Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 23 November 2020

Politicians and experts: austerity, Brexit and the pandemic


I’ll be talking about fiscal policy during and after the pandemic at a Resolution Foundation/MMF event in a week’s time:

I have written quite a few posts on the relationship between policy and expertise, and between expertise and the media. The better ones are in my book, but they were all written before the COVID pandemic. How does the relationship between experts on the one hand and politicians and the media on the other that we saw with economists over austerity and Brexit play out with medics and the pandemic?

All three cases are different from each other. Although the evidence set out in my book suggests that the majority of academic economists opposed austerity (a majority that got larger as time went on), this plurality had no impact on either the media or the politicians pushing austerity. A few well known academics who supported austerity got a lot of publicity, but this was because they supported a policy pushed by politicians and the media, and not because they were influential in driving the policy. An obvious example in the UK was Ken Rogoff, who supported protecting public investment from any cuts while the government did much economic harm by cutting public investment.

The most notable feature of austerity was the almost total disregard by the media of the views of the majority of academics. As Alan Winters in his analysis of experts and Brexit points out, it was David Henderson who said in his Reith Lectures of 1985 “There is no doubt that the policies of governments … are influenced by economic ideas. But … these have not necessarily been the ideas of economists”. This applies with equal force to the media. The media appeared to apply the logic of the household to governments, so that the necessity of paying back debt as soon as possible became common sense, even though saying this would be a fail for any first year economics undergraduate. For that reason I called it mediamacro.

The power of media narratives should never be underestimated, as the Labour party has experienced many times to its cost. Austerity was just another example. It was a particularly devastating example, because in this case the media’s common sense did terrible harm to the economy, and the media was ignoring what it should have regarded as a key source of knowledge, academic macroeconomics. Needless to say, media organisations have never examined their own mistakes in this regard.

Brexit was different in two respects. First, what was a plurality over austerity was an almost total consensus on Brexit. Making trade more difficult, which almost any form of Brexit did, would cause considerable harm to the economy. The second difference compared to austerity was that the broadcast media had less of any common sense to appeal to, and so they played the ‘two sides’ game. On the one hand was the overwhelming consensus of academics, together with all the major economics institutions, and on the other was a handful of pro-Brexit economists the most noticeable of whom was Patrick Minford. (A few media outlets, and particularly the Financial Times, did follow the academic consensus.)

In defence of the broadcast media, this ‘two sided debate’ format is their default on most issues, and it doesn’t normally matter what the expert consensus is (which is typically not mentioned). However as we saw with austerity, there are exceptions. Whereas the exceptions should be based on the expert consensus, they instead seem to be based on common sense narratives. As with austerity, the media has never examined its own mistakes in relation to Brexit. As the referendum was very tight, the actions of the broadcast media in treating the overwhelming consensus of academic economists as just one opinion could well have influenced the result.

This trivialising of expert opinion is not inevitable. Strong pressure from academic bodies can yield results. The obvious example is climate change. When broadcasters began to increasingly ‘two-side’ the climate change issue, academics and others protested, and the BBC trust acknowledged that on this issue the expert consensus had to be followed. Not all BBC programmes have subsequently respected the Trust’s findings, but nevertheless you will generally see broadcasters treating the need to reduce man made climate change as a fact, and not as a controversial opinion.

The obvious difference between austerity or Brexit and climate change is that the former involves economists and the latter involves scientists. Actually the difference in methodology between climate change scientists and economists is not that great: both attempt to predict in a highly stochastic environment, and neither can easily conduct experiments. There are differences in public perception, of course. Besides the insight of Henderson noted above, there are various myths about economics that are part of the public debate. But the most relevant difference in my view is the absence of institutional pressure on the media from economists that matched the pressure over climate change.

Another academic discipline that has similarities to economics is medicine, and more specifically public health and epidemiology. The story of COVID-19 initially appeared to be more optimistic than austerity and Brexit. In many European countries, including the UK, governments took scientific advice, although in the UK with a short delay that probably cost tens of thousands of lives. But as Alan Winters notes, that optimism has been short lived. In most countries in Europe, including the UK, the second wave has been far worse because politicians ignored the expert advice.

The rationale they have given for ignoring the medical experts has been to balance health with the economy. The irony is that once again most economists I have seen who have studied this issue have agreed with me that there is no meaningful trade-off between the economy and health beyond the very short term. Once again academic economists are ignored, this time where lives are directly at stake.

