We all go through certain milestones in our lives that make us stop and think. death of one of the parents; a child who finished school; The former educational partner became the Prime Minister. The humble underground economist will have to deal with all three in a few months.
I don’t remember much about Liz Truss from studying mathematical logic with her at Oxford. I was too busy wrestling with Benno’s axioms. I think she felt the same. I doubt she shuddered to read the recent revelation in The Economist that while the Conservative Party venerates her, the Liberal Democrats are targeting “Tim Harford voter”. Really, the narrative arc of my life story has taken a disturbing turn.
But what does a Tim Harford voter actually want? After a few weeks of chewing it, I realized that if anyone was in a position to guess, it must have been me. Perhaps the best I can come up with is that a Tim Harford voter worries that the foundations of British policy-making appear shallow and vulnerable. Bad policies are just clumsy fondant cream; It is the cake itself that rots.
Consider Britain’s exit from the European Union. It’s foolish policy for sure, but it’s so much more than that. It was empowered by a vaguely worded referendum presented by the prime minister who crossed his fingers and forbade preparation for the outcome. It was sold to the British people on false pretenses. Member of Parliament, Jo Cox, was killed during the campaign. Three of the prime ministers leading the project – Cameron, May and Truss – voted against it, and the other, Johnson, was contradictory. Since the vote, the process has been mired in vitriol, contempt and denial. One does not have to be too hard-headed to look at the entire decision-making process and fear that the British political system is not really up to the mature function of running a country.
What does a Tim Harford voter want when they look at this? First, something that seems trivial: calm. We live in an age of anger, sometimes justified and sometimes factory. But no one ever thought more clearly because they were angry. Nor is anger the only way to succeed in the political game. Proven winners from Blair to Merkel to Obama have thrived as they try to set a constructive tone.
Truss was trying to stir up anger, but judging by her outrageous talk about how cheese imports are a disgrace, she’s not good at it. Perhaps she will decide that solving problems calmly is best for her.
Second, British institutions need to be supported rather than undermined. The Leave campaign despised the British Statistics Authority. Boris Johnson’s administration has been – if not an oxymoron – doing its best to identify itself against Parliament, the civil service and the Supreme Court. Truss targeted the Bank of England, the Treasury and the unrestricted power of the Financial Times. Meanwhile, the NHS has never been criticized, but is allowed to collapse under the weight of the pandemic.
The UK has had a Conservative Prime Minister for 12 years, so it is easy to see why Truss would like to suggest that the rot does not begin in Downing Street but on Threadneedle Street or Whitehall. Perhaps she can still blame Brussels? Voters might swallow this story, though I wonder. But the country would be much better off if institutions from the Bank of England to the Office of National Statistics were treated as essential parts of the policy-making state, rather than as incompetent pits and betrayals.
The third demand from Tim Harford’s faction is that facts should be more important than “feelings”. The UK has not yet succumbed to the delusional paranoia that is widespread in the US, but a lot of the political arguments are taking place in an environment devoid of facts.
Take the cost of living crunch. The BOE’s truss team attacked for not being strict enough on inflation. But as a matter of simple arithmetic, when wholesale gas prices rise tenfold, the average price rise cannot remain at 2 percent. (My colleague Martin Sandbo notes that if energy prices were to triple, all other prices would have to fall by about 20 percent to keep overall prices stable. Good luck with that.)
It is surprising how often political arguments occur in the UK, whether about tax, crime, immigration or the pandemic, without any indication of whether the numbers are small or large, rising or falling. It can seem boring and gray to ask that policies be made with a sense of direction and proportion. Let it be. Dull and gray it is.
I don’t envy Truss for her new job. But I hope you don’t forget the Peano account we studied together. For a long time, British political rhetoric was based on intuition, inconsistency, and the threat of hand-waving. Piano’s arithmetic is the opposite: an attempt to put logical thought on the most solid foundations. Politics is a different game, of course, but solid foundations will still be useful. Sometimes the basics of gravitation are more important than anything else.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on September 9, 2022.
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