Should central banks raise their inflation targets?

About this time of year the world’s central bankers converge on Jackson Hole, Wyoming for a conference. This is an opportunity for many to think about what this important set of government officials should be doing. To judge by the coverage in the Economist, one of the main topics is whether the developed world’s leading central banks should raise their inflation targets, from, say, 2% to 4%. The Economist thinks they should. I am sceptical.

Monetary policy, and in particular the manipulation of interest rates, has a special place in the neo-Keynesian conventional wisdom that became mainstream in government circles from the 1990s through to about 2007, when things started to go badly wrong. The idea was that economies are best regulated at the macro level through interest rate policy, alongside “automatic stabilisers” in fiscal policy; this replaced an approach centred on fiscal policy alone that fell apart in the 1970s. Essentially central banks cut interest rates when the economy needs a lift, and raise them when it needs cooling down. The way this is managed is in relation to an inflation target, typically of 2%. If inflation dropped much below the target, it was time for a lift, if it rose above, it was time to remove the punchbowl from the party, as one central banker put it. Inflation is the main way policymakers are supposed to judge whether an economy is running above or below its natural capacity, around a target rate which is supposed to be neutral.

For a decade or so this all seemed to go very well, as the leading economies experienced steady growth and low but steady inflation. Japan was the exception, as it suffered from deflation and weak economic growth – and the country’s central bankers and political leaders were much criticised as a result. It was all too good to be true. After 2007 all the leading countries looked like Japan, and proved unable to use monetary policy to give their economies the lift they generally thought was needed. Central bankers had to deal with low inflation and near zero interest rates, meaning that they could not use interest rate policy to achieve stimulus – since they could not reduce rates below zero (a boundary that some have tried testing more recently, with mixed results). They resorted to buying bonds instead (which they called “Quantitative Easing”). Amongst other problems with this policy, it threatened to blur the line between central banking an ordinary government treasury management. There remains little sign of a serious breakout from the lacklustre post-crash economics.

Hence the idea of raising the inflation rate target. The theory behind this is that it would allow central bankers to put more oomph into their monetary easing , once they have found a way to raise inflation up to the target. The advantage of a higher rate of inflation is that it becomes much easier for central banks to implement a negative real interest rate, should that be warranted. If inflation rates are 4%, and interest rates zero, the thinking is, people and businesses will rush out to buy things rather than watch their monetary assets shrink. That then corrects the imbalance savings and investment that they think is dragging economies down.

This idea is unlikely to get very far. The first reason, and probably the most important, is that allowing inflation to rise breaches what many see as a sacred bond of trust between a government and its people. This is something that liberal economists struggle to understand. To them money is just another tool to be used in the process of managing an economy; a means to an end. But many others have a different view – a theme explored by Lionel Shriver’s recent novel, the Mandibles. This sacred bond view is why linking currency to gold is so persistently popular. And it has particular strength in the US and Germany, in spite their very different histories. Using inflation as a state policy is abuse of power in this way of seeing things. At the very least it needs a democratic mandate.

This is no small political obstacle, though I personally incline the liberal economist view, and feel that gold used as money is an outright evil. But I am sceptical that inflation works in the way it used to in the world’s leading, developed and globalised economies. Raising the central bank target is one thing, but persuading the rate of inflation to follow in an economically constructive way is another (it doesn’t help if consumer prices race ahead at 4% while wages are stuck at zero).

What’s the problem? I think global markets for goods and capital have become so integrated that efforts to raise inflation are rapidly undermined. Furthermore wages and prices seem to be driven by different forces. Public expectations of inflation, the critical driver of inflation in the neo-Keynesian model, have lost their force. The idea that there is a universal rate of inflation reflecting the depreciation of money is an idea that is becoming distinctly unhelpful. Inflation, for example, does not make private debt more affordable if it does not feed through to pay (quite the opposite, in fact); and something similar happens to public debt, as tax revenues are more likely to be driven by pay than the prices of goods and services. This is a problem that does not seem to occur to many commentators on economics.

A further problem is how low interest rates or QE transmit themselves to raised prices anyway. The old idea of expectations being managed by the government and the central bank has signally failed in Japan, for example, when Shinzo Abe’s government tried to do just that. Companies did not want to raise pay unless they really had to, and would not raise prices of goods either. It is true that a loose monetary policy can cause the currency to fall and raise import prices – but this does not necessarily transmit to the rest of the economy. In Japan it took much bullying by the government of big businesses to have any effect, and their response was so grudging that no lasting change was made. Other governments and central banks may have even less power. Imagine how German firms would respond to the ECB saying they wanted a bit of extra inflation?

So what does a looser monetary policy achieve? First there seems to be a lot of idle cash. Money that hangs around unused does not stimulate anything. And then the prices of some assets may be raised, both at home and in wider capital markets, which the globally liberated world has made very easy, without the creation of new assets. In other words, asset price bubbles start to inflate.

In short the conventional neo-Keynesian theory should be given a decent burial for the leading developed economies. It is a bit different in less globally integrated countries, or in developing countries that are subject to rising in productivity where we can expect pay to be more buoyant.

Instead of chasing this particular phantom, economists and policymakers need to ask themselves more searching questions. Why is the rate of investment so sluggish, and unable to keep up with savings? Why is conventionally measured productivity stagnant? This is the real problem. And what if low investment and low growth are facts of life in a mature economic system, rather than ills to be cured?  And meanwhile we economic chatterers might ponder the role that the constancy of money plays in the social contract, and how, perhaps, we take a bit too lightly sometimes.

The post-Brexit phoney war on the economy

Two months after Britain’s shock referendum result, and what has happened? Not a lot. Though you wouldn’t think it from reading the running commentary. So was Project Fear the hoax that the Leave campaigners always said? Probably not.

The few days after the result seemed to fulfil Project Fear more quickly than even Remain campaigners suggested. The pound fell sharply and many stock indices tumbled too. There was much talk of this or that investment being stopped, or this or that institution or business being under threat. Remain supporters have kept up the pace of alarmist talk ever since, to judge by my Facebook feed.

But Brexit campaigners have a point when they poke fun at this. When it comes to cold, hard economic statistics it is very hard to see much, or any, adverse impact. The stock markets have fully recovered. Retail sales, employment and prices all looked pretty healthy in July. The government still finds it laughably easy to raise money on the bond markets; the Bank of England’s currency reserves went up. Only that fall in the currency has persisted. And no doubt that reflects weaknesses in the economy before the vote – given the scale of the ongoing current account deficit. The various indicators that have taken a plunge represent sentiment rather than hard fact, and may have been contaminated by the sheer shock of it all, as might the gloomy reports from the Bank of England and the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

On only one thing can Brexiteers be disappointed. The remaining EU has sailed on just as smoothly as the UK, with the Euro strengthening significantly against the pound. This defies predictions of imminent panic and collapse gleefully made by (some) Brexit campaigners. No other country seems at all inclined to follow Britain’s lead to the exit. Even as the emerging kerfuffle on Italian banks is as good evidence as you might ask for about problems with EU rules and democratic mandates.

There is, of course, one possible explanation for this insouciance: denial. Maybe people think that exit is so hard, and will have such obviously dire consequences, that it will never happen. Speculation about the invocation of Clause 50 for formal exit pushes it further and further into the future. If so it shows remarkably little insight amongst the market makers. Any process by which the referendum result is reversed will be very messy, and entail a lot of collateral damage.

Personally I think people are putting too much faith in the markets’ ability to see trouble ahead. The signs that the 2008 crash was in the works were obvious more than a year beforehand, when the interbank markets froze. Strong enough, as I don’t tire to point out, for me to move my pension portfolio from shares into index-linked gilts and cash. The more perceptive would have seen the trouble coming a year before even that, when US property prices started to slide, threatening the foundations of the whole financial edifice. And yet the markets did not reflect the mounting danger at all.

And at the other end of the scale, when it comes to the multitude of small decisions taken by consumers and businesses that drive the short term statistics, there is also a sort of built-in inertia. Short term decisions quickly overwhelm intangible longer term worries. People don’t know what to do, so they carry on as normal.

There are two ways in which the Project Fear may yet turn out to be on the money. One is a slow decline that accumulates: slower growth turns to a shallow recession that persists. That would be perfectly consistent with current statistics. The other way would be like the 2008 crash: a delayed reaction leading to a sudden crash.  Both of these follow my metaphor of the economy being holed below the waterline in my post in the week after the result. The ship is in mortal danger despite no damage visible above water.

Why might trouble happen? It comes back to the basic weakness of the British economy (which, it must be said, EU membership was doing little to help) – a substantial trade and current account deficit. Britons as a whole are spending more than they are earning, and have been for many years. That has been OK because plenty of foreigners have been prepared to lend us money, or to invest in British businesses or property. Also British multinationals may be selling off foreign assets and bringing the proceeds home. Brexit is putting that investment flow at risk.

What happens if the country can’t get enough currency to pay for imports? Demand for Sterling falls, and the currency sinks. That might attract investors (British assets look a bargain) or scare them (with the risk of further depreciation). Currency reserves, private and national, start to be drawn down. That will affect living standards. Then either the trade balance corrects (buy fewer imports and sell more exports), or things start getting nasty with a financial crisis as the stability of banks and the entire payments system comes into question – which is what happened in 2008, for different reasons. These changes tend not to happen smoothly.

The problem is that the financial system is very complex, with all sorts of buffers and hidden dependencies, which makes it non-linear. Responses are not proportionate to the changes to the system. Past performance is a poor guide to future dangers. There might be a lot of short-term factors stabilising things, but that could be undermining resilience. The country could be building up vulnerability to the next financial crisis, just as the Labour government of the naughties created vulnerability to the banking crisis of 2008.

Or perhaps the Brexiteers are right. The financial system will adapt to the new realities calmly and the British economy is fundamentally stronger than the pessimists say. The economy will sail serenely on and gather strength to boot.

The thing is that it is just too early to tell. It could be many months, or even years, before any crisis caused by Brexit emerges. I will be watching for signs of trouble. But, to be honest, I haven’t seen them yet. It’s all a phoney war.


The Lib Dems mission must be to pick up disillusioned Tory voters

Not so long ago the idea of a “progressive majority” was popular amongst leftish intellectuals. They noted that if you added together the poll ratings, and even general election votes, of Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and (for some people) the Scots and Welsh Nationalists, there was a clear majority of the electorate, outnumbering the hated Conservatives and Ukip. This majority was regarded as a state of nature, and so, it was argued, proportional representation would lock it into the political system for good.

It was always optimistic. Both Labour and the Lib Dems drew voters who would happily support parties that were not “progressive”. This word is left’s own favoured description for itself. Since, in practice,  most “progressives” oppose any kind of reform to make the state or the economy more efficient, I really can’t bear not to place it in quotation marks when it is used to represent the broad left, rather than those who genuinely favour ideas that stand for the positive progress of society..

The flaw in the progressive majority idea is now open for all to see. In the 2015 General Election the Conservatives and Ukip outpolled the “progressive” parties. And that is before any disqualification of the Lib Dems after they entered coalition with the Conservatives. And if that wasn’t enough, the clear majority for Brexit, not supported by the “progressive” parties, confirmed it. Most parliamentary seats for “progressive” parties voted to leave the EU.

This is a fact that the far left (I almost used the word “radical”, but once more the word would be seriously misplaced for a bunch that includes so many people nostalgic for the 1970s). Many are convinced that Labour did so badly in 2015 because it was not left wing enough, with its half-hearted embrace of austerity. Challenged, they suggest that there is an army of disillusioned non-voters who could be drawn into voting for a party of the true left. Certainly there are a number of under-30s that could fit that description, but not enough. In fact most people who explore the polling data suggest people who do not vote are often less-educated and supportive of populist right wing policies. The Brexit referendum was relatively successful in bringing these non-voters out, and they did not vote Remain.

And yet calls for a progressive alliance persist. The Labour left is sceptical, to be sure – to them Labour alone should be the progressive alliance. But many Greens and Lib Dems would contemplate ganging up with other parties in order to push forward progressive reforms. These include constitutional and electoral reform, sustainable economics, and stronger environmental protection. In principle I would support such an alliance, but only with a Labour Party genuinely committed to political pluralism – which rules out the current leadership.

And yet, even if Labour could be brought into the picture, the numbers don’t add up, even if the SNP could be brought into it. An alliance would need to present a serious challenge to the Conservatives in English constituencies. Labour and Green support might help the Lib Dems recover some of their lost seats; the Greens might pick up one or two seats. But it is very hard to see how Green and Lib Dem support would give enough help to Labour. Instead it is more likely that the Tories would successfully exploit Labour muddle to destroy the whole alliance.

So, is it game over for progressive politics? Not quite. Brexit may have won the referendum, but Remain still managed 48% of the vote. But that 48% includes a lot of people who normally vote Conservative. If a way can be found to peel these voters away into a progressive alliance, then it could be back in business.

And it isn’t hard to see what might do this. The Prime Minister Theresa May is enjoying a political honeymoon, but her party is at sixes and sevens over Brexit. It is not at all clear what shape a post Brexit Britain will take because her party is hopelessly divided on it. The moderates want to create a cosy relationship with the EU, in order to protect investment and the economy. But the Eurosceptics that make up so much of the party will not stomach the compromises that entails. Meanwhile, if the British economy goes into recession, as many fear, the pressure on government finances will drive further division. It is not beyond imagination that the only way out will involve a second referendum.

The Conservatives might split under the strain. That is unlikely. As Labour will find out as its MPs contemplate their position, the pressures for the large parties to stay in one unit under Britain’s electoral system are huge. There are no safe seats for breakaway parties, and safe seats are most MPs have no real idea of how to fight a hard seat or the stomach to do it. But the splits will undermine the Tory credibility, giving the chance for other parties to take their votes.

And surely this is the historic mission for the recovering Liberal Democrats. Labour has lost interest in anybody that has contemplated voting Conservative (as both leadership contenders vie to prove how left-wing they are), and the Greens have never had it. There is nobody else to fill the vacant space. For once the coalition experience may prove a positive. That might then revive the idea of a progressive alliance, though the credibility of the Labour Party would be a major obstacle. It remains the best chance for progressive politics.

The Lib Dems are understandably focusing on their core vote, and not on scooping up flighty floating voters. But in order to achieve anything the party will have to return to appealing to these voters in due course. Disillusioned Labour voters will not be enough. The party will have to detach centre-right voters too. That should be food for thought for the party as it tries to redefine itself in British voters’ minds.

Was the coalition’s austerity policy a colossal mistake?

Politics is dominated by historical myths, about which the different political camps disagree. Examining these myths critically is one way that societies can find reconciliation. While “austerity”, the favoured shorthand for government cutbacks, is fast sinking as an issue in British politics, long since overtaken by Brexit, its mythology remains a defining issue. This mythology has right and left versions. I want to look at the mythology of the left.

Few in the Labour Party would disagree with Oxford Economist Simon Wren-Lewis in a recent article that austerity “will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.” We in the Lib Dems are implicated in this criticism, as part of the coalition government of 2010-2015 that implemented austerity. It is exhibit B in the Labour case that the Lib Dems should cease to exist as a political party, and that all “progressives” should simply join their party (exhibit A being the tuition fees fiasco). So what are we to make of it?

Mr Wren-Lewis sets out this narrative very clearly in his article. He is an open Labour supporter, so his comments come with a political slant – but he is a proper economist and the case he makes is a substantial one.

This narrative runs something like this: in 2008-2009 Britain followed the world into a severe recession, brought about by a global banking crisis. This inevitably created a government deficit, of which he says: “We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.” The Labour government used fiscal stimulus to moderate the effects of the recession, but the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that came to power in 2010 rejected this approach and focused obsessively (so the story goes) with reducing the deficit, using austerity policies – cutting government spending severely. He claims that this focus on austerity had no economic merit, and is best understood as a political exercise to reduce the size of government, with misery as its by-product.

Mr Wren-Lewis says that the government defended its policy with three arguments: that innovative monetary policy would provide the necessary stimulus; that improved business and consumer confidence would do the trick; and that financial markets would not finance the national debt unless action was taken. He demolishes each of these arguments, and I would not disagree with him, though there is an element of hindsight and the first two ideas came good in the end. As a result, he says, the British recovery was extremely slow, costing the average household £4,000 a year – coincidentally about the same as the Treasury’s estimate of the costs of Brexit.

But Mr Wren-Lewis is being disingenuous. There was a fourth argument for austerity. And that was that most of the deficit in in 2010 was “structural” – in other words had a deeper cause the recession. If I remember correctly, the Office of Budget Responsibility estimated that about 8% or so of the 11% deficit was structural. In other words a lot of the pre-crash tax revenues were gone for good, and would require more than short term demand management to bring them back.There is plenty of scope for disagreement amongst professional economists here – but it does suggest an alternative narrative, to which I personally subscribe.

This narrative posits that the British economy was not in a stable position when recession struck. It had already been pumped up by excess fiscal stimulus; there was too much private sector debt; and there was an unhealthy dependence on international finance and, to a lesser degree, North Sea oil. The evidence for this is not just the precipitate nature of the crash – bigger in Britain than in other developed nations – but the large current account deficit before, during and after the crash, and the high level of Sterling beforehand, and its abrupt fall. It is true that the public deficit did not look outsized by international standards before the crash, but, as my macroeconomics lecturer pointed out at the time, the overall economic context had classic signs unsustainable fiscal stimulus. The crash was more than an ordinary business-cycle downturn, it was Britain’s financial chickens coming home to roost.

So what does that mean? It means that fiscal stimulus as a response to the recession would have only a limited impact, and would not have restored the economy to its previous health, and in particular it would not have solved the government’s deficit problem. Before long the additional demand generated would have led to inflation (in fact unlikely outside economics textbooks) or (much more likely) a worsening current account deficit, i.e. stimulating other countries’ economies rather than ours. That put the British government in a bind. There was a case for stimulating demand through fiscal policy, and yet government expenditure had to be cut back towards something sustainable in the medium term. The government in fact plotted a middle way and, far from obsessively focusing on deficit reduction, moderated the cuts when the recovery proved slower than they expected. The trajectory of deficit reduction was close to that projected by the outgoing Labour government in 2010.

But many distinguished economists were and remain highly critical of the coalition’s austerity policies. Labour supporters can quote any number of famous names. But you need to read what these distinguished people actually said, rather than the mood music they fed into. In fact they hedged their bets. They focused criticism on the lack of public investment, and not across the board austerity. Investment, in theory anyway, is a magic bullet in this context. It generates future productivity growth, so helps to put the economy on a more sustainable future path, while at the same time providing short-term demand. This is a perfectly valid criticism of the coalition record, shared by many Lib Dems who were part of the government. But it does not suggest that the majority of austerity policies were wrong in principle. Taxes and spending were badly out of line and something had to be done to return them to balance. All I can say in the government’s defence is that public investment is much harder to do in practice than in theory – so often the money ends up in wasteful white elephant projects. But it would have relatively easy to allow the building of more council homes, for example.

Where I agree with Mr Wren-Lewis (though he does not explicitly say it) is that the macro-economic policy presented by Labour at the General Election in 2015, under Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, was much more sensible than the one presented for the Conservatives by George Osborne. Mr Osborne proposed a charge towards fiscal surplus that made little economic sense – and one year on it is being buried by his successor. The Labour strategy would have knocked some of the hard edges off austerity, while promoting a higher level of investment. The left is right to call to call it “austerity-lite”, but wrong to suggest that this was a bad thing.

So criticism of austerity is warranted, but this does not amount to what the left wants it to do: to prove that cuts to government spending and benefits were unnecessary, and still less that they can be reversed. Extra spending will require higher taxes. Economists may feel that austerity policies are self-defeating in many instances, such as in some of the Eurozone adjustment programmes. But there is also growing recognition of a deeper weakness in many advanced economies, including Britain’s, signified by the stagnation of productivity. That is limiting tax revenues and what governments can afford to do. That weakness should be the central topic of political debate.



How should Lib Dems embrace economic policy?

The British Liberal Democrats are setting up a policy working group on the “21st Century Economy”. I was among over 200 people to volunteer to take part, but sadly I was not picked. Those that have been picked will face truly daunting quantities of advice and  reading material, but nevertheless but doesn’t stop me from offering my thoughts today. This time I won’ focus on the hard content of any new policy, but on its all-important political framing.

So far as content is concerned, regular readers will have got the hang of it. I blogged about it last year as part of another Lib Dem initiative, recommending Four Themes. These themes are green growth, small is beautiful, humane public services and redistribution of imbalances.

This line of thinking is very compatible with Lib Dem values and should go down well with the membership. But it presents a political problem. It means overturning several beliefs that the British public policy establishment holds dear. These include that higher volumes of consumption of things are essential to economic health (and may even be a measure of it), and that large, centrally controlled systems and organisations are the most efficient.  It amounts to a policy revolution. And revolutions make people uncomfortable.

It is essential for future political success for the Lib Dems to have one foot in the political mainstream – so that they are regarded as being basically a sensible party. If they aren’t they will be condemned to the margins of politics like the Greens. It is the same dilemma faced by Labour supporters as they challenge capitalist ways. You do not secure lasting political progress in a democracy from the extremes.

The Lib Dems should therefore present a radical policy agenda in an un-radical way. It must be evolutionary, not revolutionary. The party needs to specify small steps forward, each of which is able to achieve demonstrable improvements, that will over time change the conventional wisdom.

This is why I particularly like the idea of Green Growth. it contains a highly constructive ambiguity. On the one hand it suggests that the party favours economic growth in the conventional sense, which the public has come to associate with better employment conditions and higher pay. But it does not quite say what is actually meant by growth – it could mean general wellbeing and quality of life rather than volume of consumption. Meanwhile the phrase unambiguously points to environmental sustainability. I strongly suggest that the Lib Dems make the phrase central to their proposition, or come up with something that does the job even better.

That’s my first piece of advice. My next advice is that they need to tread very carefully around two hot political topics: free trade and macro-economic management (aka “austerity”). These may well be excluded from the policy group’s formal scope, but the party’s wider narrative cannot avoid tackling them.

Free trade is a totemic issue for the Liberal Democrats. It was the one of the key organising themes of its predecessor: the Liberal Party. That was in a different time and context, of course. The Liberals then saw free trade as a way of breaking the hold of the landowning classes, who sought to protect their business interests (especially agricultural) at the expense of high prices for the masses. But even now, it is clear that freedom of trade, and competition, is a good way of keeping consumer prices down and freedom of choice up. By and large the general framework of world trade is something that Lib Dems will be quite happy with.

But something has changed in the power balance. Free trade helps keeps prices down, but it also seems to be doing the same with wages, until you reach a globally mobile elite of senior managers and other professionals. And worse, the instruments of free trade can allow globally powerful businesses to legally challenge public policy. There are some particularly odious examples from the tobacco industry as they have successfully slowed down, though not defeated, the introduction of plain packaging of cigarettes. Intellectual property is another issue that needs to be examined with a sceptical attitude. It is promoted by many businesses as being akin to any other form of property right and fundamental to civilised existence, but it is often used to stifle freedom and innovation, rather than encourage it. It is a favourite means for the manipulation of profits to low tax regimes by multinationals.

And trade agreements make this a hot topic. Brexit adds to the relevance. There were already cogent arguments that the EU was using its free trade rules to block general public policy (such as restricting state subsidies to the steel industry – though liberals should see two sides to that argument). Brexit does let Britain off the hook for the proposed EU-US trade pact – TTIP – which is causing a lot liberal angst. But the country must decide what sort of trading relationships it wants, and how far to go – including whether to join multilateral pacts such as the nascent one in the Pacific, TPP, which the country could join if it left the EU (or so I read). I have to say that I am agnostic on this question. My faith in free trade pacts has been shaken, but not destroyed. But the issue is becoming a political touchstone, and the Lib Dems would do well to apply some serious thought to this area, rather than recycling old slogans.

The Lib Dems will also find a minefield confronting them on macroeconomic management. The left have decided to make opposition to “austerity” one of its organising principles. I suspect that is because they draw so much strength from public sector employees and people from places such as universities and charities that depend heavily on public largesse in some shape or form. But anti-austerity does not resonate amongst the general public, who generally get the impression (justified or not) that public spending benefits other people. Since the Greens and Labour have drawn away the more trenchant political voices on the left, the Lib Dems have the opportunity to strike a more nuanced tone. Austerity is an elastic idea, so it is quite possible to say that you are against it, but the party should not apply “homeopathic policy” – mouthing anti austerity rhetoric while diluting the substance – as this did not work well for the previous Labour leadership.

My advice is for the Lib Dems is to stay clear as they can from the word “austerity”, and to strongly advocate higher levels of public investment in education (not just schools, incidentally) and green growth. Public services, though, must deliver value for money, and will need continued reform – though not the brainless outsourcing and “payment by results” favoured by the Conservative government.

So there are some hard questions and tricky politics. But as I said last week, the left has to develop a new economic narrative. Given the staleness of the economic discourse on the far left, the Lib Dems have real opportunity to take up thought leadership. There is a real prize to be taken here.

The Mandibles: Lionel Shriver’s liberal dystopia is a must-read

I have recently finished reading The Mandibles, the latest novel by Lionel Shriver, whom I chiefly know through her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, which I haven’t actually read. The new book is set in the US in the future (2029 to 2047), and the core of the book’s meaning is in economics and politics. It is a must-read for anybody interested in either.

I don’t want to spoil the plot too much. I will say nothing about the interplay of the characters, which is very well done, in the first two-thirds of the book anyway. This may be strong enough to entice even readers not interested in the wider narrative, if it wasn’t for rather long passages of explanatory text in the first part of the book, thinly disguised as conversation. I found the economic explanation fun, of course, but it does slow things down in the first part of the book. Ms Shriver is very skilled at understanding how different the world looks from different points of view, and how this breeds misunderstanding. She also has a wry sense of humour, which is never very far away.

I will instead talk about the economic and political context which she sketches out. The book is in two parts. The first part (which is about two thirds of the text) is set in the years following 2029. In it the US economy suffers an implosion when the rest of the world turns on it. This follows from three trends which are clearly visible in the current US scene. First, the country can get away with huge net indebtedness to the outside world because the US dollar is the top global reserve currency. This allows it to sustain large trade and fiscal deficits, which “Keynesian” economists suggest is not an urgent problem; Ms Shriver suggests that liberals will never get round to taking it seriously. And second, the political liberals will come to dominate US politics, in the way they have Californian politics, through the rise of Hispanic Americans. And third demographic change will exert a growing pressure on state finances with rising demands on the state to deal with the needs of aging baby boomers.

So the US deficits persist until the rest of the world decides that it has had enough, and no longer wants to keep piling up US currency debt. They launch a coordinated coup to replace the US dollar as the reserve currency with a new currency that they create for the purpose. To cut a long story short, the US government reacts badly and the US economy collapses. I will leave the details for those who want to read the book. The striking thing to me is the plausibility of it all. Notwithstanding the elegant arguments put by one of the characters, who is a Keynesian economist, which at times sound very similar to the sorts of things I say in my blog (especially his hatred of gold).

The second part of the book takes the scene to 2047, after the US economy stabilises and recovers, and takes up a much diminished place in global terms. In terms of drama this part of the book is much weaker. The cast of characters is greatly reduced, and the main focus is on just two of them (one of whom, is Ms Shriver’s alta ego, a by then nonagenarian novelist), and much less actually happens. From purely a novelistic point of view, this section probably wasn’t necessary. But it is essential for the development of Ms Shriver’s political message. She sets out the US as a sort of liberal (in the US sense) dystopia. There is a wall along the US border with Mexico; it is built by the Mexicans to keep US refugees out. The demographic balance has become so out of kilter than the tax rates have to be raised sky high – and the government creates an insidious method of ensuring compliance – planting a chip in each citizen’s head that records all their financial dealings.  Again I will spare you the details: read the book.

Ms Shriver’s political standpoint is clearly a libertarian one. She values individual freedom ahead of collective social obligations. Her novel’s message is that social democracy contains the seeds of its own destruction, and will either collapse, or undermine the liberal ideals that many of its supporters hold dear. I have to say that her alternative does not look much better: wellbeing seems to depend on inheriting wealth to create a degree of personal capital.

So why should somebody like me, who has very different political values to Ms Shriver’s, give so much time to this novel? Firstly, those ideas are presented in a digestible way. The second part of the book may drift into one–sidedness occasionally, but Ms Shriver’s great gift is to understand differing points of view, which makes her case much more accessible.  Secondly we must resist the tendency for modern political discourse to be tribal. Liberals like me do spend quite a bit of time in dialogue with those on the left of the political spectrum, but not nearly enough trying to understand the right. That is a dangerous thing.

It is dangerous because so much of politics and economics is a matter of balance. It is not a matter of finding the right ideas and taking them to an extreme, but understanding the dangers of different policies and plotting a way between them. Too many on the left have an excessive faith in “Keynesian” economics (I use quotation marks because this economic philosophy has drifted so far from the flexibility of mind that characterised Maynard Keynes himself). The fact that many developed countries can easily afford high levels of government borrowing is not to say that such borrowing does not present longer term dangers. And high-tax high-public service societies have their attractions, but present major challenges for the longer term, which the political right see more clearly than we do. Above all the novel serves to show how fragile the foundations of modern middle class society might be.

So this book should promote a bit of healthy self-examination among those on the liberal left. As well as being a well-written and very enjoyable read.



Economics is at the heart of the left’s weakness

In my last post I said that the lack of a convincing economic vision was at the heart of the British Labour Party’s difficulties, and a problem for the left generally. It is worth unpacking that a bit and sketching the direction that any new thinking should take.

