The Economist endorses NGDP targeting. Well, sort of…

The Economist endorses a bit of NGDP targeting, for a bit, in a bit.

The Economist has an editorial in this week's magazine calling for a form of nominal GDP targeting. The editorial reads:

At the moment the Bank of England’s mission, set by the chancellor of the exchequer, is to focus on an inflation target of 2%. That makes sense in normal circumstances. But with short-term interest rates at almost zero, the economy growing at barely 2% in nominal terms (and not at all if you factor in inflation) and many years of austerity ahead, it is worth temporarily reinterpreting that policy and focusing on nominal GDP. Our suggestion is that the bank, backed by the chancellor, George Osborne, should make clear that it will not tighten policy until nominal GDP, currently £1.5 trillion, gets to a level that is at least 10% higher than today.

The magazine is clearly happy to call what it's suggesting a nominal GDP target, but that's not really the case. Instead, the suggestion is more akin to the US's recent adoption of the so-called Evans Rule, which stated that:

The interest rate is guaranteed to stay at its historic low of 0-0.25 per cent until unemployment is below 6.5 per cent or inflation is above 2.5 per cent.

The American case is different for two key reasons: the first is that the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee, which sets monetary policy, has a dual mandate, requiring it to keep both inflation and unemployment low. The FOMC had been doing a good job keeping the former down, but not such a good job with the latter. The second is that growth in the State is doing OK; again, the real concern was that, in focusing too heavily on inflation, the Fed might choke off that recovery.

But both the Evans rule and the Economist's rule — let's call it the Micklethwait rule — are more about binding the monetary policy committees' future actions. They are a way of communicating to the markets that the rates will not be raised until good things happen, and that the traditional role of the central banks (to keep inflation under control) will be put to one side in the meantime.

The fact that the Micklethwait rule is described in terms of "nominal GDP" makes it sound like a nominal GDP target, but it's not. The latter, a dreadfully trendy prospect in economics circles at the moment, involves commanding the central bank to target a specific level of nominal GDP (that is, GDP unadjusted for inflation). Its benefits are that it explicitly allows for a burst of inflation to get us out of a depression, and commands central bankers to not just restore growth after a slump, but to increase nominal GDP to the level it would be if that slump hadn't actually happened.

The Micklethwait rule would allow for the first — but only as a one time thing, since it would need to be re-enacted in a future depression — but explicitly prevents the second. It only gets half the benefits of true nominal GDP targeting, but all of the downsides, particularly the big one: before we can target NGDP, we need to be able to measure it. Given the ONS's revisions to real GDP, made over the span of three months, are still subject to enormous revisions, the thought of it having to make them three times as fast, for a new measure of the country's production, and get them right first time seems faintly ludicrous.

That's not to say that the Micklethwait rule might not be better than what we have at the moment. Just that if we're going to go to all that trouble, we may as well leap into the great unknown with both feet, rather than just stumbling off the cliff out of desperation.

The Bank of England. 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.

Photo: Getty
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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