often (e.g. here) any questioning of the dividend was left to the end of the article and was presented in the standard ‘he said,she said’ format.

Why does this all matter? In terms of Brexit, it is obvious. Another barefaced lie in the Brexit campaign was £350 per week for the NHS. Most Brexiters continue to believe that they will be better off after Brexit, and I suspect most are not aware why this is unlikely to be true. Talk of the Brexit dividend is designed to keep them in their ignorance.

But I think its importance goes well beyond Brexit. Why don’t politicians lie more often to enhance their cause? Some have integrity, but for the others the deterrent is being found out. But being found out depends critically on the media calling out lies when they happen. And when a large section of the media are very selective about how they treat lies depending on who said them or why they were said, or indeed are often the source of these lies, society has a serious problem.

That is the situation in the US with Fox and Trump and in the UK with the right wing press and Brexit or the Conservatives more generally. How the print media in the US and the broadcast media in the UK treats lies has therefore become critical. With lies ‘she said, he said’ type reporting is just not sufficient to defend democracy. Now often it is quite difficult to prove someone is lying, but if I could delineate a barefaced lie as one where it is very easy to establish the truth, then the Brexit dividend is a barefaced lie. OBR documents, accepted by the government as the basis for their tax and spend decisions, show quite clearly that the money has already been spent. You cannot spend the same money twice.

The right wing Brexit press have already supported this lie. As most of their readers also watch broadcasters, it is imperative that these broadcasters inflict some political damage on those who tell the lie. If they do not, the lesson certain politicians will draw is that they too can get away with barefaced lies, encouraging the kind of behaviour we see with Trump. For that reason broadcasters have to speak truth to power, otherwise the non-partisan media becomes complicit in propaganda or just a mouthpiece for politicians.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

The bankruptcy of the centre right: Brexit edition

If you want to see how the centre-right can lose out big time you just need to look at the US. Last week a Republican senator who had been critical of Trump lost to a Trump loyalist in a primary. Partisan voters prize loyalty, you may say, but this is loyalty to someone who lies all the time, and prefers the US’s traditional arch enemy Russia to its traditional allies. The US is just a few threads away from becoming yet another elected dictatorship. One of those threads is the Mueller investigation, and we will see if any Republican ‘rebels’ who want to impeach Trump are made of sterner stuff than the Brexit rebel Conservative MPs.

The story of neoliberal overreach is in part about how centre-right politicians set in place or promoted causes or institutions that would allow for the ascendency of the hard-right and then eventually their own demise. In the US this stretches from repealing the fairness doctrine, which led to hard-right talk radio and then Fox News, to increasing the role of money in elections and finally allowing Trump to win the presidency. In the UK it involved promoting austerity and an immigration target that was bound to fail, both of which directly led to Brexit.

Once these conditions have been set in place to win votes or shrink the state, there seem to be two stages in the process through which the centre-right concede power to the hard-right. The first stage is a belief that the centre-right are still in control when clearly they are not, or a blind optimism that the hard-right can be easily bought off. In the UK that is the stage where Cameron gave in to UKIP and newspaper pressure and agreed to a referendum on EU membrship. The centre-right make concessions to the hard-right to preserve party unity.

The second stage is where the hard-right have control, and play on this centre-right belief in party unity to prevent the centre-right from rocking the boat. [1] We saw this in the US under Obama when the Republicans scorned all the President’s overtures for bipartisanship. In the UK we are seeing it right now in how easily most Remain voting Conservative MPs are happy to go along with the current farce, and how easily the small band of rebels can be persuaded to cave.

The latter is due in part to our equivalent of Fox News conducting a hate campaign against these rebels. There is nothing subtle about this: try to vote against the government to prevent a national disaster and those big four right wing newspapers will headline on saying you are going against the will of the people and even imply you a traitor. Whipping up this kind of hatred is no joke when followers of the ultra-right have already murdered one MP and tried to murder another. Yet before you start feeling some sympathy for the rebels subject to these newspapers attacks, remember these same centre-right Conservative MPs were quite happy to indulge the same papers by voting down Leveson 2.

It is also a result of the BBC increasingly shying away from anything that could be construed as critical of the government, and dumbing down political discussion. The rapid right wing press pretend that any form of dissent from the government’s chosen path of implementing Brexit is betraying the will of the people, confusing the government with the people just as authoritarian governments have always done, yet the BBC panders to the idea that these rebels are really trying to stop Brexit by constantly labelling the rebel MPs as Remainers.

As a result, Conservative MPs duly voted through substantial increases in executive power at the expense of parliament. There is now a grave danger that they will get played by the Brexiters. The Brexiters should by now know that any deal that can be done will be some form of soft Brexit, remaining in the Customs Union and Single Market for goods for sure. That is not the kind of divorce they wanted. They keep saying that the possibility of No Deal must be kept in play to increase our negotiating power, having conceded all our negotiating power by invoking Article 50 with no discussion and little plan. Perhaps the real reason is that they would not be at all unhappy that through their belligerence time for a deal disappears, and we get No Deal by default. Chris Grey calculates there are only 62 working days left to do a deal, and May is not even near the range of possible deals yet. If the Brexiters plan is to talk out a deal so we exit without one, it seems to be going very well.

For months I have been saying that No Deal would not happen because parliament would not let it happen. I still think it is unlikely, but as a result of the votes last week and the UK side in the Brexit negotiations going backwards since December I am much less confident than I was. The slide from a pluralist democracy to an elected dictatorship or a right wing plutocracy [2] is full of moments when sensible people say this could not possibly happen here.

[1] Contrast Conservatives voting on block to sweep aside the Lord’s amendments to the Labour rebellion over the EEA. Often the fact that Labour MPs have views for which they are quite prepared to vote against their leadership is seen as a political weakness, but what we are seeing right now is the Conservative desire for party unity as a colossal political weakness.
[2] Before anyone objects, of course this only applies to the UK on the single decision of Brexit, for now. But Brexit is perhaps the most important change in UK politics since the election of Margaret Thatcher, and the way this change has come about does show structural similarities to the transformation of the US Republican party that led to the election of Donald Trump.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

How UK deficit hysteria began

Laura Basu has a good book just out on UK media coverage of events from the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) until 2015, which I have reviewed for Open Democracy. Among other things, it tells the story of how what Mark Blyth calls the ‘biggest bait and switch in history’ happened in the UK. Laura argues that it can be dated almost exactly to the Budget of April 2009.

That the right wing press would start talking about the horrors of the rising UK deficit is no surprise. Osborne had decided in the previous year to oppose the Labour government’s stimulus measures because he saw in the rising deficit a way to beat Labour. The puzzle is why a broadcast media, ever conscious of balance, pushed the same line, even though it was clearly advantageous to one side politically.

The following story is mine, not Laura’s. Before the GFC, the way that the broadcast media covered budgets had become quite formulaic. Each budget would present estimates of the deficit over the next five years, and with the help of the IFS commentators broadcasters would discuss not only what tax changes had been announced, but also what might be implicit in the projections. No doubt this framework suited journalists well, because it allowed easy analogies with households. If the IFS felt that the projections were over optimistic and therefore fiscal rules might be broken, they said so and that became one of the budget talking points. The state of the economy was hardly ever discussed, because the Bank of England seemed to be doing a pretty good job of keeping things stable.

That all changed with the GFC, when monetary policy ran out of reliable levers to manage the economy. However journalists wouldn’t know that from the Bank of England, who tended to talk as if Quantitative Easing was a close substitute to interest rates as a monetary policy instrument. They would know it from academic macroeconomists, but journalists were generally too busy to make the effort to talk to them. For whatever reason, they did not fully appreciate how much the world had changed as a result of the GFC.

So when in the budget of April 2009 the Treasury showed the full extent of the deficits that the recession (and to a smaller extent the government’s stimulus measures) had created, journalists behaved exactly as they would have done before the GFC. Compared to deficits seen before the financial crisis, the numbers were indeed large. But crucially, because the Treasury estimated that the GFC had reduced the trend level of GDP, fiscal savings were necessary as a result. When these took the form of efficiency savings, the IFS were rightly skeptical.

So the coverage was all about higher taxes and lower spending, and whether they would be enough to close the record deficit. At no point in the subsequent discussion does anyone ask whether the current deficits are large enough to create a strong recovery. The growth forecasts are taken as given, and only their fiscal consequences are discussed, as if the former had nothing to do with the latter: an assumption that is only appropriate if monetary policy is in complete control of the economy. The government’s line that these deficits were necessary to ‘support’ the economy was almost entirely ignored.

Furthermore, the issue of whether the markets would purchase all this extra debt was already being raised. This is City speak, seeing a recession as involving more government debt and therefore perhaps higher rates, rather than understanding that the recession was caused by more saving and less borrowing so there would be plenty of new savings to buy the additional debt.

In other words the broadcasters had a framework for commenting on the budget which was appropriate before the financial crisis, but totally inappropriate after it. What they should have been asking is whether the Chancellor had done enough to ensure the recovery that was forecast, or whether perhaps larger deficits might be needed. In retrospect, that was exactly the right question to ask.

At the time, the reason for these deficits was clearly spelt out by the IFS as well as the Treasury. "The Treasury's assessment of the fiscal damage wrought by the current economic and financial crisis is breathtaking," said IFS director Robert Chote. "It will require two full parliaments of mounting austerity to repair." But in a telling indicator of things to come, the headline paragraph loses the bit about the GFC. As Laura’s book shows, it became so easy for a media prone to amnesia to forget about the financial crisis and blame everything on Labour profligacy, as after a time most voters began to believe. But the fundamental mistake was focusing on the deficit as a problem rather than as an instrument designed to produce a strong economy. The mistake came from the media’s inability to see how the GFC had changed the macroeconomic rules of the game.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Parliament has to start directing the Brexit negotiations

The moment it became clear that the EU would give full backing to Ireland’s wish for no hard border, and on the assumption that the UK side would not allow a sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, it was clear what the range of possible deals between the UK and EU would be. The maximum possible change that would prevent the need for a hard border is that the UK stay in the Customs Union (CU) and Single Market (SM) for goods, while not accepting Freedom of Movement (FoM): the Jersey option. The minimum possible change is that the ‘transition’ became the final deal, with the UK staying in the CU and complete SM including FoM: the BINO (Brexit in name only) option. The final deal between the EU and UK has to lie somewhere between this minimum and maximum.

It is also where any final deal should have been anyway, given how close the referendum was. All the evidence we have suggests that those who voted Leave do not want a deal that will make them significantly poorer, which means that the final deal should be one that does the UK little economic harm. The negotiations should have focused from the start on what limits to FoM were possible at what cost in terms of (partial) membership of the SM. These negotiations should have taken place informally before Article 50 was invoked to give the UK some bargaining power.

Instead Theresa May allowed the whole process to be hijacked by the Brexiters, who treated the referendum like an election win with no manifesto. They believed they owned the referendum victory, and so acted as if they had the right to decide what Brexit means. As a result, we have wasted time talking about impossible deals, rather than negotiate within the space that a deal can be done. It is in fact worse than that. May and the Brexiters, by refusing to let go of their fantasies (about a technological solution to the border problem or about the EU caving into their wishes to be part of the club without signing up to the rules) have split the negotiations into two parts: the preferred deal and the backstop.

As has now become clear, the idea of a backstop is predicated on there being a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The EU should never had allowed this device because they should have understood that such a border would be politically impossible. Instead they took far too seriously May’s red lines, which they interpreted as the UK wanting a FTA which would in turn require a border in the Irish Sea to avoid a hard land border. They made the mistake of thinking that because this was obvious to any objective observer the UK side acknowledged this fact. May encouraged this belief by appearing to agree in December to a sea border, only to be pulled up at the last minute by the DUP. In short, the EU made the mistake of thinking it was negotiating with a rational counterpart, rather than one that was at war with itself.

This is the context of the parliamentary votes on the Lord’s amendments on 12/13th June. Parliament is, in effect, trying to manage the negotiating process because those conducting the negotiations so far are getting nowhere. Some of these amendments attempt to direct the government towards negotiating in the relevant range (the CU amendment proposed by Lord Kerr), and to give them the space in which to do so (by removing the date of exit which was inserted into the bill by May as a way of appeasing her Brexiter colleagues or Paul Dacre). I suspect May would privately welcome both amendments if she has any understanding of what is going on.

The EEA amendment appears to suggest a specific point in the range of possible deals, which is why the Labour leadership and some of their MPs dislike it. I think their attitude is a mistake. The way to think about the EEA amendment, which is only expressed as a negotiating aim, is to steer the government towards the possible range of final deals, which has to include staying in the Single Market for goods. If this is not passed we will just waste more time as May fiddles around trying to inch closer to the possible range without the Brexiters throwing their toys out of the pram. [1]

There is also a purely short term political reason for the opposition supporting the EEA amendment. As I noted above, May will probably find it a relief to be directed to stay in the CU. She is already at the stage of realising that the UK staying in the CU is essential for a deal. The Brexiters will huff and puff, and Fox may even resign, but their anger will be directed at parliament more than May. The EEA amendment in contrast is likely to cause far greater discomfort in government: it is difficult to see how any Brexiter cabinet ministers will suffer this. So in terms of damage to the government, EEA inflicts much more than the CU.

May will also not welcome what is perhaps the most important amendment, proposed by Hailsham, which gives parliament the ability to direct the Prime Minister if the negotiations fail or the deal is voted down by parliament. However she has only herself to blame if this is passed, in particular for threatening no deal if parliament rejected her deal. By allowing the Brexiters to hijack the negotiations process, it is not surprising that parliament should decide that they need to start calling the shots. As Labour seem quite likely to reject a deal if she manages to achieve one, this amendment is crucial to minimise the subsequent chaos. The amendment is not quite parliament taking back control of the negotiation, but it does mean that May will have to start taking directions from parliament rather than the Brexiters. That has to be good for democracy in the UK.

[1] Nor should the EEA be seen as something that is inflexible. It already contains a brake on immigration, where countries can take "appropriate measures" if serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectoral or regional nature arise and are liable to persist. There are lots of other issues that would have to be addressed if the UK signed up to the EEA outside the EU, which means there will be the opportunity to negotiate around issues to do with immigration or state aid.

Postscript (13/06/18) The government did not lose a single vote yesterday, and it will be surprising if they do today. Rebel Conservative MPs did get some concessions which will hopefully allow them to have some influence over a situation where MPs vote against the final deal or there is no deal, and the rebel numbers were increased by the resignation of Justice minister Phillip Lee. But they completely failed to start directing how May conducts the negotiating process, which leaves the Brexiters as a constant drag on May's efforts to start negotiating something that the EU might accept.

At the end of the day, Conservative MPs have put party before country. Brexiters have hijacked the negotiation process, and Conservative MPs are content to let that continue, even though time for a deal is running out. The bill they voted on yesterday and today involves a substantial transfer of powers from parliament to the executive, and Conservative MPs do nothing about it. A rabid right wing press encourages far right nutters to murder one MP, attempt to murder another, with one Conservative rebel requiring armed guards because of threats, and the same Conservative MPs do nothing about it because that press helps their party. Just as in the United States, nowadays a pluralistic democracy is unsafe when the main right wing party is in power. Based on this record, I cannot see Conservative MPs voting against any final Brexit deal, which in turn means the chances of a second referendum - always slim - have all but vanished.  

Friday, 8 June 2018

Amendment wars and Corbyn wars

In the real world, UK business is tearing its hair out not knowing what on earth Brexit is going to look like. The EU warns its manufacturers about the dangers of sourcing parts from UK firms if the UK leaves the Customs Union, as Theresa May intends. Meanwhile the UK cabinet continues its arguments about which plan to choose out of two the EU has already rejected. And Remain twitter talked about Corbyn betrayal. While May is definitely in fantasy land, Remain twitter was also a little behind reality.

The Lord’s EEA amendment presented a great opportunity. But this opportunity died at a meeting of the PLP shortly after it was passed by the Lords. There are a significant number of Labour MPs who voted to Remain but who subsequently feel that some notice should be taken of those who voted to Leave. What this means specifically is that in the Brexit negotiations some attempt should be made to end or modify Freedom of Movement (FoM). Those MPs combined with a few Lexiters - Polly Toynbee thinks there are 60 odd - would have voted against the EEA amendment even if the leadership had backed it.

That, as they say, changed everything. There was no point in pro-EU Labour MPs putting a huge effort into changing Corbyn’s mind on the EEA amendment if it was going to fail anyway. All that Corbyn would have achieved if he had supported the amendment is to allow a distraction of Labour divisions on what hopefully will be a night of setbacks for May and Brexit. I think the Labour MPs who want to focus on immigration control are quite wrong to do so, but they cannot be ignored.

Voting down the EEA amendment alone would have sent a purely negative message to Labour’s overwhelmingly Remain supporting members and voters. So an additional amendment was put forward by Labour. Now this may have no chance of passing because ‘it comes from Corbyn’, but that tells us that the Tory rebels are also capable of putting party before country. It is vague, but it has to be so to keep the pro-immigration control Labour MPs on board. And I agree with Ian Dunt it is better to have than not.

As Ian says, it makes it more likely that Labour will vote against the final deal and that this vote is the crucial one if a referendum on the final deal is to become possible. I think some Remainers sometimes forget that the only way a referendum will happen is if parliament votes for it, and the only way that will happen is if Labour supports it because May will not. Finally the only way Corbyn will not be Labour leader when that decision comes is if he falls under a bus. So gradual pressure and persuasion is the name of the game. The more the Remain campaign resembles a get rid of Corbyn campaign, the more difficult it is for people within Labour to apply that pressure.

Unfortunately, press comment on anything to do with Labour increasingly resembles a pro or anti Corbyn debate. The fact that it was not common knowledge that there were a significant group of Labour members not attached to Corbyn who opposed EEA is quite understandable if you read the press comment at the time. Although that was the news at the PLP meeting, most reports just made it another Corbyn versus MPs story. That was what press coverage was like before the 2017 election, which helps explain Labour's dramatic increase in popularity during the election as voters saw for the first time what their policies were, and the media has now reverted back to this narrative. 

In my experience these MPs that want to try to end FoM for the UK or at least modify it tend to come from strongly leave voting areas. It is easy to say that they are being unrealistic in their wish, because the four freedoms are indivisible for the EU, but they are after all only reflecting the views of their constituents that the UK should try. Although we may strongly suspect the EU will say FoM has to go with being in the Single Market, this is a question that Theresa May has yet to ask because ironically the Conservative Brexiters are not very interested in controlling immigration.

Let me stress that I am in no way supporting these MPs refusal to back the EEA amendment - I support FoM - just as I think the leadership's reluctance to do so for different reasons is misguided. But to overcome objections to EEA you first have to understand where they come from. The idea that if it wasn’t for Corbyn Labour would be solidly behind joining the EEA is not only wrong, but it risks associating the Remain cause with the constant stream of attacks on Corbyn that can be found in the media on an almost daily basis, which in turn dilutes the pressure from Remain on the leadership and anti-FoM MPs.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Idée fixe

Theresa May's disastrous Brexit strategy 

The arguments against staying in the Custom Union (CU) are pathetic. It is as if Brexiters, having chosen Brexit because of their visceral dislike of the EU's labour and environmental regulation, realised that this would have a major negative impact on trade and tried to compensate. ‘Global Britain’ was born. Even if you strip out the nonsensical associations with past empire, Global Britain must be one of the most ridiculous ideas to be taken seriously by the broadcast media.

According to the Brexiters, the EU prevents us doing good trade deals with other countries because of vested interests in some of the EU countries, and therefore the UK outside the CU would be in a much better position to make good deals. The first point is the EU already has trade agreements with around 50 countries, with more in the pipeline, which is a lot. Another is that third countries want trade deals with the EU much more than they would want them from the UK, because the EU is a bigger market. And finally because of its market size, the EU can set the standards with which other smaller countries have to conform. Market size brings power in any trade agreement.

If you want to see how much market size gives you power, look at what happens when Trump tries to tear up trade agreements. If you have a similar market size, as the EU does, you can retaliate with a reasonable chance of causing enough economic pain in the US to reverse the initial policy. If you are a relatively small economy, as the UK will be if it acts alone, any retaliation could be little more than a pinprick for the other side. This is also, incidentally, why arguments that we somehow had more power over the EU in the Brexit negotiations because of trade balances are ludicrous, because walking away inflicts in proportional terms so much more damage on the UK than it does to the EU.

Global Britain is so dumb a concept that you can concede huge amounts of ground and still win the argument. Suppose the UK did manage to get better trade agreements with the 50 countries the EU already has agreements with and more before the EU does. This is still likely to come nowhere near to replacing the trade we would lose from leaving the EU. The reason is that distance still matters for trade. It is one of the most robust empirical results in economics. Nor have existing trade barriers prevented Germany in particular from increasing trade to China and other countries.

In response Brexiters always say that it is more important to export to the fast growing countries that are the emerging markets, rather than the more slow growing advanced economies in the EU. But not all countries in the EU are growing slowly: we have a fast growing one, Ireland, on our doorstep. You might respond that a country like India is a much bigger market, but the UK’s exports to Ireland in 2016 were 5 times larger than those to India. The UK government have done the calculations and they suggest that successful FTAs with other countries including the US would come nowhere near compensating for lost trade with the EU.

All this is all before we think about the Irish border. It is patently obvious that if the UK leaves the EU’s CU and Single Market for goods there would have to be a ‘hard border’ either on the island of Ireland or within the UK. Instead of acknowledging this obvious fact, Brexiters have gone to incredible lengths to invent mad schemes that purport to avoid this inevitability. The way this sometimes seems to work is that policy entrepreneurs from places like the Legatum Institute feed schemes to ministers, and them after announcing them they ask civil servants to gather evidence.

The Brexiters do all this nonsense because they know even a soft Brexit like the Jersey option does not give them the freedom to ‘complete Thatcher’s project’ they crave. Which brings me to Theresa May. She is very much the wrong person to have been in the right place at the right time. Any Prime Minister worthy of that office should have quickly realised that a hard Brexit would involve economic costs that no PM should inflict on the economy. Another way of putting it is that the Brexit people voted for - taking back control and being at least no worse off in economic terms at the same time - was an impossible project. That realisation should have governed how she approached Brexit from the start. She should have said that she accepted the referendum vote, but she would not implement any deal that would do significant economic harm to the country. No one would have criticised her for such an endeavour.

The task of her premiership should therefore have been to gradually marginalise the Brexiters. They were always going to cry betrayal, so best to ensure that this happened slowly (to avoid giving them the ammunition to create a leadership election) from the moment she became PM. The way to do that was to refuse to trigger Article 50 until a clear negotiating strategy was in place and tested using a realistic view of what the EU would do. Assessments should have been made before, not after, negotiations started to ensure the right strategy was in place. To do that she had to ensure the Brexiters were involved in the process, but not in control.

A process like that would have quickly established that leaving the CU and elements of the Single Market was incompatible with avoiding a hard Irish border. Of course Brexiters would dispute that, but she should have already known the rather loose relationship with the facts that many Brexiters have: for example some continue to this day to claim that the EU erects high barriers to exports from Africa. Anticipating the Irish border issue would mean that most ministers would have quickly realised that only some kind of soft Brexit was possible. There might even have been preliminary discussions with senior EU politicians about whether the Jersey option was acceptable. The UK’s bargaining power, with A50 untriggered, would have been much greater.

Theresa May chose to do the complete opposite of all that, perhaps because she could not contemplate having to take on the Brexit press. She appointed Fox, a Brexiter, to a post that depended on the UK leaving the CU. She drew red lines that were impossible without a hard Brexit. And of course she triggered Article 50 without having done the necessary analysis and with no clear strategy in place. If there was any method in what she did, it seemed to be to appease Brexiters and their press at all costs. And one thing we do know about Theresa May is that once she has chosen a course of action, she sticks to it until it becomes untenable and possibly even after that.

Andrew Rawnsley calls her a Zombie PM. But I think his analysis, of why a PM that is so bad at choosing sensible strategies and so inflexible and so hopeless at fighting elections is still with us, skirts around the answer. The party is hopelessly split over Brexit, and while the majority of MPs have no time for Rees-Mogg, he is currently favourite among the members who are mostly Brexiters and have the final say. As I have said before, so much has been written about the ‘hold’ that Labour party members have over their party, but Conservative party members have saddled the country with one of the most inadequate Prime Ministers it has ever known.

May has handled Brexit terribly, but she has enough political instinct to understand why she is still leading her party. As long as the Brexit negotiations continue, most Conservative MPs may feel too nervous to risk a new leadership election. Equally if she is challenged by the Brexiters she may well win. That knowledge gives her every incentive to bring about the perpetual Brexit that I talked about here. A Zombie PM carrying out a Zombie policy, that could haunt this country for many years to come. [1]

[1] Can Zombies haunt? I'm afraid my knowledge of horror movies is deliberately thin. I was originally going to call this post Idioteque, because it was the thought that came into my head while trying to think of a title (maybe I should blame Steve Bullock). Luckily I later realised the word I was probably searching for. Or maybe not?

Saturday, 2 June 2018

A Euro Tragedy

“Italy, I believe, is the eurozone’s fault line.” Not from an article on the recent crisis, but from a book by Ashoka Mody, called “Euro Tragedy: A Drama in Nine Acts”, just published in the US and due out in the UK in July.

As the title indicates, this is not a pros versus cons assessment. Instead the author treats the Euro as a clear mistake, a triumph of a political ideal of European unity over basic economics. The author provides a clear (and accessible for non-economists) account of how the idea of the Euro began to dominate the political discourse of particularly the French elite and how Germany leaders agreed on the condition that they determined the design, how warning signs during the pre-crisis period were ignored, how the risks from a Greek default were overblown so the wrong policies were adopted in 2009 and 2010, and how subsequent actions exposed the democratic deficit implicit in that German design, encouraging populist movements across Europe. (For UK readers I have to emphasise that this is about the Eurozone and not the EU.)

Many of these points will be familiar to regular readers of my blog, but here the story is told with the knowledge and authority of someone who, as deputy director of the IMF’s European department, was close to the action. The sections on the Greek crisis especially should be read by all those who stick to the ‘official’ line that Greece turned a crisis (excessive deficits) into a disaster because it refused to take the medicine it needed. The reality, as the author describes, is that Syriza’s call for debt relief should have been granted. He writes
“This demand had overwhelming support in both the scholarly economics literature and the practice of economic policy. Scholars for decades had emphasised that excessive debt - ‘debt overhang’ - reduces the ability and incentive to invest, slows economic growth, causes low inflation or even deflation to set in, and makes debts harder to pay.”

And as he notes earlier, these debts should have led to default in 2009/10 rather than being mainly transferred into obligations of the Greek government to other Eurozone governments. Varoufakis may have been unconventional, but many of his proposals, including linking repayments to GDP growth, were “economically sound”.

Indeed he goes further than I have done. He writes about the final days of the standoff between the Syriza government and the Eurogroup after the referendum. The IMF made increasingly strident public noises about the urgency of debt relief, but the Germans - fearing political comeback from their taxpayers - refused to budge. He writes
“The IMF could have forgiven the debt owed to it by the Greeks. This drastic gesture would have created international pressure on the Germans and other European creditors to do the right thing. The IMF had a moral obligation to take such a drastic step, if for no other reason than to make amends for its complicity in the tragedy. At the time of the original bailout in May 2010, IMF management had prevented the Greek government from defaulting on its private creditors, an action that several members of the IMF’s Executive Board and the vast majority of external analysis then and later believed was essential to reduce Greece’s debt burden”

This book is a comprehensive and impressive history of the creation and subsequent performance of the Eurozone, and one of the few books on the subject where I find myself nodding in agreement most of the time.  (Martin Sandbu’s Europe’s Orphan is another.) There is much more interesting detail and analysis that I cannot do justice to in one blog post. I can think of two areas where I might have told a slightly different story. The author in parts writes as if it was commonly understood by economists that the Euro would not work. I think there were, in Europe at least, two other significant groups among academic economists. The first thought that perhaps the Euro could work, but only if it allowed fiscal policy to replace monetary policy as the national stabilisation mechanism. I still remember how astonished I was reading the Stability and Growth pact when it was announced, which effectively ignored this critical role for fiscal policy. Another group gave more unconditional support to the Euro, although whether they did so because they really believed in its merits or because they saw it as politically inevitable is difficult to tell.

The second story which I do not think is given enough emphasis is the role of German wage undercutting in the early 2000s. As Peter Bofinger has argued, this was a deliberate attempt to devalue the German real exchange rate within the Eurozone. It was significant for two reasons. First, it helped Germany to emerge from the financial crisis in an economically stronger position than France and others, which in turn had a strong economic and political influence on subsequent events. Second, it indicated an unwillingness on the part of the strongest country in the union to play by the rules of the game.

But these are just differences in emphasis. I would absolutely agree with the author that to avoid a continuing tragedy the direction of travel has to change. He writes
“The evidence in this book points insistently to specific measures to improve the functioning of the eurozone. These include scrapping the fiscal rules, creating mechanisms for predictable and orderly default on public debt to instill greater discipline in debtor governments and their creditors, and changing the ECB’s mandate to require that reducing unemployment be an objective of monetary policy on a par with maintaining price stability.”

Unfortunately that is not the path the eurozone is currently on. It retains a belief in ‘falling forward’ from each crisis to further integration. If the governing elite is the head and the people are the legs, the great danger is that the legs will not move and the eurozone will fall flat on its face.