Productivity statistics expose deep weaknesses in theoretical economics

I hadn’t intended to post for another couple of weeks, but this article in the Financial Times is too good to miss. It tackles one of the central issues in modern economic debate: why productivity growth is so slow. Productivity lies at the heart of the conventional view of public policy – and yet it is very poorly understood. This article sheds light on what is happening in the UK – and it should give politicians and economists pause.

Productivity is in principle a very simple idea. It is the amount produced by a unit of labour in a unit of time – the number of widgets per person per hour, for example. This immediately conjures up a clear mental picture of a factory producing cars, say. Count the number of cars produced, and the number of hours of labour required and it is easy-peasy, surely? Alas in a modern economy  it is a much more difficult idea. What if your car factory is producing both Ford Fiestas and Mondeos, and switches to the smaller car? Has productivity gone up if more are produced? And how do you distinguish product enhancement from inflation?  And then there are problems treating capital outputs and inputs, research and development, and so on. In the end the productivity measured across an economy is a bit of a balancing figure, as we accountants would call it – or a bit of a dustbin – what’s left when you’ve taken everything else out. It is just a number relationship without a coherent meaning in its own right. It is not like the concepts that physical scientists are used to dealing with – such as the temperature and pressure of a gas. Macroeconomics is heterogeneous, to say nothing of being subject to capricious social forces that tend to corrupt all attempts at measurement.

Now, what is the productivity puzzle? It is that productivity growth, as measured by macroeconomic statisticians, has slowed markedly since 2008, when the financial crash caused a dislocation in measured income. This applies to all developed economies, but to the British economy most of all – UK productivity growth, according to the article, fell from 1.6% per annum before 2008 to just 0.3% after. This has profound implications, since in the long term productivity growth is what drives income per head, alongside the average hours people work (influenced strongly by workforce participation – such as how many women are in paid employment). And this drives tax revenues, from which public services are funded. Since we assume that quality of life is mainly driven by income, and that public services can constantly be enhanced by extra spending (apart from occasional periods of “austerity”), this has profound implications. Prior to 2008 most economists assumed that productivity growth of 1-2% pa was a law of nature and  main driver of “trend growth”, which could be baked into economic models. The corollary was that weak growth since 2008, and the failure of GDP to catch up with the pre 2008 trend-line, was a failure in macroeconomic policy.

But given the dustbin nature of the productivity statistics, it is very hard to drill down into them to find out just where the problem is – though that there is a problem of some sort is clear. This is licence for all manner of people to project their speculations into a fact-free zone. Mostly these are based on the intuitively obvious idea that the changes to the productivity figures represent trends in the efficiency of workers. Recently Bank of England bigwig Andrew Haldane moaned that the problem was that efficiency was stuck in a rut, especially in a swathe of mediocre firms. He based this on sectoral analysis which showed that the productivity had stagnated across all sectors – with economic growth mainly attributed to rises in employment, not efficiency.

The FT article, authored by Chris Giles and Gemma Tetlow, challenge that. A close examination of the numbers shows that the crash in productivity growth arises from changes in a small number of economic sectors, accounting for just 11% of income. These are banking, telecoms, electricity and gas, management consultancy, and legal and accounting services. Actually Mr Haldane’s and Mr Giles/Ms Tetlow’s analysis can be reconciled. Mr Haldane was taking a general view across the economy since 2008, where productivity growth is now very limited. The FT writers are looking at the transition from before and after 2008. The curious point is why productivity growth was so high in that small number of industries before 2008 – and the realisation that this is what was driving so much of the figures for productivity growth before that date.

And that leaves this blogger asking whether that pre-crash productivity growth – and by implication the pre-crash trend rate of overall economic growth – was in any sense real, other than statistically. In banking we know that in 2008 massive state resources were required to keep the industry alive, and that since then the industry has been much better controlled. This suggests that “productivity” would more correctly be described as “recklessness”. And in each of the other industries you can point to factors that demonstrate that growth was not simply incremental improvements in efficiency. For example in electricity and gas productivity was based on high inputs of fossil fuels and nuclear energy – and the switch away from these destructive sources of power has caused a decline in measured productivity. And how on earth do you assess the output of management consultancy, and accountancy and legal services? The transition may simply be from high margins in boom economy conditions to higher scrutiny when times were harder – or to put it another way, what was supposedly economic growth prior to 2008 was in fact concealed inflation.

All this supports the narrative that I have been promoting for quite a few years about the transition from growth to austerity. This is that the supposed growth of the economy of the early to mid noughties in the UK was down to excess demand, of which reckless fiscal policy was a part  – though you might alternatively argue that it was reckless borrowing by the private sector that the government turned a blind eye to. It also suggests that the lacklustre economic performance of the UK economy since 2008 reflects a lot more than just weak demand management: it is chickens coming home to roost.

This takes me to two very important conclusions. The first is that we have to be very careful about the recommendations of macroeconomists – and the eco-system of commentators and policy types that use macroeconomics as their starting point. The bandying about of aggregate statistics is all very well – but the aggregates hide as well as reveal – and we need to base economic prescriptions on the complexities of the real economy. That is hard, but necessary.

The second point is that overall productivity is indeed stuck in a rut, and has been since well before 2008. It must reflect structural issues in real economy – and not simply laziness amongst mediocre firms or poor macroeconomic management. There is no shortage of potential culprits: demographics; the nature of modern technology; the temporary nature of gains from trade with Asian economies. The world may still be becoming a better place – but because of things that are not captured in GDP, and hence productivity statistics. The problem for public policy is that tax revenues are largely driven by GDP (which is why it is an important statistic) – so we can’t expect an ever increasing flow of tax revenue to fund public services. In the long run we must either reduce the demand for public services (healthier people, fewer crimes, less skewed income distribution, etc.), raise taxes, or compromise what level of services and benefits we think that a civilised state should provide.

And that is a completely new way of thinking about public policy. The political right have grasped this (for the wrong reasons, perhaps) – but the left has not.

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The Lib Dems hope that Britain goes Dutch

After a couple of days sightseeing in York, one of England’s most spectacular cities, I want to report back on the Liberal Democrats’ conference held there over the weekend. It ended with the traditional rallying cry from the party leader Tim Farron. He spelled out a bold strategy for the party: to replace Labour as the principal opposition, and then to take on the Conservatives for government. Well that’s not the first time I’ve heard such ideas from a Lib Dem leader’s speech – and the only result has been that the party’s wings melted like those of Icarus when it got too close to the heat of power. Could this time be different?

The Lib Dems are particularly taken by the result of the recent General Election in the Netherlands, and their hopes rest on similar trends being repeated in Britain. Now if your knowledge of the Dutch election was based reporting by the BBC News, and other mainstream news outlets, you might be a little surprised. The BBC pitched the contest as between the party of the Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, the VVD, and the populist-right PVV, a one-man vehicle for its leader Geert Wilders, and his extreme views against immigration, the EU and Islam. The BBC hunted out Dutch working class voters for its vox pops,  giving us the impression of a surge of support, in the manner of that that swept Donald Trump to power in the USA. The VVD meanwhile, though nominally a liberal party, seemed beholden to the PVV agenda, and anxious to sound tough on immigration, engineering a spat with the Turkish government to prove their point. When the VVD ended up with 33 seats, in the highly proportional Dutch electoral system, to the PVV’s 20, the BBC proclaimed the VVD as the winner, and quickly moved on.

But there a 150 seats in the Netherlands parliament, so the VVD and the PVV covered barely a third between them. Elsewhere something much more interesting was happening, which puts the whole picture in a different perspective. There were in fact two main losers in the election: the VVD, which lost 8 seats, though remained the largest party, and, most spectacularly, the Labour Party (the PvdA), which was reduced from 38 seats to just 9. The PVV advanced by 5 seats, but there were bigger winners. D66, the liberal left party most similar in outlook to the British Lib Dems, advanced 7 seats to 19; the Christian Democrats (the CDA), a party not unlike Britain’s Conservatives as they are being refashioned by Theresa May, also took 19 seats, gaining 6; and the biggest winner was the GreenLeft, which advanced 10 seats to 14.

What to make of this? Well it is fair to suggest that Mr Wilders and his PVV has set the political agenda. The CDA did well by coopting some of its ideas, and the VVD managed to hang on with similar tactics. But the two parties that where most vocal in promoting the opposite agenda, of voicing a sense of Dutch identity based on tolerance and being part of Europe, picked up 17 seats and have real momentum. The traditional Labour party was unable to hold together its coalition and collapsed.

And so the implications for British politics are clear. Mrs May’s strategy for the Conservatives, with a lurch to right on identity and social issues, and to the left on economic ones, looks sound enough. The polls show it has a commanding lead, crushing the populist Ukip, and even doing respectably in Scotland. Labour, meanwhile, are floundering – unable to find a formula that holds together its coalition of traditional working class, new working class (including ethnic minority workers) and liberal public sector workers. Its problems are compounded by spectacularly weak leadership, and a sense of political entitlement amongst its membership that makes them focus inwardly, rather than develop an effective political presence in the country at large. And the success of D66 and the GreenLeft shows the possibilities for the Lib Dems, by wearing its liberal and pro-European heart on its sleeve. There should be an opportunity for Britain’s Greens too, but they seem to have lost critical mass. Their move to being a party of the socialist left before the 2015 general election, including the adoption of Universal Income, was probably a major strategic error – and anyway the party seems allergic to clear leadership.

And so the Lib Dems at York went big for being pro-European, promoting a second referendum with a way back into the EU – and promoting the rights of EU citizens living in Britain. Political realists may dismiss this as being silly, but it lights fires. The populist surge, promoted by a hateful press, and supporting a hard Brexit, is generating a backlash, and the Lib Dems mean to exploit it.

But Mr Farron, and the party at large, are starting to look beyond that. That was evidenced by one fudge and one new idea. The fudge was on nuclear weapons. The party’s liberal principles point to unilateral nuclear disarmament, eloquently argued for by many activists. But members at large sensed danger and adopted a fudged policy that will go nowhere. As David Grace, one of those advocating the unilateralist position, rightly pointed out – the party was not afraid of the Russians so much as of the Daily Mail. While intellectually persuaded of the unilateralist line, I personally lacked the courage to support it. It would put off too many floating voters.

The new idea was put forward by Tim Farron in his speech: an economic commission of independent experts to develop new ideas on economic policy. This follows a similar idea on health and social care. This is a step that the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn started to take and then dropped – no doubt because he feared it would be a hostage to fortune. The time is ripe for new thinking on economic policy, and the Conservative government is heading for some deep trouble, with its over-commitment to austerity and low taxes, not to mention hard Brexit. Tim’s commission cuts across the brief of an internal policy group (on the “21st Century Economy”), which I am planning to contribute to, but this looks like a sound move by him. The party can’t carry a new economic policy by itself.

Tim’s strategy is clear. Develop a core vote based on European identity and a liberal understanding of British values. And then pitch for floating voters, including those that voted for Brexit, based on economics and public services. Could it work? Labour could yet scupper it by dropping Mr Corbyn and going for the right replacement leader. Their German counterparts seem to be having some success with such a strategy. The most convincing alternative leaders are probably David Miliband or Ed Balls – but both are out parliament. Meanwhile the threat of complete collapse remains – the Dutch Labour Party is only the latest in a line of spectacular political failures by traditional socialist parties in Europe. The Lib Dems will still need a lot of luck – but this looks like their best chance.

I do not warm to Tim Farron personally. I am too cynical for his grand rhetoric, and bored of his jokes. But he is proving to be a very capable political strategist – much better than his predecessor. This will be interesting to watch.

 

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Labour shows the problem with a core vote strategy

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Last week’s British by-elections prompt me to make one of my occasional posts. It is about the bizarre predicament of Britain’s Labour Party and the wider question this poses for the British left.

