Growth, not the deficit, will define the economic debate in 2012

And the left need to be ready to take charge of the discussion

George Osborne reminded us earlier this week that figures for GDP growth due to be published on Wednesday could show the economy contracted in the final quarter of 2011, though he was quick to point out that he had not yet seen the figures, nor was he making his own forecast; he was simply restating the view of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).

If GDP did shrink in the final quarter of 2011, then the UK economy could be back in recession, based on economists' definition of a recession as two consecutive quarters of declining GDP (though we will have to wait until April to find out if this is really the case). Alternatively, it may be that the economy was flat, or even grew slightly, in which case a recession will technically have been avoided.

However, by focusing on the quarter by quarter numbers, we risk missing the bigger picture. Whether growth in the final quarter of 2011 turns out to have been -0.1 per cent or +0.1 per cent does not change the fact that since the Chancellor set out his austerity programme for the public sector last year, the economy has grown at an anaemic pace.

As a result, the economic recovery has been blown off course. In the first five quarters of recovery from the recent recession - that is from 2009 Q3 to 2010 Q3 - real GDP increased by 3.2 per cent. This is pretty much in line with experience following the two preceding recessions, which, in the first five quarters, saw growth of 3.1 per cent in the 1980s and 3.0 per cent in the 1990s.

But, while the economy recorded growth of 2.7 per cent in the following year of the 1980s recovery and 4.8 per cent in the following year of the 1990s recovery, growth in the UK over the last year has been just 0.5 per cent. If the OBR's forecasts are right, not just for the last quarter of 2011, but also throughout 2012, then this recovery will lag further behind the previous two (the chart includes OBR forecasts for the period 2011 Q4 to 2012 Q4).

This is not all the Chancellor's fault - though the pace of deficit reduction and his austerity rhetoric were contributory factors. The main cause of weakness in high street spending was that people had to spend more on their energy bills and petrol. More recently, the eurozone debt crisis has created uncertainty for businesses, leading to a greater reluctance to make capital investments and recruit additional workers. But weak growth in the UK enabled his opponents to argue that the Chancellor's policies were not working.

What happens in 2012 will depend, to a large extent, on developments in Europe. Petrol prices are already falling and a number of energy companies have announced cuts in their tariffs, so the squeeze on households' spending power looks set to ease. This will support high street demand. But if there is no resolution to the euro zone crisis, confidence will remain depressed and growth is likely to be little better than in 2011 (and if the crisis worsens, then there will probably be no growth at all).

If the economic recovery does pick up pace during 2012, the Chancellor will no doubt trumpet the success of his policies and it will be harder for his critics to be heard. But another year of little to no growth will lead to more calls to the Chancellor for a change of course on deficit reduction (calls that will almost certainly be ignored) and create an environment in which an alternative, growth-centred, economic strategy would get a fair hearing in public debate. If this opportunity arises, the centre-left needs to be ready to seize it.

Tony Dolphin is the senior economist and associate director of the think tank ippr

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt