Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Be careful what you wish for: or how Germany's blame game has backfired

The election of a Syriza-led government in Greece and its subsequent stand-off with Greece's creditors has disrupted Europe's preferred approach of kicking the can down the road. My colleague David Woodruff is not optimistic about Greece's bargaining position. Germany clearly has every incentive not to cave in to Greece's requests, not only because they prefer not to admit that Greece is insolvent, but also for fear of the ramifications a Greek win could have elsewhere.

Spain will vote in 2015, and current opinion polls gave Podemos, a party just past its first birthday, the lead over Spain's traditional governing parties, the Partito Popular and the Socialists, who together barely muster half of voter preferences in a recent poll. The failure of austerity has created a fertile terrain for alternative political forces, especially in the Southern periphery.

The Grasshopper and the Ants.png
"The Grasshopper and the Ants" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

But there is a further reason for the success of new political forces such as Syriza, Podemos and Italy's Five Stars Movement. The dominant narrative of the Euro crisis is that of the Ant and the Grasshopper: unlike the virtuous North, who saved for the winter by running balanced budgets and reforming their economies to make themselves more competitive, the South overspent, overborrowed and failed to reform, leaving their economies vulnerable to downturns. Their politicians wasted money on pointless airports (although, see also Berlin's new hub), protected rent-seeking groups and often lined their own pockets. In a more sophisticated version of this story, Jesús Fernández-Villaverde and colleagues argue that credit booms have an effect analogous to expansionary monetary policy, masking political incompetence in the eyes of voters and allowing corrupt politicians to claim credit for illusory economic growth.

Southern European politicians probably are exceptionally venal: Transparency International certainly thinks so. But blaming poor governance in the debtor nations handily shifts the focus away from the structural flaws in European Monetary Union that made such a crisis likely however well Southern European countries had been governed. German surpluses, in a monetary union, had to roll up somewhere, and they rolled up in the Eurozone's weakest economies, because that is where opportunities for investment appeared greatest.

The 'blame the victim' narrative has been effective up to now in distracting attention from the structural failure of EMU. So effective in fact, that it is widely believed in Southern Europe too: support for established political elites, the (mostly) men responsible for presiding over the disaster, has collapsed. Now that the credit taps have been turned off, Southern European voters have, albeit a little late in the day, reacted to the corruption and incompetence shown by the likes of Papandreou, Samaras and Berlusconi by turfing the rascals out. So now they will see sense and elect politicians that embody the austere virtues of Angela Merkel. Right?

Wrong. The elites that governed the South in the first decade of the euro may have been corrupt and incompetent, but they were committed to euro membership and (formally anyway) its rules. When the Troika came knocking, its recommendations - despite there being good reasons for thinking they would make matters worse - were accepted and largely implemented. Just as they escaped the blame for their own errors in the pre-crisis period, they are now crucified by their voters for policies decided elsewhere. And rather than turning to incorruptible experts to implement the austerity regime, Southern European voters now turn to politicians who would rather ditch that regime altogether. As Silvio Berlusconi's star waned, Italy voted not for the sober, Davos-attending former Eurocrat Mario Monti, but for rabble-rousing anti-euro comedian Beppe Grillo. And the Papandreou dynasty has been replaced by the tie-less Tsipras and Varoufakis.

The ant and the grasshopper indeed. Perhaps another fable is more appropriate here: the Tortoise and the Eagle. Or be careful what you wish for: you might get it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The West Yorkshire Question

Despite my years of frothing outrage at the cynicism and cruelty of the UK Conservative Party, even I was genuinely shocked at David Cameron's reaction to the Scottish referendum result. No sooner had the dust settled on the PM's desperate bid to keep the UK together he was there again, putting the boot in on his political opponents. Labour had wheeled out the big guns to save his Premiership, and his instinctive response was to promise a constitutional reform that could conceivably prevent Labour ever governing the UK with a majority again. Of course, Labour had no choice but to do all it could to win the vote for No, for obvious reasons of parliamentary arithmetic. But now they find themselves skewered on the so-called West Lothian question as the Tories promise 'English votes for English laws'.

There is a superficial appeal to the WLQ just as there is often an instinctive rejection of 'postcode lotteries' in healthcare. Britons are quite relaxed about inequality of incomes and opportunities, but the formal equality of process is something they are quite attached to. Why should Scots get to vote on English health and education when the English can't vote on theirs? It's not fair. Of course, the reason we are in this situation to begin with is that for years - specifically between 1979-1997, and on 'reserved matters' from 2010 to now - the English were deciding for Scotland despite having no real mandate from Scotland to do so. But the English are the English. We didn't get where we are today by sharing power around.

The problem with 'English votes for English laws' is that it is so transparently a power-grab by the Conservative party. Aware that without Scotland, they would have every chance of a majority in the next parliament, the Tories are seizing the moment, with the cover of resolving the Scottish mess. They could manage to keep the Union together, but cement the dominance of England, and their own - victory from the jaws of defeat. The problem is, the logic of EVEL is actually an insidious one from their point of view. Why stop at England? Why not extend the logic of the West Lothian question to Northern Ireland, whose unionist majority in Westminster has regularly delivered parliamentary support to the Conservatives? Still better, why not consider all the representative iniquities of the UK constitution, such as the unaccountable institutions of the City of London, or the voting rights of the Church of England hierarchy in the House of Lords?

In fact what the West Lothian question does is turn the spotlight on the UK's wildly undemocratic constitution. Until now, English voters in the North of England or in major cities have not tended to see their plight in terms of territorial difference. But if with EVEL non-Tory areas felt that they were effectively condemned to permanent opposition this would be unlikely to hold. After 1979, Conservative support collapsed in Scotland, but also became increasingly territorially differentiated in England, both between North and South, and between cities and the suburbs and countryside. Will working class voters in Northern England accept a centralised state with a locked-in Tory majority? The hope of an eventual Labour victory kept England together through the 1980s and 1990s, but do we really think Liverpool, Bradford and Sheffield, or even inner London for that matter, will allow themselves to be ruled by the Tory shires forever?

The WLQ reminds us that we have an improvised, cobbled-together constitution. Devolution creates imbalances, largely because we lack any state-wide decentralised institutions of the kind that have allowed France, Spain and Italy to recognise territorial distinctiveness whilst maintaining a functioning central state. Resolving the WLQ does nothing but highlight how our constitution entrenches power amongst a metropolitan, Oxbridge-trained elite backed by the Southern English middle class. The rest of England - galvanised perhaps by the sight of an even more ridiculous old Etonian in Number 10? - could start to ask the West Yorkshire question: why should a region that has always voted Labour always get a Tory government?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Don't Leave Me This Way: Thoughts on the Scottish Referendum

All of a sudden, the Scottish referendum looks like it could cause an earthquake in the British political system, and indeed in Europe as a whole. At the very least, it is shaking the foundations of the UK establishment in a way we haven't seen at least since the MPs expenses scandal in 2009. The sight of the English leaders of the three main British-wide parties hurrying up to Scotland to appeal for a No vote reveals a lot about how this country works.

First, it shows the remarkable complacency that characterised the 'No' 'campaign' until last week - no real attempt was made to cast the Union in a positive and forward-looking light - if anything the message was: we know the UK is lousy, but independence would be even worse. Don't get ideas above your station.

Second, if they seriously think that these three products of the English elite class can convince wavering Scots to stay in the Union, they surely are making a big mistake. Clegg, Cameron and Miliband in their different ways are as out of touch as they could be with the British population in general, never mind Scotland.

Third, we can see how rarely our politicians actually ever make the attempt to understand what people want and why. Most of the time political campaigning here is about negative messages about opponents, threats of the terrible things that might happen if some popular policies were ever enacted, and manoeuvring to get the largely foreign press barons to offer their support (which thankfully is less and less important is newspaper circulation declines). The UK is held together by fear and apathy and it takes a moment like this - produced by David Cameron's unique mix of short-term opportunism and total detachment from popular sentiment - to show that most of us really don't like the way the country is governed.

The referendum has given the Scots the chance to do what many of us in the rest of the Union would love to do: defect from this elitist, unrepresentative and often incompetent political system. Fortunately for the Scots, a distinct national identity and a separate territory make this possible. For the English, anti-Europeanism seems to do the same job - after all, apart from immigration, there is no real policy issue determined at the European level that registers in the popular consciousness. When politics falls short, national identity can provide a focus for discontent and desire for change.

Very often though, nationalism offers largely delusional answers to our problems. In the case of the UK and Europe, Brexit would effectively mean that we would get roughly the same EU policies we get now, but not be allowed to vote on them (a 'fax democracy', as the Norwegian Prime Minister once put it). For Scotland, independence would have similar consequences. Scotland is so obviously interdependent with the rest of the UK that exit is a fantasy: as an independent state, Scotland would have the pound, the Queen, an open border with England and probably still a large UK military presence as part of its NATO contribution. Whatever independence it would gain would be pretty similar to what it already has: the right to spend its allocation of UK government spending as it wants and legislate over most areas of domestic social and economic policy (within the framework of EU law).

The big difference would probably be fiscal, in that rather than cashing in the Barnett Formula bonus in Westminster's allocation of public funds, Scotland would take oil revenues in directly. Whether or not Scotland would be better off under this arrangement is very hard to tell: it depends on very uncertain estimates of future UK public spending and future oil production and prices. Whichever way it plays out, managing what would become in many ways an oil-producing economy (especially since banking, Scotland's other big productive sector, would be pretty likely to move South) is a complicated business when you lack your own currency. The advantages of the oil money being recycled through Westminster is that it smoothes out the very volatile behaviour of oil revenues. Provided a beneficial settlement with the rest of the UK could be reached, Scotland would probably be better off in a fiscal and monetary union with the rest of the existing state.

Rationally, a very narrow No vote could end up being best for Scotland. It would suddenly have significantly increased bargaining power, and could use it to secure a more substantial form of fiscal independence which could involve some kind of guarantee that it gains most of the benefits of North Sea oil whilst maintaining complete control over how the money is spent. A Yes vote would present Scotland with the tricky business of creating a new state with, almost certainly, a rather less benign attitude from the rUK, which essentially holds all of the chips. It could very quickly get quite nasty and the financial turbulence we're starting to see would be an awful lot worse. With a strong but not victorious Yes vote, UK politics suddenly has to sit up and take notice, and this has already happened, with Cameron and Miliband eschewing the pointless debating society antics of PMQ in order to actually leave the Westminster bubble and make the case for belonging to this country.

There is a broader message in all this for the rest of us. Sitting moaning on our sofas about how much we hate our politicians will make no difference at all. Threatening major political upheaval will. UK politics as become a kind of elite game which can only survive with current levels of disengagement and apathy. Unfortunately it seems to be easier to mobilise around divisive and visceral national identities, than around concepts like social justice, environmental protection and democratic participation. But in a democracy, organised political action will always make a difference, and the powerful expression of popular demands can't be ignored.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Piketty Debunked? Not So Fast

Obviously, it couldn't last. Piketty's book was so universally lauded by such a chorus of great minds (Solow, Wolf, Krugman, even Summers with some reservations), and an even greater chorus of lesser minds (the journalists seduced by his 'rockstar' persona and Gallic charms), that is was only a matter of time before someone pushed back. And just as the book's original reception was probably overdone - it's a great book, but there are plenty of possible criticisms and counter-arguments - so the counter-offensive is similarly overcooked.

Chris Giles in the FT takes issue with Piketty's data on rising wealth inequality, raising some interesting questions about how he fits together different data sources to create a two-century long series, and how this series compares to other available data. Not surprisingly, different sources give different numbers - indeed vastly different numbers. In particular, Giles was struck by the marked difference between the wealth figures used by Piketty for the UK, and those published recently by the UK Office for National Statistics, which suggest much lower levels of inequality. Intrigued, he dug further using Piketty's data, which is posted online (although I couldn't get it this afternoon - maybe he's checking the files?).

Giles comes up with this chart:

By adding the raw data from the UK Inland Revenue figures, used by Piketty and colleagues to extend the series, and the ONS data, which they did not use, Giles is able to throw doubt on the uptick in wealth inequality Piketty claims for the period since the 1970s. This, alongside other errors and questionable decisions, means that the books 'central findings... no longer seem to hold'.

That's quite a big claim. Is it true? Well, here I'll just look at the data for the UK. There is a problem with the chart posted just above - it takes Piketty et al's series from 1810, and then, for the final few decades of the series, throws in other data sources which show a lower level of inequality. The picture that leaps out of the page is that instead of a U-shaped trend over the 20th century, claimed by Piketty, the FT's alternative data suggests a flatlining distribution since the 1970s, thus invalidating the claim of rising inequality.

But this is misleading, because by throwing in new data that gives a lower figure in the same chart, the visual impact is of a different trend that is not really supported by the data. The IRS numbers that Giles throws in raw were used by Tony Atkinson and Piketty to construct the longer series, with adjustments to attempt to make them consistent with different sources for earlier periods. The fair test of whether Piketty's trend exists or not is to compare the IRS numbers with data for the earlier period. In fact those numbers track the trend of the Piketty series fairly closely, but with lower absolute values. As for the ONS numbers, they give us only 3 data points over a 6 year period, which happens to include the biggest shock to asset prices since the Great Depression and the Second World War. You can argue that the ONS's lower estimate of wealth inequality is better than Piketty's, but you can't say anything about the trend.

However, the IRS numbers do still suggest rising wealth inequality. If we place these numbers in their own chart, with no tricky juxtaposition against the longer data series, this is what we get:

A clear, though unspectacular upward trend in wealth inequality as measured by the Inland Revenue data, on which the Atkinson series used by Piketty is based. It's also worth pointing out that the HMRC numbers, although not much help with the long-term picture, do attribute 70% of wealth in the UK to the top 10%. As far as I can see, the main difference between Piketty and Giles's alternative data is that the latter suggests that inequality started to rise in the late 1980s rather than the 1970s.

I'll leave the rest to the specialists in constructing historical series of income and wealth distributions, a complicated field in which Piketty has a long track record. If he's made mistakes in the data work used in the book, boo to him. But if he hasn't, it would probably be the first 700 page academic book not to make any.

The problem is that, having been anointed the 'rockstar' economist, Piketty is set up to fail, and the normal business of argument and questioning which any successful research project spawns will inevitably become politicised and dramatised. The FT is, for once, guilty of a kind of tabloid simplification that is quite out of character: the headline 'Piketty findings undercut by errors', 'Rockstar economist's wrong sums on rising inequality' reminds me of the debate around climate change and the 'hockey stick' graph. And not in a good way.

Doubtless one percenters will be happy to find that they are not doing as well compared to the rest of us as we thought. Economic liberals that have sweated to produce justifications for rising inequality in terms of productivity and innovation will maybe revise down their estimations of the contribution of the one per cent. OK, I'm being sarcastic. The direction of policy and the phenomena we observe all around us, never mind the data, suggest that wealth and income are increasingly concentrated. But of course documenting long-term trends with multiple kinds of data is difficult, as the climate scientists could attest. Maybe Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or indeed Yaya Toure and Tony Blair, are exceptional and unrepresentative anecdotes from a world characterized by fairly evenly distributed wealth. But I really doubt it.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Capital, Politics, and Piketty

So, along with everyone else, here's my tuppence worth about Piketty. This is probably reckless on my part as I've actually not read the book yet (thanks Amazon), as indeed I suspect many other people sounding off about it haven't. But I've already spent hours thinking about his arguments so I may as well get my thoughts down somewhere. So here is what I think about what I think Piketty says in the book, based on what a bunch of other people think he says in the book (amongst the many reviews, I recommend Solow, Krugman and Milanovic). I get to hear him speak on Wednesday, so I'll post again if I've got him wrong.

And the point is this: it's all about the politics. Piketty actually pays a fair bit of attention to politics, and like Hacker and Pierson he is concerned that the concentration of income and wealth at the top is affecting the distribution of power in the political system. But, as an economist, in the end it appears that Piketty believes that market economies have a kind of underlying dynamic that leads to the concentration of capital independently of whatever political forces may be dominant. Politics can only come along to disturb this dynamic through thing like wars, revolutions, organised labour.

This is not surprising, as the economists' ontology, even for someone as critically minded as Piketty, still posits markets as a kind of state of nature. But the problem is that there is no such thing as a pre-political market, a point powerfully made in a recent book by Murphy and Nagel: The Myth of Ownership. Markets are sustained by institutions, and these institutions are political artefacts, albeit influenced by raw economic forces. Nowhere is this more obviously the case than in the definition of returns on capital, especially in our financialized age. Almost nothing about Piketty's r is meaningful unless we consider the various rules and regulations governing property rights, credit, taxation, and permitted behaviours in formalised markets.

All of which implies that there is a social and political foundation to the kind of capitalism in which r tends to > g. That social and political foundation has to be explained, and even where economic forces powerfully influence policy and institutions, we still need to understand the political sources of the property rights which allow economic forces to do what they do.

In other words, we need a political theory of how the conditions under which  r > g can come about. The rise and fall of the labour movement, and indeed the rise of fall of 'populist' democracy more generally, is the historical backdrop to this, and Piketty indeed may be right that the mid-twentieth century was a blip and that patrimonial capitalism is the norm over the past three centuries. But to explain this we need to know how people act politically to tame capital (including unintentionally, given that the Second World War probably wasn't on anyone's wish list), and economics, in the end, can't answer this question on its own.

The irony of ironies is that Piketty's work itself seems to be having a major political impact, at least for now - how sustained it will be is anyone's guess. The ink spilled over this 'rockstar economist' may be a sign of the fickleness of the media, but there is no getting around the fact that inequality is emerging as a political issue, finally. What happens next depends on a lot of variables, but those variables are social, cultural and political, rather than economic. Piketty's work is important for economics, but it should also alert political scientists that there is a big political story to be told about how capitalism got to where it is today.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

On the Hypocrisy of the One Per Cent

Well, actually, that should read the hypocrisy of the one per cent's cheerleaders, such as the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto, who has penned a crass article criticising Paul Krugman's new salary as a Research Professor at CUNY ($225,000). Apparently Krugman is a hypocrite: on the one hand he proclaims the injustice of the top one per cent enjoying huge and rising incomes, and on the other he himself has... a huge and rising income. Hypocrite!

This is familiar territory - the right has always enjoyed pointing out the contradiction between egalitarianism in principle and higher-than-equal incomes in practice. There is a superficial appeal to the notion that concern for inequality should translate, in practice, to being poor rather than rich. This has been present in the political rhetoric of the Anglo-Saxon right for some time: Labour's Roy Jenkins was famously condemned as a 'champagne socialist' back in the 1970s, whilst the Daily Telegraph joyfully pointed out that current leader Ed Miliband, the son of a Marxist academic, lives in a massive house in one of London's more exclusive neighbourhoods. If they really cared about inequality, wouldn't they give everything they have to the poor?

Hypocrisy, Wikipedia tells us, is the practice of engaging in the same behaviour one criticises in others. What exactly do people like Krugman or Miliband criticise? Do they really condemn everybody in the top one per cent of earners? I don't think so. What they are criticising is a social phenomenon - the unequal and unfair nature of the distribution of rewards and assets in a capitalist society. Their political position is to do something about this, something you might disagree with, or believe to be futile, but which would probably make them personally worse off (both advocate higher taxes for people in the top income brackets, which includes them). So what's hypocritical about that?

The misunderstanding arises from confusing personal conduct with political commitments. The idea is that you would like to change society so that it produces more equal outcomes. This is a political project, in other words, a set of actions that a society has to pursue collectively, because to do so individually is largely pointless. If Ed Miliband chose to hand over half of his house to a couple of homeless families, that would be laudable, but would make no real difference to the problem of poverty in the UK. What would make a difference is if all people as rich as him were to give up some of their wealth to the benefit of the poor. The way to achieve this is to win election and change policy. How big Ed's house is doesn't really matter (although frankly a more humble dwelling probably would look less incongruous). J.K. Rowling gives very large chunks of her own money away and publicly espouses left-wing causes, but is still nearly a billionaire. Is she a hypocrite?

So what is Paul Krugman's sin? He is a Nobel-prize winner, not loved by everybody but undeniably one of the top economists of his generation. He is giving up a position at Princeton University which, I would bet my pokey London flat, pays him quite a bit more than $225,000. Probably double that, to be conservative. He almost certainly makes a handy pile from his more popular writings. So is he a hypocrite? Well for a start, he is leaving the gilded elite of US private schools to work in the public university system, way down the 'academic food chain'. But more important, Krugman spends a lot of his time advocating giving up a chunk of his wealth in favour of the poorer, as long as others do too (I have no idea how much he gives away privately, that's not the point). It's a political commitment. What would be hypocritical, would be to advocate tax rises for the rich, then avoid or evade those tax rises himself.

The irony of all this is that Paul Krugman has never been an egalitarian as such. No economist is - if you believe markets have any role to play in our society, then you believe in inequality by definition. The question is: how much? Krugman actually adopts a pretty standard Rawslian approach to inequality, typical of progressive-minded economists, and in fact of anyone who is not a raving libertarian. Markets are about talent and productivity being rewarded, and that means Krugman earns more from academic writing than I do. A lot more. But probably nowhere near as much more as he would do in a pure market system. He probably could afford to work for CUNY for free, but why should he? Those criticising him certainly wouldn't, so aren't they the real hypocrites?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

George Osborne's report card

So I've just been reading George Osborne's 2010 Mais lecture. It's one of those that have been deleted from the Conservative Home website. He think I know why.

In this lecture, delivered just before the 2010 election, Osborne laid out the eight benchmarks under which he said his economic policy should be judged:

We will maintain Britain's AAA credit rating. 

We will increase saving, business investment and exports as a share of GDP. 

We will sell in due course the government's stakes in RBS and Lloyds . 

We will improve Britain's international rankings for tax competitiveness and business regulation with specific measures on corporation tax and regulatory budgets. 

We will reduce youth unemployment and reduce the number of children in workless households as part of our strategy for tackling poverty and inequality. 

We will raise the private sector's share of the economy in all regions of the country, especially outside London and the South East. 

And we will reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions and increase our share of global markets for low carbon technologies. 

We will raise productivity growth in the public sector to match the best of the private sector. 

On my count they've managed one of these eight - raise private sector share of the economy. I think. Given the reduction in the size of the public sector, it kind of follows. There may be similar productivity growth across public and private too - it's been awful economy-wide, so I guess it's not hard for a shrunken public sector to match whatever paltry gains there are in the private sector.

Anyway, it's easy to see why the speech has been buried by the Conservative party, although of course it can still be found, here.