Have economists learnt nothing from the crash? Three fallacies that persist

It is approaching ten years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers. To most people this is when the great financial crash started, since it is from this point that the most serious repercussions started to take place. Personally I date it from the collapse of interbank markets more than a year before, but never mind. What was so shocking about the crash was that so few trained economists foresaw it. Or, lest anybody mistake that for mere criticism of forecasting skills, how so many economists aided and abetted the forces that destabilised the financial system, or at any rate, did nothing to head the crisis off. Ten years on and I am starting to wonder whether we are unlearning the lessons of the crash, and relearning the complacency that let it happen.

What shook me was an article in the Financial Times by long-standing correspondent Martin Sandhu - the devasting cost of central banks' caution. His suggestion is that central banks were too cautious in the aftermath of the crash, and as a result the recovery has been stunted. What struck me about this article is how heavily it is based on the economic conventional wisdom that helped cause the crash in the first place. It is as if economists like Mr Sandhu had learnt nothing at all. In particular it is based on three persistent fallacies that should by now be well and truly exposed.

Fallacy 1: the pre-crash trend growth rate was real and sustainable

Economics is a numerical discipline, and economists are more than usually susceptible to the delusion that numerical measures are more real than the complex world they describe. One case in point is something called the "trend growth rate". This is an average rate of growth taken over a long period of time. By its nature it does not vary much from year to year, but before 2008 it had been remarkably consistent in developed economies, at about 2% per annum. After the crash it fell, and a new, much lower trend has established itself. Mr Sandhu's contention is that the pre-crash trend was ordained by the laws of physics, and that the decline must represent a policy failure - which he lays at the door of central banks. The gap between where the economy is now, and where it would have been had the pre-crash trend persisted, is now very big - and it is the "devastating cost" of the article's title. This is a persistent idea, which I have heard from Mr Sandhu's FT colleague Martin Wolf too, though I suspect that he is starting to wake up to the truth. You also hear it from some left wing commentators who lay the blame at the door of "austerity" rather than central banks.

The persistence of the trend before 2008 is all the evidence that many macroeconomists need that it must represent some natural law: the steady advance of technological change on productivity. They did not think it was their job to ask more penetrating questions. But the cracks were showing well before 2008, and had economists spotted this, they would have seen that instead of the world continuing on its steady course, the risk of an economic crash was building up. The crash blew away froth that had been accumulating in the years before.

There are several aspects to this, and I will try to be brief. First is that the sort of productivity growth that economists fondly believed is happening everywhere, was always confined to fairly narrow sectors of the economy, and those sectors are themselves narrowing. In particular it applied to agriculture and manufacturing: industries where you produce stuff and ship it. And yet the importance of these industries to developed economies is steadily diminishing, in a phenomenon called the Baumol Effect that is taught in Economics undergraduate courses, and which should have been no surprise. The true drivers of a modern economy are in services such as healthcare, where technological advance does not tend to advance productivity in the sort of way that is captured by economic statistics.

Second, in the ten years up to 2008 much of the rate of growth depended on globalisation, and in particular the use of cheap labour in the developing world, notably China. This was strikingly evidenced in the fact that the prices of many manufactured goods actually fell in the period. This was not a case of advancing productivity: it was the exploitation of another basic economic idea whose implications few modern economists actually seem to understand: that of comparative advantage. The problem is that where this arises because the developing world is catching up with the developed world these gains are temporary and actually go into reverse eventually. That was what was starting to happen before 2008 as Chinese wage costs relative to American and European ones started to close. It was not sustainable.

And third, much of the growth, especially in Britain, depended on industries whose economic benefits were actually doubtful, and where productivity measures are similarly flawed. Two sectors stand out. One is finance; not only are the actual benefits to human well-being from its output hard to understand, but much of the reported income turned out to be downright false. That is the main reason why the crash had such a drastic effect on GDP figures in 2009, as bank bailouts were needed to replace non-existent assets created by this fictitious income. That should be reasonably obvious, though I'm surprised by how few commentators pick this up. More subtle is the problem with a second sector reporting productivity growth: business services. This is things like lawyers, accountants, consultants and architects - particularly important in Britain. The problem here is that these do not provide services to end users but to other businesses. Which leads to the question, how can you say that these industries were becoming more productive when there is so little evidence of productivity gains in the industries they were advising?

Fallacy 2: consumer price inflation is the main evidence of unsustainable growth

In the 1970s developed economies overheated, and this led to an inflation price spiral, as consumer prices and pay rates chased each other. This wasn't supposed to happen under the Keynesian economic regime that most of the world used at the time, because unemployment was increasing too. This was a huge shock to the economics profession (a much greater shock apparently than the 2008 crash), which led to a brand new policy framework. This led to an obsession with consumer price inflation. If you keep this at some Goldilocks level, of between 1% and 3% per annum, then nothing too much could be going wrong, people thought. This was made the sole performance target for many central banks, as it meant that economies were neither overheating nor underperforming. Other things, like the level of bank lending, asset prices and balance of payments imbalances didn't really matter. This was central to the neo-Keynesian consensus.

If this was ever valid, it was rendered obsolete by the advance of globalisation in the 1990s and 2000s. Wages became detached from consumer prices. Capital flowed freely between the world's economies. Especially in Europe the movement of labour from one country to another became freer. There were many ways an economy could overheat without consumer price inflation becoming affected. Asset prices (real estate, shares or even bonds) could inflate into bubbles; dangerous levels of unreal assets could build up within the financial system; a destabilising level of migrants could cross borders. All of these things happened in Britain in the run up to 2008, and yet because inflation remained in the Goldilocks position people thought everything was fine, and that all these other things would just sort themselves out. Many still believe this; it is one of the few things that unites all factions of the Labour party, which was in power at the time. Likewise Mr Sandhu persists in suggesting that consumer price inflation was all that central bankers needed to worry about after the crash - and because it has shown no sign of taking off, there has been plenty of scope to pump things up.

Fallacy 3: monetary policy is an effective way of regulating demand

This was another part of the neo-Keynesian consensus. Prior to this the conventional wisdom that fiscal policy (taxes and public spending) was the best way to help a flagging economy or cool an overheating one. But after the failures of the 1970s it was felt that this got too tangled up in politics to be effective, and would lead to an excessively big state. Instead the job could be given to central banks, through changes to interest rates and other things like Quantitative Easing. These things were referred to as monetary policy, conjuring up the quaint image (not discouraged by economists) that it was about the printing of banknotes.

And yet this idea has not stood up to the test of time. Quite apart from the fallacy of using inflation as the main performance indicator, monetary policy affects many other things than consumer demand, and in fact has led to a build up of dangerous levels of private debt. The political pressures to keep interest rates low, especially if inflation is low, quickly become unbearable. And not just political pressures. Increasing interest rates can destabilise the banking system. Such increases may have provoked the pre-crisis in 2007 that in turn led to the main crisis. Monetary policy has no brakes.

Here the left wing critics of economic policy, who think that fiscal policy should do more of the work of regulating demand, are on stronger ground. But would politicians have the guts to tighten fiscal policy when needed? The vehemence of left wing criticism of austerity, and their denial that the pre 2008 economy was overheating, suggest that fiscal policy too lacks effective brakes.

Are we heading for a new crash?

There are some worrying signs, with the build up of private debt, and with reckless fiscal policy in the US. But we are not seeing the same reckless advance of "financial innovation" that proved so devastating ten years ago. Not in the developed world anyway: China looks a bit different, though the awareness of the central authorities there is a strong contrast to the denial of many western leaders before 2007.

But some trouble is surely ahead. Perhaps then economists will start to break out of their bunker and start viewing the world as it really is, instead being a construction of outmoded statistical aggregates.

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Boris Johnson raises the spectre of Islamophobia

I was going to observe a dignified silence over British MP Boris Johnson's latest stunt. His aim was to gain attention and notoriety, and I didn't think he deserved any help from me. But with a week gone and the story still being run prominently by BBC Radio 4, my silence must be broken.

The stunt was Mr Johnson's regular column in the Daily Telegraph, published last Monday. I haven't read it, and I don't intend to. Nobody disputes three salient facts. First that its subject was the banning of face-covering garments in public places, recently enacted by other European countries, such as Denmark. Second that Mr Johnson said that such bans should not be enacted here, based on good liberal logic. And third Mr Johnson expressed his dislike of such garments as worn by some Muslim women (the niqab, the face covering with a slit for the yes, and the burqa, a total body covering) by making two derogatory comparisons. Unlike the BBC, who do so at every possible opportunity, I will not repeat these here.

Deliberately or not, this was a very clever piece of work. The first fact allows Mr Johnson to claim that the article is part of an ongoing and legitimate political debate, and the second that his views on the subject are liberal. But the third picks up on public hostility to women who wear the burqa or niqab. It was what attracted all the attention, drawing condemnation from Muslim members of the Conservative Party, and admiration from those with less liberal views, and those who think Muslims have no place in this country. The timing was impeccable. The BBC had just given wall-to-wall coverage to the Labour Party's troubles with antisemitism, so they could hardly downplay coverage of the story without being accused of bias. And, comfortably into August, there has not been much competing news; even the drought was abated by some welcome rain. Also Mr Johnson was on holiday, so he could evade interviews. As a politician that loves attention, things could hardly have gone better.

Could it damage him politically? That's hard to see. His liberal comments allow him to maintain injured innocence; the people who are condemning him were by and large hostile to him anyway. Brexit supporters have stuck with him. And large parts of the white British middle and working classes are hostile to Islam, and his derogatory comments resonated well. This is especially true of Conservative grassroots members, who most suspect are the main audience he had in mind. Mr Johnson surely wants to take over from Theresa May as party leader and Prime Minister. That ultimately depends on a vote by party members, should Mrs May step down or be forced out (not to be taken for granted). He is maintaining his already high standing with the grassroots. His main difficulty is his weak standing with MPs, who must pick the top two candidates for the membership vote. But his charisma far outshines potential rivals (except Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose standing among MPs must surely be even weaker) and he may yet be able to pick a path through that minefield.

The context is very depressing. Islamophobia is rife in Britain, as it is in most of Europe. Even respectable people can be heard saying that Islam is a repressive ideology, and alien to traditional British or European culture. Many people are open about this in a way that they are furtive about antisemitism - a bit like antisemitism in the 1930s. This is a remarkable turn of events. The British Empire included many Muslim subjects, who were recruited into the armed forces (especially in India) as they were considered to be good soldiers. These were then brought over to Europe to defend the homeland in both world wars. I remember my cousin, a senior colonial administrator in British Sudan, speaking warmly of Muslims.

It is not all that hard to see how the modern hostility came about, though. Militant Islamic terrorism, especially after the 9/11 attacks, is one reason. Muslims may regard these groups as nutters on the fringe of their society, but Islam is central to their identity, and they comprise a large part of what ordinary British people know about Muslims. And, over the last 50 years, there have been high levels of immigration from Muslim countries, especially Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many people feel threatened by immigration, which becomes a scapegoat for modern ills generally. Many of these Muslim groups are conservative and have made little attempt to integrate. People find women dressed in the niqab or burqa, though rare, especially provocative. I have to confess that I'm not comfortable with them either - it seems insulting somehow. The real problem with Mr Johnson's comments is that they will invite even more people to abuse these women in public. Indeed that seems to be exactly what has happened. Since the Brexit rebellion, hostility to all groups of immigrants has risen, and this has broken out into public abuse more often. It is why we all have to be careful in what we say.

Meanwhile most Muslims are good, law-abiding citizens, and harmonious integration proceeds apace. The fears of Islamophobes are fantasies. And yet it is these good citizens that will suffer the most. Mr Johnson well knows this (his family has Turkish roots after all), but he is happy to exploit anti-Muslim prejudice.

There are parallels with antisemitism. Just antisemitism disguises itself as perfectly legitimate criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, so Islamophobia masquerades as criticism of extremist terrorists, or conservative social customs, such as the niqab. Legitimate topics for political debate get subtly subverted. Mr Johnson's subversion was particularly subtle - he just poked a bit of fun. Unfortunately this makes these legitimate topics harder to discuss.

So the anti-liberal backlash continues. I still believe that it will peak in Britain and other countries, and then turn. Partly this will be because the anti-liberals will be unable to deliver anything of actual value. But also I hope that liberals will buck up their ideas about how to help, and appeal to, left-behind people and places. Meanwhile we must call out prejudice when we see it.

 

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Amid the noise about no-deal, a blind Brexit is being put in place

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The quality of political debate in Britain is hitting new lows. The politicians are  not interested in helping us understand what is going on, just in promoting some half-true story or other. 'Twas ever thus. What has changed is that challenge from journalists and commentators is weaker. Most media are promoting their own agendas. The BBC tries to be better, but it just presents one fiction, compares it to the alternative fiction being offered, and retires. Few are interested in talking about what is really happening.

The current talk about a "no deal" Brexit is a case in point. On the one hand, business groups are worrying that this will lead to an Armageddon on the day after exit, at the end of March next year. This is pounced on with glee by Remain supporters as a sort of "told-you-so". Government ministers simultaneously try to say that  it just won't happen, that it is the fault of EU intransigence, and that anyway no deal is better than a bad deal. Brexiteers, like the Conservative Ian Duncan Smith last weekend, just talk about something else completely. What are we to make of this all?

First of all, we have to be clear about what a no-deal Brexit actually is. We are not talking about the choice between the Single Market or WTO terms or something in between. This is what IDS, William Rees-Mogg and others change the subject to when pressed on the topic. What is meant by no-deal is, well, no deal. No trading protocols, no divorce bill, no transition period, no mutual recognition of citizens' rights, no common VAT infrastructure, no mutual recognition of standards. Just a vacuum in place of 40 years of accumulated law and regulation.

And that could be Armageddon. There would be queues at ports, empty shelves in shops, hospitals running out of medicines, layoffs in all kinds of businesses, holidays cancelled and even planes grounded at airports. Things would start to settle down in due course, but with Britain in the weakest possible bargaining position, it is very hard to see how most people aren't going to be made worse off. It is no wonder that Brexiteers don't want to talk about it. They are prone to suggesting that threatening a no-deal will improve Britain's bargaining position in the exit negotiation - a bit like threatening to walk away from a house purchase when you are making yourself homeless.

In fact, if the pro Brexit politicians were interested in intelligent engagement they could make two points. The first is that a no-deal is not in fact all that likely, because the deal is quite close to being done. The main sticking point is trying to find a form of words that will cover the EU's demands on the Irish border. The British government thinks that the current draft is politically suicidal, because it opens the possibility of Northern Ireland having some form of semi-detached status, with a strong boundary between it and the rest of the UK. Although most British people are quite chilled by that prospect, it would have devastating political consequences in the province. But a no-deal would almost as devastating for Ireland as it would be for Britain, so there is sure to be some flexibility on this. Indeed, there are already some signs of movement from the European Commission. The rest can be fudged, even if it does open up the prospect of another no-deal cliff edge when the transitional period comes to an end, on 31 December 2020. This is what the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is calling a "blind Brexit": one where the longer term relationship is unresolved. This is exactly what the UK and EU negotiators are planning.

The second point to make is that we will know if there is likely to be a no-deal later this year - probably October. After that it becomes too late for the deal to tidied up and ratified by all the bodies required to do this, for such a complex treaty, in both Britain, the EU institutions and in other EU countries. That gives perhaps five months to prepare for that cliff edge. Temporary stop-gaps can be put together for the most urgent issues: citizens' rights, air traffic, and so on. I can't see that a lot of supply chains or border facilities will be sorted out by then - the infrastructure can take years to build - so there will still be chaos at the borders and some lay-offs. But we should avoid Armageddon.

And the rest is theatre. Remainers want to build up a sense of crisis so that people seriously start to rethink the whole foolish enterprise and call it off before it is too late. They know that once we get beyond exit day it will be much, much harder to get the UK back into the EU. The government thinks it is wise to keep its head down to preserve unity within the Conservative Party and to keep the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland on board. The Brexiteer politicians (the clever ones) have probably decided that this battle is done and are getting on with the next one: which is the shape of the world on 1 January 2021. Their main concern is that any deal done on Ireland does not lock out their preferred solution, which, for now, is some sort of Canada trade deal.

Admittedly this is quite delicate. A Canada deal looks incompatible with on open Irish border, which, with Republican terrorists still active and Loyalist groups ready to retaliate, could restart an escalation of violence. But the thing is to fudge it for now and hope that the passage of time will make the problem easier to solve. Under the transitional arrangements there would be an open border until 31 December 2020.

Theresa May's government has played a weak hand quite well. At the cost of making any progress on other burning political issues, including the ones that led to the referendum backlash, she's winning on executing Brexit. She is better off without Boris Johnson and David Davis, the two ministers who resigned in a huff. It would have been better to have negotiated a deal on citizens' rights separately, and put it to bed ages ago; that would make no-deal less scary. The EU side was dead set against this - but it would have been a bonus to their own citizens, so they might have given way. Mrs May made no serious effort (or any effort at all so far as I know) to do this.

So the good news is that Brexit Armageddon is very unlikely. The bad news is that the Brexit roadshow will keep on running after 29 March 2019. I read one article recently which looked forward to the day when we could move on from Brexit to sorting out Britain's many other problems. Alas that day is still years away.

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Labour’s antisemitism row – what are the messages for the wider world?

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I haven't commented yet on the struggles of the British Labour Party with antisemitism. It is a battle between two tribes: Labour's left and the mainstream Jewish community, and it is very hard for outsiders like me to make much sense of it. And yet it is an important issue and there are implications for us all.

Of the two tribes my sympathies are much more with the Jewish community. Their case was nicely put by Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland. The Holocaust remains historically recent, and it followed a creeping growth in antisemitism in European and American society that was widely tolerated, just as some Jews worry is happening now. Sensitivity is understandable.

The hard left, from which the Labour leadership is now drawn, does not seem to understand that sensitivity. They can't utter the word "antisemitism" without quickly adding "all forms of racism". I am reminded of Tony Blair and Jack Straw, who couldn't say "human rights" without tagging on the word "responsibilities". The corrosiveness of that practice is easy to see - it suggested that even basic rights are conditional. The whole idea of the post war notion of human rights is that they are unconditional, and therefore harder for the powerful to undermine. But what's wrong with the "and all forms of racism" tag when placed alongside "antisemitism"? One issue (to the ultra-sensitive) is that it suggests that those making the accusations of antisemitism may be themselves racist. It also suggests that there is nothing different or special about antisemitism to other forms of racism.

But that isn't true on at least two counts. The first is that most racism in the developed world is directed by the politically strong against groups that are physically and culturally distinct. But Jewish people are present in all levels of society, including what Labour call "the few", and many, if not most, Jews are highly assimilated into British society. Antisemitism thus depends on making distinctions that are even more arbitrary than other forms of racism, and the invention of conspiracy theories. Directing hatred against a group who are very much part of the mainstream is particularly insidious. It promotes the idea that institutions have been infiltrated and therefore cannot be trusted. And that encourages people to undermine those institutions, such as the rule of law, designed to protect the weak against the powerful. This may not make it worse than other forms of racism, but it makes it particularly difficult to fight.

The second difference is the state of Israel, a Jewish homeland that most mainstream Jews defend on some or other level. Much of the feeling on the hard left is based on a vehement hatred of that country. That has complex roots; it starts with anti-Americanism, and draws strength from pro-Palestine Arab and Muslim activists, who ally with the hard left, and who see no reason to hide their antisemitism. This has become part of the hard left counterculture, along with support for the socialist regimes in Venezuela and Cuba, and apologism for Russia.

It doesn't help is that defenders of the Israeli government often charge critics with antisemitism unfairly. There is much that it is fair to criticise the Israeli government for, especially now that the current regime is happy to push on the boundaries of racism itself. This is at the heart of the recent controversy in the Labour Party, when the party adopted an internationally recognised definition of antisemitism, but could not accept some of the examples given in the protocol in relation to criticism of Israel. As Mr Freedland says, though, the problem isn't in the precise detail of this, but in the lack of engagement with Jewish groups before they adopted the policy. Some kind of open discussion on how to criticise the Israeli government without tripping into antisemitism would have been wise. But openness is not something the hard left values.

What are the wider lessons? Firstly it shows a lack of political judgement on the part of the Labour leadership, and the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in particular. He likes to say that he is for dialogue with groups with unsavoury views (such as the IRA or Hamas) in the name of promoting peace. And yet he seems very selective in the sort of groups that he actually engages with, and it is very hard to see how the cause of peace is being helped. This does pose questions about his fitness to be Prime Minister.

The second wider issue is that the rest of us, who are neither Jews, nor of the hard left, need to redouble our guard against antisemitism. Jews are being made to feel uncomfortable in our midst. The hard left is only part of the problem; unfortunately many Muslims from Africa and the Middle East are importing antisemitism along with other racial stereotypes. They haven't understood the implications. People from other minority racial and cultural groups should aspire to what Jewish people have achieved. But if antisemitism persists they will never be safe, even after they have achieved recognition and assimilation. So we must engage with all of society to help stamp out the conspiracy theories and prejudices that lie behind antisemitism, and in this way help the battle against Islamophobia and other insidious forms of racism that on the rise again.

And how do we react to Israel? With a great deal of care. My worry is that the current government of Israel is playing a dangerous game. It is supporting populist regimes in places like Hungary, and promoting an Islamophobic agenda.  Still, there are plenty of worse things going on in the world. Consider the Syrian civil war and the actions of Iran and Russia. Look at China's oppression of the Uighur and other non-Han peoples in Xingjiang. And the attack on Rohingya people in Myanmar. And the threats against Israel from neighbours and elsewhere are real enough too. It isn't hard to why many Jewish people feel that criticising Israel often tips over into antisemitism, even if I think that too many of them are too uncritical.

The deeper message is this: antisemitism is like the gas that kills the canary in a coal mine. It is a warning of worse to come. But fight it on the basis of tolerance and inclusion (and not on the basis of Jewish exceptionalism), and we will be fighting the whole evil of racism.

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Child Maintenance: an epic failure that should be a lesson to government

Last week The Economist published a short article about the failure of Britain's reform of child maintenance collection. The article highlights the human consequences but does to point to any wider lessons. And yet our political class needs to see what was wrong-headed about the idea, or else we are destined to keep repeating the mistake.

The original reform was in 1993, when the Child Support Agency (CSA) was set up. The problem it was designed to solve was that of absent parents (usually fathers of course) not contributing to the maintenance of their children. The idea was to replace a haphazard and costly system enforced by family courts with a centrally enforced system run by the new agency. Single parents lost the right to chase ex-partners through the courts for arrears; the agency would do that. But the CSA soon became overwhelmed, and it was closed in 2012 with arrears then amounting to £3.7bn. A new agency, the Child Maintenance Service, then took over. They are now close to writing off nearly £2bn. In many cases no serious effort has been made to collect the arrears at all. Apparently the new agency doesn't even try unless it is provided with information by the partner to whom the money is owed - a tall order for often very stretched people. The government's legal obligation to collect has been tossed into the bin, to the benefit of shirking parents, who may only have had to shrug off a standard letter or two, if that.

This is often what happens to attempts to reform public services. Reformers see a messy system involving a lot wasted or duplicated effort, and dream of something much simpler and more rational. They hope to achieve greater effectiveness at a lower cost. But the reform involves sweeping away the human efforts of, and information possessed by, many thousands of people and replacing them with a void. Failure is nearly inevitable.

This is just one example. Right now we are witnessing the slowly unfolding calamity of Britain's Universal Credit (UC) system. Even now, many people assume that is simply a good idea delayed by cack-handed implementation. They can't see that the whole idea is deeply flawed. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010 to 2015 seemed particularly vulnerable to this sort of mistake, with not just UC, but a misguided set of reforms to the National Health Service, the trashing of the probation services, and a deeply flawed idea of "payment by results" for outsourcing public services. The Prime Minister of the time, David Cameron, seems to have been particularly susceptible to such half-baked schemes (most notoriously "the Big Society"), and, to be honest, his coalition partner Nick Clegg, wasn't really any better. They were both products of a political system that did not value true administrative experience.

The previous Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown do not have such a dire record, though Mr Blair was as susceptible to the same sort lightweight thinking - for example launching the ill-directed Academies reforms of schools. Instead Labour liked to smother its reforms in layers of bureaucracy and masses of meaningless verbiage that had the effect of reserving things to an elite class of bureaucratic waffle-merchants. (You will sense some bitter memories coming through here: I bumped into this as a school governor, as well as my interest in the NHS in the vain hope of getting a job there). The Labour government's flagship identity card system was heading the same way as UC before the Coalition sensibly killed it. The problem was similar: excessive centralisation of decision-making in Whitehall, with political leaders too easily seduced by lightweight ideas from political think tanks, made flesh by armies of overpaid consultants. Implementation was always somebody else's problem. Ministers and consultants alike would move on to their next job before the consequences became apparent.

And it's not just in Westminster where such disasters occur. The Scottish Government under the SNP has been trying to centralise local services and wipe out the human interfaces by which such services work. The reforms to the Scots police services were the most notorious. Northern Ireland has its own example of astonishing incompetence with renewable energy schemes, and doubtless there are examples in Wales too. The problem infects the entire British political class. I can't see much sign of this changing. Instead I see hopes (as usual) being placed in new technology. But Artificial intelligence and machine learning will not solve the core problem that centralised institutions do not understand the problems they are trying to solve because too much of it is outside their remit.

So what direction should we be taking? Services should be drawn around the needs of individual people, allowing solutions to be tailored that will actually solve problems rather than perpetuate them. That means drawing together services related to physical health, mental health, education, social services, policing, justice, housing, benefits and so on. And that means two things in particular: empowered intermediation, and decentralised authority. In turn these almost certainly mean devolved political accountability.

By empowered intermediation I mean capable professionals meeting with services users (physically and not through IT interfaces), establishing their needs and making arrangements with the necessary service agencies to take things forward. There are plenty of examples of such intermediaries: social workers, teachers, and general practitioners. But the tendency is to disempower them, and to replace them with less skilled people with narrower briefs. The hollowing out of probation services is a particularly dire example of this. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), responsible for both UC and the child maintenance fiasco, is no so far down this culture of de-skilling that it probably needs to be abolished.

The need for decentralised authority is easier to see perhaps. In order for service providers to respond to the generalist intermediaries, they need the power to adapt flexibly. That is impossible in highly centralised administrative silos, which pin managers down to tight procedures and inflexible budgets.

That this leads to the need for greater devolved political accountability is also an obvious step. Attempts to make decentralised agencies accountable through the use of Key Performance Indicators, and the like are clearly a mistake. It is much easier to game the indicator that solve the underlying problem, which often makes things worse in the short term. This is where political accountability for the overall results should come in. But there is a trap here. It is tempting for politicians to think that political reform is the key step, and not the much harder job of re-engineering of public services into models that interact positively with users and collaborate productively. In fact devolved political administrations can get trapped in their own conservativism and become captured by local vested interests. British devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cannot be seen as an outstanding success.

And yet the failure of our public services is becoming more apparent. For now "austerity" gets the blame. I live in hope that people will start to understand that the issue is much deeper.

 

 

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Can Theresa May do a Robert Peel? The tension on Brexit mounts.

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I like to tout my record in predicting the direction Brexit takes. My current prediction is that Britain will leave on 29 March 2019, with a deal of some sort in place, and the prospect of a relationship with the EU something like the one Turkey has: a customs union for agriculture and goods, but not services, and no guaranteed freedom of movement. I was reasonably secure in this idea after the Chequers summit a couple of weeks ago, but the politics since has become ugly. The chances of an accidental catastrophe are rising..

The main issue at the moment is whether or not Britain is able to secure a deal that will allow an orderly exit. This will not of itself determine what the UK's longer term relationship with the EU will be (something not properly undestood by most commentators). But it will usher in a transitional period up to December 2020, during which time these details can be thrashed out. The main problem with this is the future relationship between the north and south of Ireland. The EU insists that there is no hard border between the two, and that this means some form of regulatory alignment. That either means alignment between the EU and the UK as a whole, or that Northern Ireland has a separate legal status of being half-in and half-out of the EU, and that there would be a border of some sort between it and the rest of the UK, as there is with the Isle of Man, I suppose (except that the Isle of Man is completely outside the EU). These alternatives are currently embedded into the current draft of the agreement between the EU and the UK. It looks impossible to get an agreement with the that sort of internal UK border though parliament. Besides this is a critical issue to the Democratic Unionists (the DUP) on whom the Conservative government depends for a working majority.

This brings us to the Chequers proposal - the set of principles, now in a White Paper, agreed by the Cabinet. The main intention of this is to take the threat of a border between NI and the rest of the UK out of the final agreement. This is classic "kicking the can down the road", to use the favoured cliché. People sneer at this sort of can-kicking, but it is usually the only way that big and complex deals like this can be progressed. The question now is twofold: can the British government persuade the EU to accept the fudge and to drop the intra-UK border idea, without making too many further concessions on freedom of movement, etc? And can the government get any such deal through the UK parliament? The former can't be taken for granted, but my main concern for now is the latter.

Things are looking harder than I thought. In my last post I said that the Prime Minister Theresa May had successfully faced down the closet Remainers in her party, and that she now had to face down the Brexit hardliners. In the event, after the Chequers summit, she managed only a partial victory. She has won over some powerful Brexit supporters to her compromise formula, notably Michael Gove and Dominic Raab. But there have been a number of resignations. The two cabinet ministers, David Davis and Boris Johnson, don't look to be that great a loss. They were both under-performers who would not put the work into their portfolios; Mr Johnson was actively disloyal. But there have been more competent people leaving at more junior levels, and these are coalescing around the leader of the hardline Brexit faction, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is putting up vociferous and effective opposition, supported by much of Britain's press.

How seriously should we take Mr Rees-Mogg's hardliners? The seem to command a group of about 50 Conservative MPs, with 4 sympathisers in the Labour Party and many among the DUP. This is enough to cause trouble, and plenty enough to neutralise the government's majority. But it is not enough to unseat Mrs May from the top job. They should be capable of being outmanoeuvred. And yet they are very effective campaigners. Their message that the Chequers deal is a betrayal of what people voted for in June 2016 is gaining traction amongst people that voted Leave. Once again an emotive message only loosely aligned to the facts is trumping (or Trumping?) a dryer, more intellectual argument that in fact most Leave supporters were not very clear on what it was that they wanted, and that a compromise is what a badly split nation seeks, and that besides, a sovereign parliament can always unpick it after the country is fully out in 2021. If I'm right about this then that's big trouble. Mr Rees-Mogg's 50 MPs can become a much more dangerous 150 or more. And they will be holding the Conservative Party itself hostage. Many draw a parallel with the Corn Law crisis of the 1840s, when the Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel pushed through a liberalisation of trade laws, destroying his party for a generation. Ireland featured in that debate too (the Irish Famine was exacerbated by the Corn Laws - to the total indifference of most Tories). Does Mrs May Peel's steel? Can she do a deal with opposition MPs, as Peel did? Few people think so, but she can surprise.

What makes things so hard to predict is an ideological recklessness about Mr Rees-Mogg and his supporters. They have no time for practical obstacles. They pat away all the various knotty problems with simple solutions based on fantasy (even if the other side often exaggerates the dangers) - or a dream, to use Mr Johnson's word. Mr Rees-Mogg is a fund manager, and it shows. Fund managers (a breed that I used to work with) pride themselves on vision and moving quickly. The practicalities are for the little people. That works well enough for buying and selling shares, most of the time (though I often used to have to clear up the mess when things went awry in the days before modern technology - needless to say this was neither their fault or else they'd say sorry very nicely).

They are insouciant on one issue in particular: the prospect of reaching the leaving date without an agreement with the EU - the so-called no-deal Brexit. "No deal is better than a bad deal," was a common mantra two years ago, and was used by Mrs May herself. The idea is that doing a deal with the EU was like a property transaction, where it doesn't do to look too desperate, and you should show your preparedness to walk away. But for Brexit a no-deal works two ways: it's bad for both sides. The EU is now using this tactic too, and when you look at it, they have the upper hand in any no-deal situation. In order for Britons to go about their ordinary business of importing and exporting, or even going on holiday, they would have few automatic rights. That works the other way too, of course, but the relative impact on Britain would be much higher. When interviewed about a no-deal, hard Brexiteers talk about what the impact might be after any new arrangements (under WTO terms, they say) had bedded in a few years' time, and not the scale of any short-term disruption.

The insouciance extends to Ireland as well. "We won't put up any border posts," they say, "if the Irish government does, then they will be to blame." Blaming somebody else is the thing, rather than solving difficult problems. In fact, as one commentator I read recently has suggested, the core Tory Brexiteers are probably closet English nationalists. They wouldn't be that stressed if Northern Ireland (or Scotland for that matter) drifted off. Actually I wouldn't worry about the former drifting off either, if it wasn't the prospect of communal violence sparked by working class Loyalist communities which could trip over into civil war.

And might Brexit itself fail amid this chaos? Could a parliamentary impasse lead to a fresh referendum with perhaps three choices - no deal, compromise deal or not leaving at all? Some people suspect or hope (depending on viewpoint) that this is the secret agenda of the EU side. But nobody, anywhere, is making any serious preparations for a Remain option. Trying to get it onto a ballot paper at such short notice will be hard.

My guess remains that Mrs May is able to do a Peel in the end, gathering support from enough Labour MPs to win through the parliamentary votes, and that the EU will blink when it comes to some of their red lines. But that will make for a tense endgame.

 

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The new economics: 5 new issues should we be worrying about

Last week I identified five issues we don't need to worry so much about in modern economics. Symmetry demands that I balance this with five issues that we should be worrying about more.

That's much harder because there are a lot more than five things that are very important. So I need to thin down the list. First I have excluded things that people are already very preoccupied with, such as inequality and poverty. They may be important, but I want to show how thinking needs to change. Besides I suspect that the solutions to many such issues will be indirect rather than arising from pulling them apart directly. I thought hard about whether to include environmental sustainability, or greenhouse gas emissions in particular, as this would be a really good place to start modern economic policy. But that isn't new, and many economists are already wrestling with it. What I can say is that moving away from a focus on increasing production and consumption is part of making this problem easier to solve.

And I have also exclude issues too nebulous to approach systematically. This includes the topic of human wellbeing. We absolutely need to be thinking about wellbeing, and break out of the thinking that we can use measures of income or expenditure as a proxy. But trying to construct alternative measures and focusing on them instead is the wrong way to deal with this.

Anyway here's my five:

1. Private debt

This isn't exactly a new issue, though economists have often struggled to know what to do with debt. I remember in pre-crash days (and even afterwards) people suggesting that macro-economists could ignore debt levels since all debt cancelled out - one person's debt is another's asset.  In fact debt was always at the heart of monetary policy, which has been at the heart of macroeconomic management since the 1980s.

This was when the idea of regulating aggregate demand (and the business cycle) through public fiscal policy and public debt, often referred to as "Keynesianism", went out of fashion. Instead, the theory went, you could do something similar by manipulating interest rates. A lower interest rate would encourage people to bring forward investment plans and raise demand when the economy was running slack. Likewise, if inflation looked like an issue raising the rate could rein in demand. Although this clearly meant using private debt to regulate aggregate demand, economists were very shy about saying so. They kept on talking about the money supply instead, clinging to a picture of people using banknotes to settle all their transactions, whose supply was regulated by printing presses.

It was not until the crash of 2008-2009 that serious doubts were raised about this in the economic mainstream. In fact interest rates are a very imperfect way of managing aggregate demand, and high levels of private debt create financial instability. The crash itself was more complex than that - a lot of the problem was financial institutions lending to each other to generate fees and bonuses. Low interest rates were only part of toxic mix. But most mainstream economists still seem to think that private debt is a good way to regulate demand, provided banks are sufficiently regulated.

An alternative view of debt, put forward by heterodox economists such as David Graeber (if I can call an anthropologist that), is that it is the root of all evil - an instrument whose sole purpose is to dehumanise and enslave. This idea is not without merit, but a modern economy has come to rely on debt to carry out three things in particular which are more constructive. The first is to allow businesses to invest in capital projects which in turn make the economy more productive. A second, sometimes overlooked, is to provide working capital as a lubricant that keeps the wheels of a complex economy in motion; most business to business transactions are on credit. And thirdly it allows private individuals to buy assets by spreading payment over their useful life. Debt also helps private individuals deal with temporary cash flow problems, though this can lead to serious social problems with loan sharks, and I don't think this role is an important part of a functioning economy.

But, in the developed world at least, debt is mostly used for other things than these three, and in particular it is used to support speculation, and to generate income for middle men (aka "financial engineering"). Lending to private individuals to support property purchases spills into this economically useless territory. Some suggest that easy money is creating more demand for residential property more than society really needs.

In short, private debt has a useful role to play in the economy, but at current levels it is a source of financial instability and tends to exacerbate inequality. Policymakers need to start distinguishing between useful and dangerous debt, and clamp down on the latter. Alas they show little interest in doing so.

2. Low pay

One of the features of  modern economies is the spread of low paid or insecure jobs. Economists have traditionally been pretty relaxed about this. They assume that it is a temporary problem that will rectify itself quickly, and it must be the fault of a poorly functioning labour market. But it seems to be a big problem is in the less regulated labour markets (such as the USA and Britain); the more regulated markets tend to have high unemployment instead. It is one of the driving forces behind the suspicion of immigration, and the feeling by working class people of being let down by the elite. Technological change seems to be making this worse.

But the traditional economists are right up to a point. Solving the problem is not about throwing away market economics, such as creating lots of high paid but useless jobs in the public sector, or arbitrarily high minimum wages. These would create more problems that they solve. Neither am I convinced by the fashionable idea of topping up low-paid workers income with a universal basic income. The point is to find ways of giving ordinary workers more power. Such power comes from one thing: a shortage of workers compared to the opportunities available.

The public sector surely has a role in this. An expanded public sector with meaningful and skilled jobs (teachers, nurses,social workers) may well be part of it, but the public sector does need a bit of rethinking before we can turn it into an instrument of economic engineering. I am intrigued by ideas of job guarantees to take surplus workers out of the market - though I can see many ways this could go wrong. Should lifelong liberals accept that managing immigration flows is a part of it? Maybe, but allowing workers opportunities to work in other countries may be part of the solution too. The truth is I'm pretty short of answers, but the point is that we need to be looking at ways of tilting the job market in favour of the disadvantaged, without creating either mass unemployment or pointless jobs.

3. Economic clustering

Economists have long noticed that successful businesses tend to cluster together geographically, creating a pattern of a small number of prosperous islands amid a general sea of poverty and disappointment. In Britain this is a very serious problem, and we are not alone. Various attempts have been made to address this, including regional subsidies, pushing public service institutions out to struggling regions, creating deregulated freeports, and so on. They almost always disappoint. The extra money pumped into the poor regions flows straight back to the rich ones. Meanwhile the poorer areas become hotbeds of disillusion and discontent.

Economists don't seem to be very interested in solving this problem, to judge by the articles I read in The Economist. These largely take the line that clustering improves productivity and should be encouraged. We should concrete over the green spaces in prosperous areas areas, and build more homes there - while bulldozing the empty homes elsewhere.

But what I can't help noticing is that the problem is worse in some places than in others. France and Britain, for example, but not nearly so much in Germany, extending into Austria and Switzerland, or in Scandinavia. The big difference between these healthier regions and neighbouring Britain and France is political structures, both now and historically. Greater Germany, if I may call it that, and Scandinavia, have much more decentralised political structures, going back through history. Centres of political power attract economic clusters. We need to understand that better. By reorganising our politics we may alleviate the problem. And maybe technology will one day start to undermine the current successful clusters.

4. Intellectual property

In the new economy intellectual property, such as copyrights, patents and so forth are becoming much more important. Unfortunately, the idea that such property rights over ideas is a something innate and sacred is being accepted lazily by politicians, quietly egged on by business vested interests who like to pretend they are fighting for impoverished artists and inventors. This needs some serious pushback, because intellectual property rights are being used by the rich and powerful to oppress the rest of us. It is also used by multinational businesses to manipulate profits into low tax jurisdictions.

Intellectual property rights do have a socially useful purpose - to help reward and stimulate creativity.  But they should only be as strong as necessary. I'm intrigued by the idea that intellectual property costs should not be tax-deductible (I think similarly for loan interest...). Doubtless this is too extreme to work, but there may be intermediate ideas better prospects. And what about making intellectual property non-transferable? That would stop patent trolls, an activity that no social merit at all.

4. Effective public services

This sounds obvious, but I am really struck by how few economists understand how different public services are from private ones, and how they must often be managed in a completely different way. It is no wonder that they are so badly managed. On the one hand public services have been managed without any incentives to be efficient, and becoming useless, conservative bureaucracies who have lost touch with their purpose. This is why so many of us with memories of the 1970s and 1980s are so suspicious of calls on the left to re-nationalise railways and energy services. On the other hand, if you run public services like private businesses they lose touch with their purpose in a different way. They try to avoid or pass on the difficult cases, or try to turn them into lucrative repeat business instead of solving problems; they hollow out key performance indicators so they become a meaningless game; they soon learn to manage their political masters rather than their customers.

But highly effective public service can be done (London's primary schools for example, though the current government is trying its best to undermine and destroy their achievements). Ultimately we need to understand that public services are about solving complex problems using skilled professionals that engage with their users as human beings. Creating institutions that can do that, and identifying the more from the less effective ones, is something that should be engaging economists and policymakers much more.

Conclusion

I have gone on enough. But I hope I have shown why I think that fresh thinking is needed as our society moves through its next phase of economic development.

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Lib Dem English Council: why didn’t the turkeys vote for Christmas?

Warning: this post is about the internal workings of the British Liberal Democrats. To anybody not a party member this will be of no interest, unless you want to draw some general ideas on how, or how not, to manage a political party.

Yesterday the Liberal Democrat English Council (EC) rejected a motion to implement a new constitution for the Liberal Democrats English Party, which, among other things, would have abolished the EC. I am a member of the EC and voted against the proposed new constitution. This deserves some explanation..

What is the EC? It is a group of representatives from across the party in England. Each regional party is entitled to a number of representatives based on the size of its membership. These are supposedly elected by the members of the regions, but in fact there a generally fewer volunteers than places, so it is mostly self-selected. The gathering amounts to fewer than 100 people (about 70 on this occasion), meeting twice a year in London (by the choice of its members a few years ago) for a 5 hour session. Its job is to take reports from, and put questions to, the officers of the English party, and to approve the administrative rules by which the party runs itself. It does not deal with matters of public policy because there is no English Parliament. Another party body, the overarching Federal Party, through various directly elected committees, a twice annual conference and an executive arm of paid employees, handles English policy issues.

Why have an English Party at all? The party has Scottish and Welsh "State" parties, following a long tradition in the party and its Liberal forerunner of supporting devolution to these nations (and before that to Ireland, a much more divisive issue in its time). When that devolution happened, with Scottish and Welsh parliaments, autonomous organisations in the two nations made even more sense - these entities could take on serious policy issues too.  But that left an England-shaped hole in the party's set-up, just as it does in the British constitution. The party, when it put together its constitution in the late 1980s, filled it with two levels of organisation: regional parties and the English party. The regional boundaries largely followed the arbitrary administrative concoctions the UK government used, which also became constituencies in the European Parliament. These convene twice-yearly conferences and elect executive committees. There is little policy work to do; only in London is there any kind of regional devolution to bodies that follow these regional boundaries. New "city regions" are emerging, but not in the sort of tidy way that can be used to carve up the country as a whole. The regions are of equivalent population size to Wales and Scotland (with London region being bigger, though more compact, than Scotland).

So why not give these English regions to the status of State Parties? Firstly because the Scottish and Welsh parties take great offence to the idea that English regions might have a similar status to their nations. Also because the administrative infrastructure required to keep regions on top of their responsibilities would be quite high. The Lib Dems cannot afford much in the way of professional administration staff, while the regulatory burden, from the Electoral Commission and data protection in particular, gets ever greater. And so we have the English State Party, which does things like set rules for candidate selection and disciplinary processes, and represents the English organisation in Federal Committees alongside the Scottish and Welsh parties.

And so how to ensure appropriate scrutiny of English Party officers, and represent English regions and local parties in big decisions? The regions and the Federal Party were already holding conferences twice a year, and besides such conferences often do a poor job in that sort of technical function. What is needed is something more like a local government scrutiny committee. The EC was the solution hit upon.

This leaves the party with an administrative structure that few members understand. The English party structure (and the English regions) are useless as a vehicle for promoting a serious political career, and so are left to backroom types with skills in administration but not salesmanship and explaining themselves. Every so often these structures come under criticism for being opaque and unaccountable. Following the calamity of the 2015 General Election, it was decided to review the whole thing, following an extensive consultation exercise with members. This job fell on the usual worthy suspects who did their best.

What was the aim of the review? Beyond being an expression of angst, this was never very clear. We had the usual sweet nothings about having something simpler and clearer which would allow activists to spend more time on campaigning. The proposal was to abolish the EC and its executive and replace them with committees composed mainly of regional officers, and an annual or twice-annual annual conference open to all members lasting about an hour, held in close proximity to the Federal Conference. This amounted to a gutting of the English Party and its powers being taken over by the Federal Party and the regions.

How did this look to EC members like me? It looked as if its sole purpose was to abolish the EC as an end in itself rather than to achieve any wider goal. It was very hard to see how the regions would be empowered as a result, and easy to see how the officers of the Federal Party would be. The ability of the committees and the new conference to act as scrutineers looked laughable compared to the admittedly flawed EC. So lots of people spoke against the proposal; people from further-flung regional parties (in the north and west) sounded particularly aggrieved - even those who had been part of the consultation process. The new constitution's supporters offered no serious arguments in support of it, beyond it being a bit embarrassing if the thing was voted down. The motion needed a two-thirds majority, and it failed even to get a majority. No effort had been made in advance to sell the new constitution, or wheel in respected names to support it, or indeed to provide any supporting speakers beyond the proposer and seconder. It was a study in political ineptitude.

In that it was pretty typical of the Lib Dem English party. Nobody important in the party takes it seriously, and so it is left to hard-working but worthy types, with limited political skill. This is surely an inevitability. I personally think that the current constitution is the least bad of the options in the circumstances, and that a proper case had not been made for the new one. With constitutions it is best to be conservative, and weight towards the status quo. If that leaves the structure messy and opaque, we might reflect that in politics only dictatorships are clear and tidy.

Which does not mean that things can't be improved. The disciplinary processes in particular need some careful thought. The working of the party as a whole could do with rethinking. But I don't think the intermediate structures are a major part of the problem. It is dealing with the weaknesses of many struggling local parties in an unforgiving regulatory environment; and it is trying to improve the accountability of the Federal Party, while still giving it some room for manoeuvre. The former problem is the more urgent. The Federal structures have been overhauled recently, and it is too early to write them off.

Meanwhile learn this. If you want the turkeys to vote for Christmas, you had best give them a good reason.

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The new economics: five things to worry less about

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Reading Adair Turner's lecture on the implications of robotics on the economy has been an inspiration. Following my blog last week, I want to develop the thinking to try and get a better focus for liberal policymakers.

The first point to make is that although the current kerfuffle is around the advance of machine learning and artificial intelligence, this only builds on trends that became important in the 1970s. This was when the previous spurt of growth, based on a huge expansion of consumer goods and services, was coming to an end, in the developed world at least. This I have called the the Age of Light Industry. It featured a virtuous circle of increasing consumption and the creation of middle-ranking blue and white collar jobs. Economists lazily assumed that this was the natural flow of technological progress. It broke down partly because consumption started to reach saturation (few people need two fridges), and partly because technological development became more about making businesses efficient than developing new products for consumers.

And we should not assume that advancing technology automatically makes things better for the majority. Lord Turner drew on the example of the first industrial revolution (the Age of Textiles in my schema), when technological improvements drove up productivity in agriculture and the textiles industry, destroying a lot of artisanal jobs. These jobs were replaced by lower paid and less skilled jobs, such as low-skill factory hands, or domestic servants for the newly enriched farmers and factory owners. The result was widespread destitution. Lord Turner shows sympathy for the Luddites, who are these days usually vilified, who tried to fight this trend. This was in the later 18th to earlier 19th century, and it wasn't until the later part of the 19th century that things started to get better for the working classes. This was in part because demand for factory jobs rose with the development of heavy industries (railways, mines, steel, ships, armaments, and so on). But it also arose because of political reforms, and an adjustment by political leaders about how economics had changed: for example the realisation that social security for the masses was affordable.

We need these things now: political reform, and a waking up to the new realities of economics. One way to make this point is to consider the things, central to mainstream economic policy making, that we don't need to worry so much about. Here are 5.

1. Average productivity

I don't need to say much more on this after my post on Lord Turner's lecture. Improving productivity matters for individual businesses and public agencies. But we can't expect statistics on the economy as a whole to tell us anything very useful, because new jobs are beiong created in low productivity services (think personal care) or in arms races that don't add anything overall (cyber crime; designer goods; ever bigger yachts; hi-tech weaponry).  Unfortunately this means that growth rates in the money economy are liable to be slow, which poses questions for how to fund public services and social safety nets.

2. The national debt

Two features of the new economy should change the way we think about public debt. First is that businesses generally need less capital, as more value comes from intellectual property than capital equipment. You can see this by looking at the modern giant firms: Google, Apple, Facebook and so on - and compare them with the old ones - GE, IBM, General Motors, etc. That reduces the need for business capital. Also the new economy is concentrating surplus wealth amongst a minority, who will inevitably want to save and invest much of their earnings. So the savings go up and investment opportunities go down. As Maynard Keynes would have told you, this is a recipe for recession. But government debt can fill the gap. Instead of putting their money into businesses, or fuelling property bubbles, the rich can buy government bonds instead. And while the need for business investment falls, the same can't be said for public investment - there is still plenty of call for that (schools, railways, and so on). Developed world governments are finding it comparatively easy to sustain a much higher level of debt than they previously did. Japan has led the way, as with so many aspects of the new economy. National debt there is now over 200% of GDP, when the conventional wisdom quite recently was that 90% was a practical limit. And the budget deficit is 4.7%, compared to a growth rate of 1.1%, so it's still going the wrong way, with barely a murmur from anybody.

Of course this leads to an important question, to which there remains no clear answer. When is there too much national debt? And how big a budget deficit is sustainable? Roughly speaking, when a country has to borrow in a currency other than its own, it is likely to hit trouble. Japan still doesn't; it helps that it does not need much foreign currency because it runs a current account surplus. Britain does not have that luxury, but the government still has no need to borrow in foreign currency.

This is important because governments can expand their own currency supply (unless they are in the Eurozone, another story), which gives them a useful lever in managing their debt. Clearly there are limits to how much it is wise to use this power - but those limits are not as severe as people thought..

And it makes little sense to drive down levels of government debt, which some conservative politicians like to do, or did before the era of Trump. There is much kerfuffle about it being irresponsible to let future generations pay for our current profligacy - but future generations will have access to highly productive technologies.

3. The dependency ratio (aka the demographic time bomb)

There is much worry that a higher proportion of older workers and retirees will drag down a future economy. Some suggest steps to increase the birth rate to counter this; it is also offered as a reason to allow high levels of immigration. But, as Lord Turner points out, if the new technology is destroying good jobs and creating poor ones, there is something to be said for fewer workers and a higher dependency ratio. Besides, it is not hard for people to retire later if that's what the economy needs.

4. Global trade

Even before Donald Trump decided to inflict his ideas about international trade on the world, the volume of world trade was in decline. People fret about this because expanding global trade was an important source of economic growth in the 1990s and early 2000s. But things have changed. As China's economy matures, it has less need to produce cheap exports. This is not particularly good news for developed economies, who are having to replace those cheap imports with something a bit more costly, but that is a temporary problem.

Longer term, increased automation will reduce the relative value and volume of traded goods. Traded goods are among the first things to be subject to automation. And as production gets more efficient, their value as a proportion of the total economy declines (this is the Baumol effect, a favourite of mine). So trade will be less important.

Technology develop will also reduce the need to trade in the first place. It will become easier to produce things closer to home, since cheap labour will be much less of a factor, and intellectual property is more mobile than a skilled workforce. I also have a hunch that much new technology will reduce economies of scale, making one-offs cheaper (think about 3-D printing), which undermines a nother reason for trade.

Mr Trump's trade wars are still an act of self-harm. But, a bit like his reckless approach to the US national debt, he has the forces of history on his side - a big difference between now and the 1920s.

5.Inflation

Since the 1970s economists have been obsessed with inflation. The idea was that if demand across an economy outstripped sustainable supply, inflation would result - so it was a critical indicator that things were in balance. This developed into the idea of an ideal Goldilocks rate, not too high and no too low, as a central ingredient of sound economic management. It became the key, sometimes only, target for central banks' monetary policy.

In fact the forces that determine prices and inflation are more complex than this, and new developments are taking it further from this idea. There are other ways for excess demand to play out, such as property bubbles and other forms of financial instability. One explanation for the financial crash of 2007/2008 was that excess demand, especially in both the US and the UK, had been allowed to develop, taking the world financial system to breaking point. With theirs eyes fixed on a stable inflation rate, most economists failed to see the crisis developing.

This is important, because if I am right about point 1 on national debt, there will be a temptation for governments to stoke up aggregate demand. They might think that this is perfectly sustainable if inflation remains low - but something else is likely to go wrong instead. Meanwhile an obsession with central bank inflation targets is wasted energy. Interestingly enough, the best example of this is again Japan. There the issue is that inflation is below target. But no matter what policymakers do, the effect on the rate of inflation is minimal.

Conclusion

So productivity, national debt (and budget deficits), the dependency ratio, global trade volumes and inflation don't matter as they used to. That's quite a change. What what should we be worrying about instead? I will return to that.

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Brexit: is Mrs May winning the end game?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

There are less than nine months to go before the United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union on 29 March 2019. For many Britons this is a welcome step in the fight back against liberal elites. Others, like me, feel sick at the thought of it. In the middle of all this is the UK Conservative government led by Theresa May. How is she coping? Better than most people give her credit for.

Mrs May is not the ablest among our political leaders, who are not an especially able bunch. The so-called Windrush scandal shows this, when perfectly legal and established residents of this country were harassed and even deported because of gaps in their paperwork. This has her fingerprints all over it, from her time as Home Secretary. She failed to see that this was where her policy of a "hostile environment" for illegal immigrants would lead, in spite of being warned. Without an established system for proving identity, rejected as an intrusion of Anglo-Saxon traditions, proving that you are legally here, and thus whether or not the authorities should be hostile to you, was always going to be the problem.

So for something of the complexity of Brexit, Mrs May does not look well equipped. Her start showed the same sort of lack of imagination that led to the Windrush scandal. She set three clear parameters, "red lines", for Brexit. Control of immigration; no payments into the EU budget; no jurisdiction of the European court. That seemed quite common-sense, given that all three issues played a prominent part in the referendum campaign. But the whole system of seamless trading with the EU depends on arbitration by the European Court; the EU (as do many countries, in particular India) sees immigration and trade as being closely linked; and the lubrication to make complex deals work is money. Mrs May's red lines were leading to a very hard Brexit, whereby the UK's relationship with its main trading partners would be put on the same level as, for example, the United States.

For many supporters of Brexit, especially among the political and business elite, that was the whole point of it. For them the EU is a completely misconceived exercise, and by placing it at arms length it would give the country greater freedom to engage with the rest of the world. But there are at least two major problems. The first is just how disruptive such a change would be. There is not just the question of tariffs being imposed on goods that passed over the border, but regulatory compliance, country of origin rules, and value added tax would all have to be administered there, until some sort of alternative infrastructure, not subject to the European Court, was devised. Without it a massive snarl-up would develop at borders, with motorways clogged by waiting traffic, quickly leading to supply shortages, empty shop shelves and job lay-offs. Of course this would all resolve itself in time. But the disruption could go on for a long time and wreak damage that would take years to fix. And, a bit like the financial crash of 2008, it could be very hard to get back to where the country was before.

The second major problem is Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement that established relations between the province's two main communities depended on quite a bit of fudge based on the fact that both the UK and Ireland are EU members. The most powerful symbol of this is an open border. The Irish government, and the Catholic community in the North, insist that this open border should continue after the break. How on Earth is that compatible with a hard Brexit? That this should be such a big issue drives Brexiteers mad: it looks completely disproportionate. But that Ireland should loom so large in British politics, and cause such inconvenient disruption, will surprise nobody familiar with the last five centuries of British history. After deeply flawed attempts by the British to control and colonise Ireland, the island has repeatedly come back to haunt British politics. If the Irish Brexit problem isn't solved properly there is a big risk of communal violence of some sort. Much as most Britons would like to abandon Northern Ireland, that just can't be done.

Mrs May takes both problems seriously. They are, of course, being used by Remainers to undermine confidence in the whole project. But that doesn't stop them being real. Her strategy has been to keep talking hard Brexit, while gradually softening her stance. That means some form of regulatory alignment and coordination of customs arrangements, adding up to some form of customs union, together with compromises on the European Court and the mutual rights of citizens. It is easy to despise this as "kicking the can down the road", but she is slowly outmanoeuvring both advocates of a hard Brexit, and closet Remainers who want to collapse the whole project.

The latter group, the Remainers, are now pretty much beaten. Though the idea of a further referendum (not a repeat one, you understand) is gaining hold among the public at large, together with doubts about Brexit itself, it is in Parliament that things matter. But the Remain side need enough Conservative rebels to stand their ground. They haven't. The government scored a decisive victory in recent votes which attempted to give parliament more of a say over the process. One problem is that most of these rebels need to stay in the closet, and not admit that they want to destroy Brexit. A second is that they do not wish to force a chaotic election which might let the Labour Party into power. Meanwhile, the Labour leadership will not press the government to the point of a further referendum, still less breaking off Brexit.

Mrs May's next problem will be to face down hardline Brexiteers who reject her compromises. There are at least fifty Conservative MPs who fall into this camp. But this group is being steadily outmanoeuvred. Passionate as they are, they have been unable to offer any practical solutions to the issues of transitional disruption of the economy, nor of Ireland. This group has always been backseat drivers, full of lots of clever theories about why things will be all OK, or somebody else's fault, and who think you negotiate complex intergovernmental deals in the same way that you negotiate a house purchase. There is no convincing rival plan. They seem to want to storm out of negotiations with the EU, daring them to let a "no-deal" happen, but without a viable alternative deal in mind. This lack of practicality means that they are becoming politically isolated. Dare Mrs May face them down?

What can the Conservative hardliners do? The have enough MPs to force a confidence vote in Mrs May, which would then trigger a leadership election. But surely Mrs May has the grudging support of enough MPs to win any such vote if it was called - which would then protect her from further challenges for 12 months. They could resign the Conservative whip, depriving the government of its majority. But if Labour then put forward a vote of no confidence in the government, would the rebels let Mrs May's government fall? That would either provoke a chaotic General Election, or some kind of transitional accommodation between Labour and the Conservatives to get through the last months of the Brexit negotiations. It is hard to see how either would be to the hardliners' advantage.

So, a bit like the closet Remainers, I think the attempted rebellion by the hardline Brexiteers will fizzle. That will leave Mrs May to strike the sort of fudged and muddled deal with the EU, arrived at in the last minute, which is what most international negotiation usually ends up with. There will surely be some nasty disruption as Britain's exit comes about, but not as bad as it might have been. Which would be quite a result for Theresa May.

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