French lessons for Miliband and Balls

“Take it from me mate, don’t…”

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” wrote Wordsworth in middle age, reflecting on the euphoria his younger self felt at the French Revolution. Ed Miliband felt a similar sense of elation when François Hollande was elected President of France in May 2012 albeit expressed in slightly more prosaic terms.

Mr Miliband said that President Hollande’s campaign “has shown that the centre-left can offer hope and win elections with a vision of a better, more equal and just world”. Mr Miliband declared “This new leadership is sorely needed as Europe seeks to escape from austerity” and assured us that “I know from our conversations in London earlier this year and from [Mr Hollande’s] victory speech tonight of his determination to help create a Europe of growth and jobs”

Alas, since he spoke of President Hollande’s “determination to help create a Europe of growth and jobs” French unemployment has risen from 10.2% to 10.9% and Britain’s has fallen from 8% to 7.1%. The French economy has averaged growth of 0.13% per year while Britain’s has averaged 0.16% a year.

Mr Hollande’s strategy was to tax and spend France back to prosperity. A raft of new taxes, most notoriously a 75% top rate of income tax, would pay for the hiring of 60,000 new teachers, the creation of 150,000 subsidised jobs, and a reduction in the retirement age. This strategy has failed. Like Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 which flooded east London with entrepreneurial Huguenots, Mr Hollande has simply driven the French men and women who can afford to leave out of the country. Those who can’t are left stuck with unemployment and stagnation, Mr Miliband’s “better, more equal and just world”.

Yet, just as Mr Hollande abandons this strategy in favour of a €30 billion payroll tax cut and €50 billion worth of spending cuts in the next two years, ‘austerity’ if you like, Ed Miliband’s Labour Party are committing themselves to it afresh. Last Friday Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls made one of his increasingly rare appearances and committed a post-2015 Labour government to eliminating the deficit by 2020. The tool with which he intends to achieve this is a reintroduced 50 per cent top rate of income tax.

Mr Balls apparently needs to learn the lesson so painfully learned by France; that as per the Laffer Curve, beyond a certain level increasing tax rates ≠ increasing tax revenues. Indeed, in the last two years of the 50 per cent rate, 2011/2012 and 2012/2013, top rate taxpayers paid £41.3bn and £41.6bn in tax respectively. Under the 45 per cent rate that amount has risen to £49.36bn. Ed Balls was immediately in the unusual position of having to explain how he would fund a tax rise.

This presents the Conservatives with an opportunity. David Cameron and George Osborne should be pointing across the Channel and saying that Hollande’s abandoned France of high taxes, high government spending, rising unemployment, and falling growth, is Miliband’s Britain.

Ultimately the high ideals of the French Revolution were drowned in the blood of the Terror, replaced by the dictatorship of Napoleon, and a disillusioned Wordsworth retired to the Lake District and Romantic poetry. What will it take to educate Mr Miliband?

David ‘Whoops!’ Blanchflower strikes again

Back to the wall again

You…hang on, what’s that noise?

Never mind.

You may have seen that your humble narrator has had one or two exchanges in the past with arch-Keynesian, wannabe Krugman, and Columbo dress-a-like David Blanchflower. They centered on his now infamous 2009 prediction that

“If spending cuts are made too early and the monetary and fiscal stimuli are withdrawn, unemployment could easily reach four million… If large numbers of public sector workers, perhaps as many as a million, are made redundant and there are substantial cuts in public spending in 2010, as proposed by some in the Conservative Party, five million unemployed or more is not inconceivable.”

Blanchflower, being rather a fragile sort, blocked me after our latest discussion of this (I’m in good company there) but others have continued to hold him to account and Blanchflower has continued to defend it.

In the course of defence just 11 days ago Blanchflower tweeted the following

BlanchBut hold on, what’s this? It’s the Office of National Statistics saying that, you guessed it, that double dip never was. Blanchflower’s thumb will be working overtime trying to explain away this one.

Oh, that sound, I’ve figured out what it is; it’s Blanchflower’s credibility disappearing down the toilet.


Also embarrassing for such a Labour partisan as Blanchflower is the fact that it now appears that the economy did much worse under Labour, slumping much further in 2009 and recovering less strongly before the election in May 2010.

Dip: The British economy avoided a recession - two quarters of negative growth - at the start of last, the Office for National Statistics said

Source: Daily Mail

Bubble. Burst. Liquidity. Repeat

Increasing both

In March 2000 the dot com bubble burst. From a peak of 5,048.62 on March 10th, 24 percent up on late 1999, the NASDAQ Composite index had fallen to half that by late 2000. GDP growth slumped and unemployment steadily climbed from under 4 percent in late 2000 to a peak of 6.25 percent in mid-2003.

On January 3rd, 2001, Alan Greenspan acted and cut the Fed funds rate to 6 percent. By June 2003 it was down to 1 percent where it stayed until June 2004. The effects are well known. This wave of liquidity was directed by government action like the Community Reinvestment Act, government bodies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and a minefield of moral hazard in a financial sector which knew it would be bailed out of any trouble, into a housing bubble.

That bubble burst too. With inflation on its way up from 2 percent in mid-2003 to 4.7 percent in October 2005, Greenspan gradually raised the Fed funds rate, reaching 5.25 percent in June 2006. But this crippled many people who had borrowed at lower rates to buy property. The number of new foreclosure starts in the US increased by more than 50 percent to 1.1 million between 2006 and 2007.

Assets backed with these non-performing loans crashed in value. Banks holding them saw their balance sheets ravaged. Seeing counterparty risk everywhere, banks stopped lending to each other and the LIBOR, usually about 0.15 percent above where the market thinks the bank rate will be in three months’ time, shot up to over 6.5 percent in August 2007. The credit crunch had arrived.

And Greenspan, his academic successor Ben Bernanke, and central bankers around the world reacted as they had to the bursting of the dot com bubble. The Fed funds rate went back down from 5.25 percent in September 2007 to 0.25 percent in December 2008. Likewise, between July 2007 and March 2009 the Bank of England slashed its Base Rate from 5.75 percent to 0.5 percent. Even the supposedly cautious European Central Bank reduced its key rate from 4.25 percent in summer 2008 to 1 percent by the spring of 2009.

When this failed to have the desired stimulative effect central bankers began trying to pull down the long end of the yield curve. Under Quantitative Easing the Bank of England spent £375 billion of newly printed money on British government debt. The Federal Reserve is spending $85 billion dollars a month on bonds.

There is a pattern here. A bubble in assets (dot com stocks) bursts and central banks react by hosing liquidity into the system. But this liquidity inflates another bubble (property) and when that bursts central banks react by hosing liquidity into the system…

In the high Keynesian noon of the post-war period it was widely thought that monetary policy was ineffective for macroeconomic management (it is debatable how much this is actually owed to Keynes). All that could be hoped for from monetary authorities was support for the fiscal policies which really had the clout to equilibrate the economy.

But this Keynesian paradigm fell apart with the stagflation of the 1970s. Money mattered was the lesson and it became the primary tool of macroeconomic management, replacing fiscal action, at least until the ‘Return of the Master’ following the credit crunch.

But what has this meant in practice? As interest rates are lowered in response to an adverse shock investment, calculations change, especially when, like Alan Greenspan, those behind the policy publicly promise its continuance. To the extent that this fosters a wealth effect, consumption, as well as investment, may be stimulated. And this, in fact, is exactly the way the policy is supposed to work.

But the rates cannot stay that low indefinitely, nor, despite the jawboning by monetary policymakers, are they intended to. At some point they will rise. Again, this actually is the way the policy is supposed to work.

And when those rates do rise what happens to those marginal investors who made their decision when rates were at their lowest? What happened to the NINJAs who bought condos in Michigan when interest rates were 1 percent when the rates went up in 2006? They were scuppered. And what will happen to all the enterprises which are currently dependent on interest rates remaining at their historic lows when those rates start to rise? It is because more people are now asking that question that markets have turned skittish recently, since Ben Bernanke even began to discuss a possible future ‘tapering’ of Quantitative Easing.

Those rates will have to rise at some point. But, when they do, whichever bubble we have now will burst. Our monetary authorities have printed themselves into a corner.

This is what passes for macroeconomic management. As one of the high priests of this bubble-onomics, Paul Krugman, advised in 2002 in the wake of the dot com bust “To fight this recession the Fed needs…soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment…Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble”. And no, that’s not taken out of context.

One of the great myths in economics is that of some sort of stable equilibrium. It is apparent that active monetary policy is little better at producing that than fiscal policy proved. Instead the economy is characterised by crises of increasing frequency and amplitude and the only solutions policymakers appear to have to deal with them will buy ever shorter-lived respite at the cost of increasing both the frequency and amplitude of crises.

