Friday, October 22, 2010

Nick Clegg's "fuzzy math"

When then Vice President Al Gore challenged then Governor George W. Bush about the details on his plan, Bush replied that Gore was resorting to "fuzzy math" in dismissing the challenges. Bush's critics were enraged by what they perceived as dodging important questions about his policies, but the idea of "fuzzy math" stuck and helped win Bush support.

One -- perhaps highly uncharitable interpretation -- is that voters simply can't be bothered with too much detail. Policy pro's and con's should be "tweet" length at most delivered in 30-60 second blasts. Anything more than this may add to the electorate's sense that politicians are deft at throwing numbers around, but short on the reality meeting the promises made.

Enter the UK's coalition Government's Comprehensive Spending Review. This review proposes major cuts in public spending where all are to be affected, but guided by a principle of fairness whereby those who earn the most would shoulder most of the burden. In particular, we have heard much talk about how the most vulnerable and the least financially advantaged will not shoulder a majority of the spending pain.

The problem is that the Government's figures may not stand up to the promises made. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, widely touted as the country's most respected tax and spend monitor group, has confirmed that, in fact, the poorest half of society will be hit worse than the richest half. The spending cuts are not "progressive" as promised by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats alike, but clearly regressive. We are warned of the possibility that these measures will lead to probable tax rises and further cuts in the near future, along with the risk of a double-dip recession.

A further problem is that the Government has widely touted the IFS and its respected authority as a matter of routine. In September, the Government appointed Robert Chote as the new head of the Office for Budget Responsibility. Chote had been Director of the IFS for 8 years previously. The Independent reports: "[. . .] Yesterday, the Chancellor said Mr Chote's experience was "beyond doubt" and he was "one of the most credible independent voices on public finances, taxation and public spending". [. . .]"

The response? "That's a bunch of fuzzy math!" Nick Clegg has denounced the IFS figures as "distorted nonsense" and he demanded that critics talk "straight" about the cuts rather than fearmonger. Clegg's hope must be that the private sector really will surprise critics and step in, permitting ministers to say that "see? This wasn't as bad as you thought after all...." Furthermore, he may be banking on the public's inattention to financial details to end any erosion of support for cuts.

Nevertheless, perhaps we have heard from Clegg before on talking "straight" and how he would offer "no more broken promises" during an election campaign only a few months ago -- only to scrap many of the pledges that his straight talk and politics of trust-me-I'm-not-them had made repeatedly as you can find here.

The fuzzy math strategy worked for Bush. Time will tell if it works for Clegg, too.

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