The Immigration Fallacy

Immigration has been a hot topic recently. UKIP, (who seem to be founded on nothing more than the principal that British people are the best), did extremely well at the recent local elections. The Conservatives then panicked and decided that UKIP’s popularity showed that they must become even more tough on Europe and immigration themselves.

(Ed Miliband, being as always one headline behind everyone else, proposed a government subsidy for the living wage.)

I don’t think that Ed’s policy has much going for it but that’s not the subject of this blog. Today I’d like to talk about immigration – or more specifically the main arguments against it. They seem to fall into two categories:

  • Immigrants steal our jobs!
  • Immigrants just live on benefits and don’t contribute to the economy!

I’ll take each in turn…

Immigrants steal our jobs!

The arguments goes something like this.

In the UK we have net immigration – that is, we have more people arriving to live here than we have people leaving the UK to live elsewhere. The people who arrive from overseas take jobs away from those who were born here.

It’s understandable how you would draw that conclusion. Imagine a country who has a working-age population of 20 million people of whom 1 million are unemployed. Over the next five years the working age population increases by 500,000 due to immigration. At the end of the five years there will be 1.5 million unemployed people and because people move into and out of work during this time, lots of the immigrants will have jobs and those jobs will have come at the expense of a lot of the people who had jobs before those immigrants arrived.

Simple enough, right?

Wrong. Things are not that simple. It is, in fact, perfectly possible to add people to the working-age population without increasing unemployment. How? Trickery? Sleight of hand? Government statistics? No.

During the 20th Century, the UK population increased by about 21m people. We have, in fact been adding more people without increasing unemployment for a very long time. When we add more people to the economy, more goods are made and more services are provided and this leads to economic growth and to the creation of more jobs. It is easy to think of the economy as having a finite number of jobs and employment as a “one-in, one-out” market but that is not the case.

A much more useful way of looking at it would be this:

For every 100 people I add to the population, by how much does unemployment change?

Or to move the argument back to immigration:

For every 100 immigrants I add to the population, by how much does unemployment change?

It’s an intriguing question. Fortunately, NIESR has done the analysis and guess what they found out?

(UKIP, Tories, Daily Mail – you might want to look away now.)

The results show a very small negative and generally insignificant correlation between the migrant inflow rate and the change in the claimant count rate. A hypothetical example can help give a sense of how small this coefficient really is. A 2 percentage point increase in the migrant inflow rate, akin in magnitude to the large and sudden inflow of A8 migrants in the years 2004-2006, would, according to these estimates, be associated with a fall in the claimant count rate in the order of only 0.02 percentage points.

I don’t think I am doing them a disservice here if I summarise that if we are worried about unemployment, we can quickly exclude immigration as a significant factor. The effect is nigh on nothing.

(UKIP, Tories, Daily Mail – you can look again now, it’s gone.)

Let’s look at the second argument.

Immigrants just live on benefits and don’t contribute to the economy!

Well that would account for the fact that immigrants don’t take people’s jobs. Perhaps they just turn up, don’t attempt to get a job and just claim benefits?

You might believe that if you base your beliefs on what you read in certain newspapers but the reality is clearly going to be more complicated. A better way of looking at this question would be:

Is the overall contribution of immigrants to the economy positive or negative?

Fortunately the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration have done a comprehensive study that answers this question.

(UKIP, Tories, Daily Mail – you might want to look away now.)

Yes, it’s positive. They found that immigrants on average paid 30% more into the economy via taxes than they took out through public services. But not only was it positive – the analysis found that on average, immigrants contribute more and take away less than non-immigrants. Jonathan Portes discusses it very well here.

Conclusion

So what can we conclude? Firstly, we have very good data that shows that not only does immigration not increase unemployment but also that immigration does boost the UK economy. Although the UK economy is doing badly at the moment it isn’t the fault of immigrants – we would actually be doing even worse if it weren’t for them.

Given this, it’s bizarre that these days we always seem to find ourselves surrounded by politicians wanting to show how “tough” they are on immigration. Given the facts it’s hard to understand – but when were politicians ever concerned by those?

The UK economy is in the longest depression in living memory, longer by far than The Great Depression of the 1930s and throughout it, unemployment has remained stubbornly high.

When such a situation occurs people naturally want to look around for someone to blame and, shameful as it is, politicians have done their upmost to direct that rage onto immigrants (and the recipients of benefits). But why would they do that, given that such a campaign is completely contradicted by the facts?

To win votes by explaining the benefits of immigration takes more time and effort than it does to win votes by saying that immigrants are job-stealers and benefit scroungers.

Politicians care far less about doing the right thing and far more about winning easy votes

Oh, and regarding why they want to blame these easy targets specifically for the depression? Well that one’s easy – the depression was created by the politicians themselves.

RedEaredRabbit

A Problem of Politics

I don’t have children. I’ll be honest – I don’t like them very much. Many of my friends however, hold the opposing view and over the past four or five years, I have seen many of them pair off and then unfortunately, find out what happens when they combine their DNA with one another.

Before Christmas, I was out with a few such couples and their resultant chimera and at some point during the meal, two of the latter had a minor disagreement over toy-ownership and proceeded to attack one another. Their parents quickly broke up the melee and each offspring was separately told that if they behaved in such a way, Father Christmas would not bring them any presents. The threat had the desired effect and good behaviour was quickly restored.

Sometimes I wonder how future generations will look back on how we dealt with the current economic crisis. As I have mentioned on here before, I don’t think we are now dealing with an economic problem – the economics that would have engineered a recovery long ago are well understood – what we are dealing with now is purely a political problem.

At the moment we have a right-wing government whose political ideals are to seek a smaller government sector. In certain economic circumstances that kind of ideal is easier to achieve than it is in others. At the moment, as we have seen, achieving it is very difficult. When the economy has high unemployment, low demand and interest rates at the zero lower bound, cuts to public spending will not be offset, in the short-term by increases in private spending. That is, if the government makes a bunch of civil servants redundant, the private sector won’t immediately expand and give them jobs. The private sector will probably eventually adjust and take them on but that could take (and has already taken) years  to happen. While we wait for that adjustment to occur people remain unnecessarily unemployed and long term damage is done to both the well-being of those people and the economy as a whole.

As I’ve mentioned more than a few times in the past, cutting government spending under such circumstances is nothing other than negligent but if the economics says one thing, how can the government continually get away with doing the opposite? It’s not an easy question but I think I have an answer. My answer is simply the difference between economics and politics:

  • Economics is a discipline that helps us to understand the best policies to pursue in order to improve the economy
  • Politics is a discipline that helps its proponents win the next general election

But surely they would align themselves? Surely the easiest way to get elected at the next election would be to fix the economy? Right?

Wrong.

Let’s take ourselves back to the story with which I started this post. My friends could have dealt with it by explaining to each of their spawn, the importance of sharing and two individuals working together to achieve the best overall outcome for both parties. Or they could just say that Father Christmas wouldn’t turn up.

The former is a harder message to convey. The latter was much less effort to explain and much less effort for their audience to understand.

It’s the same with the economy. Explaining to people why cutting spending leads to more debt is a hard sell because it involves giving the public a basic understanding of macroeconomics and while it is only a basic one they need, it is still far easier to do this:

  • The previous government went on a spending binge that caused all of this!
  • Our country is just like an indebted household!
  • We need to immediately pay off our debts in order to recover!

And that’s an easy sell. None of those things are actually true but the truth is harder for people to understand.

Democracy has a lot going for it but never for a moment believe it’s perfect. Look at the range of subjects over which a voter has to preside. The economy, education, foreign policy, immigration, the environment, health, crime. The list goes on and on. These are not simple things to understand and yet we are all asked to decide on them every time we vote.

Politicians could spend lots of time explaining these things to people and honestly giving the pros and cons of a particular policy but it’s much easier to just go ahead and do what they want and then give us a few simple, misleading soundbites as to why it is right. When you look at it in these terms it isn’t hard to understand why politics continually fails us so badly.

It’s not just the government though. A big part of UKIP’s recent successes is because they understand this and do it better than anyone else. They say that climate change is all made up. That’s much easier than explaining that driving an SUV burns a lot of petrol and that when petrol is burnt one of the consequences is releasing carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere and that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes a reduction in the amount of the sun’s energy that is reflected away from the Earth and that such a reduction causes the temperature of the planet to increase. And even if you got that far, you haven’t even started on the consequences of that temperature increase.

Immigration is another example. An easy sell is telling the electorate that the economy is broken because there are hoards of foreigners arriving on our shores every day and stealing our jobs or sitting around claiming benefits. Although that isn’t true, it is much harder to educate the public on all of the very real economic benefits of immigration and so the xenophobic soundbites win and such policies become popular and everyone loses out because of them.

Our politicians owe us more than this. They should appreciate the weaknesses in the democratic system and make it their absolute duty to clearly explain the realities of the situations that we face. They should not, as they do currently, exploit the weaknesses in the democratic system for their own gains.

So anyway, what then became of my friends’ recently-created miscreants? Well they took onboard the threat, behaved as they were told and got their Christmas presents (none from me, I might add). That said, three years after the country chose to go along with the current government’s economic plan, our Christmas presents still haven’t shown up.

And when we look at what politicians are all about, should we really be surprised?

RedEaredRabbit

Depression and Optimism

George W. Bush once famously said:

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me… errr… twice…. errr.. umm…..

He was great, wasn’t he? I suppose the irony of that statement was that there are probably very few people in the world that you could fool more times than George W. Bush.

Just over a year ago I wrote a post called Economic Bloodletting in which I made a comparison between the government’s economic policy and the ancient medical practice of bloodletting, where doctors would try to cure an illness with a treatment that made the patient worse. Each time the patient had a a few glugs of blood removed their condition would deteriorate and in response the doctors would prescribe more bloodletting.

Fortunately our health service has moved on a lot since those days but what of the other side of that comparison? How has the government’s austerity policy served us over the twelve months since I wrote that? Do I have egg all over my face now? Have I been shown to be a scaremongering charlatan?

Let’s find out by updating the Depression Tacker!

Depression Tracker

Depression Tracker

For those of your unfamiliar with the Depression Tracker – I am comparing the current UK depression with the one from the Great Depression of the 1930s (until recently the benchmark for economic catastrophes). What’s worth noting is the position of the blue diamond on the graph. That’s when David Cameron came to power. You can see that at that time, the UK economy was doing much better than the equivalent period in the Great Depression, having never sunk as far and having been in recovery for the previous 12 months. After that point you can see that the recovery ground to a halt and in comparison, the economy during the Great Depression caught us up, passed us and kept on going. Five years after the economic collapse that started the Great Depression, the UK economy had not only recovered but was 4% larger than it was before the depression started. In comparison, our economy today is still 3.2% smaller than it was five years ago.

Now that’s a pretty stark difference and it’s not like I’m comparing things with a small economic hiccup – that green line is The Great Depression.

So what did the government do back in the 1930s to achieve the recovery? Yep – government spending. The government built a load of houses, employing a huge number of otherwise unemployed workers in order to do so. With the prospect of war on the horizon they increased military spending and built tanks and guns and planes and things. What they spent money on back then is not really important to the comparison, (I’m not suggesting we start a world war to end the depression). The important thing was the government spent money and when the government spends money in a depression they will get an extremely good return on it in terms of economic growth.

Since I wrote that post on Economic Bloodletting though, our current day government has done the opposite. They have continued to maintain their belief that decreasing spending during a depression will somehow magic up lots of growth. As you can see in the Depression Tracker above that has not happened and all they have actually achieved is the setting of a new benchmark to replace the Great Depression as the darkest point in our economic history.

Last week the ONS released its quarterly report showing that the economy is shrinking again. As I’ve said before, the results of one individual quarter is not the story here. The story is the longer term picture and when we look at that we can see that our economy has basically flatlined since the current government took office almost three years ago.

If the subject matter that I am discussing were something of a trivial nature then I would now be happily strutting around and saying, “I told you so!” but this subject is anything other than trivial. This failed experiment has meant a million people sitting at home waiting for work when there were no jobs for them. It has meant businesses going bust that could have otherwise continued and thrived. It has meant hundreds of thousands of students graduating into an economy that has no use for them. When you look at it like that you can understand why I would rather have been wrong.

Yet, I said in the title of this post there was optimism too and for the first time in years I do feel some. This is why:

One of these days, and probably sooner than you think, those people who stuck by the government when they said austerity would mean growth are going to run out of patience. Nick Clegg and Boris Johnson have both made comments in the last week to say that we need more government spending to get a recovery. They didn’t seem to want to expand too much on why they had been directly opposing it until last week but I have a theory on that – rats leaving a sinking ship.

Despite weak opposition, those who previously believed that austerity would create growth will not believe it for much longer and when this happens the government will have no choice but to do something sensible instead. Every quarter since the government came to power they have expressed solemn disappointment at the latest set of weak growth figures and sagely told us that more bloodletting is needed to cure the economy. The reason I’m optimistic is simply that I can’t see that there is any way people will continue to swallow it.

Fool me once? Fool me twice? Fool me thrice?

Seriously – even George W. Bush would have worked it out by now.

RedEaredRabbit

The Interest Rate Fallacy

I wrote recently of The Debt Fallacy – the widely held belief that the financial crisis was caused by government debt. If you read it you’ll recall that it’s fairly easy to prove this as a fallacy because figures for government debt are easily available. Nevertheless it’s a myth that is widely believed because the government puts a lot of effort into propagating it in the knowledge that most people won’t actually check.

Another fallacy that the government often uses hand in hand with this is one regarding interest rates. It goes something like this:

Interest rates on UK debt are low because the markets have built confidence in the UK’s economy because of the austerity measures. If the government were to increase public spending, the markets would lose this confidence resulting in the UK losing its AAA credit rating and interest rates on our debt soaring.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Interest Rate Fallacy – the widely held belief that interest rates are low because of the market’s confidence in our economy. To show why this is a fallacy is a little harder than it was with The Debt Fallacy because I can’t just download a graph from the IMF website. So before reading on you might want to get a cup of tea and an exciting type of biscuit, such as a Jammy Dodger.

All settled? Then let’s get started. Before we tackle the fallacy we need to look briefly at what government debt is and why people buy it at all.

How does the government borrow money?

The government borrows money by issuing bonds. A bond is essentially an IOU, which anyone can buy. It will say something like, “I will borrow £100 from you for 10 years and at the end of the 10 years I’ll pay you back your £100. As compensation for you not having access to your cash for 10 years, I will additionally pay you interest at an annual rate of 5% for those ten years.”

Why does someone lend money to the government?

Imagine that I have £100 in cash. I could keep the £100 as cash or use it to buy a bond. Cash is good because I can do useful things with it like buy stuff. However, I need to think about my future and if I want to save money for later rather than spend it now then I would be better off buying a bond because I get paid interest as compensation for me not having access to my money. If I want to spend now then cash is good. If I want to save now then bonds are good.

What determines the interest rate on my bond?

The interest rate on a bond is determined by the rate that savers are willing to accept in compensation for not having access to their cash for the period of the bond. So if I want to invest my £100 for 10 years what are the factors that will influence the rate I am prepared to accept?

Probability of default

If I tie up my money with someone for 10 years then it’s quite important to me that they don’t go bust during that time because if they do I will lose my money. If I am lending to someone risky I might decide to ask for a higher rate of interest in order to compensate me for the risk that they might not be able to repay me.

Demand for bonds vs Demand for cash

If I want to save money and everyone else wants to spend money then I can probably get a high rate on my investment. If there are few savers and lots of spenders in the market (i.e. the demand for bonds is low and the demand for cash is high) then the government will need to offer better rates to attract investors. Conversely if there are lots of people who want to save money and few who want to spend, the government can offer much lower rates knowing that there are still lots of people who will invest anyway.

Expected future short-term interest rates

That’s a mouth full isn’t it?

Short-term rates are set (in the UK) by the Bank of England. These rates determine the rate I can get for investing money for a short period of time.

If I am going to invest for a longer period of time, my expectation of what the Bank of England will do with short-term rates in the future is important. This is all sounding a bit wonkish so I’m going to explain with an example. Imagine the following scenario:

  • I live in a country where the government offers two different types of bond
  • One lasts for one year
  • The other lasts for 10 years
  • I have £100 that I would like to invest for ten years

I have a choice:

  • Invest my money once in the 10 year bond
  • Invest my money ten times (once every year) in one year bonds

If I choose the first option then my money is tied up for ten years at the pre-agreed rate of interest. If I choose the second option then every year when I invest my money again I get whatever the new short-term rate set by the government is. Supposing that short-term rates are 2% but I expect them to rise by 0.25% every year. My expectation of what the second option looks like is this:

Year Interest Rate Value of Savings
1 2.00% £102.00
2 2.25% £104.30
3 2.50% £106.90
4 2.75% £109.84
5 3.00% £113.14
6 3.25% £116.81
7 3.50% £120.90
8 3.75% £125.44
9 4.00% £130.45
10 4.25% £136.00

Therefore for me to decide that investing in a 10 year bond is worth it, I need a rate of at least 3.1225%, otherwise I expect to lose money on it.

Conversely, if I expect interest rates to go down then I will be happy with a lower rate for my 10 year investment.

Still with me? Good. Get yourself another Jammy Dodger – you’ve earned it.

Why are interest rates low now?

The government says that interest rates are low because the markets have lots of confidence in our economy because of their austerity policy. Lots of people lap this up as gospel but let’s stop for a moment and think about that. The government is borrowing at the lowest rates in the country’s history at the same time that the economy is in the longest depression in living memory. Would this really be the point in history that confidence in our economy hit an all time high?

Umm… no. So using what we’ve learnt, let’s look at some sensible explanations instead.

Expected future short-term interest rates

Short-term interest rates are very low at the moment. We know why – in reaction to the financial crisis, the Bank of England cut interest rates in an attempt to boost the economy.  (They cut them to 0.5% in March 2009 where they have remained ever since.)

Remember though, that long-term interest rates are determined by what the market expects short-term rates to be in the coming years. One explanation (this is the right one by the way so pay attention) for low long-term interest rates would be that the markets expect The Bank of England to keep short-term interest rates low for the foreseeable future.

Why would the markets expect The Bank of England to keep short-term rates low in the future? Well remember why short-term rates became low in the first place – an attempt to stimulate a weak economy. If the market expects the UK economy to remain depressed in the future they will expect The Bank of England to keep short-term rates low. If they expect a recovery is just around the corner they will expect short-term interest rates to rise and they will demand higher long-term rates in compensation.

Demand for bonds vs Demand for cash

Ok, I said the last one was the right answer but it’s important to consider this point too. The demand for bonds is huge at the moment. Why? Because when the financial crisis struck, people who had spent happily during the good years changed their behaviour dramatically and started saving. We are living in a world of people saving money rather than spending it. Again they are doing that because of a lack of confidence in the economy.

Probability of default

Enough of sensible explanations. Let’s look at a daft one. You’ll recall that people demand higher interest rates if they think that the person to whom they are lending might go bust before their bond matures. Therefore if the markets think that there is a good chance that the UK might go bust within the next 10 years they will demand higher rates for their 10 year bonds.

Let me be absolutely explicit here. There is absolutely no chance of the UK going bust in the next ten years. Despite the least economically competent government that anyone can remember, it is still impossible.

The UK is a large, developed economy whose debt is in a currency that they control. We print our own money – we can’t run out of it. Barring alien invasion, the UK will service its debt next year, the year after, the year after that etc. etc.

What about Greece?

A common comparison, used by George Osborne amongst others, is that Greece has a weak economy that is expected to remain weak but has high interest rates on government debt. They do but there is a difference between Greece and the UK and although George Osborne chooses to ignore it, it is a very big difference. When a country adopts the Euro they give up something very important – control over their currency. The countries that have seen their interest rates rise, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal all have something in common – their debt is in a currency they can’t control.

But what about Argentina in 1999/2000?

Their debt was in US dollars so the same thing applies. They borrowed in a currency they could not control.

What about Iceland? They weren’t in the Euro and their government debt wasn’t that bad.

That’s true but Iceland’s three major banks had somehow been allowed to build up about €50bn of foreign debt between them. To put that into perspective, that was about 600% (!) of Icelandic GDP. Nice one Icelandic banking dudes.

What if the UK loses its AAA credit rating? Interest rates will soar!

The first thing to mention is that this argument assumes that austerity will prevent any downgrade of the UK’s credit rating. I’ll return to that point though because I want to tell you a few things about credit rating agencies first.

A credit rating agency is a private company that expresses an opinion about a borrower’s likelihood of repaying money they have borrowed from someone else. You will note that the UK currently has a AAA credit rating, which is the highest possible. (Not all agencies use AAA as a code to signify the safest borrower but the UK has the highest rating from all of the major ones.)

For example, the biggest credit ratings agency, Standard & Poors, gives the UK a AAA rating. To understand what that rating means, let’s benchmark it against something else to which Standard & Poors have given a AAA rating.

In the run up to the financial crisis, banks lent money to risky borrowers in the form of subprime mortgages. Those banks would then package up a few thousand of these dodgy mortgages together and sell them on to someone else. Guess what rating Standard & Poors gave to these packages of toxic debt? Yep, AAA!

Reread that last paragraph – the largest credit rating agency in the world gave their highest possible rating to packages of subprime mortgages. I am not a credit rating agency and you are not a credit rating agency but if you and I were forced to form an opinion on the creditworthiness of 2,000 subprime mortgages all mixed together we would probably not come to the conclusion that it was the safest investment possible. The credit ratings agencies did.

If you think I am cherry picking one (albeit hugely damning) example, I’ll give you another. On the 15th September 2008, Lehman Brothers went spectacularly bankrupt. All three of the major agencies rated Lehman Brothers as a low risk counterparty.

So the upshot of this all is that no one actually listens to these people. S&P downgraded the United States from AAA to AA+ last year. Did the markets all panic and think that the US was about to go bust? No. They ignored the discredited opinion of an organisation who thought that subprime mortgages were a good investment and went their about business as usual. Interest rates on US bonds actually went down.

But wouldn’t rates go up if we abandoned austerity?

The last refuge of the “Austerity=Low Interest Rates” cult is always, “Even if your ‘economics’ mumbo-jumbo is right about the reasons for low rates, if we actually took advantage of them and borrowed some more money, those rates would not stay low for long!” I’ll address that now.

Demand for bonds vs Demand for cash

As I’ve mentioned before we are currently in a liquidity trap. In normal times, cutting short-term interest rates stimulates spending. A liquidity trap occurs when we have already cut interest rates as far as they can go but people still want to save. At the moment, no one wants to spend money but The Bank of England have already cut rates to almost zero.

Being in a liquidity trap means that we would need a significant change in behaviour back from saving to spending before it made any difference at all to actual interest rates. The interest rate we would need to get people spending is negative but The Bank of England can’t set a negative rate* so we’re left with demand for bonds far outstripping demand for cash. Being in a liquidity trap isn’t good news but it does at least mean we can increase borrowing without changing the interest rate.

Probability of default

What would happen if the markets thought the UK was about to go bust and everyone tried to sell their bonds all at once? (Yes, I know the idea of the UK going bust is stupid but people use this argument a lot so I should address it.)  Unlike Greece, Ireland, Spain, etc we have a flexible exchange rate. If the markets suddenly decided to start offloading UK government debt interest rates would not actually rise. What would happen is that the pound would just devalue** and interest rates would stay the same.***

Summary

So as we’ve seen interest rates are low because everyone wants to save rather than spend and the markets expect short term interest rates to be low for the foreseeable future because they expect the economy to remain weak.

We’ve also seen that credit ratings agencies’ opinions are not worth listening to. Despite the government claims that austerity is the barrier against a downgrade, I fully expect the UK to be downgraded next year. And you know what? If that happens the markets won’t give a toss and long term interest rates will remain low.

If you have read this whole post down to here then well done – treat yourself to another Jammy Dodger. You know now what determines interest rates on government bonds and you know that it has the opposite to do with everyone being happy about our economy. The sad reason for low interest rates is simply that the markets expect our economy to remain bad for a long time yet.

And to be honest, who could really blame them?

RedEaredRabbit

* They could in theory make interest rates negative but then people would just hoard cash instead of investing it. (You’d get a better return by keeping cash under your mattress than lending it out.)

** Although a devaluation in the pound sounds bad it would actually boost the economy. When the pound is weak then foreign goods and services become more expensive. Also our goods and services become cheaper for foreign investors. This means more money being spent on UK goods and services, both by us and our friends overseas.

*** I brushed over the reason for this because it would have doubled the size of the already too big blogpost. If you’re interested in why this is the case read this.

The Debt Fallacy

Because this blog has a strong political theme, it might surprise you to learn that I don’t watch Question Time very often. Partly this is because I’m usually in bed by the time it comes on, but if it were called “Answer Time” and the politicians were forced to give proper answers to the questions I would probably be compelled to stay up late once per week and watch it. Instead it is generally an hour of politicians indulging in their favourite pastime of evading, misrepresenting and misleading and to be honest, I get enough of that already.

Still, I did watch some of it a few weeks ago and noticed that in pretty much every answer the Conservative or Lib Dem gave they managed to blame having to take lots of “difficult decisions”, such as cutting benefits for poor people and cutting taxes for rich people, on…

The mess we inherited from the Labour government

The government seems to believe that this is some kind of carte blanche to do whatever they want without any accountability; a Get Out of Jail Free card that they never have to give back. It isn’t though. It’s the political equivalent of saying, “OH MY GOD, WHAT’S THAT BEHIND YOU?” then running away when you turn around. That particular favourite phrase is not what I am going to spend time talking about because no one believes it anyway. Despite the government’s best efforts, no one is actually dumb enough to agree that they don’t need to be accountable for their policies.

They did come up with another favourite line, however, that narks me even more than this one because a lot of people do actually believe it. When someone mentioned government spending they said something like this:

It was the irresponsible spending of the last government that got us into this mess in the first place…

And the thing that annoyed me more than them wheeling out this spin-doctor nonsense for the thousandth time was that no one else on the panel directly challenged it. If I’d been on the panel, (I was on holiday so they had to go with Steve Coogan as the non-politician), I would have directly challenged it. I would have directly challenged it because it isn’t true. It is a lie and when politicians say it they are lying. This, ladies and gentlemen is The Debt Fallacy, the widely-held belief that UK government debt caused the financial crisis.

Before we delve into what actually did cause the “mess”, let’s see why this is a fallacy by looking at UK government debt between 1997 when Labour took office and 2007 when the financial crisis started. (Source IMF)

National Debt of G7 Countries as % of GDP

National Debt of G7 Countries as % of GDP

Yes, not only was borrowing significantly lower in every single year than everyone else in the G7, it was actually lower in 2007 than when Labour took office ten years earlier. Staunch Conservatives will no doubt be hugely disappointing that there is no marked increase in UK government debt in that graph. Don’t worry, just for you I’ve done another one for just the UK with the previous five years under John Major added in. Now you can see a government who did oversee a marked increase in the national debt. I’m nice like that. Don’t mention it.

UK National Debt as % of GDP

UK National Debt as % of GDP

So you can see why the government’s claim about a debt-fuelled spending binge is a lie. This level of public debt clearly didn’t cause the financial crisis. So what did?

The cause is actually fairly simple. Banks make profits by borrowing money and then investing it. Their profit comes by getting a higher return on their investments than they have to pay on to the people from whom they borrowed the money. For example if I put £100 in a bank account the bank might pay me 1% interest and then invest that £100 in in a scheme that makes them 5%. Simple enough.

Banks though, like any other businesses, want to compete against one another – they want to make the biggest profits for their shareholders and show everyone that they are the best bank. This is what caused the crisis.

Over time, banks became increasingly competitive and concerned themselves more with trying to make the biggest profit and less with the risks associated with what they were doing. With the £100 I put in my bank account they could invest it in something safe and make 5% or they could invest it in something risky and make 10% or 15% or 25%! The more risky the investment the more return it could yield. No bank was going to invest in something risky if its likely return was less than a safer alternative and so risk equalled reward. Competition between banks, all vying for the biggest profits, led to riskier and riskier investments and nowhere was this more prevalent than housing. It became possible for people to borrow crazy amounts of money to buy a house, even if they had poor credit worthiness. This irresponsible lending fuelled housing bubbles all over the world. Here’s how Florida house prices changed in the four years prior to the financial crisis.

Florida House Prices (Q4 2002 = 100)

Florida House Prices (Q4 2002 = 100)

In just four years they increased by almost 80% and people’s wages were definitely not increasing at anything like that rate. In short it was unsustainable. There is a useful principle in economics called Stein’s Law after the late American economist Herbert Stein and I wish more people had paid attention to it in the pre-crisis years. It says simply this:

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

Stop it did and we all know the rest. In hindsight it’s easy to look back at this and say that the banks were lending irresponsibly but much harder to say why they didn’t they realise it at the time. The only explanation I can offer is that they were too concerned with out-performing one another and not concerned enough about the risks involved until it was too late. Like a gambling addict who’s had a good night but doesn’t know when to quit, the banks didn’t want to think about Stein’s Law.

Essentially the positions they took on the housing market assumed that:

  • House prices always go up
  • Mortgage defaults are pretty rare

On the first point the banks thought, “Even if this individual doesn’t repay their 120% mortgage, the house will be worth more than that in a couple of years, so where’s the risk?”

On the second point they seem to have committed a really basic error in their probability calculations. Imagine I have lent to 5 risky individuals. The chances of any one of them defaulting on their mortgage is 5%. Therefore the risk of all of them defaulting on their mortgages is:

5% x 5% x 5% x 5% x 5% = 0.00003125%

But those of you who remember your GCSE maths will recall that you can only multiply probabilities together like this when they are independent. For example if the probability of a person having a beard is 20% and the probability of someone being female is 50% the probability of a lady having a beard is not 10%. (Unless of course you work in a circus.)

Similarly, the chances of individuals defaulting on their mortgages are not independent. When an economic downturn occurs, unemployment rises, incomes drop and lots of people all suddenly can’t repay their mortgages at the same time.

Banks, in their bid to out-profit each other, took huge positions on the housing market. They were betting that economies would grow and house prices would go up. It had been so long since the economy had been through a really serious downturn that they had forgotten the lessons of the past. The resulting crisis shows that so confident were they in endless economic prosperity, that none of them had a Plan B in the event of a downturn. The global economy isn’t like that though and if economic history has taught us anything it is that bad things have always eventually found a way to happen and by the time the banks spotted the bubble was about to pop it was too late.

Banks weren’t just lending irresponsibly on mortgages though. People took cheap loans and were able to borrow more than ever before on their credit cards. Banks were so desperate to lend that they offered amazing deals to secure our credit card debts. Fee-free transfers, interest-free balances for 12 months etc etc and the same thing happened – all of a sudden lots of people were unable to make repayments at the same time and the banks had no fallback.

This had a short term effect of making the banks insolvent and governments world-wide were forced to bail them out. While this solved the short-term problem there was another problem that almost six years later remains unsolved.

When economies around the world turned bad, people were left with mortgage debt, loan repayments and credit card bills that were ridiculously high. Those lucky enough to keep their jobs switched overnight from not worrying about their personal debt to worrying only about their personal debt. The thousand pounds they had on their credit cards was no longer something they could kick into the long grass and assume they would just pay it off later. Seeing their friends and co-workers losing their jobs made the risk of redundancy a reality.

This shock led to a very sudden and very dramatic change of behaviour. People moved almost overnight from spending to reducing their debt. Even those who had avoided running up debt became very worried about how little they had tucked away for the hard times and moved from spending to saving.

In the economy your spending is my income and my spending is your income. When everyone stops spending at the same time the consequences can be catastrophic. I say “can be” because a responsible government could plug the gap by increasing public spending but in most cases they didn’t, hence it was catastrophic, hence the depression. (I like saying “hence”. I think it makes me sound all knowledgable.)

So that’s how it happened and that’s the real reason we are in a depression and it had nothing to do with UK government debt at all.

There is a good argument that the previous Labour government should have spotted what the banks were up to and should have done something to address it. Although the banks caused the crisis, the previous government was asleep on the job while this was going on. If the current government were pushing that argument they would have a valid criticism but they aren’t because although it is the truth, it doesn’t pin all of the blame on the previous government.

Politics aside, the years before and since the crisis really are a shameful and embarrassing period in economic history. A first year economics student taking their first macroeconomics module will learn that government spending increases economic growth and that it works best of all when the economy is suffering from a lack of demand. They will learn that my spending is your income and your spending is my income. They will learn that if your spending disappears my income does too. They will learn about economic cycles – the economy will go down as well as up, so plan for it.

Sadly these are lessons that the current government has either not learned or has simply chosen to ignore. Simple enough as those lessons are, it’s sadly far more convenient for them to just propagate The Debt Fallacy.

RedEaredRabbit

Good News

Today David Cameron gave a strong hint that the GDP figures to be released tomorrow will be “good news”. As Jonathan Portes quickly pointed out, someone in the know even hinting at the figures before they are released is illegal. David surely knows this and it is a sign of the pressure he is under over the economy that he has blurted this out today.

When the GDP figures are bad the government says things along the lines of, “Things are worse than we thought, this is even more of a reason to pursue austerity!” And when they are good tomorrow they’ll say, “Austerity is working!” So whatever is going on they’ll say austerity is the right policy because they’re in too deep now to say anything else. But will these “good news” figures really mean a good economy?

GDP figures are always quoted relative to the previous quarter. The previous quarter was an absolute disaster so doing well in comparison to that is not necessarily good news. As I wrote three months ago:

We will almost certainly do better in Q3 – it is virtually impossible for us to repeat a quarter that bad. And when we get a recovery in Q3, the government will be saying it is advocation of their policy.

Q3 being better than Q2 isn’t that important. If the economy had been in free fall it would be important but the economy hasn’t been in free fall, it has been in depression and as I’ve mentioned on here before, the results in an individual quarter don’t tell us much at all. The important thing is not whether Q3 was better than Q2 – it is the longer-term trend, i.e. how much longer we have to wait until the economy returns to a healthy level?

Whatever the numbers are tomorrow it will certainly not represent an advocation of austerity – the expiry date on that fallacy is long passed and, in a depression longer than The Great Depression of the 1930s, it would be fairly ridiculous to claim it had worked.

The question we should be asking now is not, “When will the economy be bigger than it was in the second quarter of 2012?” A much better question would be, “When will the economy be bigger than it was at the start of 2008?”

And I promise you this much – that ain’t going to happen tomorrow.

RedEaredRabbit

The Blame in Spain

As you are no doubt aware, the Eurozone is going through a bit of a tough time at the moment. While the economy in Germany has remained resilient throughout the crisis, many other Euro members have not been as lucky. Take Spain for example. Here’s how Spanish unemployment compares with German unemployment during the crisis:

Spanish and German Unemployment Rates (Source IMF)

Spanish and German Unemployment Rates (Source IMF)

Yes, it’s awful but we all know how this happened, right? The Spanish government borrowed far beyond its means during the good years, running up huge debts and when the economic crisis hit they couldn’t afford to pay it off. How do we know this? Well, Angela Merkel told us. Anyway, it’s easy enough to prove – the IMF database has everything we need. So let’s grab the data and see how terribly irresponsible Spanish government borrowing was during the good years of the Euro:

Spanish and German Debt:GDP Ratio (Source IMF)

Spanish and German Debt:GDP Ratio (Source IMF)

Oh. So if Spain was doing the precise opposite of plunging itself deeper into debt, what exactly is going on?

