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The demise of Germany’s Social Democrats reflects the challenge for all liberal parties

The demise of Germany’s Social Democrats reflects the challenge for all liberal parties

The German elections on Sunday went pretty much according to the polls. Another victory for Chancellor Merkel.

Much of the commentary has focussed on the success of the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party. One of its leading candidates eulogised the German armed forces during the Second World War – a topic even more sensitive topic there than it is here.

The AfD took nearly 13 per cent of the vote and 94 seats in the Bundestag. This puts them within striking distance of the Social Democrats (SPD). The SPD share of the vote collapsed to just over 20 per cent, barely half the support it attracted only a decade ago.

The Social Democrats – the German equivalent of Labour in the UK – were annihilated not just in areas like Bavaria where traditional centre-right parties have always been strong. They lost very heavily in the old East Germany, where the AfD secured its highest level of support.

It is no accident that the rise of the AfD and the fall of the SPD go hand in hand.

A popular myth among the liberal elite in Britain is that our country has an exceptionally high level of inequality compared to the rest of Europe. This far from being the case.

The same forces which have widened inequality here have operated in Germany, in some ways even more powerfully.

The opening up of Eastern Europe in the early 1990s has had a strong effect. Employers soon realised that economies such as Poland and the Czech Republic possessed educated labour forces, whose productivity potential had been suppressed by the gross inefficiencies inherent in planned economies. German companies opened up new production plants in the old Soviet bloc countries in Europe rather than at home.

This has been combined with the impact of both globalisation and mass immigration.

The effect on wage rates of this increase in competition in the labour market has been dramatic. Christian Dustmann at UCL has examined the evolution of wage rates in the former West Germany.

The fifteenth percentile of the wage distribution is the level at which only 15 per cent of wages are lower. In West Germany, at the fifteenth percentile, real wages have fallen almost continuously since the mid-1990s.

At the fiftieth percentile, where half get more and half get less, the reduction has been less sharp. But the fall had set in by the early 2000s.

At the eighty-fifth percentile, we see the mirror image of the fifteenth: real wages grew strongly, reaping the benefits of the recovery of the economy.

In the states of the old East Germany, the problems are even worse.

The sharp rise in inequality is a key reason for the collapse in support for the social democratic parties across Europe. Their traditional voters have been the ones who have been hit the most by static or falling real incomes. They have not been defended by social democrat parties, which now represent the interests of the public sector urban professional classes.

The fact that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour did not suffer the same fate as Germany’s SDP is a clear indictment of the Conservative campaign in the election.

As published in City AM Wednesday 27th September 2017

Image: Martin Schultz by Olaf Kosinsky is licensed under CC by 3.0
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Less austerity will always mean more tax

Less austerity will always mean more tax

There is a great deal of discussion, following the election, of relaxing or even abandoning austerity.

There is an equal amount of confusion about this, because the same word is being used to describe two quite separate concepts.

The consequences of the government changing its policy on austerity are dramatically different, depending on which one it is.

One meaning of the word is what we might call “social austerity”. From any given pot of money available to a government, its supporters believe that, in general, tax cuts should be promoted rather than public spending increased. Opponents argue that public spending as a result has become underfunded. Local councils, education, and the NHS all need more money.

Social austerity can be relieved, as even the DUP and some Conservatives argue, by increasing spending appropriately, and funding it by increases in taxation. This was an important aspect of Labour’s manifesto, and the tragedy at Grenfell Tower has intensified the discussion around it.

The main risk is purely political. Are voters really and truly willing to pay more tax, rather than just wanting someone else to pay it?

There are some potential adverse economic consequences if the policy of higher taxation is pushed too far. Former French President Francois Hollande’s 75 per cent tax rate led to several hundred thousand skilled young people leaving France, mainly for the UK. If companies are taxed too heavily, they may choose to locate to another country. Both skilled labour and capital are geographically mobile.

But, within reason, social austerity could be relaxed without perhaps too many fears in this direction.

“Economic austerity” is quite a different matter. Opponents of this want to increase the gap between government spending and tax receipts – the so-called fiscal deficit. This is funded by issuing government bonds. So the deficit in any given year goes up, and the outstanding stock of government debt also rises.

Any relaxation of social austerity is paid for by higher taxes now. Any relaxation of economic austerity is paid for by borrowing more now.

But the debt has to be repaid at some point, and the interest payments on it must be met. So taxes in the future will be higher. Either way, less austerity means more tax.

John Maynard Keynes himself made it very clear that increasing public spending at a time of full employment would simply lead to more inflation. There are areas of the country where there probably are people registered as unemployed who genuinely do want to work – the Welsh Valleys, for example. But the rest of the UK is at full employment.

The number of people in employment is at an all-time high, at 32m. This has risen by 2.8m since 2010. Meanwhile the unemployment rate has fallen from 7.9 per cent in 2010 to just 4.6 per cent today.

Any major fiscal stimulus to the economy now would simply bid up wages, leading to higher costs and higher inflation.

The public mood on social austerity may have shifted. But the case for economic austerity is stronger than it has ever been.

