Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Sunday, 12 August 2018

What becomes news and why

One of the unfortunate things that some Remain supporters can do is treat anyone who voted Leave as stupid. How could you vote for such an idiotic idea is a good question, but to assume the answer is stupidity is wrong. I personally know non-political people who voted Leave and they are anything but stupid.

So why did they vote for a stupid policy. To answer that you should ask how do you know it is a stupid policy. My guess is that you have read a lot about it from experts in trade and law and so on, and you have then come to that conclusion. That puts you in a small minority of the population. Most people are pretty uninterested in politics, and do not go out of their way to inform themselves about it day in and day out. They read a newspaper for the sport or the celebrity gossip or the crossword, and take a quick look at the main bit, often reading just a headline. They probably also look at/listen to a single news programme from the broadcasters because they know their newspaper has an agenda.

You could say that indifference to politics is itself stupid. People should be more interested in things that can have a profound influence on their lives. But it is also true that one individual normally has no influence on politics, so it is rational for them not to bother. Furthermore we have a representative democracy which allows most people not to have to think about politics too much except during elections. They delegate the job of worrying about politics to their MPs or councillors.

We are where we are with Brexit not because people were stupid in 2016, but because Brexiters controlled key parts of the means of information. We had Brexit because we had large parts of the press who turned their newspapers into propaganda vehicles for Leave. To believe that almost no one who read these papers were influenced by all this is equivalent to saying advertising does not work at all. What Brexit shows is not that people are stupid but that it is vital who controls the means of information, and the restraints they face from government agencies (which in the UK’s case for the press is pretty much zero).

I am often told that the circulation of newspapers is falling (true) and therefore they no longer have any influence (false). A factor of 2.5 is often used to translate circulation into readership. So even if the combined circulation of the Brexit dailies is 4 million, that means a readership of 10 million (the Leave vote was 17 million). But if you ask people whether they have read a particular newspaper in the past month you get much higher figures: 10 million for the Sun alone, 9 million for the Mail. Electronic readership then multiplies that by a factor of around 3 for those two newspapers.

What about the non-partisan media that do not have a view they want to push. Someone said to me the other day that their job is to report the news, and not to make the world a better place. Unfortunately it is not that simple! What counts as news and what doesn’t? Media outlets will talk about covering things that are important, but who decides what is important?

Very occasionally, some in the media question whether the rules the media currently use to select what is newsworthy are working. Here is a piece by Ezra Klein, who asks whether US media should be paying so much attention to what Donald Trump says, and instead spending more time on what he does. The (unwritten?) rule book for what the media thinks is important includes, at close to the top of the list, what the nation’s leader says. So Trump can with his tweets or speeches send the media where ever he wants them to go, often distracting the media from what he does.

But there is another reason that the media focuses on what Trump says, and that (as Klein suggests) is that importance is only one of the selection criteria the media uses. If it is entertaining or shocking that helps too. Trump knows that as well: it is an important part of why he became POTUS (see here). That is why Boris Johnson’s remarks about letterboxes is straight out of the Trump playbook: media coverage for a week, with maybe a slap over the wrists in a few months time. If your target audience is the Conservative party membership it is a no-brainer for someone like Johnson.

Both Trump and Brexit have created other serious problems for non-partisan media. Balance just does not work when one side is telling obvious lies. As Gavin Esler writes:
“The “crisis in our democracy” comes because maintaining quaint ideas of ‘balance’ in a world filled with ‘systematic disinformation’ is now an existential threat to the country we love, the Britain of the Enlightenment, a place of facts, science and reasoned argument.”

But it would be foolish to think this just started happening two years ago. I knew in March how the Brexit campaign would go because I had seen how the media had treated austerity and the state of the economy before the 2015 election. And similar things were happening on other issues, such as the complete failure to provide good information about the Coalition’s disastrous 2011 health service reforms. An obsession with Westminster gossip meant a failure to educate and inform.

No media organisation ‘just reports the news’. What is news, and how it is talked about, is always a choice, and often a very controversial choice. It is partly about perceived importance, but other values also matter. Partly for that reason, there is far too much coverage of what people say and Westminster gossip, and far too little about what people (invariably governments) are actually doing. Partly because news coverage is so Westminster focused, the insistence of balance has created an incentive for politicians to lie their heads off and not be held to account. The media is neither a neutral purveyor of news nor an institution simply designed to support ‘the system’. The media runs according to rules, rules that can have a profound influence on how people think and how they vote.


Thursday, 9 August 2018

Labour’s fiscal rule is progressive

I have seen a lot of things said about Labour’s fiscal credibility rule in the last few days which are simply wrong. I think the heart of the problem is that many heterodox economists do not believe in what I call the conventional or consensus assignment outwith the lower bound for interest rates. That conventional or consensus assignment [1] is that interest rates should be used to stabilise the economy rather than fiscal policy. The whole idea of independent central banks setting interest rates is predicated on this assignment.

The assignment will not work when interest rates hit a lower bound where central banks feel they cannot cut rates any further (obviously!), so fiscal policy has to become the stabilisation instrument in that situation. The innovative feature of Labour’s rule is the knockout that allows exactly that. I do not think there is any controversy here, so I will confine myself to situations where interest rates are not at their lower bound and set at a level central banks believe will stabilise the economy.

Just as independent central banks are a (not necessary) consequence of the conventional assignment, so are fiscal rules. Without them history suggests you are likely to get deficit bias: a gradual increase in the government debt to GDP ratio over time. For a country with its own currency a rising debt to GDP ratio is never catastrophic, because the markets cannot force such a country to default. There is no magic number for the debt to GDP ratio over which disaster happens. All that stuff is austerity propaganda.

However deficit bias is not good for a variety of reasons. The most straightforward is that more taxes need to be raised to pay the interest on that debt, and taxes discourage labour supply (as well as being politically unpopular). You get deficit bias because it is too tempting for politicians to cut taxes or increase spending by increased borrowing, because to the electorate it looks like you are getting something for nothing. (Trump’s tax cuts for the rich would have been even more unpopular if he had cut spending or raised other taxes to avoid increasing the deficit). A fiscal rule is a device to discourage deficit bias.

It is not the case that fiscal rules are inherently neoliberal. A fiscal rule does not limit the size of the state in any way, as long as you are prepared to pay for higher government spending by raising taxes. Labour’s fiscal rule does not ‘enforce austerity’. Austerity in my book is cutting government spending in a way that is bound to reduce demand and therefore hurt the economy as a whole. In a fiscal credibility rule world monetary policy stabilises the economy, and if rates hit the lower bound the rule’s knock-out applies. That is the crucial difference between Labour’s fiscal rule and the one used by the Coalition government in 2010. Labour’s fiscal rule makes austerity impossible. Let me repeat that: you cannot have austerity with Labour’s fiscal credibility rule.

One false charge is that Labour’s rule would prevent a Job Guarantee scheme being introduced. The idea seems to be that, if a negative shock hit the economy, JG spending would rise and the fiscal rule would stop that happening. Note this is conceptually no different to unemployment benefits. This is not true because Labour’s rule targets the current deficit in 5 years time. In five years time monetary policy will have dealt with the negative shock, so there is no reason to adjust fiscal policy as a result of the negative shock. If by chance monetary policy fails once the 5 years are up, it gets another 5 years to try because the fiscal rule has a rolling target - it always looks five years ahead. That means government spending is never cut because there is a temporary economic downturn.

What this means is that fiscal planning under Labour will in effect always assume output is at the level that keeps inflation constant. Who decides what that long run sustainable level of output is? The OBR, much as they do now. Not the central bank, but the independent OBR. The OBR’s main job is to work out what the medium term steady inflation level of output is, and they put a lot of effort into getting it right.

At the heart of many of the objections to Labour’s fiscal rule is a wish not to follow the conventional assignment, but instead have fiscal policy rather than interest rates stabilise the economy. That alternative assignment means that fiscal policy would be whatever is required to stabilise inflation, and no rule for the deficit is required. That happened in the UK when we had fixed exchange rates and capital controls, so it is not a stupid idea. But to suggest, as so many seem prepared to do, that this choice over assignments is something more than a rather technical debate about transmission mechanisms, institutional constraints and delegation [2] is deceitful..

Which brings me to Richard Murphy’s post. Richard says so many false things about this rule it is difficult to know where to start. It is not ‘neoclassical’, it does not ‘have its roots in microeconomics’. It does not assume ‘markets allocate resources efficiently’. It does not make any assumptions about how money is created. To say that Labour’s rule is based on a microeconomics perspective but MMT has a macro perspective is complete and utter nonsense. You can justify Labour’s rule on the basis of pretty well any macroeconomics you like, as long as you accept that interest rates are stabilising the economy rather than fiscal policy.

The bottom line is that Richard tries to suggest that you could have more public spending under an MMT type assignment compared to Labour’s fiscal rule. That is also completely wrong, and if anything the opposite would be true. Suppose Labour comes to power in 2022, and nominal interest rates by then are at 2%, and inflation is steady at target. Labour are pledged to substantially increase public investment spending (which is outside the rule), which will put upward pressure on demand, at least initially. That would mean under a conventional assignment interest rates would rise to prevent inflation. But in an MMT world that wouldn’t happen. So in an MMT world how do you stop inflation rising? Either current spending would have to be cut, or taxes increased.

There is only one way that public spending for given taxes could be higher in an MMT world compared to Labour’s fiscal rule, and that is if inflation was not controlled at all. That is not what serious MMT economists would recommend. So when Richard says Labour’s rule means a Labour government would be committed to austerity policies, by which I think he means low public spending, while his MMT alternative would allow more public spending without raising taxes, he is, once again, just wrong.

[1] The term assignment comes from the idea that you have two instruments that can control inflation, fiscal policy or interest rates, and an assignment is where only one instrument is used to do the job. You could use both, of course, but if each instrument is controlled by different people with different views about the economy obvious problems could arise. Also in simple New Keynesian models it is optimal just to use monetary policy. I use the term conventional or consensus because it is the assignment that pretty well all advanced countries use, and the one most mainstream academic macroeconomists would recommend.

[2] transmission mechanism: how quickly and reliably each instrument impacts demand. institutional constraints: how quickly you can change the instrument (here monetary policy easily wins without significant institutional change). Delegation: again without major institutional change, you cannot delegate fiscal policy, so if you think delegating stabilisation policy is a good idea this favours monetary policy. As I argue here, delegation is as much about making advice public as it is about devolving power.

Monday, 6 August 2018

A decade of political deceit

It is tempting sometimes to portray the Brexiters (the politicians and the media leading the Brexit campaign, not those who voted Leave) as bumbling fools who just are not very good with reality in all its detail. Boris Johnson encourages that idea, particularly when you know his true reason for supporting Brexit is personal ambition.

I considered writing up a little fantasy shortly after water was discovered on Mars, Johnson had resigned as Foreign Secretary and May had won a vote by breaking pairing. I imagined the PM had convinced Johnson to captain a spaceship put together by the New UK Space Agency so he and David Davis could sign a trade agreement with whatever lived on Mars. It had to be hush hush so the EU did not try and get there first. When Johnson expressed concern that he might miss the vote on the final deal May assured him his vote would be paired, and when he returned in triumph the leadership would be his. After days when the press asked where is Boris, NASA reported receiving distress calls from what seemed like a spaceship heading in the direction of the sun.

But while Boris is in it for himself, the motives of many members of the ERG are rather different. As Time Bale describes, they need Brexit to be able to fulfill their vision for the UK, ably described in Britannia Unchained, written in 2012 by Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss. He calls them hyperglobalists. It is a UK of less welfare provision and even more ‘flexible’ labour markets, so that UK firms can compete ‘unhindered’ with the rest of the world like some kind of imagined Asian dynamo. Sort of Thatcher on steroids.

I’m not too interested on this occasion in the idiocy of such a plan, but the fact that this was never on the side of any red bus. It is another example of political deceit of the highest order. Their plan is not why most people voted Leave: quite the opposite in the case of many. As Tim writes:
“Does this disjunction between what “the people” currently say they want and what they supposedly need actually bother Tory hyperglobalists, except insofar as it prevents them, at least for the moment, from revealing all?
No – the reason being that they are Leninists, in the same way that Margaret Thatcher, their inspiration and icon, was a Leninist. Just like her, in 1979, they believe they know what we want better than we do ourselves right now. And just like her, they have a crusading vision whose details, inasmuch as they’ve been fully worked out, are best kept under wraps until the time is right and we can be made to realise – they hope gratefully rather than grudgingly – that there truly is no alternative.”

We have been seeing rather a lot of this Leninist deceit lately, similar to what Naomi Klein called the shock doctrine, or what John Harris describes as "the odorous whiff of the hypocrisies and deceptions that tend to come with privilege". Austerity as a very costly device to shrink the state, for example. And immigration targets which Cameron and Osborne knew would hurt the economy if they were seriously pursued, but made them nevertheless to help attract social conservatives to vote Conservative. Pretending immigration was a problem for the NHS or welfare payments was also a useful way to deflect criticism over the impact of austerity.

I know some people will respond that all politicians deceive, and of course they do in minor ways to sell policies that help ‘their side’. But politicians who deceive at such a high level because they are Leninists at heart are something less common. It is hard to argue that any of the Prime Ministers before Thatcher were so willing to hide their true intent. Occasionally perhaps for certain foreign ventures: Eden, and then Blair. But not Brown or Miliband. The SNP over the cost of Independence, certainly. But austerity, lying about immigration and Brexit still seem an order greater in terms of the extent of the deception: promising X to really get an undisclosed Y.

There may be a reason for why this total deceit is relatively new, and it has to do with how the political process is perceived as part of neoliberalism. If you see politics like a market place, policies have to be sold like products, and politicians are the salesmen as Chris Dillow describes here. [1] So if you can sell a car by creating an image of what that car embodies, so you can sell a policy by pretending it is something else. The fact that you do not have the equivalent of the Advertising Standards Authority for political advertising just makes doing that more attractive.

Just look at the lack of shame in pretending that austerity was all about clearing up the mess Labour made (a claim easily refuted by looking at the data), or that the economy was strong when it was actually very weak in 2015. But that was dwarfed by what was to come with Brexit. Nothing was sacred in doing whatever it took to win that vote. And when it was shown that this included overspending during the campaign, they had no shame in spinning this as a mere allegation by Remainers. Anything goes, including disrespecting our pluralist democracy, just so they get what they want. 

This is all related to what I called neoliberal overreach, and whether it was something we could have easily avoided or something that was bound to happen. For many neoliberal politicians and advocates their ideal economy and society is not achievable through honest campaigning, because it is not what the great majority of people want. In 2016 48% of people wanted higher spending and taxes, while less than 5% wanted lower spending and taxes. Rather than patient persuasion they prefer complete deception, and crucially the ideology can be seen as endorsing that. For this reason, I am happy to add Brexit to austerity and anti-immigration rhetoric as examples of probably inevitable neoliberal overreach.

[1] Chris Dillow suggests that one of the first great neoliberals, Margaret Thatcher, did not share this view. Perhaps her ideas were sufficiently popular - at least for a time - that she didn’t need to pretend they were something else. It would be interesting to know if Tim Bale agrees.

Friday, 3 August 2018

How China beat the Global Financial Crisis

If you were hoping for something on yesterday’s interest rate rise, I can only direct you to the leader in the FT today which says: “There is no compelling reason to increase the cost of borrowing in the UK, but there is definitely good cause to wait.” On why nine intelligent people could all make the same mistake, you have to question their mandate, and move to something that focuses on having the right environment for growth, as I do here.

I recently finished reading the latest book by Adam Tooze (of which much more in a subsequent post), and it reminded me of a story that was not told enough in the early days of austerity. Everyone knows about how quickly the Chinese economy has grown over the last few decades, and how strong exports have been an important part of that. In dollar terms the value of Chinese exports more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2007. By 2007 Chinese exports represented 35% of GDP.

An important characteristic of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was how quickly world trade collapsed. If we compare the beginnings of Great Recession after the GFC with the start of the Great Depression, while world industrial production moved in a similar fashion, world trade collapsed by much more in the Great Recession than the Great Depression. Here is a chart from Barry Eichengreen and Kevin O'Rourke’s ‘A Tale of Two Depressions Redux’ VoxEU article.

Trade collapsed in the winter of 2008 around the globe, without exception. This was very bad news for China. Whereas exports had been around 35% of GDP in 2007, they fell to around 25% of GDP in 2009. That is a big hole to fill, and if it wasn’t filled, there was a chance that Chinese growth would collapse completely with damaging knock on (multiplier) effects to the rest of the economy. Above all else, China feared the political consequences of the unrest widespread unemployment would bring.

As Tooze recounts, China’s reaction was swift and bold. In November 2008 it announced a stimulus package of public spending worth 12.5% of GDP. (The Obama stimulus package, by comparison, was around 5% of GDP.) “Over the days that followed [the announcement], across China, provincial party meetings were hurriedly convened …” Within a year 50% of the stimulus projects were underway. Some of this stimulus paid for what Tooze describes as “perhaps the most spectacular infrastructure project of the last generation anywhere in the world”, the Chinese high speed rail network. Monetary policy was also relaxed.

In 2008 as a whole, before the stimulus and hardly touched by the collapse in world trade, Chinese GDP grew by 9.6%. In 2009, when GDP in the advanced countries fell by 3.4%, Chinese growth was 9.1%. The stimulus package had filled the whole left by collapsing Chinese exports. (Source)

Basic macroeconomic theory says that a negative shock to GDP, caused for example by falling exports, can be completely offset by a monetary and fiscal stimulus. China is a good example of that idea in action. What about all the naysayers who predicted financial disaster if this was done? Well there was a mini-crisis in China half a dozen years later, but it is hard to connect it back to stimulus spending and it had little impact on Chinese growth. What about the huge burden on future generations that such stimulus spending would create? Thanks to that programme, China now has a high speed rail network and is a global leader in railway construction.

Now of course people will say that China is not like an advanced democracy, and it was not part of the global banking network that caused the GFC. But the US and UK stimulus programmes could and should have been larger. Those close to the action tell me that the UK was running out of things to spend more money on in 2008/9, but I cannot help think this amounts to a failure of imagination: it is not as if UK infrastructure is great, there are no flood defence projects left to do etc. Above all else China’s example tells you what a huge mistake 2010 austerity was.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

How BBC balance and bad think tanks discourage evidence based policy

The Knowledge Transmission Mechanism (KTM) is how knowledge produced by academics and other researchers is translated into public policy. Evidence based policy is the result of this mechanism working. The media is, in theory, an important conduit for the KTM: media publicises research, policy maker sees/hears/reads media and gets their civil servants to investigate research. Or media communicates policy consensus on issue, and politician is questioned by the media on why they are not following this consensus.

The rigid application of political balance in the broadcast media is in danger of negating the KTM, and therefore evidence based policy. The moment an issue (call it issue X) is deemed ‘political’ by the media, balance dictates that any view expressed on issue X is an opinion rather than knowledge. As a result, when the media want to talk to non-politicians (‘experts’) about issue X, the imperative of balance remains.

Now suppose that in the knowledge world there is in fact a consensus on issue X. That would be a problem for balance broadcasting, because it would be difficult to get an expert to argue against the consensus. The BBC overcame this problem valiantly during Brexit, using Patrick Minford (who is not known as a trade economist) time and again to balance the IMF, the OECD, more than 90% of academic opinion etc. But another way of solving this problem is to use certain think tanks.

There are two types of think tank. The good kind can be a vital part of the KTM. There is often a genuine need for think tanks to help translate academic research into policy. Sometimes these think tanks will be very like universities (like the IFS for example). Other times they will be think tanks that have a broad left or right orientation. These think tanks are an important part of the KTM, because they can establish what the academic consensus is, translate academic ideas into practical policy, and match policy problems to evidence based solutions. The IPPR is an obvious example of this type of think tank. They are part of evidence based policy making.

The bad kind are rather different. These produce ‘research’ that conforms to a particular line or ideology, rather than conforming to evidence or existing academic knowledge. Sometimes these think tanks can even become policy entrepreneurs, selling policies to politicians. This is often called policy based evidence making. It would be nice to be able to distinguish between good and bad think tanks in an easy way. The good type seeks to foster the KTM, and ensure policy is evidence based, and the bad type seek to negate the KTM by producing evidence or policies that fit preconceived ideas or the policymaker’s ideology.

I would argue that transparency about funding sources provides a strong indicator of which type a think tank is. Why is this? One obvious reason why you would not want, say, company Y listed as a funder is if you subsequently produced a report that was directly in the interests of Y. A clear example is the IEA’s arguments against plain packaging of cigarettes, and its funding from tobacco companies. To be clear I am not suggesting that the IEA (who have been in the news recently) is insincere about the arguments it makes, but if funding was transparent it would be very easy to suggest their arguments on plain packaging were contrived by just pointing out its funding sources. So that is an obvious reason to keep funding secret. In contrast, an IFS type think tank has no reason to hide its funders, because it is not in the business of producing policies that meet the specific wishes of these funders. [1]

It has been suggested to me that IEA type think tanks need to keep their funding secret because some personal donations would get individuals into trouble with their employers if they became public. It would be interesting to know from some IFS type think tanks how much funding they lose for this reason. Perhaps the answer is not much, and that in any case the principle of transparency is more important than a few extra donations.

Another good indicator of a bad think tank is their relationship to academia. I have told the story about how the IEA under Philip Booth tried to cultivate the idea that the 364 academics who famously objected to the Thatcher government's 1981 budget were embarrassingly wrong, when in fact they were proved right. The IEA’s media and political connections are sufficiently strong that even good BBC economics journalists were taken in by their line. To the extent that it emboldened Osborne to ignore the majority of academic economists over austerity it was a dangerous myth to cultivate.

In the case of global warming the BBC has been forced (I don’t think that is an inappropriate word, as it often breaches the guidance) to treat man made climate change as a fact rather than an opinion that always has to be balanced. That is not going to happen for some time over any economic issue, however strong the academic consensus (like Brexit). This is partly because the pressure from academia is much less, and partly there is still a prejudice against social science (as if evidence based policy making cannot occur for economic or social policy!). But the BBC does need to explain their attitude to the use of think tanks. Why do they use think tanks that do not declare their funding sources, and when they do why is this information not passed on to its audience?

[1] To understand why arguments like the IFS gets money from the government or the EU and therefore it is biased do not work, see here.