Show Hide image

Here come the liberals

For decades American conservatism defined global politics. Now we are about to witness a seismic cha

British politicians, commentators and the public like to believe in their sturdy autonomy. We have arrived at our decisions as freeborn men and women. We debate our ideas furiously in pubs, on radio phone-ins or via letters to the editor. We read the opinion pages. We elect a sovereign parliament that passes the laws and regulations that we mandate.

The truth is more subtle. We dance to another country's tune. It is the United States that makes the political, cultural and intellectual weather. It is the rich American institutes that develop the ideas for XYZ plan or ABC radical reform. Our academics, especially in the social sciences, want to get published in the American journals and ensure they please the editor in question. Our politicians watch closely to see what works in the US. We enjoy their movies and use their technology. The West Wing and Mad Men are part of our culture, as are Sex and the City and Friends. We think we are free; we are painfully and excessively influenced by the US.

Which is why the election of Barack Obama matters so much. In the tidal wave of tears of joy, analysis of county by county results, the "were you awake to hear the speech" conversations, naming the puppy and the critiques of Michelle's wardrobe - and yet another article on the big things in his in-tray - one thing has been underplayed. Obama's success will transform British politics. The centre ground will move significantly to the left.

No account of the rise of Thatcherism or the character of new Labour is possible without acknowledging the force and impact of the 30-year ascendancy of American neoconservatism. They won control of Washington in the late 1970s, creating the Washington consensus. No country - from communist China to the Nordic social democracies - held out. Everybody, to a degree, bought into the market fundamentalist consensus. Tony Blair could have held out more than he did - but the room for manoeuvre was tiny.

It went very deep. Editors of the top US social science journals published articles in this idiom because they had secured their jobs by conforming to it; ambitious British academics soon learned what was accepted and what was not. Young British investment bankers training in New York learned about the value of securitisation. Treasury officials on secondment to Washington bought into the consensus that privatisation and deregulation were the only ways forward. From social policy (remember zero tolerance and broken windows) to " light touch" financial regulation, and from a belief in labour market flexibility to distrust of public service broadcasting, the cultural and intellectual backdrop was conservative.

Obama's election ends that. American conservatism is now in profound disarray. It is not just that Republicanism has been forced back to the south and the mountain states: the intellectual paradigm that it championed led to nowhere but a credit crunch, a bloated and overpaid financial elite and the onset of a deep recession. No accident that Obama's lead jumped in the wake of the Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy and the part nationalisation of the banking system. Conservatism was on the ropes. A change had to come. Yes it did.

Here is a checklist of areas where the discourse is going to move left - intelligently and moderately because that is part of the Obama DNA. Firstly, trade unionism. Barack Obama shares the view of liberal Democrats that the best way to roll back the stagnating real incomes of the squeezed middle of the United States is to strengthen the bargaining power of organised labour. An empowered upper working class across all ethnic groups is the backbone of both the Democrat party and the economy.

This president is the most pro-union since Roosevelt. He wants to help unions organise and get recognition through a simple membership card check system, which workers can use freely and anonymously to signal their readiness to join - fiercely opposed by American business. This June, Obama even wrote to Tesco boss, Sir Terry Leahy, urging him to work with unions in the US (as he already does in the UK). The anti-unionism that led US officials to veto OECD reports that questioned labour market flexibility will be over. Now the US will encourage the OECD to publish evidence.

The BBC and Channel 4 should also be relieved at the victory. Obama is a strong supporter of public service broadcasting and caps on media ownership; he wants to see every American television and radio network commit to neutrality. In the US, one of the live issues is whether the Fairness Doctrine, requiring equal time between different points of view on broadcast media, should be reinstated - it was abolished by Ronald Reagan.

The subsequent avalanche of right-wing shock-jocks, the dumbing down of the American media and the partisanship of Fox News are even more an issue for the left in the US than the power of the right-wing print media is in Britain. For Democrats in the House, and Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, reinstating the Fairness Doctrine is of iconic importance. Obama may stop short of imposing a legal obligation on broadcasters - but he will go a long way towards it.