The media have faithfully echoed the excuses for ignoring the expert advice, seemingly ignorant of the fact that they have little basis. From what I have seen they have given air time to experts and particularly politicians pushing the ‘lockdowns do not work’ nonsense, as if this is just another opinion. I suspect once again this is because it is ‘common sense’ that there is a health/economy trade-off, because most people do not think in dynamic terms. I have not seen government politicians questioned in interviews for not following expert advice in a similar manner to the way Labour politicians were questioned for doubting Osborne’s austerity.

Why did politicians initially say they were following the science of how to deal with the pandemic, while the same politicians ignored economists on Brexit? It is not because medicine is a science and economics is not. As I have argued elsewhere, the two disciplines have many structural similarities. Henderson’s point about prior beliefs is undoubtedly one reason: not many non-medics thought about pandemics before there was one. For politicians another reason is ideology. With austerity and Brexit it was ideologically convenient, and perhaps even necessary, for its proponents to discount expertise. Initially there appeared to be little ideology involved with controlling a pandemic, beyond libertarian instincts.

One reason attitudes to medical experts changed among government politicians between the first and second wave was the emergence of ideology dressed up as science: the Barrington Declaration and all that, and the influence that has had on many Conservative MPs. Once again, it became in the interests of those politicians to ignore expertise, just as they did with Brexit. The correlation with pro-Brexit and anti-lockdown views is no accident. The lesson is simply not to elect politicians who can so easily cast aside expertise.

Unfortunately that is less likely to happen as long as the media fails to tell viewers what the consensus among experts is. I have made this point before, but I think the lesson of climate change is instructive. The media are not going to change what they do, particularly when some feel their existence may depend on keeping certain politicians happy. What changed the media’s approach to climate change, at least in principle, was pressure from science itself. The reason academic economics gets ignored is that academic economists don’t organise to apply pressure.

I have seen so many accounts of why economics was ignored over Brexit that blame themselves: things should have been presented more clearly, economists should have been more open about uncertainties, and so on. All have some truth, but none will make any difference as long as the media treats the consensus among academic economists as just another opinion. For the media to do otherwise requires the strongest pressure from groups who represent academic economists. At the very least, we need institutions representing economists telling the media what the consensus view (if any) is on particular economic issues. [1]

I suspect that some medics will be beginning to ask similar questions about the pandemic: why did politicians ignore consensus advice, why did anti-lockdown politicians get so much airtime and so on. The answers I suspect are similar to those I have just given for economics. Medics have one big advantage over economists: the bodies that represent them are used to applying public pressure. They should apply that pressure on the media if they want to avoid expert views about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines to be treated as just one opinion to set beside the opinion of anti-vaxxers.

[1] When I make this point I often get comments along the lines that I’m trying to impose conformity, and the public should be told about mavericks opinions because (very occasionally) they turn out to be right. I’m doing neither of those things. What is missing from the media is any sense of what the expert consensus is, and for politicians who depart from the consensus being interrogated on why they think they know better than the expert consensus.

Monday 16 November 2020

How the electoral system in the US, and to a lesser extent the UK, is biased towards social conservatism.


The UK is often torn between following the US or following Europe. We share a language with the US, and a lot of popular culture. But we also share a voting system that ensures the political right has a heavy built in advantage. The United States may be too far down that road to change, but in the UK there is still hope if only the current opposition leadership see sense.

Once we get over the relief that Donald Trump is no longer President, comes the realisation of just how bad the US election results really were for Democrats. Trump was a Republican, and the Republican party backed him almost without exception. Even in the current ludicrous situation where Trump is refusing to concede, many senior Republican politicians continue to back him.

It should come as no surprise that Republicans have an ambiguous relationship to democracy. Republicans see nothing wrong in distorting district borders to give themselves better election results in terms of seats than their polling numbers deserve. Gerrymandering is endemic, and it gives the Republicans an inbuilt advantage in one half of Congress, the House of Representatives. They also habitually make it hard for democrat voters (particularly black voters) to vote: the long lines we see during US elections are there for a reason.

Recently Republican senator Mike Lee said “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” This view is not unusual among Republican politicians, it is just that most are not so foolish as to say it out loud.

But Trump’s attempt to cling to power is not the problem. The problem is that the Republican party won seats in the House, and is likely to retain its majority in the Senate. Why the Democrats did so badly in both of these contests is something that will be analysed by others at length later. But I suspect what few outside the US understand is just how difficult it is for the Democrats to win big in the Senate.

As Shaun Lawson explains in an excellent piece, the Senate is constructed such that each state has two senators, whatever its population. To take the most extreme example, Wyoming with a population of 563,626 gets the same representation in the Senate as California with a population of 37,253,956. Now if political support was evenly distributed among big and small states alike this would not be an issue . However it is not: Wyoming has two Republican senators and California has two Democratic senators. The Senate structure influences the Electoral College used to choose a President.

The basic problem with the Senate is that it gives rural and small town states much more political clout than their population warrants. With political polarisation increasingly between liberals and social conservatives (the culture war), and with liberals concentrated in the big dynamic cities and conservatives in the rest of the country, anything that gives the latter an advantage relative to their number is a political problem.

The example of the US senate is far more extreme than anything in the UK, but that does not mean that the problem does not exist here. We saw that very clearly with Brexit, which is essentially a culture war issue. The referendum of course involved the whole population, and we all know the result of that. But if a general election had been held on just that issue, it is estimated that Leave would have won a landslide: 406 Leave | 242 Remain.

We can do a similar calculation for the 2019 election. If you add up the vote totals of parties supporting a second referendum, it was just more than 50%, but of course the Conservatives won a landslide and Brexit went ahead. That partly reflects the fact that the second referendum vote was more divided among different parties than the Brexit vote, but it also reflects the way the social liberal/conservative divide is split among parliamentary seats.

Socially liberal votes are concentrated in the cities. Seats outside the cities have many social liberals as well, but they are typically outnumbered by social conservatives. However you will find very few social conservatives in big city seats. That means that even if social liberals are in a small majority in the population as a whole, they are outnumbered in terms of seats. When it comes to culture war issues, the First Past The Post (FPTP) UK constituency system for general elections represents accidental gerrymandering favouring social conservatives.

An illustration of this is to compare the 2017 and 2019 elections. In 2017 both main parties backed Brexit and the Remain movement hardly existed, so Labour could focus on a relatively popular economic programme and do relatively well. In contrast, the 2019 election was mainly about Brexit, and the seat totals (once you allow for other parties) was not very different from those implied by the 2016 referendum result. 2019 also reflects the difficulty Labour had in focusing on economic issues given a slanted media.

If you think this is just about Brexit, or that Cummings’ departure means that Johnson will reveal his true social liberal self, think again. The Conservatives were using immigration as a weapon against Blair under William “foreign land” Hague, and will continue to try and capture socially conservative voters after Cummings' exit, because it works at winning elections.

One solution is for Labour to try and do what it did in 2017, and effectively match the Conservatives on the key culture war issues. However, that creates two related problems. The first is that Labour’s current base is very socially liberal. The second is that other socially liberal parties exist. The danger is that we see a repeat of what happened in the period before the 2019 election, where voters defecting over Labour’s socially conservative stance leads to lost votes whatever choice it makes. I'm not saying that Labour cannot succeed doing this, but it is hard and divisive. 

Both this problem, and the problem of the socially liberal vote being split among parties, can be overcome by elections determined by some form of proportional representation (PR).

A traditional argument for the UK’s existing first past the post system, and the constitutional system in the US, is that it keeps out political extremes as both major parties strive to capture the centre ground. This has been completely refuted by events over the last decade. It appears, in fact, that both systems allow governments that are politically extreme to capture power.

While there seems little chance that the US will change its system, there is more hope in the UK. It requires a Labour government to be elected that is committed to some form of PR. It has to be a commitment before they gain power, because once elected every Labour government believes it can now become the natural party of government. One advantage of a prior commitment to PR is that it makes cooperation between Labour and other socially liberal parties easier during the election.

There is considerable support for electoral reform within the Labour party. Unfortunately any Labour leadership that thinks it can win power is also a leadership that prefers to remain in power rather than becoming part of a coalition that any subsequent PR election is more likely to bring. While we can appeal to statistics to show the dominance of Conservative governments, political leadership is naturally focused on its own short term.

Monday 9 November 2020

COVID, the US election and media balance


I want to start with my last post. It contrasted a minority of countries that were good, were not too bad and the majority that were terrible at handling the pandemic. What surprised me was how willing people were to believe that each of the good countries had some special attribute that explained their superior performance, rather than accept the more obvious explanation that they had more practice at handling pandemics, or just had better governance. These countries that have handled the pandemic well knew that you needed a good TTI operation, you needed to keep case numbers low, you needed strong border control and in most cases that if you lose control of case numbers you lock down quickly and hard.

The UK has failed on all these counts. The experts learnt not to underestimate the virus after the first wave. They recommended a short lockdown in the early stages of the second wave. This is just the kind of thing that the good countries in my classification from last week would do. Johnson (or was it Sunak’s with a veto?) rejected their advice, using the spurious grounds that he was balancing health against the economy. You are balancing nothing when you leave R>1. Johnson and Sunak were wrong and we now have to have a month long lockdown, at least.

One of the consequences of this failure to deal with a second wave is that people get restive about lockdowns. Almost no one likes a lockdown, and restrictions on social life together with constant precautions against the virus get to people. They certainly have begun to get to me. Yet despite this, in the UK most people still support the current lockdown, even among 18-24 year olds. But there are also signs of lockdown fatigue: while a YouGov poll gave only 3% who didn’t support lockdown in the Spring, that figure has risen to 23%.

One important factor behind this growing antagonism to lockdowns is the anti-lockdown crusade that I talked about in an earlier post. The vocal political minority that do not want lockdowns at all are implicitly prepared to see hundreds of people die, and their health services overwhelmed. They talk about protecting the vulnerable but these claims fall to dust on examination.

Some members of the anti-lockdown crusade may really believe they have a better way to save lives, but for most the motivation is different. There is a lot of talk of libertarian ideology, or right-libertarianism, and I’m sure some of the Tory MPs who voted against their government last week see their opposition to lockdown that way. But increasingly this looks like liberty for some, and the opposite for others: doctors and nurses who will have to treat COVID cases in overcrowded hospitals, the vulnerable (however defined) whose liberty is indefinitely postponed, and those who die for the short term liberty of others.

Among the population, there is no doubt that among the minority that oppose lockdowns there are some who are simply selfish. Something along the lines of ‘why should we not be able to do the things we enjoy doing for a year or more of our lives when we know it is unlikely that the virus will kill me’. In addition there are risk takers, who somehow think that they will avoid the fate of others.

Both selfishness and risk-taking is emboldened by those who question the wisdom of lockdowns when cases are increasing out of control. Politicians and the press attacking lockdowns give selfishness and risk taking an excuse they need for their behaviour. They also provide an excuse for those who want to ignore lockdown restrictions. This is why the media should be very careful not to suggest that scientific and public health opinion is evenly divided on the wisdom of lockdowns, because it is not. There are clear parallels with climate change. Unfortunately our media is ruled by political balance, which nowadays all too often means balancing the truth with lies.

This is not the only reason why people may oppose lockdowns. An imperfect safety net for individuals who are adversely affected by lockdowns can give a much more compelling reason why people might turn against the whole idea. If you see a lockdown destroying your business, running down your savings, losing your job or even making you or your children go hungry you have a strong motivation for arguing strongly against it. It is difficult to call this being selfish.

The safety net is far from complete in the UK. The Chancellor has stubbornly refused to increase statutory sick pay for those who have been advised to isolate themselves. But in terms of safety nets the UK is far better than the US. I have seen a few remarks along the lines that without COVID Trump would have easily won the US election. I’m not sure that is right for two reasons.

The most obvious is that without COVID Biden would not have made COVID central to his campaign, and would instead have focused on other issues where Trump is weak. However a second reason is that Trump may be getting strong support from those that don’t want their businesses to close, who don’t want to be thrown out of work and don’t want to rely on an uncertain stimulus cheque.

We can see that to some extent in the national election exit polls. When asked about the issue that mattered most to people voting for each side, three issues stood out for Biden voters: racial inequality, the pandemic and health care. For Trump voters it was the economy followed by crime and safety. The contrast between racial equality for Biden voters and crime and safety for Trump voters is pure culture war. Social liberals rejoice over the black lives matter movement, while social conservatives see it as a threat.

The more interesting contrast is between the pandemic and the economy. The economy, normally near the top of most lists of voter concerns, comes fifth out of five for Biden voters. The pandemic has taken its place, and rightly so because the economy is not going to fully recover while the pandemic rages unchecked. In contrast among Trump voters the economy completely dominates the pandemic as a top issue, perhaps because measures to deal with the pandemic are seen as a threat to their livelihoods. [1]

While the broadcast media, at least in the UK, plays “both sides” games with the pandemic, contrasting the expert consensus with the anti-lockdown crusade as if each has an equal claim to truth, the mainstream US broadcast media stopped playing these games with Trump’s claims about voter fraud. It was impressive to watch CNN fill in the gaps between new votes coming in telling viewers why all votes should be counted, and Trump’s claims had no basis. (Yes, I know I had better things to do.)

