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
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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