The UK general election is on May 7. In the campaign during the run-up to the election the economy will be a major issue. All parties will use economic data to claim that the economy has performed well or badly and that the prospects are good or bad. As economics students you will, no doubt, be asked to comment on these claims by your friends. So where can you get analysis of the data that is not biased towards one party or another?
One source is the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It is respected by politicians of all parties as an impartial presenter and analyser of economic data. In fact, it is fiercely independent. But at election time, when often quite dramatic claims are made by politicians, the IFS often comments on whether the data support such claims.
An example occurred when David Cameron claimed that if Labour were elected, working families would face a £3028 tax rise to fund the party’s spending commitments. The IFS said that the claim was misleading as, even on the Conservatives’ assumptions, it was was based on the cumulative increase over five years, not the annual increase, and was not per household but only per working household. The IFS also said that the Conservatives’ assumptions were wrong and not in accordance with the Charter for Budget Responsibility, with which the Labour party agreed.
Expect the IFS to criticise more claims as the election campaign progresses: not just by the Conservative party but by the other parties too. After all, the IFS is not partisan and is prepared to challenge false economic claims from whatever party. Expect also that the political parties will cherry pick whatever statements by the IFS seen to favour them or criticise their opponents.
You can also expect political bias in the newspapers that report the campaigns. Even when they present facts, how they present them and which facts they choose to include and which to ignore will be a reflection of their political bias. So even newspaper reporting of what the IFS says is likely to be selective and nuanced!
Why IFS boss Paul Johnson counts in this tightest of general elections The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/3/15)
David Cameron’s claim that Labour would raise taxes by £3,000 is ‘not sensible’, says the IFS Independent, Jon Stone (30/3/15)
‘tax rise’ is shot down by IFS The Guardian, Patrick Wintour (30/3/15)
We will borrow more if we win the election, Labour admits The Telegraph, Christopher Hope (29/3/15)
Chancellor accused of U-turn on austerity: Top economist says £20bn fiscal boost lurking in Budget is ‘remarkable reversal’ This is Money, Hugo Duncan (19/3/15)
- Distinguish between positive and normative statements. How might politicians blur the distinction in their claims and counter-claims?
- Identify three series of macroeconomic data from at least two independent organisations. For what reasons might the data be (a) unreliable; (b) used by political parties to mislead the electorate?
- In what ways can political parties use economic data to their own advantage without falsifying the data?
- How may public-sector deficit and debt statistics be interpreted in ways to suit (a) the current government’s case that the public finances have been well managed; (b) the opposition case that the public finances have been badly managed?
- Use data to analyse an economic claim by each of at least three political parties and the extent to which the claims are accurate.
- The above links are to articles from four UK national newspapers: The Guardian, the Independent, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail (This is Money). Identify political bias in the reporting in each of the articles.
Economic journalists, commentators and politicians have been examining the possible economic effects of a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September. For an economist, there are two main categories of difficulty in examining the consequences. The first is the positive question of what precisely will be the consequences. The second is the normative question of whether the likely effects will be desirable or undesirable and how much so.
The first question is largely one of ‘known unknowns’. This rather strange term was used in 2002 by Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, in the context of intelligence about Iraq. The problem is a general one about forecasting the future. We may know the types of thing that are likely happen, but the magnitude of the outcome cannot be precisely known because there are so many unknowable things that can influence it.
Here are some known issues of Scottish independence, but with unknown consequences (at least in precisely quantifiable terms). The list is certainly not exhaustive and you could probably add more questions yourself to the list.
||Will independence result in lower or higher economic growth in the short and long term?
||Will there be a currency union, with Scotland and the rest of the UK sharing the pound and a central bank? Or will Scotland merely use the pound outside a currency union? Would it prefer to have its own currency or join the euro over the longer term?
||What will happen to the sterling exchange rate with the dollar, the euro and various other countries?
||How will businesses react? Will independence encourage greater inward investment in Scotland or will there be a net capital outflow? And either way, what will be the magnitude of the effect?
||How will assets, such as oil, be shared between Scotland and the rest of the UK? And how will national debt be apportioned?
||How big will the transition costs be of moving to an independent Scotland?
||How will independence impact on Scottish trade (a) with countries outside the UK and (b) with the rest of the UK?
||What will happen about Scotland’s membership of the EU? Will other EU countries, such as Spain (because of its concerns about independence movements in Catalonia and the Basque country), attempt to block Scotland remaining in or rejoining the EU?
||What will happen to tax rates in Scotland, with the new Scottish government free to set its own tax rates?
||What will be the consequences for Scottish pensions and the Scottish pensions industry?
||What will happen to the distribution of income in Scotland? How might Scottish governments behave in terms of income redistribution and what will be its consequences on output and growth?
Of course, just because the effects cannot be known with certainty, attempts are constantly being made to quantify the outcomes in the light of the best information available at the time. These are refined as circumstances change and newer data become available.
But forecasts also depend on the assumptions made about the post-referendum decisions of politicians in Scotland, the rest of the UK and in major trading partner countries. It also depends on assumptions about the reactions of businesses. Not surprisingly, both sides of the debate make assumptions favourable to their own case.
Then there is the second category of question. Even if you could quantify the effects, just how desirable would they be? The issue here is one of the weightings given to the various costs and benefits. How would you weight distributional consequences, given that some people will gain or lose more than others? What social discount rate would you apply to future costs and benefits?
Then there are the normative and largely unquantifiable costs and benefits. How would you assess the desirability of political consequences, such as greater independence in decision-making or the break-up of a union dating back over 300 years? But these questions about nationhood are crucial issues for many of the voters.
Scottish Independence would have Broad Impact on UK Economy NBC News, Catherine Boyle (9/9/14)
Scottish independence: the economic implications The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (7/9/14)
Scottish vote: Experts warn of potential economic impact BBC News, Matthew Wall (9/9/14)
The economics of Scottish independence: A messy divorce The Economist (21/2/14)
Dispute over economic impact of Scottish independence Financial Times, Mure Dickie, Jonathan Guthrie and John Aglionby (28/5/14)
10 economic benefits for a wealthier independent Scotland Michael Gray (6/3/14)
Scottish independence, UK dependency New Economics Foundation (NEF), James Meadway (4/9/14)
Scottish Jobs and the World Economy Scottish Economy Watch, Brian Ashcroft (25/8/14)
Scottish yes vote: what happens to the pound in your pocket? Channel 4 News (9/9/14)
What price Scottish independence? BBC News, Robert Peston (12/9/14)
What price Scottish independence? BBC News, Robert Peston (7/9/14)
Economists can’t tell Scots how to vote BBC News, Robert Peston (16/9/14)
Books and Reports
The Economic Consequences of Scottish Independence Scottish Economic Society and Helmut Schmidt Universität, David Bell, David Eiser and Klaus B Beckmann (eds) (August 2014)
The potential implications of independence for businesses in Scotland Oxford Economics, Weir (April 2014)
- What is a currency union? What implications would there be for Scotland being in a currency union with the rest of the UK?
- If you could measure the effects of independence over the next ten years, would you treat £1m of benefits or costs occurring in ten years’ time the same as £1m of benefits and costs occurring next year? Explain.
- Is it inevitable that events occurring in the future will at best be known unknowns?
- If you make a statement that something will occur in the future and you turn out to be wrong, was your statement a positive one or a normative one?
- What would be the likely effects of Scottish independence on the current account of the balance of payments (a) for Scotland; (b) for the rest if the UK?
- How does inequality in Scotland compare with that in the rest of the UK and in other countries? Why might Scottish independence lead to a reduction in inequality? (See the chapter on inequality in the book above edited by David Bell, David Eiser and Klaus B Beckmann.)
- One of the problems in assessing the arguments for a Yes vote is uncertainty over what would happen if there was a majority voting No. What might happen in terms of further devolution in the case of a No vote?
- Why is there uncertainty over the amount of national debt that would exist in Scotland if it became independent?
Here’s a question that goes to the heart of economics and the social sciences generally: how desirable is the market system?
Our lives are dominated by markets. Whether in working or consuming, we operate in a market economy in which money is exchanged for goods or services. But also financial and product markets determine much of the structure of society, where most things seem to have a price.
But whilst, as a positive statement, we can say that money and markets are all around us, does that make them desirable? Markets provide signals and incentives; but are the signals the right ones? What are the incentives and how do we respond to them? And are these responses optimal?
You will probably have studied various ways in which markets fail to provide the optimal allocation of resources. But what are the limits of markets as a mechanism for social choices? And is there some more fundamental issue about the morality of a society that is organised around markets?
These are questions considered in the following podcast. It is an episode from BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme, hosted by Andrew Marr, with guests Michael Sandel, Diane Coyle and Grigory Yavlinksy. Here are the programme details:
Andrew Marr discusses the relationship between markets and morals with the political philosopher Michael Sandel. In his latest book, What Money Can’t Buy, Sandel questions the dominance of the financial markets in our daily lives, in which everything has a price. But the economist Diane Coyle stands up for her much maligned profession, and points to the many benefits of a market economy. The Russian economist Grigory Yavlinksy argues against viewing the world of money as separate from culture and society: he believes the financial crisis was merely a symptom of a wider moral collapse, and that it is time to examine the way we live.
(Links to the three contributors: Michael Sandel, Diane Coyle (see also), Grigory Yavlinsky.)
Michael Sandel on Money and Morality BBC Start the Week programme (21/5/12)
Videos and articles
For a range of videos and articles on the morality of capitalism, see the previous post at:
We need to talk about Capitalism (28/1/12)
- What crises are there in current capitalism?
- What, according to Michael Sandel, is the difference between a market economy and a market society?
- Is the market society a relatively new phenomenon, or does it go back hundreds of years?
- To what extent is the greed expressed through markets and encouraged by markets affecting/infecting society and human relationships generally?
- What is the role of morality and trust in determining the desirability of market relationships?
- To what extent does a market economy allow people, rich and poor, to live separately from each other and not interact as joint members of society?
- What are the value systems promoted by marketisation? Should certain aspects of human life be outside these value systems?
- To what extent is the crisis of capitalism a crisis of economics?
- What policy alternatives are there for rebalancing society?
- What is the role of economists in advising on policy alternatives?