The Times' bizarre economics

Straight outta 2010.

The Times has an economics leader (£) today calling for the cutting of public spending to continue. It's a remarkably sloppy piece, straight out of the 2010 election campaign, and ignoring everything we have learned in the two and a half years since then.

The piece starts by pointing out that the Chancellor will have failed to cut debt as a proportion of GDP by the end of this parliament, something he initially staked his reputation on. It then, accurately, points out the the principal risks to Britain's economic health come from anaemic growth, not a collapse of "confidence".

The leader then runs through the failure, even after the third-quarter growth, of anything resembling the recovery, and comes tot he relatively sensible conclusion that Osborne ought to delay his fiscal targets.

Then it all goes off the rails:

The IMF has argued that increased borrowing should be tolerated rather than tackled with tax rises or further spending cuts. That does not mean that the Government has been wrong to seek a rapid reduction in the budget deficit. Cutting spending does not simply take demand out of the economy. It reduces sovereign risk and the premium that the Government has to pay on its borrowing. As sterling is not a reserve currency, maintaining fiscal credibility is an especially important task in economic management.

The low market interest rates that the UK needs to pay should be counted a success. They are a precondition of recovery.

Where to start. Cutting spending reduces sovereign risk? Are we still having this conversation? The UK controls its own currency, and exclusively issues bonds denominated in that currency. Sovereign risk is infinitesimal. We cannot go bust like Greece; we cannot default like Argentina. The worst thing that Britain could do is attempt to inflate its way out of debt; but that hasn't happened, and isn't going to happen, because spending is manageable, inflation is low, and interest rates are lower.

The leader also claims that cutting spending lowers "the premium that the Government has to pay on its borrowing". Which is again nonsense. As I wrote just two weeks ago, when Conservative MP Jesse Norman launched a bizarre attack on NIESR's Jonathan Portes:

Sovereign debt yields can be low either because investors think there is little chance of the nation going bankrupt, or because there is scant competition from other potential investments pushing up the yield. Since the crash, the chance of Britain defaulting hasn't changed from basically-zero, but the growth rate – and thus the average return on investment from putting your money in the "real" economy – has plummeted.

The status of Sterling as a reserve currency is also weird, inaccurate and slightly irrelevant. Sterling is a reserve currency – it is the world's third most held, after the euro and dollar. It is no longer the reserve currency, true – the dollar took that title after World War II – but that also has little to do with the importance of fiscal credibility.

And while the low market interest rates the UK needs to pay are helpful, they should not be considered a success. If anything, they are a sign of Osborne's economic failure. If the market truly expected a recovery, the first thing that would happen is interest rates would rise, as investors finally priced in the fact that they could expect real returns if they put their money elsewhere in the economy. As it is, returns on investment in government bonds remain close to zero, as investors flee to a safe haven.

Osborne needs, first and foremost, a plan to end this depression. Cutting spending acts against that goal. Market interest rates, and the risk of sovereign defaults, are irrelevancies to that question.

Money. 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.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder