Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

What does respecting the referendum result mean?

Take the people who voted Leave because they believed there would be more money for the NHS if the UK didn’t have to contribute to the EU. People, and there were plenty of them, who believed the £350 million a week figure. Should we respect their vote by leaving the EU, which would mean considerably less money available for the NHS?

And how about those who voted Leave because they believed less immigration from the EU would mean they had better access to public services. They can hardly be blamed for voting that way, because plenty of politicians from the Prime Minister downwards have told them that immigration is to blame for pressure on public services. In reality reducing immigration would almost surely reduce the money available for public services. So how are we respecting their wishes by leaving the EU?

And those who voted Leave because they were worried about being ‘swamped’. Not because it was happening to them right now, but because they have read that it is going to happen. When Turkey joins the EU. Or with all those refugees. Because they read countless articles that scare them. The only difference between this example and others is that this is explicit in talking about ‘the Muslim problem’. Do we honestly think that leaving the EU but continuing with free movement is going to assuage their fears?

It is an awkward truth that what many people wanted when the voted Leave is either simply impossible, or cannot happen without making everyone significantly poorer year after year. It is this reality that keeps the government in a fantasy world. Almost no one who voted to Leave is going to be happy with the result of government decisions. Those who wanted better access to public services will not get it. Those who wanted more sovereignty will find their sovereignty sold off cheap in a desperate attempt to get new trade deals. Those who wanted less immigration will also find their wishes largely frustrated because the UK cannot afford to reduce immigration. 

The parallels with the US are clear. The Republicans, after spending years denouncing Obamacare, found they could not produce anything better. Those promoting Leave also did so without any thought to how it might actually happen, and therefore they have nowhere to go when confronted with reality. As a result, the government invents a magical customs union so that Liam Fox can have something to do. I have never known a UK government look so pathetic. 

This is why the lies told by the Leave side are so critical. People tell me this is not important because most elections involve politicians lying. I'm afraid this is exactly equivalent to saying that Trump is just another politician who lies. It should be obvious that Trump and today's Republican party are something new and dangerous: people who tell blatant lies all the time about crucial issues and construct an alternative reality with the help of media outlets like Fox News. In exactly the same way, those in charge of Brexit live in their own imaginary world supported by the pro-Leave press. It is this imaginary world that they got 52% of the electorate to vote for.

That alone is enough to completely discredit the referendum as an exercise in democracy. But there is more. The debate we should have had during the referendum was about the costs and benefits of immigration, This never happened because the person leading the Remain campaign had spent so much of his political life stoking up fears about immigration. It is hardly surprising that so many people voted to end free movement when both campaigns were united about immigration being a problem and way too high. The referendum campaign was like a boxing match where one side tied one of his hands behind his back and the other side brought knives.

Respecting the referendum result means passing all this off as just normal. It is not normal. It is no more normal than Republican's taking health insurance away from millions. It is like an election held by an authoritarian state that runs a xenophobic campaign and controls much of the means of information. In that case we would say that this authoritarian state respected democracy in only the most superficial sense, and the same was true for the EU referendum. 

We cannot say that we should respect the right of people to make mistakes when the information they were given was so untruthful. The people voted for Trump and it is right to struggle to limit the damage and overturn that result after 4 years. Those who struggle against Trump are not disrespecting democracy but fighting to preserve it. In the same way it is right to limit the damage the referendum vote does and reverse it whenever that opportunity arises.

I understand those who say that in today's political environment anything other than another referendum is politically impossible. I understand why it benefits the opposition to sit on the fence and triangulate. [1] But please do not tell me that by being politically expedient in this way you are keeping the moral high ground. [2] There is nothing noble in defending an exercise in democracy that was as deeply flawed as EU referendum. It is no accident that the only major overseas leader that supports Brexit is Donald Trump, and that those pushing Brexit hailed his victory. Brexit is our Trump, and the sooner both disappear the better the world will be.  

[1] Although what is the point of Labour hedging bets on keeping in the customs union? It makes their Brexit strategy look much more like confused and conflicted than strategic triangulation.

[2] It is very easy to tell the difference between political expediency and political conviction. Imagine the very unlikely event that parliament votes to end Brexit. Would you join demonstrations outside parliament calling this an affront to democracy, or would you breath a huge sigh of relief?

