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The Goebbels of the English language

We cannot state conclusively that anything is true.

I’m not entirely sure what my fellow contributors will have to say upon the subject but I expect they’ll generally see evidence as quite a good thing and will make compelling arguments to that effect, backed up by documented facts, deductions, and, well, evidence. Except that evidence would say that, wouldn’t it? It isn’t going to testify against itself.

I submit that if in the preceding paragraph the reader replace the term “evidence” with, say, the term “News International”, then the sleazy duplicity of this butter-wouldn’t-melt-in- its-mouth logical, scientific and forensic concept will become immediately apparent. Although it might be incautious to suggest that “evidence” and “evil” are synonymous based solely on their first three letters, I say that we go for it. Let’s subject this oily and persuasive abstract noun to the same brutal scrutiny that it is all too ready to inflict on others and see how it likes it.

When we try to build a solid case against our purely notional defendant, though, we start to get an idea of exactly what we’re up against. For one thing we discover that, suspiciously, we’re suddenly without a single shred of data to support our claims. Forthcoming witnesses are nowhere to be found and even the police appear reluctant to become involved. We learn that evidence, being pretty much made of evidence, has got an alibi for absolutely everything, with all the confirmatory theatre ticket-stubs and time-logged credit card exchanges carefully in place. In this, at least, evidence bears a strong resemblance to the imperviously powerful and homicidal drug cartels of Mexico.

Despite evidence appearing to be protected by the prince of darkness from on high, we can still pursue our investigation and construct a profile of our subject. Evidence, it turns out, is a relatively young latecomer to the scene that muscled its way into our vocabulary 700 years ago, ruthlessly ousting older and more venerated competition such as rumour, superstition and some bloke down ye tavern and malicious gossip, in the lexicological equivalent of an axe-wielding turf war.

Now, quite clearly, the mere fact that evidence shares the same medieval pedigree as the Black Death and the Spanish Inquisition doesn’t mean that it is equally abhorrent, but it’s worth observing that airborne carbon particulates are often indicative of a fire, hence smoke alarms.

A glance at evidence’s backstory reveals a seemingly impeccable and spotless record sheet, with glowing testimonials to the subject’s many acts of great social benevolence: tremendous contributions to the methodology of science and medicine that have allowed humanity to crawl up from a swamp of ignorance and early death; providing the foundations for a legal process that goes further than establishing if witches float or not; and blah blah blah. It hardly need be said that representing oneself as a public benefactor is a timeworn strategy for camouflaging acts of dire monstrosity, as employed by Alphonse Capone, the Kray twins and disc jockeys in the 1970s. As yet, no information has emerged connecting evidence with any of the previously mentioned malefactors but there are of course fresh revelations every day. Is it a mere coincidence that the most commonly used adjectives or adjectival nouns describing evidence are “cold”, “hard”, or, more worryingly, “DNA”?

If we are hoping to make something stick with this notoriously slippery and Teflon-coated piece of terminology, we obviously need to dig a little deeper. A good place to start might be with a description of the suspect, something that a sketch artist could work from. Evidence, according to a reputable source, is “that which tends to prove or disprove something; grounds for belief; proof”. The sharp-eyed juror may note a considerable leap between the first two cautious, unassuming clauses of that definition and the confident, declamatory third example. How does “that which tends to prove or disprove” or which gives “grounds for belief” equate so suddenly with “proof”? While a creationist might justifiably regard the book of Genesis as documentary evidence supporting their profoundly stupid version of the universe’s origin, as something which in their opinion tends to prove or to at least give grounds for their belief, that surely doesn’t mean that a several-millennia- old Just So Story is a proof of anything.

Alternatively, back in 1881, the physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley ably demonstrated that the hitherto convincing evidence for the existence of the ether was not actually a proof of that existence. All of this implies that evidence has quite a history of passing itself off as proof. The two are frequently mistaken for each other and I would suggest that it is under this deliberate smokescreen of ambiguity that evidence is free to carry on with its insidious racket.

Most accounts of a debate where evidence is in attendance generally depict the aforementioned entity as an intimidating presence, useful when it comes to shutting people up and not afraid to use its hefty physicality as a deterrent. On examination, though, it would appear that evidence is not so much the physical material of which it is comprised, as it is the entirely abstract and subjective processes involved in the selection and classification of material phenomena as evidence. A lead pipe, in and of itself, is after all just a lead pipe and needs considerable human interpretation to connect it with Professor Plum and the conservatory. It is in this dependence on the unreliable perceptions and concealed agendas of an individual that we finally identify the weak spot of this domineering thug.

In order for an item to be classed as evidence, the thing it evidences must be previously extrapolated or determined, presupposing the conditions under which it qualifies as evidence. As an example, you conceivably might be employed by a giant petrochemical concern and have for some time loathed Professor Plum for his outspoken views on global warming, or, I don’t know, because you think he looks Jewish. When you heard about the murder, you immediately let your prejudices as a climate change denying anti-Semite influence your judgement as to whom might be the culprit. The well-known phenomenon of confirmation bias led you to ignore such data as did not support your predetermined theory and instead carefully to select only those facts that did. You gathered evidence and then presented it as proof. For God’s sake, there must be a thousand ways that lead pipe could have ended up in that conservatory, you scientifically illiterate Nazi.

Evidence, that always plausible and superficially convincing psychopath, can only ever be a charting of our own perceptions and our intellectual processes, as in Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation – or at least in my interpretation of it. Evidence is thus the map, while proof by the same token is the territory and the two might not exactly or even remotely correspond, as in the recent mortifying case of Google Earth and that South Pacific island, which, it turned out, wasn’t really there.

The yawning and yet easily ignored gap between map and territory, evidence and proof, along with the confusion that apparently persists between the two, is indicated in the subtle disagreement that is polarising current scientific thought upon what constitutes reality. One side in the debate contends that if our theories on the nature of the universe – for instance, the existence of inferred quantum effects or particles that may be unobservable – are in accordance with the way that space-time seems to function, then we may as well afford these theoretical constructions their full status as reality. Those with opposing views, perhaps more wisely and more cautiously, point to the many “Michelson and Morley” instances where our most informed understanding of existence proves to be fallacious and instead suggest that even our most powerful theories can be only be part of an evolving and continually adapting apprehension of a hypothesised “ultimate reality”.

As the philosopher Karl Popper pointed out, we cannot state conclusively that anything is true, only that it has not thus far been falsified. Since even proof itself is seemingly fatally undermined by Popper’s hard-to-discount observation, might we not therefore conclude that evidence is a completely hopeless bastard?

Evidence is not proof and occasionally it isn’t even evidence. While it undoubtedly illuminates the human landscape, it obscures it in an equal measure. It has led to the incarceration of some thoroughly vile people and similarly has collaborated in the execution or internment of the blameless and the mentally impaired. In its contribution to the sciences, it has repeatedly allowed us to escape from the miasma of disinformation that somebody else’s view of evidence had visited upon us in the first place. Even in those instances where evidence is plentiful, are we entirely capable of judging what the evidence is of?

Approximately 18 months ago, it was announced that measuring the cosmic constant yielded different measurements depending upon which way the observer happened to be facing. This apparently nonsensical discovery would make sense in the context of “etheric flow”, a kind of current having a direction that’s conducted through the rarefied essential medium of our universe, except that back in 1881 we were assured by Michelson and Morley that the ether was entirely fictional, according to their evidence. Now, I’m not saying that these two respected physicists should be exhumed and pilloried, their gravestones rendered to unfathomable rubble by an angry, crowbar-swinging mob. That is, naturally, a matter for the individual reader to decide. My only aim is to present the facts, as they appear to me. If I can do that in around 2,000 words, so much the better.

Those who still prefer to picture evidence as some variety of loveable old villain in the manner of Mad Frankie Fraser, despite all the documented torture and brutality, should give some thought as to what a society entirely based on evidence might look like. An informative example is available in South America’s extraordinary Pirãha people, for whom every statement or remark must be accompanied by some sort of supporting evidence or proof. For instance, simply saying “John has gone up river” would not be sufficient by itself and would need qualifying with an explanation of how this conclusion was arrived at. Proof from observation, as in “John has gone upriver and I know because I personally saw him go” would be acceptable, as would proof from deduction, as in “John has gone upriver and I know this because his canoe’s no longer here”. This rigorous approach to conversation would appear to have significant advantages in that it does not permit the Pirãha any concept of a god or notions of an afterlife, surely good news for scientific atheists who may have recently become distressed by the idea that human beings might be “hardwired for religion” and possess a “god-shaped hole” in their psychology. With the world view of the Pirãha, practically unique in having no creation myth, this notion is reliably refuted.

Other things that the Pirãha do not have include a written language, possibly because the provenance of written statements is impossible to validate compared with first-hand verbal information from a trusted relative or colleague. This means that, along with being unencumbered by a deity or a religion, the Pirãha also have no scientific theory, no literature or art, nor any history extending further back than a few generations. On the other hand, if you’re still worrying about where John’s gone, the Pirãha are nothing if not dependable.

To summarise, evidence schmevidence. This Goebbels of the English language has for too long passed itself off as a thing of formidable weight and substance, bolstering its image with the use of terms like “solid”, “irrefutable” and “cast-iron”, when in fact it often only demonstrates the pattern-recognition pro - cesses of those presenting it. A jar of saddlebag-faced Saddam Hussein’s anti-wrinkle cream confirms the presence of weapons of mass destruction and so justifies the comprehensive devastation of Iraq. Evidence is sometimes murderously deceptive.

For all we know, it hasn’t even stopped beating its wife.

Alan Moore is the author of “Watchmen”, “V for Vendetta”, “From Hell” and many other titles

Alan Moore is the author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell and many other titles.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

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The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

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In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

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