The smoke and mirrors of small politics

This is supposed to be the most exciting election for decades, with the outcome still unclear only four days before polling day. But I can’t say I’m feeling it. With the exception of yesterday’s quite extraordinarily bizarre #Edstone stunt, it has all felt pretty humdrum, slightly surreal, and deeply infuriating. All at the same time.

It is humdrum because the spinners have tried to ensure politicians say as little as possible of substance and have largely managed to erect an impenetrable cordon between the politicians in their charge and anything resembling either a real person or a real question. So much of what’s happened during the campaign has felt rather anodyne. Last week’s special Question Time event in Leeds stands out so clearly as a consequence. The leaders had to engage with ‘the public’ in a way that was slightly less than rigorously stage managed – and for a change some of the bowling was overarm rather than underarm.

The election campaign has felt slightly surreal because politicans on most, if not all, sides have been allowed to get away with making all sorts of egregious pledges and commitments with very limited effective challenge. It would appear to be entirely acceptable for political parties to promise simultaneously to reduce the tax take, increase spending, and remove the deficit without thereby being derided as utterly incoherent. You would have thought adopting this sort of position should mean a party disqualifies itself from being treated as a serious party of government. But it seems not.

It’s as if tactics to achieve short-term impact on the headlines are everything. Promises are perceived to be consequence-free. You can promise anything you like, as long as it sounds enticing, because no one is really going to be able to hold you to account if you don’t deliver. Even if you chisel it into limestone. So our political debate carries on in a world unencumbered by concerns for prosaic questions of logical coherence, implementation and feasibility.

The debate is infuriating in so many ways it is hard to know where to start. [Read more…]

Nudge and the state

Nutrition LabelsLast week I took part in an enjoyable discussion on nudge policy as part of Thinking Futures, the annual festival of social sciences. Through a slightly mysterious process I ended up speaking in favour of nudge-type policies, while Fiona Spotswood from UWE made the case against relying on behaviour change initiatives. Fiona made a robust case. I have to say mine was a little less than compelling, in part because in reality I have quite a lot of sympathy with the critics. I find debating from a position you don’t entirely agree with more successful on some days and some topics than on others. This was not one of the better days.

Nonetheless, I find the topic of nudge, and behaviour change policy more broadly, fascinating because it raises so many issues. [Read more…]

Developments in the ongoing Bedroom Tax saga

8610361700_dea8d85350_zYou have to admire Andrew George. Or at least I do. Commentators are busying themselves accusing the Liberal Democrats of inconstancy or hypocrisy in supporting his Private Members’ Bill to reform the Bedroom Tax. But we should remember that George has ploughed a rather lonely furrow in consistent opposition to the policy from the start, even as the bulk of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary party repeatedly lined up behind the Tories to support it.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the George’s Affordable Homes Bill, if it were to be successful, would bring housing benefit policy closer to current Liberal Democrat party policy. In that respect the Liberal Democrats can’t be accused of hypocrisy. The more problematic issue is why the Libdem leadership supported a policy of such obvious boneheadedness in the first place.

Nor is it hypocritical to change position on a policy as new evidence comes to light. That is entirely reasonable and sensible. The more problematic issue is that the evidence that is said to have triggered the Liberal Democrat leadership change of position is not, really, very new. It largely confirms what people who understand the housing sector have been saying about the policy’s likely consequences since before the policy was implemented.

But there is some very clear hypocrisy and obfuscation in the Liberal Democrat messaging around yesterday’s events. [Read more…]

Liberal Democrat travails over the bedroom tax

Well, well, well. It turns out that the bedroom tax isn’t such a good idea after all.

Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have U-turned on the policy, ostensibly in the light of the (delayed) publication of interim report of the DWP evaluation. The report indicates that the policy largely isn’t achieving the objectives set for it.

Early tabloid headlines announcing that the Liberal Democrats were calling for abolition were misleading. Instead, what Clegg and Alexander would appear to have done is withdraw support for the policy in its current form and adopt a position broadly in line with the motion critical of the bedroom tax passed by Liberal Democrat conference last autumn in Glasgow. To be fair to NC he did state at the time of the Glasgow conference that the independent evaluation would be important in shaping support for the policy. And so, it would appear, it has proved to be. [Read more…]

‘Quackademics’ under fire as critical voices targeted

[Originally posted at The Conversation, 22/08/13]

DuckWith independent journalism increasingly under threat, will academics be the next set of critical voices to be targeted? A report calling for research and evidence to have a reduced role in public policy, issued yesterday by a right-wing think-tank, suggests this process is already under way.

These criticisms come after successive governments have sought to encourage academics to leave their ivory towers and influence the wider world. Right now, many academics around the country are knee-deep in final preparations for the next round of research funding. This time around we’ve the additional task of demonstrating how our research has had an impact on the world beyond the academy. In many fields, including my own, that impact is on policy.

At the same time, the government is in the process of establishing a network of “what works” evidence centres for social policy. This government’s commitment to evidence-based policy is perhaps less secure than its precedessor’s, but the idea that research evidence should play a role in policy making remains. [Read more…]

Aggressive intolerance as a substitute for aggressive housing policy?

info signageSomething’s been bugging me, but I’ve not fully thought it through. That may well become apparent in a bit.

I’ve a sense there is a link that isn’t being made as effectively as it needs to be.

Within the housing policy community there is a widely shared presumption that housing supply in the UK has been inadequate for at least the last couple of decades. The detailed numbers can be debated, but there is broad agreement that the number of homes constructed annual falls well short of the numbers needed to meet the growth in the household numbers. At the moment we are operating at around half – or perhaps a little more – of the rate of new build that most commentators consider necessary. So the shortfall continues to increase. As a consequence we witness problems of affordability and access. Rapid tenure transformation – the resurgence of private renting – can also, partly, be explained by this lack of supply. [Read more…]

Blond’s take on social science

Guess what, I think I’m parked in the red zone!

                                                             Reservoir Dogs

5862495241_72837a4859_mPhillip Blond has posted a provocative piece offering his perspective on the deficiencies of the social sciences and his prescription for rectifying them.

Yesterday ConservativeHome described the piece as “an important article” which touches on how research funds should be spent and from which “the rationale for reallocation is clear”. It might therefore be wise to pay some attention.

Blond’s piece is sure to meet with strong objections from within the British social science community. Indeed, it already has. A number of academics have been spluttering indignation into their smartphones and out into the twitterverse.

In a nutshell, Blond’s argument is that … [Read more…]

Reinhart and Rogoff: replication and responsibility

… the actions of economists today bear on the life chances of the world’s population far more substantially than do the actions of the members of most other professions.

George DeMartino

Reinhart Rogoff Cover

Replication is an activity that doesn’t attract enough attention, enough credit, or enough effort in the social sciences. But it is an activity that is getting a lot of attention at this precise moment. This has come courtesy of the exposure of both flaws and contestable methodological choices in Reinhart and Rogoff’s landmark study of public debt and economic growth.

The economic blogosphere has exploded with debate over the issue. But, just in case you’re not following it, here are the key points. Reinhart and Rogoff followed up their major historical work looking at debt and economic growth This time is different with a paper called Growth in a time of debt published in the American Economic Review in 2010. Their key result is that levels of public debt in excess of 90% of GDP are associated with lower rates of economic growth. Indeed, the mean annual growth rate they report, once debt crosses the 90% threshold, is negative.

This body of work is highly influential.

A quick search on Google Scholar will tell you that the NBER version of Growth in a time of debt has been cited 450 times, while This time is different has been cited over 2000 times since 2009. That is a lot of citations for social science publications: you’re doing pretty well once citations for a piece get into double figures within four years.

In a paper published this week, Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin (HAP) of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst identify problems with the Reinhart and Rogoff result. [Read more…]

Evidence or otherwise on Housing Benefit reform

Graph diagram pie chart 3dThe mainstream media seem finally to have cottoned on to the fact that our welfare system is to undergo substantial change tomorrow. I mentioned a couple of months ago that the changes around the so-called bedroom tax were, belatedly, attracting broader media interest. And the media are connecting the deathly dry changes to the regulations to real life stories of hardship. They’ve also started to join up the dots to realise that it could well turn out that April is, indeed, the cruellest month.

Some of us have been banging on about the potentially negative implications of these changes for some months, if not years. It is good that they are now achieving some serious public profile. But it is a bit late to head off the chaos that could well follow their implementation.

What precisely will follow the raft of changes during April is a bit of a moot point. Will the prognostications of catastrophe be correct? Or will the Government’s much more sanguine view be borne out? Clearly, it is an issue of great significance.

It emerged as a key area of contention in the report on the impact of housing benefit reform published by the Public Accounts Committee last week. [Read more…]