The central political problem for the left is the disaffection of so many working class and lower middle class voters, particularly ethnically native people. They are becoming increasingly voting for right wing populist parties and causes. This was a dominant factor in the vote for Brexit in Britain, and the rise of Donald Trump in the US and Marine Le Pen in France, to name just a few examples. These voters had been part of a left wing coalition, but leftist parties moved up market to attract liberal middle class voters, especially those employed by the public sector, and also pitched for ethnic minorities.

Meanwhile problems for the traditional working classes go beyond political neglect. They are overwhelming the losers from the advances in technology and globalisation which have destroyed the relatively stable and well-paid jobs on which they used to depend. Whole swathes of Britain are stuck in a post-industrial doldrums, especially in smaller towns in England and Wales. The left needs to win back these voters if it is to challenge the populists and the centre right. They have little clue as to how to do this, and distract themselves with other issues. Labour indulges in internecine strife. The Lib Dems are concentrating on rebuilding their core vote – i.e. focusing on the middle class vote.

But the cluelessness of the left in Britain struck me most forcibly from a comment made by the Green MP Caroline Lucas. She blamed the Brexit vote on austerity – government cutbacks since 2010 following the financial crisis. And yet the bulk of the disaffected voters were never very dependent on government jobs and handouts, and are often quite supportive of austerity policies, as they felt they hit the undeserving – immigrants and layabouts –  rather then themselves. Indeed, they benefited probably more than most from government generosity on raising tax allowances. It’s not austerity, it is the lack of decent jobs that is the problem. And government handouts are not the answer because these foster dependency and undermine people’s sense of self-worth.

The left starts with a cultural problem. They are by and large liberal, inclusive and cosmopolitan in outlook. This helps in coalition building generally, and especially in outreach to ethnic minorities, but it creates immediate distrust from native working classes. In order to overcome this the left needs to offer hard benefits – and that involves two things. Good quality jobs and decent public services. The left loves good public services too, of course – they provide lots of employment opportunities for their core supporters – though they are less certain how to pay for them as an aging population pushes up demand. But on jobs they have almost nothing to say.

Such talk as there is concerns macroeconomics. The left favours stimulating demand through generous fiscal policy to create jobs in the economy as a whole. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, talks of investing in infrastructure. This may be a good idea in itself, but by and large these policies create the wrong jobs in the wrong places. New housing, for example, needs to be built in the prosperous south east, where the shortage is greatest, and firms often have to import the workers from abroad because local ones lack the skills. Some infrastructure projects should help the economies of the more run-down regions, it is true, but these need to be part of a more coherent strategy of regeneration. Meanwhile the centre-right has cottoned on the ideas of infrastructure and regional redevelopment as well.

What to do? The first thing is accept that the problems of the disaffected working classes are more than a little local difficulty with conventional economic policy. It is an aspect of a broader crisis brought about by globalisation and technology change, and a blind spot in conventional economic thinking, with its emphasis on aggregated statistics like GDP, and one dimensional concepts of efficiency and productivity. It needs fresh thinking of a type that will be heavily criticised by the conventional public policy establishment. As fellow blogger David Boyle has pointed out, this is not necessarily a problem with economists, but with public servants tied to the old conventional wisdom.

The problem is that conventional policies are tied to highly centralised political structures and tend to concentrate the benefits of economic growth at the centres of power, while hollowing out the rest. While promising efficiency, it is in fact wasteful because it leaves so much human capital under-used. So political decentralisation is a large part of the solution. This is very hard for Britons to grasp, since we have been centralising since William the Conqueror in 1066. But countries with a more distributed history of political power, like Germany, Scandinavia and Switzerland, perform much better while having very similar cultural conditions.

But if political decentralisation is part of the answer, it is incomplete. The USA is politically highly decentralised and yet suffers similar problems of alienation. There localised political units have not been able to challenge the power of big corporate interests, who collect large monopoly profits and suck them out of the local economies in the name of economic efficiency. Wider national and international political structures need to keep these corporations in check, and yet too often they are captured by them. This is an unresolved battle in the European Union, incidentally, and the best reason to be sceptical of the EU project – though the EU also does much to counter global corporate power.

Meanwhile we need to stack the economic odds in favour of local entrepreneurship and innovation, and celebrate localised, human and integrated services that tailor service solutions to individuals. Much more public money needs to be channelled into rebuilding skills in de-industrialised regions – something Britain is woefully bad at by international standards (consider this interesting article in the Economist).

Some on the left are starting to get this. American Democrats are waking up to the evils of large corporate oligopolies. British Lib Dems are sympathetic to the decentralisation agenda. A number of Labour city leaders also grasp it. But it is complex and difficult area. It needs both grand visions to change mindsets and capture the imagination, and small, practical steps that will achieve the goals in an evolutionary way that convinces sceptics.

I will try to use this blog to help develop the new economic thinking in my very small way.


The rise of Labour’s hard left reflects the weakness of the soft left

I am no fan the British Labour Party. I have spent years enduring its arrogance and tribalism; I would not mind terribly if the party did not survive its current crisis. There is a temptation to gloat over its predicament – though this would be a distraction from the important political questions of our time. But it is more important to reflect on wider lessons for the political left.

Labour’s immediate problem is that their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has no idea how to lead a political party, even if he were inclined to lead it in a sensible direction. To understand the depth of his failure I would point to two articles by former supporters. First from the Guardian journalist Owen Jones is getting a lot of attention right now; but what really shocked me was this from Richard Murphy, who developed Mr Corbyn’s economic manifesto last year, when he was running for the Labour leadership. And yet Mr Corbyn remains very popular in the party’s mass membership, much of which has only recently joined, who seem convinced that he represents a new kind of politics, and that criticism arises from malign forces. And that is enough to keep Mr Corbyn secure in his role.

As a convenient shorthand I will call Mr Corbyn and his supporters the “hard left”, though it is in fact a more complex fusion of old and new leftist trends than this name suggests. The word “hard” suggests its uncompromising attitude towards the political and business establishment, and its rejection of the conventional methods of politics. It compares with two other loose groupings. First are centrists, who held sway in the late 1990s and 2000s under former leader Tony Blair. These combined an embrace of global capitalism with a broad role for government intervention, albeit using quasi-market structures much of the time, and with a contempt for intermediate levels of democratic intervention below national government. The centrists made a successful pitch for formerly Conservative voters, giving the party power from 1997 to 2010. And yet the left of the party felt betrayed by its compromises, and especially by the Mr Blair’s support for the Iraq war in 2003.

In between the centrists (otherwise referred to as Blairites) and the hard left stands what outsiders call the “soft left”. I’m not sure if they would be happy to use that term themselves, they might prefer “liberal left”, but it seems to me highly appropriate. The soft left want to have the best of both worlds: drawing on the anger felt by the public sector workers that are the core of the hard left, while still wanting to achieve and wield political power through conventional political processes. The soft left became the dominant Labour faction under the leadership of Ed Miliband, after Labour lost power in 2010 until last year’s general election. It still forms most of Labour’s parliamentary party, and it is trying to oust Mr Corbyn as leader.

The success of the hard left reflects the weakness of the centrists and the soft left. The centrists are now a busted flush. The financial crash of 2008 exposed the hollowness of their achievement; the economy was not robust enough to support the level of public expenditure they favoured. Meanwhile their economic policies seemed to favour an affluent minority. While they might use government agencies to redistribute much of the wealth, what was required was decent jobs in poorer parts of the country. The Conservatives took over much of their governing ethos.

The soft left are no better, and that goes to the heart of Labour’s problems. They have no more idea about what to do than anybody else; the hard left doesn’t have much idea either, but is able to focus its energies on being against things instead. They nevertheless focus hard on what they have to do and say in order to win back political power. Under Mr Miliband this took the form of endless re-launches as they tested out one half-baked idea after another.  By 2015 they ended up with an election manifesto that was generally centrist. Its core fiscal policy is in the process of being adopted by Theresa May’s new Conservative government, along with many other policies and priorities. But in order to coopt the anger of the hard left they had to dress it up as something more radical. This is what, in another context, the Economist calls “homeopathic politics”: the adoption of radical policies in minute quantities in the hope that it will create a positive aura by association. The Economist framed this idea to describe the way the American right tries to tap into the anger of the working classes at globalisation. Its warning was that it always backfires, as it will never satisfy the people that it Is trying to appeal too. In due course it led to the capture of the Republican nomination by Donald Trump. Something similar has happened to the soft left.

The soft left have compounded their problems by changing the leadership election rules so that not only is the mass membership in control, but they are boosted by temporary members (though they are trying to backtrack on this now). Two muddled ideas seem to be behind this. The first was that broadening the franchise for the leadership battle would make the selectorate more representative of the country at large; a quick glance at US primary elections should have shaken them out of that. Second was that the soft left could ride the tide of left wing anger at “austerity” and “neoliberalism”, the abstract ideas that the hard left choose to obsess about. But they have been outgunned by the hard left.

Meanwhile soft left MPs have shown little backbone. Their chosen challenger to Mr Corbyn, Owen Smith, was almost unheard of outside Labour circles, and even he required another MP, Angela Eagle, to break cover and make the initial challenge. The best qualified MPs to be leader are keeping a low profile.

The political misjudgements and the lack of backbone are signs of a wider weakness – a failure to develop distinctive political ideas of their own with which to excite the country at large. Owen Jones’s article, linked to above, takes the form of a series of questions to which he feels Mr Corbyn’s supporters have no convincing answer. But the soft left would struggle with exactly these questions.

This vacuum of ideas on the left is not unique to Britain. It is why populists of left and right are doing so well in so many developed countries. It is why the left is in full retreat in Latin America too. Beyond the populists it is leaving the political space dominated by the centre-right, such as Britain’s Conservatives and Germany’s Christian Democrats. Developing new, liberal ideas on economics and democracy is now of the utmost urgency on the left. I wish more people were engaged in that exercise.

And it is the best hope for my party: the Liberal Democrats. It has flirted with both centrism and the soft left; neither will work now. But it is as close as anybody to the new ideas that will be needed to take our society forward. It should make development of these ideas its top priority.

But what are these new ideas? A topic for another day!