Why the IFS and the coalition should learn to get along

How to resolve the unending progressive/regressive debate.

You all know the ritual. The coalition publishes a budget/spending review and insists that it is "progressive" and that "those with the broadest shoulders" will bear the greatest burden. The next day, the Institute for Fiscal Studies publishes a study showing that the budget/spending review is "regressive" and that the poorest will be hardest hit. The liberal press and the left-wing blogosphere ("at its ruthless best yesterday", says Tim Montgomerie) splash on the findings and put the coalition on the defensive. The next day, Nick Clegg insists that the IFS study is misleading and that the coalition is committed to "fairness". Last time it was an FT article and today it's a Guardian interview.

Clegg says:

I think you have to call a spade a spade. We just fundamentally disagree with the IFS. It goes back to a culture of how you measure fairness that took root under Gordon Brown's time, where fairness was seen through one prism and one prism only which was the tax and benefits system. It is a complete nonsense to apply that measure, which is a slightly desiccated Treasury measure. People do not live only on the basis of the benefits they receive. They also depend on public services, such as childcare and social care. All of those things have been airbrushed out of the picture by the IFS.

This is what the French call a dialogue de sourds, or a dialogue of the deaf. It arises, in part, from the failure of some to understand that when the IFS terms spending measures "progressive" or "regressive", it isn't making a value judgement. In economics, the terms "progressive" and "regressive" simply refer to the distribution of resources between individuals, they are not intended as terms of political praise/abuse.

Then there's the complaint that those notorious IFS decile graphs "don't tell the whole story". They don't, as the IFS itself pointed out yesterday, nor are they intended to. But few would deny that the distributional effect of tax and benefit changes is a key part of the story. The government acknowledges this by publishing its own decile graphs. It is therefore hypocritical and absurd of Clegg to accuse the IFS of employing a "desiccated Treasury measure".

The key difference between the IFS and the Treasury graphs is that the IFS version includes the third of changes ignored by the government. Among these are some of the most regressive measures, such as the cap on housing benefit, the cuts to council tax benefit and the disability living allowance, and the time-limiting of the employment and support allowance. I've yet to hear a convincing argument for excluding these changes.

Rather than denouncing the IFS report as "distorted and a complete nonsense", Clegg would do well to read the section explaining why it's so hard to model public-service changes and, therefore, why the IFS is unable to make a judgement on the progressivity of the "entire fiscal consolidation".

Clegg's criticisms amount to a demand for the IFS to recognise the coalition's public-sector reforms as inherently "progressive". But because these changes can't be modelled fully, that would involve a value judgement rather than an economic one. You can't help but feel that Clegg's target should not be the IFS, but those who misrepresent its findings.

In any case, with his party languishing on 10 per cent in the polls, Clegg should get out and make his case to the voters, not fire fusillades at a respected and impartial think tank.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Just you wait – soon fake news will come to football

No point putting out a story saying that Chelsea got stuffed 19-1 by Spurs. Who would believe it, even if Donald Trump tweeted it?

So it is all settled: Cristiano Ronaldo will be arriving at Carlisle United at the end of the month, just before deadline day. It all makes sense. He has fallen in love with a Herdwick sheep, just as Beatrix Potter did, and like her, he is putting his money and energy into helping Cumbria, the land of the Herdwick.

He fell out with his lover in Morocco, despite having a private plane to take him straight from every Real Madrid game to their weekly assignation, the moment this particular Herdwick came into his life. His mother will be coming with him, as well as his son, Cristiano Ronaldo, Jr. They want to bring the boy
up communing with nature, able to roam free, walking among the lakes and fells.

Behind the scenes, his agent has bought up CUFC and half of Cumbria on his behalf, including Sellafield, so it is a wise investment. Clearly CUFC will be promoted this year – just look where they are in the table – then zoom-zoom, up they go, back in the top league, at which point his agent hopes they will be offered megabucks by some half-witted Chinese/Russian/Arab moneybags.

Do you believe all that? It is what we now call in the trade fake news, or post-truth – or, to keep it simple, a total lie, or, to be vulgar, complete bollocks. (I made it up, although a pundit on French TV hinted that he thought the bit about Ronaldo’s friend in Morocco might not be too far-fetched. The stuff about Beatrix Potter loving Herdwicks is kosher.)

Fake news is already the number-one topic in 2017. Just think about all those round robins you got with Christmas cards, filled with fake news, such as grandchildren doing brilliantly at school, Dad’s dahlias winning prizes, while we have just bought a gem in Broadstairs for peanuts.

Fake news is everywhere in the world of politics and economics, business and celebrity gossip, because all the people who really care about such topics are sitting all day on Facebook making it up. And if they can’t be arsed to make it up, they pass on rubbish they know is made up.

Fake news has long been with us. Instead of dropping stuff on the internet, they used to drop it from the skies. I have a copy of a leaflet that the German propaganda machine dropped over our brave lads on the front line during the war. It shows what was happening back in Blighty – handsome US soldiers in bed with the wives and girlfriends of our Tommies stuck at the front.

So does it happen in football? At this time of the year, the tabloids and Sky are obsessed by transfer rumours, or rumours of transfer rumours, working themselves into a frenzy of self-perpetuating excitement, until the final minute of deadline day, when the climax comes at last, uh hum – all over the studio, what a mess.

In Reality, which is where I live, just off the North Circular – no, down a bit, move left, got it – there is no such thing as fake news in football. We are immune from fantasy facts. OK, there is gossip about the main players – will they move or will they not, will they be sued/prosecuted/dropped?

Football is concerned with facts. You have to get more goals than the other team, then you win the game. Fact. Because all the Prem games are live on telly, we millions of supplicant fans can see with our eyes who won. No point putting out a story saying that Chelsea got stuffed 19-1 by Spurs. Who would believe it, even if Donald Trump tweeted it?

I suppose the Russkis could hack into the Sky transmissions, making the ball bounce back out of the goal again, or manipulating the replay so goals get scored from impossible angles, or fiddling the electronic scoreboards.

Hmm, now I think about it, all facts can be fiddled, in this electronic age. The Premier League table could be total fiction. Bring back pigeons. You could trust them for the latest news. Oh, one has just arrived. Ronaldo’s romance  with the Herdwick is off! And so am I. Off to Barbados and Bequia
for two weeks.

Hunter Davies’s latest book is “The Biscuit Girls” (Ebury Press, £6.99)

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge