The most important paragraph in the IMF World Economic Outlook

68 words of wonkishness.

The IMF's World Economic Outlook (pdf) – a 230-page tome detailing predictions on nearly every aspect of the world's economy collated by the international organisation – always gets attention for the calls it makes.

The October edition downgrades expected global growth for 2013 from 3.9 per cent to 3.6 per cent, and also cuts predictions for China (down to 8.2 per cent for 2013), the US (expected to grow by 2.1 per cent in 2013, down from 2.3 per cent in July's prediction) and the UK (now expected to grow by just 1.1 per cent next year, and to contract by 0.2 per cent this year).

But the predictions are not the most important passages in this edition of the Outlook. Those are found in a short box-out titled Are We Underestimating Short-Term Fiscal Multipliers?

The fisc§al multiplier is the effect government spending has on GDP. Money spent by the government doesn't disappear – it is respent, again and again. If a teacher gets a pay rise, their consumption is likely to rise in line with it; if all teachers get pay rises, that increase in consumption may be enough to affect the aggregate demand in the economy. In an economy which isn't being stretched to its limits – that is, one without full employment, or serious capital equipment shortages – that increase in aggregate demand will result in an increase in GDP.

The existence of the fiscal multiplier is a matter of fact, but the magnitude of it is contested. And that's where the IMF enters the scene, on page 42:

The main finding, based on data for 28 economies, is that the multipliers used in generating growth forecasts have been systematically too low since the start of the Great Recession, by 0.4 to 1.2, depending on the forecast source and the specifics of the estimation approach. Informal evidence suggests that the multipliers implicitly used to generate these forecasts are about 0.5. So actual multipliers may be higher, in the range of 0.9 to 1.7.

Emphasis mine. When deciding how much to spend, governments have been assuming that every pound they spend increases GDP by 50p – but it may increase it by as much as £1.70.

The reason this is so very important is that fiscal multiplier is usually appealed to not when deciding how much to spend, but how much to not spend. When governments are planning austerity packages, they have to be wary of the fact that large cuts to government spending will inevitably cause a decrease in output, and so they either have to be prepared to take that hit, or come up with a reason why slashing spending will cause an increase in output through some other mechanism.

That is easy enough to do if you are trying to account for a fiscal multiplier of 0.5: you can make the arguments, which Osborne and Cameron rehearsed repeatedly, that the public sector is crowding out the private; that the government spending which is being cut is particularly inefficient; or that the confidence fairies will reward your thriftiness with growth.

When there is the chance that the fiscal multiplier is three times that, austerity becomes much more likely to involve damaging drops in output.

There was once a time when the government pegged its credibility to that of the IMF – back when George Osborne was proud about Britain's credit ratings, and the international community was behind his plans. Those days are gone, and have been since Christine Lagarde made her own attack on austerity. But the economists at the treasury may be more inclined to listen to the wonkish findings of the World Outlook than the political interventions of the fund's leader. We can only hope they are prompted to re-do the sums.

The IMF headquarters. 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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.