Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday, 16 August 2019

How should academic economics cope with ideological bias

This question was prompted by this study by Mohsen Javdani and Ha-Joon Chang, which tries to show two things: mainstream economists are biased against heterodox economists, and also tend to favour statements by those close to their own political viewpoint, particularly on the right. I don’t want to talk here about the first bias, or about the merits or otherwise of this particular study. Instead I will take it as given that ideological bias exists within mainstream academic economists (and hereafter when I just say ‘academic economics’ I’m only talking about the mainstream), as it does with many social sciences. I take this as given simply because of my own experience as an economist.

I also, from my own experience, want to suggest that in their formal discourse (seminars, refereeing etc) academic economists normally pretend that this ideological bias does not exist. I cannot recall anyone in any seminar saying something like ‘you only assume that because of your ideology/politics’. This has one huge advantage. It means that academic analysis is judged (on the surface at least) on its merits, and not on the basis of the ideology of those involved.

The danger of doing the opposite should be obvious. Your view on the theoretical and empirical validity of an academic paper or study may become dependent on the ideology or politics of the author or the political implications of the results rather than its scientific merits. Having said that, there are many people who argue that economics is just a form of politics and economists should stop pretending otherwise. I disagree. Economics can only be called a science because it embraces the scientific method. The moment evidence is routinely ignored by academics because it does not help some political project economics stops being the science it undoubtedly is.

Take, for example, the idea - almost an article of faith in the Republican party - that we are on the part of the Laffer curve where tax cuts raise revenue. The overwhelming majority, perhaps all, of academic economic studies find this to be false. If economics was merely politics in disguise, this would not be the case. This is also what distinguishes academic economics and some of the economics undertaken by certain think tanks, where results always seem to match the political or ideological orientation of the think tank.

There is a danger, however, in pretense going too far. This can be particularly true in subjects where empirical criticism of assumptions or parameterisation is weak. I think this was the basis of Paul Romer’s criticism of growth theory and microfoundations macro for what he calls mathiness, and by Paul Pfleiderer for what he calls ‘chameleon models’ in finance and economics. If authors choose assumptions simply to derive a particular politically convenient result, or stick to simplifications simply because it produces results that conform to some ideological viewpoint, it seems absurd to ignore this.

Romer’s discussion suggests that it is at least possible for ideological bias to send a branch of economics off in the wrong direction for some time. I would argue, for example, that Real Business Cycle theory in business cycle macro, which was briefly dominant around 40 years ago, was in part influenced by a desire among those who championed it to look for models where policy had little role. In addition, it showed up economists tendency to ignore other social sciences, or even common sense, at its worse. [1] It didn’t last because explaining cycles is so much easier when you assume sticky prices, as most macroeconomists now do, but it may be possible that other aspects of mainstream economics may be ideologically driven and persist for a much longer time (Pareto optimality?), and mainstream economists should always be aware of that possibility. One of my first posts was about the influence of ideology on the reaction of some economists to Keynesian fiscal stimulus.

The basic problem arises in part because empirical results are never clear cut and conclusive. For example the debate about whether increases in the minimum wage reduce employment continues, despite plenty of empirical work that suggests it does not, because there is some evidence that points the other way. This opens the way for ideology to have an influence. But the political implications of academic economics will always mean that ideology plays a role, whatever the evidence. Even when evidence is clear, as it is for the continuing importance of gravity (how close two countries are to each other) for trade for example, it is possible for an academic economist to claim gravity no longer matters and gain a huge amount of publicity for their work that assumes this. This is an implication of academic freedom, although in the case of economics, I still think there is a role for an organisation like (in the UK) the Royal Economic Society to point out what the academic consensus is.

Does this mean economics is not a true science? No, because ideological influence does not trump data when the data is very clear, as in the case of the Laffer curve or gravity equations, although ideology and academic freedom may allow the occasional maverick to go against the consensus. That in turn means that it is important for any user of economics to be aware of possible ideological bias, and always establish what the consensus is, if it exists, on an issue. Could ideology influence the direction particular areas of economics take for some time? The evidence cited above suggests yes. So while I have no quarrel with the pretense that ideology is absent from academic economics in formal discourse, academics should always be aware of its existence. In this respect, some of the points that the authors of this study mention in the discussion section of their paper are relevant. 

[1] This reflected the introduction of a microfoundations methodology which soon began to dominate the discipline, and which I have talked about elsewhere (e.g. here and here).

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Will we get No Deal because Brexiters want it more?

“The reason we might have a no-deal Brexit in Britain is because its advocates want it more than their enemies want to stop it. They are making it happen whilst their opponents spend their time only wishing it would stop.”

When I first read this in an article by Sky journalist Lewis Goodall I thought it was nonsense, and stopped reading. It obviously does not apply, for example, to EU citizens living in the UK or all those who march against No Deal. But then I watched this, a talk by Dominic Cummings on his referendum victory (HT @ericlonners), and I realised what Goodall was talking about.. I went back to the article, read it in full and mostly agreed with it.

The trigger was a point that Cummings makes in his talk about most of the media covering politics. They are essentially interested in the government, parliament and its MPs, and so everything they say has to be taken in this context. It is a point I have made myself before, but it is easy to forget. Goodall is not talking about those who march for Remain, or the trivial numbers that march for Leave, but instead he is talking about MPs in parliament. And I think on this he is right.

Take the discussion of a possible coalition of national unity that MPs could vote for if the only way of stopping Johnson allowing No Deal is to vote him out. The job of the coalition would be to get an extension of Article 50 and then call a General Election. The idea is that rebel Tory MPs could only do this if Corbyn does not lead that coalition, because Corbyn “has become toxic”. So avoiding No Deal is less important than allowing a Corbyn government, even if that government would last no more than a month! That supports Goodall’s thesis.

The LibDems seem to be saying the same thing. They would not vote for a Corbyn led coalition government even, it seems, if the alternative was No Deal. Again avoiding No Deal is less important than allowing a very temporary Corbyn government. That supports Goodall’s thesis too, and it comes from the so called ‘party of Remain’.

Finally the Labour leadership has ruled out any kind of coalition of national unity if it was not led by Corbyn. I can see why - it is hard to admit so publicly that your leader is toxic to other Mps just before a General Election - but nevertheless it means they are also putting party before preventing No Deal. Goodall is right again.

But what does all this actually mean? Simply that all these MPs or party leaders are prepared to put party interests ahead of national interests. We can but hope that at least some of this is posturing ahead of negotiations, but such posturing can in itself be harmful to the cause of preventing No Deal.

Of course the corollary is not that Brexiters are putting country ahead of party. A No Deal Brexit is only something that a fanatic would do. A better formulation of Goodall’s idea is that No Deal will happen because No Dealers are fanatics and opponents of No Deal are putting party before country.

What about the nonsense that No Deal is required to respect democracy in the form of the 2016 vote? This is preposterous because 2016 cannot be a mandate for a No Deal Brexit when No Deal was ruled out by the Leave campaign. Bexiters implicitly acknowledge this is true by pretending that they had talked about No Deal in that referendum. But if you want to see what kind of mandate 2016 does represent, it is well worth watching the talk by Cummings noted above.

As well as showing an acute understanding of how the UK broadcast media works, his comments on what won the referendum for Leave are interesting. He notes that before the referendum most people knew little about the EU, and in addition were not particularly exercised by it as an issue. (Polling confirms this.) So, quite simply, to win the referendum the Leave campaign had to associate the EU in a negative way with things people were exercised about. Cummings talks about keeping the original Brexiters, who did want to talk about the EU, well away from the campaign.

Cummings notes three things people did care about. The first and most obvious was immigration. He says this issue had become 'associated with the EU', and there were two reasons for this in my view. The first was the Conservative targets for total net immigration which had not been met, together with the rhetoric that blamed reduced access to public services on immigrants rather than austerity. The second was the idea put forward by the pro-Brexit press that these targets had not been met because of Freedom of Movement. In this respect the following ONS chart is revealing:

Before the referendum non-EU immigration was equal to EU immigration, so it is not at all obvious that Freedom of Movement was the only reason targets were not met. Immigration has been broadly stable since the referendum, because the fall in EU migration has been offset by a rise in non-EU immigration.

The second factor Leave had going for it, according to Cummings, was the outcome of the Global Financial Crisis, and I would add austerity. The reason is obvious, but again little to do with the EU. The third was the problems with the Eurozone, but again the Eurozone’s problems all stemmed from a single currency, and not the trade and other arrangements of the EU. Therefore what all three have in common is that they have little to do with the EU.

Which brings us back to whether the people saying they want No Deal care more about it than those who want to stop No Deal. Cummings’ analysis suggests that they don’t, because by his own admission they were voting for issues that had little to do with the EU. They evidently don’t because we have not seen hundreds of thousands march on Westminster in support of any kind of Brexit. The best they could manage were ‘thousands’ when the March deadline was missed. We have seen six million sign a petition to revoke Article 50, but a tenth of that number signing a petition for No Deal.

The fact that Remainers want to stay in the EU more than No Dealers want us to crash out should come as no surprise. Leaving the EU takes away basic rights from EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, and confers no new rights in return It takes away the right of young people to work visa free in the EU. It takes away many people’s European identity. Crashing out will make almost everyone poorer and few better off. It will cost lives. All for the notion that we will become ‘independent’, when few Leavers can name a law imposed on them by the EU that they disagree with, and even fewer an EU law that the UK voted against. Brexit is one part of the population imposing considerable costs on the rest, for reasons that have little to do with the EU.

Friday, 9 August 2019

The Remainers urging people to vote for a No Deal Brexit

You might think the title above is nonsense: how can a Remainers vote for No Deal? I would have agreed with you a month ago. But since then I have noticed many so called Remainers saying that people cannot possibly vote for Labour in the forthcoming General Election because Labour, or Corbyn and his advisors, are pro-Brexit. These are the Remainers who are trying to persuade you to vote for No Deal.

Anyone who gives the matter a seconds thought will realise that Brexit is impossible under a Labour government. I may have understood this sooner than most but it is not hard. As soon as you see that the Conservative party is (because of Farage and their Brexiter MPs) bound to No Deal, you can also see that Corbyn could never get any kind of Brexit through parliament, unless it was a form of Brexit designed to be lost in a referendum to end the Brexit process.

The key point is that the Tories will vote against any kind of soft Brexit. The only MPs who might vote for a soft Brexit are the minority of Labour MPs that want it and maybe a few Tory MPs that don’t want No Deal and are prepared to defy their leader. Even if it went to a referendum, the combination of No Deal Brexiters and Remainers will easily triumph over a soft Brexit. Under a Labour government Brexit is dead, whatever Labour’s leader might think.

In many ways, a Labour government is the best way to end Brexit. If it goes to a referendum, it will be Remain against a soft form of Brexit, which is what should have happened after the 2016 referendum. That is a much safer referendum than Remain versus No Deal. In fact a Labour government is probably the only way Brexit can be sure to end, as Johnson even as the leader of a minority government will never agree to end Brexit, and may still try to force us to crash out.

As a result, those who say (like the leader of the LibDems) that people cannot vote for Labour because Labour are not led by a Remainer are either dishonest or haven't understood that Labour cannot achieve Brexit. But either way it is an extremely dangerous thing to say, because it is a likely to end up allowing No Deal. If parliament does vote against No Deal every Remainer in the subsequent General Election has to vote tactically.

It means in England voting for LibDem candidates in LibDem/Tory marginals, but it also means voting for Labour candidates in Lab/Con marginals. That is the only clear way a Johnson victory can be stopped. It doesn’t even matter if the Labour MP is pro-Brexit, because every Labour MP deprives the Conservatives of government.

So every Remainer telling you that you cannot vote Labour is telling you to vote for a No Deal outcome. Everyone who says you cannot vote for Labour because “Corbyn is evil” in various ways is telling you to vote for a No Deal outcome. Everyone telling you that you cannot vote Labour because Labour “is an antisemitic party” is telling you to vote for No Deal. And when it comes to a General Election, there will be some who will say you cannot vote Labour because they want Boris Johnson and No Deal to win.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Does Brexit represent an alliance of Rentiers?

One of the striking features of Brexit is that it is harmful to most productive capital and those who work with it: the capital embodied in firms that trade for sure, but also the capital that produces stuff for firms that trade and so on. In so far as Brexit will impoverish the UK as a whole, it is also harmful to any firms that produce for the UK market. Yet the party that has traditionally been thought of as supporting UK productive capital, the Conservative party, is the one promoting Brexit.

There are of course moneyed interests who provide active or financial support, and even bankroll, Brexit. Among owners of UK firms they tend to be individuals who have a particular beef against the EU. You will also find a few hedge fund managers. The most notorious financial backer of Brexit, Arron Banks, made his money through insurance.

Among those who voted for Brexit, there is a large group who are well off and retired. Your typical Daily Telegraph reader if you like. Being retired, their main source of income is their pension and their savings. At this point I can hand over the William Davies in a fascinating recent article in the New Statesman:
“What this group shares with the Johnson-Farage backers is a lack of any immediate interest in labour markets or productive capitalism. What’s the worst that could happen from the perspective of these interests? Inflation or a stock market slump would certainly harm them, but they may have forgotten that these things are even possible. Jeremy Corbyn terrifies them even more than the prospect of Remain, as they believe he will tax capital, gifts and inheritance into oblivion (they are less concerned with income tax as they don’t pay it). Where productivity gains are no longer sought, the goal becomes defending private wealth and keeping it in the family. This is a logic that unites the international oligarch and the comfortable Telegraph-reading retiree in Hampshire.”

He goes on:
“This suggests that support for Johnson and Farage is a symptom of prolonged financialisation, in which capital pulls increasingly towards unproductive investments, relying on balance sheet manipulation, negative interest rates and liquidity for its returns (aided substantially by quantitative easing over the past decade). To put that more starkly, these are seriously morbid symptoms, in which all productive opportunities have already been seized, no new ideas or technologies are likely, and no new spheres of social or environmental life are left to exploit and commodify.”

This is very neat. The ‘puzzle’ that Brexit is detrimental to productive capital is in some sense solved. It is the ‘unproductive’ elements of capitalism that is bringing productive capitalism down. Like all ideas, and particularly neat ones, this needs some healthy skepticism. The rest of this post is a contribution to that critique.

Let me start with the well off Telegraph reader, living off their savings and pensions. It is true that a good chunk of that pension and savings may represent financial assets in a different currency, and so when fears of a no deal Brexit leads to a fall in sterling this part of their wealth increases its sterling value. But I suspect for most the majority of their wealth will be UK based: either shares in UK based companies or UK government debt. Very few will have the wealth to invest in hedge funds. As many savers will tell you, it is low interest rates that are the immediate threat to their financial wellbeing, and the fundamental cause of low UK interest rates is austerity.

The well off Telegraph reader is certainly better protected against the impact of a No Deal Brexit compared to someone who works for a UK car maker, but they are not immune to the impact of a No Deal Brexit either. If their pension comes from a UK company, they could be quite vulnerable. I think Davies is right that they probably worry more about the financial threat from a Labour government, but that alone does not make them a supporter of a No Deal Brexit.

What is probably true for many is that the financial threat to them of a No Deal Brexit is more opaque, mediated through stock markets or investment funds, than it is to a worker on universal credit or a worker who might lose their job. But this is also true to the poorer pensioner who depends on their state pension, given the current rules for uprating these pensions (and the political power of those with a high propensity to vote). For both groups it makes sense to try and insulate them from domestic shocks, but a political consequence may be an impression of invulnerability to these shocks.

If we move from voters to financial supporters of No Deal, it is not the case that No Deal benefits the UK financial sector as a whole - far from it. Like much of the UK service sector, it benefited considerably by being in the Single Market, and will be hard hit by any hard Brexit. Of course most of the large firms involved can move, and in many cases have already moved, some of their operations to EU capitals, but this is something they have been forced to do and so it does not make the sector a champion of Brexit. The Association of British Insurers has warned that a No Deal Brexit could cause lasting damage to the industry.

The article talks about “maverick entrepreneurs (bosses of JCB and Wetherspoons)” but perhaps the same should apply to all those who have encouraged Brexit. There is no reason why neoliberal ideology that suggests regulations just get in the way of business should just influence politicians, and it is capital that often has to meet these regulations. In addition you will always find hedge fund managers wanting to make serious money out of any large change, and perhaps foreign powers able to find vehicles of influence.

It is difficult to think of any sector that will be better off after a no deal Brexit, except perhaps funeral directors and debt collectors. No organisation or institution, beyond the think tanks of the right, is championing this cause. Instead we just see mavericks from various sectors speaking on behalf of a no deal Brexit or providing financial backing. The key question then becomes how a few maverick wealthy individuals and a minority of politicians can hijack the political process so that it works against the interests of nearly everyone else in the country?

The first answer is a society where individuals are allowed to make huge sums of money such that they can, by their own spending, have a huge impact on politics. Finance is partly why 1% inequality has grown, but the reason taxes on the rich were cut is political: the rise of neoliberal governments. The way this political influence is typically put is that 1% inequality gives the few an incentive to distort the political process so they preserve their wealth, but equally it can also allow a minority of the same individuals to bend politics to fit their own, sometimes maverick, ideas. Wealth also allows those who bend politics to walk away if it all goes wrong, as Farage said he would. Perhaps globalisation has increased the chances that those who meddle in the political process of one country can escape when things go wrong.

Money alone is not enough to persuade a large section of society to vote for acts of self-harm. The second answer is that you must have considerable control over the means of information. Brexit is the product of the obsession of a handful of men who over a long period of time have used their newspapers to denigrate the EU, and in recent years have turned these same newspapers into propaganda weapons for leaving the EU. Too many, on the left and centre, fail to acknowledge that without our right wing press, Brexit would not have had a chance of happening. Of course this partisan media also needs something to persuade people with, but the age old tools of nationalism and the demonisation of some ‘other’ seems to suffice.

In a developed democracy even all this may not initially give our mavericks a majority of the voting population. They will, at first, only have partial control of the media and the institutions that represent capital, along with many others, will be against them. The third answer to how a few individuals can gain great influence and enact huge harm is to capture a political party in a two party system. Once this is achieved they can use a badly designed voting system and their partial control of the media to push themselves or their policies through. Trump did this in the US (he lost the popular vote) and a no deal Brexit will happen if the anti-Brexit forces split by more than the pro-Brexit forces in a General Election.

For those that like their history to be about grand forces rather than maverick individuals this kind of explanation is hard to take. But there is an underlying force involved here, a force of ideas rather than interests. It is neoliberalism, and in particular the idea that the state and regulations just get in the way of prosperity for all, that is powering many of these mavericks to inflict great harm on their fellow citizens.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Fiscal tightening in UK recessions: 1981 and 2010 compared

I have decided to abstain from twitter conversations to protect my own wellbeing, but I made an exception for Andrew Sentance recently. The issue was the extent to which the 1981 fiscal tightening was equivalent to 2010 austerity. It was clear this needs a post to clarify things. In the charts below, I compare how various fiscal magnitudes compared to the year before financial year 1981/2 (blue) and financial year 2010/11 (red) in terms of percentages of GDP. (To be precise, the blue line subtracts X in 1980/1 from all subsequent years, where X is the share of some fiscal magnitude in GDP, and the red line subtracts X in 2009/10 from all subsequent years. Source OBR public finances databank) 

First consider public sector receipts.

The 1981 budget was a tax hike, that prompted the famous letter from 364 economists denouncing the budget. However notice that the tax hike was mostly reversed within two years. In contrast the tax hike in 2010 (higher VAT) was smaller as a percentage of GDP but it was not reversed.

With total spending we get a different picture

Under Thatcher the share of total spending in GDP stayed pretty constant. That does not mean there was no tightening, because with a large increase in unemployment we might have expected a rise in spending as a share of GDP (a point Andrew makes). But nevertheless the contrast with 2010 is stark. Public spending was the main component of fiscal tightening under Osborne.

It is worth looking at one component of spending: public investment.

Here we can see some tightening under Thatcher, but once again it was quickly reversed. Under Osborne the cuts grew over time, and by the end were twice as big as anything attempted under Thatcher.

These components can be combined by looking at net borrowing.

The Thatcher fiscal contraction was largely reversed within 2 or 3 years (almost completely reversed if we looked at cyclically adjusted figures). Osborne’s contraction grew steadily over time. It would also be a mistake to conclude that in the first two years Thatcher’s 1981 contraction was as equally severe as Osborne’s. Tax increases have a much lower impact on demand than cuts in public investment or government spending more generally.

So 2010 was not the first time a government had chosen to cut public spending in a recession, which is the reason I added the word ‘sharply’ in my tweet. It was also not the first time a UK government had attempted fiscal tightening in a recession, as 1981 shows, which is why I specifically talked about public spending in my original tweet. But perhaps the most important difference between 1981 and 2010 is longevity. Thatchers fiscal tightening in 1981 was largely reversed by1983: tightening did not just stop but it was followed by fiscal expansion. In 2010 tightening continued year after year. It is no surprise that the recovery was so weak.

Indeed, if you define an economic recovery as growth above past trends, which there is a strong case for doing, there was no recovery from 2010 onwards. Using the same definition there was a recovery after 1981, but it began in calendar year 1983. The temporary fiscal consolidation of the 1981 budget did delay the recovery for nearly two years, but partly because that consolidation was reversed the recovery eventually came. Of course monetary policy played an important role in both periods (the size of the interest rate cut was similar), but the cuts were slower under Thatcher and there was no Quantitative Easing either.

While 1981 was nothing like as bad as the austerity of 2010, it was a serious macroeconomic mistake which undoubtedly caused considerable hardship for many. It also played an important role in creating the conditions, in the mind of many Conservatives, for 2010. Conservative politicians and particularly the Institute of Economic Affairs told a false story, a story where the economists who wrote the 1981 letter were wrong and Thatcher was right. Because they kept on telling their story as if it was true some media commentators began to believe it was true. I’m sure this played some part in sustaining austerity in 2010.