Perhaps stung by the widespread criticism of the way he treated data in his original FT op-ed piece, Professor Niall Ferguson has had another go. This new piece is distinctly better than the original. For example, he now acknowledges that “From 2010 to 2015, average inflation-adjusted weekly earnings fell more than under any postwar government.” Let me focus here on his central claim, which is that the economy did far better than Keynesians had predicted, and that Keynesians have refused to acknowledge this. (There are some other problematic points in the piece, but they are largely distractions from the main idea.)
Rather than get into the pointless business of comparing quotes, let us do this the academic way, which is to see what the Keynesian model says. Recall this is the model that pretty well all central banks use to regulate the economy. Everyone agrees that UK austerity was at its most intense in the first two years of Osborne’s Chancellorship. The UK Office of Budget Responsibility, which does the number crunching for Osborne, calculates using standard (although conservative in the current context) Keynesian multipliers that austerity in those first two years reduced GDP growth by 1% in each year. That is the basis for my calculation that austerity cost the average UK household at least the equivalent of £4,000. The OBR also calculate that overall UK austerity had no significant impact on growth in subsequent years.
Does the data show that Keynesian assessment is clearly wrong? Ferguson includes an IMF chart in his article, and I commend the fact that it uses GDP per head. Unfortunately it also includes a forecast, which is as reliable as most macro forecasts, so just focus on the part that is data. In 2011 and 2012 the UK flat lined, and only started recovering when the drag imposed by austerity came to an end. This is entirely consistent with my and the OBR’s analysis. (For the record, I also said three years ago that we would see a recovery in subsequent years.) Anti-Keynesians like to point to UK growth from 2013 onwards being healthy compared to other countries, but this is also entirely consistent with Keynesian analysis, because if you look at underlying primary balances UK fiscal austerity was much weaker in those years than in the US or the Eurozone.
|General government underlying primary balances: source OECD Economic Outlook|
In a way Ferguson acknowledges all this, because he lists other potential reasons why UK growth might have been weak in those early years. Fair enough, except that his central claim is that the numbers show the Keynesian analysis of austerity is wrong. But his chart shows that the numbers are in fact completely consistent with the Keynesian story. That does not prove the Keynesian story is right, but it sure does not show it is wrong!
Macroeconomics is a messy subject, because there are always so many things going on. For this reason the impact of policy is often not immediately apparent in the data, and some econometrics is required to sort things out. The unusual feature of the last few years across the UK and Eurozone is that events have largely followed the Keynesian script - no econometrics required. An election result does not change this fact.