We are in an equilibrium of sorts, but it is an equilibrium of crises.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

I hate to say it but…

This last week has seen articles from Roger Bootle and Allister Heath warning of the consequences of a bursting in the “bond bubble”. Now we have the Bank of England’s Andrew Haldane saying

If I were to single out what for me would be the biggest risk to global financial stability right now, it would be a disorderly reversion in government bond yields globally.

We’ve seen shades of that over the last two to three weeks.

We have intentionally blown the biggest government bond bubble in history. We’ve been vigilant to the consequences of that bubble deflating more quickly than we might otherwise have wanted. That’s a risk we as FPC need to be very vigilant to.”

As I asked on The Commentator last August, Is the bond bubble the biggest yet?

Deficit and debt: Does anyone know the difference?

“OK, so there’s the water in the tub…”

In a recent conversation, a Labour Party member told me that the coalition was “borrowing more than we did in power”. I pointed out that this was wrong, that the deficit, what we are “borrowing”, is, in fact, down by a third under this government. He replied: “The deficit may be but the current government is still borrowing more money than the last government.”

You could write this off as simply the pig-headed economic illiteracy of a paid-up member of the party that helped us into the current mess. After all, Ed Balls, Labour’s man on the economy, can stand up in front of Parliament and say “The national deficit is not rising…er…is rising, not falling” (he was right the first time). But then you hear Nick Clegg say that the coalition is working to “wipe the slate clean for our children and our grandchildren”. Even David Cameron himself announced that “We’re paying down Britain’s debts”.

You begin to wonder if anyone knows what they are talking about. I’ve addressed the issue of what exactly is happening to the British government’s finances before but it seems it needs repeating.

We have two concepts here: a stock and a flow. Think of it like a bathtub. The stock is the water in the bathtub, the flow is the water either flowing in or out of the tub through the taps or plughole.

In this analogy the debt is the stock, the water in the tub; the deficit is the flow, the water pouring in from the tap (if our government was running a budget surplus water would be flowing out through the plughole but we’re some way off worrying about that). In other words, the deficit (flow) is the amount by which the debt (stock) is increasing.

Thus, it is possible to have a situation like we have now where the debt is increasing while the deficit is decreasing (imagine yourself turning off the tap and seeing the flow of water dwindle – water is still flowing into the tub). Borrowing is down, what has been borrowed is up.

In the final year of the last Labour government Alistair Darling borrowed £156 billion. In 2012 George Osborne borrowed £99 billion. The deficit had fallen but while ever there is any deficit at all debt will be rising. Another way of putting it is to say that in his last year Darling increased the debt by £156 billion and last year Osborne increased it by £99 billion.

This is why you can have a chart like this…

showing falling deficits coexisting with a chart like this…

showing rising debt.

This might all sound a rather long-winded way of stating the obvious but a ComRes poll late last year found that 49 percent of people wrongly think “The Coalition Government is planning to REDUCE the national debt by around £600 billion between 2010 and the end of this Parliament in 2015”. The correct answer, that “The Coalition Government is planning to INCREASE the national debt by around £600 billion between 2010 and the end of this Parliament in 2015”, was given by just 6 percent.

The British government’s out of control spending is the central issue in British politics today yet there is mass ignorance as to what is really going on with it. In large part this can be attributed to the misleading statements pumped out by the sloppy Cameron and Clegg and the dishonest Balls.

What actually is happening to the British government’s finances under Cameron and Clegg is that the debt is growing and will continue to grow but the pace at which it grows, the deficit, is declining. This is simple stuff even if our politicians struggle with it.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

First principles on wealth and economic growth

Shanghai – Before and after

In all human history there have been just four ways of securing the goods, services, or the wealth to purchase them, required to maintain life or a desired standard of living.

First, we can receive them freely from others as gifts or charity. Second, we can take them from others as theft or tax. Third, we can borrow them from others with the promise of repayment in the future. And fourth, we can receive them freely in exchange for a good and service we provide in return.

It is clear that the first and second methods depend entirely on someone else producing the good or service in the first place. You cannot be gifted or steal what doesn’t exist. These methods are purely redistributive and add nothing to the available stock of goods and services, the increase of which is the essence of economic growth and increasing wealth.

Method three, borrowing, is fine as long as it is used for investment to increase the stock of goods and services out of which it will be repaid. The fourth method, free production and exchange, is best of all. People secure the goods and services needed or desired by exchanging those they produce for those produced by others. People’s desire to consume more induces them to produce more. The stock of goods and services available, society’s wealth, increases.

All societies engage in a mixture of these methods, different sections of those societies relying on different methods at different times. But it is clear that societies which rely to a greater extent on the first and second method are, at best, shuffling round a stagnant stock of goods; not creating wealth but merely redistributing it.

Societies using more of the third method could be acting wisely if they are borrowing to invest, but if they are just borrowing to fund current consumption then they will be paying this back out of the same (or smaller) stock in the future. Societies more reliant on the fourth method will be increasing their wealth unambiguously.

So we can say that if the aim of society is to increase wealth it ought to be utilising lots of the fourth method, the third method only to fund investment, and the first second method as little as possible.

This throws stark light on the shift in relative wealth going on in the world today. Wealth is increasing in Asia in part because relatively large proportions of their populations are producing things people want to buy. And, in part, the wealth of the western economies is stagnating or declining because, relatively, we have a greater share of our populations receiving the goods and services they need and desire (or the wealth to purchase them) as transfers from others. We see ever more borrowing to finance current spending and ever more redistribution of wealth at the expense of its creation.

If a country has a great many goods and services available it is wealthy. If individuals are able to command a great deal of goods and services they are wealthy. The nature of increased wealth is an increased number of goods and services. The more people we have producing them and increasing this number, as in Asia, the wealthier we will be.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Britain’s productivity paradox

In 2012 the British economy created 580,000 new jobs yet output stagnated; more work produced the same amount of stuff. Indeed, British workers were producing 2.6 percent per hour less in Q3 2012 than in Q1 2008. Labour productivity is now 12.8 percent below its pre-recession trend.

This phenomenon, of increasing inputs producing an unchanged or decreasing amount of output, which has been christened Britain’s ‘productivity puzzle’, is one of the most perplexing in current economic debate. Indeed, even Nobel laureate Paul Krugman recently declared himself stumped.  

It’s an important debate both politically and economically. Politically, because Labour can point to grim GDP figures and claim the coalition is failing while the coalition can point to impressive job growth and claim they are succeeding. Economically, because increasing productivity, producing as much with less or more with as much, is the root of increasing wealth.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently offered three explanations for this decline in labour productivity. First, the fall in real wages thanks to inflation has seen firms retain and/or take on more labour. Second, business investment remains 16 percent below the pre-crash peak giving workers fewer tools to work with. Third, record low interest rates and forbearance on the part of banks is propping up inefficient enterprises.

There is a grain of truth in all these explanations but we might be missing the wood for the trees. Perhaps the actual explanation for the productivity puzzle is both simpler and more profound. Labour productivity is determined by two things: the skill of labour, and the quantity and quality of the capital at the disposal of that labour. On both fronts Britain has done pretty poorly.

Britain’s labour force is losing its qualitative advantage over others, notably in East Asia, thanks to a hideously dysfunctional state education system. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment which compares students across countries, in 2000 Britain ranked 7th in reading, 8th in maths and 4th in science. By 2008 it had slumped to 17th in reading, 24th in maths, and 14th in science. Any measures which can improve this dismal performance could be expected to improve British labour productivity in the longer term.

It is a similar story regarding the capital available to its workers. In 2001 it was estimated that a British worker had 25 percent less capital to work with than an American worker, 40 percent less than a French worker, and 60 percent less than a German worker. Why is capital so vital and how might we get more of it?

There are two types of goods: capital goods and consumption goods. Consumption goods are those that immediately meet our needs, what Carl Menger called “goods of first order”. Capital goods, what Menger called “goods of higher order”, are those which meet our needs indirectly. Bread is a consumption good, the flour and the milling stone (among others) are capital goods.

If our need is to eat we can satisfy it immediately via the labour intensive method of picking apples from trees or berries from bushes. Obviously this source of food would sustain very many less people on much more monotonous diets than we have today. We are able to eat more and better because we have capital which enables us not only to produce and consume more but also to produce and consume things we couldn’t have before with purely labour intensive methods.

Thus, to borrow Murray Rothbard’s example, Robinson Crusoe could pick 20 berries per hour from a bush by hand but could shake 50 berries out in an hour with a stick. Alternatively Crusoe could make the milling stone, grind the flour, and undertake the other capital production needed to make a loaf of bread. He could enjoy something he couldn’t enjoy in any quantity at all previously.

But making the stick or the milling stone will take time, time we cannot spend either picking berries or relaxing. We must forgo an act of consumption, either of berries or of leisure. We must save, in other words. This is the essential truth of capital accumulation; it comes from saving.

So does maintenance of the capital stock. To borrow from Rothbard again, a truck with a working life of fifteen years which makes 3,000 trips can be said to be using up 1/3,000 of itself each time it participates in the transformation of bread from ‘higher order’ wholesale to ‘first order’ sandwich. If saving is not undertaken to allow for the replacement of the truck at the end of the fifteen years this production process will cease. The capital, the truck, will have been consumed in every loaf it carried on those 3,000 journeys.

This is why countries that grow rich are those that save; they accumulate the capital per worker which enables them to produce ever greater amounts. In the late 18th century British textile workers earned six times what Indian textile workers earned because they had the capital goods to make them six times more productive. This is why we see saving nations in the Far East becoming wealthier as we wonder how our current standard of living will be maintained.

Britain, meanwhile, has some of the lowest savings rates even in the generally savings-averse developed world. We are seemingly attached to the Keynesian idea that consumption, rather than something we do when we are rich, is something we do to become rich. We have a government which can hand out leaflets on budget day telling savers they are on their side while turning a blind eye to quantitative easing and 0.5 percent base rates.

The result is that by deskilling and capital consumption we have become a lower productivity, lower wage economy. There is only a puzzle because we are reluctant to face this grim truth. Greece was recently reclassified as an emerging market. Might Britain be on its way to joining her?    

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

In defence of Reinhart and Rogoff


Facepalm, as they say

Academic economic papers rarely receive the sort of mass reception that brings coverage in the Guardian and the Telegraph so by the standards of its field ‘Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff was something of a blockbuster.

The eponymous Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff are economists who, in a 2010 paper,  ‘Growth In a Time of Debt‘ found that “whereas the link between growth and debt seems relatively weak at ‘normal’ debt levels, median growth rates for countries with public debt over roughly 90 percent of GDP are about one percent lower than otherwise; (mean) growth rates are several percent lower.”

These results, fleshed out to book length for the successful ‘This Time Is Different’, have been quoted by George Osborne, Paul Ryan, and Olli Rehn in support of their measures to get spiralling government debts under control.

Last week’s paper by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts Amherst claimed to have proved this wrong. They had recreated Reinhart and Rogoff’s results and found that the pair had reached their figure of a GDP ‘growth’ rate of -0.1 percent per annum for economies with government debt of over 90 percent of GDP thanks to “coding errors, selective exclusion of available data, and unconventional weighting of summary statistics.” Most embarrassingly, the ‘coding error’ was a proper schoolboy error; Reinhart and Rogoff missed some of the numbers out of their calculations.

In truth the idea that there was an Iron Law such that an economy would shrink as soon as it’s government debt hit 90 percent of GDP, the ‘strong form’ of Reinhart and Rogoff (pushed more by the political practitioners than them it ought to be said), was always iffy. It smacks of the sort of bogus causation derived from correlation which is the basis for much modern macroeconomics.

There are, for example, different types of debt. Advocates of higher spending often point to the 260 percent of GDP the British government owed in 1816, the 180 percent it owed in 1919, or the 220 percent it owed in 1945. This, they tell you, proves that Britain’s economy can bear an even greater burden of debt than the 70 percent of GDP it has doubled to in the last five years.

But you don’t have to be David Starkey to know that in 1816, 1919, and 1945 Britain had run up that debt to pay the cost of defeating a tyrant and as soon as that was done we stopped. It was an expense we had to meet and defray over time, the wartime borrowing was classic ‘consumption smoothing’.

To put it another way, when the British government started spending heavily in 1792, 1914, or 1939 there was a definite endgame for this spending: the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, the defeat of the Kaiser, the overthrow of Hitler. The very moment those goals were accomplished spending would fall rapidly.

Our current level of government spending, by contrast, is not being undertaken to safeguard this country and its neighbours from conquest but to maintain a public sector and welfare state grown fat on borrowing and tax revenue from an unsustainable bubble in the absence of that bubble and those tax revenues. We are not smoothing consumption, we are sucking it out of tomorrow. And, unlike Pitt the Younger, Herbert Asquith, or Neville Chamberlain, present day advocates of higher spending cannot give an endgame for their proposed accrual of debt.

The point of this for evaluating Reinhart and Rogoff’s work is to note that one load of debt is not necessarily the same as another. There ought to be a little nuance to the picture, there are no magic numbers.

But even with that said it can still be argued that Reinhart and Rogoff have been hard done to this last week. They are, as they say in ‘This Time Is Different’, involved in the on-going process of growing their data set (which, rather unwisely, they have been quite proprietary about) and since 2010 they have revised their conclusions in the light of new data which Herndon, Ash, and Pollin had access to.

As Reinhart and Rogoff wrote in the Wall Street Journal, in a 2012 paper with Vincent Reinhart they found GDP growth rates of 2.4 percent for economies with government debt over 90 percent of GDP, pretty close to the 2.2 percent calculated by Herndon, Ash, and Pollin.

Indeed, and despite what some excitable commentators have proclaimed, Herndon, Ash, and Pollin have not found no correlation between high debt and low growth. They have found a weaker one than Reinhart and Rogoff in 2010 and about the same as they found in 2012, but they have still found one.

As page 21 of their paper states: if debt is below 30 percent GDP growth comes in at 4.2 percent, if debt is between 30 percent and 60 percent of GDP growth comes in at 3.1 percent, if debt is between 60 percent and 90 percent of GDP growth comes in at 3.2 percent, and if debt is over 90 percent of GDP growth comes in at 2.2 percent. Even on Herndon, Ash, and Pollin’s figures higher debt is correlated with lower GDP growth.

And there is perhaps a more profound point to note. Reinhart and Rogoff have fessed up to the coding error but the “selective exclusion of available data, and unconventional weighting of summary statistics” which Herndon, Ash, and Pollin accuse them of is, in fact, the very stuff of modern macroeconomics.

The ‘facts’ which dominate and guide our economic lives such as GDP, the CPI, or even unemployment, are not objectively given but are constructed using just such subjective methods, a prime example are the nonsensical unemployment figures of the United States. If this furore provokes a little scepticism so much the better, but it should spread much further than one paper.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Why is David Blanchflower so scared of the truth?


The Michael Howard of economics

A couple of weeks back I took David Blanchflower of the New Statesman to task over the failure of his recent attempt to justify his infamous 2009 prediction that “unemployment could easily reach four million”. Blanchflower responded on Twitter: “If spending cuts are made too early and the monetary and fiscal stimuli are withdrawn “if crucial- buffooonery” (sic).

In fairness to Blanchflower he did preface his 2009 doomsday scenario with exactly those words. But let’s look a little more closely at Blanchflower’s warnings of the twin evils of tight money and spending cuts.

First, monetary policy. Who, in 2009, was advocating the tightening monetary policy? Possibly a few Austrians (though not all of them). Not many others. Certainly, as far I recall, no one in the Conservative Party as Blanchflower claimed. If I am wrong (and I have scoured the internet) and there were leading Conservatives advocating monetary tightness in 2009 then please, let me know.

But if, as I’m pretty sure is the case, nobody in the Conservative Party was advocating the early withdrawal of monetary stimuli then why on earth did Blanchflower waste anyone’s time warning them about it?

And what about the fiscal side of Blanchflower’s prediction? He loudly and regularly makes the point that ‘Slasher’ Osborne (I know, not much as nicknames go) has cut government spending and plunged Britain into renewed recession. I asked Blanchflower once or twice (or thrice) by how much ‘Slasher’ Osborne has cut government spending to send us into recession.

The answers I got ranged from “go and look it up yourself” to “go back into your hole” and “If you want to hire me to do consulting work for you I will bill at my normal high rates min 3hrs half up front”. How sad that when given a chance to engage and educate, a man who holds a teaching position chose instead to act in such a petulant and childish manner. How terrifying that someone so shifty, evasive, and brittle under pressure, was once a member of the Monetary Policy Committee.

Well, I went and looked up the numbers and the reasons for Blanchflower’s reticence quickly became apparent. In the fiscal year ending April 2010, Labour’s last in office, the British government spent £660.8 billion and in the year ending April 2012 it was £688 billion: an increase of 4.1 percent. Over the same period, however, we have had above target inflation which has given us a real terms cut in government spending of of 2.7 percent.

That’s it. After a decade which saw Labour double government spending in real terms it has been pruned by 2.7 percent. Hardly ‘slashing’ and all delivered by Mervyn King and his failure to keep inflation at 2 percent. If he had we’d have had a very slight real terms increase in spending; but that, presumably, really would have meant the monetary tightness Blanchflower was wailing about back in 2009.

I don’t suppose the monikers ‘Slasher King’ or ‘Trimmer’ Osborne would be much LOLZ for the Prof on Twitter. You can see why he was desperate to avoid giving a straight answer; his whole shtick would collapse if he did.

Blanchflower might argue that some areas of government spending have been cut quite drastically but there are two points to be made there. First, The Master himself, John Maynard Keynes, famously said that it didn’t matter too much what you spent your fiscal stimulus on, whether it’s Pyramids, wars, or burying old bottles full of cash and digging them up again. The key thing was to get the money spent.

Second, you have to wonder what else Blanchflower expects. Even with record low interest rates, British government debt, for which we are all liable, has risen so vertiginously that by 2015 it is estimated that we will be spending £70 billion a year on debt interest, up from £31 billion in 2008. To some extent we are seeing spending on welfare being cut so we can give the money to bond investors instead. Don’t like it? Don’t run up a load of debt.

Of course, Blanchflower would argue that we don’t actually need to worry. We just keep printing and borrowing the money we need. The £450 billion the coalition will have added to the national debt by April 2013 is too stingy; the doubling of the national debt over its lifetime too miserly. With views like that you can understand why Blanchflower runs scared from any rational discussion.

So, back in 2009, Blanchflower was warning us about something that wasn’t going to happen. After trying and failing to exonerate his 2009 prediction his argument now is that he wasn’t wrong, just irrelevant. But then you might find yourself asking why we should pay much attention to a slippery peddler of irrelevancies. Why indeed.

With his affected rudeness and terror of reasonable discussion with anyone who might disagree with him, Blanchflower is a sort of pound store Paul Krugman. But, without a bestselling book, a Nobel Prize, and with a column in the Independent rather than the New York Times, that’s a bit like comparing Donovan to Bob Dylan.

Labour and the public finances

The guilty men

The bad economic news which surrounded the budget yesterday seems to have given Ed Balls the confidence to tour the studios telling all and sundry that he has been ‘vindicated’. What’s worse, some intelligent people appear to be falling for this obvious rubbish.

To remember just how obvious and just how rubbish this is I’d refer to this previous blogpost. But I’d also refer you to this, an election briefing from 2010 from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The whole thing is worth a read but I’ll quote the summary in full…

Total public spending is forecast to be 48.1% of national income in 2010−11, up by 8.2% of national income from the 39.9% Labour inherited from the Conservatives. This would be the highest level of public spending as a share of national income since 1982−83.

• Most industrial countries have increased public spending as a share of national income since 1997. But between 1997 and 2007 – prior to the financial crisis – the UK had the 2nd largest increase in spending as a share of national income out of 28 industrial countries for which we have comparable data. Over the period from 1997 to 2010 – including the crisis – the UK had the largest increase. This moved the UK from having the 22nd largest proportion of national income spent publicly in 1997 to having the 6th largest proportion spent publicly in 2010.

• Spending on public services has increased by an average of 4.4% a year in real terms under Labour, significantly faster than the 0.7% a year average seen under the Conservatives from 1979 to 1997. This is largely due to increases in spending on the NHS, education and transport. Since 2000–01 public investment spending has increased particularly sharply and is now at levels not seen since the mid to late 1970s. Despite large increases in the generosity of benefits for lower income families with children and lower income pensioners social security spending has grown less quickly than it did under the Conservatives.

• Estimates from the Office for National Statistics suggest that public services have improved considerably over the period from 1997 to 2007 with measured outputs suggesting a one third increase in the quantity and quality of public services. But this increase in measured public service outputs is less than the increase in inputs over the same period; in other words productivity has fallen. The relative price of these inputs has also risen, so we find that the “bang for each buck” that we get from spending on public services (output per pound spent, adjusted for whole economy inflation) has fallen more than productivity.

• If the Government had managed to maintain the “bang for each buck” at the level it inherited in 1997, it would have been able to deliver the quantity and quality of public services it delivered in 2007 for £42.5 billion less. Alternatively, it could have improved the quality and quantity of public services by a further 16% for the same cost. But perhaps service quality has improved in ways not captured by the ONS’s measures. Or perhaps we were to bound to see diminishing returns to additional spending when it was increasing so rapidly. To the extent that additional spending boosts output fully only with a lag, we may not yet have seen the full benefit.

How can you say the people responsible for that have been ‘vindicated’?