These big media organisations (excluding Fox) were fortunate that Trump telegraphed what he planned to do well in advance, so they had time to work out their response together. When it came their response was emphatic, to the extent that most stopped broadcasting Trump’s speech when he started making these claims, telling viewers that such claims had no basis in fact. It is quite something to stop broadcasting a sitting President when he starts telling lies, although by then they knew he was not going to be President for much longer.

That is something to build on. Why not be equally emphatic about voter suppression, widely practiced in the US and coming to the UK. What is the essential difference between claims of widespread voter fraud and climate change denial? What is the difference between claims of voter fraud and claims that lockdowns don’t work and are unnecessary when cases are increasing? How can the BBC justify not following this example? Once media organisations start recognising that balance does not apply when one side is lying, why not stop balancing truth with lies more often?

[1] (added 10/11/20) Another example of how lockdowns can be unpopular comes from the Czech Republic, where it is widely believed that a lockdown was postponed until after senate and regional elections had taken place.  

Monday 2 November 2020

How governments in the West failed to learn


You would think, after so many countries were taken by surprise by a pandemic caused by a new virus in the Spring of this year, these countries would resolve to never let it happen again. They would be mad, knowing what they now know, to let cases explode in a similar manner to they did earlier this year. In what we call the West we like to think we have reasonably rational governments that listen to expert advice on matters of life and death.

Well at least some of us thought that. I am prepared to make an exception of the UK and US. The UK is run by fantasists who thought we would hold all the cards in any negotiations with the EU and there would be sunlit uplands. These are the kind of people who would be quite happy to ignore experts. Some of them are even busy right now promoting a kind of death cult. The US is run by someone who only thinks of himself. I could make an exception in both these cases.

Now look at this chart.

These are new COVID cases each day per million people. Cases in most of the countries shown here began rising seriously in September. (Both the US and Spain were already high.) Yet only now, nearly two months later, are some countries beginning to repeat the lockdowns that were so effective at getting cases down in the Spring. Two months of doing nothing or doing very little. Two months of keeping restaurants open where the virus was free to spread. Two months of doing too little, too late.

I don’t know enough about each of these countries, but I’d hazard a guess that epidemiologists and public health experts in all of these cases are in despair at the lack of action shown by their politicians. What were the politicians thinking? That it would all go away, Donald Trump style. Or more likely that they were balancing health concerns against the economy. That was why I wrote this post.

There is one country stuck at the bottom of the chart above, Japan, which I’ll come to shortly. But first how about some countries in Europe who I always think of as having relatively rational governments: Germany (because it is run by a scientist) and the Scandivian countries.

My hypothesis is correct. Compare the left hand scales of the two charts. These countries would all be stuck at the bottom of the previous chart. However for Denmark, Germany and Sweden the pattern is similar, if at a much lower level of cases. Only Norway and Finland have avoided exponential growth during this period. The media should stop looking at Sweden, and look at Finland instead.

Japan is stuck very happily at the bottom of this chart too. But it is not alone. Here are some countries in what we sometimes call the Far East.

I’ve kept the best of the Scandivian countries, Finland, there for comparison, and started the chart at the beginning or July rather than September. We can see that Australia, and to a much lesser extent Japan, had a flare-up in July and August, but both countries managed to bring it back under control very quickly. South Korea had a smaller flare-up at the end of August but it’s very effective test, trace and isolate (TTI) infrastructure helping bring it quickly under control. To all intents and purposes New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam and China have completely suppressed the virus.

There are three overriding lessons. The first is the importance of an effective TTI infrastructure that has the capacity to scale up quickly [1]. The second is that if you start seeing a rapid rise in cases, and your TTI system is beginning to fail, you need to lock down rapidly and hard. Both lessons should have been learnt in Western countries, but were not. One reason may be a third lesson, which is the importance of a clear and shared understanding that the goal is virus suppression. Deaths from the virus are not something to be tolerated as long as they are at a low level, or balanced against the needs of the economy, but something that needs to be reduced to the lowest number possible, and kept there.

We can say, correctly, that unlike the countries in the last chart we in the West are not used to dealing with pandemics as serious as COVID-19. But that is a reasonable excuse for the first wave in the Spring (although not for countries like the UK that lagged behind others), but not for this second wave. Whichever way you look at it, the second COVID wave represents a serious failure of government in most countries.

[1] A weak link for many countries is isolation. Some of the countries above have COVID hotels where those with the virus are isolated. The reason is simply to ensure infected people do not infect others. Many in the West find such an idea intolerable, but Australia only isolates in this way if you have travelled from overseas, so it may not be a necessary requirement for suppression.