Do we have too little economic data, or too much?

Counting cranes and railroad traffic.

The Financial Times' economics editor, Chris Giles, has found a new source of data, quietly released by the UK's Health and Safety Executive, which we really should have been checking as an indicator of recovery:

The HSE started requiring the operators of tower cranes – used for new office buildings, infrastructure, larger residential blocks and big public sector projects – to register their addresses in 2010, providing an invaluable snapshot of the building industry in action.

Sadly, the HSE's figures don't actually show a boom just around the corner. Instead, they highlight the gulf between the capital and the rest of the country:

…With London home to only one in eight people in the UK, it has seen more tower cranes notified to the HSE than all the rest of the UK put together. Almost eight in 10 cranes were in London, the southeast and the east of England.

And what national changes they do show aren't actually that good at all:

The total number of cranes registered with the HSE has been falling since 2010, reflecting the difficulties construction companies have faced and cuts in government school and hospital building programmes. In 2010 and 2011, an average of more than 130 new crane sites were notified each month, falling to fewer than 100 in 2012.

It's interesting that journalists, in our need to be the first at everything, have reached the point of re-inventing the national statistics agency. Because while counting cranes is a canny way to get an indicator of where a sector of the economy is at, it's not all that new an idea.

In fact, back in the Great Depression, that was the only way to get anything done. FDR knew that he needed a more accurate way of judging whether his policies were working than just waiting and hoping that the recovery would be obvious; but without a modern statistics agency, he couldn't check the quarterly GDP figures or monthly unemployment figures. So the only way to get up-to-date information was to use proxies; in this case, by looking at railroad traffic, a proxy which is still reported to this day.

The tension is always there, because to actually get an accurate view of the economic situation takes an age. For instance, it now looks likely that when Nigel Lawson made his much-mocked "green shoots of recovery" comment in the early 1990s the economy was actually starting to grow; it was the figures which were incorrect, not the statement. But it took nearly a decade for the ONS to refine its data to the extent that it showed the true picture.

In a way, what we need are fewer stats, not more. Rather than hunting for better, quicker proxies to get a rule-of-thumb picture of the economy, we should be questioning whether we even want to put too much importance on the preliminary GDP estimates, which do, after all, change all the time.

But then we don't get to count cranes.

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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.