If You Want Credit For an Improving Economy, You Have to Seize It


Paul Krugman channels Simon Wren-Lewis today to complain about the economic triumphalism of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been crowing that his austerity policies are finally paying off. In reality, both men say, Cameron implemented austerity policies in 2010 and 2011, but then eased up. And now that he’s eased up, the economy is starting to improve. Austerity had nothing to do with it.

I want to use this as a springboard to make two random-but-connected points:

  • Politically, message consistency is key. Ronald Reagan never varied from his insistence that tax cuts would supercharge the economy, so when the economy finally did pick up in 1983, tax cuts got the credit even though they almost certainly played only a small role. Likewise, austerity is getting the credit in Britain because Cameron has never varied from his insistence that it would work. Liberals tend to be much worse at this kind of economic message discipline. When the economy improves, they get a lot less credit because they haven’t relentlessly prepared the public with a very simple message about what they’ve been doing.
  • On a related note, Wren-Lewis points out that Britain’s central government deficit in 2013 was 7.5 percent of GDP. Cameron touts this as evidence of his fiscal stinginess. In America, the federal deficit in 2013 was 4.1 percent of GDP. Conventional wisdom ignores this and continues to wail that we need ever more spending cuts in order to reduce our still-unconscionable deficits. One again, note the difference that message discipline makes.

My point is not that message discipline is everything. The real world matters more. But it does matter. If you want credit for good things, you have to make up a simple, plausible story about what you’re doing and then stick to it like glue until things finally turn up. It worked for Reagan and it’s working for Cameron. Obama, on the other hand, never had a consistent story, so he’s not getting any credit as the economy improves.

POSTSCRIPT: Needless to say, Obama also had much less control over the economy than Cameron, who doesn’t have to put up with a fractious Congress. So from a message point of view, maybe he was just screwed. Still, I suspect Obama could have done better than he did.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest