Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Did macroeconomics give up on explaining recent economic history?


The debate that continues about whether a Phillips curve still exists partly reflects the situation in various countries where unemployment has fallen to levels that had previously led to rising inflation but this time wage inflation seems pretty static. In all probability this reflects two things: the existence of hidden unemployment, and that the NAIRU has fallen. See Bell and Blanchflower on both for the UK.

The idea that the NAIRU can move gradually over time leads many to argue that the Phillips curve itself becomes suspect. In this post I tried to argue this is a mistake. It is also a mistake to think that estimating the position of the NAIRU is a mugs game. It is what central banks have to do if they take a structural approach to modelling inflation (and what other reasonable approaches are there?). Which raises the question as to why analysis of how the NAIRU moves is not a more prominent part of macro.

The following account may be way off, but I want to set it down because I am not aware of seeing it outlined elsewhere. I want to start with my account of why modern macro left the financial sector out of their models before the crisis. To cut a long story short, a focus on business cycle dynamics meant that medium term shifts in the relationship between consumption and income were largely ignored. Those who did study these shifts convincingly related them to changes in financial sector behaviour. Had more attention been paid to this, we might have seen much more analysis and more understanding of finance to real linkages.

Could the same story be told about the NAIRU? As with medium term trends in consumption, there is a literature on medium term movements in the NAIRU (or structural unemployment), but it does not tend to get into the top journals. One of the reasons, as with consumption, is that such analysis tends to be what modern macroeconomists would call ad hoc: it uses lots of theoretical ideas, none of which are carefully microfounded within the same paper. That is not a choice by those who do this kind of empirical work, but a necessity.

Much the same could apply to other key macro aggregates like investment. When economists ask whether investment is currently unusually high or low, they typically draw graphs and calculate trends and averages. We should be able to do much better than that. We should instead be looking at the equation that best captures the past 30 odd years of investment data, and asking whether it currently over or under predicts. The same is true for equilibrium exchange rates.

It was not just the New Classical Counter Revolution in macro that led to this downgrading of what we might call structural time series analysis of key macro relationships. Equally responsible was Sims famous paper 1980 ‘Macroeconomics and Reality’, that attacked the type of identification restrictions used in time series analysis and which proposed instead VAR methods. This perfect storm relegated the time series analysis that had been the bread and butter of macroeconomics to the minor journals.

I do not think it is too grandiose to claim that as a consequence macroeconomics gave up on trying to explain recent macroeconomic history: what could be called the medium term behaviour of macroeconomic aggregates, or why the economy did what it did over the last 30 or 40 years. Macro focused on the details of how business cycles worked, instead of how business cycles linked together.

Leading macroeconomists involved in policy see the same gaps, but express this dissatisfaction in a different way (with the important exception of Olivier Blanchard). For example John Williams, who has just been appointed to run the New York Fed, calls here for the next generation of DSGE models to focus on three areas. First they need to have a greater focus on modelling the labour market and the degree of slack, which I think amounts to the same thing as how the NAIRU changes over time. Second, he talks about a greater focus on medium- or long- run developments to both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ sides of the economy. The third of course involves incorporating the financial sector.

Perhaps one day DSGE models will do all this, although I suspect the macroeconomy is so complex that there will always be important gaps in what can be microfounded. But if it does happen, it will not come anytime soon. It is time that macroeconomics revisited the decisions it made around 1980, and realise that the deficiencies with traditional time series analysis that it highlighted were not as great as future generations have subsequently imagined. Macroeconomics needs to start trying to explain recent macroeconomic history once again.



Monday, 16 April 2018

How Brexit threatens pluralist democracy in the UK


A pluralistic democracy is a democracy with many centres of power. Typically that involves an executive (the government) and parliament, central and local government, an independent judiciary and an independent press. Countries differ in how pluralist they are: the UK has a more permanent civil service than the US but its second house of parliament does not have equal power to the first.

Plurality is embodied in conventions as well as institutions. In a two party system the other side is respected as embodying the wishes of part of the population, and there may on occasion be cooperation between politicians on different sides over certain issues. In addition plurality itself is respected: the government does not normally contest the power of parliament and the judiciary, for example.

Although there was room for improvement before Brexit (power was pretty centralised), the UK was a pluralist democracy. This post is about how Brexit has begun to threaten that. It began with how the Prime Minister, encouraged by a section of her party and a large section of the press, interpreted the referendum result. The country was almost equally divided. That should have meant that the form of Brexit should have tried to take account of the fact that almost half of those voting wanted to stay in the EU. Instead the Prime Minister chose a form of Brexit that appealed to a clear minority of parliament.

Perhaps partly because of this (but I suspect also because of her temperament), Theresa May chose to marginalise parliament as much as she could. She didn’t want it to vote on whether Article 50 should be invoked. That battle went to the supreme court, and she lost. The press that had played such a crucial part in getting a majority for Brexit called the judges ‘enemies of the people’ or similar. If judges had hoped for some defence of an independent judiciary from the government they were disappointed.

However the executive did not only aim to take power away from parliament on this one decision. In the bill that transfer EU laws to the UK, various Henry VIII clauses were inserted which gave the executive the power to ignore parliament. The opposition voted against these clauses, and eventually May was forced to retreat when some Conservative MPs rebelled. These rebels have been branded saboteurs on the front pages of the right wing press. As of now it remains the case that MPs will not be given a meaningful vote on the terms of the final Brexit deal: if they vote against the government says it will leave with no deal.

The government has also done its best to try and conceal the analysis the civil service has done on different forms of Brexit, and ministers have lied to parliament and the public in the process. The Prime Minister and ministers seem happy to lie to the public about the imaginary Brexit dividend, and the broadcast media fails to question these lies. Ministers appear to have no qualms in calling the leader of the opposition a traitor based of fanciful stories in the right wing press.

Is there something inherent in Brexit that has brought about these attacks on pluralistic democracy? To an extent I think there is. Brexit is a fantasy project that will actually do the economy harm, and as I argued here when politicians attempt to conceal the truth from the public they tend to become more authoritarian. As the dreams of some Brexiters fall apart on the rocks of the EU negotiations and the Irish border, no doubt similar attempts will be made to conceal that truth from the public as well.

However I think there are two other factors linked to Brexit that have helped this form of populism emerge in the UK. The first is the character of Theresa May herself. She shows a disregard for people that I cannot remember in previous Prime Ministers. The current excesses of the Home Office with respect to immigrants who have lived here for decades is a direct result of her ‘hostile environment’ policy, which she seems happy to continue. She took the decision to ignore the wishes of the 48%, and she also decided to use EU migrants in this country as bargaining chips in the negotiations. The government seems largely indifferent to the increase in attacks on immigrants since the Brexit vote. Her focus seems entirely on keeping her party together, whatever the collateral damage in terms of broken individual lives.

The second factor is the right wing press. In other countries we have seen the dangers of the state (or head of government) controlling large parts of the media. The same problem arises with Brexit. At its best the press can expose government failure and corruption, but at its worst it just acts in its owners self-interest. When those interests happen to be aligned with the interest of the government then the press acts as the state's propaganda arm. It has been the right wing’s press that has banged the ‘will of the people’ drum, which is classic populist (as in anti-pluralist) trope. The situation has been made much worse by the BBC’s apparent indifference to negative news about Brexit: its lack of interest in the Cambridge Analytica link to referendum overspending allegations is deeply worrying.

Understanding why we have seen attacks against pluralist democracy in the UK helps answer the question of how permanent these threats might be. Parliament is to some extent fighting back at the attempts by the executive to reduce its power. If Brexit is neutralised as an issue, the force behind attacks on pluralistic democracy disappears, unless of course it is replaced by something else. However Theresa May could remain as Prime Minister for a lot longer than people imagined after the election of 2017 [1]. The right wing press will still be with us, with their message amplified by the BBC. The situation in the UK is not as bad as it is in the US, where the entire Republican party seems to have given up on pluralistic democracy, but that is cold comfort for a country that often boasts of its democratic heritage.

[1] That includes myself. When I wrote about the Conservative zugswang, I actually underestimated the bind the Conservatives were in. I confidently said “The Conservatives will not fight another election with May as their leader.” That is now less clear. As long as Brexit remains a live issue, which it will do until the end of 2020 at least, the majority of Conservative MPs dare not replace May because the party could elect someone like Rees-Mogg to take her place.



Friday, 13 April 2018

Talking to the Establishment




Talking to the Establishment is what Aeron Davis, a Professor of Political Communication at Goldsmiths London, has been doing for twenty years. In this little gem of a book he tries to pull together his thoughts and reflections on these interviews and extensive research on how today’s establishment works.

When people talk about the Establishment, they often imagine a socially coherent body managing the country in ways that serve its own collective interests. An elite network who predominantly went to certain public schools, who make big decisions of state over dinner in their private clubs. Even if outsiders entered into the upper echelons of politics, the civil service, business or the media, they inevitably became part of the Establishment network. To radicals the Establishment was a brake on social change, but for conservatives it provided the comfort that the country was in sound collective hands.

Davis argues that with the advent of neoliberalism in the 1980s, that cosy world began to fall apart. He even speculates that we may now be seeing the end of what we think of as an Establishment. He suggests the elite have lost coherence: that rather than look after the interests of the network as a whole (and for a conservative therefore the country), they look after the interests of themselves. They have become the reckless opportunists of the book’s title, getting what they can from the chaos they helped create.

In politics this idea is personified by the man on the front cover, who threw the country into the destructive mess that is Brexit simply for the sake of his own personal ambition. Press barons turned their newspapers into propaganda vehicles for the same end. But he also argues that we can see the same opportunism in business leaders who put personal returns over the interests of the companies they run. He finds that in the civil service the key ingredient for success is how good an individual is at self promotion, and he argues the same applies elsewhere.

A lot of this rings true for me, but Davis backs it all up with research and interviews. While austerity was what I call deficit deceit (using the deficit to scare people into accepting a smaller state) which served neoliberal ends, in the UK it was I suspect also simple political opportunism: a way to embarrass the Labour government with little thought about what it might do to the economy. In budget after budget, Osborne seemed more focused on wrong-footing the opposition than doing anything to revive productivity growth. You could easily call that reckless opportunism. 

As well as this overriding theme, there is acute observation on other matters as well. For example on how journalism has become churnalism, and the accompanying growth of the PR industry. The only time I have met Aeron was at a conference where I was talking about how the media had distorted the austerity debate, and I remember how taken aback I was when some in the audience suggested academics just needed better PR. But this also connects with the main theme, where self promotion is the name of the game.

I found the book an enlightening and thought provoking read which was difficult to put down. It is both a fascinating insight about how individuals in the elite saw recent history, but also a provocative interpretation of how our idea of the Establishment may no longer be valid.


Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Ian Dunt vs Owen Jones: a comment on a brief debate


When two of my favourite commentators on current political events, Ian Dunt (ID) and Owen Jones (OJ), cross swords, albeit briefly twitter style, the chance is that there maybe something interesting going on. I can see what I suspect annoyed OJ in ID’s piece, but I think OJ’s response was too easily sidetracked in the confusion that is history. I am going to stay on more familiar UK (and US) ground.

The general theme is ID’s piece is totally laudable. It is essentially a warning against populism of the type Jan-Werner Müller describes, and which is embodied in Viktor Orban’s Hungary. I also think he is almost right when he writes:
“Every constituent part of the Orban programme exists here: the anti-semitism, the focus on Soros, the relentless fear-mongering about immigrants, the demonisation of the EU and its institutions, the attacks on Islam, the undermining of an independent judiciary, and, most of all, the widespread conspiracy-squint - the idea, popular on left and right, on almost all matters of political consequence, that shadowy and powerful forces are undermining the people's will.”
I say “almost” because this is an undifferentiated list, and the emphasis is put on what I regard as least important. For Müller populism is a moralised form of antipluralism. The populist politician talks about the “will of the people” even when the people may be just a subset of the population, but the wishes and beliefs of the remainder are of no weight and are not acknowledged. They become instead the enemy within. To overcome that enemy within (be it Jews or Muslims or liberals) and the enemy outside (the EU trying to force Hungarians to accept immigrants), the leader needs total control, which means subjugating an independent judiciary, an independent press and other independent institutions. For Müller, populism is an attack on pluralistic democracy, attempting to replace it with some kind of autocratic or plutocratic democracy. Orban’s Hungary has so far been a very successful (in terms of longevity) example of this form of populism.

Where I started to disagree with ID’s piece is where he tries to do the classic centrist thing, which is to imply that the dangers of populism in the UK come from both left and right. In immediate historical terms this is nonsense. Immigration as an issue was revitalised by the Conservative opposition and the right wing press in the early years of the Labour government. In 2001 William Hague talked about Tony Blair wanting to turn the UK into a ‘foreign land’. The right wing papers started producing negative stories about immigrants, long after the rise in non-EU immigration in the late 1990s and long before the rise in EU immigration from 2004, and popular concern about immigration rose with this increase in press coverage. The best explanatory variables in explaining concern about immigration were readership of the Mail, Express and Sun, in that order. All three were better predictors of concern about immigration than whether people voted Conservative.

When the Conservatives became part of the coalition government in 2010, this emphasis on immigration became official policy. By now the idea that immigration was ‘a problem’ that needed to ‘be controlled’ was firmly entrenched in political discourse. Conservatives found it attractive because it could persuade socially conservative left wing voters not to vote Labour, and because it became a useful scapegoat for the effects of austerity. The right wing tabloids also found it attractive because it became a means of winning the Brexit vote. And it is Brexit where we have seen populism in full force in the UK: talk of the ‘will of the people’ as if the 48% who voted Remain did not exist, attacks on the judiciary, on the civil service, on parliament and on universities. The EU is the enemy without, and Remainers are the enemy within.

To the extent that populism has come to the UK, it has come from the political right, not the political left. Yes Labour in government eventually felt they had to play along with the immigration problem theme, and yes there are Lexiters on the left. But the motive force for attacks on immigration and Brexit comes from the right, not the left. [1]

Much the same point can be made about the US. Trump was voted into office as a Republican, and he remains unchecked in office because of the Republican party. To suggest that Republicans and Democrats bear equal responsibility for Trump is just nonsense.

In this story of how populism came to the UK, and represents an ever present threat in the UK, Labour’s problems over antisemitism do not even deserve a footnote. Antisemitism is a big part of Orban’s campaign and rhetoric, personified in his constant attacks on George Soros, but that theme has been repeated not by Corbyn but by the same right wing press that focused on immigration and gave us Brexit. Antisemtism is a problem within Labour, but the source of that problem is the Israel Palestine situation. It is not, and never will be, a part of a Labour government’s appeal to the electorate. It will not be a Labour government that tells people that have lived here for scores of years that they now have to leave the UK and say goodbye to their friends and family. It is not and never will be the Labour party that runs an Islamophobic campaign for mayor of London.

In Europe and the US, the threat today of an authoritarian, anti-pluralist government comes exclusively from the right. To lose sight of that makes dealing with that threat much more difficult.



[1] There are plenty of centrist Remainers who insist Brexit is as much Corbyn’s fault as it is the government’s. Apparently the fact that Corbyn campaigned for Remain does not count because he didn’t put enough energy and passion into that campaign. When he says he would vote Remain again he must be lying because no one ever changes their mind. Accusing Corbyn of being too ready to accept the referendum result is fine by me, but to put him in the same class as Johnson and Gove is just token centrism.



Monday, 9 April 2018

The complete failure of the Brexit project


The Brexit project is already a complete failure. That statement may seem odd, as we are less than one year away from leaving the EU. But what happens in March 2019 if all goes to plan? We leave the EU, but remain in the Single Market (SM) and Customs Union (CU). It is not Brexit means Brexit, but Brexit in name only (BINO). All the UK ‘gains’ is the inability to influence the rules and laws we have to follow as part of the SM & CU.

If the Brexiters were being honest, the transition is worse than not leaving. Not only do we lose the sovereignty they perceive as a result of being in the SM & CU, but we also lose our current say in how the SM & CU are run, and we still pay into the EU budget. In sovereignty terms that is going backwards. Free movement continues, although again if Brexiters were being honest they were never too worried about immigration: that was just a hook to catch voters with. But all the things that Brexiters do go on about like freedom to make trade agreements with other countries are impossible during transition.

Brexiters may well convince themselves that transition is just an embarrassing phase before their new dawn. They can only do that because they have never concerned themselves with details, whether those are details about how trade works or details about negotiations. The reality is very different. There is no solution to the Irish border problem except staying in the Customs Union and Single Market for goods.

Will the EU be prepared to accept the ‘Jersey option’, which means splitting the Single Market (UK in for goods and out for services) and allowing an end of free movement? That may appear to others as if the UK might be better off after Brexit, which breaks one of the key EU requirements of any deal. As we have learnt from the last year, if the EU does not want something it does not happen. Leaving with No Deal is no longer a threat, so it may be quite possible that the EU may simply say the only feasible solution, if the UK does not want a border in the Irish Sea, is to stay in the complete Single Market and Customs Union. With a hard deadline for the end of transition leaving little room for negotiation, the UK may have little choice but to agree to BINO, or something very close to it.

The alternative is that the EU creates an extended transition. But if they are unwilling to allow the UK what it wants, this amounts to the same thing. The only cost to the EU of perpetual transition is pretending to negotiate. The UK government will continue the pretense because it is too embarrassing to admit defeat. The result for the Brexiters is the same: staying in the CU and SM with no say. 

If you think that could not happen without a revolution on the Conservative right, watch how Gove and Johnson are already backing down on all their past red lines. Will not voter pressure (aka. the right wing press) demand that May cannot agree to continuing free movement? By 2020, when the final deal will be negotiated or postponed, immigration from the EU may have almost disappeared as a result of slow growth in the UK, sterling remaining weak against the Euro, and continuing uncertainty about the final deal. Net EU immigration is already less than half non-EU immigration.


It is no surprise that the Brexit project has failed and failed so utterly and completely. It was based on a fantasy about UK power. According to this fantasy the EU would be desperate to let the UK continue to trade with the EU on current terms and would turn a blind eye when the UK no longer obeyed the rules of the Single Market and Customs Union. The reality is that the EU has not been willing to destroy the Single Market and Customs Union just to keep exporting to the UK. The moment it became clear to Brexiters that their fantasy was just that, the only way that they could gain the sovereignty they craved and promised was to leave with no trade deal.

But that idea was also based on the fantasy that trade with the EU could be easily replaced with trade agreements with other countries. Nearly every expert said at the time these ideas were nonsense, and nonsense they remain. No government would ever knowingly do so much damage to its economy. The moment the government’s own analysis confirmed what outside experts had said before the referendum, No Deal was off the table. Mr. Fox will still have a job: not making new deals but trying to convince the many countries that currently have trade agreements with the EU that they should still trade on the same terms with the UK after we leave.

As I write the paragraph above there is a part of me that says surely no one could have been that foolish to believe those things. Surely there must have been more behind the accusation of Project Fear, and the fact that over 40% still believe they will be better off after Brexit happens. But in truth there was nothing more profound. Look at the desperation of Brexiters over the Irish border, claiming that none is needed when they originally campaigned to take back control of our borders.

Of course none of this will prevent the Brexiters celebrating their independence day in March 2019. They love the symbolism, and they will do a good job in persuading the BBC that something has been achieved. They have too much political capital in Brexit being a success. Key Brexiters will prefer to party rather than complain, particularly when there is still the prize of the party leadership to win. But the reality is that in March 2019 we become what Rees Mogg calls a vassal state in the short term for sure, and probably in the longer term as well. 

There has been some debate recently among those who understand what is going on about whether Remainers should give up trying to prevent March 2019 happening and focus on getting the best Brexit terms. It is, as Ian Dunt says, a false dichotomy: there is no conflict in doing both. But if there is an exception to that, it lies with the Conservative rebel MPs. If they can see that Brexit will end not with a bang but a whimper, they may well decide that it is not worth being branded traitors by voting against the withdrawal agreement. That, not Corbyn, is the most likely reason why March 2019 will happen.

Of course there are mistakes the government can make before March 2019. But if Brexit happens, it will not even be a token victory for the Brexiters. For them, BINO or something close to it is worse than EU membership, because we gain nothing and lose a seat at the table. Their fantasy dream of Global Britain has in reality made Britain more insular, more powerless and less influential than at any time in centuries. Nor is there anything to celebrate for Remainers here. Economic damage has already been done, and will continue to be done because BINO is a more uncertain state than EU membership and because of less EU immigration. Years of the UK’s political life will have been spent finding out that the scheme of a small number of politicians and press barons was the folly experts said it would be, and then pretending it was not.



Saturday, 7 April 2018

How do you access unbiased expertise: follow the money?


Anyone can claim to be an expert nowadays. How do we tell real experts from fake experts, and what does that even mean? And even with real experts, how do we tell which are the ones we can trust and which are telling you what they are paid to tell you? These are big questions, but I want to look at what seems like an increasingly popular method of judging whether expertise is biased, and that is to look at who funds the experts.

There are clearly occasions when this method makes sense. A medic who promotes a drug who receives income from the company that produces the drug, for example. You would also be right to be suspicious about any think tank that is not transparent about the sources of its funding, such as Adam Smith Institute, Centre for Policy Studies, Centre for Social Justice, Civitas, Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange or the TaxPayers’ Alliance. It is not clear to me why the broadcast media gives a platform to think tanks that do not disclose who funds them.

However when various academics and research institutions produced analysis suggesting negative long term effects from Brexit, some suggested that we should treat this finding with suspicion because they received EU research funds. I have also seen the IFS described as tainted by the fact that it receives some corporate income. In fact the IFS can be accused of being in hoc to all kinds of vested interests. When it published a report estimating that Brexit could lead to a increased budget deficit of £20-40bn, Vote Leave dismissed the IFS as a “paid-up propaganda arm of the European commission” because it received funding from the European Research Council (ERC). But it actually receives more funds from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which is funded by the UK government, so by the same logic it is a ‘paid up propaganda arm’ of the UK government.

The IFS example shows the danger of taking a naive approach to linking funding to positions taken. The idea that funding from the ERC or ESRC should influence the position taken by the IFS is absurd. Government research funding is dispersed through organisations like the ESRC in part to ensure that money is given to researchers on their merits (as judged by other academics) rather than because researchers might please the current government. Because the IFS is essentially an academic research institute there is no way that who funds any research (directly or indirectly) would influence the outcome of that research. If that started happening, the IFS would begin to lose its academic reputation and therefore its core funding from the ESRC.

This point is also true of academia as a whole. However being part of academia or a professional body does not preclude a pecuniary influence on any particular academic or groups of academic’s opinions, as our example of a medic funded by a drug company illustrates. When it comes to economics an even greater problem than money may be ideological or political bias. That means, unfortunately, that you cannot rely on every academic economist to give you a reasonable idea of where the consensus or plurality of opinion lies. And you cannot rely on finding some monetary link to indicate how much you can trust a particular academic economist.

So how do the public tell when views from economists can be trusted as genuine results of expertise and research untainted by bias due to money or ideology? It is a question that is increasingly asked, but I remain surprised that more people do not point to an obvious answer.

The solution to this problem is to use polls of experts to find out if a consensus on an issue exists. There are already some regular polls of selected academic economists (interest declaration: I am part of the CFM surveys of macroeconomists). Here is the latest IGM poll showing that not a single one of the 40+ panel members think imposing new US tariffs on steel and aluminum will improve Americans’ welfare. These polls are one reason I can claim that most economists do not support austerity. (Guess who was the only IGM panel member that did not think the Obama stimulus reduced unemployment.)

Invaluable though these polls are, they are selective, and a journalist or member of the public cannot be sure that the selection method did not bias the result. I have argued in the past that it would be in the profession’s interest for professional national bodies like the Royal Economics Society (RES) or AEA (American Economics Association) to conduct polls of its own members themselves. The pre-referendum Brexit poll is an excellent example of what could be done, but it was commissioned by the Observer newspaper and not the RES. I remain unclear whether this thought has occurred to either institution, and if it has why it has not led to action. Until it is done, the absence of such polls as a resource means academics cannot really complain when individual overworked journalists take insufficient account of true expertise. [1]

[1] An important caveat here. The existence of such polls is a necessary but not sufficient condition for journalists to acknowledge expertise: see the BBC's treatment of Patrick Minford's Brexit analysis, and ignoring the polls that already exist on issues like austerity and Brexit.  





Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Brexit and Corbyn: how our media fails the people


For every academic economist that thought Brexit would benefit the economy, 22 thought the opposite. That is as near as unanimous as you are ever going to get among economists. It is certainly a consensus. The BBC failed to get that message across during the referendum campaign. Instead, because of their policy of balance, they gave people a completely different message.

How could they have acted differently given their balance policy? Easily - by simply quoting the 22 to 1 figure every time economic issues came up. I am told they did sometimes, but sometimes is just not good enough, just like telling the truth occasionally will not do. I cannot say for sure that the BBC’s policy and inaction swung the vote, but over 40% of voters continue to believe they will be better off after Brexit.

The Royal Economic Society wrote angry letters, but they were brushed aside. Since then the government has produced their own analysis of the consequences of Brexit, and it is very similar to what economists said before the vote. But you would not know that from the BBC’s commentary on Brexit. In their ‘one year to go’ coverage I saw lots of talking from politicians and members of the public, but nothing was said about the economic consequences of leaving. No experts anywhere in sight.

The Prime Minister was also touring the country for the cameras last week. She did interviews. I saw two, with the BBC and ITV. In both she talked about being able to spend more money because we wouldn’t have to pay “year in and year out” the “vast amounts” we currently pay into the EU. That is simply a lie and she knows it. The Chancellor looks to the OBR to tell him how much money he has to spend. You may not like that system, but it is how things work in the UK at the moment. The OBR believe the Chancellor will have around $15 billion a year less to spend as a result of Brexit (source, p249).

When a politician lies so openly and so obviously, it is any serious journalist’s duty to recognise that fact in some way. The easiest thing to do in this case is to say ‘but PM. the OBR says there will be no Brexit dividend, and in fact …”. But on both the occasions I saw the lie was allowed to pass. Henry Porter makes a similar observation. In what way are viewers who may be looking to broadcasters for reliable information on Brexit served by this indifference to truth. It is, quite simply, the media’s job to expose politicians when they lie.

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I have talked before about antisemitism in the Labour party. Contrary to what many members say, I think it is a particular problem for Labour members because of the Israel Palestine situation, and I also personally think implicitly arguing that Israel should not exist as a state is antisemitic.

But it is also true, unfortunately, that those who oppose Labour, or Labour as it now is, will use this problem as a means to attack Labour by exaggerating it. A classic example came in a poll that the Times commissioned from YouGov. Labour party members were asked which of these three statements most chimed with their view.
  1. It is a serious and genuine problem that the party leadership needs to take urgent action to address (19%)
  2. It is a genuine problem, but its extent is being deliberately exaggerated to damage Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, or to stifle criticism of Israel (47%)
  3. It is not a serious problem at all, and is being hyped up to undermine Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, or to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel. (30%)
The numbers in brackets are the percentage replies (the rest said Don’t Know). Journalists at the Times interpreted this as “Less than 1 in 5 Labour Party members believe antisemitism is a genuine problem that needs addressing”. Not 30%, which is worrying enough, but according to these journalists 80% of members do not think antisemitism within the Labour party is a serious problem.

Choosing to interpret the results in this way showed that reply (B) is in fact correct. The way the poll is phrased implies (B) is (A)+, not that (B) is different from (A), still less than choosing (B) implies you do not think antisemitism is a genuine and serious problem that needs tackling. On twitter I did come across some people who wanted to argue otherwise, and thereby exogenerate the Times journalists. One told me that answering (B) was malinging Jews. I was rather shocked by that, as I would have answered (B). The reality is that antisemitism in the Labour party is a genuine problem but it is being exaggerated to attack Corbyn. Labour party members should care about both and therefore answer (B).

That the right wing press plays fast and loose with polls and facts more generally is normal, unfortunately. What is much more worrying is when the BBC does the same. When a notorious right wing blogger broke the news that Corbyn had celebrated Passover seder at the invitation of his local Jewish organisation Jewdas, the BBC led with it as a major story. Other Jewish organisations suggested that by accepting this invitation Corbyn was not serious about dealing with antisemitism because, according to the BBC, “Jewdas has previously suggested anti-Semitism claims were right-wing smears.” That statement, unqualified, is at the top of the website’s story at 3pm yesterday. Much further down the story is a statement from Jewdas saying “Let's make something clear: we do NOT believe accusations of antisemitism in Labour and the left are nothing more than smears.” Here, from 2014, is its guide at how to avoid antisemitism, which presumably it would not have posted if it thought antisemitism claims were just right wing smears.

This is just another version of the (A) or (B) problem above. The BBC through their reporting are explicitly judging that an organisation of the left like Jewdas are not serious about the left’s antisemitism problem because they dare to say that the problem is also being exaggerated to attack Corbyn. Either that of the BBC decided it was more important to follow a story from a right wing blog than first check out the facts about a left wing Jewish organisation, and then ignore the facts anyway. I find it quite shocking that the BBC should do this.***
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Bias in the right wing press is obviously important: it gave us Brexit. The right wing press is almost always anti-Labour, and it is difficult to judge whether being even more anti-Corbyn makes that much difference. The exception is 1997, of course, and at least two studies (here and here) suggest that had a large positive effect on the Labour vote.

It is the broadcast media where I think we find specific bias against Corbyn. There are some who say that if you accuse the BBC as being biased against Corbyn you ‘have lost the political argument’. On the contrary to suggest this reflects the kind of false centrism that I complained of here. I am no Corbynista: I wanted Owen Smith to win the 2016 Labour leadership election. I doubt if a former chairman of the BBC Trust is a Corbynista either, but he talks about “extraordinary attacks” on Corbyn. Academic research suggests the BBC is biased against Corbyn, and how the bias can be subtle in a way other broadcasters are not.

I think Ivor Gabor gets it right here.The BBC does have a bias, and it is to the consensus or centre as it sees it. A key reference point to where the BBC sees the centre is Westminster. As many Labour MPs are unhappy about Corbyn’s leadership, that means Corbyn is outside the consensus and therefore subject to BBC bias against him. The cue for the BBC to ‘follow the story’ from press attacks against Corbyn is invariably whether attacks come in part from Labour MPs. The BBC did not follow the ‘Corbyn was a Czech spy’ nonsense, and Andrew Neil effectively demolished it here, but where Labour MPs did criticise Corbyn over the Salisbury attacks and antisemitism, the BBC has happily followed the story pursued by the right wing press. [1]

There clearly is a real story over antisemitism. But in the case of the BBC we do not have balance. At the time of the London mayoral elections the prime minister at the time falsely accused an innocent member of the public, who had visited No.10, as being involved with the Islamic State. It was part of a blatantly Islamophobic campaign again the eventual victor, Sadiq Khan. But you would not know that from the BBC’s coverage. There was no discussion of the Conservative Party's Islamophobia problem. [2]

In addition, when it comes to antisemitism, some of the most worrying developments must be what is currently going on in Hungary. There the government has set up George Soros as almost the country’s No.1 enemy, and it is no coincidence that Soros also happens to be a rich Jew. So when May’s ex-adviser in the Daily Telegraph described Soros as “a rich gambler … accused of meddling in nation’s affairs” who was part of a “secret plot” to thwart Brexit, that should have rung antisemitism alarm bells. It did in the Guardian and some other media outlets, but the BBC didn’t follow that story? Instead they covered the Telegraph story as the Telegraph did.

In the case of the Salisbury poisoning, Corbyn was more cautious in attributing blame to Putin than most of parliament. It was a tactical error in political terms. He would have done better to have followed parliament in accepting Putin’s guilt, and focused on why Putin felt emboldened to do such things: could it have anything to do with May’s reluctance to hold an inquiry into the Litvinenko killings, or the rather expensive tennis match between Conservative ministers and oligarchs linked to Putin. Because of his error and the anti-Corbyn bias in the media the story became him instead. But a minor tactical error in parliament does not seem to equate with lying about the Brexit dividend, which May gets away with completely. And it now transpires that Corbyn asked questions which the media failed to ask.

Just as it is obvious the BBC and to a lesser extent other broadcasters have a Corbyn problem, it is also obvious that this matters a lot. Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so criticism of Corbyn hurts Labour. As Justin Lewis argues here, the Labour surge in 2017 clearly shows what can happen when this bias is reduced because of election campaign rules. I have talked about how a media filter that slants the news against Labour normally applies, but this filter was removed during the final weeks of the election campaign. Who knows what the 2017 result would have been if this filter had been removed earlier. We have seen this filter in action over the last few weeks.

The problems within the BBC and perhaps other broadcasters over Corbyn also apply to Brexit. (The problems at the BBC over Brexit seem worse than for other broadcasters such as Sky News. Chris Grey has an excellent account of how that can be.) At best, it may be that what the BBC considers as a consensus comes from Parliament, and both main parties support Brexit. As with Corbyn, this is the wrong reference point. Polls suggest that nearly half the country supports Corbyn’s Labour party, and a majority thinks Brexit is a mistake. The BBC needs to stick their heads out of the Westminster bubble and start focusing on the concerns of the country as a whole.
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One final personal point. This post is not about macroeconomics but media bias. Am I abusing the title of my blog? Only one of two will form the main party in the government after the next election. One of those parties has a sensible macroeconomic policy that I played a very minor role in helping to create, and the other has followed a policy that is refuted in first year economics textbooks and has as a result lost the average household resources worth £10,000. The same party seems to be controlled by politicians and others who would happily inflict even greater economic harm on the UK for the sake of their ideology. Economists are always criticised for not seeing the bigger picture. The bigger picture is if you want sensible economic policies you need to ask why extremely harmful policies have been implemented since 2010.

***Postscript (05/05/18) The BBC have admitted they made a mistake at the top of this report. (HT @patrickamon)
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[1] Corbyn supporters sometimes tell me that dissent within Labour justifies attempts to deselect MPs precisely because the media panalises dissent. I would prefer to keep dissenting MPs, and change how the media works.

[2] Another problem is that the BBC’s finances are too easily influenced by the government of the day, so it is inevitable that the BBC will be reluctant to pick fights with the government.


Sunday, 1 April 2018

The media and Attitudes to Austerity



One of the important features of austerity introduced into the UK from 2010 onwards, at a point when the economy had not shown any significant signs of recovery, is that it was popular. Indeed, as many people appeared to blame the previous Labour government for the need for austerity as the Coalition government actually implementing it, because the deficit had increased while Labour had been in power.

If we acknowledge, as we should, that austerity was the wrong policy to pursue, and that it had harmful effects on everyone (an average loss of around £10,000 per household according to my most recent estimate), why was this policy popular? Many people would argue that the macroeconomic case for fiscal stimulus was complex, while simple analogies between governments and households were easier to grasp. However I have also argued that the media played a large role in focusing on the latter and largely ignoring the former.

This is the issue addressed in a new paper by Lucy Barnes and Timothy Hicks in the American Journal of Political Science. (For those that cannot access this, here is a slightly earlier version.) They measure attitudes towards austerity on a simple scale, and then relate that attitude to party support and newspaper readership jointly.




The lower bars show that, for people with no party affiliation, attitudes to austerity were very different for Guardian readers compared to, say, Telegraph readers. In other words, a LibDem voter who read the Telegraph would be more hawkish about the deficit than one that read the Times. There are two explanations for this finding. The first is that how the newspaper was reporting issues around the deficit influenced readers. The paper verifies that the Guardian and Telegraph did report these issues in very different ways. The second is that readers choose their newspapers based on their attitudes to the deficit. This seems unlikely (remember these effects are over and above party affiliation), as austerity was a relatively new issue.

Nevertheless, the authors tried an experiment where it showed different groups a short text about the deficit, which differed in only one paragraph. A control group did not see the paragraph, a ‘Guardian’ group saw text which suggested that austerity might not be necessary, and a ‘Telegraph’ group saw text suggesting it was. Immediately after reading the text, each group was asked about their views about the importance of reducing the deficit.

The Guardian group (those that had read the Guardian type text) did indeed think austerity was less urgent than the control group. However those that had read the Telegraph style piece, which drew parallels with Greece, were no more pro-austerity than the control group. The paper notes that “a generally anti deficit discourse would result in little difference between control and ‘Telegraph’ groups, as indeed we find.” In other words the pervasive media discourse was pro-austerity, and so reading a pro-austerity text made no difference to people’s attitudes. Being exposed to Keynesian ideas, in contrast, did influence people.

So this research suggests two things. First, how the media presents issues like austerity matters because it influences public attitudes. Second, it suggests the general media climate in the UK was pro-austerity, and exposing people to Keynesian arguments could change their attitudes. The general media climate goes beyond newspapers, and includes broadcasters like the BBC. This suggests broadcasters were giving voice to an austerity agenda and deliberately excluding a Keynesian perspective. Which might be excusable if Keynesian economics and consequent anti-austerity views had been a fringe preoccupation, but in reality it was the view of the majority of academic economists. It seems broadcasters had become tired of experts long before Brexit.