Dodgy sums on Scottish Independence

5 Feb

I’m not what you’d call a fan of Modern Monetary Theory. I see in it no real solution to our most pressing problems – eco-insanity and threat of nuclear armageddon; inhuman conditions for hundreds of millions in the global south and growing misery for tens of millions in the global north. All are logical consequences – and demonstrably so – of entrusting wealth creation to private ownership and the pursuit of profits in anarchic markets.

As opposed to the solution advocated by extremists like me: socialised wealth creation planned by and for humankind.1

I nevertheless subscribe to MMT guru Richard Murphy’s Tax Research UK feed. Here’s why:

  • His refreshingly acerbic style. All political bloggers can learn from the way he deals, in a no-nonsense manner seldom gratuitously rude, with BTL air-heads who betray little sign of having read the posts they comment on.
  • The relative superiority of demand over supply side economics. Granted, this is not difficult. Even in his day Marx was castigating monetarism as ‘the most vulgar school in economics’. But given the enduring imprint on Britain’s collective psyche of Mrs Thatcher’s homely but whoppingly specious analogising of state fiscal rectitude with sound household budgeting, a Richard Murphy or even a run of the mill Keynesian like Paul Krugman can seem a breath of fresh air.
  • At times Murphy comes close, wittingly or not, to the spirit of ‘transitional’ demands.2 Which is to say, demands that patently address some at least of the burning needs of the day yet cannot be conceded under capitalism.3 For an example of what I’m talking about, see my post last March, Labour Party: your silence is deafening.

This is by way of preamble to Mr Murphy’s post yesterday As my title hints, its subject is some spectacularly risible macro-accountancy – in this case at Mick Jagger’s alma mater, the London School of Economics – to ‘prove’ that independence will be an economic disaster for Scotland.

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The LSE report on the increased costs in trade for an independent Scotland is based on unsubstantiated data and absurd assumptions

I have tried hard to take seriously the new report from the LSE on the costs of Scottish independence, as measured through the supposed impediments to trade that it will create, but I can’t. It’s available here.

There are numerous issues I can raise. First, and most glaringly obviously, the authors note that:

Unlike independent countries, Scotland does not collect detailed statistics on its external trade. Export Statistics Scotland provides useful data about onshore Scottish exports, but import data is relatively sparse.

In other words, there is quite literally no useful data on which to draw conclusions.

As the authors then add:

Measuring Scotland’s trade is further complicated by the convention that economic statistics are produced separately for the onshore Scottish economy and its offshore counterpart (i.e. oil and gas production).

But, despite the very obvious fact that the only realistic thing to do at this point was, to be polite, to give up, they ploughed on:

However, by merging data sources and combining statistics for the onshore and offshore economies, we can obtain an overview of Scottish trade.

With respect, that conclusion literally cannot be reached from the claims that go before it. The only reasonable conclusion for the authors to reach was that there is no reliable basis on which to work. But they produced data anyway. Let’s be candid, on this basis GERS4 looks to be reliable, and that that is very far from the case.

What is more, the most cursory inspection of the findings gives clues as to more problems. For example, the authors say:

In European terms, the UK is a large economy, whereas Scotland is medium-sized. In 2017 Scotland’s GDP was £169 billion, similar to Czechia, Greece, Romania and Portugal.

But that assumes GERS is right, and there are good reasons to doubt that.

More significantly,  GDP data is critically dependent upon accurate import and export data, and as just noted, and as the authors acknowledge, that is not available for a Scotland. So in that case these claims have to be unreliable

Exports account for 58% of Scottish GDP and imports for 60% of Scottish GDP. By contrast, in RUK exports account for 35% of GDP and imports for 36% of GDP.

From this they conclude:

We estimate there is around six times more trade between Scotland and the rest of the UK than predicted by a standard gravity trade model. Alternative methods imply there is from 2.6 to 7.8 times more Scotland-rest of UK trade than predicted.

They do at least have the decency to conclude:

This excess trade is partly the consequence of Scotland’s union with the rest of the UK.

This, however, is an insufficient explanation. To have a result so abnormal (an absolute outlier in statistical terms) suggests one of three things. The first is that the data set is wrong. The second is that the data does not reflect the reality of what is going on. The third is that the behaviour being recorded is actually abnormal. It so happens all three are likely.

First, I have already noted that the data is highly unlikely to be right.

Second, it is exceptionally likely that, in the absence of any border on which to actually measure the flow of products, what the available data really records is the relocation of the ownership of product. So, for example, it is entirely possible that Scottish product is transferred from Scottish ownership to English ownership prior to export, and the same may well happen in the opposite direction, none of which is surprising. In integrated economies, with companies that have no reason to respect the border between England and Scotland, and with no VAT or tax charge for the transfer of title, the likelihood that English-based import and export entities are being used by large groups of companies (who will dominate trade) to, first, take ownership of Scottish product (or imports) before they then actually move into or out of the UK as a whole, with those transfers across the next border recorded as English, is very high indeed. In other words, the likelihood is that actual imports and exports to England are much lower than reported and that those to elsewhere are much higher, with the data being distorted by what might best be called ‘book transactions’.

Third, the trade is abnormal because there is no border: if there was the flows would be different, as I note below.

The fact that geography also dictates that at present it is convenient to import and export through England just adds to the chance that this possibility is high.

But there are more issues (actually many more, but there are limits to the number that need be noted).

Take, for example, the claim that the cost of trade between Scotland and England will increase by 31%. Ludicrously, this is based on the estimated cost increase in trade between the UK and Ireland in 1922. As assumptions go, I cannot think of anything more ridiculous. The UK and Ireland were pretty much still at war. The UK controlled all the routes in and out of Ireland and could charge what it liked, and technology was utterly different. To pretend that this data is in any way relevant is absurd. Sheer common sense suggests that the comparison makes no sense.

There is a final absurdity to note. The authors seem to assume that there will be no behavioural changes despite these costs. But just look at what is happening in Ireland right now. Literally, almost overnight new freight routes that avoid costs have opened. And so would they from Scotland to avoid the claimed costs of going through England. This would be most especially the case if Scotland rejoined the EU, when import substitution from the UK might be very significant.

Put it all together and the claims in this report are literally not worth the paper they are written on. I suggested the estimates be consigned to that receptacle in the corner of your room, never to be discussed again.

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  1. The fundamental differences between MMT and Marxist understandings of money can be easily gleaned by online search. Useful in this respect is an explanation set out here on the In Defence of Marxism website.
  2. The point of transitional demands, most associated with Leon Trotsky, is to bridge the gulf between reformist and revolutionary responses to capitalism’s inhuman logic.
  3. ‘Demands that patently address some at least of the burning needs of the day yet cannot be conceded under capitalism’ – this is often scorned as cheap cynicism. I beg to differ. Those who grasp the extent of capitalism’s life-negating totalitarianism are Pythagoreans in a world of flat-earthers. One task, and a major one at that, is to show capitalism as fundamentally at odds with all that sane people hold dear. Challenging capitalism to make concessions which, though necessary from a human perspective, it cannot make is part of this. Capitalism’s apologists are skilled – and more importantly have the instruments of opinion manufacture: news media, entertainment, education and therefore (note Mrs Thatcher’s success with household budgeting ‘parallels’) our deeply internalised ‘common sense’ – at persuading us that what’s good for profits is good for humanity. Indeed, the defence of capitalism as a creator of jobs has to be the most successful tautology in human history. But when bleak realities intrude, even the most accomplished of spun narratives, flat out lies and circular arguments have their breaking points.
  4. GERS = Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland

5 Replies to “Dodgy sums on Scottish Independence

  1. Hello Phillip,
    Good article and glad you posted it.

    I was laughing by the time I got to the paragraph “However, by merging data sources and combining statistics for the onshore and offshore economies, we can obtain an overview of Scottish trade.” I am surprised Richard kept his cool, he doesn’t always(some of those posting comments on his site are eye watering in their stupidity and argumentative – that’s when you see Richard throw his hands up).

    I haven’t followed Richard Murphy in years, but he is a clever man. I don’t know if Corbynomics caused a rift between Richard and Jeremy but I do know he really had to bite his tongue on Sunday BBC politics when Andrew Neil goaded him about it. You may remember how much the BBC hated Corbyn and the left and would happily deliberately try to demean or belittle guests from Corbyn’s corner.

    I have no axe to grind with regard Scottish Independence but I do not believe that Scotland is better off tied to England anymore than Ireland is. I actually believe that the article Richard is shredding is panic mode by an English ruling establishment fearing the consequences of it’s own political shenannigans and arrogance. Hubris will only take you so far before you fall flat on your face.

    Hope you are well.

    🙂

    • I’m well Susan. Re your final paragraph, the Union is unravelling. While the causes run deep and wide, the immediate catalysts are, as you say, arrogance and hubris – in this case the quintessentially Bullingdon complacency of Dodgy Dave and Breezy Boris.

      • Sadly, the statistical model of the LSE is not the only dodgy aspect of the current situation re Scotland.

        The political shenanigans and arrogance which Susan observes are not confined to England or the English Political Party’s and Establishment.

        What has occurred, and is occurring right now, in Scotland from its political establishment is bizarre even by English standards.

        • Unfortunately true. The important point though is that the SNP holds together long enough to get independence through, and deal another blow towards the demise of the British Empire. After that I hope to see the SNP torn apart, as it now seems to deserve to be, and be replaced by a more democratic and socialist government.

          Thanks for highlighting this Phil.

          • On the available evidence there seems little to suggest that independence in Scotland will be achieved via the current administration.

            For a number of very obvious reasons membership has and is haemorrhaging.

            An extreme centerist science and reality denying leadership cult which has no serious Plan B beyond begging an old Etonion English regime for permission even a blind man on a galloping horse can see will never be granted; which, like it’s counterparts in the Labour, Liberal and Green Party’s, operates with a bunker mentality whilst corruptly gerrymandering not only it’s own internal processes but also the law and legal process to an extent which would make Caligula blush.

            The best Caligula could manage was to self identify his horse as a Senator.

            Having invented a whole new mathematics via hiding a sum of money, supposedly set aside as a separate independence fighting fund, in a set of accounts which totals up to far less than what was in the fighting fund, it’s not difficult to envisage the Party administration setting itself up as a political hedge fund.

            It could then short elections by borrowing more votes than exist and rename Scotland Dunny-on-the Wold.

            Little wonder the wider, serious, independence movement are seeking alternatives.

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