Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Sunday, 20 May 2018

How the media and politicians dumb down economics

I’m all for economists improving their communications skills, and there are some good initiatives currently around. But all that is as nothing when politicians and the media keep promoting bad economics.

One of the most obvious is the focus on jobs rather than output. There are some circumstances were this makes sense. The most obvious is a recession, where unemployment is high and the focus of policy should be getting unemployment down. Another is when thinking about the geographical distribution of employment. But at times when unemployment is low, the focus on jobs rather than output can be very misleading for one simple reason. We can easily create jobs by having technological regress.

What has happened in the UK since a year after austerity was imposed is that productivity, measured in terms of output per hour worked or output per worker, has hardly increased. Productivity normally rises in a recovery, and it began to until the middle of 2011, but we have seen almost no growth since then. That is terrible news, because it means that there has been no increase in average living standards: add in the Brexit depreciation and real wages have fallen substantially.

Yet politicians and newspapers continue to talk up employment growth as if it was a huge achievement. Here is the Mail from a few days ago.

So many times I have heard government ministers counter criticisms over output growth performance by talking up employment growth, and I do not remember a single occasion where they have been pulled up with the obvious retort ‘so you are happy with stagnant productivity and falling real wages then’. [1] Because strong employment growth coupled with weak output growth means something is very wrong with productivity, and we cannot have sustained growth in real wages and living standards without productivity growth.

You might expect politicians to try and get away with nonsense economics if they can, and you would certainly expect right wing papers to turn reality upside down in an effort to protect their precious Brexit. That is why it is so important that political journalists working for the broadcast media know some basic economics, and are prepared to use it to call out the distortion of some politicians. Until they do, basic misunderstandings about simple economic relationships will persist.

[1] A BBC journalist did try once, and got into trouble as a result, as I relate here.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Delusions of National Power

As soon as the EU decided, quite rightly, to support Ireland in rejecting any deal that resulted in placing infrastructure at the Irish border, the idea of a Free Trade Agreement between the EU and the UK was dead. It became inevitable that the UK would stay in the Customs Union (CU) and the Single Market (SM). The two possible alternatives, which is that the UK would go ahead and impose a hard border and forsake any deal with the EU, or that a border would be created in the Irish Sea, would not be approved by a majority in parliament. If the UK had a strong bargaining position, it could perhaps persuade the EU to compromise over how much of the Single Market it needed to be part of (the Jersey option), but according to Sam Lowe who gave that option its name the “EU will not contemplate the backstop applying to the whole UK”. The UK gave up any bargaining strength it had when it triggered Article 50.

Yet neither leader of our two main political parties allow themselves to see this inevitable implication of the Irish border. Delusion is at its most extreme in the case of Theresa May, who still thinks it is possible to conclude a deal with the EU that would keep the Brexiters in her party on board by appeasing them at every step. So we have the ludicrous situation where the UK cabinet is at loggerheads over which of two impossible plans they will put forward so they can be rejected by the EU. This isn't rearranging deck chairs on the titantic. It is having a full blown row over how the deck chairs should be arranged as the ship sinks. 

This charade could be put out of its misery by parliament telling May that the UK has to stay in the CU and the EEA. The former might happen, but the Labour leadership, along perhaps with some of its MPs (and not just the few Brexiters), still think that they can negotiate a bespoke version of the Single Market that either avoids rules on state aid or avoids free movement. There is no reason why the EU need contemplate this, given that they know MPs will not approve No Deal. The left or Lexiters can talk all they want about uniting to guarantee that the EU cannot obstruct a future socialist government, but the lesson of Greece is that if the EU has power it will use it.

It is easy to imagine where these delusions of power come from. After all, despite what Brexiters say, the UK did have considerable influence in the EU when it was a member. Ironically both the Single Market and EU expansion owed a lot to UK pressure. The more interesting question I think is why these delusions continue when the reality of the UK’s powerlessness becomes obvious. Political leaders have had a painful year to learn that in these negotiations the EU calls the shots.

I can think of two answers. The first is ideological blindness. This is obvious in the case of the Brexiters, but I think you can also see it elsewhere in various ways. But I also think there are specific dynamics created by the referendum. Leave votes were in part predicated on an illusion of power: the UK would not be worse off because the EU would be desperate to accede to our demands. Once a politician agrees to go with the 'will of the people', they find it very hard to go back to the 52% and say your beliefs were delusions. And no politician wants to say in public that the UK has to do what the EU says. It is very hard for an elected politician to confront English nationalism, a nationalism largely exploited and distorted in my view by a deeply corrupt press.

The UK is therefore in a trap of its own making. It is obvious what has to happen in the end: the UK stays in the CU and SM either inside or outside the EU. But the leadership and perhaps a majority of MPs in the two main parties either cannot see that yet, or can see it but dare not take the steps to get us there. If Brexit is to survive despite always being a fantasy project it has to end with a whimper, but it could take many wasted years and much economic harm to get to that point. There is one way out that will spare politicians’ blushes and revitalise the economy, and that is to hold a referendum on the final deal where the economic costs of the deal are clearly spelt out.

Monday, 14 May 2018

How the broadcast media created mediamacro

If you do not watch Carlos Maza’s short commentaries on the US media you should. Here is his latest, on why comparisons between the investigations into Nixon and Trump fall short. The reason, quite simply, is Fox News. With Nixon most Republican voters were getting their information straight from one of the established networks. As a result, Republican politicians were coming under Republican voter pressure to impeach Nixon when the extent of the cover-up became clear. Today, Republican voters get aggressive attacks on the investigations into Trump and his associates, attacks which are completely divorced from reality. And Republican politicians, reflecting the views of their base, repeat the attack lines from Fox News.

In the UK we have our equivalent of Fox News, but because our aggressively partisan media is the press there is a chance for the broadcast media to modify its impact. That it did not do so over Brexit because it failed to call out the lies of the Leave campaign is why the vote went the way it did. But Brexit was not the first time this happened. As some of the essays in a new book show, austerity was also an occasion where the broadcast media reinforced rather than countered the lies of the right wing press.

Laura Basu and Mike Berry show how virtual hysteria about the UK budget deficit was strongest in the right wing press, but as Mike Berry writes:
“Whilst BBC coverage lacked the strident editorialising seen in the press, it still operated within a framework which stressed the necessity of pre-emptive austerity to placate the financial markets.”

Historians will find this extraordinary. It is standard textbook macroeconomics that tells you not to try and counteract the deficits that arise when taxes fall and spending rises as output growth declines in a business cycle: that is why they are called automatic stabilisers. Keynes taught us and modern theory confirms you particularly do not do this when interest rates are stuck at their effective lower bound. It was natural to expect record deficits because it was a record recession and because conventional monetary policy was impotent.

So why did the BBC and other broadcasters largely ignore this point of view, and instead promoted what I call mediamacro? This is the subject of my own contribution, and here is a very brief and partial summary
  1. Journalists typically had no direct contacts with academic macroeconomists, with just one or two exceptions. The economists you tend to hear in the broadcast media are City economists, who for various reasons over-exaggerated the deficit problem.

  2. The IFS do appear regularly in the broadcast media. But the IFS do not do macroeconomics, and there is no equivalent of the IFS for macroeconomics. Initially the IMF supported fiscal stimulus, but they became spooked by the Eurozone crisis.

  3. The main way that academic expertise about the macroeconomy was filtered through to journalists was via the Bank of England. It should have been they who warned of the danger of austerity at the interest rate lower bound. However, in a then very hierarchical set-up, its governor Mervyn King was a strong supporter of austerity.

  4. The message of probably a majority of academic economists, which was to focus on the recovery and stop worrying about the deficit in the short term, ran counter to journalist’s intuition, particularly after a financial crisis where financial panic had just brought down the economy.

There is a more conventional radical political economy point of view, which is set out in another essay by Aeron Davis. That is that the media, including the broadcast media, has a default position that supports an essentially neoliberal, financialised order. That position was disrupted by the financial crisis, but once that crisis had stabilised the media took the opportunity to return to where it was comfortable.

I do not think these two accounts are incompatible, as long as you do not see this political economy view as some kind of neoliberal conspiracy. Davis certainly does not see it that way. He describes, for example, why journalists often depend on City expertise: not because someone tells them that is what they have to do, but because they need readily available expertise that they themselves often lack. Try asking most academic economists to explain the latest retail sales data with virtually no notice. The fact that the expertise they receive is often presented as fact when the reason for market moves are generally unknowable is similar to the media’s attitude to macro forecasts.

We can make the same point about the role of central banks. There was no inevitability that they supported austerity, as the US experience under Ben Bernanke showed. Bernanke’s view made little difference in a highly polarised Congress, but I have often wondered whether a Bank of England warning of the dangers of austerity might have made a difference to the media’s coverage of austerity in the UK.

I was reminded of all this by the recent TUC march. After austerity we had the 2015 election, which I argued mediamacro won for the Conservatives. They did so by tending to affirm rather than critique the idea that the economy was ‘strong’, despite the fact that the data said quite clearly that it was in fact very weak. Once again we had a huge gulf between what workers and academic economists were saying and the message journalists were getting from City economists, and how journalists generally went with the latter. The BBC really needs to hold an inquiry into how they handle economics, similar to their inquiry into statistics, but I doubt it will happen under this government.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Remain fundamentalism

An argument I have often heard is why are people talking about getting a softer Brexit (by staying in the Customs Union (CU) or Single Market (SM) for example) when what we should be doing is staying in the EU. There is a more extreme version of this which says that attempts to get a soft Brexit are dangerous, because they make the prospect of remaining in the EU less likely. I will call this more extreme position Remain fundamentalism.

I want to argue against Remain fundamentalism by imagining a soft Brexit that involved the UK staying in a comprehensive Customs Union with the EU and staying in the EEA. (For an excellent discussion of what the EEA is and is not, see Ian Dunt here, here and here - in that order.) [1] That is what the current UK withdrawal bill specifies as amended by the Lords, so let me call this the Lords’ Brexit. Compare this to the only hardish Brexit deal that can be done (assuming, as I think is reasonable, that parliament would never pass No Deal), which is something close to what John Springford and Sam Lowe have called the Jersey option: staying in the CU and the SM for goods but not services, perhaps allowing some UK flexibility on freedom of movement.

We have no idea whether the EU would accept either option, because the UK government has been wasting its time (which given they are supposed to be running the country on our behalf is also our time) trying to choose between fantastical solutions to the Irish border problem that the EU will not accept. But for the sake of argument suppose that May ignores her Brexiters, and perhaps with parliament’s help chooses something like the Jersey option and that the EU agrees to it, or instead that May has to go with the Lords’ Brexit and the EU (and EFTA) agree to it.

The Remain fundamentalist argument is that because the Jersey option does more economic damage to the UK than the Lords option (because the EU has a comparative advantage in exporting services, and immigration from the EU is beneficial to the UK), it is more likely that parliament would grant a referendum on it and that people would reject that deal in favour of staying in the EU. I actually think the opposite is the case, We are much more likely to see parliament grant a referendum if we go for the Lords’ Brexit, and that people would reject the Lords’ Brexit in favour of staying in.

The case for a referendum on the final deal is much more clear cut if the deal is the Lords’ Brexit, because the Lords’ Brexit has virtually no advantages compared to EU membership and a clear disadvantage. In practice being in the EEA would mean accepting rules adopted by the EU with no say on those rules. In short, we gain nothing by having no say on the rules we have to obey. I cannot imagine any politician being able to get people to vote for the little bit of wriggle room and influence being in the EEA gives you compared to the having a real seat at the table.

In contrast, with the Jersey option things are much more complex. There will be perceived advantages of this option compared to staying in, such as greater control over immigration. You can be sure that the more Mrs. May can fudge the agreement such that she can pretend these advantages are there even when they are not, she will.

Now add in a powerful group of Brexiters. They would angry that they did not get the hard Brexit they want, but in the Jersey option they would still see hope in ambiguity. More importantly, with the Jersey option there would be plenty of meat for this group to work on, including immigration of course. But with the Lords’ Brexit it is hard to argue a strong case for why this is preferable to be in the EU, even if you are a Brexiter politician or newspaper.

I would be the first to admit that these arguments are not clear cut. But the Remain fundamentalist position only makes sense if you can be sure that a harder Brexit makes a referendum more likely. To me, at least, it is not obvious that it does. The more you can eliminate the economically damaging but superficially attractive aspects of Brexit, the more chance people have to see that the whole thing is a complete waste of time.

[1] There are a lot of differences between being part of the EEA and what is called BINO: the UK being in the Single Market and Customs Union and everything else to do with the EU except being absent from its political structures. I am assuming that there would be no problem being in the EEA and a CU, that agreements with the EU would also be made on agriculture and fisheries that would at least allow a soft Irish border, that the EU and EFTA would allow all this and so on.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Fiscal policy remains in the stone age

Or maybe the middle ages, but certainly not anything more recent than the 1920s. Keynes advocated using fiscal expansion in what he called a liquidity trap in the 1930s. Nowadays we use a different terminology, and talk about the need for fiscal expansion when nominal interest rates are stuck at the Zero Lower Bound or Effective Lower Bound. (I slightly prefer the latter terminology because it is up to central banks to decide at what point reducing nominal interest rates further would be risky or counterproductive.) The logic is the same today as it was in the 1930s. When monetary policy loses its reliable and effective instrument to manage the economy, you need to bring in the next best reliable and effective instrument: fiscal policy.

The Eurozone as a whole is currently at the effective lower bound. Rates are just below zero and the ECB is creating money for large scale purchases of assets: a monetary policy instrument whose impact is much more uncertain than interest rate changes or fiscal policy changes (but certainly better than nothing). The reason monetary policy is at maximum stimulus setting is that Eurozone core inflation seems stuck at 1% or below. Time, clearly, for fiscal policy to start lending a hand with some fiscal stimulus.

Yet the goal of the new German Finance minister, from the supposedly left wing Social Democrats, is to achieve a budget surplus of 1%. To achieve that he is cutting public investment from 37.9 billion euros in the coming year to 33.5 billion euros by 2020. Yet German infrastructure, once world renowned, is falling apart. Its broadband connectivity could be greatly improved.

The macroeconomic case for a more expansionary German fiscal policy is overwhelming. Germany has a current account surplus of around 8% of GDP. There are some structural reasons why you might expect some current account surplus in Germany, but the IMF estimates that these structural factors account for less than half of the current surplus. It estimates that a third of the excess surplus is a result of an overly tight fiscal policy. As Guntram Wolff points out, the main counterpart to the surplus is saving by the corporate sector. Perhaps more public investment might encourage additional private investment.

But this is not another article about how Germany needs to expand to help the rest of the Eurozone. The problem, as Matthew Klein points out, is that the whole of the Eurozone is doing the same. In the area as a whole, the fiscal position is as tight as it was in the pre-crisis boom. Unemployment in the Eurozone is still too high. And the reason fiscal policy is too tight is that key Eurozone policymakers think that is the right thing to do. “The right deficit is zero” says the French finance minister. He goes on: “ Since France is not in an economic crisis, we need to have a balanced budget, so that we can afford a deficit in tougher times.” You hear the same in Germany: the economy is booming so we must have budget surpluses.

A booming economy is not one that is growing fast, but is one where the level of output and employment is above the level compatible with staying at target inflation. Measures of the output gap are only estimates of what that level is: underlying inflation is the ultimate guide. Core inflation is well below target right now, which is why interest rates are at their effective lower bound. This is why the actions and rhetoric of most European (and UK) finance ministers are simply wrong.

You would think that causing a second recession after the one following the GFC would have been a wake up call for European finance ministers to learn some macroeconomics. (Yes, I know that the ECB raising rates in 2011 did not help, but I expect most macro models will tell you the collective fiscal contraction did most of the harm.) Yet what little learning there has been is not to make huge mistakes but only large ones: we should balance the budget when there is no crisis.

This is not a dispute between left and right as it is now in the UK, but a problem with the policy consensus in Europe. What we are seeing I suspect is a potent combination of two forces: a German obsession with balancing the budget which has it roots in currently dominant ordoliberal/neoliberal ideology, and Keynes famous practical men: advisers who learnt what economics they have in an era of the great moderation where the worst economic problem we had was relatively benign deficit bias. Fighting the last war and all that.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Theresa May’s perpetual Brexit and Labour's forsaken base.

Two pieces of recent Brexit news are that a majority of the ‘war cabinet’ outvoted May on the choice between two unworkable, and therefore unacceptable to the EU, proposals to keep the Irish border infrastructure free, and Labour plans not to support a Lords amendment to keep the UK in the Single Market (SM). I want to consider each in turn.

The Brexiters, and their followers who just want to be PM and are signaling to party members, have put their collective foot down over the Irish border. This could imply that May will have to finally break with the Brexiters. But first she will try to do what she has done since negotiations began, which is to find a fudge that is good enough for the EU and which just keeps the Brexiters on board. I have no idea if such a fudge is possible, but suppose she manages to achieve one and prevents a revolt from the rebels in her party, so we leave in 2019 as planned.

If that happens, we are in danger of having perpetual Brexit. A final deal cannot be fudged, and the reality is that no deal is possible that will keep the Brexiters happy and be acceptable to the EU. The stumbling block is the Irish border: the EU will not negotiate an FTA that requires a hard border, and the Brexiters will not accept either the UK staying in the Customs Union (CU) and SM for goods, or a border in the Irish Sea. A crunch point could come at the end of 2020, but to avoid that May will plead for an extension which the EU may grant. And so it will go on: perpetual Brexit.

In a strange way, it is in May’s interest for this to happen. No one thought she would last for more than a few years after the 2017 fiasco, but Brexit keeps her in place. The majority of the parliamentary party dare not allow her to go because they will get a Brexiter in her place, given that it is members who ultimately decide. Furthermore, the closer we get to 2022 the less the party will want a bust up over how transition ends, so she fights another election.

If she wins the 2022 election would that finally give her the confidence to do a deal with the EU and ignore the protests from the Brexiters? Two factors suggest not. First, the new intake of Conservative MPs could mean that she would lose a vote of no confidence over Brexit. Second the right wing press, with the election out of the way, might not hesitate to call betrayal if she agrees any kind of deal with the EU. Both the press and Brexiters, knowing that BINO was not at all what they had in mind, would be looking to break off negotiations with the EU and go for No Deal. If she gets an outright majority a deal that puts a border in the Irish Sea becomes possible, but I doubt she will take it or the party will allow it.

The underlying logic is simple. For Brexiters, transition is only bearable because they see it as a stepping stone to a hard Brexit. The EU will not negotiate an FTA without a border in the Irish Sea and no hard border in Ireland. These are irreconcilable positions, a point which the media have just not taken on board. So if May does fudge her way to agreement on the withdrawal bill, it means perpetual Brexit negotiations. Transition, or Brexit in Name Only (BINO), may not sound too bad, but it means never ending uncertainty because business cannot rely on this arrangement lasting decades.

One way to stop fudge is to force the government to break with the Brexiters. One of the difficulties Tory rebels will always have is that it is difficult to vote against a final deal that is fudge, because just as with the original Leave vote fudge can mean almost anything the fudgers want it to mean to get votes. As the polls I discussed here show, it is only by talking about something concrete that voters say wait a minute that was not my Brexit. Which is why votes on Lords amendments to the UK’s withdrawal bill to stay in a CU and (tomorrow) the SM via the EEA can be so useful. Conservative rebels think that with Labour’s support they could win both votes in the Commons. But while Corbyn has been persuaded to back the rebels on a CU, he appears unwilling to do the same on the SM.

I have talked a lot about Labour’s triangulation strategy. That strategy works best when all those who want something that is softer than Theresa May’s Brexit think Labour in reality wants what they want, whatever Labour might actually say. In a purely two party system with rational voters Labour can get away with disclosing that they really only want a slightly softer Brexit than May, because Remainers have nowhere else to go. But reality isn’t like that in two important respects: Remainers can vote for the LibDems or Greens (many thought the Greens would be hammered in the local elections - they gained seats), or they can not vote at all.

Until now, I think we have evidence that Labour has largely succeeded in being all things to all those wanting something softer than May, including those who want to Remain. But as crunch time comes closer this is going to be difficult to sustain. So what does whipping your Lords against voting for the EEA option disclose: that, as long as May is in charge, you are content to see the UK leave the Single market. [1] That might firm your support among some Labour leavers, but it pisses off all Remain supporters and those Leavers who want to stay in the SM.

I think this is a mistake, although I am happy to have experts tell me otherwise. I think it is a mistake because you will lose more votes from disillusioned Remainers than you will gain from reassured Leavers, even when you allow for where each are in parliamentary seats. I keep being told that this is the Tories Brexit, but the moment Labour enable it they become complicit. If car factories in the North East go because we leave the SM, they cannot claim this is not our fault because we abstained on a vote that could have prevented this. Voting to stay in the SM indicates economic competence, which always matters in elections and particularly matters for Labour. 

It also seems like a political mistake beyond votes and reputation. The theory seems to be that a vote to stay in the CU, which the Lords did pass with Labour’s help, will do all the required damage to May. But there are those who argue that such a vote can help her, by giving her an excuse to ignore the Brexiters and do a deal. The Brexiters will be furious, but what can they do at the end of the day, as May can defeat any vote of confidence because Conservative Remainers do not want a leadership election. Wth UKIP dead, they have nowhere to go. May, free of the Brexiters, might even achieve a final deal by 2020 (although crossing her own red lines to do so), and fight the subsequent election as the Prime Minister who got Brexit done.

Which is a long winded way of saying that a vote on the CU may not be enough. If Labour does kill a vote on the SM, they lose another chance to cause problems for May, and this time over an issue she really does not want to lose. Put simply by doing this Labour may be passing up a chance to do great, and possibly terminal, damage to May’s leadership. So the Lords decision looks bad in terms of votes, and bad in terms of politics.

Perhaps most importantly it is also bad in principle. Staying in the SM as well as the CU is the right thing to do if someone else is doing the negotiation. We need to stay in the SM for goods to avoid a hard border in Ireland, and therefore to get a deal with the EU. But the UK is really strong in exporting services, so leaving the Single Market for services is just another act of self harm. I have always been worried, since my time on Labour’s EAC, that the leadership underestimated the damage leaving the SM could do. And if truth be told the Leave vote was won on false pretenses, which means few voted Leave thinking they would be poorer. Which is why there is no mandate to leave the Single Market.

To those who say that Labour have to appease those who voted Leave in our traditional heartlands I would say this. Past Labour leaderships have for many years neglected their traditional heartlands, partly in efforts to appeal to the middle class and partly by embracing neoliberal ideas. They have subsequently tried to win back their traditional base through appeasement over immigration. It did not work then, and it will not work now with Brexit. You win Leavers back to Labour by focusing on the economic issues that matter to them, and not by votes in the House of Lords. 

Appeasement over Brexit is a mistake because Labour alienates its base, just as happened with austerity and immigration. It is time Labour stood up for its principles, which include better public services. Leaving the Single market will mean less money for public services [2], which is why 87% of Labour party members want to stay in the Single Market. Leaving the Single Market is a policy that should be opposed, not enabled.  

Postscript: The Lords amendment was passed by 247 votes to 218. 83 Labour and 17 Conservative peers defied their party and voted for the amendment. Only 3 Labour peers voted against the amendment. Jeremy Corbyn now has to decide whether he regards leaving the Single Market as more important than inflicting what could be a mortal blow to Theresa May. 

[1] We need to dispense with one red herring here. Abstaining does not mean neutrality. If the Lords amendment succeeds it puts the issue on the table, and Conservative rebels think they have the vote to support it with Labour’s support in the Commons. If it fails, it is less likely to be resurrected in the Commons. To say that the EEA option is not Labour's preferred option is irrelevant because they are not in charge and they have limited influence on the outcome. This vote is one point of influence, and they have gone for the worse option. 

[2] Whether they intended it or not, the writings of MMT seem to have convinced many people responding to me on twitter that lower UK GDP has no implications for the level of UK public services. Lower GDP, caused by lower labour productivity because Brexit diminishes UK trade, reduces the resources available to go to private and public consumption. The only way you can avoid less resources going to public consumption is to cut those going to the private sector. Nothing in that statement contradicts or can be changed by anything in MMT theory. If resources are underutilised they should be fully utilised, whether we are in or out of the EU. This is not about utilisation of resources. 

Saturday, 5 May 2018

How to spot fraudulent economic arguments: an example from Lexit

When I last talked about Lexit, I said Lexiter arguments had “many structural similarities to right wing arguments for Brexit.” In this post I want to go further and suggest ways you can spot when economic arguments are fraudulent, using an article by Thomas Fazi and William Mitchell advocating Lexit as an example. To show how generic the tactics are, I will demonstrate how exactly the same techniques were used by those who argued for austerity.

The first sign that the wool is being pulled over your eyes is wildly exaggerating your opponents case. It is so much easier to attack a straw man. This particular article talks about the “Left’s anti-Brexit hysteria” i.e anyone who disagrees with us is acting hysterically. They talk about those opposing Brexit predicting “Brexit Armageddon”. The tactic works particularly well if you can find an example of someone who did exaggerate their case, and focus on how their fears have not come to pass.

I am very familiar with this tactic from the UK in 2013. From 2010 to 2012 growth was very low, and the expected recovery from the Great Recession did not materialise. People like myself blamed austerity, and we were quite right to do so. But some in 2012 made the foolish claim that the economy will never start growing again unless austerity came to an end. So when growth returned to trend in 2013, proponents of austerity used those claims to announce the critics were wrong and austerity had been vindicated. The example that Lexiters and Brexiters alike use is of course the Treasury short term post Brexit forecast.

That forecast was not about the longer term impact of Brexit, but uncertainty about the prospect of Brexit. It overestimated the immediate impact of Brexit. But the real question is not whether forecasts were wrong, but whether the Brexit announcement and subsequent uncertainty has damaged the UK economy. The article says the economy is still growing, and quotes some other selected statistics, implying all is fine. They do not mention that we have gone from the top to the bottom of the international growth league. Of course they cannot avoid acknowledging that sterling fell sharply on announcement. However they say but this has not destroyed the British economy: another straw man (who ever seriously said the depreciation would destroy the economy?!), and no mention of what the depreciation did do, which is cut the real incomes of workers. The debate over whether Brexit uncertainty has harmed the economy is over, as no one seriously thinks it has not. 

A second sign of a fraudulent argument is to focus on a single study that supports what you want to say, and ignore all the rest. The Brexiters have Minford of course, but Lexit have the study by Coutts, Gudgin and Buchanan (CGB) published by the Centre for Business Research (CBR) at Cambridge. Those advocating austerity had two well known papers: one suggested there was empirical evidence that high government debt reduced growth, and the other that austerity was expansionary. In all these cases the studies are outliers, so you need some reason why the majority of academic work can be discredited.

This leads to a third tactic: tar academic work that goes against what you say with some broad assertions that have only a grain of truth. If your audience has a political bias, play to it. With austerity it was that those against austerity were old fashioned Keynesians who just wanted a larger state. (Some were, but most were just using a much more modern Keynesian framework and its macroeconomics implications.) The way this paper does the same with the many studies that have suggested Brexit will be harmful in the longer term is so laughable I have to quote it:
“The neoliberal biases built into these models include the assertion that markets are self-regulating and capable of delivering optimal outcomes so long as they are unhindered by government intervention; that “free trade” is unambiguously positive; that governments are financially constrained; that supply-side factors are much more important than demand-side ones; and that individuals base their decision on “rational expectations” about economic variables, among others. Many of the key assumptions used to construct these exercises bear no relation to reality.”