So it goes, too, with tax. This is the president who will redistribute income from the top 5 per cent earners above $200,000 to the other 95 per cent. There may not be much cash involved, but as Professor Avner Offer says in The Challenge of Affluence,, the point about higher tax rates is not so much the cash they raise but the signal they send about the dominant values of society. Obama has clear views on that. As he has on tax havens.

His reforms of Wall Street will be far-reaching; he will constrain bank bonuses, introduce tough new regulations and, as Roosevelt did, set up a wave of new banking institutions. He is already committed to a National Infrastructure Bank. When this is set up, financing roads, railways, bridges and dams across the US, the argument that Britain should have one too will become irresistible. Obama will try to deliver universal health provision. He will try to extend college access. He will want to build affordable homes. He will try radically to lower the US's carbon footprint, lower petrol consumption and improve energy efficiency. He will aim to reindustrialise the US.

As for foreign policy, he will be more multilateralist and there will be no Iraqs on his watch. But he is closer to Tony Blair and David Miliband (I think, rightly) as a liberal internationalist than many on the British left might like. Enlightenment values, democracy and human rights are worth asserting as universal rather than western principles. And, at the limit, worth fighting for. Trade is a big question mark. His party remains very protectionist.

For all that, the message is unmistakeable. Barack Obama will change the trajectory of the US.

I have found it odd to have been pro-BBC, pro-multilateralist Europe, pro-moderate trade unions, a City of London sceptic, pro-public service, pro-fairness and pro-redistribution for more years than I can remember. Now the leader of the world's hegemonic power, in control of its political, intellectual and cultural levers, is making this cluster of views the mainstream. The Labour Party and the wider liberal left are being given permission to be moderately and intelligently social democratic again. It may be a hackneyed phrase - but this really is a seminal moment.

Will Hutton is executive vice-chair of The Work Foundation

Obama's inner circle

Rahm Emanuel: chief of staff An Illinois congressman and the fourth-highest-ranking House Democrat. A centrist renowned for his aggressive manner, he is a former ballet dancer and was a volunteer mechanic in Israel's army during the first Gulf War in 1991. After working for the Clinton White House, he made $18m in two years at an investment bank. He is feared for his tactical prowess on Capitol Hill by Republicans and by Democrats who are not on his list of favourites.

Robert Gibbs: press secretary Gibbs has been with Obama since his 2004 Senate campaign, an affable Southerner with a temper. He was despatched on the trail in 2007 after concerns that Obama's message wasn't getting across; no adviser has spent more time at Obama's side. He made waves in a recent on-camera confrontation with Fox News's arch-conservative commentator Sean Hannity. Obama calls him "the guy I want in the foxhole with me during incoming fire".

Robert Gates The secretary of state for defence may hold on to his position in the short term to provide continuity in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has worked as a CIA chief and president of Texas A&M. He shares Obama's vision for emphasising "smart power" over raw military force, and keeping him on could lend a bipartisan aura.

Lawrence Summers Tipped for the position of treasury secretary, a post he held under Clinton, Summers is also a former World Bank chief economist and Harvard president. Intellectually, he is hugely respected, but his occasional tactlessness - notably his comments about women's aptitude for science - has earned him detractors.

Tom Daschle Tipped for a cabinet-level post, possibly secretary of state or health policy tsar, Daschle led the Senate for a decade before being voted out in 2004. His early support for Obama lent the candidate credibility, and his legislative know-how will be of use in driving the agenda.

David Axelrod A likely senior White House adviser, Obama's chief campaign strategist began his career as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He will be keeping his eye on Obama's 2012 re-election prospects, though probably with less of a hand in policy than Karl Rove had.

Valerie Jarrett A contender for a cabinet post, Jarrett is more likely to become a White House adviser. Co-chair of Obama's transition team, she is a businesswoman and a close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama.

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obamania

MILES COLE
Show Hide image

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.

***

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