Facts? Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Facts!

So the European Commission have, for three years, been asking the Cameron government to provide evidence to substantiate his claim that the UK is suffering from a problem of “benefit tourism”. Having received nothing back in response, today they called “Shenanigans“.

As I have discussed on here before, the effects of immigration are overwhelmingly positive to the UK economy. Immigration increases economic growth. Immigration doesn’t increase unemployment. Immigrants contribute 30% more through taxes than they take through public services. In short, we would be doing significantly worse without immigrants.

You will notice that there is a marked difference between the messages I just gave you and the messages that the government sends out when discussing this subject. The biggest difference though, is that my messages are based on evidence and facts as opposed to the creation and fuelling of prejudices. (Read my earlier post, “The Immigration Fallacy” for more detail and links to comprehensive studies on the subject.)

The Daily Mail gave us a fact though, “600,000 Unemployed EU Citizens Living in Britain!” Except that it wasn’t a fact. Their definition of unemployed being different to everyone else’s by including people who weren’t seeking work such as students, retired people and spouses of employed people. The number of EU immigrants claiming job-seekers allowance, it was pointed out, was actually not 600,000 but 38,000. Now we can of course, quibble about the definition of unemployed, but if we were to use The Daily Mail’s one then overall UK unemployment, as Jonathan Portes noted, would be in excess of 15 million people, or around six times higher than our current way of measuring it.

Looking for supportive evidence was obviously a failing strategy when attempting to justify their policy of demonising immigrants, so Number 10 instead told us to forget the facts and appreciate that we needed to act due to “widespread and understandable concern” over people coming to the UK to access benefits. Well of course there is widespread concern now! The government have spent the last three and a half years trying to convince people that immigrants and benefit claimants are the root of all evil.

I’m not sure the tactic of:

  • Scare people into believing there is an immigration crisis
  • Get tough on immigration because people are now scared about an immigration crisis

…..is necessarily better than:

  • Look at the overwhelming evidence
  • Create a sensible policy based on it

The whole “benefit tourism” thing is an example of a Phantom Problem – a key tool in the government’s spin arsenal. I wrote about them in detail here, but essentially Phantom problems work like this:

  • You decide on a policy you want to implement based on your political ideals
  • Because it is based on your political ideals rather than evidence you can’t sell the policy to the public based on facts
  • You put a huge amount of effort into convincing the public that there is a crisis that can only be dealt with by implementing your tough policy
  • You implement your policy off the back of the huge public panic you have created
  • The public thank you for being tough and sorting out that crisis that was about to happen

Obviously I can understand why this disingenuous approach to policy-making is so attractive to the Conservative Party. On this, any many other issues, the evidence is simply at odds with their political ideals. I understand it but seriously, don’t we deserve a bit more than that? Ok, they have shown that using a basic framework of ignoring the facts but marketing their idealisms can be effective in molding the country as they’d like it to be, but it’s not hard to see why that is not an optimal strategy for delivering benefit to the majority.

Given that the evidence shows that immigrants contribute significantly more on average, I do see a certain irony when I see the Tories standing up behind a lectern on which is emblazoned the phrase, “For Hardworking People”.

For Hardworking People

For Hardworking People

Perhaps all they need is a wider lectern so it can say, “For Hardworking People…. As Long As You’re Not a Foreigner.”

RedEaredRabbit

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Bubblenomics

If someone asked you to name the country you most associated with tulips, you’d immediately say, “The Netherlands!” Interestingly enough though tulips aren’t in fact an indigenous Dutch flower, having been introduced from Turkey in 1593. The Dutch quickly fell in love with them though and over the following decades they became highly prized as status symbols among the Dutch social elite.

One of the things that helped them achieve such status was the fact that the supply of tulip bulbs was quite limited, (a flowering bulb takes seven years to grow from seed) and so, as demand increased, prices did too. As prices began to take off, flower sellers bought up as many bulbs as they could in order to get them before their prices increased further. This led to a further drop in supply and a further hike in prices. It wasn’t just the flower sellers though – traders had noticed the seemingly ever-increasing price of tulip bulbs and saw a new way to make money. They started buying them, not to plant in their gardens – they were buying them in order to sell them on later at a profit.

Flower sellers and traders alike were buying bulbs now because they expected them to be more expensive later on. That is, they had an expectation that prices would keep rising and that made them want to buy them now.

If you think by talking about tulip bulbs in the 1600s, I have completely lost the plot, then let me tell you what happened next. In the winter of 1636 – 1637, the already inflated price of tulip bulbs increased by one thousand percent in just three months. Bulbs of rare varieties sold for the same price as an average house and many people mortgaged or sold their properties in order to get in on a seemingly guaranteed profit.

But then something happened. There are different theories to what the event was, or if there even was a particular event that triggered it but one day, prices stopped going up. Panicked investors saw that the peak of the market had been reached and started selling. As supply increased and demand decreased the price started to drop. Soon everyone was trying to offload their tulip bulbs before it was too late but… it was already too late. The price of tulip bulbs plummeted spectacularly until soon they were back at the price that someone might want to pay to have a nice flower in their garden. Such was the shock that the entire Dutch economy collapsed and entered a depression.

While it is easy to look back at this event and conclude that the Dutch simply went mental, almost 400 years later we still experience economic “bubbles” and the effects are every bit as severe today as they were to the Dutch people of the 17th century. So what are bubbles? How to do they form? How do they grow? Why do they burst?

We’ll answer all of this and more in my five rules of Bubblenomics.

The 1st Rule of Bubblenomics

In order for a bubble to have a chance of starting you need lots of people to really want to buy something – in fact you need more than that. What you really need is for lots of people to really want to buy something more than they did last month. Bubbles are not formed off the back of high demand, they are formed off the back of increasing demand. As we saw in 17th century Amsterdam, the tulip bubble was built on the demand for tulip bulbs increasing… and increasing… and increasing. If the demand had doubled and then stopped there would have been no bubble (just more expensive tulips) and so the first rule of Bubblenomics is simply:

In order to create a bubble, the asset must experience a sustained increase in demand.

Easy enough. I’ll make it clear now though, a sustained increase in demand is not the definition of a bubble and it is not, on its own, enough to create a bubble. To understand how a bubble forms we need a few more rules, which I’ll come on to next.

The 2nd Rule of Bubblenomics

There are many different examples of bubbles in many different areas of the economy. Recent examples are the dot com bubble, which inflated during the late 1990s and burst in the year 2000 and the recent housing bubble, which caused the current global financial crisis.

As well as a sustained increase in demand, all of these bubbles have something else in common – a limitation on supply. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Suppose Mars Bars suddenly become really trendy and the demand for Mars Bars goes through the roof. Mars would quickly respond to this by making more Mars Bars. The increased demand would be met with increased supply, the price would quickly stabilise and no bubble would ensue.

Bubbles only form on something of which there is some kind of limitation on supply, such as the number of shares in a dot com company, tulip bulbs in 17th Century Amsterdam or houses.

Therefore the second rule of Bubblenomics is:

In order to experience a price bubble, the supply of an asset must have a limitation such that increases in demand cannot be easily met by an equivalent increase in supply.

You might be asking why, given the second rule, housing is a good candidate for bubble creation. If demand goes up, we should just build more houses, right? Sadly is isn’t that easy.

Demand for houses is volatile and increasing the supply of houses takes time. Suppose that one year the demand for houses in central London is 5% higher than it was in the previous year – you can’t just quickly meet supply by suddenly building 5% more houses in central London. There is the lack of space, the planning regulations and of course, the fact that it takes a long time to build a house. Because of those things, that increased demand just translates into an increased price.

The 3rd Rule of Bubblenomics

A price increase alone isn’t a bubble though and to understand how a bubble forms we need to look at the third rule. Basic microeconomics tells us that when the price of something goes up, we should expect demand for that something to drop and in most situations that is true. In bubble situations however, the opposite happens. Let’s stick with housing to explain this.

When house prices start to increase, potential buyers see that prices are going up and start piling in order to buy something before prices go up even more, thereby further reducing demand. More people are buying, not because the current price is low – it isn’t – but because they expect it to be higher in the future and although now is expensive, now is still cheap compared with what they expect next month might be. That means that more people want to buy now and current prices increase.

This is what the third rule covers:

The expectation of future price increases fuels current demand

Another way of putting it would be, “Aaarrgh! House prices are going up and up! I need to buy now, before they’re even more expensive! Aaargrh!”

I did make that sound a bit panicky but how many times during the decade before the financial crisis did you hear people talk about having to get on the property ladder before it became unaffordable? If you hear logic like that, it is a clear sign of a bubble in progress.

If you take the first three laws together you can begin to see how a cycle might form – demand keeps going up and with supply constrained, prices increase and as the price increases become sustained, demand goes up further because buying now is better than buying later. Together those three explain a lot but in order to really understand bubbles there are two more laws we need to cover.

The 4th Rule of Bubblenomics

As I mentioned, there are different theories of what caused the Dutch tulip bubble to pop but I suspect it had something to do with the availability of funds. That is, people simply ran out of things to sell  in order to buy tulip bulbs – after all, once you’ve sold your house, you’re pretty much done.

The equivalent in a housing bubble is how much someone is willing to lend you in order to buy a house. A bubble can only keep inflating when buyers have the access to funds to sustain that inflation. The housing bubble that caused the recent, global financial crisis is a perfect example. As prices increased, banks just responded by lending more money.  If the banks had said, “We’ll only lend 80% of a home’s value and that lending can be at max, three times your income”, the bubble would never have happened. They didn’t though. As prices increased, bank lending just increased to further inflate the bubble.

This is the fourth rule of Bubblenomics:

Inflation of a bubble requires someone to keep providing the air

The 5th Rule of Bubblenomics

Don’t worry, this is the last one and it is the simplest one of the lot. The first four rules dealt with how bubbles form and grow but they don’t explain how they burst. What I am calling the 5th rule of Bubblenomics is known in economic circles as Stein’s Law, after the late American economist, Herbert Stein. It says simply this:

If something can’t go on forever, it will stop.

Bubbles see prices increase dramatically and as we have seen, the price increases are self-sustaining for a while. The reality though, is that the price of something can’t go on increasing faster than people’s income forever. At some point, people either won’t want to buy it, don’t have enough money to buy it or can’t borrow enough money to buy it. That much is inevitable – if something can’t go on forever, it will stop.

As the Dutch saw in 1637 and the world saw in 2008, when a bubble stops the result can be catastrophic. So, it should be obvious to everyone that we want to prevent bubbles, right? Right. It should but clearly it isn’t. Just look at the UK government’s “Help to Buy” scheme, which even Vince Cable pointed out would do little more than create a new housing bubble.

He was of course quickly silenced by George Osborne but let’s remember that Vince is an extremely well-qualified economist and George has an undergraduate degree in history.

Apparently a degree in history that didn’t cover the Dutch Tulip Bubble of 1637.

RedEaredRabbit

The Popularity Paradox

This week I’ve been pondering an apparent paradox: Given the fairly disastrous economic achievements of the current government, how in the world are they able to remain so popular in the polls?

Part of this is surely a lack of confidence in the opposition but even so, I don’t think that is enough of an explanation. The polls are not just saying that a lot of people still prefer the government to the opposition – the polls are saying that a lot of people actually trust the government on economic policy. This is The Popularity Paradox – the fact that the government can be hugely unsuccessful and still retain a surprising level of popularity. This post is my attempt to explain that apparent paradox.

Part I: The First Rule of Politics

The first thing we need to do is break our association between political success and political popularity. Democracy is far from an ideal system – the first rule of politics isn’t “Make things better!” The first rule of politics is “Win the next election!”

Because of this, the popularity of a policy is far more important than its success – the primary goal of government policies is to achieve popularity. You can see this in the way that governments deal with taxes. Sometimes increasing taxes would be sensible but governments know that increasing them is a vote loser, so they don’t get increased or they get increased in strange areas that they hope people won’t notice. Similarly they know that tax cuts are popular so a government might cut income tax before an election, even if it makes no economic sense for it to do so. Popularity is everything.

Do you think the trucks hauling, “Illegal Immigrants Go Home” signs were aimed at illegal immigrants? Was the government really expecting illegal immigrants (who they tell us can’t speak English anyway) would just see these trucks, pack their bags and leave? No. The message on those trucks was not aimed at illegal immigrants at all – it was aimed at voters. It was an attempt to boost popularity for the government by convincing people that illegal immigrants were a huge problem and that the government was implementing a tough solution.

Will this stunt result in fewer illegal immigrants? I can’t see how, but that was never its aim. The aim was popularity and whether or not it actually ends up resulting in fewer illegal immigrants is by the by.

Popularity is not achieved through success. Popularity is achieved by convincing people that there is a problem and then telling them how you’re going to solve it. That brings me nicely on to my next point.

Part II: Partial Problem Solving

Let’s take a look at a generic process for solving a problem. It might look a bit like this:

  • You define the problem you wish to solve
  • You find the underlying causes of the problem
  • You design a solution to address the problem
  • You state clearly how you will measure the solution’s success once it is implemented
  • You implement the solution
  • You measure how well the solution performs against your pre-defined criteria
  • You design and implement improvements to the solution and reassess against your pre-defined criteria (repeat this as necessary)

You might be wondering why I’m boring you with this. Well, one way of looking at a government is as a group of people we put in charge to solve problems in our society. In order for people to have trust in a government, they need to understand both the problems that the government is trying to solve and the solutions they are using to solve them.

Let’s look at an example from the current government:

  • Problem: Immigration is too high and unaffordable in its current state
  • Underlying causes: Immigrants are arriving in huge numbers, taking jobs from British citizens and claiming massive sums in benefits
  • Solution: Clamp down on non-EU immigration. Hold a referendum on EU membership so we might soon be able to clamp down on immigration from within the EU too.

Let’s look at another example:

  • Problem: The UK’s economy is weak because of high government spending
  • Underlying Causes: The previous government went on a spending spree that was unaffordable
  • Solution: We need to immediately reduce government spending.

In both of these cases the government clearly defined the problem and the underlying causes and then clearly set out the solution. Both of these policies were popular with a lot of people. Let’s remember though, the seven steps of problem-solving that I outlined above. The government is only performing four of the seven steps. Let’s look at the list again, this time with the steps the government is doing underlined:

  1. You define the problem you wish to solve
  2. You define the underlying causes of the problem
  3. You design a solution to address the problem
  4. You state clearly how you will measure the solution’s success once it is implemented
  5. You implement the solution
  6. You measure how well the solution performs against your pre-defined criteria
  7. You design and implement improvements to the solution and reassess against your pre-defined criteria (repeat this as necessary)

In the second example I gave, the government has spent three years unwilling to adapt a policy that has not even got close to solving the problem of a weak economy. A much better way of doing things would be to admit that the initial policy wasn’t working and adapt it. After all,  the economy is complicated and it is unreasonable to expect every policy you start off with to be perfect and never require adapting. Willingness to adapt a policy based on how well it performs is essential when trying to solve a complex problem.

Those missing steps might help to explain why the government’s solutions are unsuccessful. To understand why they are popular however, we need to look at something I’m going to call The Ignorance of Crowds*.

Part III: The Ignorance of Crowds

When we vote, we are expected to assess the relative merits of a huge number of different policies across many different areas of government. We need to determine what the best policies are in economics, health, education, foreign policy, crime etc etc etc. An economist might be an expert on monetary and fiscal policy but lack the knowledge to make a good judgment on education policies. A teacher might be an expert in education but lack the knowledge of the relative merits of sanctions vs military intervention in Syria**.

A small number of people are experts in one area. An even smaller number are experts in two. I doubt anyone is an expert in more than three. You can see why this is a problem in a situation where a crowd of people needs to each, individually pass judgment on a wide range of complicated subjects.

But why is this important in understanding why a policy can be simultaneously unsuccessful and popular? Have a look again at the steps of the problem solving process that are highlighted (the ones the government is doing) and those that are not. It is quite easy for a non-expert to understand a clearly defined problem. It is also quite easy for a non-expert to understand a clearly defined solution. However it is much harder for an non-expert to assess whether or not a policy is actually succeeding.

So the government defines a problem that the crowd understands (e.g. debt is too high) and defines a solution that the crowd understands (e.g. spending must be cut) but unless an individual has some level of expertise in that area they are forced to rely on the reports of third parties to know whether or not that policy is working. This would not be such a bad thing if the third parties took time to carefully explain how they had reached their judgments so that they could be understood by non-experts but that’s very rare because the third parties from whom people get this information are of course, the media and the politicians themselves.

The Ignorance of Crowds says that as non-experts we can understand a problem that is presented to us and we can understand a proposed solution but it is very hard for us to know how successful that solution actually turned out to be. That means the definition of the problem and the definition of the solution are far more important factors in determining a policy’s popularity than its success.

This explains why the government only worries about certain steps in the problem solving process. The things that make you popular are clearly stating the problem you wish to solve and clearly stating how you want to solve it. Whether it works or not is almost by the by.

Part IV: Phantom Problems

So we’ve looked at how a problem should be solved and seen how and why the government doesn’t do things like that. We’ve seen that a government can take advantage of The Ignorance of Crowds by giving the appearance of solving problems that they are in fact not solving at all and we have seen that solving problems is not their main concern in any case. There is though, another reason for that gulf between popularity and success and this one is far worse than anything I’ve mentioned so far.

In the set of steps for solving a problem that I outlined, you start by defining the problem, then working out the underlying causes and then defining the solution. The government does not do this. What the government does is nothing less than scary.

The government starts with the solution – that is, the policy that they want to implement. They then work backwards to come up with a “problem” that they can use to justify that solution.

Look at the examples I gave:

  • Problem: Immigration is too high and unaffordable in its current state
  • Underlying causes: Immigrants are arriving in huge numbers, taking jobs from British citizens and claiming massive sums in benefits
  • Solution: Clamp down on non-EU immigration. Hold a referendum on EU membership so we might soon be able to clamp down on immigration from within the EU too.

Now, if you were to start at the problem end you would never even get as far as defining this as a problem. Immigration has a clear net benefit to the UK. Immigrants contribute to economic growth, don’t take jobs away from non-immigrants and take less on average than non-immigrants do in benefits. We are better off with immigration than we would otherwise be. The only way you can arrive at the problem that the government defines is by starting from the solution you want to implement (I don’t like foreigners, let’s get rid of them) and then work backwards to define a problem.

This is an example of what I call, a Phantom Problem – that is, a problem that is scary, doesn’t really exist and has been made up purely to justify the “solution” you want to implement.

Let’s look at the other example:

  • Problem: The UK’s economy is weak because of high government spending
  • Underlying Causes: The previous government went on a spending spree that was unaffordable
  • Solution: We need to immediately reduce government spending.

The government dislikes public spending. Not, because it caused the financial crisis though, (it didn’t) but because government spending is paid for through taxes and they like low taxes. After all, taxes are a key instrument through which wealth is distributed from the rich to the poor. The government doesn’t like taxes.

But, whether or not you support lower taxes is irrelevant. The fact is that the financial crisis wasn’t caused by public spending – it was caused by irresponsible bank lending. “The UK’s economy is weak because of high government spending” is an example of a Phantom Problem.

Summary

Partial Problem Solving explains why government policies are often unsuccessful. The Ignorance of Crowds explains how the government makes unsuccessful policies popular. The phenomenon of Phantom Problems allows a government to arbitrarily create policies around their own ideals that have no real basis for existence. Unsurprisingly, a solution that addresses a Phantom Problem will almost always do more harm than good. We might turn away immigrants that would otherwise have made everyone better off. We might implement spending cuts that further harm an already weak economy rather than strengthening it.

These things together explain how our government can be far more popular than the success of their policies would merit and The First Rule of Politics explains their motivation for doing it. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs but it does at least show that The Popularity Paradox is not really a paradox at all. It’s simply the logical result of a government that is adept at exploiting the weaknesses of the democratic system.

So – benevolent dictatorship, anyone?

RedEaredRabbit

* I Googled “The Ignorance of Crowds” and see that different people have already used this term for different meanings. I am using it purely as the definition I give here and not referring to how anyone else might have used it. As Humpty Dumpty said,  “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

** I’m not being snooty here –  I count myself among the ignorant. That is the reason I generally avoid education or foreign policy or a whole bunch of other things on this blog. Like anyone else, I am mostly ignorant of most complicated things.

Not Learning From Our Mistakes

Over the last few years on this blog, I have often talked of the importance of understanding the problem. That is you can’t properly solve a problem unless you understand what’s causing it.

For example, what caused the financial crisis? If you want to prevent a reoccurrence, you need to understand what caused it and make sure you put something in place to prevent the same mistakes being made in the future.

The government pedals the story that the financial crisis that affected the whole world was caused by the irresponsible spending of the previous Labour government. I’ve written in detail about why that’s a fallacy here but I’ll summarise it briefly:

The banks started lending higher and higher loan-to-value mortgages to people wanting to buy houses. In older times the banks would have worried about house prices going down but house prices had not gone down for so long that banks forgot about those risks. Borrowers were able to take on bigger and bigger mortgages relative to their wealth, which in turn led to a huge increase in house prices. The huge increase in house prices led banks to lend even more irresponsibly in order to provide the now even more unaffordable mortgages to borrowers. That led to further increases in house prices. Etc. etc.

By the time the banks realised they’d made a bubble and that bubble was about to burst it was too late. Lots of people couldn’t make their mortgage repayments all at once. The banks had started by lending the money they held in savings but as the bubble took off, the money that they held in deposits wasn’t enough to finance the mortgages they wanted to give so they borrowed more and more in order to lend it out again. When the homeowners were unable to make their repayments to the banks, the banks were unable to make their repayments to each other. Like a house of cards everyone became insolvent and the governments of the world had to take on a lot of debt to bail them out. The financial crisis was upon us.

This is how house prices in the UK have compared with the median wage since 1997:

UK house prices vs median wage

UK house prices vs median wage

In the ten years running up to the financial crisis the average house price in the UK almost trebled and wages were not going up anything like that amount. This was the result of irresponsible lending and it was happening all over Europe and the US.

But now forget this for a moment and suppose that you didn’t understand what caused the financial crisis. Put yourself in the shoes of a government minister who has spent the last five years marketing the argument that the crisis had nothing to do with the banks’ private lending. Suppose instead you had put a huge amount of marketing effort into perpetuating the falsehood that the financial crisis was all down to the public spending of the previous government.

I don’t think I’m asking you to make a huge leap of faith by accepting that you that if you’d put everything behind that wrong assertion it’s quite possible you’d have come up with the wrong solutions to the problem.

Throughout his time in government, George Osborne has frequently appeared with a brand new, broken lightbulb taped to his forehead. The latest example is called his “Help to Buy” scheme. In this scheme, the government will encourage banks to offer high loan-to-value mortgages by providing guarantees for them in the case that the borrower defaults.

Yes. Read that last sentence again. That is really what they want to do.

When the financial crisis hit, the banks quickly changed their policy from lending high loan-to-value mortgages to not lending high loan-to-value mortgages, ‘cleverly’ spotting that these had directly caused their insolvency. Our government now wants to bring back this bubble-inflating, crisis-causing system and so much so that it is prepared to offer a tax-payer funded subsidy to the banks to get it going again.

Using public money to subsidise high loan-to-value private mortgage lending is really not a good idea. It is a policy that directly encourages banks to make all of the same mistakes that caused the financial crisis but (and get this) this time the banks won’t be liable and have to ask to be bailed out! This time the taxpayer will just fund the defaults directly! Ace!

When I’ve talked about bad government policy in the past, I’ve often pondered on whether the motivation has been government incompetence or something more sinister. For example, did they cut public spending in an economy suffering from a lack of demand because they didn’t understand that my spending is your income or was it because they saw a chance to evilly create a smaller public sector in order to align it with their own idealisms? Well, who knows?

In the case of the “Help to Buy” scheme though, I can really see no possible motivation, good or evil, for pursuing such a terrible strategy. In the past we could have argued that they were being clever and devious but not any more.

“Help to Buy” simply shows that they have no idea what they’re doing.

RedEaredRabbit

The Importance of Being Lucky

We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.

Ben Bernanke, 02/06/2013

This is an excerpt from a speech that Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, gave earlier this month. How fantastically refreshing it is to hear someone, who holds such a senior position in global economic policy-making, expressing an opinion like this. As Bernanke notes, “We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair.” We have and nowhere can this be the case more than in the UK in the past three years. Let’s recap on why the government thinks that the poor and vulnerable are where they are today:

Don’t get a job. Sign on. Don’t even need to produce a CV when you do sign on. Get housing benefit. Get a flat. And then don’t ever get a job or you’ll lose a load of housing benefit. David Cameron

…out of work for years, playing computer games all day, living out a fantasy because he hates real life… David Cameron

…it pays not to work. That you are owed something for nothing. David Cameron

…fairness is also about being fair to the person who leaves home every morning to go out to work and sees their neighbour still asleep, living a life on benefits. George Osborne

The Conservative position has long been that those who are doing well have earned it and those who are doing badly have not. The rich are strivers (well done, have a tax cut) and the poor are skivers (must try harder, have a benefits cut). The government perpetuates this myth in order to represent a complicated problem as a simple case of an unfairness in our society, which thankfully they are on hand to address.

Both I and the government agree that things as they stand are not “fair” and we both see unfairness in the way that wealth is distributed. We do though, have opposite views on the direction that this unfairness takes. The government believes that policy has been punishing the rich and rewarding the poor. I believe that policy has had the opposite effect and is a direct cause of the growing gap between rich and poor.

So why do we have such different views? The government’s view assumes that it is a simple problem of incentives. Make being poor less attractive by cutting benefits and being rich more attractive by cutting the top rate of income tax and the problem will resolve itself. The problem with this view is that it assumes that poor people have chosen to be poor. I would like to propose that another factor be included when trying to understand why some people are better off than others. I want to talk about luck.

Like it or not, we are not all born equal. From the moment the sperm fuses with the ovum, a person’s genetic make-up is determined forever. That genetic make-up will have a huge effect on that person’s intelligence, social skills and health. The genes that we are born with, I would argue are entirely down to luck. George Osborne might argue that the sperm that make rich people are striver-sperm. Hardworking sperm who want to “get on”. Not like those other sperm who sit around doing nothing in their teste all day. I don’t buy that though. Before a person is even born, a huge factor in how lucky they might be in life has already been set.

And when that person pops out into the world, the role of luck doesn’t diminish one bit. Those of my generation probably all read the Roald Dahl book, Matilda – a story of a loving, caring, genius child who was born to parents who were the opposite of all of those things. That was just a book though and the social environment in which a child is lucky or unlucky enough to be raised does undoubtedly have a huge bearing on the opportunities they will have in future life.

David Cameron and George Osborne are themselves good examples of being lucky. They were lucky enough to be born into families who were fantastically wealthy and well-educated and who were able to send them to the most prestigious educational institutions in the country. But in spite of this they seem utterly unable to appreciate how luck affects the citizens in the society over which they preside.

I was lucky too. I wasn’t born into a rich family and didn’t go to a posh school but I was lucky in that I was born healthy and with genes that made me want to learn things. Furthermore, I was lucky that my parents had an interest in appeasing my appetite for learning. As an infant I was fascinated by magnets. My mum bought number fridge magnets and every morning the front of our fridge would display new sums for me to do. Before I’d even got to school I’d picked up a lot of maths and being good at maths ultimately got me into university, got me a job out of university, allowed me to be good at the job and allowed me to continue doing something that I’ve (mostly) enjoyed ever since. It would be very convenient for me to believe that this happened purely through my striving. It wasn’t though. If I am honest, I was just lucky.

A government who does nothing to acknowledge the role that luck plays in society will only make things worse. After all, the luckiest are likely to be born into the already lucky families and the unluckiest into the already unlucky ones. If a government did nothing then social polarisation would surely continue. What we have now though is even worse. If you accept that luck plays a major part in this, our current government’s rhetoric around rewarding strivers and punishing skivers actually means further rewarding the lucky and further punishing the unlucky.

I’m not suggesting that the notion of striving is a futile one, I don’t believe it is at all. I do however suggest that if you reduce a complex social problem into a simple debate of “strivers vs skivers” without accepting that we are not all dealt the same cards, it will lead you to implement entirely the wrong policies. The reality is that if you introduce policies that disproportionately benefit the advantaged at the cost of the disadvantaged, the advantaged will become more advantaged and the disadvantaged will be come more disadvantaged.

It really is that stark and any government who actively pushes things in such a direction must be extraordinarily detached from reality.

Unless of course, it was exactly what they were aiming for.

RedEaredRabbit

Seat Belts, Cycle Helmets and Bank Regulation

A couple of years ago I saw a study that looked at whether wearing a helmet while cycling reduced a cyclist’s chances of being killed in an accident while on their bike.

As I recall it did but there were two competing factors. The obvious one was that helmetted cyclists who suffered an impact to their heads were less likely to experience a serious injury than their bare-crowned colleagues. The other was that cyclists who wore helmets seemed to be more likely to have an accident – the theory being that putting a helmet on made the cyclists less worried about potential injury and less likely to cycle as carefully.

Whether or not that is the case, it doesn’t sound implausible. If I were driving a big, modern 4×4 with modern seat belts, airbags, side impact bars, crumple zones etc. I might well drive differently than if I were driving a rickety, 1960s rust bucket with no seat belts, no airbags and a massive spike poking out of the steering wheel, ready to impale me in the event of the slightest impact.

While adding safety features is welcome we should not discard the flip-side of the coin that attitudes could become less risk-averse as a consequence. People might well believe that the problem is solved to a much higher degree than it really is and therefore discard a risk that previously they took very seriously.

At the moment the government is looking closely into proposals by the banking commission that would bring new regulative and punitive measures to our banks. These include things like spreading bankers’ bonuses over a period of up to 10 years, and putting them in prison if they are “reckless”.

While I welcome proposals that might help to ensure a safer banking system, I don’t think either of these achieves an awful lot to prevent a future financial crisis. The primary problem that we need to address is not whether we can put a banker in prison if they bring down a bank and not whether a banker receives £1m today or £100k per year for the next 10 years.

The primary problem is that almost five years after Lehman, we still have no way to let a major bank go bust without taking down the global economy. As I said, new ideas for how to better regulate banks are welcome but irrespective of what they are, we should be in no doubt that the banks of the future will always find new and more exciting ways to go bust. Faith in the idea that we can make regulations to avoid this scenario is misplaced. A much more useful area on which to focus our attention would be a reform of the banking system in such a way that a bank is never “too big to fail” and if the worst happens and a bank does go bust, the world economy is left intact afterwards.

That is not what these proposals are addressing though and my major concern is not just that they might well be far less effective than the government thinks; it’s that if we implement them, we’ll relax, and (with our cycle helmet and seat belt in place), pat ourselves on the back and think we have truly solved the problem. We won’t have though. A bank, irrespective of regulation, will always be able to go bust. If we are going to learn just one thing about the causes of the financial crisis it should surely be this and it would be really nice if we properly addressed that problem now.

The alternative is that we wait for the next financial crisis to convince us.

RedEaredRabbit

Losing the Argument

I read Phillip Inman’s piece in The Guardian last weekend entitled, “9 reasons Keynesians aren’t winning the argument”. I always feel a little bit uncomfortable with how the term “Keynesian” is used, as it makes it sound like a bit of a cult rather than a mainstream view but anyway, for now lets go along with it.

So, as someone who falls into the category about which Inman is talking, let’s see how his arguments apply to me.

1. They think policymakers refuse to change course because they don’t understand

I disagree. Inman’s first reason implies that there are two possibilities – either policymakers don’t understand or they do understand and are doing something else anyway. My position is far simpler – whether policymakers “understand” or not is entirely irrelevant. Policymakers’ refusal to change course has nothing to do with the theory or evidence because they are not interested in the theory or the evidence. Policymakers don’t ever consider changing course because changing course is considered political suicide. Their “understanding” has no bearing on this argument.

2. They think that everyone agrees austerity is wrongheaded

I disagree. If that were the case then policymakers would probably have no option but to change course. The fact is that plenty of people still believe (in large part due to policymakers’ propaganda) that the UK’s economy works like that of an indebted household who must pay down their debt immediately in order to recover. Wrong as that is, I don’t think Keynesians believe that that isn’t a commonly held belief.

3. They think Brussels and the IMF have changed their tune

I disagree. Brussels has clearly not changed its tune and I haven’t said otherwise. Mario Draghi (President of the ECB) may not be as bad as Jean-Claude Trichet (his predecessor) but there is still plenty to criticise and I don’t recall too many people holding back. The IMF’s position has clearly moved though. Although they are not now throwing themselves unequivocally behind fiscal stimulus, they have nonetheless, amongst other things, admitted that fiscal multipliers are much higher than they initially thought, that George Osborne is “playing with fire” and most recently their admission that they had hugely underestimated the damage that austerity would do to the Greek economy. It is not in any way a total reversal of their position but to refuse to acknowledge a noted change is a bit silly.

4. They make out that a spending boost with borrowed money is risk-free

Inman doesn’t really explain what the mysterious risks are that I’m ignoring. Austerians say that the risk is that markets would lose confidence and interest rates would soar. I do strongly dispute that but that’s not a risk that Inman mentions. Inman’s risk seems to be that we might be the next Japan and that is pretty lazy journalism to be honest. I haven’t, (and I don’t think any Keynesian has), been singing the praises of Japanese economic policy over the past 20 years. A Keynesian view on Japan would be something like they should pursue higher expected inflation in conjunction with a significant and temporary fiscal stimulus. I don’t recall them doing that at any point in the last 20 years (although it looks like Abe might be starting to do that now.)

5. They think central banks can carry on printing money with no risk

Hold on a moment, why are the argument-losing Keynesians getting the blame for central banks printing money? That’s being done at the moment anyway. My take on QE has always been that the benefits have been and will always be hard to measure and that it’s almost certainly far less effective than fiscal stimulus. Of course a central bank can’t print money forever without consequence – I’ve never said that. I think all I ever said on it was that while we’re in a liquidity trap it wouldn’t be inflationary (and it hasn’t been.)

6. They think quantitative easing can be switched off and normality will return

Hold on again. In point 5 I’m ignoring the risks of carrying on printing money and now I’m ignoring the risks of not carrying on printing money? Ok, I’ll address it anyway.

It would be a bad idea if tomorrow The Bank of England decided to dump all of the debt they have accumulated back into the bond market. I don’t think any Keynesian has ever suggested they should do that though. When things are good again should we drip it back in slowly or should we just let it mature? To be honest I don’t think there is a massive problem either way but irrespective of that I don’t really understand why this is a reason I’m losing the argument – austerians have exactly the same decision to make.

7. They argue that no one should fear inflation

This is just not true. Higher inflation is bad for lots of people. If I’m a wealthy pensioner with lots of savings and inflation is higher than the interest rate I get, then that’s clearly a worry for me. In that situation I would “fear inflation”. What I’m saying is that while higher inflation has problems, it also has benefits and the benefits of higher inflation are often ignored. When interest rates are at the zero lower-bound and the economy remains depressed then what we need is a negative real interest rate and that means higher inflation. No one is saying that it’s going to be better for everyone but we should all be sensible here and understand that a 2% inflation target is not going to be the perfect rate in all economic circumstances.

8. They argue that stock market and house price rises are benign

Really? I seem to recall that I wrote a fairly damning post about the latter’s role in the economic crisis. “The London stock market recently neared its all time high”, warns Inman. Not when you take inflation into account it didn’t, and let’s be clear here – the potentially catastrophic effect of bubbles are well known and well appreciated by Keynesians. Paul Krugman spent five years before the crisis warning that the dotcom bubble had been replaced with a housing bubble.

9. They believe politicians can be trusted to spend stimulus funds in the best way

This really is a load of poo. When have I, or any other proponent of fiscal stimulus ever said, “the government should borrow money and I don’t care what they spend it on because they’ll know best”? I think a more familiar argument is, “the government should borrow money and spend it on those infrastructure projects that will increase employment, boost growth and need to be done anyway”. Rebuilding old schools, investing in renewable energy, replacing old bridges and roads that are falling to bits – that’s money that we need to spend soon anyway – all the Keynesians are saying is let’s spend it now when the economy is suffering from a lack of demand and borrowing is really cheap rather than after a recovery when unemployment is low and borrowing is more expensive.

Conclusion

Inman’s article really isn’t very good. It contains a couple of validish arguments that are badly represented but mostly it’s a list of things that really aren’t important in understanding why the argument is where it is. We can of course faff around, quibbling about what happens when quantitative easing is switched off but do you really think that this is the reason that public opinion has not unanimously fallen behind Keynesian policies? No.

As I mentioned earlier, our politicians have rejected reasoned arguments, economic theory, and the damning evidence that followed because to them, these things just weren’t relevant. Our politicians wanted low public spending and so they cut public spending. They then misrepresented the situation in order to make it look like their policies were good and with their charming little analogy about how we were just like an indebted household, they did a very effective job of perpetuating this fallacy within the masses. That is the important point and it’s one that Inman completely misses. The Keynesians have been trying to fight an economic battle but they are doing so against politicians who, with their weapons of spin, misdirection and misrepresentation, are simply too strong.

Inman doesn’t just misunderstand what the argument is he also misunderstands where the argument is. Keynesians are not losing this argument – Keynesians lost this argument a long time ago.

For three years we have pursued austerity. For three years we have failed to deliver economic growth. We have created the longest depression since the 1800s. We have created a society in which people unnecessarily lost their jobs and their houses. We have created a society in which people who want to work are forced to sit at home because there are no jobs for them to go to. We have created a society in which our school-leavers and university graduates go forth into a job market that has no use for them.

That is what Keynesians predicted that austerity would give us and this is what austerity has given us but winning the argument wasn’t about being able to stand around afterwards saying, “I told you so.” Winning the argument was about preventing this disaster from ever happening and we didn’t and therefore we lost.

To those of you who think I’m being overly defeatist, I ask this – take a good look at the state of our country today and then tell me that austerity hasn’t already won.

RedEaredRabbit