Jesse Norman MP attacks "rogue economist", badly

"Are you operating as a kind of rogue economist?" Jesse Norman MP attacks Jonathan Portes.

NIESR's Jonathan Portes has posted an edited transcript of his appearance in front of the Treasury Committee – specifically, his exchange with Jesse Norman MP (Conservative, Hereford and South Herefordshire).

Norman just can't quite seem to reconcile the fact that it is possible to be politically neutral, and still argue that the government's economic policy is not up to scratch. As a result, he heads down a line of questioning which doesn't leave him in the best light. You can read the whole exchange at Portes' site, but the most telling questions are excerpted below:

Jesse Norman: Just picking something at random, there was a recent piece of yours in The Spectator, “‘Plan A’ has failed.” That seems to me to be a pretty political judgment…

Jesse Norman: Let us just be perfectly clear that, whatever he said, there is a line here. The question is, are you transgressing it? If you are transgressing it, are you transgressing it with the institutional support of NIESR, or are you operating as a kind of rogue economist? I am very struck by the fact that you are not prepared to give the Government any credit at all on a 300 basis point difference between UK policy now versus Italy, and two years ago. That seems extraordinary to me…

Jesse Norman: You seem to be extraordinarily unwilling to give any credit or credibility. When the question of credibility is raised, your answer is to say, “Look at what actually happened”. Of course, credibility does not concern just what actually happened—it concerns whether the market believed that the Government’s direction of travel was right, given the circumstances at the time…

Jesse Norman: Just to be clear, you do not think that there is anything strange about not attributing any aspect of the UK’s long-term debt yield performance to Government credibility, and you do not think that there is anything strange about the lack of caveating in using a phase like "'Plan A' has failed" when the whole of economics relies on a series of judgments of probability.

Norman goes on like this at length. Portes' answers are commendably to the point, even if the video does reveal him to be as baffled as anyone would be by this line of questioning.

If your job is to comment on matters of economics, and you shy away from making statements which could have a political effect, you will not make very good comments on matters of economics. We can see that in organisations like the American Congressional Budget Office, which – unlike NIESR – actually is required to steer clear of any and all political questions. As a result, when someone like Paul Ryan submits his budget to the CBO, he can, in the words of Paul Krugman:

[Present] a plan to hurt the poor and reward the rich, actually increasing the deficit along the way, plus magic asterisks that supposedly reduced the debt by means unspecified.

Without the power to call bullshit on untrue or impossible claims, no economic commentator can be effective. The fact that Norman is attacking Portes for doing his job well just shows how besieged he and his party are feeling by the simple facts of economics.

As for the fact that Norman apparently thinks it is strange that Portes is "attributing any aspect of the UK’s long-term debt yield performance to Government credibility", enough has been written about the depressing effect of recession on long-term debt yields that it doesn't bear repeating in too much depth: sovereign debt yields can be low either because investors think there is little chance of the nation going bankrupt, or because there is scant competition from other potential investments pushing up the yield. Since the crash, the chance of Britain defaulting hasn't changed from basically-zero, but the growth rate – and thus the average return on investment from putting your money in the "real" economy – has plummeted.

In short, with the crushed economy, there is nowhere else for savers to reliably put their money than government bonds. That depresses yields, but contra Norman, has nothing to do with Government credibility.

Some credit must go to Norman for articulating the relatively important idea that economics can only talk about balances of probabilities. But to use that as a stick to beat Portes is similar to the people who attack evolution for "only being a theory". It conflates technical and lay language to make a point which is, fundamentally, anti-expertise.

Not that anyone was likely to confuse Jesse Norman for someone in favour of expertise after this hearing.

Jonathan Portes at the committee hearing.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.