A few people have asked me to respond to this FT piece from Niall Ferguson. I was reluctant to, because it is really just a bit of triumphalist Tory tosh. That such things get published in the Financial Times is unfortunate but I’m afraid not surprising in this case. However I want to write later about something else that made reference to it, so saying a few things here first might be useful.
The most important point concerns style. This is not the kind of thing an academic should want to write. It makes no attempt to be true to evidence, and just cherry picks numbers to support its argument. I know a small number of academics think they can drop their normal standards when it comes to writing political propaganda, but I think they are wrong to do so. Take this paragraph, designed to show how good UK macro performance has been compared to the dire warnings of those Keynesians.
The UK had the best performing of the G7 economies last year, with a real gross domestic product growth rate of 2.6 per cent. In 2009, the last full year of Labour government, the figure was minus 4.3 per cent. Moreover, far from being in depression, the UK economy has generated more than 1.9m jobs since May 2010. UK unemployment is now 5.6 per cent, roughly half the rates in Italy and France. Weekly earnings are up by more than 8 per cent; in the private sector, the figure is above 10 per cent. Inflation is below 2 per cent and falling.
The first sentence is correct. But why compare that to 2009, which apart from being the ‘last full year of Labour government’ also happened to be the year of the recession that followed the global financial crisis. As I have mentioned before, growth in GDP per head under Labour averaged 1.5% even though it included this recession, but average growth from 2010 to 2014 was only 1% when we should have been seeing a rapid recovery. The jobs figures are mentioned, but the awful productivity performance that they imply is not. Earnings growth over the whole period is quoted (but without saying it is nominal growth), but only inflation over the last year! Presumably this is done to create the impression of real wage growth, when in reality this period has seen unprecedented falls in real wages.
A paragraph like that might earn Ferguson a job as a speechwriter for a Conservative politician, but if a first year undergraduate wrote it as part of an essay it would have red ink scrawled all over it, no matter whether the marker was an economist or historian. As for the general idea that the election result represented a disaster for the Keynesian model, I wonder whether Ferguson realises that most/all central banks base monetary policy on Keynesian economics? If the idea is that taking an anti-austerity line is a vote loser, why not note that the Scottish National Party adopted a clear anti-austerity rhetoric? (This letter in response to Ferguson’s article from Sam Wills makes much more sense on the election result. My own take is here.)
It is possible for someone to try and make a serious academic case in defence of the coalition government’s macroeconomic record, but this is not it. This kind of nonsense polemic is of course not just the preserve of the anti-Keynesian right. But what this kind of thing does illustrate is how problematic public debate on macroeconomic policy is. It is difficult to think about many other academic subjects where people who seem to have little idea of what they are talking about can write such obvious rubbish in a quality newspaper.
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This blogpost was first published on MainlyMacro