Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 31 October 2016

Clinton’s emails and UK austerity: a sense of context and consequences

The media obsesses over whether Clinton might have sent an email containing confidential information from her personal account while secretary of state, and also wonders about whether Trump tells lies, pays any taxes, bribes officials and assaults women. Anyone who reads these stories can see that there is no equivalence here. But anyone who just reads the headlines would be tempted to think otherwise. The very fact that commentators think a renewed focus on these emails is ‘bad for Clinton’ acknowledges that many people are indeed just reading the headlines. That context matters.

Glenn Greenwald suggests that when Paul Krugman and others make similar points, they are suggesting Clinton should have “a scrutiny-free march into the White House”. But I think this misunderstands Krugman’s point. Impressions matter, particularly just before an election. If the media spend as much time discussing possible Clinton misdemeanors as those of Trump the impression you give is that they are of equal importance. By balancing things that are very different, you create an equivalence that is completely misleading. Failure to take that into account still might have disastrous consequences.

I do not think this is just a problem with the media. Whenever I talk about the false accusation that Labour profligacy caused austerity, I get people commenting that it is not really false because Labour did overspend. This is true, and it was for this reason that I originally talked about a myth based on a half-truth. A half-truth is a statement that conveys only part of the truth, especially one used deliberately in order to mislead someone. But in political terms that concedes too much. If there hadn’t been a recession and the Coalition had had to undo Labour's fiscal excess, I doubt if anyone besides the IFS would have noticed and no one would not have called that correction austerity.

Yet even when I make this point, someone still objects that Labour bears some responsibility because they should have seen the recession coming, or that they were responsible for the lack of financial regulation that allowed the global financial crisis to have such a large impact on the UK. While those claims should be discussed in some contexts, they are beside the point when discussing Conservative charges against Labour. When Conservatives claim that Labour profligacy caused austerity, there is an implicit clause that says ‘and it would not have happened if we were in charge’. The context is who would be better at managing the economy. If the context was an article about the performance in absolute terms of the Labour government those caveats would be appropriate (although both can easily be challenged), but when the context is clearly about the relative competence of Labour and Conservatives they are not. 

When a political party makes a claim, or for press coverage during an election period, everything is relative. In a sense it is a bit like voting. Anyone who says they cannot vote for X because X did or will do something do not understand the game they are in. Voting is about comparisons: not whether X is good in some absolute sense, but whether X is better or worse than Y. So to say, as Ed Miliband sometimes did in defending Labour against the profligacy charge, that Labour perhaps were at fault for not regulating enough, he did himself no favours because he was talking out of context. Compared to the Conservatives he has nothing to apologise for on that front.

We can see this clearly if we think about consequences. The consequence of the US media spending so much time on the relatively trivial issue of emails is that US voters think they can trust Donald Trump more than Hillary Clinton. The consequence of Ed Miliband apologising about not regulating finance enough when defending Labour against profligacy claims is to appear to concede that in some sense the Conservatives were more competent than Labour. Context matters, and ignoring it has consequences.

Postscript (4/11/16) Since writing this I have been surprised by how many on the left seem happy to parrot the idea that the email affair is potentially serious. Here is Matthew Yglesias with a comprehensive account. It has also become clear that the latest news from the FBI tells us more about the FBI than Clinton.


  1. I don't quite follow your counter-factual about the Coalition correcting for Labour's over-spending if there hadn't been a recession; is there a 'not' too many?

    The main point is absolutely crucial. It's strange, in retrospect, to think of how 'owning up' to overspending was presented as an issue of Labour's credibility - as if to say that we could never regain public confidence while we persisted in denying what they believed Brown's government was guilty of. Certainly Miliband's Labour had a mountain to climb in terms of public perceptions, but treating those perceptions as valid was the worst of both worlds - to hostile voters, Labour had first denied being incompetent and then admitted it.

    On another topic, now that peace has broken out in the PLP, do you suppose the EAC will be reconvened?

    1. How can people think Labour was 'overspending' in a recession?

  2. To take a most extreme case, Goebbels found out very early during World War Two that to further Nazi aims with the German people, grey propaganda was far better than black, because black propaganda can be disproved whereas grey becomes amenable to hyperbolic language and imagery.

    Not that I think the FBI trying to intervene in an election is going to play well for the billionaire 'anti-establishment' poltroon.

  3. Right behind you on this
    There's anyways a but
    Until someone, one of the eleven or twelve, raises chargers against The Donald, there is a material difference between the investigations against HTC and the idiocy of Trump.
    As Krugman et al have intimated, the role of the law enforcement agencies comes into question - why have no agencies initiated investigations into Trump sexual assault. Maybe they have, but they're keeping to the rules about disclosure in the run-up to an election?

  4. The threat of nuclear war in the case of a Clinton win is serious.

    Younger people should be considering options and making plans.

    The fall out in the Northern Hemisphere will affect all life. (BTW, the North Pacific has already been contaminated by Fukushima).

    Oz and NZ are possibilities in the Southern Hemphishere, but they will likely also be targets.

    Avoid Europe at all costs. It will be the epicenter.

    Costa Rica, Ecuador and Chile are possibilities. They are free societies. The down side of Ecuador is that it also in the crosshairs for regime change.

    Also we will expect some "blowback" from the strategy to turn Syria in Russia's Vietnam with mujahideen proxy "freedom fighters" on the way to ousting Assad, driving Russia form the Middle East, as the US did in Afghanistan by inserting mujahideen under Osama Bin Laden to drive the USSR out of Afghanistan and fatally wound it.

    What could possibly go wrong with this plan? It worked so well for Zbig :-)


    "This central issue is whether or not to continue to move forward with the American government’s plan, ever since the Soviet Union and its military alliance the Warsaw Pact ended in 1991, to extend NATO — the anti-Russia military club — right up to Russia’s borders, surround Russia with NATO nuclear missiles a mere five minutes flight-time to Moscow, and simultaneously build a “Ballistic Missile Defense” or “Anti Ballistic Missile” (BMD or ABM) system to nullify Russia’s retaliatory missiles against an unannounced blitz U.S.-NATO invasion to take over, if not totally eliminate, Russia and its resistance to U.S. power. This operation is an ugly reality, but it is an American-led reality, and the outcome of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election will bring it into its final stage, either by ending it, or by culminating it — two drastically different outcomes, but one side or the other will prevail in this political contest, and the present article links to the documentation that America’s voters will need to be aware of that shows not only that they’ve been lied-to, but how and why they’ve been lied-to. The documentation is all-important, especially because the facts that are being documented have been hidden so successfully for so long. This is not a world that Americans want to know, but it is a world that especially the few Americans who are in control, don’t want the American public to know. That’s a toxic combination (public ignorance, which the people in control want to continue), but it is tragically real (as the documentation here will make clear).…"

    The situation is actually worse than this since the US Establishment has been demonizing Putin and XI as evil dictators, and the US media elite have been priming the American public psychologically for confrontation with Russia and China.

  6. Just party squabbling. Do spare us that.

  7. When Trump brands Clinton "Crooked Hillary" there is far too much truth in it to wish it away. It is after all Bernie Sanders who showed the Empress had no clothes long before Trump took on the task. The Clintons have run an influence-peddling operation that personally enriched them to the tun of over $150 plus a $.5 billion foundation all funded by billionaires looking to buy political influence from those who have it to sell. That's where the "crooked" comes from and it is amply deserved.
    The emails are a separate issue, to be sure. But the hypocrisy is there for all to see: there's Hillary strutting before the public as defender of national security by calling for the head of Snowden, Manning, Assange, and other heroes seeking to inform the public about the horrors committed by the US imperium. And what does she do? Rather than risk having her influence-peddling while Secretary of State exposed, she opted for personal servers which could be easily hacked by foreign powers and possibly even independent hackers. She was evidently more concerned about us, the American public, knowing what she was up to than foreign powers knowing it. And if they got the 30,000 "personal" emails she destroyed in contravention of a Congressional order to produce them, could they not use them to blackmail her while in office? The salient truth is that any lower official who jeopardized security as she did would have had his or her career in government permanently ended. Yes, Clinton's crimes are minor compared to the war crimes of Bush and Cheney. But they have this in common with theirs: they will never be prosecuted.

    1. Even if all of that is true, there remains no equivalence between Trump and Clinton. On everything you complain about here, do you think Trump would be any better? And then think about health care, climate change, social policy etc.

    2. Clinton could recycle a slogan from the 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial election: "Vote for the crook -- it's important!"

    3. Simon, the point that you are not grasping is that both of these candidates have demonstrated a sociopath's craven determination to gain and, more importantly, indiscriminately wield power. trump and clinton have developed records of reckless misdeeds so vast and deep that they reject attempts at summary dismissal from folks like you who would like to claim that one record is worse than the other.

      If one is selecting between the two for a lawn cutting job, you can pull off the context argument. I'd choose clinton because I know trump will try to run over the cat with the mower. Even so, I'd make sure I locked all the doors on the house if I know clinton is scheduled to cut the grass.

      But when the 'prize' being fought over happens to be one of the most powerful on the planet and pursued by two people who have CLEARLY demonstrated a terrifying range of mental illnesses (pathological lying, persecution complexes, paranoia, extreme self-indulgence, delusions of grandeur [above the law]) - who are obsessed by themselves, expanding their personal fortunes, and exercising their personal delusions - the context play is destroyed.

      Clinton's record in public office is not one of benevolence and concern for her fellow man. It is every bit as insidious as trump's record in private office because things like sexual harassment and burning the midnight oil to find ways to backdoor a president to permit bombing in Libya are the things that conscience-free people who care ONLY about exerting their power will do. And when EITHER of them rises to take the oath of office in January, it'll be a day of danger for all of us... because to those two "people," non-rich citizens are just collateral damage in waiting.

    4. "And then think about health care, climate change, social policy etc."

      Simon, HRC is a deficit and war hawk who wants to slash social security. And after 4 years of Hillary, we get a "grand bargain and much more dangerous GOP president considering how close the incompetent Trump campaign has been.

  8. 1. We don't know if the e-mails are trivial.
    2. There's really no equivalence.

    The American electorate is faced with an awful choice. An unhinged lunatic or a more measured lunatic. When Messrs Rove and Rumsfield come out in support of a Democratic candidate, you can be sure all is not what it seems.
    I fear John Pilger is right:

    'If the winner is Clinton, a Greek chorus of witless commentators will celebrate her coronation as a great step forward for women. None will mention Clinton's victims: the women of Syria, the women of Iraq, the women of Libya.'

    That is what is missing from your analysis.

    1. To describe Clinton as a measured lunatic is ridiculous. I am, frankly, tired of being told by some on the left that US voters face a difficult choice. They also said in 2000 that there was no difference between Gore and Bush - that turned out well. I'm afraid on this the Republicans supporting Clinton show better judgement than you. And to play along with Republican innuendo about emails - do you enjoy singing the same tune as the Republican spin machine? To treat a quasi-fascist as equivalent to someone from the US centre-ground is extraordinary. Do you seriously think US foreign policy under Trump would be more benign!? Do you not care at all about health care, social policy, climate change? Yes this is a rant, but its difficult to treat people who show such a poor sense of judgement seriously.

    2. Mainly Macro1 November 2016 at 01:31

      Prof. Wren-Lewis,

      Why don't you write about macroeconomics?

    3. And I am frankly very tired of people on the left systematically downplaying or ignoring the proven malign influence of the Clinton clan because they see Trump as a major threat (which of course he is).

      You ask if US foreign policy would be more benign under Trump? Where, pray tell, is your evidence for any benign influence of Hilary Clinton’s?

      I’d add to the list of the women of Syrian, Libyan and Iraq who have suffered directly as a result of her actions, those of Honduras, who are now suffering horribly after the coup so generously supported by Clinton and her State Department.

      Her campaign’s reckless (and almost entirely evidence-free) assertions of nefarious Russian interference in their election have tied her hands for any subsequent negotiations with the other significant nuclear power – and negotiating will almost certainly be necessary following a Clinton win as she’s a strong advocate of further involvement in Syria (a conflict that her government did so much to ferment). This is the one clear issue where Trump's pronouncements show him clearly to be making a more rational case than Clinton - and where the consequences could not be more serious.

      The recent revelations are very worrying indeed as, should she win, it foreshadows years of investigation and likely impeachment and I really would not put it past her to cynically rally support with a couple of significant ‘foreign interventions’. That is, after all, what her husband did when he was impeached for less serious matters (when he had hugely superior favourability ratings to those of Hilary now). Consequently hundreds of Yugoslavians and many thousands of Sudanese people paid with their lives (the latter as he bombed the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant). Hilary, of course, in her memoir boasted about pressuring her husband into bombing Yugoslavia – as far as I know, she has been silent on the Sudanese atrocity.

      As for healthcare, social matters and climate change – here you have more grounds, but Hilary’s ‘experience’ in this respect does not offer much cause for optimism. She completely failed with her healthcare plans as First Lady, was present and active when mass incarceration became the norm and as Secretary of State was never averse to promoting fracking across the world.

      I could go on (especially regarding the Podesta-proven manipulation of the nomination process), but seriously, this is not an easy decision at all.

    4. Face it Simon Hillary is going to lose and we will have a Trump presidency - then democrat victory in 2020 and control of gerrymandering. The establishment have failed.

      Simon the GOP neocons have been supporting Hillary. Its not like the 2000 election where the GOP was neocon. "Set t = 0".

      "And to play along with Republican innuendo about emails - do you enjoy singing the same tune as the Republican spin machine?"

      The official line is still that it is Putler isn't it?

    5. "but its difficult to treat people who show such a poor sense of judgement seriously."

      Great way to win arguments. Have fun watching the world end when Hilary drunk-nukes everyone.

    6. Good to see that there are some limits to SW-L's patience.

  9. 'To describe Clinton as a measured lunatic'

    How else would you explain her describing young black men as 'super predators', talking of 'obliterating Iran' or laughing at the public sodomy of a fellow human being?

    How am I playing along with any innuendoes? Surely you're far more guilty of that. I've literally no idea what's in the e-mails, nor have you. The difference is I'm not making any assumptions either of guilt or innocence.

    How do you extrapolate my calling Trump an 'unhinged lunatic' as support or equivalence? Bizarre.

    Re US foreign policy: again, I've no idea. I do know that Clinton's a hawk and that we can expect a far more aggressive foreign policy than that of Obama. Moreover, she's clearly been captured by Pentagon hawks, PNAC etc. Obama, to his credit, has shown a willingness to stand up to the lunatic fringe. Do you think Clinton will show similar resilience and restraint? I'm not so sure. Trump is, to paraphrase Rumsfeld, and unknowable unknown. One senses that he's an isolationist at heart, and that would be welcome, but who knows? My feeling is that a Trump Presidency might be somewhat akin to the old Soviet Union: good for those not directly impacted by it (forcing the West to make changes; absolutely dreadful for those who have to survive it and their neighbours.

    So yes, a dreadful choice, and you're right, you are ranting. Faced with the choice, I would vote for Clinton for the reasons you adumbrate, but to call her a centrist, is frankly laughable. There's nothing wrong with critical support.

    2000 is a red herring btw. Gore was a far saner candidate than Clinton; no hawk, he.

    1. As Noam Chomsky, a longstanding and trenchant critique of US foreign policy, says if Trump wins “the human species is in very deep trouble.” (

      To let this happen because you are happy to endorse attempts by Comey to rig the election is extraordinary. The right wing have spent years and huge sums to find something illegal Clinton did, without success. But it has taken a toll on Clinton's reputation, which was partly the point of the exercise. Given this, because "we cannot know what is in those emails" means they should be meaningless to the election. The media, and yourself, by suggesting otherwise, just help to distort the democratic process.

      Chomsky is right. It is the easiest choice American voters have ever had.

    2. You really ought to try engaging with people's arguments rather than misrepresenting them. Poor show.

    3. Yeah, Chomsky is right. One thing this election season has proven is how powerless the American voter is. The emails prove that the deck was stacked from the beginning, not to mention the nefarious election fraud, registration fraud and manipulation that should of been a subject of an FBI investigation, instead of the stupid email distraction. We don't have a democracy in the USA, and I have no worries that come the eve of election day that Hillary will be our president, whether I, you or anyone else votes. So rather than talk about who will be worse or better, we should bemoaning that the USA is the most powerful oligarchal dictatorship in the world, right after Russia and that the world will continue to suffer even after election day in the USA.

    4. What I'm happy with is neither here nor there: a preposterous argument.
      You do know that the NYT broke the original Clinton e-mail story, not her enemies?
      As stated, I'd still vote for her, though with a heavy heart. But to be uncritical is a pretty untenable position for any thoroughgoing liberal.

  10. I think your analysis is faulty in a number of ways.

    For a start up to the point where the email story broke the media were far more critical of DT than HC; media analysis has shown that every story about DT was shouted out loud whereas stories not favourable to HC were played down. The media were (and are) wildly biased against DT.

    The second thing is that no on knows what the emails contain so you cannot say that this is unimportant; they may be, they may not; as yet we do not know. You must also be aware that there are issues of national security involved and also there may be possible evidence reflecting on the incident in Benghazi, about which HC has been criticised and which involved loss of life.

    DT is a megalomaniac and, as you imply, would not in my view make a good POTUS by any stretch of the imagination; I agree everything you say. But he has struck a chord amongst the many, and increasingly, disaffected voters who see that the system is rigged and is not delivering for them.

