In a conversion of Damascene proportions, Wings now concedes that - even allowing for the inherent weaknesses in the GERS figures - if a case is to be made for an independent Scotland we'll need to find more tax revenues and/or bigger public spending savings than were ever discussed during the independence referendum. It's a tacit admission that his Wee Blue Book was simply wrong when it claimed
"the No campaign desperately want you to believe that Scotland would be poorer as an independent country, and that it would therefore have to raise taxes and/or cut public spending to protect services. But that simply isn’t true. In fact, it’s not even close ..."
For those who may not know, Wings Over Scotland is run by (fake Reverend) Stuart Campbell who, with scant regard for economic accuracy, bangs the drum for the cause of Scottish Independence. The style is that of a shock-jock aiming a blunderbuss loaded with random snippets from Google at a web page and letting rip. It serves a purpose for the Nationalist cause, feeding those so hungry for grievance that they won't question a source that tells them what they want to hear.
Stu doesn't like me very much. I'm very careful with data and persistent when it comes to pointing out some of the more glaring errors he makes (and refuses to correct) - for example I recently posted these 10 factual inaccuracies he's continually promoted through his Wee Blue Book. I probably wouldn't bother correcting him if it wasn't for the fact that he's crowd-funded and makes claims to factual accuracy that don't withstand even the most cursory inspection. I happen to think it's poor form to take money from people and use it to publish material that fails to meet basic standards of accuracy.
I had decided I'd written enough on the subject of Wings - if people are still willing to be taken in by his schtick then so be it. But then he put up a post (authored by someone else) which addresses me and my blog directly. Of course it doesn't even attempt to address the errors that I've highlighted and indulges in the most blatant "playing the man not the ball" ad hominem attack you're likely to see. So far so normal for Wings - nothing worth responding to. But as I scanned through the ranting and grievance seeking rhetoric I realised something quite remarkable was happening; the underlying narrative was changing. Of course there's enough spluttering abuse in there for his slower-witted readers to have their thirst for "unionist bashing" sated - but actually if you filter out the noise he's published a post that agrees with what I've been saying all along. It's a tacit admission that the economic case presented by Yes (and punted by Stu himself) was - to be polite - fatally flawed.
Let's look at the post in question. It's authored by a Lindsay Bruce but is written in the voice of Wings (the author is "we") and reeks of Stu's ad hominem style, so I'll refer to the author as Wings and "he" for simplicity.
Wings doesn't name me directly or link to this blog, and (hilariously) even blurs out my twitter handle and picture. It's almost as if he's scared that if his readers were to be exposed to a rational argument they might start to see through him. Anyway; I'm not so petty so here's his blog post - feel free to read it and return > The Limitations of GERS.
Let me dash though the detail of that post and see if we can decode it.
He refers to me as "amateur Unionist blogger". My blogging is certainly unpaid - I don't rely on crowd-funding to allow myself to do this full-time as Stu does, so I guess he get's the drop on me there: Stu is a "professional Nationalist blogger", I'm the one writing this at 6:30 on a Saturday moring. The flip side of that is course that I'm a professional businessman but we'll let that pass. I'm not a fan of the label "unionist" because, for me, being pro-union is more a result of being economically rational than because I hold a dogmatic view. That said, I've always been clear that I'm intuitively in favour of pooling and sharing between neighbours, so I'll take what he clearly intends as a term of abuse on the chin: I'm an amateur unionist blogger.
I hate myself for being dragged down to his level but if he's trying to trash my reputation I feel I have to respond. I'm an amateur unionist blogger who - as a result of being a moderately successful strategy consultant, businessman and entrepreneur - understands how to handle imperfect data, manage uncertainty and make a business case. I also understand how to present data clearly, reconcile figures and construct a robust analytical audit-trail. Stu on the other hand is someone who wouldn't know how to construct an audit trail if - well - if the electoral commission asked him to provide one to explain his referendum campaign expenditure. He illustrates the reference to me with a photo of the Pet Shop Boys. This is because one of my businesses is www.petplanet.co.uk which (alongside www.greenfingers.com) forms a £20m turnover retail group. We're based in Livingston and employ lots of people; he's based in Bath and doesn't. I have other significant business interests in Scotland but it's irrelevant really - he can call me pet shop boy if it helps him get through the day. Maybe I'm always on his mind?
