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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear