Krugman's uncanny accuracy shows why more eyes should be on Japan

Abenomics is more that just a Japanese story.

Noah Smith has a post up examining Paul Krugman's remarkable record of accurate economic predictions. Ask "KrugTron the Invincible", as Smith dubs him, and he will point to his use of Keynesian economics for simple rule-of-thumb guesstimates, which then get cleaned up with his understanding of the problems of a liquidity trap. But Smith wonders if there's a more specific reason for Krugman's hit-rate:

Like Voltron before him, he's borrowing heavily from Japan.

See, I myself am fairly agnostic about Keynesian ideas. But I've expected nothing but low growth, low interest rates, and low inflation since 2008 (though I haven't been as confident about these things as Krugman, and am thus not in his class as a super-robot). I expected these things because of one simple proposition: We are like Japan.

Since its land bubble popped in 1990, Japan has had low inflation and low interest rates and low growth, even as government debt mounted and quantitative easing was tried. Paul Krugman was there. He watched Japan carefully, and he often states that it deeply affected his thinking. In fact, it might not be an exaggeration to say that watching Japan made Krugman the Keynesian he is today.

The comparison is, at the moment, more relevant to the US than the UK. Our problems are pretty clear: we slashed investment coming out of a recession, which put the brakes on recovery. Now that we're (slowly) putting our foot back on the accelerator, we can expect a return to growth – at least until deficit reduction becomes a priority again. Insofar as we have any macroeconomic phenomena confounding economists, it's positive news: our unemployment rate is significantly lower than it should be, given our anaemic recovery. That's been pegged on underemployment, productivity declines, and the government fiddling the figures, but it doesn't call for a wholesale reworking of economic theory.

The Japanese experience, however, does. Its "lost decade" – now well on the way to being twenty years long – has stubbornly resisted everything thrown at it so far. The pessimistic view is that it's just what happens when demographics turn sour: with an ageing society and migration too low to counteract it, the economy is retooling to serve the needs of retirees, for whom long-term growth isn't a priority.

But Abenomics, the name for the broad package of unconventional policy measures brought in by the government of Shinzo Abe, offers a ray of hope. And if any of those tools, which range from monetized nationalisation of industrial stock to explicitly targeting the stock market to performing one of the largest rounds of qualitative easing ever, work, then there's a meaningful plan of action for not just Japan, but the US as well.

If they don't, then hopefully it won't take America the same twenty years it's taken Japan to realise that business as usual just won't cut it.

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
Show Hide image

Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.