At the moment Spain is a deeply ill patient and Germany is her self-appointed doctor. Not only has Germany (as we’ve just seen) misdiagnosed the cause of the problem but they have also prescribed austerity as the cure.

I’ve talked before about the fallacy of attempting to solve a depression with austerity and we need not go through those details again to know why it is a fallacy. What I do want to think about though, is why Germany has been so quick to misdiagnose the cause of Spain’s problems and for four years has chosen not to look at the numbers in the graph above.

There is a theory about this but to understand it we first need to travel back in time to the 28th of June 1919.

On that day in history, Germany and The Allies marked the end of war by signing The Treaty of Versailles. The treaty, amongst other things, laid out the reparations that Germany would have to pay The Allies in compensation.

At the time that the treaty was signed the British economist John Maynard Keynes described the reparations not as a compensation but as a “deliberate impoverishment”, and went on to predict (rather chillingly) that they would lead initially to mass poverty and then on to vengeance and another war.

When the reparations began, Germany soon didn’t have enough Marks to buy the foreign currency needed to make the repayments so they printed more Marks. Each time they did this the value of the Mark decreased, so that the next time they went to the printing press, they had to print more Marks than last time. Inflation turned into hyperinflation and the value of the Mark fell off a cliff and then kept going in spectacular fashion.

At the end of The First World War, one US dollar was worth about nine Marks. By the end of 1923, one US dollar was worth 4.2 trillion Marks. Inflation was so high that prices were doubling every two days. Saving money was a pointless exercise, so people spent it as soon as it was in their hands. Workers were paid hourly so they could hand the money to their families to go out and spend immediately while they could still get something for it. If someone went to the pub intending on having a couple of beers, they would buy their two beers on entry for fear that otherwise the second would be more expensive by the time that they came to order it. To help to put this into perspective, here’s a fifty billion mark postage stamp.

A 50 Billion Mark Postage Stamp (Milliarden means Billion)

A 50 Billion Mark Postage Stamp (Milliarden means Billion)

Living through such a period is almost unimaginable for us and it is little wonder that the current generation in Germany have such an inherent fear of inflation. A leader who would even give a hint of allowing some of it would immediately become deeply unpopular.

So how, you may ask, does this have any bearing at all on the current crisis in the Eurozone? Sadly, the solution that is needed, inconvenient as it may be, is German inflation.

During the good years of the Euro, Spain’s economy did well. Adoption of the single currency led to huge capital inflows from German banks to Spanish banks. The German banks’ perceived risk of lending lots to Spanish banks (and the Spanish banks’ perceived risk of borrowing lots from German banks) reduced significantly (and erroneously) once they were all using the same currency. The German banks thought that since they were both on the same currency now, lending to Spain was like lending to Germany. The Spanish banks eagerly accepted the German loans and invested them in the Spanish housing bubble (they didn’t call it a bubble at the time). As more and more money passed from Germany to Spain the bubble grew, Spanish wages increased and Spanish prices increased.

This is how relative Spanish and German prices changed throughout this period:

German and Spanish Price Inflation (Source IMF)

German and Spanish Price Inflation (Source IMF)

And this is how relative Spanish and German labour costs changed throughout this period:

German and Spanish Unit Labour Costs (Source OECD)

German and Spanish Unit Labour Costs (Source OECD)

As you can see, during this time the cost of Spanish workers became much higher relative to their trading partners in the north. When the financial crisis hit and demand dropped off, this left Spain with a deeply uncompetitive economy. Production of goods and services for export to Germany, France and other economies in the north is simply too expensive now.

This is the primary problem that needs to be solved in order for Spain to recover and you might note, it has nothing to do with government spending.

So now we understand the problem, what’s the solution? Well, one solution would be Spanish deflation but deflating your way to competitiveness is extremely difficult because it means everyone taking pay cuts and people don’t really like taking pay cuts. The Spanish government could start by cutting the wages of all public sector employees (and deal with the riots) but how do you convince the private sector to do the same? Also, Spanish deflation effectively increases their debt burden*, which means it’s pretty unworkable in any case.

There is another option – inflation in Spain (and Italy, Portugal, Ireland**) that is low relative to the Eurozone as a whole. The Eurozone economy is dominated by Germany so essentially this means German inflation. We’re not in any way talking hyperinflation but something like inflation of 1% in Spain and say 5% or 6% in Germany would start moving things back toward competitiveness.

With the horrors of 1920s hyperinflation still ingrained in German minds, Angela Merkel will have no easy task in pushing such a policy through and her current policy of blaming the problem on Spanish government spending in the good years and prescribing austerity as the cure has certainly helped to maintain her popularity with German voters.

Sadly though, Angela Merkel being popular won’t be enough to save the Euro.

RedEaredRabbit

*Although Spain’s debt wasn’t high during the good years it is high now due to their economy collapsing. It’s important to understand the the high debt was caused by the crisis rather than the other way around.

** You might have noticed I didn’t mention Greece. They actually did borrow beyond their means for a sustained period and relative deflation is not sufficient to save them. From what I can see they are pretty much done for.

The Voice of a Siren

Do you remember Going for Gold with Henry Kelly? No? Come on, did you never have a school-day off sick in the early 90’s? In case you haven’t watched it, someone has helpfully posted a whole episode on YouTube:

If you don’t want to watch all of it (and I recommend you don’t) – at least watch the opening titles. Probably the worst TV theme song that’s ever been made.

So now we’ve reminisced, we’re going to have a quick quiz now, in the format of Going for Gold. Fingers on buzzers.

WHAT AM I? I am a chronic condition of subnormal activity for a considerable period without any marked tendency either towards recovery or towards collapse.”

; Only Fools and Horses Christmas Specials?

Incorrect. Knut, you’re out of the rest of the round.

; Steve Martin?

Incorrect. Bjorn, you’re out of the rest of the round.

; An economic depression?

Correct! RedEaredRabbit, you’re through to today’s final!

#Win

The definition wasn’t really Henry Kelly’s. It was that of John Maynard Keynes and he wrote it in 1936. Although written 72 years ago, you could easily mistake it for something written yesterday describing the current state of the UK economy. We haven’t imploded but there’s no growth and the economy continues to operate below potential, with lots of workers available to work but a lack of demand for their services.

A common misconception is that a depression is just a long recession – i.e. the economy has to shrink quarter on quarter for a long time. A much better way of thinking about it is that, following a recession, the economy operates below potential for a long time. So what do I mean by ‘below potential’?

I mean that at the moment our economy:

  • Is much smaller than it used to be
  • Has the potential to a produce a lot more goods and services than it does
  • Does not produce more goods and services because we choose not to produce them

That sounds crazy. If we can produce them then we should, right?

The economy is largely based on supply and demand. At the moment we are all good to go on the supply side but we are have a major problem on the demand side and this is very important in understanding why we are in depression and also important in understanding what we should do about it.

I can explain this a bit better with some examples.

