Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 29 December 2016

Left and Right in 2016

Before the Christmas break David Blanchflower asked me a question on twitter: “why do you think we have seen the move to right-wing rather than left-wing populism?” This is my reply. I’ll just talk about the US and UK because I do not know enough about other countries. (Here is an interesting analysis of populists in Eastern Europe.) I’ll take it as read that there are currently well understood reasons for people to want to reject established politicians, and the Blanchflower question is really about why that rejection went right rather than left.

In my answer I want to distinguish between two types of people. The first are those that are not that interested in politics, and are therefore not well informed. They depend on just a few parts of the MSM for their information. The second are those that are interested in politics and are well informed, using multiple sources which are not just confined to the mainstream media (MSM). I want to argue that this distinction is crucial in helping us understand what happened in 2016.

I also want to use the term populist for policies in its most simple form, as policies that are likely to be immediately popular with the public, without the negative connotations that I discussed here. Populist policies on the left would focus on measures to curb financialisation and the power of finance (‘bashing bankers’), and measures to reduce inequality (which are popular if expressed in terms of the 1%, or CEO pay). Right wing populist policies include of course controls on immigration, combined with constant references to national identity. The need to control international trade can be invoked by left and right.

Among those who are well informed, there is no evidence that dissatisfaction with existing elites broke right rather than left. Indeed membership of political parties in the UK suggests the opposite is true. Party members in the UK are almost by definition likely to be much more interested in politics than the average citizen, and will not be dependent on one or two elements of the MSM for information. As the Labour party leadership has shifted left and adopted some of the left wing populism I’ve described, its membership has exploded. The figures are remarkable. The Labour party currently has a membership of over half a million. This is probably [1] at least three times the membership of the Conservative party. UKIP, the populist party of the right, has a membership of only 39,000, which is below the membership of the Greens.

The Sanders campaign indicates both the popularity of left wing populism among political activists in the US, but also that left wing populist policies can be as popular with voters as those from the right when they get a national platform. Sanders put greater taxes on the rich and additional Wall Street regulation at the centre of his platform, as well as opposition to trade agreements. The campaign was largely funded by individual donations, in contrast to the other campaigns. With the exposure that an extended election process gave him, Sanders’ brand of left wing rhetoric got national coverage and proved pretty popular. Sanders claimed, with some justification, that he actually polled better against Trump than Clinton, and it remains an open question whether a populist from the left might have done better against Trump than Clinton, who epitomised the establishment.

During the Sanders campaign left wing populist ideas did get wide coverage in the MSM, but this is the exception rather than the rule. After the financial crisis there was a brief period of about a year when these more left wing themes were a major media focus, but since then they appear only occasionally in the MSM. In contrast parts of the MSM in both countries has for many years produced propaganda that supports right wing populism, and the non-partisan elements of the MSM have done very little to contest this propaganda, and on many occasions simply follow it.

Let me put these points in a slightly different way. For the few of us that do attach great importance to the media in understanding recent events, it would be a major problem if on occasions where alternative ideas were given considerable coverage in the media they were ignored by voters. It would also be a major problem if those who were much less dependent on one or two MSM sources for information behaved in the same way as the average voter. But fortunately for us both the Sanders campaign and UK party membership suggest neither problem arises, but instead these pieces of evidence provide support for our ideas.

So in both the US and UK, among those who are exposed to left wing populism or who access a much broader range of information than that provided by the MSM, there is no puzzle of asymmetry. Left wing populism continues to appeal. The asymmetry at the level of the popular vote, that gave us Brexit and Trump, can be explained by asymmetry in the media. Right wing populist ideas not only get much more coverage than left wing populist ideas, but sections of the MSM actively promote these ideas. Given that this focus on the importance of the providers of information is intuitive, it is really up to those who think otherwise to provide both theory and evidence to support their view that the MSM is unimportant.

[1] I say probably because the latest data we have for Conservative party membership is 2013. However I think it is reasonable to speculate that lack of publication means numbers have been going down, not up.  

Wednesday 21 December 2016

When is an economic recovery not a recovery?

This post may seem to be unusually pedantic, but please be patient

What do we mean when we say the economy is recovering from a recession? Do we mean it has started growing again, or do we mean it is returning to its pre-recession trend? Brief research suggests there is no standard definition, but Wikipedia is clear it is the latter:
“An economic recovery is the phase of the business cycle following a recession, during which an economy regains and exceeds peak employment and output levels achieved prior to downturn. A recovery period is typically characterized by abnormally high levels of growth in real gross domestic product, employment, corporate profits, and other indicators.”

The second sentence is crucial here. All economies grow on average: they have a positive trend growth rate. An economic downturn (or worse still a recession) involves the economy dipping below trend (or in a recession not growing at all). Typically whenever that has happened in the past, most economies make up for the growth they lost in the downturn, by growing more rapidly than trend once the downturn is over. This had certainly been true for the UK. We expect economies to grow over time because of technical progress, so it seems almost obvious that a recovery must involve above average growth until we return to something like an underlying trend.

Imagine a 5,000 metres race. Suppose an athlete trips and stumbles, leaving the main pack behind. If 5 minutes later I said the athlete was recovering, would you think this meant that they were getting back to their previous pace but still well behind the main group, or that they were getting back in touch with the main pack? I suspect you would think it meant the latter, and you would call a complete recovery when they were back within the main group. If you think about the main group as the underlying trend path of the economy, then a recovery in growth means getting back towards this trend path.

For this reason I would define a recovery from recession as above trend growth, and I think most macroeconomists would do the same. Here is recent quarterly growth in UK GDP per head.

The red line is the pre-crisis trend growth rate. You can see from this that only 2014 could possibly be called a recovery, and even that is a bit of a stretch. The UK is far from unique in this respect, but unlike other countries the UK economy has a pretty clear and unchanged trend growth rate since the 1950s. Until now that is. This global lack of recovery begs many important questions, which those who read economics blogs will be very familiar with: has the financial crisis had a permanent negative effect on productive potential, was the pre-crisis period really a disguised boom, are we suffering from secular stagnation, what role did austerity play?

Yet all of these important issues are sidelined in popular discussion if we misuse the term recovery, and instead describe any positive growth after a recession as a recovery. This is not a problem for economists, who tend to talk numbers, but it does matter for the public debate. I cannot help feeling that calling any positive growth after a recession a recovery also adds to a sense of disconnect people have, particularly when (as in the UK) there has really been a recovery in employment, such that productivity has been virtually flat. People ask how come there has been a recovery and yet my wages are still so much lower in real terms than they used to be?.

When the underlying trend may have slowed or shifted, then it becomes difficult to know what is or is not a recovery, but that is no reason to misuse the term. When we are talking about the past, then things should be clear. Here is the same data for 1981.

It is obvious from this data that the recovery from the 1980 recession only really began in 1983. The two previous years saw as many periods of below trend growth as above trend growth: given normal growth, the economy was effectively standing still. Unless, of course, you have a political point to prove. In 1981 the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher raised taxes substantially in the Spring Budget, despite just seeing 5 quarters of falling output per head. They increased taxes after falling output because they wanted to reduce the budget deficit. 364 academic economists quickly wrote a letter denouncing the policy - a Brexit like majority at the time.

In 2006 Philip Booth of the Institute of Economic Affairs wrote this:

“The economic recovery that the 364 said would not happen began more or less as soon as the letter appeared.”

This sentence has been repeated time after time by right wing economists and politicians: so often that it is now repeated as fact by BBC journalists. It has become what I call a politicised truth: something that is false but is perceived to be true by journalists who talk to politicians but not academics. And the statement that the recovery began as soon as the letter appeared is simply false if you use the term recovery properly: the recovery began a year and a half later. Had fiscal policy not been tightened in the 1981 budget, the recovery might have begun earlier than the end of 1982. In that sense, the economists were vindicated by subsequent events.

In 2010, George Osborne was warned by many academic economists - almost certainly a majority at the time - that embarking on austerity so soon after the recession was folly. But, just as in 1981, he wanted to reduce the deficit. It is not difficult to imagine that as he pondered these warnings from academics, he thought to himself that Margaret Thatcher got the same advice in 1981 and everything he had read said the advice was wrong because the recovery started immediately after taxes were increased. He would have been emboldened to do the same, with what we now know were disastrous consequences. Just two years later, GDP per head had lost another 3% or more relative to trend.

This is partly a story about the dangers of propaganda that you begin to believe yourself. But it is also about the potential ambiguity of one single word: recovery.

Monday 19 December 2016

Understanding free trade

A past member of the UK’s monetary policy committee once told me that they got much more intelligent questions from committees of the House of Lords compared to committees of the House of Commons. This should not be too surprising, as there are some people with considerable knowledge and experience in the Lords.

Below is an excerpt from the conclusions of a recent Lords EU Committee Report (HT Frances Coppola)
“The notion that a country can have complete regulatory sovereignty while engaging in comprehensive free trade with partners is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of free trade. Modern FTAs involve extensive regulatory harmonisation in order to eliminate non-tariff barriers, and surveillance and dispute resolution arrangements to monitor and enforce implementation. The liberalisation of trade thus requires states to agree to limit the exercise of their sovereignty. The four frameworks considered in this report all require different trade-offs between market access and the exercise of sovereignty. As a general rule, the deeper the trade relationship, the greater the loss of sovereignty.”

There you have, in one calm and measured paragraph, the contradiction at the heart of the argument put forward by Liam Fox and others that leaving the EU will allow the UK to become a ‘champion of free trade’. You cannot be a champion of free trade, and have sovereignty in the form of taking back control.

It is not a contradiction, of course, if you are happy to accept the regulatory standards of the US, China or India. That appears to be the position of Leave leaders like MP Jacob Rees Mogg. Ellie Mae O’Hagan spells out what this may mean in practice. Lead in toys - bring them in so we can sign a trade agreement with China. And you can be sure that this will be the nature of the discussion every time a trade deal is signed. In each case we will be told that we have to accept this drop in regulatory standards, because British export jobs are on the line.

This is the point of Dani Rodrik’s famous impossible trilemma: you cannot have all three of the nation state, democratic politics and deep economic integration (aka free trade). His trilemma replaces sovereignty, by which in meant in this context the nation state being able to do what it likes, by democracy. In the past I have always found this problematic. Surely a democracy can decide to give away a bit of its sovereignty in return for the benefits of international cooperation (in the form of trade deals, or indeed any other kind of international cooperation). After all, every adult in a relationship knows that this relationship means certain restrictions on doing just what they would like.

At first sight, it would seem as if the Brexit vote shows Rodrik is right. Democracy voted to take back control, which means reducing trade integration. But I think it is becoming increasingly clear that this is the wrong interpretation. Voters were told they could take back control and be no worse off, and polls make it clear that message was believed by many Leave voters. As it becomes clear that people will be worse off, as depreciation induced inflation cuts real wages, opinion is changing. Polls already suggest that if the vote was held again, we would get a different result. Polls also suggest more voters want to prioritise favourable trade deals in negotiations, not curb immigration. Over the next year or two this will only intensify, as prices rise, as companies make plans to leave the UK, as the problems caused by declining immigration emerge, and as the UK’s weak negotiating position becomes clearer.

Leavers know this, hence the attempts to remove any kind of democratic oversight from the Brexit process. At present MPs appear transfixed by the light of the Brexit vote, even though most know Brexit is an act of self harm. But it was utterly predictable from the day that Corbyn was re-elected that we would see a revival of the Liberal Democrats. As they chalk up election victories, it might just be possible that we could yet see some democratic oversight of the Brexit process. [1]

To see a model of what could and should happen, look to Switzerland, where referendums are part of political life. In February 2014 Switzerland voted to restrict immigration from the EU, even though this jeopardised their trade relations with the EU. Since then the EU has insisted that its bilateral trade deals with Switzerland depend on free movement. As a result the Swiss parliament has backed down, and just passed measures which greatly diverge from the referendum proposal, even though in Switzerland referendums are (unlike the UK) meant to be constitutionally binding.

So we see in Switzerland, and perhaps we will see in the UK, that parliamentary democracy can be compatible with trade integration. Rodrik is right that deep trade integration (the pressures from which will continue, as Richard Baldwin outlines) puts pressure on the ability of nation states to decide on their own laws, but a democratically negotiated compromise is possible. (After all, national languages are a barrier to trade.) Perhaps the examples of the UK and Switzerland suggest two things: first that these negotiated compromises should be out in the open rather than done behind closed doors, and secondly that what is very difficult to mix are trade integration with national referendums.

[1] The conventional logic is that MPs would go along with Brexit because the Remain vote is concentrated in too few constituencies. But outside Scotland the Leave vote is now split three ways (Conservative, Labour and UKIP). Labour may mock the LibDems as Brexit deniers, but as the LibDems get the votes not only of people who deeply care about being part of Europe (see the surge in Remain identity noted here) but also of those that voted Leave but are now getting concerned, they will be the ones with the last laugh.