Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Undergraduate economics teaching moves into 21st century

The CORE economics curriculum, designed to provide an introduction to economics that reflects economics as it is today rather than as it was decades ago, has won justified praise from John Cassidy. I also think it is brilliant, not just for first year undergraduates but also for interested non-economists. To wet your appetite, read this short account by two of the leading lights behind the project.

Rather than spend the rest of this post singing its praises, I want to ask why first year undergraduate textbooks represent a clear example of market failure. The failure I have in mind is the inability to teach economics as it currently is, rather than as it was decades ago. If you look at the standard first year, Econ 101 textbook, it does contain more modern stuff, but normally in later chapters after presenting the basic models/frameworks which have not changed for 30 years or more. As a result, textbooks tend to be both dull, seemingly irrelevant and much too large. (This is a blanket generalisation and I’m sure there some exceptions.)

Here is my theory, which I will try and explain in plain english rather than with economics jargon. Although the ultimate consumers of textbooks are students, they are chosen by teachers who set the course textbook. So why are Econ 101 teachers not demanding textbooks that are less dull and more up to date?

Suppose someone had written something like the Core material, and a publisher (as publishers do) had sent it out to people currently teaching Econ 101 for comments. The reaction they will have got from a good proportion of Econ 101 teachers would have been ‘that is interesting, but can we include at the start some of the stuff I have taught for the last five years’. They, naturally, do not want to completely rewrite their courses, and I fear in a few cases learn material that is new to them.

The publisher reports back to the author: ‘we cannot publish this as it stands, but if you start with the traditional material then maybe’. It is a market failure because publishers are looking at the current set of Econ 101 teachers, and not those who will one day teach it and would love to have something more up to date. Another force for conservatism is that the big names who dominate the market find it much easier to add new stuff on at the end as extra chapters than rewrite their textbook from scratch.

I could add more, but I have been rude to enough of my colleagues already. Let we add two other specific points about CORE. The first is that it is clearly mainstream: this is not the pluralist text that many heterodox economists would like. That I fear is inevitable: economics is mainly a vocational subject, not a liberal arts subject. (Thats upset a few more.) But I was surprised to see MMT people describe this textbook as not for them. I have, after all, argued that MMT is just standard macro without what I have called the Consensus Assignment. [1] So I had a look.

In the section on government finances (14.8) we get

“When there is a budget deficit, this means the government must borrow to cover the gap between its revenue and its expenditure. The government borrows by selling bonds.”

This is not correct, and nor does it follow modern macro. [2] There we write the government budget constraint to include a term in the change in the stock of high powered money. (If money does not appear, it is because the paper explicitly chooses to work in a moneyless world for simplicity.) In short, the government can finance the gap between revenue and expenditure by creating money. Ignoring money in this section is obviously an oversight, as the discussion in section 10 clearly shows. But it is an oversight that should be corrected. [3]

That apart, I was already a fan of the macro approach adopted in CORE, because it is a simplified version of the Carlin and Soskice textbook. I like the consistent claims approach as a way of talking about inflation. It emphasises the elementary point that you need both wage and price inflation to get sustained increases in inflation, something monetary policy makers seem to keep forgetting right now.

I like, as some may remember, abandoning the LM curve and explicitly talking about central bank policy. I also like the way that banks are now incorporated as part of the monetary transmission mechanism. If there was a clear manifestation of how outdated (at best, we could also say just plain misleading) most textbooks are, it is their continued use of LM curves and the money multiplier.

I really hope that CORE continues to be successful. It is time we stopped boring and confusing first year undergraduates, and started inspiring them with an understanding of the economic ideas that allow them to address the countless real world economic issues that they will have to face.

[1] The Consensus Assignment gives monetary policy the goal of macroeconomic stabilisation and fiscal policy the goal of stabilising government debt.

[2] We can go back to the work inspired by Carl Christ together with Blinder and Solow. I should add that CORE is not alone among textbooks in failing to properly set out the government’s budget constraint.

[3] Now we all know (and as MMT also clearly states) that there are limits to money financing: too much of it is inflationary. But this should not be internalised by teachers to the extent that money financing is ignored. In particular it gives the impression that to finance a deficit a government has to find someone to lend them money, an incorrect belief that can have very misleading consequences if the government controls its own currency. It is more complicated with independent central banks, but again they are not an excuse to ignore money financing.  

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Problems with triangulating over immigration

I have talked before about why triangulation over austerity did not work for Labour, but why triangulation over Brexit seems to be more successful. Tony Blair’s latest intervention suggests it is worth asking the same question about immigration. (The report that he launched is well worth reading.) It is a question that lies at the heart of many Labour MPs views on the politics of Brexit.

One of the lessons from austerity is that it is very dangerous to triangulate on an issue where you appear, as a result, to admit fault or blame. If the deficit is a problem (in 2011, say), why did you let it get so large on your watch? This was why ‘too far, too fast’ failed: you acknowledge a problem, and therefore implicitly admit guilt. Getting over the idea that there is a delicate balancing act between reducing the deficit and protecting the recovery is difficult, particularly as it is also an incorrect idea.

It is an obvious point, but exactly the same was true for immigration. Just look at the headlines. The parallels with immigration and the deficit are clear. In office, Labour did the right thing in ignoring the deficit in 2009, and they also did the right thing in allowing substantial EU immigration before then. In both cases the instincts of many voters is to do the opposite: the government should tighten its belt in a recession just like the rest of us, and the country should be able to control and limit who comes in. In both cases, the moment a government that in the past appeared to ignore these voter instincts starts to appear to suggest the instincts are valid, they trash their own record.

You could argue that while this is clearly right for Miliband and 2015, it has less salience for Corbyn rather than Blair today. You could go further and say that what works for Brexit will work with immigration. Just as triangulation gets you the votes of those who sort of want Brexit but worry about the economic consequences, so too could triangulation over immigration get you the votes of those who want to control immigration but are worried about the economic consequences of May’s obsession with hitting targets.

Here I think we need to look at a second problem with triangulation, which is that the nature of the political debate is influenced by it (is endogenous to it). With Brexit it means that neither of the two main political parties is making the case against Brexit, so the (non-partisan) mainstream political debate tends to ignore the anti-Brexit case. One of the unfortunate consequences of the way the BBC and others interpret impartiality is to see it in terms of the two main political parties, rather than (in this case) the population as a whole, so the views of half the population get largely ignored.

You could argue that this may be of secondary importance for an issue like Brexit, because the anti-Brexit case is still fresh in the mind from the referendum campaign. But that is much less true of immigration. Immigration is now well and truly defined in the media as a ‘problem’, and it is very rare to hear a politician (or anyone else) sing its praises. (Jonathan Portes does his best, but when a well known BBC commentator says his views will not win many votes, you get a clear idea of what is going on. [1]) May is quite safe from the media when she says immigration reduces wages and access to public services. The implication of all this together with a large partisan print media is politicians fear talking about the benefits of immigration because that may ruin a carefully triangulated position.

The reality is of course very different. Study after study after study (from academics, not partisan think tanks) shows how much we benefit from EU migration, and how it has virtually no impact on wages. Immigration increases the resources available to provide public services by more than it uses those services. Yet this knowledge is not reflected in the media discourse. The reason is straightforward: the political right wants to use immigration as both an excuse (for the impact of austerity) and a weapon (to achieve Brexit, for example), and the left by and large keeps quiet because it is triangulating.

People in the media may object by quoting polls that suggest the public overwhelming wants to control immigration: they are just reflecting that opinion. (But see footnote [1].) But polls also say people want less taxes. If you dig deeper public attitudes are far more nuanced than the public debate suggests. Here is some data, from an international study, by IPSOS-MORI:

“British people have become more positive about the impact of immigration over recent years. Forty-five per cent say immigration has been good the economy, up from 38% a year ago and from 27% in 2011, and 38% say immigration has made it harder for native Britons to get a job, down from 48% a year ago and 62% in 2011. However, Britain is one of the countries most worried about the pressure placed on public services by immigration, with 59% concerned – although this too is down from 68% a year ago and from 76% in 2011, when Britain was the most worried of all the countries surveyed.”

In other words, as I have emphasised before, the thing that most worries people in the UK about immigration is a myth. Yet triangulation, together with the way the media creates what I call ‘politicised truths’, means that voters are unlikely to find out what the facts are. [2]

The way this ambivalence is often articulated is through the issue of skill. 75% of people want skilled migration to stay the same or increase, while the consensus is that we should have less low or semi-skilled migrants. Yet if you name some categories of semi-skilled migrants, it turns out a majority want the same or more care worker, waiters, construction workers [3] and fruit pickers. As Rick says “apart from the care workers, construction workers, waiters and fruit pickers, what have low skilled* EU migrants ever done for us?” Skill has just become a way of people reconciling their wish for lower immigration in abstract with a recognition that immigration is good for the economy. It is like wanting lower taxes achieved through improving the efficiency of public services.

So how can something that people are ambivalent about become a major political issue that helped push us out of the EU? One answer is the sheer weight of numbers, and for some particular regions not previously experiencing inward migration that seems to be true. (It also reflects the inertia in public service provision.) But the rise of anti-immigration sentiment elsewhere in Europe where recent flows are not exceptional suggests other forces are at work. In part it is far-right parties exploiting fears about terrorism. But much more importantly in the UK, it reflects the deliberate exploitation of immigration as an issue by the Conservative party.

This predates the increase in immigration from Eastern Europe. In 2001 William Hague talked about Tony Blair wanting to turn the UK into a ‘foreign land’. The political temptation on the right to play the immigration card is strong, but until Brexit it has always been duplicitous. The wiser heads in the Cameron/Osborne government never wanted to hit their own targets because of the economic damage it would cause, and as a result they did not even bother to use all the controls that were available with free movement. As Chris Dillow says, immigration was the only scapegoat left to deflect concern about austerity and stagnant productivity. Immigration scapegoating became part of what I have called neoliberal overreach. [4]

This is I think the main reason why triangulation over immigration is not an effective strategy. By trying to appeal to those who are moderately concerned about immigration, Labour falls into a right wing trap, which is to implicitly validate their scapegoating. You can only convincingly argue that scarce public services are due to austerity rather than immigration if you can argue at the same time that immigration brings more resources to the public sector than it uses. You can only argue that economic policy is responsible for stagnant wages if you also say that it is not the fault of immigrants. Labour should go with its members and argue for the benefits of immigration, and in particular free movement with the EU. [5]

[1] This simple exchange illustrated so clearly to me why the BBC’s so called mission to inform and explain is often no more than a joke. Rather than regard popular beliefs that are incorrect as something the BBC has a duty to try and reverse, they are instead used to dismiss expertise.

[2] This is not just a UK phenomenon: around the world politicians use immigrants as scapegoats.

[3] I’m often told that economic studies of the benefits of immigration ignore ‘existing capital like housing’. Yet we need migrants to help build more houses for natives as well as migrants. The only thing that migrants cannot bring to the UK is more land, but with an effective regional policy which we desperately need anyway we have plenty of land.

[4] Some have asked why I called it overreach, when most just talk about the collapse of neoliberalism? For a start, using immigration as a political weapon is not a natural consequence of neoliberalism, and instead comes more from the social conservative part of right wing parties. Also while I think neoliberalism encouraged austerity, I can quite imagine those with neoliberal views forsaking it.

[5] There is an argument that free movement should be opposed because it is unfair to non-EU migrants. Yet you could make the same point about any trade agreement between two countries: it is unfair on all other countries. Arguments about equity that make some people worse off and no one better off give equity a bad name.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Economists show how Fox news changes votes

As I have noted before, economists are getting into media studies (we are natural imperialists) and beginning to provide empirical evidence on an age old, and critical, debate. Are some media outlets biased simply because their viewers or readers are partisan, or do these media outlets play a causal role in changing political views? And do readers/viewers discount the bias in media outlets, or does this influence how they vote?

We now have clear evidence on this in the case of US News Channels, and the answer is that Fox News changes votes in a big way: by magnitudes easily enough to swing elections. Those who argue that partisan right wing media does not matter very much now need to bring some counter-evidence to the table if they want to sustain that position.

The latest piece of evidence has just been published in the American Economic Review. Why is the study in a top-rank economics journal? One thing empirical economists are used to doing is looking for good ‘instrumental variables’, which in this particular case, means finding something that influences whether people watch Fox News that has nothing to do with their politics. If you then look at what these ‘accidental’ viewers do, that gives you a handle on the causal role of watching Fox News.

Dylan Matthews at Vox has an excellent explainer piece on the research, so I will not repeat the details here. Let me instead just list four key points.

  1. Fox News is the dominant (by primetime viewers) US news channel. A sizeable minority of Fox News viewers are not Republicans.

  2. The study’s data does not go beyond 2008, but in that year they estimate that if Fox News had not existed, the Republican vote share would have been over 6% points lower.

  3. In contrast the more left wing MSNBC was far less effective at gaining votes for Democrats.

  4. Fox News is not just setting its ideology to maximise viewers - it is much more Conservative than that. Instead it choice of ideology maximises its persuasive power.

The ‘headline figure’ of over 6% points in point (2) is an overestimate because other networks do shift their ideology to gain viewers. So if Fox News disappeared, other networks might have shifted right to capture ex-Fox viewers. But the key point is that Fox is acting in a way to maximise the propaganda power of its extremely right wing message, and it is successful in changing a significant number of voters minds. The apologist line that the media is ‘just reflecting the views of our readers/viewers’ does not hold for Fox News. In short, it is a propaganda organisation, not a ‘for profit’ news organisation. During one sample period, an analysis of the content of Fox suggested that over half the facts it reported were untrue.

One of the nice things about the study is that its results are reasonably consistent with earlier work based on the initial roll out of Fox News in 1996 to 2000 (which I referenced here). That earlier analysis used a different method to identify the causal impact of Fox on voters choices, so it is good that two different methods come to similar conclusions.

To some this will be no surprise (except perhaps that the research is in an economics journal). To paraphrase Obama, if he watched Fox News even he wouldn’t vote for himself. It fits my own account of how US politics has shifted so far to the right, and has become so partisan. To UK readers the obvious question is whether we can just substitute Mail/Sun/Express for Fox. In my view you can, and Brexit goes a long way to proving that. But explicitly or implicitly, the consensus view appears otherwise. Whether from left, right or centre, analysis of voter behaviour typically ignores or marginalises the role of the press. This and earlier studies suggest that is no longer good science.

Fox and their UK equivalents in the press have an importance way beyond academic studies of popular opinion. The story of Fox News and Trump are inextricably linked, as is Brexit and the right wing press. When you can serve large sections of the population real fake news - news that denigrates particular minorities or ‘outsiders’ and pushes the political views of their owners - then tyranny becomes quite compatible with democracy. Governments wield the ‘will of the people’ against pluralism and the rule of law, all enabled and even dictated by media as propaganda. We have examples within the EU and on its doorsteps. We are not there yet in the UK and US, but we are getting very close.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Revolutions in Economic Policy

The Commission on Economic Justice hosted by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has just published a substantial and comprehensive report on the UK economy called ‘Time for Change’. I hope to write about aspects of that report later, but its basic premise is that we need a revolution in economic policy making, akin to the revolutions enacted by the post-war Attlee government and Mrs. Thatcher. The thinking behind the idea of economic policy revolutions is outlined by Alfie Stirling and Laurie Laybourne-Langton in a paper in The Political Quarterly.

The authors adapt the ideas of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to economic policy. I do not want to get hung up on the legitimacy or details of this. The basic idea that some periods involve profound changes in economic policy is not really contentious. Also the idea that the ‘failing paradigm’ will first try to adapt itself before being replaced by the revolutionary idea is straightforward. You only need to look at the state of current politics in the UK and US to take seriously the idea that what could be called the neoliberal era - the set of policies and world view associated with Thatcher and Reagan - is coming to an end.

There is a lot in the paper that I agree with, at least until the conclusions. [1] But I think my main critical comment would be that the paper focuses too much on macroeconomics, and as a result goes a little astray. It is if, having borrowed Kuhn’s idea and applied it to economic policy, the authors feel obliged to keep going back to an actual academic discipline, macroeconomic theory, rather than staying with economic policy as a whole. Let me set out first how I see the macroeconomic transformation that took place around the time of Thatcher and Reagan.

A key mistake that many people make is to say that conventional Keynesian macroeconomic theory was unable to explain stagflation, and that policymakers adopted monetarism or new classical ideas as a result. The basis for understanding stagflation and reducing inflation was known since at least Friedman’s famous address in 1968 giving his account of the expectations augmented Phillips curve. This Phillips curve was not used to guide monetary or fiscal policy before the end of the 1970s because most policy makers and some economists were reluctant to raise unemployment as a way of reducing inflation. [2]

In the UK this use of demand management to control inflation (or its counterpart, which was to abandon attempts at direct control like incomes policies) coincided with the election of Thatcher, but in the US it was initiated by Paul Volcker under Jimmy Carter. In both the UK and US it was associated with attempts to control monetary aggregates, but this lasted only a few years. You could argue that abandoning incomes policies was neoliberal, but to me it looks like the inevitable result of double digit inflation.

There was a revolution in macroeconomic theory, but I have argued elsewhere that it does not fit into the Kuhnian framework. The New Classical Counter Revolution (NCCR) did not come up with an alternative analysis of inflation: instead their concerns were more methodological. It is true that that many who promoted the NCCR also favoured neoliberalism, and you could relate reductionism to individualism (and hence neoliberalism), but I think the appeal of the NCCR owed much more to a collection of good ideas that the then mainstream resisted, like rational expectations.

Inflation targeting by central banks involves an attempt to manage the economy in much the same way as Keynesian fiscal activism had done before. The central bank is a part of the state. Central bank independence didn’t come to the UK until 1997, and existed in the US well before Reagan. What I call the Consensus Assignment (monetary to demand management, fiscal to debt control) was dealt a fatal blow by the GFC, but the popularity of this assignment owes little to neoliberalism. Attempts to link inflation targeting to neoliberalism, which are frequent, are in my view a mistake.

Trying to fit macroeconomics into an account of the rise of neoliberalism is therefore problematic, and more importantly it detracts from the real economic policy revolution that neoliberalism represented, which was a change in the attitude of policymakers to state intervention of almost any kind. Out went government partnership with industry (described as ‘picking winners’), together with a regional and industrial policy serious enough to counteract the effects of globalisation and technical change. There was a corresponding shift from the collective (including attacking trade unions) to the individual, together with the idea that ‘wealth creators’ (aka high earners) had to be incentivised by cutting ‘punitive’ taxation. Public money became ‘taxpayers money’ and so on.

All this was a successful neoliberal revolution, where by success I mean it took hold for decades. It, together with subsequent overreach, has caused serious problems and is therefore ripe for review. But ironically the attempt at a truly neoliberal macro policy - hands-off monetary targeting with no demand management - failed within a few years of being tried.

[1] I should say why I think the conclusions do not follow from the rest of the paper. There are some simple mistakes, such as “the failure of these same models to predict accurately the effects of the UK vote to leave the EU threatens to renew the crisis of confidence in economic theory.” But there is also an implicit very misleading equation pair: neoliberal policy=mainstream economics, revolution=heterodoxy.

First, the two previous revolutions in macro theory came from within the mainstream, not from outside. Second, neither austerity or Brexit have anything to do with mainstream economics. More generally, mainstream economics is as much a critique of neoliberalism as a support. As a result, a revolution in economic policy making could quite easily originate from within mainstream economics (see here, for example).

[2] Today, that view has been revived by members of the MMT school, who call using the Phillips curve to control inflation amoral.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Cherry picking economic statistics and Project Fear

It is often said that the left-right description of politics is not a straight line but a circle, with left and right becoming more similar as they get more extreme. It is mostly nonsense, but one thing that can make it appear so is ideology. If you start to let your view of the world be dominated too much by a particular ideology or conviction (whether of the left or right), you tend to exhibit the same characteristic denial of both reality and the wisdom of expertise.

One of the symptoms of this denial is the cherry picking of statistics. The example that quickly comes to mind is output, employment and productivity. Since the GFC, UK output growth has been insipid but employment growth has been strong. The counterargument to the claim that the UK’s recovery from recession was the weakest for more than a century has been to applaud employment growth. But of course the combination of weak output growth and strong employment growth is awful labour productivity growth, which is a major factor behind slow wage growth. Those that applaud strong employment growth as a counter to [1] weak output growth are in effect saying what a great thing the productivity standstill is. (I made fun of this in one of my better posts.)

One of the little homilies I used to trot out when I taught first year undergraduates was that economics is not about making lists. In any economic situation you can make a list of what is good and bad about the economy, and then make some kind of judgement based on comparing the lists. For example you might observe that output is strong, unemployment is low but inflation is rising, and judge that the first two outweigh the third. But to do this avoids any understanding of what is going on. Once you try to relate the data to some kind of framework or model (e.g. of the business cycle) you realise you are describing a boom which needs to be moderated.

We have seen this in spades with Brexit. When the economy initially appeared unaffected by the Brexit vote, those promoting Leave said this was the ultimate proof of Project Fear. They did not bother to look at the composition of growth: consumption led, supported by falling savings and higher debt. This was not sustainable, and sure enough growth in output per head in the first half of 2017 has been minuscule. Consumers, by borrowing, had simply delayed the short term Brexit slowdown. But I have been told that this means nothing: growth has been low in the odd quarter since the recession, so this is just two of those quarters together and to suggest otherwise is Project Fear.

I’ve been told exports are booming, unemployment is still falling (and low by EU standards), falls in real wages are nothing new and much else. Yet ask almost any economist what they think is currently going on, and they will tell you it is a downturn caused by a decline in incomes (and flat investment) following the Brexit depreciation that has - as yet - not been offset by strong growth in net exports. I looked at why Brexit could be the reason for the absence of a net trade boost here. I may not be right, in so far as any commentary of this kind based on limited data as things are happening could prove wrong. This of course gives ample scope to those who want to see a particular result to poke holes and stress uncertainties.

In the grand scheme of things, the short term effect of the Brexit vote are minor compared to the potential long term impact of Brexit, and of course a great deal depends on the form of Brexit when it happens. The short term matters because of what it shows. Those who promoted Brexit used the Project Fear label to discount economic expertise: the overwhelming view of academic economists that Brexit would reduce long term GDP, and cause a short term slowdown before it was implemented. They did this not because they came to a different view based on the economic evidence, but because they wanted to believe Brexit would be painless (or, more cynically, because the pain would be felt by others). Brexit is a classic example of an ideology driven project that discounted evidence.

Going on to deny that Brexit has caused an economic slowdown is simply the next step in denial: denial of past evidence extends to denial of current evidence. It is just like Trump and climate change (or Trump and much else), which is why I and others have related Brexit and Trump. But the reality of Brexit is now being felt by the UK negotiators. Back in March I said that the obvious outcome for the immediate negotiations was to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union for a transition period, but the UK team would try and dress this up as something else to save face. What the UK negotiators are doing only makes sense once you understand that Brexit can cause huge economic damage, but those that said otherwise must cling on to the pretense of Project Fear.

The use of the term Project Fear was an attempt to shut out expertise and evidence from the Brexit debate, just as it was used in the same way during the Scottish Referendum. [2] Hopefully we will never know what the costs of a Hard Brexit will be, because we will get a Labour government which will keep us in the Single Market and Customs Union (or better still, Brexit somehow collapses before then). But the concept of Project Fear deserves to be exposed and degraded nevertheless. So, following on from the spirit of my last post, here is a definition:
Project Fear: a term once used by those who wish to discredit economic evidence and expertise as just the exaggerations of one side in a debate.

Background. Initially used by Scottish Nationalists in an attempt to hide the short term fiscal costs of independence, and then in the European referendum to hide the economic costs of leaving the EU. Fell out of use after Sterling’s depreciation following the Brexit vote, and the subsequent decline in real incomes and economic slowdown.

[1] Given weak output growth, strong employment growth and a decline in real wages may be preferable to stronger productivity growth and high unemployment. But that is to talk about the characteristic of a weak economy. I am talking here about employment growth being used to counter the claim that the recovery is weak.

[2] Please, no more comments about how the SNP did not invent the term. The desperation to show (correctly) that ‘they used it first’ indicates a recognition that the term was used in that referendum to hide reality from the voters.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Defining austerity redux

This is a rather dull post about definitions

In a previous piece I talked about how there is no clear definition of what we mean by austerity, and how different people mean different things. In the context of my ‘General Theory’ paper, I attempted a definition which made precise one strand of common usage. However, if you look at the comments to that post, others were not convinced.

Some recent exchanges on twitter have convinced me that we still need a clear definition, but that my own earlier attempt could be improved. In that earlier post I argued that equating austerity with one type fiscal consolidation - public spending cuts - was inadequate for two reasons. First, why not use ‘public spending cuts'! But second and more important, it would equate such consolidation taken at the height of a boom that did no damage to the economy with cuts in the depth of a recession.

The definition (call it Def A) I suggested was
“fiscal consolidation that leads to a significant increase in involuntary unemployment, or pwerhaps more formally but less colloquially as leading to a noticeably more negative output gap”.
If people wanted to restrict the definition to spending cuts, simply replace ‘fiscal consolidation’ with ‘cuts to government spending’.

One minor change I would now want to make is to remove the reference to involuntary unemployment. For a start unemployment may lag output, and conceivably unemployment could be avoided by workers pricing themselves into jobs, but this does not negate the fact that fiscal consolidation has reduced output and wasted aggregate resources.

However rephrasing the definition (Def B) to
“Fiscal consolidation/cuts to public spending that leads to a significantly more negative output gap”
still involves the problem that the output gap is poorly measured. For example, some think the UK output gap is currently zero, but I would want to apply the term austerity to the current fiscal consolidation. Replacing ‘negative output gap’ by ‘economic downturn’ does not help, and saying ‘in a recession’ actually makes it very restrictive given the formal definition of a recession. Another possibility would be to simply say (Def C) that austerity was
“Fiscal consolidation/cuts to public spending that leads to a significant fall in output”
The trouble with this is it allows austerity to be in some cases entirely appropriate: for example if spending was too high in a boom. Indeed that is the obvious problem with simply denoting austerity as cuts in public spending. There should I think be some connection with the other meaning of austerity i.e. hard times. Reducing spending in a boom is hardly that.

Let me go back to why I had a problem with definition B i.e. why would I want to apply the term austerity to current cuts in spending. The answer is that interest rates are at their lower bound. That suggests an alternative definition (Def D):
“fiscal consolidation/spending cuts that have a negative impact on aggregate demand which monetary policy is unable to offset.”
I prefer definition D to B because it gets to the heart of why austerity is a problem. The key idea is not that fiscal consolidation in some form is always bad or inappropriate, but that it should not take place when monetary policy is unable to offset its impact on output.

One of the criticisms of my original definition B, which also applies to D, is that it rules out the possibility of ‘expansionary austerity’. Instead we would have to call it expansionary fiscal consolidation. Once again, if we want this meaning of austerity to have some connection to hard times, then expansionary austerity seems a misnomer anyway.

I did warn you it was dull, but I really would be interested in comments on all this. Perhaps I should end on one reason why I think it is important. Suppose I asked what part of Labour's 2017 manifesto was anti-austerity? I think many would say the proposed increases in current government spending, but if you take the manifesto at its word that is not anti-austerity, because the spending increases are tax financed. What is anti-austerity, if you accept my definition, are the increases in public investment and the fiscal credibility rule.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Could independent central banks be advisory?

With fiscal councils (or Independent Fiscal Institutions) now commonplace in advanced economies, a natural question arises. Why are all these councils advisory, while independent central banks have control over monetary policy? For fiscal policy we seem to have delegated advice [1], while for monetary policy we have delegated control. In this post I want to focus on control over how policy instruments are changed, and not control of the goals of policy. For clarity assume that governments still control the ultimate goals of monetary policy (e.g. an inflation target) and fiscal policy (e.g. a target for the deficit in 5 years time).

As fiscal councils are the less familiar, it is natural to try and answer this question by asking why fiscal councils are not given control over fiscal policy. I am, of course, not talking about controlling the detail of government spending or taxes, but instead setting a target for the projected deficit which governments should aim to achieve in a budget. There are lots of potential answers to that question, which I have written about elsewhere.

However we could ask the question the other way around, and I cannot remember anyone asking it this way. Why are there no independent advisory central banks? In the UK, for example, imagine having the MPC meeting, and then immediately advising (in secret for a short time) the Chancellor of their recommendation for interest rates. The Chancellor would very quickly (within an hour or day?) decide whether to accept that recommendation or do something different. After that, the decision and the MPC’s recommendation would be announced.

Two straightforward points. First, a system of that kind could only work in the US if Congress gave the President the power to accept the Fed’s recommendation or impose the President’s own decision: perhaps not something we would want to contemplate right now. In the Eurozone the ECB would have to give recommendations to Ecofin, which might make it both impractical and perhaps undesirable. Second, this form of delegation is obviously weaker than giving complete control to the central bank, and that in itself may be a reason why it is not adopted.

Nevertheless, for a country like the UK, it would be a mistake to underestimate the political pressure the Chancellor would be under to accept the central bank’s public advice. The Chancellor or Treasury minister would be entirely responsible from deviating from the recommendation given to them, and if it went wrong they would incur a considerable political cost. In these circumstances, it would be understandable for governments to reason that there was little to be gained from having the power to overrule central bank advice. They would get it in the neck if they overruled this advice and turned out to be wrong, but equally if the MPC make mistakes they would also have ultimate responsibility for accepting this advice. If in practice nearly all of the time they are going to accept the central bank’s recommendations, why not give them complete control so that at least you are not implicated when things go wrong.

If this reasoning is correct, it raises a difficult question for those who argue against central bank independence but still accept monetary policy’s primary role in stabilising the economy outwith the ZLB. Of course many governments used to be happy to control monetary policy, as long as the advice they were getting was secret. But if that advice is public, as surely we all agree it should be, would even formally advisory central banks start to in effect control monetary policy because governments would never incur the risk of going against their advice? In which case, why so much fuss about independent central banks that do control monetary policy being undemocratic? I stress again that I’m talking about control of month to month interest rate changes, and not the goals of monetary policy (inflation targets or NGDP targets). I think those should be democratically decided (as in the UK, but not the US or EZ), and that central banks should be accountable in a meaningful way if they do not achieve these goals. But for the day to day business of setting rates, I cannot see that much would be gained by putting those under democratic control. 

[1] In the absence of delegating advice to an independent institution, advice would come from the the internal civil service.