Britain’s economic performance since the financial crisis struck has been startlingly bad. A tentative recovery began in 2009, but it stalled in 2010. Although growth resumed in 2013, real income per capita is only now reaching its level on the eve of the crisis – which means that Britain has had a much worse track record since 2007 than it had during the Great Depression.
Yet as Britain prepares to go to the polls, the leaders of the coalition government that has ruled the country since 2010 are posing as the guardians of prosperity, the people who really know how to run the economy. And they are, by and large, getting away with it.
There are some important lessons here, not just for Britain but for all democracies struggling to manage their economies in difficult times. I’ll get to those lessons in a minute. But first, let’s ask how a British government with such a poor economic record can manage to run on its supposed economic achievements.
Well, you could blame the weakness of the opposition, which has done an absolutely terrible job of making its case. You could blame the fecklessness of the news media, which has gotten much wrong. But the truth is that what’s happening in British politics is what almost always happens, there and everywhere else: Voters have fairly short memories, and they judge economic policy not by long-term results but by recent growth. Over five years, the coalition’s record looks terrible. But over the past couple of quarters it looks pretty good, and that’s what matters politically.
In making these assertions, I’m not engaged in casual speculation – I’m drawing on a large body of political science research, mainly focused on presidential contests in the United States but clearly applicable elsewhere. This research debunks almost all the horse-race narratives beloved by political pundits – never mind who wins the news cycle, or who appeals to the supposed concerns of independent voters. What mainly matters is income growth immediately before the election. And I mean immediately: We’re talking about something less than a year, maybe less than half a year.
This is, if you think about it, a distressing result, because it says that there is little or no political reward for good policy. A nation’s leaders may do an excellent job of economic stewardship for four or five years yet get booted out because of weakness in the last two quarters before the election. In fact, the evidence suggests that the politically smart thing might well be to impose a pointless depression on your country for much of your time in office, solely to leave room for a roaring recovery just before voters go to the polls.
Actually, that’s a pretty good description of what the current British government has done, although it’s not clear that it was deliberate.
The point, then, is that elections – which are supposed to hold politicians accountable – don’t seem to fulfill that function very well when it comes to economic policy. But can anything be done about this weakness?
One possible answer, which appeals to many pundits, might be to remove economic policymaking from the political sphere and turn it over to nonpartisan elite commissions. This presumes, however, that elites know what they are doing – and it’s hard to see what, in recent events, might make you believe that. After all, American elites spent years in the thrall of Bowles-Simpsonism, a completely misplaced obsession over budget deficits. European elites, with their commitment to punitive austerity, have been even worse.
A better, more democratic answer would be to seek a better-informed electorate. One really striking thing about the British economic debate is the contrast between what passes for economic analysis in the news media – even in high-end newspapers and on elite-oriented TV shows – and the consensus of professional economists. News reports often portray recent growth as a vindication of austerity policies, but surveys of economists find only a small minority agreeing with that assertion. Claims that budget deficits are the most important issue facing Britain are made as if they were simple assertions of fact, when they are actually contentious, if not foolish.
So reporting on economic issues could and should be vastly better. But political scientists would surely scoff at the idea that this would make much difference to election outcomes, and they’re probably right.
What, then, should those of us who study economic policy and care about real-world outcomes do? The answer, surely, is that we should do our jobs: Try to get it right, and explain our answers as clearly as we can. Realistically, the political impact will usually be marginal at best. Bad things will happen to good ideas, and vice versa. So be it. Elections determine who has the power, not who has the truth.