He parenthetically refers to my "analysis":
In essence, the analysis amounts to dumping all the GERS summary tables into a Microsoft Excel graph, adding the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecast for oil revenue, and pointing to a resulting £9.1bn gap between Scotland’s public spending and its total revenue.Oh he's so close to understanding the figures it almost hurts. Let's take this really slowly: the gap between Scotland's public spending and it's total revenue is what is called our deficit. In the most recent GERS figures (2013-14 when oil revenues were still as high as £4bn) that deficit was £12.4bn. What I show is that the amount by which our deficit (excluding oil) exceeds that of the rest of the UK is £9.1bn. The obvious point I'm making is that if you strip out oil (as the market is unfortunately doing for us) that underlying gap is in fact very consistent over the last 15 years. Its the deficit gap which becomes exposed as oil revenues decline.
I lay it out in very careful detail in Full Fiscal Autonomy for Dummies and it is summarised rather neatly (if you read what the axes show) in the graph below. It shows that the deficit gap is explained more by our higher spend per capita (the red line) than our lower onshore tax revenue generated per capita (the green line). I'm genuinely gob-smacked that he still appears unable to follow this really simple analysis.
Now all it took to create this analysis was indeed the simple spreadsheet manipulation of GERS figures and some graphing as he describes. He's right, it really is as simple as that ... which makes it all the more depressing that he still seems unable to follow it.
But in "essence" yes, that was all it took to expose some of the more fantastic Yes camp claims and to highlight the ridiculousness of the economic assertions Stu himself published. Of course if Stu was capable of carrying out such a simple analysis himself maybe he wouldn't have made such a hash of the numbers in his Wee Blue Book - but we'll let that lie.
I could point out that as well as crunching the GERS figures I've also done quite a bit of work understanding the GERS methodology, analysing oil forecasts and oil tax yields, looking at currency options and trading relationships with the rest of the UK and EU negotiations and the potential for economic growth and the costs of independence and .. well, I'm sure you get the point
He then says
This, he asserts, is in addition to Scotland’s share of the hefty deficit the UK currently runs.I do assert that, because it’s true. This is typical of Wings' rhetorical style - he doesn't deny the point I make (he can't, it's true) but by saying "he asserts" his skim-readers will think he's somehow shown I'm wrong. I'm not.
I'm really not sure what I can do about Wings and his acolytes' apparent inability to grasp this amazingly simple fact. Let's do the numbers for him for 2013-14 alone. All figures in £m directly from GERS
- Scotland's deficit = (12,434)
- Scotland's oil tax revenue then was 3,996
- So Scotland's "onshore deficit" (i.e. excluding oil) was (16,430)
Notice that figure is not £9.1bn - the last time our deficit was a low as that was in 2011-12 when oil contributed nearly £10bn. You'd think he'd know that. To understand the deficit gap you need to compare this figure on a per capita basis with the rest of the UK
- Scotland's onshore deficit per capita = 16,430/5.342 = £3,076
- The onshore defict per capita for the rest of the UK (using same methodology) = £1,451
- The onshore deficit gap in 2013-14 was therefore £1,625 for every man woman and child in Scotland
- So gross that up by 5.342 million population = £8.7bn deficit gap in 2013-14
My analysis shows in real terms that figure has averaged £9.1bn over the last 15 years and has unsurprisingly been fairly consistent (the gap between the red and green lines)
His conclusion, shouted loudly and often by every angry Unionist on Twitter, is that the government of an independent Scotland – which tellingly they always assume to be an SNP one – would either have to drastically cut public services or raise taxes to fill this “black hole”.I'll ignore the emotive language and the incorrect assertion that "they" always assume the government will be an SNP one - the essence of this is true: yes I'm saying that an independent Scotland would either have to drastically cut public services or raise taxes to fill this black hole.
But here's the killer line
It’s an interesting piece of analysis. Or it would be, if it wasn’t total nonsense.It's unfortunate that he's already demonstrated that, despite apparently recognising how simple the analysis is, he's shown he still doesn't understand it. But no matter - let's give him the benefit of the doubt - he may not have followed it but he might still be able to now go on and show why it's total nonsense.
In fact - after some predictable diversionary manoeuvres - we'll see he actually goes on to agree with this conclusion. By the end of this post he's scrambling around for tax increases and cost savings to close the gap - I guess he's hoping his readers will have such short attention spans that they'll have forgotten that he said the need for such actions was "total nonsense".
We have to get past the diversionary manoeuvres first though - I'll try to be brief.
I've done a fair amount of analysis on this; the key point being that even if the oil price recovers the tax yield from the North Sea is in structural decline. Tax yield is a function of tax rates (already reduced), production volumes (declining) and profitability (declining because of increasing extraction costs as fields mature). Stu doesn't bother with any of this though: his response to an uncertain future is to simply assume it away by dismissing all evidence and analysis.
He then moves on to try and undermine the credibility of GERS:
But it’s GERS that’s the real problem It’s basically the only data source we’ve got in terms of the Scottish Government’s income and expenditure, and that’s why everybody references it.Remember he's meant to be showing that my analysis is "total nonsense". He starts by accepting GERS is the only data source we've got and that everybody (including the White Paper, the Scottish Government, the SNP and indeed Stu himself) relies on it. I'm struggling to see why the fact that I have used this data source might somehow make my analysis "total nonsense" - if his problem is with GERS then his problem is with all analysis around Scotland's economy and he must think we are operating in a knowledge vacuum. Of course he doesn't believe that, he's just aimlessly letting rip with his blunderbuss again.
He starts with a simple enough statement about GERS
Which gives Scotland slightly (about 10%) more for provisioning public services than a straight population share would.That's correct - I make it 10.7% in the most recent year. "Slightly" might be pushing it though. The figure works out at £1,326 per person in the most recent year and in real terms on average £1,450 over the last 15 years. Gross that up across our 5.3 million population and you get £7.7bn a year. Scotland's total education budget is £7.6bn - we can probably agree that £7.7bn is a lot more than "slightly more".
Then he indulges in a little distraction about Barnett consequentials. Of course what GERS observes is the Scottish Government's assessment of what’s spent on us after the impact of Barnett. Arguing about Barnett in the context of GERS "being the real problem" is an irrelevant distraction. You can have issues with Barnett if you like, but nobody disputes that GERS shows the result of applying Barnett as it stands. Of course were Barnett to be scrapped or fundamentally changed then that would change what is spent on us and that would be reflected in GERS. So at the risk of labouring the point - the effect of Barnett as currently applied (including treatment of Olympics, Commonwealth Games, Hs2, Heathrow etc.) is already reflected in GERS - it results in us getting that 10% higher spending per capita.
The next distraction is a doozy. We're all dealing with the most up-to-date GERS figures (which restate historical years on a like-for-like basis) but his post now extensively quotes the "renowned economists Jim and Margaret Cuthbert" (no, me neither) from 2005 and 2007! All of those quotes are completely irrelevant as the methodology has been continually changed and improved and historical figures restated since then
In 2008 the Cuthberts themselves said: “This GERS follows a major review, which has been carried out by officials after consulting widely with users of GERS, (including economists and statisticians like ourselves). It is also the first GERS that has been produced with an SNP government in power at Holyrood, though it should be stressed that GERS is produced independently by officials with no input from Ministers [..] For example, the Treasury data, which is the basic source for the expenditure figures in GERS, (and which until recently was a black box to all outside the Treasury), has been vetted thoroughly by statisticians in Scotland, and they have shown themselves willing to override the Treasury’s figures where these are clearly wrong. Specific mistakes have been corrected, including the treatment of Scottish Water, nuclear decommissioning, and the depreciation of public assets, such as roads. [..] In presentational terms, the report is now supported by very much more detail: this not only gives it increased credibility, but also makes it a very much more useful document."
So why include the lengthy quotes dating back to 2005 and 2007? He carries on by quoting the Cuthberts from 2011 (4 years ago is a recent as he gets) – but nothing changes the fact that these are without doubt the best figures available and (after 8 years of SNP ministerial oversight) are if anything likely to favour Scotland's case.
He mentions corporation tax and it's worth an aside. We can all agree that GERS current corporation tax assumptions are necessarily very crude for the simple reason that companies don’t report profit on a Scotland vs rUK basis, so the data simply doesn’t exist. How companies will choose to report profit will depend on a number of factors (not least the tax regimes in place) so of all the GERS assumptions this has to be the least certain estimate. Unsurprisingly the SNP influenced GERS estimate is relatively generous to Scotland, assuming £0.5bn more corporation tax would fall to an independent Scotland than HMRC assume. The net result of the GERS assumptions is that Scotland is allocated corporation tax that implies we generate almost identical corporation tax per capita as the rest of the UK - in fact it shows only a £29 per person difference!
So he's set out to undermine GERS, but in the process he's done nothing more than confirm its the best source we've got, that any historical gripes have been long since addressed and shown us that his favourite "respected economists" are happy that statisticians in Scotland have been willing to override Treasury figures. I'm delighted that he chooses not to repeat the assertions (still on his website) that head-office location somehow determine where VAT is allocated in GERS and I'm relieved that he doesn't suggest (as he's done in the past) that there's any missing Whisky Duty. This is progress and I applaud it.
So now he move on to the crux of the matter: how do we interpret the GERS data?
This really is fundamental. GERS relates only to the current devolution settlement. It says absolutely nothing about the economy of an independent Scotland, or indeed anything about what it might look like if and when the Scotland Bill 2015 is eventually enactedFirst of all, it's clearly ridiculous to state that it says "absolutely nothing" about the economy of an independent Scotland. It obviously gives us a starting point from where we can hypothesise what an independent Scotland's economy might look like. I'm sure he doesn't really think we know nothing from the GERS figures - it is after all the GERS figures that are used to justify statements like "Scotland would be the 14th richest country in the world" or "We've paid more tax per head of population every year for the past 34 years" or "Scotland's GDP per head is higher than the UK as a whole". It's the GERS figures that the White Paper was based on for goodness sake.
Remember: he's trying to show that my conclusions are "total nonsense". Let me quote from my own blog on this subject: "I don't mean to understate the alternative choices that we would have under independence. One of the major frustrations of the indyref campaign was that so much bollocks was talked about what our economic starting position really was that we never managed to have a substantive debate about what we might actually do with the power that independence would give us"
So I agree with Stu on on the most important point here: this tells us where we start from if we keep everything as it is today. Of course we wouldn’t want to do that and indeed (given the size of deficit we’d have as a result) we wouldn’t be able to maintain this profile of tax and spend for long even if we wanted to. This analysis merely gives us the base from which we have to explain what we’d change if we were independent, it allows us to ask the right questions and forces on us the discipline of making the rhetoric tie in with actual scaled figures
- If we didn’t spend the sums currently allocated to us, what would we actually spend? Would that be more or less and - critically - if less, what difference would that make to people's lives?
- If we didn’t have the same tax regime what would we change and what impact would that need to have? If we're going to cut taxes, how will we make up the shortfall? If we're going to tax the wealthy more, who will we tax, how much will we tax them and what will we realistically raise as a result?
- If we're going to grow our tax take through economic growth, how will this be delivered? Might we risk losing economic growth as a result of currency uncertainty and separation from our largest market? Even if we're optimistic, realistically how long would it take us to grow our tax base enough to offset the deficit gap and how would we deal with the funding gap in the meantime?
But here's where the narrative changes: give Wings his due, he does now start to front up to the reality of what would be required.
But first he has to attack me personally (again). I'm not getting dragged into his game on this, but suffice to say the Twitter exchanges are completely inaccurately portrayed. For the record here's the economics editor of the Sunday Times ...
.. and here's the founder of MoneyWeek@kevverage Looks like an excellent and very thorough analysis to me.— David Smith (@dsmitheconomics) October 27, 2015
Unfortunately Merryn receives a bit of the Wings ad hom treatment for being kind enough to support me publicly. Wings is a bully, that's what he does. Funnily enough I have DM's and emails from prominent economists backing my work but apologising that they don't want to say so publicly because they've seen how Wings attacks people. He's a bully because it works. That depresses me. Still - I have more credible people willing to publicly back me than Wings does, I think that's beyond dispute. If I've missed a credible economist saying they rate Stu's analysis I'm sure I'll be shown it.I did econ at Cambridge and I say @kevverage knows what he is talking about too... https://t.co/J5d8VwDvFF— Merryn Somerset Webb (@MerrynSW) October 27, 2015
Anyway, after taking a few swipes at my shins he then returns to the GERS analysis
Nevertheless, almost all countries run a deficit, and even with all the flaws in GERS it seems beyond much doubt that Scotland would too.Hold on a minute: "It seems beyond doubt that Scotland would too"? I thought "It says absolutely nothing about the economy of an independent Scotland"? If my analysis is "total nonsense" then so must this "beyond doubt" conclusion be.
But let's focus on the positive: we can agree that it's beyond doubt that an independent Scotland would start off running a deficit. We can I think also agree that he's demonstrated (again) that he hasn't grasped the concept of the deficit gap - what we'd have to close for our economy not to be worse off than we have now by pooling & sharing within the UK. According to GERS the scale of the gap, the amount worse than the rest of the UK that Scotland's deficit would be, is £9bn. Stu has helped us see (via the Cuthberts' work) that GERS is as likely to be generous to Scotland as not (particularly given the corporation tax assumption). He hasn't suggested any better figures and he's tacitly accepted that the GERS figures are now fair. If I was asked to put an error bound on the figures I would suggest +/-£0.5bn would be more than adequate - I don't think even in his wildest fantasy Wings is going to suggest that the figures are out by £9bn. So we have a big deficit gap to address - that too is surely "beyond much doubt".
Then something really important happens. Wings is no longer saying we subsidise the UK and that the simple act of separation would make us better off. He's finally allowed the drip drip drip of persistently, accurately presented data to win him round. He starts to talk about the exceptional tax rises and cost cuts that an independent Scotland might be able to undertake. Remember; when he referred to my conclusion saying this was required he said it was "total nonsense" - now he's starting to list ways it might be achieved. Why bother if it's not necessary?
So what does he suggest? I'll warn you now this is not a very exciting list, but what it does show is a tacit acceptance that some way has to be found to fill the deficit gap that we'd be exposed to
He starts with "close tax loopholes" – every political party manifesto ever written include this idea, because politically it's free money. Quite why an independent Scotland should be able to achieve this when successive Westminster governments have failed is never explained. If this is what you want I'm pretty sure it was writ large in the Labour manifesto - it has nothing to do with independence.
He then talks about "expanding the tax base" - this is what’s otherwise called growing the economy. I’ve covered that in some detail (We Need to Talk About Growth), but at it's simplest we’d require 12% growth over and above the rest of the UK to close the gap through growth alone. The White paper provided an illustration suggesting cumulatively 3.8% superior growth over 30 years might be a realistic "independence dividend". There are plenty of arguments (currency, trade) that suggest we may not experience superior growth - but even at that optimistic rate it would take us over 100 years to close the gap. That's a long time during which we'd have to find other ways to fund our exceptional deficit.
He then bungs in a few “tax the rich” ideas – he doesn't attempt to scale them (because the examples given are pretty marginal) but it’s a positive step, it's an admission that we’d have to tax the wealthy more (not an admission you'll have heard during the indyref and certainly not something you'd have found anywhere in the White Paper). In fact, when you look at the numbers closely, the reality is that to make any dent on the £9bn you'd need to tax the middle classes more - but Stu's not got there yet.
So that's it on tax - now for the cost side (which we know is where the real issues lie).
He starts with defence, without actually suggesting a saving figure. Our total allocated defence spend is £3bn and that puts us pretty much bang on the 2.0% of GDP that NATO members are meant to target. It's not clear how much Stu is suggesting we cut the budget by - there are of course jobs associated with defence, we have fishing waters to protect and if we want to remain in NATO there are commitments we'd have to make. The White Paper suggested £0.5bn was realistic (a figure many have challenged). But I applaud Stu for being bold enough to admit one way we'd be able to close the gap would be to get rid of defence expenditure (and defence jobs). Given our total allocated defence spend is £3bn, it is of course obvious that scrapping all defence expenditure would only close a third of the deficit gap (and I don't think that's what he's suggesting).
He make a quick nod to “fat subsidies” for nuclear - but neglects to specify the annual cost of these to Scotland (it's not big) or to note that over 30% of Scotland's current power generating capacity is nuclear (and I'm pretty sure we wouldn't be a net energy exporter without it).
So he's not really found much. But I applaud the fact that he is tacitly accepting that those arguing the case for independence need to start finding tax increases or cost cuts (relative to our current GERS figures) if they are to explain how our economy would function without the benefits of UK-wide pooling and sharing.
He moves to a close with a typical Nationalist flourish
But the entire point of independence is for Scotland to make its choices for itself, for us to determine our own priorities (and make our own mistakes) rather than having the consequences of somebody else’s foisted upon us.This is back to the old debate of what is meant by “somebody else” – I see people in Birmingham, Liverpool or London as no more “somebody else” than people in Aberdeen, Glasgow or Shetland. Of course Stu (famously in Bath) clearly thinks differently. People like Stu appear wedded to the belief that Scots are innately superior decision makers and better, more worthy and dependable politicians. The very idea that "our own" priorities could be those of "us" the United Kingdom is anathema to Stu. No amount of economic logic - however compelling or persistently and patiently explained - will ever change that I fear.
Then he finishes with a paragraph which is in fact completely at odds with the content of the peice
To deem that goal an economic fantasy based solely on the flawed and fundamentally irrelevant content of GERS is, therefore, to miss that point in the most spectacularly short-sighted and wrong-headed way possible.I presume he's suggesting that I have implied that goal is an "economic fantasy". I certainly haven't. All I've done is repeatedly pointed out that you would need to make changes compared to our current "in Union" GERS accounts that would add up to £9bn pa if the act of separation is not to make us worse off. I simply ask - and will keep asking - where will that £9bn come from?
As for the "flawed and fundamentally irrelevant content of GERS" - well that's just a daft statement. He's shown that GERS is the best data we've got and that the specific complaints he lists are outdated. He himself uses GERS data to conclude we'd need to find more tax money or further cost savings (even if he still hasn't understood the difference between a deficit and the deficit gap between us and the rest of the UK).
I see on Twitter that he's been saying that the Wee Blue Book is his "economic case" and that it only mentions GERS once. Firstly it's not an economic case - it doesn't even pretend to attempt to add up to an economic case. I don't think Stu knows what an economic case is. Secondly, it may only mention GERS directly once but almost every figure in the economics section is derived from GERS, even if he's not bothered to work out where the sources (he's normally quoting out of context) get their data from.
Enough: it's a shame Stu hasn't bothered to correct any of the errors in his Wee Blue Book, it's a shame that his attempt to critique my work has been so lacking in understanding. But let's look on the bright side: he's actually not disputed my analysis (insofar as he's managed to understand it) but has instead gone for the "GERS bad" argument - which is just silly - and the "it will all change anyway" argument - which if he bothered to read what I write he'd know I agree with. I just keep asking the question: what will change versus the "in Union" status quo represented by GERS and where will the £9bn (that we'd need to not be worse off) come from?
He's even shown the first signs of starting to think about what would need to change to close that deficit gap. He's a long way from comprehending the scale of the challenge - but he's making progress and for that I can only applaud him.
*** Addendem ****
My attention has been drawn to this quote from "the Cuthberts" in 2012. It seems there's a reason all Wings quotes from them predate that point - because in 2012 they nailed their colours firmly to the mast: economic data for Scotland was "now clear" by reference to GERS (when they could find favourable stats to cherry-pick):
This gets no further than the usual Government Expenditure and Revenues Scotland, (GERS) analysis of the balance of government revenues and expenditures attributed to Scotland. It is now clear, as even the Unionists have to concede, that Scotland’s basic fiscal position, including Scotland’s share of North Sea revenues, is considerably better than the corresponding balance for the whole of the UK. As a percentage of GDP, Scotland has had a healthier balance than the UK as a whole on its current budget for each of the past six years. In fact, for three of these six years, Scotland was in surplus on its current budget, while the UK was in deficit throughout.Funny that.