Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Observations on "A Journey" I: Economics and Gordon

I have now - finally - finished "A Journey". You can love the man or you can hate him, but if you don't understand where he's coming from, you can't really hope to understand Labour politics of the last 20 years. Over the next couple of weeks I shall do an occasional post on things which stand out. First observation:

There is a conventional wisdom has always implied that Blair did not have a deep grasp of the economic fundamentals and left the economy to Brown, on the grounds that he is a technical inept and terrible at maths, by his own admission. (I have some sympathy for this view, having once tried to show him round the Labour Party website. He kept a PC on his desk during election campaigns at Millbank but never, reputedly, switched it on).

This conventional wisdom I now find to be completely false: not just because of what he says
explicitly about it "the perception was that I kept out of the economic policy space", but by reading the text you can see that he has a pretty profound grasp of macroeconomics. He simply disagreed with Brown on where it should go, after 2005 at least and, only at the last,  ceded control when he knew he was going to go anyway.

Blair never got his spending review in place, which would have trimmed and cut to get back towards the magic "golden rule": total taxation = total spending over the economic cycle. But he pretty much drew a diagram for Brown of where it should go, so that the decision would be Brown's alone when he diverted from it.

In short, it seems entirely credible the argument that Blair was a brake on the tax-hiking instincts of Brown, who fundamentally thought that people should pay more tax. Brown was good at this stuff, and understood the detail better than most. But Blair also understood as much as he needed to and, on the big picture, he arguably had much better instincts for what the electorate would buy.


  1. What is your opinion of J Rentoul's biography?

  2. I have to confess, I've never read it. But I really should, for the simple reason that I think Rentoul is highly talented.

    (He also seems to like my writing, but that's not connected ;) )

    The only problem is that it only covers his early premiership.

    Have you read it yourself?

  3. Yes I "reviewed" it informally. John and I are not close (I gave it a thumbs up BTW). Mr Rentoul struck me as a Tory who wanted to be in the (ZaNu)Labour camp. If you ask me Blair's early years were his best, his latter mired in Iraq and the death of civil liberty in England.

  4. Ah, but he's not a Tory. In fact, I tweeted to that effect just a couple of days back. Check this out http://ind.pn/mbRDzN - no way that's written by a Tory. No, he's just unashamedly Blairite. And a pretty fine journalist.

    Re Blair, ah that's a difficult one. You ought to read A Journey and see if it changes your mind...

  5. J.R seems confused as to what he is, "historian" (is the 1990s history?) one day and Journalist the next. Pleasure reading heavily curtailed as I try and get a job.

  6. I'm always puzzled by the Blairite/Brownite thing since both agreed on strategy. If there's any clear distinction between the two, it's in their seperate political constituencies - Blair's with the plutocrats as someone who could manage the Labour Party and Brown's with unions as someone who would be less deferential, more assertive towards the plutocrats.

    In A Journey, Blair's strange comments about not bringing the state back in don't demonstrate a "profound grasp of macroeconomics" any more than Brown's ludicrous comments on ending boom and bust.

  7. Brown was seen as more pro-civil liberties but soon crapped on that notion once taking office.

  8. @James: they did broadly agree on strategy - up to about 2005. That's what the book makes clear. Then, Brown wanted to make the temporarily higher level of taxation permanent. Blair didn't.

    Re profound grasp of macro, you mean he didn't have one because he didn't agree with you! I don't agree with Friedman or Hayek but I'd acknowledge they understand macro...:)

    @Ciaran: he was always trying to differentiate himself in subtle ways, cynics would say largely to curry favour with one constituency or other within the Labour movement. The main difference to me seems to be that Brown didn't, in the end, have much appetite for public service reform.

  9. I dont accept that the Labour Gov were anti-civil liberties - Human Rights Act etc - they curtailed freedom to "pollute" communitities and put resources in protecting vulnerable people from thick aggressive types who didnt give a hoot about society and their neighbours

  10. Rob,

    Hayek and Friedman weren't really macroeconomists - neoclassical economists apply micro principles to the macro. So it's not so much that I disagree with them, but that their prescriptions haven't been successful in achieving the goals they set for them. Sure, economics is a dismal science, but it needn't be so dismal that objective reality can be ignored. Reading both Hayek and Friedman I'm not sure they do understand - and that isn't the point. The huge resources that went into promoting the works of both had more to do with class interest than an eagerness to pursue "what works".

    Clearly Blair is trying in A Journey to present his latter period in office in a manner which would suggest he wouldn't have fouled things up if he'd had the chance to serve a full term. I'm not saying Brown's judgements were any better (10p tax!) but that he went off to do a sinecure for JP Morgan suggests he wouldn't have dealt with the GFC very well as a leader. That he failed to criticise Cameron during public appearances to promote the book suggests he doesn't get why "expansionary fiscal contraction" is such a mistake.

    But that we are discussing the policies of leaders within the context of personal preferences shows just how centralised policy-making had become, both within the wider party and in parliament. (And there's a nice microeconomic theory from Hayek about why this is so disasterous relating to "tacit knowledge".)

  11. Well, we're getting into a pretty semantic debate here. Don't think most people would say that Hayek and Friedman didn't understand macro. But I take your point about neoclassical economists being "a bit micro".

    Anyway, back to Blair. Of course he's trying to present things in the best possible light (I would if I were him). It's not really a question of whether he's right or not, but did he understand what he was doing. My point is that he did. He may have completely screwed up the financial crisis, but he may equally have done as good a job as Brown.

    On not criticising Cameron, think you're reading too much into it. Like most sensible ex-PMs he's simply stayed out of domestic politics as much as possible so as not to be accused (Thatcher-like) of back-seat driving.

    Re personal preferences, I think policy making has almost *always* been down to personal preferences to some extent. By the way, having lived through the alternative of Wilson's government (policy by committee, practically) that wasn't such great shakes either. Policy-making in government needs some control or all hell breaks loose. How would you make things less centralised? I'd be interested to see a workable blueprint for that...

    And I casually discard your "tacit knowledge", Hayek. Tory. ;)

  12. @followingborohurts (good name btw Terry): must say I've never bought the anti-civil liberties argument either.

    We are the only country in Europe without ID cards, can't see why it's such a big deal. On the Continent people go about their daily business with them. Nobody dies.

  13. Don't dismiss Hayek on tacit knowledge - consider that it's the rationale for businesses seeking to incentivise the engagement of employees in their work, getting customer feedback on products and services, etc. - and for empowering providers and users of public services in their design and delivery - they will have knowledge of how to improve efficiency and utility...

  14. @James, I was being flippant, but now you've got me interested. Link?

  15. Yeah, I know you were.

    Hayek's "The Use of Knowledge in Society": http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/hykKnw1.html raised "the problem of knowledge".


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