Postscript 17/08/17   If you think that these lies were not important in influencing the result, then you should read what Dominic Cummings who ran the Leave campaign thinks: in particular the paragraph that starts "Pundits and MPs kept saying"  

Monday, 14 August 2017

How did the UK austerity mistake happen

As the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and consequent recession were in progress, the Labour government looked at how fiscal stimulus could be used to moderate its impact. This would increase the budget deficit that was already rising as a result of the recession, but they knew that cutting interest rates alone would be insufficient to deal with this crisis, and that you do not worry about the deficit in a recession. That is Econ 101, i.e. basic macroeconomics, and it is 100% correct.

Here Osborne and his advisors saw a political opportunity. Before the recession, fiscal policy had been all about meeting the government’s fiscal rules about debt and deficits, because monetary policy looked after smoothing the business cycle. There had been much discussion about the extent to which Gordon Brown had been fiddling these rules. Osborne could therefore make political capital over the rising deficit, particularly if he could suggest the deficit represented fiscal profligacy rather than the result of the recession.

But what about Econ 101? The advice he was given (I suspect) was reflected in a speech he gave in 2009. This gave a short account of the history of macroeconomic thought, and described how the New Keynesian model underpinned his macroeconomic policy. It said that in today’s world the consensus is that monetary policy not fiscal policy dealt with moderating booms and recessions. Yet it failed to mention that this idea no longer worked when nominal interest rates hit their lower bond. And that unconventional monetary policy was powerless in the New Keynesian model. The speech was given a month after interest rates hit their lower bound.

The speech also said nothing about expansionary austerity, or the need to appease the markets. That would all come later. This also suggests that Osborne's focus on the deficit was a simple but devastating macroeconomic error, a result of just not doing your homework. It was an incredible error to make, as the fact that interest rates had hit their lower bound was all over the financial press. If the media had been in touch with academic economics they would have pounced on this black hole in the speech. (Maybe this is complete coincidence, but his main economic advisor had previously worked at the IFS, where as I have said elsewhere they do not do macro. [1])

As an economic choice his policy was crucially out of date, but as a political choice it was almost brilliant. The line he pushed on the deficit came to dominate the media narrative, which I was later to describe as media macro. It did not win the 2010 election outright, but it went on to win the 2015 election. I say almost brilliant, because it has proved the undoing of his successor. The economic damage done by cutting government spending at the one and only time monetary policy could not offset its impact was immense. I think it is no exaggeration to call it the most damaging UK macroeconomic policy mistake in my lifetime as an economist.

It was damaging in part because politics drove two additional features of his policy after he became chancellor in 2010. First, the austerity policy would have had less economic impact if most measures had been delayed until later into the 5 year term of the coalition government. But that would have meant deep cuts before the next election, and Osborne could see that would do political damage. Second, although the fiscal rule did not require it, public investment was cut back sharply in the first few years, because investment is often easiest to cut. As I say in that 2015 post, those cuts in public investment alone could have reduced GDP by 3%.

By 2010 you need to introduce other actors who played a part in these mistakes. The Treasury did what the Treasury unfortunately often does, and put public spending control above the macroeconomic health of the country. The Governor of the Bank of England pretended that losing his main instrument didn’t matter, even though I’m told the MPC had almost no idea what impact unconventional monetary policy would have. If either institution had acted better perhaps the damage done by the austerity policy could have been moderated, but we will never know.

But the main damage was done when the Conservatives were still in opposition. Did the policy of opposing fiscal stimulus start off as a policy to reduce the size of the state under cover of deficit reduction: what I call deficit deceit? Or was it just something to beat Labour with: the first in what proved to be a long line of bad economic judgements simply designed to wrongfoot his opponents. Without the actors involved telling us, I think it is impossible for us to tell. However there are two things I think we can clearly say.

First, if it started as ignorance rather than deceit, it turned into the latter as Osborne prepared to repeat the policy all over again before the 2015 election, while at the same time cutting taxes. Second, if it started as ignorance it is far too kind to call it a mistake. It is similar to someone who has never learnt to drive taking a car onto the highway and causing mayhem. It reflects a cavalier attitude to economic expertise that has, I have argued, its roots back in the early days of Thatcherism.

[1] This advice served him well in other respects, such as establishing the form of his fiscal rule (which would help limit the impact of austerity after 2011) and creating the OBR.   

Friday, 11 August 2017

The politics of lying

When people say ‘all politicians lie’, they cannot seriously mean they all hold to the same standards of veracity as Donald Trump. But how do you measure degrees of lying in politics?

Paul Krugman suggests that the Republican party’s problems began when they started pushing the idea that tax cuts pay for themselves. The notion that cutting taxes will bring in more rather than less tax revenue is a theoretical possibility but has been shown by study after study to be empirically false. But why was this lie worse than others?

I would suggest the following. The lie became (and continues to be) a major plank of Republican policy. We are not talking about being economical with the truth with statistics to present a party’s policies in a more favourable light. This lie was ultimately an attempt to legitimise cutting taxes on the very rich, and reducing the size of the state (because when the tax cuts did not pay for themselves the next step was to cut spending to control the deficit). It was a lie that went completely against expert opinion, and was at the heart of Republican economic strategy.

Lying in this fundamental way distorts the whole direction of political activity. It and its supporters begin to focus on ways to hide the truth. It means setting up think tanks whose aim is not just to push the party line, but also to provide a counter-weight to, and therefore neutralise the power of, real expertise. Such think tanks involve an element of ‘pay us your money and we will push your interests’, which is why right wing think tanks are the least transparent about their funding. It also means using partisan media outlets to present an alternative reality to voters.

If you can get away with this, then why stop at one crucial lie. Politics becomes about choosing the lies they can get away with that will promote their cause. It is about what lies sound plausible to particular voters, or what lies a partisan press can reliably sustain by selecting evidence to support them. Lines between politics and journalism in partisan outlets become blurred.

We see the politics of lying all the time in totalitarian regimes, or regimes that control much of the mean of information. What I think has surprised many is that two nations that pride themselves on their democratic traditions and independent media can reach a point where the leader and ruling party of one lies all the time, and the other undertakes a huge constitutional change on the basis of a campaign where one side lied with impunity. The Brexit campaign did not lie for the fun of it, but because it would gain them votes, and what evidence we have suggests their lies were believed.

It is not hard to understand why these two longstanding democracies succumbed so easily to the politics of lying. First, they tolerated the growth of a partisan media that danced to whatever tune their owners played. Second, the remaining non-partisan media placed even-handedness between each side, the political horse race and entertainment above informing the public and telling the truth. The Clinton email controversy illustrated clearly a failure to apply any notion of balance. Calling the £350 million a week figure ‘contested’ was literally being economical with the truth. The BBC’s mission to “inform, educate and entertain” has a secret caveat: informing and educating does not include anything deemed political.

What I find surprising is not just that this happened, but that the non-partisan broadcast media has so little interest in doing anything about it. In the US, when Trump complained about his coverage, CNN hired someone nominated by Trump. In the UK the BBC sees no evil, and bats away letters from the Royal Economic Society about its Brexit coverage as just one more irritating complainant. Understandable given business models and constant attacks on Fake News/Liberal bias by the political right, but it means both countries remain wide open to the politics of lying.

Longer read on similar themes: Post-truth and propaganda

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Real wages are mainly a macro issue

What do I mean by this? Macroeconomists have many faults, but one clear positive is that we think about systems as a whole rather than just one particular component. One area where it is important to do this is in thinking about what determines economy wide real wages. Take, for example, this recent post by the Flip Chart Rick. (His posts are brilliant and I try and read every one, but unfortunately this one is too good an illustration of the problem I have in mind.) He starts with this chart from the FT that I reproduce below.

Why is the UK unique in having a combination of negative real wage growth but positive GDP growth? Now it just so happened that I had written a post about this, explaining I thought pretty well the key reasons. But Rick mentions none of these, but writes about a whole bunch of stuff related to labour market structure and trade union power that I think are largely irrelevant. I think he is making the same mistake that people make when they say immigration reduces real wages, or that we would all be better off if only unions were more powerful.

All these things are important in influencing nominal wages, and perhaps the distribution of wages between workers. But real wages also depend on prices, which are set by domestic or overseas firms depending on where goods are made. If nominal wages go up, prices are likely to go up.

So what do I think accounts for the fall in real wages in the UK over the last decade? We need to start with GDP per head rather than GDP: growth in the latter has been boosted by immigration. Here is what has happened to GDP per head over the last ten years.

GDP per head fell in the recession, and then steadily but slowly recovered: the slowest recovery in at least a century. To see how that is related to real wages (using ONS average earnings divided by the CPI), which I call real consumer wages, we first need to look at an intermediary measure: real product wages. These are real wages divided by the price of UK output: the GDP deflator.

This is an interesting measure because its closely related to a simple identity relating GDP to labour income and profits. We can see that real product wages have not changed very much over this period: the recession mainly hit profits, or it created unemployment. (Real wages are wages divided the number of workers, GDP per head is GDP divided by the total population, which includes the unemployed.) But if we are comparing 2007 with 2015, real product wages were as stagnant as GDP per head.

So why did real consumer wages fall? That must be because consumer prices rose more than output prices. There are two reasons why this happened in this case: indirect taxes increased (remember the 2011 VAT hike), and a large sterling depreciation during the GFC worked its way into higher prices for imported goods. It is of course another depreciation after the Brexit vote that is cutting real wages once again right now. As I always try and stress, real GDP growth per head is not a good guide to real income growth if the price of imported goods rise or the price of UK goods sold overseas falls (what economists call a decline in the UK’s terms of trade).

Real wage growth in the UK has not been lousy because of lack of union power, immigrants or higher profits, but because economic growth (properly measured) has been stagnant, austerity included raising indirect taxes and we have now had two large depreciations in sterling. [1] That is not to say that these labour market factors are not important. At a macro level they are important in keeping inflation low, which should have allowed a more rapid expansion of GDP growth than we have actually had. That is where fiscal austerity and Bank of England conservatism come in. At a micro level labour market structure helps influence the distribution of earnings between different labour groups. [2]

What I say about the unimportance of profits is factually true for the UK over this period, but it is not always the case. In the US and elsewhere we have seen a gradual shift from wages to profits over the last few decades. But even here it is not obvious that weak nominal wage growth is the main cause, because in a competitive goods market lower nominal wages should get passed on as lower prices. One explanation that is attracting a lot of interest is the rise of superstar firms. These firms make unusually high profits, or equivalently have low labour costs, and if output is shifting towards these firms labour’s share will fall. What these firms do with their profits then becomes an important issue. More generally, it may be the case that governments have become too lax at breaking up monopolies, allowing a rise in the overall degree of monopoly.

The consequence of growing concentration, superstar firms and a rising share of profits is that income derived from profit grows faster than income from labour. I say derived from profit because I would include in this CEO and financial sector pay, which in effect extracts a proportion of profits from large firms. The net result is that most of the proceeds of economic growth are going to those at the top of the income distribution. But it would be good if we could change that by making the goods market more competitive and removing the incentive for CEOs to extract surplus from firms [3], rather than by making the labour market less competitive.

Technical appendix

For those who are lucky enough to have learnt economics using the Carlin and Soskice text, this is a classic application of wage and price setting curves. If workers become weaker, this shifts the wage setting curve towards the (perfect competition) labour supply curve, reducing the equilibrium real wage (unless the price setting curve is flat) but increasing the equilibrium level of employment. An increase in the degree of monopoly (the mark-up) shifts the price setting curve further away from the perfect competition labour demand curve, which reduces equilibrium employment as well as the real wage.

[1] One possible caveat here is that low wage growth may have encouraged firms to use more labour intensive production techniques, which has depressed investment and productivity. But if we want to incentivise firms to invest in more productive technology, increasing demand is a much better method than increasing nominal wages.

[2] Another caveat. I'm not sure where the real wage data in the FT chart comes from, but the fall in UK real wages there is greater than you get by using the ONS average earnings data (which I have used), so it may be a different and more specific measure of real wages. In which cases labour market structure might be relevant in explaining that number, and I apologise to Rick in advance if that is what he had in mind. 

[3] By, for example, applying much higher tax rates on high incomes, or imposing a maximum wage.  

Monday, 7 August 2017

The media cannot reform itself until it acknowledges its power

As regular readers know, I have for the last few years been banging on about the importance of the media in influencing public opinion. (It formed a key part of my SPERI/News Statesman prize lecture.) It is not a partisan point about whether the media is politically biased in a particular direction. Instead it is a claim that the media can and sometimes is profoundly important in influencing major political events. I think it is fair to say that such claims are often dismissed, particularly by the media themselves.

Take the Brexit vote, for example. A general view is that it is down to a dislike of immigration, but few people ask whether the concern about immigration was to a considerable extent manufactured. The left has decided that Brexit reflects the revolt of those left behind by trade and technical innovation, largely ignoring the evidence that this was only part of the story. You will find extensive studies of why the UK voted to leave the EU, some of which I reviewed here, but none to my knowledge look at the influence of the tabloid press. Although my own immediate reaction to the vote put the press at centre stage, I faced a problem that anyone who blames the media faces. How do you prove that the media are not simply reflecting opinion rather than molding it?

We are now seeing studies that attempt to get around that problem by looking at what economists call natural experiments. The most well known found that “Republicans gain 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points in the towns which broadcast Fox News”. Here is another that argues that the media has combined with special interests to misinform voters about climate change. The evidence that the media does not just reflect but also influences voter opinion is mounting up.

I argued in a post immediately after the 2017 election that this event also showed how powerful the media’s impact was in the UK. Since the second Labour party contest in 2016 until shortly before the 2017 general election, the public’s view of both Corbyn and the Labour Party was largely intermediated by political journalists. The polls showed that labour was unpopular and Corbyn even more so. During the general election campaign, both Corbyn and Labour gained direct access to voters. The popularity of both surged.

Now it is possible that both Corbyn and the party underwent some huge transformation in those election weeks: the manifesto surprised everyone by including popular measures, and the party surprised everyone by being totally united behind it. I just do not believe this can account for the extent of the surge we saw. A much more likely explanation is that Corbyn and Labour had been portrayed by the media in a negative light until the election.

It might be tempting to suggest exactly the opposite: that the Labour surge shows the diminishing power of the Tory press. However, as Roy Greenslade notes, these papers are mainly read by the old not the young. Furthermore, among those aged 65%+, the share of Labour voters between 2015 and 2017 was unchanged. Instead the Labour surge showed not only the importance of social media, but also how the broadcast media can have considerable independent influence when it does not follow the Tory press.

The Corbyn surge need not reflect any deliberate anti-left bias, but just a self-reinforcing process. The disunity within Labour until the second leadership election had a large negative impact on the polls. Political reporters took these polls as evidence that Labour and especially Corbyn could not win, and this influenced the way both were reported until the general election. Pretty well everyone, including myself [1], took the pre-election unpopularity as reflecting informed voter opinion rather than an impression largely manufactured by media coverage.

The Labour surge was also a reflection of May’s awful election campaign. But exactly the same points can be made here. May did not suddenly become robotic and unresponsive during the campaign. The serious faults that were portrayed then were also clearly evident in the year before, and during her time at the Home Office. But rather than investigate these, political reporters chose to focus on the polls and believe that her position was impregnable.

Gary Younge has described the failure to at least investigate the possibility that Corbyn might gain in popularity during the election as “the most egregious professional malpractice”, but as far as I can see he is virtually alone among journalists in thinking how the Labour surge might reflect on their own reporting. Instead the tendency has been to focus on the inadequacy of the polls (which is quite unfair because the differences in the polls largely reflected quite understandable different views about expected turnout among younger voters) and more generally journalists failure to predict the result.

Indeed I think Younge understates the lessons of the surge. If the media was able to convey a largely false impression of Labour, Corbyn and May before this election, it seems reasonable to suppose that there have been other episodes where the media has had a large influence. The list in my lecture cited above could just be scratching the surface. This potential power often used without awareness or responsibility breeds mistrust, as Andrew Harrison relates here.

One of the unacknowledged problems in the broadcast media is the perpetual focus on Westminster, which was one of the factors that led to discounting Corbyn. Which naturally leads us to Brexit. I’m constantly told that any challenge to the referendum has to wait until public opinion turns. And looking at all the facts available it should turn: real wages are falling and output is stagnant as a direct result of the Brexit decisions, there will be less rather than more money for the NHS, and so on. But we should have learnt from the 2015 general election that this kind of simple economic determinism does not always work. Then real wages had fallen by much more, we had the worst recovery from any recession for at least a century, and the Conservatives won on the basis of economic competence.

The Westminster focus means that on Brexit the 48% get largely ignored. The right wing media that gave us Brexit are continuing to mislead as they always have. On the broadcast media that most people watch, there is no one championing a second referendum. Instead the presumption is that Brexit has to go ahead because ‘democracy’ demands it. There is the danger the media that created Brexit will sustain Brexit, just as the media sustained a view that Corbyn was hopeless and May was masterful until people had direct access to both. As a result, those pushing the idea that a second referendum should only be held if the public demand it are in danger of being as naive about the power of the media as those who wrote off Corbyn’s chances

[1] To some extent this was, I’m afraid to say, a classic example of not having faith in my own ideas. But I was also surprised at how quickly the broadcast media was able to swing from Corbyn bashing to focusing on May’s inadequacies. The problem the Conservatives and their press backers had was that scare stories about Corbyn were ‘old news’, whereas seeing the Conservative election machine fall over itself was a new experience, and therefore far more newsworthy. But, once again, this poor performance was also very clear from various decision taken in Downing Street in the year before.

Friday, 4 August 2017

How Brexit will constrain a future Labour government

Those who suggest that Brexit is of second order importance to getting a Labour government need to think about what that government will be able to do and how long it will survive if we leave the Single Market and customs union. The OBR did a rough and ready estimate of the near term impact of Brexit [1], and concluded that productivity growth would fall (which means lower GDP and real wage growth) and the government deficit would deteriorate by around £15 billion by 2020. That sum is about a third of the current defence budget, or a tenth of the entire health care budget.

It is simply wrong to imply that this can be ignored, because Labour is anti-austerity. That large deterioration in the deficit due to Brexit is mainly the result of low productivity and less immigration, not the consequence of an economic downturn. It cannot be undone by the government spending more on infrastructure: public investment is not some magic instrument that can get you any GDP you want.

No economic theory that I know of suggests you can safely ignore the public finances outside of a recession. In a world where monetary policy regulates demand (absent the lower bound) then a build up in government debt risks crowding out private capital, discouraging labour supply (because higher debt has to be serviced through higher taxes) and redistributing income between generations. This is why Labour’s fiscal credibility rule aims to balance current public spending outside of a recession. Every £billion lost to Brexit is a £billion that cannot be spent on public services, or has to be raised in taxes.

The same logic meant that Labour’s election manifesto in 2017 had a large increase in current public spending entirely financed by higher taxes. Their programme is anti-austerity because their fiscal credibility rule would do the opposite of what Osborne did in 2010 if interest rates were at their lower bound. It also sensibly allows public investment to rise when borrowing costs are so low.  But once interest rates begin to rise, the Labour government would have a current deficit it needed to finance, and its difficulty in doing this would be made much worse by Brexit. [2]

In all this it is vital to not be distracted by some of those who see Brexit as an opportunity for Corbyn-bashing. Those that do so seem to forget two key points. First, the attitude of a large number of Labour MPs in Leave voting areas is just as much of a problem as the views of the leadership. Second, there is a purely political argument for Labour being just a bit less supportive of Brexit than the government right now. My own view is similar to this discussion by Mike Galsworthy.

However I feel I have to end by responding to a second post from Owen Jones. Let me do so by imagining the following scenario. Suppose the Conservative leadership changed, and the new leader said this on being elected: “we tried as hard as we could to respect the result of the referendum, but we found there was no way of doing so without causing the economy great harm. As a result, I have regrettably decided to revoke Article 50, and remain in the EU.” What should Labour’s response to that be? The logic of Owen’s position is that Labour should oppose this, and side with the Hard Brexit faction of the Tories and defeat the new Tory leader.

A highly unlikely scenario I agree, but it helps establish this point. Owen, unlike many Corbyn supporters, is not arguing that Labour should remain pro-Brexit while in opposition as simply a strategic move to gain votes. He is saying that Labour has to support leaving the EU because of the referendum demands it. Indeed he says anyone arguing otherwise because the referendum was advisory is “beyond delusional”: It seems I have become a beyond delusional ‘Hard Remainer’.

Does democracy mean being bound by a referendum that was called only to appease the hard right, decided by lies using a rigged electorate, and apparently made mandatory as a result of the words of a now departed Prime Minister? Is it a democracy when we are unable to change course because new facts clearly deviate from promises made, resulting in a decision that imposes costs on the young largely as the result of votes by the old? These are difficult questions, but not delusional questions.

I doubt it will happen, but would ignoring the referendum destabilise democracy? Let me turn the question around. If the final Brexit deal involves staying in the Single Market and therefore accepting free movement, will that destabilise democracy? The number of people who voted Brexit but wanted to stay in the Single Market may be more than 2% of the population, but it is bound to be small. There will therefore be plenty of people who will say that accepting free movement ignores the referendum, and plenty of aggrieved voters to back them up. Is that going to produce a reaction which is very different from the reaction to actually ignoring the referendum?

The hard truth is that any deal which avoids serious economic costs for the UK is going to make most of the 52% pissed off. And they will remain pissed off until either we reduce immigration, with the economic costs that will bring (less schools, less hospitals, higher taxes), or senior politicians start being honest about the benefits of immigration.

[1] Stupidly, the OBR were not asked to estimate the impact of Brexit before the referendum, and their mandate prevented them from doing so themselves.

[2] And please no MMT inspired comments about how taxes are not needed to finance spending. The MMT world is very different from our current world: fiscal policy rather than monetary policy regulates demand. In that case you never worry about the deficit, but spending is constrained by inflation.  

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Is a flexible labour market a problem for central bankers?

Recessions and milder economic downturns are typically a result of insufficient aggregate demand for goods. The only way to end them is to stimulate demand in some way. That may happen naturally, but it may also happen because monetary policymakers reduce interest rates. How do we know we have deficient aggregate demand? Because unemployment increases, as a lower demand for goods leads to layoffs and less new hires.

A question that is sometimes posed in macroeconomics is whether workers in a recession could ‘price themselves into jobs’ by cutting wages. In past recessions workers have been reluctant to do this. But suppose we had a more prolonged recession, because fiscal austerity had dampened the recovery, and over this more prolonged period wages had become less rigid. Then falling real wages could price workers into jobs, and reduce unemployment. [1]

This is not because falling real wages cure the problem of deficient aggregate. If anything lower real wages might reduce aggregate demand by more. But it is still possible that workers could price themselves into jobs, because firms might switch to more labour intensive production techniques, or fail to invest in new labour saving techniques. We would see output still depressed, but unemployment fall, employment rise and stagnant labour productivity. Much as we have done in the UK over the last few years.

It is important to understand that in these circumstances the problem of deficient demand is still there. Resources are still being wasted on a huge scale. Quite simply, we could all be much better off if demand could be stimulated. How would central bankers know whether this was the case or not?

Central bankers might say that they would still know there was inadequate demand because surveys would tell them that firms had excess capacity. That would undoubtedly be true in the immediate aftermath of the recession, but as time went on capital would depreciate and investment would remain low because firms were using more labour intensive techniques. The surveys would become as poor an indicator of deficient aggregate demand as the unemployment data.

What about all those measures of the output gap? Unfortunately they are either based on unemployment, surveys, or data smoothing devices. The last of these, because they smooth actual output data, simply say it is about time output has fully recovered. Or to put it another way, trend based measures effectively rule out the possibility of a prolonged period of deficient demand. [2] So collectively these output gap measures provide no additional information about demand deficiency.

The ultimate arbiter of whether there is demand deficiency is inflation. If demand is deficient, inflation will be below target. It is below target in most countries right now, including the US, Eurozone and Japan. (In the UK inflation is above target because of the Brexit depreciation, but wage inflation shows no sign of increasing.) So in these circumstances central bankers should realise that demand was deficient, and continue to do all they can to stimulate it.

But there is a danger that central bankers would look at unemployment, and look at the surveys of excess capacity, and look at estimates of the output gap, and conclude that we no longer have inadequate aggregate demand. In the US interest rates are rising, and there are those on the MPC that think the same should happen here. If demand deficiency is still a problem, this would be a huge and very costly mistake, the kind of mistake monetary policymakers should never ever make. [3] There is a fool proof way of avoiding that mistake, which is to keep stimulating demand until inflation rises above target.

One argument against this wait and see policy is that policymakers need to be ‘ahead of the curve’, to avoid abrupt increases in interest rates if inflation did start rising. Arguments like this treat the Great Recession as just a larger version of the recessions we have seen since WWII. But in these earlier recessions we did not have interest rates hitting their lower bound, and we did not have fiscal austerity just a year or two after the recession started. What we could be seeing instead is something more like the Great Depression, but with a more flexible labour market.

[1] Real wages could also be more flexible because the Great Recession allowed employers to increase job insecurity, which might both increase wage flexibility and reduce the NAIRU. Implicit in this account is that lower nominal wages did not get automatically passed on as lower prices. If they had, real wages would not fall. Why this failed to happen is interesting, but takes us beyond the scope of this post.

[2] They also often imply that the years immediately before the Great Recession were a large boom period, despite all the evidence that they were no such thing outside the Eurozone periphery

[3] J.W. Mason has recently argued that such a mistake is being made in the US in a detailed report.