Austerity: an idea on trial | Editorial

The past week has been a particularly bad one for George Osborne and advocates of the Reinhart-Rogoff approach

Over the past week, a series of blows have been dealt to George Osborne's reputation. First, the IMF's chief economist warned that the chancellor's austerity programme was "playing with fire". Then the latest unemployment figures indicated that the jobs market may be about to turn significantly for the worse. The week ended with another credit rating agency stripping Britain of its AAA rating. While all this was going on, a row raged about academic research that had been cited by the chancellor in support of his austerity.

In 2010, the Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff produced a paper arguing that countries with public debt above 90% of their annual income hit a tipping point, experiencing much lower growth. The study had been used by the Treasury as a key excuse for its spending cuts. Except that on closer examination by economists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the Reinhart-Rogoff research was found to be riddled with errors, from inappropriate weighting of the statistics to a howler over the use of an Excel spreadsheet. As if to rub in the schoolboy nature of some of these errors, the key researcher in the Massachusetts trio was a 28-year-old graduate student yet to complete his PhD.

It would be tempting to describe this as a terrible week for Mr Osborne, were it not for the fact that that phrase now seems to fit most weeks with a decent amount of economic news. Still, the past week has been particularly bad. The IMF is normally too respectful of diplomacy to take a stick to powerful member-states. And it is usually far too mindful of its own reputation to publicly repudiate a strategy that very recently commanded its emphatic support. Visiting London last summer, IMF boss Christine Lagarde gave even stronger support to the chancellor: "When I look back to 2010 and what could have happened without fiscal consolidation I shiver." Not immaterial in all of this is that Ms Lagarde counts Mr Osborne as a friend: he was the first major finance minister to back her bid to be head of the IMF. In the course of just a few days, the chancellor has decisively lost one of his key personal and institutional allies. He must now prepare for a showdown next month when Fund economists visit London to make their annual inspection.

We can imagine just how embattled the government will be this summer. Take this coming week; it may be that the GDP figures on Thursday show that the UK has narrowly avoided a triple-dip recession – a result that would once have provided rhetorical ammo for the Treasury but will now be easily deflected by any TV interviewer toting a couple of choice quotes from the IMF. Then there will be next month's local elections. And the setting of a spending review for June is bound to provoke months of mutinous muttering from ministers in charge of unprotected departments (see Vince Cable, Theresa May and Philip Hammond). But the events of the past week also show up the rottenness of our economic policymaking process. The Reinhart-Rogoff argument about a tipping point for debt was influential around the world. Yet the idea that there could be a natural cap for debt, which, when breached, would usher in sharply lower growth, is absurd.

Such mechanical explanations don't fit with history: in 1945, Britain had debt of 220% of GDP but no economic disaster struck. Nor do they fit with commonsense: why should high debt produce low growth rather than, as is happening now, low growth lead to higher debt? Yet this study and others of similarly murky worth were cited by everyone from Paul Ryan to the austerity crowd in Brussels, and heeded by institutions such as the IMF. Put all this together, and a picture emerges of academics overselling a simplistic argument that is conducive to ministers' yen for austerity and so gets further simplified for political purposes. The past week has dented Mr Osborne's reputation; but it should be a chastening one for economic policymakers in Brussels, Frankfurt and Washington, too.

Editorial

The GuardianTramp

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