It will be news to most trade economists whose work is the basis of the long term case against Brexit that they are assuming things like governments being financially constrained and rational expectations. A key part of why Brexit is a bad idea is the gravity equation, which says trade is more likely to take place with neighbouring countries. It is a robust empirical relationship that makes no assumptions about governments or markets at all. [1] The article pours scorn on the ‘neoliberal’ idea that openness to trade is good for the economy, and again neglects to say that the relationship linking openness to productivity growth is also empirical, not theoretical.

Another tactic that if you see being employed you should start to worry is to impugn the motives of your opponents. That may be a common enough tactic in political discourse, but not if you are trying to make a serious economic argument. It is notable how academic economists who have criticised the Brexit work of Minford for example do not try and suggest he is ideologically motivated. Being good academics they instead question the model he uses (e.g. no gravity) and how he uses it. That is what should be done. But this article tries to discredit the current government’s analysis of the impact of Brexit by implying the results have been fiddled to produce large numbers for the long term costs of Brexit. They write:
“The models are notoriously unreliable and easily manipulated to achieve whatever outcome one desires. The British government has refused to release the technical aspects of their modeling, which suggests they do not want independent analysts examining their “black box” assumptions.”

Apparently the current UK government do not want us to see their workings because if we did we could see how they had fiddled results to make Brexit look bad. The attempt in this case is again laughable, because this government is pro-Brexit so any fiddling would go the other way.

All these four signs are easy to spot. The fifth is less obvious to the non-expert, which is to inconsistently use lots of broad brush statistics that do not get the heart of the issue, or which are problematic for other reasons. For example in arguing that Brexit has had as yet little impact on the economy they quote unemployment data, just as the government did from 2013 to argue that the economy was strong as a result of austerity. It is problematic because strong employment growth coupled with weak output growth means poor productivity. As I noted here, current productivity growth performance in the UK is worse than it has been for centuries.

In terms of broad brush statistics, they argue that GDP growth has been weaker rather than stronger than post-war trends as a result of EU membership, as if nothing else had been going on in all these years. The reality is that we joined the EU in part because our post-war growth and particularly productivity was worse than most other countries, and from the 1980s onwards it has if anything been better than other major countries. But why look at GDP rather than exports, where you would expect the impact of EU membership to be clearer. In fact the CGB study they quote from extensively does exactly this, and the following chart shows the results.

The benefits for UK exports of being in the single market are clear from this data. (To see how the CGB study erroneously avoids this conclusion, see here.)

There are of course plenty of Brexit specific points as well (the article does not even mention the Irish border), but this post is long enough already. I wrote it because it struck me when reading the Fazi and Mitchell article how similar its rhetorical devices were to those of many who tried to sell austerity. So if you read anything that wildly exaggerates the opposing position, focuses on a single academic study and ignores the rest, particularly if it suggests that there is some generic problem with these other studies which may include the motives of those who did them, and if it uses broad brush statistics when it could have used data that was more relevant, beware that you may be reading a piece of political persuasion rather than serious analysis.

[1] The confusion is compounded when they quote Paul Romer’s criticism of macroeconomics, and then drop the macro bit to pretend that Romer was talking about the whole of economics.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Why was economics so insular?

Noah Smith has a good piece on what seems like the never ending stream of popular articles in the UK slagging off economics (or economists). Here I outlined three potential reasons for this epidemic: people do not understand unconditional macro forecasts, politicians from the right do not like economists spoiling their pet schemes (e.g. Brexit), and many heterodox economists from the left wage endless war against the mainstream. All these complaints get airtime when the economy is bad.

The UK economy, right now, is perhaps in a worse state than at any time in the last eighty years. As John Lewis shows in this Bank blog, productivity growth has perhaps never been as bad as it is now: we have to go back to before 1800 to find anything comparable.

The natural reaction when the economy is bad is to criticise economists. That was what happened after the Global Financial Crisis, with some justification. But what is happening in the UK right now is mainly a result of first austerity and then Brexit. As I explained in detail in my earlier post, if we had followed the advice of mainstream economics austerity and Brexit would not have happened. [1] I have as yet not read a single critique of economics that has pointed that fact out, which if you think about it is extraordinary.

There is a little more to say about why economics is an easy target. Historically it has been very insular, and in this respect quite unlike other social sciences. I have already discussed the paper by Haldane and Turrell in the OXREP Rebuilding Macroeconomic Theory volume on Agent Based Models, but I did not have space to show an interesting chart from the introduction to that paper.

It tracks citations in papers to those in other disciplines. Until around 2000, there was no doubt which was the most insular discipline: economics. This is no surprise to me and I suspect most social scientists.

The paper does not explore the reasons why economics is so self-referential: their aim is simply to suggest that it needs to look to other disciplines to see what methods they use. Here I want to sketch why I think mainstream economics (and here the qualification mainstream is required) is so insular.

I once gave a lecture course on the methodology of economics, and in one lecture I used a large blackboard to describe how nearly all economics can be derived from the basic axioms of rational choice. For example the modern macroeconomics of consumption is just the choice between buying apples or pears transformed to the choice between consumption at different times. In that sense economic theory is like an immense tree, where every branch deductively builds on this core. Sometimes large branches grow by adding new elements, like asymmetric information, which then becomes part of the tree and can be used by other branches. This deductive tree of economic theory did not grow all by itself: its growth was and is influenced by the real world problems it wanted to address.

In using the idea of explaining decisions by optimising welfare under constraints economists have created a whole series of widely applicable tools. Economists naturally think about opportunity costs, adverse selection, moral hazard, incentives etc. There is something distinctive about thinking like an economist. To say, as Tom Clark does here, that sometimes this is just formalising common knowledge may be true (see also Cahal Moran here), but in many cases it is not. Try persuading someone who has invested in what is now a sub-optimal project about sunk costs.

This body of theory includes the neoclassical economics that heterodox economists and others love to hate, but it also includes game theory that has applications well beyond economics, and more. In my first year of studying economics I was told in some lectures that this whole endeavour was a huge ideologically driven misstep, but I began to see it differently after reading this famous 1963 paper by Arrow. It shows why (asymmetric) uncertainty in the health service means that the standard competitive model just cannot work for medical care. That may be obvious to us in the UK but it appears otherwise to many in the US. To be fair Clark also acknowledges that this economic theory has produced positive successes: he mentions auction theory but there are many more.

As to ideology, if you want an effective critique of neoliberalism you have to use economics (see, for example Colin Crouch’s book on neoliberalism or this by Dani Rodrik). So many critiques of economics use a kind of bastardised version that insists that workers are always paid their marginal products that the political right also employs. But monopoly and monopsony power are also part of the deductive tree. A paper I like to refer to in this context is by Piketty, Saez and Stantcheva (discussed here) which uses a simple bargaining model to show how cutting the top rate of tax can increase pre-tax CEO pay.

There is nothing like this deductive tree in other social sciences, and I think it at least partly explains why economics used to be so insular. As non-economists academics seemed to add little to building on this theory, there seemed little point in collaborating or even citing them. But, from the point of view of other disciplines, it was worse than that. Economics could also be imperialistic. Its methods, both theoretical and empirical, could be applied to other fields (with varying degrees of success): here is David Hendry applying his econometric methods to climate change, for example. So not only did economists not talk much to other social sciences, they trod on toes as well.

But although there may still be important branches to be added [2], the limitations of what you can do with a few axioms about rational choice have led in recent years to economics becoming much more empirical, and much less tied to this deductive theory. (See the article by Noah Smith which began this post. Unfortunately in my view an exception to this trend so far is macroeconomics.). We can see this in the citations data above, and the most obvious manifestation is behavioural economics. But a more immediate example of a data rather than theory based idea is the gravity model in international trade, which lies at the heart of why Brexit is such a bad idea. It is irony indeed that just at the point at which we have all these articles attacking economics, a large number of people who believe the UK is committing a large act of self harm are seeing the virtue of just one small part of what economists do.

Having said all this, I think there is an unfortunate hangover from this insularity. As a discipline economics shows little interest in communicating its core knowledge to others [3]. This can be true both within academia and with the outside world. Within academia publishing in top economics journals still has far higher status than top journals in other disciplines. When it comes to policy and the public, there is a belief among many that when either requires our wisdom, they will seek out the best of us for advice. In part this epidemic of articles about the failings of economics reflects this communication failure. More importantly, both Brexit and Trump should be a wake up call that economists as a collective has to get better at communicating the core insights of economics.

[1] There are of course more underlying problems behind the UK productivity crisis beyond the negative shocks of austerity and Brexit. But economists overwhelmingly argue for more R&D spending and more public investment. In short if you want someone to blame for why the UK economy is currently in such a dire state, blame those who have ignored the advice of economists.

[2] Most of the good criticisms that I see of economics amount to requests to add to the tree. But economics is so rich that most things are possible. In part (but only in part) what is done follows the money: you will find it relatively easy to get money for work on free trade compared to work on rent seeking. To blame economists for that is just bad economics. As economists found out after the financial crisis, they had many tools to understand what had happened, but had just not applied them before the crisis.   

[3] I say as a discipline because I mean economists as a collective, not as individuals. There is no equivalent institutional infrastructure in economics to that built by the hard sciences. Of course many individual economists do their best, but there are also others who ignore the consensus to plug their own personal ideas or to further some political or ideological cause.