Elections are times of peak deception. Political parties have several ways in which they can use data to persuade people to vote for them. At one extreme, they can simply make up ‘facts’ – in other words, they can lie. There have been various examples of such lies in the run-up to the UK general election of 12 December 2019. The linked article below gives some examples. But data can be used in other deceptive ways, short of downright lies.

Politicians can use data in two ways. First, statistics can be used to describe, explain and interpret the past. Second, they can be used as the basis of forecasts of the future effects of policies.

In terms of past data, one of the biggest means of deception is the selective use of data. If you are the party currently in power, you highlight the good news and ignore the bad. You do the reverse if you are currently in opposition. The data may be correct, but selective use of data can give a totally false impression of events.

In terms of forecast data, you highlight those forecasts, or elements of them, that are favourable to you and ignore those that are not.

Politicians rely on people’s willingness to look selectively at data. People want to see ‘evidence’ that reinforces their political views and prejudices. News media know this and happily do the same as politicians, selectively using data favourable to their political leanings. And it’s not just newspapers that do this. There are many online news sites that feed their readers with data supportive of their position. And there are many social media platforms, where people can communicate with people in their political ‘bubble’.

Genuine fact-checking sites can help, as can independent forecasters, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies. But too many voters would rather only look at evidence, genuine or not, that supports their political point of view.

This can make life hard for economists who seek to explain the world with an open mind, based on a non-biased use of evidence – and hard for economic forecasters, who want to use full and accurate data in their models and to make realistic assumptions, emphasising that their forecasts are only the most likely outcome, not a certainty. As the article states:

Economic forecasts are flawed and their limitations should be acknowledged. But they should not be blindly dismissed as fake facts. And as far as political debate and discourse is concerned, in the long run, the truth may will out.

Article

Questions

  1. Give some specific examples of ways in which politicians misuse data.
  2. Give some specific examples of ways in which politicians misuse the analysis of economists.
  3. Distinguish between positive and normative statements? Should economists make policy recommendations? If so, in what context?
  4. Why are economic forecasts flawed, but why should they not be dismissed as ‘fake facts’?
  5. Examine the manifestos of two political parties and provide a critique of their economic analysis.

Economists are often criticised for making inaccurate forecasts and for making false assumptions. Their analysis is frequently dismissed by politicians when it contradicts their own views.

But is this fair? Have economists responded to the realities of the global economy and to the behaviour of people, firms, institutions and government as they respond to economic circumstances? The answer is a qualified yes.

Behavioural economics is increasingly challenging the simple assumption that people are ‘rational’, in the sense that they maximise their self interest by weighing up the marginal costs and benefits of alternatives open to them. And macroeconomic models are evolving to take account of a range of drivers of global growth and the business cycle.

The linked article and podcast below look at the views of 2019 Nobel Prize-winning economist Esther Duflo. She has challenged some of the traditional assumptions of economics about the nature of rationality and what motivates people. But her work is still very much in the tradition of economists. She examines evidence and sees how people respond to incentives and then derives policy implications from the analysis.

Take the case of the mobility of labour. She examines why people who lose their jobs may not always move to a new one if it’s in a different town. Partly this is for financial reasons – moving is costly and housing may be more expensive where the new job is located. Partly, however, it is for reasons of identity. Many people are attached to where they currently live. They may be reluctant to leave family and friends and familiar surroundings and hope that a new job will turn up – even if it means a cut in wages. This is not irrational; it just means that people are driven by more than simply wages.

Duflo is doing what economists typically do – examining behaviour in the light of evidence. In her case, she is revisiting the concept of rationality to take account of evidence on what motivates people and the way they behave.

In the light of workers’ motivation, she considers the implications for the gains from trade. Is free trade policy necessarily desirable if people lose their jobs because of cheap imports from China and other developing countries where labour costs are low?

The answer is not a clear yes or no, as import-competing industries are only part of the story. If protectionist policies are pursued, other countries may retaliate with protectionist policies themselves. In such cases, people working in the export sector may lose their jobs.

She also looks at how people may respond to a rise or cut in tax rates. Again the answer is not clear cut and an examination of empirical evidence is necessary to devise appropriate policy. Not only is there an income and substitution effect from tax changes, but people are motivated to work by factors other than take-home pay. Likewise, firms are encouraged to invest by factors other than the simple post-tax profitability of investment.

Podcast

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Questions

  1. In traditional ‘neoclassical’ economics, what is meant by ‘rationality’ in terms of (a) consumer behaviour; (b) producer behaviour?
  2. How might the concept of rationality be expanded to take into account a whole range of factors other than the direct costs and benefits of a decision?
  3. What is meant by bounded rationality?
  4. What would be the effect on workers’ willingness to work more or fewer hours as a result of a cut in the marginal income tax rate if (a) the income effect was greater than the substitution effect; (b) the substitution effect was greater than the income effect? Would your answers to (a) and (b) be the opposite in the case of a rise in the marginal income tax rate?
  5. Give some arguments that you consider to be legitimate for imposing controls on imports in (a) the short run; (b) the long run. How might you counter these arguments from a free-trade perspective?

The USA has seen many horizontal mergers in recent years. This has turned industries that were once relatively competitive into oligopolies, resulting in lower output and higher prices for consumers.

In Europe, by contrast, many markets are becoming more competitive. The result is that in industries such as mobile phone services, airlines and broadband provision, prices are considerably lower in most European countries than in the USA. As the French economist, Thomas Philippon, states in a Guardian article:

When I landed in Boston in 1999, the United States was the land of free markets. Many goods and services were cheaper than in Europe. Twenty years later, American free markets are becoming a myth.

According to Asher Schechter (see linked article below):

Nearly every American industry has experienced an increase in concentration in the last two decades, to the point where … sectors dominated by two or three firms are not the exception, but the rule.

The result has been an increase in deadweight loss, which, according to research by Bruno Pelligrino, now amounts to some 13.3 per cent of total potential surplus.

Philippon in his research estimates that monopolies and oligopolies “cost the median American household about $300 a month” and deprive “American workers of about $1.25tn of labour income every year”.

One industry considered by the final two linked articles below is housebuilding. Since the US housing and financial crash of 2007–8 many US housebuilders have gone out of business. This has meant that the surviving companies have greater market power. According to Andrew van Dam in the linked Washington Post article below:

They have since built on that advantage, consolidating until many markets are controlled by just a few builders. Their power has exacerbated the country’s affordable-housing crisis, some economists say.

According to research by Luis Quintero and Jacob Cosman:

… this dwindling competition has cost the country approximately 150 000 additional homes a year – all else being equal. With fewer competitors, builders are under less pressure to beat out rival projects, and can time their efforts so that they produce fewer homes while charging higher prices.

Thanks to lobbying of regulators and politicians by businesses and various unfair, but just about legal, practices to exclude rivals, competition policy in the USA has been weak.

In the EU, by contrast, the competition authorities have been more active and tougher. For example, in the airline industry, EU regulators have “encouraged the entry of low-cost competitors by making sure they could get access to takeoff and landing slots.” Politicians from individual EU countries have generally favoured tough EU-wide competition policy to prevent companies from other member states getting an unfair advantage over their own country’s companies.

Articles

Questions

  1. What are the possible advantages and disadvantages of oligopoly compared with markets with many competitors?
  2. How can concentration in an industry be measured?
  3. Why have US markets become more concentrated?
  4. Why have markets in the EU generally become more competitive?
  5. Find out what has happened to levels of concentration in the UK housebuilding market.
  6. What are the possible effects of Brexit on concentration and competition policy in the UK?

A general election has been called in the UK for 12 December. Central to the debates between the parties will be their policy on Brexit.

They range from the Liberal Democrats’, Plaid Cymru’s and Sinn Féin’s policy of cancelling Brexit and remaining in the EU, to the Scottish Nationalists’ and Greens’ policy of halting Brexit while a People’s Vote (another referendum) is held, with the parties campaigning to stay in the EU, to the Conservative Party’s policy of supporting the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration negotiated between the Boris Johnson government and the EU, to the DUP which supports Brexit but not a version which creates a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to the Brexit Party and UKIP which support leaving the EU with no deal (what they call a ‘clean break’) and then negotiating individual trade deals on a country-by-country basis.

The Labour Party also supports a People’s Vote, but only after renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, so that if Brexit took place, the UK would have a close relationship with the single market and remain in a customs union. Also, various laws and regulations on environmental protection and workers’ rights would be retained. The referendum would take place within six months of the election and would be a choice between this new deal and remain.

But what are the economic costs and benefits of these various alternatives? Prior to the June 2016 referendum, the Treasury costed various scenarios. After 15 years, a deal would make UK GDP between 3.4% and 7.8% lower than if it remained in the EU, depending on the nature of the deal. No deal would make GDP between 5.4% and 9.5% lower.

Then in November 2018, the Treasury published analysis of the original deal negotiated by Theresa May in July 2018 (the ‘Chequers deal’). It estimated that GDP would be up to 3.9% lower after 15 years than it would have been if the UK had remained in the EU. In the case of a no-deal Brexit, GDP would be up to 9.3% lower after 15 years.

When asked for Treasury forecasts of the effects of Boris Johnson’s deal, the Chancellor, Sajid Javid, said that the Treasury had not been asked to provide forecasts as the deal was “self-evidently in our economic interest“.

Other forecasters, however, have analysed the effects of the Johnson deal. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR), the UK’s longest established independent economic research institute, has estimated the costs of various scenarios, including the Johnson deal, the May deal, a no-deal scenario and also a scenario of continuing uncertainty with no agreement over Brexit. The NIESR estimates that, under the Johnson deal, with a successful free-trade agreement with the EU, in 10 years’ time UK GDP will be 3.5% lower than it would be by remaining in the EU. This represents a cost of £70 billion. The costs would arise from less trade with the EU, lower inward investment, slower growth in productivity and labour shortages from lower migration. These would be offset somewhat by savings on budget contributions to the EU.

Under Theresa May’s deal UK GDP would be 3.0% lower (and thus slightly less costly than Boris Johnson’s deal). Continuing in the current situation with chronic uncertainty about whether the UK would leave or remain would leave the UK 2% worse off after 10 years. In other words, uncertainty would be less damaging than leaving. The costs from the various scenarios would be in addition to the costs that have already occurred – the NIESR estimates that GDP is already 2.5% smaller than it would have been as a result of the 2016 Brexit vote.

Another report also costs the various scenarios. In ‘The economic impact of Boris Johnson’s Brexit proposals’, Professors Anand Menon and Jonathan Portes and a team at The UK in a Changing Europe estimate the effects of a decline in trade, migration and productivity from the various scenarios – again, 10 years after new trading arrangements are in place. According to their analysis, UK GDP would be 4.9%, 6.4% and 8.1% lower with the May deal, the Johnson deal and no deal respectively than it would have been from remaining in the EU.

But how much reliance should we put on such forecasts? How realistic are their assumptions? What other factors could they have taken into account? Look at the two reports and at the articles discussing them and then consider the questions below which are concerned with the nature of economic forecasting.

Articles

Reports

Questions

  1. What are the arguments in favour of the assumptions and analysis of the two recent reports considered in this blog?
  2. What are the arguments against the assumptions and analysis of the two reports?
  3. How useful are forecasts like these, given the inevitable uncertainty surrounding (a) the outcome of negotiations post Brexit and (b) the strength of the global economy?
  4. If it could be demonstrated beyond doubt to everyone that each of the Brexit scenarios meant that UK GDP would be lower than if it remained in the EU, would this prove that the UK should remain in the EU? Explain.
  5. If economic forecasts turn out to be inaccurate, does this mean that economists should abandon forecasting?