Nowadays it seems to be the economists who are obsessed with the short term

The relationship between economists and politicians is often strained. It’s easy to think that economists are taking a detached view of public policy and its long term effects, while politicians simply jockey for advantage at the next election. But, strangely, that doesn’t seem to be the pattern right now. It’s the politicians who are urging short term pain for long term gain, while the economists say it can all be left for another day. It is the politicians who have a better grip on reality.

The nature of the relationship between political leaders and economists has changed as economics has evolved. I think it was President Truman in the late 1940s who said he wanted to find a one-handed economist, so fed up was he with his economic advisers saying: “One the one hand this, but on the other hand that”. He wouldn’t have that problem today: there is no species of public policy commentator that is more one-handed than an economist nowadays, so confident do they seem about what they are saying.

In the late 20th century supply-side economics took hold, after the economic traumas and stagflation of the 1970s. This held that the route to economic success was in making sure that markets worked efficiently and government expenditure kept on a tight reign. Economists bewailed the fact that their advice was so often ignored by politicians, who found their prescriptions unpalatable. Only the unelected President Pinochet seemed to take economists at their word, as he implemented a series of reforms in Chile. The expression “politically impossible” was frequently used in discussions of economics. In fact politicians, starting with Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, largely implemented the supply-side economists’ advice, but this was only really acknowledged by most economists after the event.

But things seem to have moved on again. Politicians in Europe, including Britain, are grappling with the size of government in the wider economy, and pushing ahead with supply side reforms. This is hard political work, with scant reward on offer at the ballot box. But do politicians get credit from professional economists? Not a bit of it. Instead austerity policies are blamed for anaemic growth and high unemployment. Scarcely a day goes by without some economist, like Paul Krugman, Martin Wolf or Samuel Brittan thundering away that all this is foolish and bound to end badly: looser fiscal and monetary policies are needed, and the problems of government deficits can be sorted out another day.

What accounts for this? It is tempting to conclude that there is simply a time lag in economic thinking between the academics and the politicians. In academic circles the supply-side mania has run its course. It was always incomplete, and too often, not least during the great economic crisis of 2007-09, it had very little of value to say. Neo-Keynesianism had taken hold, with an updated series of macroeconomic models designed to deal with the issues that arose in the 1970s. The politicians, perhaps, haven’t moved on.

But I think there is a different explanation. It is that the politicians are much more aware of what is really happening in our economies, and the changes that are needed, while the macroeconomists are blinded by their use of aggregate statistics. The politicians can see that there are some fundamental problems with the way their economies are functioning, especially here in Europe. The first problem is that the state has become too large and inefficient. A second is that the progressive aging of populations is progressively weakening economies. A third is that globalisation has changed the rules of economic management. I could add a fourth issue, which is that the world’s financial systems have become dysfunctional, except that I think this is confusing politicians and economists alike, and is not a driver of tension between the two.

Economists agree with this analysis of problems by and large, of course, except that I don’t think that most have woken up to the implications of globalisation, and its profound implications for the way prices and wages rates are set. What the politicians appreciate is that these problems are desperately hard to fix, and that putting off the evil day is not going to help. In particular the central problem is to shrink the state. Politically it is much easier to put through tough changes in hard times, and not when things seem to be ticking along nicely. And if you look at the political forces that seize on what the economists are saying, you will find that they are mainly those that do not see the need to shrink the state at all.

Alongside this disagreement about the best time to reform is an economic judgement. Politicians are sceptical that sustainable economic growth is at all easy to find. Many economists think back to the decade before 2007, when 2% annual growth was more or less taken for granted, and assume with a wave of the magic confidence wand, this growth will come back – and that we might even be able to make up some of the lost ground. Even now I have seen some economists who should know better projecting trend growth before the crisis, to estimate the true cost of the recession. So in the five years since the crisis, the economy should have grown by 10%, they say; in fact it has shrunk by 4% (I haven’t checked that number), so the crisis and bad economic management has cost the economy 14%! But what if that 2% tend growth wasn’t for real? What if it was simply pumped up by borrowing and trade deficits? And what if the progressive aging of the population makes sustainable growth of 2%, or even 1%, unreachable? Blinded by their aggregate statistics, not enough economists are asking these questions, and still less following through their implications. But it is all too obvious to most politicians, and businessmen, come to that.

The gap between politicians and economists isn’t helped by the fact that the former keep using government debt as the main driving force of their argument. This is politically convenient, but the economists rightly spot that it is insufficient of itself. If the economy could readily be kicked back into a 2% growth trend with a bit of fiscal pump-priming, then the debt argument would not hold water. In today’s FT Samuel Brittan accuses politicians of falling for the fallacy of composition: that whole economies work like family budgets. In fact there are deeper reasons for what politicians are doing.

There is further disagreement over investment spending. Many economists think that they have found the magic bullet. Government funded infrastructure investment can both act as a short-term fiscal stimulus while delivering longer term benefits to the economy. So why are the politicians so reluctant to spend more on capital projects, and even cut them back? And yet this is another blinded by aggregates issue. The economists’ argument only holds water if the investment projects actually deliver economic benefits. This is much more difficult in practice than it is in theory. Under the last government investing in hospitals must have looked a sure-fire winner, given the ever rising demand for healthcare services. But we are now finding, as hospitals are collapsing under unaffordable PFI debts, that it wasn’t so easy. Too often they built the wrong sort of facilities. This is situation normal. The usual result of a public sector infrastructure project is to end badly. Japan’s investment splurge in the 1990s, in similar economic circumstances, simply caused many “bridges to nowhere” to be built.

And so, in this debate, my sympathies are with our political leaders.

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Labour will subscribe to Tory cuts: the battle for the next General Election warms up

Nobody should underestimate the Labour leadership’s will to win the next British General Election, which should be in May 2015. I have been away for a couple of weeks. Before I left I was wondering what Labour’s response would be to the current government’s public spending review for 2015/2016, which will be announced later this week. It has been clear and unequivocal: they will sign up to the deep cuts in public spending that this review is designed to produce. This is breath-taking. What does it mean for British politics?

The spending review looked like a trap being set by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition for Labour. Ambitious targets for savings were set: but Labour would be left with an awkward choice. Up until now Labour has been quite happy to ride the anti-cuts anger. Public sector workers, and many people relying on benefits, and others in the general ecosystem which they inhabit, are livid. Many workers with young families and mortgages are losing their jobs and facing steep cuts in pay. This anger has been fuelled by a myth: that cutbacks in public expenditure were unnecessary and motivated by Tory ideology, with the treacherous Lib Dems meekly giving in so that they can play with the toys that being in government gives them. This myth seemed to be supported by a whole army of economists saying that the pace of the governments austerity policies was undermining growth and making things worse. The Labour leader Ed Miliband and the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls did not quite subscribe to this view if you read their words carefully. But they dog-whistled full support. Every cut was opposed angrily; they used the slogan “too far, too fast”, and mercilessly criticised the government for the negligible rate of growth in the economy, which they put down to its austerity policies. There was a studied vagueness about what they would actually do themselves.

But the 2015/16 expenditure review presented a challenge. According to the anti-cuts movement, the best thing would be to reject it out of hand, promise to reverse the cuts in large measure, so as to stimulate the economy and set off a virtuous circle of growth that would restore government finances and get the economy back to where it was in 2008, before the bankers’ sabotage act and global crisis got started. But if Labour did this, or even if they continued with the ducking and weaving, they would be open to a counterattack: Labour will put up your taxes. And the signs are that most people do not accept the anti-cuts narrative, and are hard-pressed financially – so not in generous mood when it comes to tax rises. No doubt the memory of 1992 haunts Labour’s leaders, when Labour lost a very winnable election after the Tories attacked them in the last week with a campaign based on “Labour’s tax bombshell” by hyping up the vaguenesses in Labour’s plans. But signing up to the coalition’s cuts would be hard too. It makes the manufactured anger about their impact difficult to sustain. Many of their supporters will feel betrayed.

But sign up to the coalition’s plans, with a bit of trimming here and there, is exactly what Labour have done. First in a speech by Mr Balls, and then this weekend by Mr Miliband himself. The message in the media has been very clear. I don’t know how it is going down in Labour’s activist base. Polly Toynbee, who often rallies to the anti-cuts cause, seems be showing resigned acceptance, while hoping than the party will come up with other ideas that will motivate the left. It isn’t exactly a U-turn. The narrative is that the economy, after the coalition’s poor management, is now so weak it cannot support more spending. This is weak fare indeed, and only shows that Labour had in reality accepted the bulk of the coalition’s austerity plans, subject to really very minor variations (like a temporary VAT cut).

The political calculation is clear. The angry brigade have nowhere else to go than Labour. Lib Dems may feel vindicated by Labour’s stance, but their previous public sector supporters will still not forgive them, except maybe in hard-fought marginal seats where they are up against the Tories. Britain’s two party electoral system means that elections are won by wooing floating voters. And these seem convinced by the case for austerity, even if, like Ms Toynbee, you blame this on the relentless right-wing press and the TV coverage that tamely follows in its wake.

The battle ground for the 2015 election is getting clearer. It won’t be about whether there should be cuts, but on where they should fall. For somebody like this blogger who accepts the basic logic of austerity economics in the UK, that should take the political debate into interesting and constructive territory. But others will feel disenfranchised and betrayed. Things are warming up.

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