The car manufacturer is producing fewer cars because fewer people want to buy cars. She could easily employ more people and produce more cars but as long as the demand for them is low she won’t do it. Her costs would go up and her revenue would stay the same. She is waiting for the economy to recover before producing more cars.

The garden centre owner is growing fewer plants because fewer people want to buy plants. She could easily employ more people and grow more plants but as long as the demand for them is low she won’t do it. Her costs would go up and her revenue would stay the same. She is waiting for the economy to recover before growing more plants.

The car manufacturer and the garden centre owner can easily ramp up their operations because taking on new employees is easy – their are lots of people who need jobs. They don’t though because demand for their products is low.

The people who don’t get jobs because the car manufacturer isn’t taking on staff don’t buy new plants from the garden centre. The people who don’t get jobs because the garden centre isn’t taking on new staff don’t buy cars from the car manufacturer.

You can see how the whole thing is self-perpetuating. Remember, my spending is your income and your spending is my income. At the moment I am awaiting for you to spend before I can spend and you are waiting for me to spend before you can spend.

We just looked at two examples but this is the case across the whole economy. The demand for goods and services is low, therefore spending is low, therefore income is low, therefore the demand for goods and services is low.

While everyone waits for everyone else we have economic deadlock and the economy is depressed. We need to appreciate this problem in order to know what to do about it.

Suppose that the government took a look at our school buildings and admitted that they probably need investment. Workers are easy to come by when unemployment is high, so they have no trouble in finding available resources to work for the next few years repairing, rebuilding and redecorating old classrooms, school halls and gymnasiums. The newly employed workers have cash in their pockets and so they start to buy other things like plants for their gardens. The garden centre take on more staff and now there are even more people with cash in their pockets. They start to buy cars and so on.

That’s how government spending solves the problem. The government could spend on pretty much anything to solve the problem with demand but it makes a lot of sense to spend it on things like schools and renewable energy because that is money we need to spend soon anyway. We can wait another five years to do it or do it now but we spend pretty much the same amount of money either way.

Not everyone agrees with this solution though. The UK government for example, believes that if they cut spending, rather than increase it, everyone will become more ‘confident’ and they’ll then start spending. How this works is a bit of a mystery but we are continually assured that it does work. Somehow.

So how’s that policy going? The latest figures are out so without further ado… let’s update The Depression Tracker!

(The blue line is the Great Depression of the 1930s and the red line is the current depression.)

Depression tracker

Damn, that doesn’t look very good. Here’s George Osborne’s reaction:

You will hear those arguing that we should abandon our plan and spend and borrow our way out of debt…these are the siren voices luring Britain onto the rock. We won’t go there.

George had clearly been working on that metaphor. Probably for most of the three months since he had to explain the last set of figures.

Here’s David Cameron’s reaction:

My message today is clear and unequivocal. Be in no doubt: we will go on and finish the job.

Finish it? Starting it would be nice. The economy is smaller now than when he took office.

The confidence argument is great for soundbites but do any of its proponents actually bother to look at the data? Do they actually look at figures like those in the graph above and think, “Hold on a moment, if my argument was a good one, that graph would not look like that.”

Not only is it not backed up by evidence, the logic of the theory seems extremely shaky. From where exactly is the car manufacturer suddenly going to gain the confidence to start employing people and building more cars? I can understand a person gaining confidence from seeing sustained economic growth but no one is going to look at that graph, see what the government has done to the economy, get all confident and then go on a massive manufacturing bender.

Referring to people as “sirens” for making a logical, evidence-based argument as opposed to an illogical, fantasy-based one demonstrates the heart of the problem. A problem that started as an economical one is now purely political, and it is two-fold.

  • We have a government whose base political beliefs are centred around a small public sector, so they will try to bring this in irrespective of the economic situation.
  • We have a government who have so publicly trumpeted the economic growth that austerity would bring that they simply cannot go back on it now without committing political suicide.

Remember, the depression definition though. Despite the 0.7% contraction in Q2 we are not falling off a cliff. We will almost certainly do better in Q3 – it is virtually impossible for us to repeat a quarter that bad. And when we get a recovery in Q3, the government will be saying it is advocation of their policy.

It won’t be though. The underlying problems will remain and while we wait around for those problems to be solved by ‘confidence’, our economy will continue to flat-line, and millions of people who want to work will be forced, because of those two political problems, to sit at home, waiting for the demand to return to our economy.

And how long will that take? Well, we know from our economics textbooks that long-term output is determined by the supply side. That is, as long as the depression isn’t so bad that we lose our ability to make things, we will eventually recover anyway but we also know that we have all of the tools available to fix the problem with demand right now, so why not do it? After all, as John Maynard Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead.

With this government though, sitting around waiting for the long-run to sort things out is all the help our unemployed are going to get.

Where’s Going for Gold when you need it?

RedEaredRabbit

Taking it on the Chin

…when the facts change, the responsible thing to do is to examine the decisions you have made and to be willing to change your mind, however inconvenient that may be…not burying your head in the sand and ploughing on regardless…

So said Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond this week.

What was he changing his mind about? I don’t know, something about ordering the wrong type of aeroplane; the details are not material to my point. My point is that whether or not he made a bad decision previously, no matter how terrible his judgment at the time was, it is still a good thing to be able to adapt his policy now based on how things are going. The alternative would be, as he said, ploughing on regardless with a strategy that he knew wasn’t working. He may have made a bad decision in the past but this week he made the right choice.

Shadow Defence Secretary, Jim Murphy was not impressed though, gleefully calling it a U-turn and finding another occasion to use Labour’s new favourite word, omnishambles.

Omnishambles was very funny when Malcolm Tucker used it and still a bit funny when Labour used it the first time but (shambolic as the government is) it won’t be funny if we have to hear it every week until the next general election. Perhaps they should steal another Malcolm Tucker quote to keep things fresh. For example when David Cameron and George Osborne next take their seats in the House of Commons, Ed Miliband could shout:

Laurel and fucking Hardy! Glad you could join us. Did you manage to get that piano up the stairs ok, yeah?

Or they could just think of their own jokes.

Where was I? Oh yes. It is an unreasonable expectation that the government should get every policy perfect in the very beginning and never have to change it. If they implement a policy that later turns out not to be delivering the benefits that they predicted and they change it, not only should they not be ridiculed, I would say that they should be praised.

A more reasonable expectation would be that the government should continually monitor their policies, keep them if they are working and adapt them if they aren’t.

I wrote a whole post on this subject last year, Creationist Economics and in it I was fairly scathing of politicians’ ability to admit when they were pursuing a bad strategy and adapt it into a better one.

So could it be that politicians have learned their lesson and have abandoned Creationist Economics in favour of Evolutionary Economics? Let’s recap on what Philip said:

…when the facts change, the responsible thing to do is to examine the decisions you have made and to be willing to change your mind, however inconvenient that may be…not burying your head in the sand and ploughing on regardless…

And let’s have a look at how the government has applied these words of wisdom to their economic policy.

Last week, the government got a fairly massive kicking at the local elections and therefore had the perfect opportunity to review the policies that weren’t working and adapt them. The early signs were good:

George Osborne:

The government understands your message. We take it on the chin and we have got to learn from what you are saying.

