3 Oct 2013


Austerity, Growth And Being Economical With The Truth

Simon Wren-Lewis
Simon Wren-Lewis
OK, I know that those more seasoned in trying to present simple economic ideas in a politicised environment know this happens all the time. And damn it I knew it was going to happen too, as I clearly predicted in one of my early posts. But still, despite my attempts to mock, the argument that positive growth proves critics of austerity wrong continues to annoy me. So here is my attempt to say why it bothers me so much, but after this post I really will try to move on.
Just in case you have not been convinced by my earlier posts of just how ludicrous this argument is, think about this. US growth became significantly positive at the end of 2009, and has remained so in nearly every quarter since then. So if positive growth proves critics of austerity are wrong, then the austerity debate in the US would be well and truly dead by now.  Those that refused to admit this would be completely ignored. Yet the opposite is true.
So the amazing thing is how the idea that the emergence of growth after years of stagnation proves austerity was just fine could gain a moments traction. Do not get me wrong. There are some arguments in favour of austerity that should be seriously debated. But this is not one of them. Instead the argument is just silly. So how can people get away with making it?
The first point to make is that although the argument is obviously silly to anyone with a modicum of macroeconomic knowledge, to interested people without that knowledge, but who get to listen to (or even interview) people like George Osborne, it is not immediately obvious. It becomes pretty obvious once it is explained (my example of deliberately shutting down part of the economy was designed with that in mind), but you need to be exposed to someone who can explain that. So, for those just interested in scoring political points, there is a temptation to make the argument if they think they can get away with it.
However I do not think that excuses George Osborne, or European politicians who have done the same for the Eurozone. We may pretend to believe that all politicians lie through their teeth all the time, but actually we do expect people like the UK or German finance ministers to avoid talking economic nonsense. At the very least we expect their civil servants to stop them saying things that are nonsense. Well not this time.
But there are limits to what politicians can get away with.  The interesting question is what those limits are, and what governs those limits.
Sometimes politicians can get away with bad arguments because they are based on half truths. The example that comes to mind is the idea that current austerity is required because of fiscal profligacy on the part of the past Labour government. While that myth annoys me because (a) it is used to support a damaging policy, and (b) because having crunched the numbers I know it’s untrue, the existence of the myth does not surprise me in the same way. As I have said before, the half truth here is that Gordon Brown was a little imprudent by being overoptimistic about tax receipts. Furthermore, if he had known in advance that the global financial sector was going to blow up he would have been much more cautious before that happened, so any data that is by construction wise after the event will suggest he was not cautious enough. This all means that for those who want to mislead there is the seed corn with which to grow this myth.
Nothing like this is true for the ‘growth proves austerity right’ idea. Instead it is an example of completely misrepresenting the argument of your opponent. The overwhelming majority (maybe all) of the economists who criticised austerity said that fiscal contraction would reduce the level of output in the short run. They may also have been concerned that this short run deflation might have negative longer term consequences. The deception is to morph that into ‘critics of austerity said that the economy would never grow again as long as austerity lasted’. Now I’m sure you could find some person (call them X) who was foolish enough to say the economy would never grow while austerity lasted. But everyone knows that Paul Krugman, or Brad DeLong, or Jonathan Portes are not X. Yet those making the ‘growth proves austerity right’ argument deliberately talk as if all critics of austerity were like X. It is a deliberate deception. It must be particularly galling for Martin Wolf to find his own newspaper doing this to him.
Economists whose job involves communicating with others, and media organisations that purport to have some economic expertise, have I believe the equivalent of a duty of care. It is their job to make sure people are not misled by arguments that they know are obviously wrong. What makes me cross is seeing some who choose not to exercise this duty of care.
Let me use an analogy. You are a science reporter for a newspaper, or even a reporter working for a magazine like the New Scientist or Scientific American. You have to comment on a politician who claims that because it snowed a lot this winter, climate change is clearly rubbish. What you would do in those circumstances is patiently explain why the politician was talking nonsense, discussing trends and noise and the like. You would not say as a prelude that the politician ‘makes a serious case’. You would certainly not write a leader in your paper saying the politician was absolutely right!
Just imagine it. A leader in the New Scientist or Scientific American saying that politicians have won the climate change argument because of recent heavy snow. So why is that idea inconceivable, but a leader in the Financial Times saying that recent UK growth proves critics of austerity are wrong goes without comment? It has nothing to do with economists being divided about the wisdom of austerity: as I said, there are arguments on austerity that should be debated, but this is not one of them. It cannot be because austerity is so politicised, because climate change is also highly politicised. It cannot be excused by saying that leaders are just opinions: you do not expect opinions in serious newspapers to be based on deliberate misrepresentation. So what is going on here? Would anyone from the FT care to comment?
This post was first published on Mainly Macro

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