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April 5, 2010
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Perils of the Parallax View

LONDON – There will be a general election here next month, probably in the first week in May (this week the Queen must give her blessing). Either Labor’s Gordon Brown will remain prime minister, or David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, will replace him, depending on whose party wins the most seats in the 650-seat House of Commons.

A hung parliament is also possible, since the Liberal Democrats, a third party, may run well enough to prevent a clear majority. The Liberals have been championed by their shadow treasury minister, Vince Cable, a PhD economist who was among those who warned early of the crash. Brown would remain prime minister in that event, with the outside chance that Cable would vault into the chancellor’s job, instead of Labor’s Alistair Darling or the Tories’ George Osborne. It’s a little like cricket.

The contest’s wider interest derives from the tendency of the United Kingdom and the United States to move together as their leaders seek to navigate the currents in a swiftly changing world.

Thus Margaret Thatcher’s emergence as prime minister in 1979 turned out to be a portent of Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. The election of “new” Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 preceded the arrival in 1997 of Tony Blair and the “New” Labor Party. (After Thatcher stepped down, in 1990, John Major led the Tories for seven more years; Gordon Brown moved up to replace Blair in 2007.)

True, after its own hung election in 2000, the US had eight years of George W. Bush. For six of them, there was a lot of palaver about a permanent conservative majority. Until recently, the UK had been expected to turn Right again, perhaps again leading the way to some new dispensation, with Cameron and the Tories enjoying a comfortable lead in opinion polls. The change would seem portentous. If the UK government changes hands next month, it will be only the second time in more than thirty years.
Last week, with Conservatives under fire for promising a new tax cut, that outcome seemed less sure.

Now I know next to nothing about the forces that determine British public opinion. I am quite content to wait. I am more interested in a subtler point – how do prior opinions derived from British politics impinge on British commentators’ perceptions of American politics?

It matters because, like many others, I attach a great deal of value to the parallax view obtained from reading a pair of British periodicals. I read the Financial Times every morning and The Economist every week, along with several leading American papers. Recently it has seemed to me the risk has increased that the best Brits have the wrong idea about where America is heading.

Take Clive Crook, the principal Washington commentator for the FT. His Monday column usually has been – since before the 2008 election – the single most interesting thing I read out of Washington, very much the work of a man about town. But I have begun to suspect that he is misreading the situation in a fundamental way.

In February, for instance, Crook wrote, “The best hope for the Obama presidency may be the drubbing for Democrats in November that looks increasingly likely. Just as for Bill Clinton in 1994, this would make the president’s mind up for him. With weakened allies in Congress, he would have to be a centrist president or an outright failure.” And again last week: “The manner of the US healthcare law’s passage [overriding the doubts of a skeptical public], as much as its substance, makes November’s mid-term elections pivotal. They may decide the political trajectory of the United States for the next several decades.” This sounds like a man who expects 1994 (when New Gingrich’s Contract with America produced a Republican majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives) all over again.

Then there is The Economist. I was brought up short by its Jan 21 cover, “Stop! The Backlash against Big Government,” with its illustration of a monstrous gluttonous creature swallowing a defenseless man, and accompanying editorial, which were inspired by Scott Brown’s unexpected victory in the US Senate election in Massachusetts to fill the seat formerly held by Edward M. Kennedy.

[T]the result could be remembered as a message more profound than the disparate mutterings of a grumpy electorate that has lost faith in its leader—as a growl of hostility to the rising power of the state. America’s most vibrant political force at the moment is the anti-tax tea-party movement. Even in leftish Massachusetts people are worried that Mr. Obama’s spending splurge, notably his still-unpassed health-care bill, will send the deficit soaring. In Britain, where elections are usually spending competitions, the contest this year will be fought about where to cut. Even in regions as historically statist as Scandinavia and southern Europe debates are beginning to emerge about the size and effectiveness of government.

All true, at least up to a point.

My doubts about what they are thinking in London go back to The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, a 2004 book in which Economist correspondents John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge declared .that “the Right is making the political weather now in the way the Left did in the 1960s.” Two years later Micklethwait became the magazine’s editor-in-chief. Books by its editors have played a crucial role at The Economist over 150 years, from Walter Bagehot to Bill Emmott. And the success of the magazine owes much to its hyper-collaborative nature, facilitated by the anonymity that permits spirited debate among its writers. Even so, that weather forecast is about to get a considerable testing.

The point is that political correspondence between Washington and London has always been something of a hall of mirrors. Distortions inevitably arise when viewing the one from the standpoint of the other. Keeping an eye out for them adds a certain zest to following the election news, both next month and in November. My hunch is that, at least in America, the Right is headed for a spectacular breakdown, only after which the once familiar strain of moderate Republican leadership will reappear.

This is all far afield from the mission that took me to the United Kingdom last week, the annual meeting of the Royal Economic Society, at the University of Surrey, in Guildford, but then it is more interesting. The RES is an excellent meeting, with lots of Europeans and even some Americans, but it lacks the excitement of a job market. That means it produces little fresh information about where the profession is headed.

The marquee lectures this year were delivered by Carmen Reinhart, of the University of Maryland, co-author of This Time Is Different, and Robert Hall, of Stanford University, president of the American Economic Association.  The new president is Richard Blundell, of University College London. The meeting was well attended – around 400 participants, up from 350 last year. But the really interesting business seemed far away, at least four weeks over the horizon.

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