David Cameron:

The message people are sending is this: focus on what matters, deliver what you promise – and prove yourself in the process. I get it.

But does he really “get it”? David Cameron a couple of days later:

…we can’t let up on the difficult decisions we have made to cut public spending…

David and George say they understand exactly why they lost loads of votes and it was because, although their economic policy was really popular, they lost votes because they were focusing on other things too – people were worried they would reform the House of Lords or legalise gay marriage rather than purely focusing on their excellent work on the economy. In other words, this seems to be the government’s interpretation of the message the electorate were sending:

Dear David and George,

We love what you are doing with the economy, high five! Absolutely love this economic depression and always thought that having a job was overrated.

But, (and this is a big but) we have to let you know that we are voting for someone else because of your evil attempts to have a discussion about whether all of your unelected posh mates should be responsible for deciding the laws of the land. Additionally we are all intrinsically homophobic and hate the fact that you might consider treating homosexuals as equal citizens.

And in any case, it’s not like the government can possibly do more than one thing at once.

Kind regards,

The Electorate

P.S. In addition to the above, this vote is definitely in no way influenced by your NHS reform, which was also really popular.

David and George say they “get it” and want to “take it on the chin” but in reality all they are doing is trying to market a disastrous election result as support of a failed economic strategy, and opportunistically trying to bin some other proposals that don’t fit in with their own idealism.

Since I don’t think they did “get it” I’ll offer an alternative interpretation of the message from the electorate:

Dear David and George,

You said that you could revive the economy through spending cuts. You said that in 2011 we would have 2.6% economic growth but we had none and now we are in a recession again. You said that your spending cuts in a depressed economy would bring growth through “confidence” but two years later there is still no growth. We are in the worst depression in recent history, worse than The Great Depression of the 1930s – and your continual refusal to change course has put us here. Your policy is not working and while the opposition’s is at best vague, we need to send you a message to let you know that we think you have no idea what you are doing.

Kind Regards,

The Electorate

P.S. Don’t try to get out of this by saying something pathetic like we want you to put House of Lords reform or gay marriage on the back burner – you should be able to do more than one thing at once.

David and George’s public interpretation of the electorate’s message is so ridiculous that it’s funny. What is less funny though is that two years after promising growth and prosperity through spending cuts all we have is economic depression. But what exactly should they do about it? Let’s ask Philip Hammond:

…when the facts change, the responsible thing to do is to examine the decisions you have made and to be willing to change your mind, however inconvenient that may be…not burying your head in the sand and ploughing on regardless…

Well said, Philip. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

RedEaredRabbit

Depression

Do you remember that time that Alistair Darling did that terribly apolitical thing of trying to tell the truth and said there was a recession coming that would be the worst since the Great Depression? And then Gordon Brown “unleashed the forces of hell” on him? I think in hindsight, there are a couple of interesting points to make about this event.

The first one, which is important to Christians, is that the forces of hell are clearly far weaker than we were taught at school. As we can see from this recent interview, Darling is alive and well, having suffered little more than a minor singeing of the eyebrows.

Secondly, we can say that Alistair was wrong. The Office for National Statistics published their quarterly Economic Review today and conveniently it contained some figures comparing the current economic cow-pat with that of the Great Depression. The below graph shows their results of comparing quarterly GDP against the pre-crisis peaks. The red line shows how GDP has changed since Q1 2008. The blue line shows how GDP changed for the equivalent period in the Great Depression (starting at Q1 1930).

(I have added a green dot to show when David Cameron came to power.)

Darling got it wrong because the current depression is actually worse than the Great Depression. By this stage in the Great Depression, the UK was going through a period of significant economic growth and had already passed the pre-crisis peak. The UK’s current GDP is still 4.3% lower than it was at the start of 2008.

The report said also, as you have probably heard today, that the UK economy has now contracted in two consecutive quarters and therefore, by the government’s definition, we are once more in recession.

If the government had achieved 0% growth as opposed to -0.2% in the first quarter they would have avoided recession and the media would be reporting it as such. The media, I feel, often puts so much weight on whether we are in or out of recession that we are essentially missing the big picture. Look at the red line on the graph above since David Cameron was elected and you see the real picture. We might be technically sometimes in growth and technically sometimes in recession but what we are actually in is a sustained period of economic stagnation.

Predictably, Cameron and Osborne have each made statements today saying that they will be strong in the face of the recession and stick with their current policy of reducing government spending. It makes me want to weep. Recession, stagnation, whatever you want to call it, this situation was caused by them. The government’s fiscal policy since they took office has been the exact opposite of what was needed to create growth in the economy and the effects are there for all to see.

When proposing a stimulus, I am often told that spending more would send us into a recession! Well, without spending more we’re now back in one but nevertheless I will explain my stimulus thoughts in a bit more detail.

Let’s take a look at say, renewable energy. By 2020 we are legally obliged to have 20% of our energy consumption coming from renewable energy. How’s that going to happen? Well it won’t happen without investing a lot of money building wind farms, tidal power stations and the like. This is money we need to spend anyway – we have agreed to be legally bound to the target. Why not bring the investment forward and spend the money now? The difference in government debt between spending the money now or in a couple of years is nigh on nothing and believe me, we won’t even get close to that target if we don’t get our arses in gear.

Or how about schools? I find it hard to believe that there are not thousands of state-funded schools not needing their ailing buildings, classrooms, gymnasiums fixing and rebuilding.

As you can see, I am not promoting the idea of spending money on things we don’t need – we need to do these things anyway so this money has to be spent sooner or later. All I am proposing is spending it now, at a time that we have economic stagnation and lots of people waiting for the jobs that such spending will create.

The government chose to implement a policy that opposed basic macroeconomic theory and that policy has had exactly the effect that basic economic theory predicts – depression. So how could they have got it so wrong? How could they not see that the fiscal policy they were pursuing was not just erroneous, it was completely irresponsible and entirely negligent?

One may as well ask, how could they not see that cutting tax on the rich at the expense of the poor was a terrible idea? Or, how could they not see that selling places at the Prime Minister’s dinner table in return for influence over government policy, was both morally and democratically abhorrent?

The answer is both surprisingly simple and hugely depressing. This government, (as with many other governments throughout history and throughout the world), did not come into power, assess the circumstances and devise the best possible policies to benefit the population and the country as a whole. They came into power with a particular idea of how they wanted the country to be. It involved private health care, lower taxes on the rich and yes, low government spending.

The fact that basic economics said that cutting spending would screw the economy was totally irrelevant. They probably knew it would. Their efforts have not gone into putting good policies into being but have instead gone into trying to make the country into their Etonian Utopia. They have cleverly coupled this with a massive campaign of bad marketing to mislead the electorate into thinking that all of these things are necessary. They know that economics is not a subject that is easily understood by the majority of the public and know they can use this to their advantage.

In forcing through the changes they wanted to make anyway, they have unnecessarily caused a depression on a scale not seen in recent history. As a direct result of these policies, people have lost their jobs and people have lost their houses.

If the 1930s was the Great Depression, then our current day situation will surely be looked on in history as the Even Greater Depression.

And the most depressing thing of all is that this was completely avoidable.

RedEaredRabbit