Paul Krugman and the economists who called it right

Don't forget those who warned of a double-dip as early as 2009.

Paul Krugman, whose new book End This Depression Now! (reviewed by Will Hutton for the NS) should be at the top of everyone's summer reading list, has picked up on this week's NS cover story on how Osborne's supporters have turned against him. On his New York Times blog, he writes:

Good on them [the economists]. I was, however, disappointed to see so many of the prodigal economists asserting that they were responding to changed circumstances rather than admitting that they simply got it wrong.

For circumstances really haven’t changed; the UK had a depressed economy then, and it still does now. Fiscal austerity while the economy is depressed, and in particular when conventional monetary policy has reached its limits, was an obviously bad idea from day one. Not to put too fine a point on it, what I was writing about austerity back in 2010 looks just fine a couple of years later.

The fact of the matter is that the austerians chose to throw basic macroeconomics out the window. And that, not failure to anticipate negative surprises, is where they went wrong.

Another Cassandra was our economics editor, David Blanchflower, who was warning of the risk of a double-dip recession as early as October 2009:

Lesson number one in a deep recession is you don't cut public spending until you are into the boom phase. John Maynard Keynes taught us that. The euro area appears to be heading back into recession and the austerity measures being introduced in certain eurozone countries, especially those in Germany, will inevitably lower UK growth, too. It is extremely unlikely, therefore, that net trade will leap to our rescue. taught us that. The consequence of cutting too soon is that you drive the economy into a depression, with the attendant threats of rapidly rising unemployment, social disorder, rising poverty, falling living standards and even soup kitchens.

In the wake of Osborne's "emergency" Budget in June 2010, he wrote:

I am now convinced that as a result of this reckless Budget, the UK will suffer a double-dip recession or worse.

Blanchflower and Krugman are two of the few economists to have emerged from the events of recent years with their reputations enhanced, but one sympathises with Krugman's recent lament: "I'm sick of being Cassandra. I'd like to win for once".

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.