    But HC is deeply tainted and would maintain the status quo. Politically there are too many scandals which will not go away and her presidency would I think be an utter nightmare and a complete failure at the end of the day; the nightmare would start on the first day.

    This election, perhaps more than any other in recent times, has exposed the utter moral corruption in US politics and many people now know it.

  11. Clinton's e-mails are not trivial. Clinton violated the federal records act using unauthorized servers, which carries felony penalties. She also violated the national security act with information contained in e-mails over open channel.

    Those crimes are not trivial in a nation of laws.

    Comey needed to open this up, the impeachment next spring would show the corruption of the US Justice dept........... where congress gets at evidence suppressed the past 3 years.

    Dredging up women from trists over 20 years old is pure DNC corruption.

  12. Hillary Clinton stands for open corruption with their foundation, mixing public office and private enterprise.

    Running her private server and then using bit bleach to erase emails, Congress was entitled to see, to cover up her dealings.
    Shows her complete contempt for the rule of Law.

    Starting the wars of agression against Libya and Syria, launching the anti-constitutional Maidan Coup, the famous Nuland 5 billions, in search of conflict with Russia.

    The syria thing alone did cost Germany in 2015 followon costs of 92 billions. This is not funny anymore.

  13. We all prefer her to win, but the penalty for sending 'secret' emails in this way for anyone else could be about 15 yrs in prison. Also, how can anyone send> 30,000 emails?

  14. There is some justified concern about what Hillary has done in the past but the prospect of what Donald might do in the future is terrifying.

    The emails issue - yeah, its a black mark and a serious one and might be an issue in any other election. The other things - the foundation and the embassy have been investigated and no wrongdoing found. Even the emails have found no basis for prosecution.

    Not prosecuting the emails might be seen as corrupt in other parts of the world, but given that any prosecutor's career would be made from going after this successfully and given that there was no lack of enthusiasm for going after B Clinton for impeachment I am pretty sure that this means that any case is weak at best.

    On the other hand D Trump has shown a concerning temperament. His speeches degenerating into self centred ramblings shows absolutely no empathy. His knowledge of the world being limited isn't the greatest of problems and could be addressed, but his willingness to speak and act without that knowledge is of greater concern.

    His attitude to women is personally inexcusable but may not be reflected in policies, but his unwillingness to articulate coherent policies suggest that he considers what you do to be less important than how strong you are in doing it.

    All in all Trump paints himself as a man unaccustomed to his actions having consequences. He does not see that he needs to prepare in detail for a variety of eventualities to avert disaster.

    Clinton is not an ideal candidate, she is flawed but nothing is comparable to the danger into which Trump could put both the US and the world.

  15. Since I am concerned about the sheer numbers of anonymous people commenting I want to start by identifying myself under my real name; I post as Pascal, because that's the handle the site provides which I have used in other blogs. My name is Stevie Gamble, which, for those of you for familiar with Pascal's wager, will explain why I chose Pascal. I have been commenting under my own name for many years across a wide spread of interests.

    But for this post I need to speak personally, within the latitude allowed to any person who spent their career dealing with confidential information, because it matters; I have read comments which demonstrate very clearly the sheer ignorance of the people writing them, coupled with the sheer malice of the people writing them.

    A willingness to believe everything one is told is self evidently not a career asset in an Inspector of Taxes; the people recruited, including myself, need to have a wide ranging skill set which also excludes the gullible. In short, we are not the sort of people who trust without verifying very carefully.

    So when I look at the allegations made against Hillary Clinton I look for the evidence, and consider that evidence, and to be blunt I'm having difficulties in finding the evidence which posters assure me is there in abundance. Indeed, I doubt that many even understand what evidence is, much less what a finding of fact is.

    During my career I have had frequently to advise people seeking advice from me that, whilst I appreciate that they have worked hard, they haven't a hope in Hell of succeeding in the Courts, and it was time to move on and get another project started. Some of those people have not been at all happy, and I do understand that it's hard, but at the time I was the senior advisor whose job it was to ensure that we owe it to taxpayers not to keep on pursuing dead ends when there's a lot of seriously worthwhile work to be done.

    The other obvious aspect to emerge from this is that the people flogging it have managed to entirely forget the catastrophic results of the 'Iraq has weapons of mass destruction'; a view which was arrived at notwithstanding there was no evidence for it, and led to such vast casualties. It's important to remember these things because they won't.


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