Everything Will Be Fine In Just One Chote Unit

So I said that the European economic situation is basically like the Iraq War. Here’s an example from noted dissident David “Danny” Blanchflower:

Even this OBR [the UK Office for Budget Responsibility - ed] forecast is not credible because it suggests growth will be 1.8 per cent in 2014 and 2.3 per cent in 2015. There is no evidence that consumption, net investment or net trade – which are the main components of growth – will grow any time soon; they aren’t.

The OBR’s belief that all will be well in two years is the same assumption they have made in every forecast – so called “mean reversion” – but this hasn’t happened and isn’t going to.

I hadn’t been aware of that, but it is astonishing. The OBR’s core forecasting assumption is that everything will just revert to trend, and therefore everything is OK. The problem here is that things revert to the mean if, and only if, if there is a trend and some evenly-distributed noise around it. That is to say, they literally think nothing has changed, even though things have changed, and policy has changed. It is very important to identify the moments when the trend has changed, and if you’re the government, to reflect on whether or not you might be the trend.

Further, they have even formulated a well-defined timeframe within which everything will be OK. For the OBR, it’s two years. For Thomas Friedman, everything in Iraq was going to be OK within six months, aka one Friedman Unit, and then you pesky kids with your computer diaries were going to be sorry. In honour of OBR director Robert Chote, I therefore give you the Chote Unit. The economy will be fine by 2012, and failing that, in two years’ time.

Some of my readers will protest and say that Robert Chote is a man worthy of respect, a genuine expert. But one of the readers who is most likely to do that has already answered his own objection.

Yes. This government has a terrible record of co-opting genuine experts, using them like fools, and leaving them weeping by the roadside. As well as a Chote unit it could also be a Budd unit, after the founding OBR director Sir Alan Budd, who also thought everything would be fine by 2012, and who quit the OBR after its first intervention in politics, when it made up the numbers to suit the politicians (don’t ask me, ask me the first, me the second, and me the third). But I’m sticking with the Chote unit, because Chote was warned, and he’s stuck with it much longer than Budd.

The Iraq examples are legion, but the most telling one was the fate of the Iraq Study Group, led by none other than the enduring statesman and personal friend of Georges Bush 1.0 and 2.0, James Baker, which went to Iraq in 2006, and reported back that it was a terrible disaster and the best thing to do was to patch up local arrangements like the Marines did in Anbar and then get out as quickly as possible. This was ignored, and passed to the attack dogs to be denounced as treason. Eventually they ended up following the recommendations, after time and blood had passed under the bridge and the military had worked out the same ideas themselves.

Meanwhile, the high panjandrum of expansionary contraction, Alberto Alesina, has noted that the US stock market is up, and concluded this is down to the as-yet-undelivered golden prospects of sequestration. This is genuinely ridiculous. As the Washington Post points out, actual fiscal contraction in the US didn’t bring about a boom, and neither did much greater contraction anywhere else, yet he claims to believe that the mere prospect of it is firing up the old animal spirits.

(Of course, it can’t be those because animal spirits are thoughtcrime and we say expectations which are somehow different and nothing at all to do with Keynes although nobody really knows how.)

So, you can have contraction without expansion, expansion without contraction, and expansion with only future promises of contraction. Further, looking at the British experience, you can also have contraction that starts with future promises of contraction. In what way is this any better than astrology?

Italian Elections: Rounding the Last Pole

Launched in an act of treachery that brought down Mario Monti’s technocratic government, the Italian national election campaign will end one way or another, to the relief of many, Saturday evening. What might have been a sustained debate on the merits of austerity measures in a prolonged recession, on the future of Italian employment and its welfare state or a host of other pressing issues, has instead taken on the quality of an unsavory burlesque revue. Its stars: authentic if acerbic comic Beppe Grillo, whose 5 Stars protest movement may yet shape the outcome, and sick joker Silvio Berlusconi, whose foolish headline grabs have used up much of the electoral space. But it has been a lavish, large-cast production, with indictments flying, old allies back-stabbing, off-color jokes and evanescent affiliations, a Fellini-esque procession of oddities and crudities unworthy of the noble republic Italy could nonetheless become.

What to expect? Given Italy’s ban on published polls in the final two weeks, calling this one from Boston is something like watching a horse race through the wrong end of the binoculars–but I’m going to do it anyway. Bersani and the center-left have led all the way, notwithstanding the Monte dei Paschi banking scandal that implicates Monti as much as Bersani, and neither man in any direct way. Bersani’s campaign has been steady if utterly unflamboyant; he conveys an avuncular credibility that makes it hard to brand him a flaming radical despite Berlusconi’s many tries. He has sought international credibility in Berlin and in the American press, and has scrupulously balanced his attachments to rising centrist Matteo Renzi on his right and leftist but circumspect Nichi Vendola to his left. Nothing suggests that Bersani will be dislodged from the #1 spot, and thus control of the lower house.

But can he form a stable government? That’s a question about the Senate, and really about 2 or 3 key regions that will decide it: Lombardy, Sicily, maybe Campania. This interesting poll predicts a one-vote plurality for the center-left: it may be a long night for Pier Luigi. If he falls short, Monti’s centrist coalition acquires what corporate types call a ‘golden seat’ at the table, with considerable leverage over fiscal policy.

But Monti himself has been the great disappointment of the season. All the EU heavies have lobbied for him, with possibly negative effect. Italian voters may respect him but don’t seem to like him, and his campaign has never achieved lift-off. With fewer distractions this could be the real story of the campaign: even Italy’s desperate straits and Monti’s exemplary financial credentials are not enough to sell austerity to a chronically hurting electorate–liberal politicians throughout Europe, beware! As I’ve noted elsewhere, Monti’s persistent efforts to split Bersani from Vendola have miserably failed, and Monti has lurched from accomodation to hostility to a final call for a renewed ‘grand coalition.’ He may yet find himself part of one, but no thanks to his nondescript political skills.

Vendola, meanwhile, has shown himself to be a team player, capable of flashes of wit such as this wonderful Tweet. He has hewed to a steady left line, insisting that workers’ rights and the full social safety net must be cornerstones of any ‘reform’, but like Bersani he seems a lot less scary than his right-wing detractors would prefer. Look for Vendola in a prominent place in Bersani’s government.

But will Grillo’s anti-political movement obtain an intractable bloc in the new Parliament? Populist protests are notoriously hard to measure, though Grillo’s internet-savvy and personally charismatic style have made an indisputable and perhaps permanent impact. My own hunch is that on Sunday Grillo may underperform, losing a share of his 15% to that other discreet contender, Abstention. This shadow-candidate is thought to command 30% already, and I wonder: instead of showing their disdain for politics by going out to vote for Grillo, why won’t a fair proportion of his supporters send the same message by staying home? Well, maybe because they love Beppe–we’ll see.

In any case, Berlusconi’s faux-populism can’t hold a candle to Grillo’s real deal. The Cavalier still stands to win a substantial fraction–25%?–but without Grillo he would have had a better chance to harvest the broad dissatisfaction with Monti. Why this cadaverous has-been still gets even 1% is a mystery to me, but I remain confident that he will be shut out of any new government. Why? Because he is pure poison.

So I’m among the few who wait optimistically for Monday’s verdict. Last spring I hoped Hollande would feel empowered to contest Merkel’s disastrous orthodoxy. I noted the brief but surprising flourish of the Dutch Socialists last fall; I observe Alexis Tsipris’s recent arrival on the main stage, and sense a gathering change of mood in much of Europe, perhaps in time for next year’s Euro-elections. A Bersani-Vendola government would move the Old Continent a few more cautious steps in that direction. Avanti!

502: French conservatives temporarily unavailable

So, France’s conservative party just blew up. This is surely a major story, as the French Right is one of the most successful political organisations in the democratic world even though it’s not particularly organised most of the time.

It’s common for a party that loses an election to have a bout of feuding. Out of the beating at the polls, two major candidates emerged. Jean-Francois Cope, the party’s secretary general, argued for “getting rid of the Right’s complexes” and moving closer to the FN. Francois Fillon, Sarkozy’s prime minister, argued for moving to the centre and emphasising the Gaullist heritage. This is close to the historic dividing line between the “classical right” and Gaullism, but the division doesn’t map precisely, as it’s complicated by the UMP/FN divide, and the generally loose and personality-driven nature of French rightwing politics. It might be better to think of Fillon’s supporters as conservatives, being pro-business, pro-Euro, mildly authoritarian, and varying between mildly Atlanticist and traditionally Gaullist on foreign policy, and Cope’s as identity rightists*, being much more authoritarian, less pro-Euro, but economically more rightwing, and keen on asserting national identity (e.g. by being nastier to immigrants).

As it happened, they appealed to almost precisely equal numbers of party members. That was when the trouble started.

Cope claimed victory. The chairman of the party’s election committee said he couldn’t say who’d won. Cope claimed victory again, by a bigger margin. Fillon claimed victory. Then, it turned out that the election committee had forgotten to count the votes from three French overseas territories. Counting them put Fillon ahead. He appealed to the party’s appeals committee, which is controlled by Cope’s supporters and refuses to hear him.

France watches, fascinated, as half the political spectrum rips itself apart on live TV.

Alain Juppe, elder statesman, former finance minister, current senator and mayor of Bordeaux, still a possible presidential candidate, and convicted criminal, is called in to mediate between the pair. Juppe asks them if they can agree on who is the party leader. No. He suggests they hold a new election. Cope suggests that he should just declare victory again. Fillon insists the votes from Wallis & Futuna be counted. Cope says that he wants to protest the ballots from the Riviera, where former industry minister Christian Estrosi’s influence network delivered the election for Fillon, and suggests just striking out all the “contentious” ballots. Obviously there are more people in Nice and Marseille than Wallis & Futuna. Juppe concludes that there is literally nothing the two men can agree on, and steps aside.

Nicolas Sarkozy, for it is he, returns from making money in Shanghai and gives them a deadline to agree, or he’ll denounce them as unfit to lead. Everyone assumes he’s hoping they’ll both quit and he’ll be party leader.

Fillon sends a bailiff to the UMP HQ to seize ballots. Cope’s supporters physically prevent him from removing the ballots.

Fillon accuses Cope of misappropriating a huge quantity of party funds for his campaign. His supporters join another party, the Rassemblement UMP or RUMP, which turns out to exist in New Caledonia. This is handy because the party immediately achieves the status of a parliamentary group and becomes entitled to state funding. In all, 70 senators and 77 deputies follow Fillon. Cope is left with the rump of the UMP rather than the RUMP and, importantly, all its debts.

Fillon threatens to sue. Cope suggests voting again, but not until after the local elections next year. The Socialist parliamentary group, meanwhile, get on with passing their legislative agenda, because the UMP delegation has stopped turning up to debates. And both men’s poll ratings plummet, although Fillon remains far more popular support than Cope.

What does it all mean? Well, you wouldn’t want to bet on them not finding some way to settle their differences. French conservative politics is dominated by personalities rather than organisation, and they did manage to rule for most of the 20th century. But there is certainly no effective UMP for the time being. That creates political space for Hollande and also Le Pen.

It’s very hard to predict how the crisis will affect the competition between Le Pen and the UMP; it weakens the UMP, but it also discredits the identity-rightist current around Cope and intensifies the distinction between the rightists and the Gaullists. The project of a UMP-FN alliance is only worth having if lots of UMP deputies change sides – if it just scrapes off a few, while solidifying the rest as a centre-right block, it doesn’t change very much.

*Only re-reading this did I notice that I had alluded to the extreme-right student movement, Bloc identitaire, without knowing it. In fact, some of the same people are involved.

When opposites agree

A surprising moment of consensus: Der Spiegel and the Taz both rip into Peer Steinbruck, former German finance minister and leading the race for the SPD’s candidacy as chancellor. Not only that, they do so for substantially the same reasons.

First, they agree that Steinbruck denied in the autumn of 2008 that the financial crisis was a problem, claiming that it was the Americans’ fault and nothing to do with Germany, and even said that there was no need to bail out the banks. Secondly, they agree that he argued vehemently that a response to the crisis would be national-but-coordinated, rather than European, thus leaving Ireland and Spain to cope on their own, and he refused to lead an IMF working group on the issue. These days, he supports euro-bonds. Thirdly, despite all his bluster, he then reversed course and bailed out the banks, setting a precedent.

It’s fascinating that the green-left Taz and Der Spiegel, which might as well be the Bundesbank’s house journal, manage to agree on so much. Taz is predictably more radical, pointing out that WestLB swelled up with dodgy asset-backed securities and eventually burst while Steinbruck was its regulator and that he even got a light-touch regulatory policy for derivatives written into the 2005 coalition agreement, and that he also denied that there was any need for stimulus in the autumn of 2008 before changing his mind. (Who now remembers crass Keynesianism?)

Meanwhile, Guy Verhofstadt and Danny Cohn-Bendit have a manifesto. What can those two possibly agree on? Inevitably, it’s more federalism. As with everyone who uses the phrase “more Europe”, what they want to do with it isn’t clear.

Leveson tangent

Politics drifts back into the frame. It was always suggestive that Andy Coulson was appointed head of communications for the Tories two years after he ran an effective spoiler on the George Osborne cocaine use allegations, despite losing his job in the interim period because of the original Royal hacking affair back in 2006.

Now we have the issue revisited in the light of Bob Quick's revelations this week, and the news that Muclaire, at Coulson's request, was regularly hacking the phones of senior editors at Mirror Group, to whom Natalie Rowe originally took her story. 

How much did they know about how their Mr Fixit (Coulson) fixed things? If the Leveson inquiry is supposed to clean up the press and its relation to politicians, then our two most senior ministers should answer these questions under oath.

Sounds good to me.

annals of deviationism

Obviously, Daily Mail stories online are designed as clickbait. But this one is a dead straight exposition of contemporary government psychosis. Spineless capitalists are giving in to tightly knit groups of sinister leftists. The BBC is actually asking government ministers if they can’t see why people might object to mandatory labour for no money. Mimsy old mumsnet has been driven along in the radical frenzy. The police are being ordered to stop demonstrations before they actually happen.

Yes, indeed. Wreckers and saboteurs are at work. False consciousness stalks the land. The relevant economic organs are resistant to co-ordination. Media is failing to follow the line set by the Centre. The plan is in danger of being underfulfilled. The people’s security forces must act without delay. Maybe this is why the government is so fixated on the SWP. If you’re doing parody Stalinism, everybody looks like a comedy Trotskyist. 

Playing Chicken And Rooster With Hungary

Tension surrounding the application of a series of so-called “unorthodox policies” by Hungary’s Fidesz government has certainly been rising in recent days. While Washington has been reasonably quiet as govenment emissary Tamas Fellegi meets with top IMF officials, Brussels has seen a veritable avalance of official statements and policy initiatives. Despite constant rumours that an agreement with the IMF is near, I find it pretty implausible that any deal can be reached without some kind of EU assent.  At the present time this assent is unlikely to be forthcoming, and indeed the ”ante” has been pushed up and up. The latest example here is the fact that Brussels has given the Hungarian administration till next Tuesday to do something about altering the country’s new constitution or face the prospect of legal action, and possible suspension from the EU under article 7 of the EU Treaty. Budapest on the other hand has been full of conciliating words, but the key point is we have yet to see anything meaningful in terms of action. Continue reading

International Talk Like a Berlin Parliamentarian Day

With further proof that a five-party system is much more fun for analysts than for candidates or for governance, city-state elections in Berlin put out the previous coalition, returned the personally well-liked mayor, decimated a party that was a long-time kingmaker in West Germany, and put members of the Pirate Party into a German state legislature for the first time. Just in time for pirates’ international holiday.

Klaus “und das ist auch gut soWowereit (Social Democrat, SPD) will continue to serve as Mayor of Berlin, a post he has held since June 2001. The Free Democrats, who played a crucial role in the three-party system of West Germany, appear to have polled less than 2% in this election. In 2006 they won more than 7% of the vote and gained 12 seats; they will have none in the coming parliament.

The Left Party, post-communists and often prominent in Berlin, lost four seats and can no longer serve as a junior coalition partner to the Social Democrats. The Greens thought they might win the mayoralty, after gaining their first state premiership earlier this year in Baden-Württemburg. Though they gained 4.5% and six seats, they will at best be a junior coalition partner. The SPD may also choose to govern with the Christian Democrats (CDU). In the past, this would have been called a grand coalition, but with the second-place CDU polling just 5% more than the third-place Greens (and indeed none of the parties pulling in more than 30% of the vote), it’s hardly a sweeping coalition. Look for a Red-Green government, but with the SPD clearly in the driver’s seat because it has other options.

And then there are the Pirates. Their success in this election is, first, a reminder of electoral volatility at the state level. Anyone remember the Schill Party? Second, it’s a sign that the Greens have a generational problem. Post-materialist voters have tended to be Green voters, but the issues that drew people to the Greens 25 and 30 years ago aren’t as salient now. I’d like to see some polling on how many Pirate voters are first-time voters; I’m willing to bet it’s a high percentage. Third, it may be a signal that the FDP is well and truly toast in Berlin. The kind of discourse about freedom that the Pirates have embraced is something that the FDP could have taken up, but has proven too hidebound to do. Fourth, the Berlin tech-computer scene is engaged, experienced and has both a long history and a deep bench. The city is the home of the Chaos Computer Club and the first location for Blinkenlights, among many other highlights. There’s a big natural constituency for the Pirates, and they turned out. Fifth, digital issues and a diffuse sense of protest can motivate nearly 10% of an urban electorate. That’s enough to tip some more elections. Arrrr.