Byron review - gathering evidence

Tanya Byron, leading the government's independent review on the potential risks to children from exp

New phenomena often bring new anxieties and video games are no exception. They are frequently blamed for a raft of social ills, while the benefits they can provide go unreported.

Video games and the internet now offer a range of opportunities unheard of in previous generations. They are entertaining - with new ways of playing now appealing to wider audiences; they are educational - enabling children to engage in innovative learning; and they provide an important social mechanism by allowing gamers to build friendships and establish global communities.

However, new technologies have brought new risks and new worries for parents and those involved in the welfare of children and young people, particularly in an online environment where game playing can be less controlled.

That is why I agreed to carry out the government's independent review, in my role as a clinical psychologist and a mother of two children. We need to help parents to understand the risks associated with children using these new technologies and make sure that they have the tools and information to be able to manage and minimise those risks, without detracting from the benefits that they can offer.

Tanya Byron

Rapid changes in technology mean long term solutions may be difficult, but these are the technologies that our children are using and will continue to use as they grow into the next workforce and the next thinking generation. So, this generation needs to be able to understand and balance the opportunities they offer against any risks of harm.

But what are the risks? This review will analyse the current evidence on the risks to children's safety and well-being of exposure to potentially harmful or inappropriate material in video games. It will also assess the effectiveness and adequacy of existing measures that help prevent children from being exposed to such material - by looking at, for example, the age classification system that applies to video games; parental control mechanisms on games consoles and the educational material available. I will be asking the video games industry and regulators what measures they are taking at the moment and what more might be done to ensure children and young people are protected.

Of course, it could be said that this is all based on the assumption that content in video games has the potential to cause harm or affect the well-being of our children, and this is one aspect I will be looking at in my review. Historically, there has been a huge amount of research looking at media effects on behaviour. However, the evidence remains contradictory and ethical implications mean that there are inherent difficulties in doing research in this area and in identifying causality.

State intervention

Given these limitations, how far should parental or state intervention go? This is a difficult question to answer. But the well-being of children is at the heart of this review and it is with this in mind that we have to face this challenge. There will always be some young people who are more vulnerable than others and some who will take more risks and yet be less equipped to deal with the consequences - children I have spent years working with.

I do not expect this review to be about draconian measures or wrapping our children up in cotton wool. Children need to learn how to handle risks as part of growing up. However, we need to be realistic and support children to manage the risks they face as they develop. This review is about taking a step back and looking proportionately at the issues, so we don't deny children the pleasures and opportunities new technologies can provide.

Part of this is about ensuring that parents are supported, and feel equipped to help their children navigate this technology safely, but it is also about pulling together the shared responsibility we have - as parents, society, government and industry - to protect our children and young people from harm. I am engaging with everyone who has a role in this, by asking them to share their views.

Call for evidence

My "call for evidence" closed on 30 November and I am now considering the responses, but this is just part of my consultation - my Children and Young People's call for evidence closes on 17 December, and I am holding a number of workshops, focus groups and meetings with gamers, children and young people, parents' groups, academics and the video game industry, who are all engaging with the process and offering their own potential solutions.

I will be publishing my report and recommendations in spring 2008. For more information about the review and to tell me your views go to: http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/byronreview

Classroom games

In August 2005, Futurelab, the not-for-profit organisation aiming to integrate innovative technologies into education, launched a year-long study called Teaching with Games to test the use of three computer games: The Sims, Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 and Knights of Honor in classrooms throughout the UK. These games, often known as "god games", induce players to use critical thinking skills to effect changes within the realm of the game.

The study was designed to offer a broad overview of teachers' and students' use of and attitudes towards commercial off-the-shelf computer games in schools. Key messages from the researchers were that there is still a generational divide between teachers and students in respect of computer games play, with 72 per cent of teachers never playing games outside school, in comparison with 82 per cent of children reporting that they played games at least once a fortnight.

Overall, the research suggested that the majority of teachers and students are open to the idea of using games in formal curricular contexts and that computer games are viewed as motivating to students. However, 37 per cent of teachers and 22 per cent of students think that computer games should not be used in the classroom.

Teachers and students have similar perceptions about the advantages and disadvantages of using games. Both groups believe that game play improves computer skills and general problem-solving abilities. However, teachers are more likely to believe that students can gain subject knowledge from computer games than children - 62 per cent compared to 24 per cent - while more children believe games improve social skills - 24 per cent compared to 17 per cent of teachers.

Finally, the research suggests that the main barriers perceived by teachers to the use of games are not those of the curriculum or of assessment, but the technical issues that may need to be overcome.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

***

The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

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In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt