If you thought Ryan's fiscal policy was bad, wait til you see his monetary policy

"Sound money", raising interest rates and Ayn Rand: he's got it all.

Now that Paul Ryan is coming under the sort of scrutiny which a member of the House of Representatives never gets – even a rising star saying all the right things – his reputation as a serious man with serious thoughts is falling apart.

Take the re-examination of his proposal, in 2008, to redefine the mandate of the Federal Reserve. Not problematic in itself; lots of people want to redefine the mandates of central banks. The most popular demand is insisting they switch from targeting low inflation to targeting nominal growth.

But Ryan wanted to change the Fed's mandate from its current dual requirement, to aim for low inflation and full employment, to one which only requires low inflation. He already clearly disapproves of fiscal stimulus, but it appears that he disapproves of monetary stimulus as well.

And in 2010, his explanation to Ezra Klein of how he would use monetary policy to help the economy was bizarre and plain wrong:

There’s a lot of capital parked out there, and we need to coax it out into the markets. I think literally that if we raised the federal funds rate by a point, it would help push money into the economy, as right now, the safest play is to stay with the federal money and federal paper.

As Mark Thoma puts it:

Basically, they are telling us that if a recession hits and they have their way, nothing will be done. Not a thing. No fiscal policy response (except perhaps austerity to make it worse), and no monetary response (except, if Ryan has his way, interest rate increases based upon a misunderstanding of how the economy works that would also make things worse).

Brad Plumer explains how the real heart of Ryan's monetary policy "isn’t quite a return to the long-abandoned gold standard, but it’s a roughly similar concept": anchoring the value of the dollar to a basket of commodities.

This is wingnut thinking, which Plumer argues can all be traced back to Ryan's love of Ayn Rand's terrible novel Atlas Shrugged:

In the passages that Ryan has highlighted, Rand’s characters lament that statists have destroyed all “objective standards” for currency by abandoning the gold standard and boosting the supply of paper money in order to assist the “looters and moochers.”

None of this is new; the writing was on the wall four years ago. But whereas proposing complicated-sounding economic measures is enough to get you a reputation of sorts in the House of Representative, it oughtn't be enough to maintain that reputation once you hit the big leagues. But Paul Krugman argues that the real reason for the Ryan pick is his uncanny ability to do just that:

Whence comes the Ryan reputation? As I said in my last post, it’s because many commentators want to tell a story about US politics that makes them feel and look good — a story in which both parties are equally at fault in our national stalemate, and in which said commentators stand above the fray. This story requires that there be good, honest, technically savvy conservative politicians, so that you can point to these politicians and say how much you admire them, even if you disagree with some of their ideas; after all, unless you lavish praise on some conservatives, you don’t come across as nobly even-handed.

And yet, implausibly, the Romney/Ryan ticket could, in the very short-term, be the best economic choice America has. Joe Weisenthal makes the case:

The biggest threat to the U.S. economy is the fiscal cliff. As Morgan Stanley's Adam Parker explained in a note today, there's a very plausible scenario where 5 percent of GDP is lopped off, and corporate profits get absolutely shredded. And this assumes that the debt ceiling is passed without creating a gigantic shock to the economy.

The best scenario for avoiding a fiscal cliff mess is to see Mitt Romney elected. As we argued back in early April, the surest way to get Republicans on board with ongoing deficits is for them to be the party in power again.

History seems to be pretty clear on one issue: Parties out of power favor austerity. Parties in power favor stimulus.

Weisenthal goes on to quote Josh Barro trying to guess Ryan's role in Romney's economic plan:

Conservatives are never fully going to trust Romney. If he comes to them with, say, economist Glenn Hubbard’s proposal to throw about a hundred billion taxpayer dollars at restructuring underwater home mortgages, they’re likely to resist.

But what if Vice President Paul Ryan makes the pitch? Won’t House Republicans be much more likely to conclude that mortgage bailouts actually are conservative?

I’m not suggesting that Ryan is going to throw conservatism entirely under the bus. Romney surely wants to do some things that Republicans in Congress will love and others they will be resistant to—only part of his economic plan is secret. So both sides of Ryan’s skill set will come into play.

In the end, even when a scenario is presented in which Ryan is actually good for the economy, it all comes back to his surface appeal. The man looks competent; he looks like a conservative, like someone who can be trusted, who has thought through his opinions, and hasn't based economic policy on a 55-year-old sci-fi novel.

He isn't, of course. But when's that ever stopped anyone?

Paul Ryan meets a baby. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.