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
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.