The first thing to say about Labour is that I am not a neutral observer. As a supporter of the Liberal Democrats I have endured near continuous vitriol from Labour supporters, especially since the coalition government of 2010. It doesn’t help that these Labourites were right to predict disaster for my party – against my constant efforts to look on the bright side. So I take some satisfaction in being right this time. I cannot deny a sense of schadenfreude. Perhaps it takes a victim of delusion to recognise the phenomenon in others – though to be fair quite a few Labourites are in despair rather than delusion.

The immediate fuss is over Labour’s loss to the Conservatives of the Copeland by-election. For an opposition party to lose a seat in these circumstances is nearly unprecedented. Labour did see off a challenge from Ukip in the Stoke by-election on the same day – but they cannot take much comfort from that. Their vote fell, and they only retained the seat because Ukip and the Tories split the anti-Labour vote between them. It was a bit like the Lib Dem by election win in Eastleigh during the coalition, though the margin was much better.

But this fuss is a bit overdone. The main news politically is that Ukip is on the back foot, and the Conservatives seem to be picking up much of their vote. That’s still a big problem for Labour, though: while seeing off a threat from Ukip, the threat from the Tories has become much deadlier.

But the by-elections are only the start of it. It is Labour’s complete lack of political effectiveness since Jeremy Corbyn took over that is behind the criticism. Labour are totally unable to exploit the government’s difficulties over Brexit – a political gift that most opposition parties can only dream of. Just compare the party’s performance to that under John Smith and Tony Blair as the Conservative government pushed through the Maastricht treaty in the 1990s. Labour was then able to put aside its own differences and ambiguities over Europe to harry the Conservatives to near political death. This was an object the lesson in how to be on both sides of the argument at once – one of the chief skills in politics. Labour could unite pro and anti Brexit forces by rallying round a form of soft Brexit – and using every opportunity in Parliament to make the government’s life difficult. Instead Labour’s opposition sounds like whingeing Islington dinner table chat.

And what about opposition to austerity? The government is pressing ahead with cuts, and seems unable to handle a crisis in the NHS and social care. Schools are now under threat. Austerity was supposed to be the rallying cry for Labour under Mr Corbyn, and the basis of a popular revolt – with determined resistance both inside and outside parliament. Labour was going to employ high quality economic minds to develop an alternative narrative. Instead, Labour contents itself with more quiet whingeing, and austerity has dropped way down the list of politically current issues. The economic thinkers who had been commissioned to help the party have been sent on their way.

And Scotland? There was supposed to be a fightback here – but instead the party has fallen back to third place. At his speech to the Scottish Labour conference this weekend Mr Corbyn undermined the Labour’s Scottish leader, Kezia Dugdale, who is attempting to recapture the political initiative from the SNP with a call for a UK wide constitutional convention. Unable to come up with strong political initiatives himself, Mr Corbyn undermines any attempts to do so from anybody else. Politically Labour has stalled.

But a recent poll revealed something quite interesting. It confirmed Labour’s poor standing amongst the country at large, and the lack of confidence in Mr Corbyn, which is felt by over three quarters of the electorate, with remarkably few don’t knows. But among Labour’s remaining supporters, Mr Corbyn has majority support. His position looks secure.

And this reveals a problem for Labour, and the political left generally, that goes beyond Mr Corbyn’s profound lack of political competence. It is the temptation to retreat into your own comfort zone. For Labour, this process started under Ed Miliband, Mr Corbyn’s predecessor. It took the form of the so-called 35% strategy – whereby Labour was supposed to secure power by consolidating its position amongst left-leaning voters, especially those that had supported the Lib Dems, without having to persuade voters that had voted Conservative. They were relying on the idea that the right of centre vote would be split between the Tories, Ukip and coalition-supporting Lib Dems – and hoping that non-voters would rally to the party too. It left them helpless against a surging SNP in Scotland, and an entirely predictable and ruthless Tory campaign to pressure Lib Dem and Ukip voters in marginal seats.

But the idea of staying within your political comfort zone is enticing. The Liberal Democrats are now taking this up under the guise of a “core vote strategy”. This is designed to attract loyal supporters rather than marginal votes. This is more rational for the Lib Dems than it is for Labour, given how low the party’s fortunes have sunk. But neither party will pose a serious challenge to the Tories unless it works out how to appeal to marginal voters too. And neither will they be able to achieve this by forming some form of “progressive” alliance between themselves, with or without the Greens and the SNP.

And that will mean taking core supporters out of their comfort zone. Just where is open for debate. Conventional wisdom has it that this must mean embracing elements of what the left calls “neo-liberalism” – such as marketising public services and holding taxes and public spending down. This isn’t necessarily the case – but the electorate will not be convinced by the traditional left wing idea of accruing power to the centre and declaring “trust us: we are the people.” Political power is not trusted enough for that.

Personally I think Labour needs to embrace devolution of real political power to regions, municipalities and even neighbourhoods, even when it means passing it to opposition parties. This should involve a new constitutional settlement (just as Ms Dugdale advocates). And it includes breaking up central control of such hallowed institutions as the NHS and national public sector deals with trade unions. For Lib Dems I suspect it means developing a new narrative on rights – and the idea that key economic rights (as opposed to basic human rights) must be earned by contribution and residency, rather than being open to all comers. Also the parry’s doctrinaire line on the right to privacy needs to be rethought for the modern age – it feels too much like yesterday’s battle. Both parties needs to break out of the strait-jacket of political correctness and victim culture – while continuing to promote inclusion. And both parties need to think about a future Europe, rather than retreat into its past.

But once the left moves out of its comfort zone, power is there for the taking. The conservative coalition is not robust, and demographics are against it. Brexit will place huge strains on it. Populism will fail. But, alas, there are few signs that the left yet understands what it needs to do.  It may take another disaster.

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Why I’m pausing for reflection

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I have been trying to post articles twice a week. In the last few weeks that has slowed down. This week I have struggled to post anything at all.  On reflection I think it’s time to pause for a while, and reduce postings to a trickle.

Why? Partly it is plain depression – though the non-political side of my life is going well enough. After multiple shocks to the political system, that is not be surprising. I still struggle to accept that Britain is leaving the European Union, that Donald Trump is the US president, and that liberal attitudes are being thrown out in favour of nothing very coherent.

But I think it is deeper than an emotional reaction – I’m afraid I’m an Enlightenment spirit that believes that reason should rule emotion. The world has changed, and the balance of political forces has altered in ways that I have not yet understood. It is tempting to impose oversimplified models on this. For example, it is commonplace to ascribe changes to a reaction of the white working classes. But that can only be a partial explanation – there just aren’t enough white working class people for it to be more than that. All successful political movements are coalitions – and it is the unnoticed elements of that coalition that may hold the key. Guilt by liberals over the struggles of many white working class people is being used as a cover for more sinister forces – and some not so sinister ones too.

And if I don’t understand what is driving this change, the consequences of change are also obscure. Many bad things are happening as a result of the Trump presidency and Brexit – but some good things might happen too through the law of unintended consequences. Breaking up the old complacent order will force many things to be rethought – and it will not just be liberals who are discombobulated. For example, Mr Trump’s recent questioning of the two-state approach to peace in Israel may be no bad thing -as it will force Israel’s politicians to be clearer about what it is they actually want – rather than just getting in the way of US policy. In another example, Russia’s propaganda narrative about confronting western liberalism loses its power if western liberalism is in retreat. The Russians are having to be careful about what they wish for. And is it too much to hope that ethnic minority campaigners, so long dependent on a narrative of victimhood and guilt, might freshen up their story when the main competing narrative is also one of victimhood and guilt? Perhaps they might spend more time campaigning on problems that they share, rather than on what sets them apart?

And so my reaction to unfolding events is, so often, “wait and see”.  The interesting stuff has yet to emerge. Here I am departing from many other liberal observers – who are content to vent a very understandable anger. I cling to an optimism. Liberalism is experiencing a backlash that is similar in some ways to that endured in the later 19th Century. That led to calamity – a nationalist blind alley that only ended in 1945 after countless millions were killed. This time I think it is different. There are many more liberals now; our values are more deeply embedded. The forces of darkness are weaker than they look. We will turn the tide. But how, and where? That remains unclear. It will require new ideas – and a new coalition.

And so I want to spend more time reflecting, and less time simply reacting to events. I will post, but less frequently.

I started this blog almost exactly six years ago. Looking back at it, that has been six years of political retreat. The crushing loss of the British referendum on changing the electoral system in 2011 now looks like a portent. I need to need to rearm and rethink to get ahead of the game.

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Liberal protestors are not the elite; they are ordinary, frightened people

Last week I wrote about my fears that liberals are being too moral and ideological in their protests over President Trump’s regime. This will simply alienate voters who might otherwise be persuaded – and distracts attention from the regime’s weakest spot – incompetence. But at the same time the populist narrative must be fought – or else untruths are in danger of being accepted as facts.

This message came home to me after reading this article in the Guardian (a British liberal newspaper): Trump is no fascist. He is a champion for the forgotten millions. It is by John Daniel Davidson, a writer for The Federalist, a conservative US online journal. For once the article’s title is a fair summary of its content. In it he develops the pro-Trump narrative. He says that Mr Trump is a voice for many not-so-well-off Americans who feel completely let down by the presidencies of both Barack Obama and George W Bush.  He says:

America is deeply divided, but it’s not divided between fascists and Democrats. It’s more accurate to say that America is divided between the elites and everybody else, and Trump’s election was a rejection of the elites.

Now most of this article is a worthwhile read. It explains why so many Americans, perhaps even a majority, think that Mr Trump is onto something, and are unmoved by the protests. We do not need to invoke racism and misogyny to explain support for Mr Trump, however much we think these forces are lurking in the background. But two important points are lost in this, and each is central to the anti-Trump narrative.

The first point is this: who says that fascists have to be unpopular? Successful fascists (like Mussolini and Hitler) are expert at exploiting the anxieties of the “forgotten millions”, and presenting themselves as the alternative to a complacent elite. That is precisely why they are such a threat. They then use this sense of legitimacy to destroy the rule of law and constitutional checks; they turn on minorities; they try to subvert fair or truthful reporting; they have a penchant for violence and the suppression of opposition. How much Mr Trump really is all these things in his heart is an interesting question; but it is clear that his chief adviser, Steve Bannon, fits the fascist description quite closely, and he seems to be making the running. That does not make all Mr Trump’s supporters and allies fascists, or even most them. But the fear that they are being taken down a slippery slope is legitimate. That Trump supporters have genuine grievances is beside the point.

The second point is that the anti-Trumpers are people too. They haven’t necessarily done any better out of the system than the pro-Trumpers (whatever the latter think). Worse, many people feel as if they are being singled out as targets for discrimination, and even violence. We should not dismiss them, as this article does, as mere cyphers or dupes of a shadowy elite. There is real, genuine fear behind those protests, as well as quite genuine moral outrage. And these anti-Trumpers are not an insignificant minority, as implied by the term “elite”. Hillary Clinton polled more votes than Mr Trump (though this not quite the knock-down argument it might seem at first – if the election had been based on popular vote, Mr Trump’s strategy would have been different – he might have polled better in California, for example). This is not the forgotten millions versus the elite. It is a clash between two groups of forgotten millions, each of which feel marginalised for different reasons. The elites themselves, meanwhile, are mostly keeping their heads down; many are even making overtures to the Trump regime.

So two pillars of the liberal position should be this: first is that we are people too, and we have legitimate fears; second: undermining the rule of law, the constitution and the voice of opposition is attacking democracy itself. Add to this a third pillar: the Trump regime is not helping the people it is claiming to represent; it is simply creating a new set of fat cats.

But is there a crucial fourth pillar? Will liberals find have an alternative set of new policies that will do a better job of addressing the marginalised, and unravelling the coalition that brought Mr Trump to power? Alas I see no signs of that. And without that fourth pillar, the situation remains very dangerous.

So liberals must search for that policy platform that will present a real challenge to the populists. Meanwhile, though, we must not let the conservatives hijack the narrative by suggesting that liberals are a tiny elite, and that subversion of legal and constitutional processes, and journalistic objectivity, is somehow a legitimate part of the democratic process.

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Moral outrage against Trump is distracting people from his incompetence

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Donald Trump has made a whirlwind start to his presidency, acting much as he did on campaign. This has provoked predictable moral outrage from liberals across the globe. This leaves me with foreboding. It will not stop Mr Trump, or the political movement he represents.

As a Briton I feel a sense of deja-vu. It reminds me of 2010 when the Coalition government took power and launched an aggressive austerity programme, cutting many public sector jobs, benefits and grants to NGOs. There was moral outrage on the left. I remember screaming protestors at the Liberal Democrat conferences in Liverpool and Sheffield in the year that followed. The Lib Dems were particular victims: they were nearly wiped out at the subsequent General Election, and are only just starting to recover, thanks to the distraction of Brexit.

But all that fury came to nothing. The beneficiaries of the Lib Dem meltdown were their Conservative coalition partners, who gained a parliamentary majority as a result. This led to redoubled austerity and Brexit. The left’s response was then to move into even more extreme outrage, by selecting Jeremy Corbyn as Labour’s leader. This has only made the Tories look even more entrenched. For all its outrage the left has lost the argument amongst floating voters.

The left was convinced that the people were behind them in their anger. And, critically, they thought that they did not have to win over conservative floating voters. They dreamt of two things: attracting disillusioned Lib Dem voters; and getting people out to vote who had not voted before. Both strategies failed. Labour did manage to convert large numbers of Lib Dem voters – but in the process they weakened the party so much that many Lib Dem voters switched to the Tories to keep Labour out. And, anyway, since most Lib Dem seats were Conservative facing, weakening the party tended to benefit the Tories. And inasmuch as new voters were found, it was not Labour that benefited. Instead many disaffected voters turned out for the populism of Ukip, and then to vote for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. There is no army of left-wing non-voters waiting to be mobilised.

The hard lesson from this is that in politics passion cannot substitute for savvy. And it is no use just talking to people who agree with you already. That may boost your own feelings of self-confidence, but it will not help persuade the people who need persuading. Interestingly, this is not symmetric. The populist right have succeeded by stoking up anger, and loathing for “liberal elites” – and not attempting to persuade liberals. Such tactics in reverse are ineffective on the left.

I fear liberals in America are making the same mistake with Trump as the left did with the Coalition. Their outrage at Mr Trump’s actions is certainly justified. But to Mr Trump’s voters, many of them former Democrats, what he is doing must look like a breath of fresh air. A politician fulfilling campaign promises! Urgent action on trade and immigration! That there is a lot of outrage and not a little confusion will not concern them. On campaign Mr Trump was repeatedly outrageous, and that harmed his standing not at all. It doesn’t matter if liberals hate him.

And it will be hard for liberals to win the propaganda war.  There will be successes for Trump. Look at how the motor companies are changing their tune about jobs in the US; and NATO countries are talking more about their defence budgets; the economy looks just fine. And failures can readily be blamed on the usual suspects. Likewise some distinctly questionable handling of conflicts of interest will arouse shrugs: people sort of knew that would happen when they voted for him.

The smart people in all this are the mainstream Republicans, who control both houses of Congress. They are keeping their heads down and taking the credit as much as they can. It is by no means clear that Mr Trump will last the course. He is old for a first-term president; he is not grounded in the ups and downs of politics; an implosion of some sort cannot be ruled out. But the Republicans, and especially with Vice President Mike Pence, will be there to pick up the pieces, and create a more sustainable version of the Mr Trump’s politics that will lock the liberals out of power.

You can’t, and shouldn’t, stop people being angry of course. But opposition also needs to do two things. First is to avoid personal attacks, on Mr Trump or his supporters. Jokes about the size of Mr trump’s hands, or accusations that those that voted for him were bigots or idiots, need to be toned down and reserved for private conversation. Second, which follows, is that the conversation needs to be about competence rather than morals. The Trump administration (unlike the Coalition, by and large) is astonishingly incompetent at actual policy, as opposed to messaging.  To give this criticism credibility it means acknowledging the government’s successes when they occur.

Remember George W Bush. He was the target of a torrent of sneering attacks from liberals – but his power only grew. But when he appeared utterly incompetent in the face of Hurricane Katrina, and then Iraq,that’s when his popularity fell off a cliff. And yet his incompetence had been evident for years before that. I have read a similar account of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Personal attacks did not harm him; scrutiny of his policies did.

So far, opposition to Mr Trump has failed these tests. The president’s executive orders have been badly drafted and are leading to muddle and injustice. But he is able to shrug all this off while liberals indulge in ill-directed anger. While liberals congratulate themselves on the size and noise of their protest marches, Mr Trump’s relationship with his base is intact.

What the left lacks is leadership, both here in Britain and in America. A liberal fightback can be successful. Demographics are in their favour. But they must rally around a clear and competent alternative. Alas none is in sight.

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The US Republican company tax reform might be a good idea

I like to see the bright side. With the accession of Donald Trump as US President, alongside the Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, that is hard. Mostly, I simply hope that the process of challenge will make liberals stronger and harder. There is too much complacency in liberal thinking. And there is more cosying up to vested interests than we might like to think.

And among the flood of bad ideas coming out ot the new administration, there may be the odd good one. Reforming company tax might be one of them.

What I am thinking of are the plans proposed by Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives.  Liberals should support it, though alas many won’t because of who is proposing it, rather than its merits.  One part of the plan is to cut the rate of company tax to 20%, but reduce the number of deductions. This is an old debate. I am sympathetic to lower marginal rates and fewer deductions, though 20% is aggressive. I do not share the view that company profits should not be taxed, and that the burden of taxation should entirely be on distribution of profit instead.

There’s another old idea in the mix too: 100% write off of capital investments in the year the money is spent. Older British accountants like me will remember that we had that system here in the 1980s – called 100% capital allowances. It was the basis of many a tax avoidance scheme, and perhaps tilted the balance too much in favour of investing in plant rather than people. But there is some merit to it.

But the really interesting idea is the so-called “border adjustment”. This exempts from tax sales outside the US, and disallows as deductions spending on imports. This can be painted in different ways. To nativists this sounds like encouraging exports and discouraging imports. Alternatively it can be presented as a sort of value-added tax, which is well-established here in Europe. Neither presentation does it justice. It is not VAT, not least because the costs paying people is within its scope. And its effect on corporate incentives can be beneficial to the world economy rather than detrimental. It amounts to a constructive proposal to deal with a major problem: the taxation of transnational businesses.

At the moment companies are taxed by the location of profits, apportioned “fairly” using general accounting principles. This falls foul of manipulation through transfer pricing – what country-level subsidiaries within a transnational business charge each other. Thus when a multinational sells you something in Britain, it may treat as part of its costs the use of intellectual property based in a low tax regime, such as the Netherlands or Luxembourg. National tax authorities have been fighting a losing battle against abuse. The G20 recently adopted some new rules to reduce abuse, but this is sticking plaster to repair a fracture. It is best seen as an attempt by corporate lobbyists to stave off more radical approaches.

One such radical approach to reform corporate tax is unitary taxation. This method means that tax authorities assess a business’s global profit, and then allocate it to country based on the location of some combination of sales, employment or property. This is how US states tax the profits of US businesses, mostly allocating them using the Massachusetts formula. I have been advocating this for years internationally, but I have unable to persuade even the Liberal Democrats to pursue the idea.

Mr Ryan’s border adjustments are an alternative idea, and look simpler. In essence corporate taxes would be based on the location of revenues – something that would not be easy to distort. So, applied in the UK, Amazon or Starbucks would not be able to use spurious intellectual property charges to relocate profits to tax havens. Overall the scheme favours countries that have trade deficits (like the UK or US) rather than surpluses (like Germany or China), but that is no bad thing.

And probably unilateral action by the US is the only way much is going to happen. Multinational forums like the G20, and even the European Union, have completely failed to deal with this problem. Only the US has the power for unilateral implementation. Where it leads, others will be forced to follow. And post-Brexit Britain should be able to follow quickly.

Alas the power of corporate lobbyists in our democracies remains massive. They are masters of quietly undermining radical ideas and promoting “compromises” that have only superficial effects. Mr Trump is a sceptic, and that’s a very bad start. The hope must be that Mr Ryan will get his way in the inevitable horse-trading between the presidency and congress. Mr Trump may be sceptical, but he is not strongly against it either.

But even if this reform attempt fails, I hope that liberals everywhere will take on the challenge of corporate tax evasion with a radical approach, such as border adjustment or unitary tax. Alas I am not optimistic.

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Theresa May’s Brexit moves from tautology to oxymoron but makes the best of a bad job

An oxymoron replaces a tautology. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister is contemptuous of intellectuals that try to weave policies into a wider, coherent narrative. Instead she concentrates on a series of tasks, whose solutions may clash with one another. In her speech on Brexit last Tuesday Mrs May moved her defining slogan on from “Brexit means Brexit” to “Global Britain”. This last expression captures the essential idea that Britain can remain open to the world while being closed to it.

Predictably enough, the media coverage has been beside the point, lapping up the bait left for them left by the spin-doctors, without bothering to question the speech’s real meaning. Last week I said that the government’s strategy would be a hard Brexit via a soft one, with a General Election in between. That, more or less, is what this speech delivered.

The media has focused mainly on Mrs May’s stated destination after the exit process is complete. That was always going to be a very hard form of Brexit, given her insistance on two red lines: control over immigration of EU nationals, and escape from the jurisdiction of the European Court. This is a perfectly fair interpretation of last year’s vote. Some Brexit campaigners painted a picture of a “Norway option” of Britain staying in the Single Market while outside the political Union. But Remain campaigners, including me on many occasions, pointed out that this was nonsense. Mrs May is conceding to this obvious reality. A third red line is emerging: Britain wants to be free to negotiate separate trade deals with non-European countries, like the USA or China. So one of the main points interest of her speech was her hope that Britain could have a half-in/half-out relationship with the EU customs union. This looks very hard, but we can hardly fault it as an aspiration.

But, as I argued last week, the critical issue for Brexit is the transition, and Mrs May did have something to say about this. She talked of a “phased implementation” of Brexit: in other words, a transitional deal. She said very little about this, and nothing about how long the transitional period would be.  That is quite a big door she has left open.  This transition amounts to a soft Brexit for a limited period, and getting progressively harder over the years. This starts in 2019; there must be a General Election by May 2020, which will be quite early in the transition process. Politicians should be focusing on their stance in this election.

The strategy for Remainers who want to put off hard Brexit therefore becomes quite plain. The next parliament must prolong the transition process and renegotiate what comes afterwards. They will be caught in the same logical bind about membership of the Single Market, but they might be able to move the talk on to eventual re-entry.

But to reverse the tide of Brexit will require a shift in public opinion, with a large block of Leave supporters put off by the prospect of hard Brexit. At the moment, though, the acquiescence of Remain supporters looks more likely. This is helped by the behaviour of the UK economy since the vote. There is no sign of a serious economic impact, and forecasters are putting off their predictions of one. The chief economic effect of Brexit has been the lower pound, and this has been doing the job that advocates of floating currencies always maintained it would. Any loss of inward investment put off by Brexit has been made up for by other money tempted by the reduced price of British assets. It may be that property speculation is replacing business development and research, but in the short term what matters is the cash. And British consumers have seen no need to save more and spend less; consumer demand is robust. The balance of payments deficit may even be easing. My sense is that summer holidays in Cornwall are selling faster than usual. Britons may be worse off, but not enough for anybody to be seriously worried.

This is something of a Brexit honeymoon. When will it end? That will happen when, or if, the costs of exit become more concrete, with job losses and travel restrictions in particular. The government will, as it should, try to put these off. There will no doubt be a big focus on protecting the British motor and aerospace industries, which are particularly vulnerable. Skilful navigation of these pitfalls could head off any serious backlash – and if they do the Brexiteers will have won the economic argument, so far as most people are concerned. That may or may not happen, but for now the endless speculations of doom from the Remain camp aren’t helping; it will the fate of real businesses and jobs that will win the argument either way.

But for the time being the focus will probably move away from business. The immediate focus of negotiations will be the terms of Britain’s exit – the divorce settlement, and not the basis of the future relationship. Probably the most combustible part of this will be the status of Britons resident in other EU countries, and vice versa. So far such media attention has focused on people from EU countries living in Britain, who have become embedded in British society. Most Brexiteers feel that they should have full residency rights, but the ability of Britain’s bumbling Home Office to design a bureaucratic process that can deliver this is very much in doubt.

Actually the more politically important case is British retirees who have moved to other EU countries (Spain is especially popular) and dependent on access to local health services. The government hopes that people who moved before a cut-off date (such as the referendum date) can preserve their current status. But the situation is not symmetrical, especially when you look at individual EU members. A deal should be easy with Poland, but what has Britain to offer Spain in return for continuing to look after a community that pays few Spanish taxes and demands increasing care costs? The prospect of thousands of British retirees coming home to use an NHS struggling to recruit foreign staff cannot be inviting.

It is with such matters that the British government will become absorbed over the next two years. It will be a hard slog, but Mrs May’s plodding, practical, task-oriented, anti-intellectual approach may be just what is required. Expect many more tautologies and oxymorons.

 

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Brexit makes the Nortern Ireland crisis harder to solve. That should make us worried.

Major catastrophes often arise out the disproportionately small. The First World War arose from a conflict between a second-rate power and a third-rate power over a tiny Balkan province. Some time before Britain’s referendum last year, I and some friends were speculating on the impact of a Brexit vote. I suggested that the it would be so far-reaching that some unforeseen complication might derail the whole process. Somebody suggested that the unforeseen complication was quite likely to come from Northern Ireland. I worry that she may have been right. It is not that I see Brexit being derailed, but I do sense that most people will deeply regret it. And I hope I am wrong.

What put me in mind of this was a bit of long overdue catch-up TV viewing, last week,  of a programme broadcast way back in 2014: The Long Shadow. This was by Cambridge Historian David Reynolds, and it dealt with the legacy of the First World War on subsequent history. In this programme (the last of a series of three) he dealt with the unbottling of nationalism, and the attempt to create states based on a dominant nationality. By 1918 it was accepted that multi-national states, like the Austria-Hungary were doomed to failure, and, indeed, were undemocratic empires.  Austria Hungary was carved up into supposedly coherent nation-states, as was the Ottoman Empire, and much of the Russian empire. But this had dire consequences. The nationalities that the people of Europe identified with (primarily based on language) did not fit into neat boundaries; minorities were everywhere. At first the small states, like Czechoslovakia tried to impose their own nationality on the minorities within their borders, by force if necessary. And then the Germans tried to impose their own idea of nationalism on the whole continent. Perhaps 40 million people were killed.

The European Union was created as a reaction to this. The feeling amongst its founders was that the idea of a nation-state was fundamentally flawed, and that states should be set within a transnational framework that fostered beneficial cooperation. The dilution of national sovereignty was not seen as a regrettable cost, but as the whole point of the exercise. For all its flaws, that remains the founding principle of the EU.

But it is not understood by the English, who have underestimated the European project at every turn. Before the First World War the United Kingdom, the state that the English dominated, was under stress. A highly controversial Home Rule proposition was in progress in Ireland, and the British government was consumed by the growing probability of a civil war there, as the Irish organised themselves into armed camps. So much so that ministers barely notice the emerging crisis in central Europe that was to bring the house down. Home Rule was also proposed for Scotland, and many Welsh were pushing for the disestablishment of the Church. The war seemed to heal these rifts in a common cause, as the nationalities fought side by side. And in Britain that is how things worked out; a Welsh nationalist (David Lloyd-George) became Prime Minister and talk of Scottish Home rule vanished. But in Ireland matters played out in a similar way to the rest of Europe. A civil war broke out, first as Irish nationalists fought for independence, and then within the new Irish Free State. And in Ulster, the Unionists set about imposing their will on the Catholic minority, much as the Czechs had done to the Sudeten Germans. 50 years later this blew up into the Ulster Troubles, in which thousands more were killed. This was brought to an end in the Good Friday Agreement in 1997, in part by using EU institutions to fudge the question of nationality.

The English never understood what was happening in Ireland, which so often upset their plans and their self-image as a democratic, peaceful nation. They just wanted it all to go away. To them the virtues of a nation-state were self-evident. The English had forged their own nation in the Middle Ages as a fusion between the French Normans and the Germanic Anglo-Saxons. The incorporation of Cornish, Welsh and then Scots into the national structure did not pose a serious challenge to their view of nationhood. The English assumed that these nations were assimilating happily enough into a new fusion: the British nation. The EU was looked on as a transaction of convenience, and when it trampled on British sovereign institutions, it rankled. And a so a majority of the English rejected membership.

But by then there was already trouble with this complacent outlook. The Scots increasingly resented how their own sense of nationhood was trampled on by the English. Devolution did not change English attitudes, which was the root cause of the trouble (though the English still think it is about obstreperous Scots). The SNP rose to power and only narrowly lost an independence referendum in 2014. That referendum only enabled the SNP to consolidate its power, as the Labour Party collapsed. The Scots were always more sympathetic to the transnational idea of the EU, and did not see the sovereignty of the British parliament as a sacred gift from God, or the pinacle of democracy, as English conservatives did. No doubt continued membership of the EU was one of the things that persuaded many Scots to vote for the union – and they strongly supported membership in the referendum.

Actually Brexit does not improve the transactional case for Scots independence. It implies separation from critical markets in England without the EU safety net, and at least a transitional period in a distinctly parlous situation. But there’s trouble. The genie of English nationalism is out of the bottle, and it has taken over the Conservative government, whose political future seems assured. This is an us-against-them world view, one of whose dominant concepts is “bargaining position”. Relations with the rest of the EU are seen through this lens; and so is that between the UK and Scottish governments. The English attitude to the Scots is “lump it, you have no choice”; the British government, which contains virtually no Scots MPs, makes no concessions to Scots sensibilities. Even further devolution to the Scots government is probably seen as a way of forcing it to take ownership of austerity. This complacency is not unlike that formerly shown by EU Remainers on membership of the EU.

But at least nobody is killing each other. The worrying thing about Northern Ireland is just how little the politics has moved on since the killing ended. The Unionist First Minister Arlene Foster’s attitude to criticism over some rather dodgy financial goings on is to distract attention by upping the ante on sectarianism; her cohorts are happy to let her do it. The Ulster Protestant working classes are as entrenched in their anti-Catholic attitudes as ever, and this is putting pressure on the Irish Republicans to follow suit. Now the Northern Irish government has fallen – and attitudes are polarising.

The crisis in the province is not about Brexit. But Brexit is making it a much harder problem to solve. Irish Catholics are finding themselves in a country less tolerant of multiple identities, where community relations are seen in terms of bargaining position and multiculturalism is a dirty word. Could a return to violence improve that bargaining position? Meanwhile, most English people would probably welcome a reunification of Ireland as a solution to the many border issues thrown up by Brexit. That could easily push Protestant Loyalists to violence. It’s a combustible mix.

And what makes me gloomy is that I see no political leader in Westminster or Belfast with the vision, stature and charisma to move the nations of the United Kingdom onto a more constructive path. Especially when that constructive path almost certainly requires that the United Kingdom to remain a member of the European Union. But I hope I’m wrong.

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The shape of Brexit is becoming clearer. Don’t write Theresa May off.

I’ve given Brexit it a well-earned rest over the last month. It remains Britain’s leading political issue, but the commentary from all sides is completely unedifying. Remainers are mainly just whingeing, angry that we are were we are. I agree, but where next? This lets the Brexiteers off the hook: instead of being forced to be more specific about how to solve the many problems thrown up by Brexit, they can simply moan about the moaning and promote an unconsidered hard Brexit. And this is what most of them are doing, betraying a complete failure to understand the predicament that country finds itself in. Still, a little reflection shows us how things are likely to shape up.

Not that the government is giving us much clue. The Prime Minister, Theresa May is staying tight-lipped, though she has been offering hard-Brexit mood music. This is partly because that is the type of leader she is: she likes to weigh things up in private before committing herself, a characteristic that she shares with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. That Mrs Merkel is one of the most successful politicians on our continent shows that many commentators are too quick to dismiss Mrs May. I think she could last.

The fact is that the government’s silence is not just a question of Mrs May’s style. There are sound political reasons for it. The Conservatives command but a narrow majority in the House of Commons, and the party is hopelessly muddled on the issue, as are Conservative voters. Any clear declaration of strategy will create a storm. When that time comes the government needs to be ready. Mrs May became prime minister by picking the right moment to attack after years of patient build-up in which her potential opponents each self-destructed. She no doubt hopes for something similar over Brexit.

The eventual strategy will be the product of an alliance of three critical minsters. Mrs May herself, the Brexit minister David Davis, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. The alliance between Mrs May and Mr Hammond goes back a long way; they operate in compatible ways. Mr Hammond is putting the soft Brexit side of the argument – about the need to prevent disruption to the economy and to protect inward investment. Mr Davis is an interesting character. He is an ideological Brexiteer, but he possesses an integrity that few of his fellow politicians can match, while remaining an intelligent man. So far these attributes have not helped his political career; he has been too much trouble, and easily outmanoeuvred by smooth operators like Mrs May’s predecessor, David Cameron. Mrs May showed good judgement in picking him as her minister for Brexit. He doesn’t give much away, but from what I have seen, he is steadily working through the different issues and options and weighing the pros and cons. Meanwhile other senior ministers involved with Brexit, the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and the International Trade minister Liam Fox, are showing themselves up to be political lightweights not suited for these difficult times.

Given this background, we can divine what the government’s strategy is likely to be: a soft Brexit leading probably, but not inevitably, to a hard one. First of all the government will push to activate Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, giving two years notice to formal exit. This needs to be done by March, because that’s what Mrs May has promised. There are sound political reasons for this: first it means that there will be no awkwardness over the European Parliament elections due in 2019; more substantively the formal exit will be completed in plenty of time for the General Election due in 2020. Incidentally, there is no evidence that Mrs May plans to expend precious political capital on trying to get round the Fixed Term Parliaments Act to hold an early election. The Labour Party is stewing nicely in its own juice and this mitigates much of the government’s problem with a small majority. It is highly unlikely that they will stage a recovery by 2020, rather than being completely hollowed out. An election now would be a distraction from the problem at hand.

The problem with an early invocation of Article 50 is that it leaves a cliff face on eventual exit – the so-called train-wreck Brexit. Actually delaying Article 50 may not help by much – the real problem is negotiating alternative trading arrangements, which formally can’t start until after exit. But there is an obvious solution to this: a transitional period after exit. In this period much of the current trading relationship would be preserved, and the UK would continue to make budget contributions. The spectrum of possible solutions runs from full membership of the EEA (European Economic Area – like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) to simply membership of the customs union (like Turkey). The EEA option would be by some distance the simplest solution, but it would involve continued free movement of labour. That is surely a red line for Mrs May (though, I suspect, not for Mr Hammond). She has always taken a hard line on immigration, and seems immune to the economic arguments made for it. The Turkey solution would leave many markets not integrated, with high potential costs to some parts of the economy. She will aim for EEA market access with Turkey levels of free movement. She won’t get it, but that is what negotiation is about.

How long will the transitional period be? My guess is five years (i.e. up to 2024), though her initial bid might be just two. That puts the ball firmly in the court of the next parliament. The government will paint a picture of full exit from the customs union after 2024 in terms that will warm the heart of ideological Brexiteers. In that way Mrs May will paint herself as a hard Brexiteer. But there will be a general election before then, and if public opinion swings away from Brexit, the transitional deal can be made into something more permanent.

That’s what I think. It will remain formidably complicated – but it gives ground to both sides, and she can claim be implementing the mandate from the referendum, while giving everybody more time to think about how a standalone Britain should work. There will be meat for both factions in the Conservative Party – and Mrs May can present herself as a unifying figure. It might even work.

 

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Matthew Green's blog