As published in City AM Wednesday 21st June 2017

Image: People’s assembly by Peter Damian is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Sorry Corbyn, consumers aren’t as sold on nationalisation as you’d like to think

Sorry Corbyn, consumers aren’t as sold on nationalisation as you’d like to think

One of the most remarkable features of the Conservative election campaign was the dog which did not bark.

There was no systematic attempt to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s wholly implausible economic narrative. Magic Money Tree comments aside, Labour’s economic incompetence was allowed to pass almost unchallenged.

One part of Labour’s economic offer which really did strike a chord with the electorate was the promise to nationalise industries such as rail and water. To anyone with direct experience of the old British Rail or the Post Office (which made you wait six months to get a phone installed) this almost defies belief. But only those over 55 can remember.

The fact is that for a number of years there has been strong and consistent support in surveys for taking industries such as rail into public ownership.

In 2013, for example, the moderate Labour website Labour List commissioned an analysis by the poll company Survation. In terms of rail nationalisation, 42 per cent thought fares would be cheaper, compared to only 12 per cent who thought they would go up. Those believing the quality of the services would improve easily outnumbered those who thought it would get worse, by 38 to 14 per cent. There are many similar examples.

Economists are pretty dismissive of the results of surveys about hypothetical situations or choices. A key foundation of economic theory is the concept of revealed preference, to use the jargon phrase. Individuals are assumed to have reasonably stable tastes and preferences. These preferences are revealed not through answers to hypothetical questions, but through how they actually respond to changes in the set of incentives which they face.

In the National Passenger Survey, for example, 80 per cent of respondents routinely express satisfaction with their journey, compared to fewer than 10 per cent who are dissatisfied. But how does this translate into actual decisions?

Prior to rail privatisation just after the 1992 election, the peak number of passenger journeys made each year was some 1.1bn in the mid-1950s. Faced with rapidly rising road competition, the rail industry saw journeys fall steadily, to a trough of around 750m in the mid-1990s.

After privatisation, massive investment programmes have been carried out and, in the form of the train operating companies, there is now a distinct part of the industry whose priority is the consumer. Journey numbers rose, passing the 1bn mark in 2003, to the current level of 1.7bn, a figure not seen since the early 1920s, when road competition was weak.

So the revealed preference of consumers seems to be that they rather like the current structure. They actively choose to use rail in massive numbers.

Rather like a good Party member in George Orwell’s book 1984, the electorate seems capable of believing two contradictory things at the same time. This reinforces the importance of narratives in politics. Trying to treat voters as rational agents often ends in tears, as both Cameron and May have discovered.

As published in City AM Wednesday 14th June 2017

Image: Jeremy Corbyn by Garry Knight is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Labour’s plans add up on paper, but that won’t translate to the real world

Labour’s plans add up on paper, but that won’t translate to the real world

The two main manifestos have been published. Initially at least, the Labour one seems the more popular. Many people are susceptible to being bribed with other people’s money.

Labour claims that their plans to spend an additional £49 billion have been fully costed. At one level, this is true. A set of tax changes and estimates of the additional revenue they will bring is presented. These numbers do add up to the same sum as the extra spending.

It would be pure nit picking to ask where the money is to come from to pay for the nationalisation of the rail, water and mail industries. Labour says the shareholders would receive government bonds in exchange for their equity. This extra borrowing would foot the bill.

Perhaps it would be even more trivial and tendentious to draw attention to the proposed National Transformation Plan, which will spend an extra £250 billion over ten years on infrastructure. This, too, would be financed by additional government borrowing.

After all, Labour says: “we will take advantage of near-record low interest rates”. Indeed, longer term UK government bonds are currently trading at a yield of around 1 to 1.5 per cent.

But this is the essence of the problem. In economics-speak, the bond yield may not be invariant to the size of the deficit. In English, if borrowing rises sharply, interest rates might also go up.

Keynes is often regarded as the intellectual inspiration of those who want to see government borrowing increased. He himself was far more cautious. True, in his magnum opus the General Theory, he did advocate higher government spending to try and solve the depression of the 1930s. But he was very careful to point out that the potential benefits of a bigger deficit could be cancelled out if, as a result, interest rates rose sharply.

This is not a mere theoretical abstraction. In the Mediterranean economies in recent years, interest rates have regularly risen to 6 or 7 per cent, and sometimes higher still, in one of the many crises in confidence in government prudence which have taken place. The idea that Labour could borrow hundreds of billions of pounds with no consequence for interest rates is stretching credibility to breaking point.

More generally, the whole of Labour’s manifesto is costed on the naive assumption that tax and spending changes would not lead to any changes in how individuals and companies behave.

An additional £23 billion is planned from the corporate sector. It is possible that the tax will be passed onto consumers and this amount will be raised. But it may well be that companies will be deterred from operating in the UK at all, and corporation tax receipts will fall rather than rise.

Ex-President Hollande in France raised the top tax rate to 75 per cent. As a result, large numbers of highly skilled young French people moved to London.

The Left is very good at drawing up well intentioned detailed plans. But they usually fail because people change their behaviour in response to them.

As published in City AM Wednesday 24th May 2017

Image: Labour Party General Election Launch 2017 by Sophie Brown is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Diane Abbott is rubbish at maths – but not compared to the rest of the country

Diane Abbott is rubbish at maths – but not compared to the rest of the country

Diane Abbott’s car crash of an interview on LBC radio last week hit the headlines. Asked politely but firmly for the numbers and costings of Labour’s plans on the police, her answers varied wildly from sentence to sentence.

Of course, being charitable, it was always open to Labour’s shadow home secretary to spend a few minutes actually bothering to read her brief before going on the programme. But the whole of Labour’s leadership give the impression of finding numbers difficult.

They are by no means alone in their apparently low level grasp of even basic mathematics. At the end of last year, the OECD released the detailed results of its global Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests. Pisa assesses the extent to which 15 year olds have acquired the skills which are essential in modern societies.

Over half a million students from 72 countries took the tests. These are in reading, science and maths. Pisa does not just ascertain whether students can reproduce knowledge. It also examines how well they can extrapolate from what they have learned and can apply that knowledge in unfamiliar settings.

The tests divide the results into six levels. At the top level, in the OECD’s words, students “are capable of advanced mathematical thinking and reasoning… they can apply this understanding to develop new approaches and strategies for attacking novel situations”. The UK comes out almost exactly in line with the OECD average in terms of high performers, with 10.6 per cent of students achieving levels five or six in maths, compared to the average of 10.8 per cent across the 72 countries as a whole.

In contrast, in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, more than 25 per cent of students had scores which put them in these top levels.

Perhaps even more worryingly, no less than 21.9 per cent of those taking the tests in the UK scored “below level two”, as the OECD tactfully puts it. In plain English, they were in level one, the bottom set.

In 2016 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) carried out a major study on literacy, numeracy and ICT skills just within England. Both its age groupings and its definitions of the ability levels differ somewhat from those of the Pisa report, but the results are the same. No less than 29 per cent of 16 to 18 year olds are at level one or below. Below level one, people are not able to understand price labels in shops.

But it gets even worse. People over 55 have better literacy and numeracy skills than those under 25. So what?, you might say, my everyday experience shows me this very clearly. But the JRF points out than in all other developed countries, the exact opposite is true. Only here are the young less well educated than the old.

This whole body of evidence is a devastating indictment of the educational establishment and the teachers’ unions who enthusiastically support the likes of Dianne Abbott. Time for a real shake up!

As published in City AM Wednesday 17th May 2017

Image: Diane Abbott, 2016 Labour Party Conference byRwendland is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Economists have lost the public’s trust by meddling in politics

Economists have lost the public’s trust by meddling in politics

Michael Gove famously said during the Brexit campaign that people “have had enough of experts”. Certainly, the outcome suggests that many were sceptical of the doom-laden economic projections of Project Fear.

But what do the public think about economists themselves? An intriguing survey released last week by ING bank and the Bristol University Economics Network sheds light on how this particular group of experts is viewed. The findings were presented at a seminar held in the Treasury last week.

Some key results were reassuringly as expected. For example, an overwhelming majority of respondents, in the poll conducted by You Gov, think that economics is important.

There is a widespread misconception of what economists actually do. A great deal of media focus on economics is about macro economic forecasts, what will happen to GDP, inflation, interest rates and the like. In fact, very few academic economists work on forecasting problems, and even within the Treasury and the Bank of England, the teams directly involved with this are small.

Most economists work on micro problems, trying to figure out, for example, the impact of changing tax rates on incentives, or trying to assess the costs and benefits of an infrastructure problem.

In principle this is useful work. But, regrettably, the survey did not disclose to the respondents just how many economists are employed in the public sector. In 1964, the incoming Labour government of Harold Wilson doubled the number of economists in the civil service from six to twelve.

Now there are 1,400, not counting those working in the Bank of England and the numerous regulatory authorities. Much of the expansion took place under Gordon Brown. It is hard to believe that diminishing marginal returns, to use a jargon economics phrase, have not set in. In plain English, there are far too many of them.

An important feature of the survey is that there is a big problem of trust in the opinions of economists. This is particularly the case with older people and with Leave voters. Many believe that economists express views based on personal and apolitical opinion than on verifiable data and analysis.

A striking illustration of this is of course Brexit itself. It cannot be said too often that the Treasury forecasts of the consequences of a Leave vote predicted a massive rise in unemployment of 500,000 by the end of 2016. It has of course fallen.

At least 90 per cent of professional economists in the UK supported the Remain campaign. Some brave souls in university departments who favoured Leave found themselves virtually ostracised. The shameful attacks on Leave voters, accusing them of being dupes and incapable of understanding the arguments, are based on the misplaced intellectual certainty of the economics mainstream on this topic.

Economics is far from being an empty box, and it can usefully illuminate many practical problems. But the profession needs to be more honest with the public. Some parts of the discipline do have strong empirical backing. Others seem based more on groupthink than on objective science.

As published in City AM Wednesday 10th May 2017

Image: Big Ben from London Eye by Zen Whisk is licensed under CC by 2.0
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