Why Niall Ferguson, Ken Livingstone and Toby Young got it wrong on national debt

It has been a while since I last wrote anything along these lines.  I think the last time I debunked some lazy journalism was when I corrected a piece by Melanie Phillips in an article for The Guardian.  But once again we have seen an example of poor information research and once again it needs to be corrected, not least because of the implications of such mis-information.  So let’s get straight into it.

The nub of the problem is a post written by Toby Young about Thursday night’s Question Time.  His particular claim is that Ken Livingstone ‘lied’ about debt and Niall Ferguson was correct.  Young writes:

On Question Time this evening, Ken Livingstone claimed that when Labour entered office in 1997 government debt as a percentage of GDP was 42% and 13 years later, when Labour left office, it stood at 40%.

Ferguson pointed out that, in fact, debt as a percentage of GDP when Gordon Brown left office was 71.3% not 40%. And he’s absolutely right, as this chart from the Office of National Statistics makes clear.

So far, so seemingly plausible.  Or is it?  Well, no.

First of all, Livingstone actually said (and you can check on the video clip above) was “when Blair won, our debt was 42%”.  This 42% figure that Livingstone introduced comes from the UK National Debt as a percentage of GDP which was 41.92% in 1997, so let’s call it 42%.  It is probably worth explaining at this point what figure government, politicians and the media refer to when they talk about “UK National Debt”.

The website UK Debt Bombshell explains:

The precise term ‘National Debt’ refers to an older definition of public debt that excludes too many liabilities to be meaningful nowadays. The official government measure of what is commonly known as the national debt is Public Sector Net Debt. In this context, public sector refers to central government, local government and publicly-owned corporations. [emphasis mine]

So, essentially, when you hear the term ‘national debt’ what is being referred to is Public Sector Net Debt.  Going back to Livingstone’s 42% reference earlier, he is talking about Public Sector Net Debt (the official government measure remember).  So Livingstone is right on this point.  Debt was 42% in 1997.

Where Livingstone goes wrong is by claiming that it was 40% when Labour were kicked out of office.  It wasn’t. It was 40% when the banking crisis started, but it was not 40% by the time of the election due to the banking crisis.  The Office for National Statistics states that:

Public sector net debt (excluding financial interventions) was £875.8 billion (equivalent to 58.0 per cent of GDP) at the end of February 2011. This compares to £729.9 billion (50.8 per cent of GDP) as at the end of February 2010.

Note that the right-hand graph refers to Public Sector Net Debt.  Remember, “public sector net debt” is the official government measure of national debt as we have already demonstrated.  So, Livingstone is wrong.  National debt was at 50.8% of GDP in February of 2010 and, using the graph as a guide, around 55% when Brown left office.

But then Ferguson claims that the figure was actually 71.3% when Brown left office, a claim repeated by Young.  So where does this figure come from?  Figures from the ONS have already demonstrated that using the official government measure of debt the figure was around 55%, so where does this 71.3% figure come from?

Young handily links to a ONS report that shows where this figure comes from.  Unfortunately for both Young and Ferguson, this is not a chart representing the UK national debt, this chart refers to general government debt, a quite different measure and not one that has ever been used to signify UK national debt.  The ONS states:

In the financial year 2009/10 the UK recorded general government net borrowing of £159.8 billion, which was equivalent to 11.4 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

At the end of March 2010 general government debt was £1000.4 billion, equivalent to 71.3 per cent of GDP.

This figure refers to general government gross debt which is quite different, as explained here:

General Government Gross Debt (GGGD) used by EU. is similar to Public sector net debt but excludes net debt of corporations. Also does not offset liquid assets.

So, it is not the same as the government’s official measure for national debt.  Which means that when Ferguson and Young correct Livingstone, they are right to do so (he got the 2010 figure wrong) but the figure they gave is equally incorrect in terms of the measurement of national debt (this chart demonstrates where Livingstone got his 42% figure from and charts that figure right up to 2011).  They are both talking about something completely different to Livingstone who was clearly (as demonstrated by his reference to the 1997 figure) talking about Public Sector Net Debt (the government’s official measurement of national debt – worth repeating).  So, Ferguson and Young are also both wrong.  As stated above, national debt according to the ONS was around 55% in April 2010, not 71.3%.

In summary then: Livingstone was right about national debt in 1997.  Livingstone was wrong about debt when Brown left office.  Ferguson was wrong to claim that debt was 71.3%.  And Young is wrong to repeat it.  And Young’s error is perhaps the greatest.  His wasn’t made in the heat of debate, it was made when he was at a computer and able to check his facts first before blundering in.  A simple check would have revealed to him that the ONS put UK national debt at around 55% in April 2010.

Ok, so why is this important?  It’s just a game of numbers right?  Well yes, but it matters on two fronts.  Firstly, it matters because of the justifications that are being made for the current cycle of cuts.  All the named players above have vested interests at play.  Livingstone wants to play down debt to defend Labour’s record.  Ferguson and Young want to make it sound worse that it is to defend their own ideological positions on the economic right.  Both are wrong and, as usual, the truth is between the two.  Which leads me on to the second reason why this is important.

We are told repeatedly that we live in a world where all the information you could possibly want is free for anyone and everyone to access.  That we don’t need librarians any more to point us to the information we require.  Google can do it all for us.  What we have seen here (as with the Melanie Phillips example cited earlier) is that even journalists and academics make errors when obtaining and sharing information.  And this has very serious implications when one considers the roles that both sets of professionals play in society.  In this case, both Young and Ferguson make a basic error in not understanding what national debt actually refers to.  It is an easy mistake to make.  Who doesn’t leap at the first bit of evidence they come across that defends their own ideological position?  However, the skill is to look deeper, find out what this information actually means before drawing conclusions.  It is a skill that not everyone has, but it is a skill that is essential to the role of the information professional (and, to be honest, it is surprising that an acclaimed historian failed on this score).  Non-prejudicial information retrieval and evaluation.  Remove the information professional from the equation and, as here, you are left with a separation of information from its meaning.

Of course, now Young has put this out on the Internet it is there for all to see.  If only he had asked a librarian for the national debt figure, he might not have made himself look so silly.

Oh and in case you think Young wasn’t talking about national debt (he only uses the term ‘debt’ in his blog post), here’s his comment on Livingstone’s blog post on the issue of debt:

Toby Young

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10 thoughts on “Why Niall Ferguson, Ken Livingstone and Toby Young got it wrong on national debt

  1. Your entire argument turns on your claim that the definition of “national debt” you prefer – the one you say is “used by the government” – is correct. But the source you quote to corroborate this claim actually says that the “precise” definition is the one used by Niall Ferguson and me. You invoke the official use of your definition as evidence that it’s somehow more valid – the dominant definition, as it were – but, in fact, both measures are used by officials.

    I will acknowledge that the “precise” definition of “national debt” is ambiguous and this gives combatants on both sides of the economic debate the latitude to invoke the definition that suits their argument. But that doesn’t make me “wrong” or “silly”. At least my figure is correct by one definition and that definition is, according to your own source, “precise”. There is no definition that would render Ken’s figure correct, “precise” or otherwise.

    • Thanks Toby. Specifically, where does it claim that the measure you both refer to is the figure used for ‘UK national debt’? Can you quote directly from the source please to be clear?

      • Furthermore, the joint ONS and Treasury report is available here:

        http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/d/psf.pdf

        See page 17, column entitled “Net debt as %age of GDP”. April 2010 clearly states that debt stood at 52.8%. As yet, I am still to find a single source that suggests that UK National Debt is measured by General Government Gross Debt. To date, Toby has not managed to provide that evidence, so we are to assume that it does not exist. Which is unsurprising as nobody uses GGGD to define UK National Debt.

    • Thanks. Again though, there is no reference to that figure being used as the measure for national debt. It refers to measures applied under Maastricht. Can you provide a link or quote that demonstrates that GGGD is an accepted measure of the UK National Debt? I’ve linked to several sources explicitly indicating that Public Sector Net Debt is an accepted measure of national debt, can you provide one that explicitly states that GGGD is used as a measure of UK National Debt?

  2. There is, I think, a wider point to be made here. People on the Left, such as Livingstone and, more recently, Johann Hari, are trying to focus attention on the national debt. They correctly point out that as a percentage of GDP this is not high in historical terms. The argument, though, is rather spurious. In the first place, the very high levels of national debt in the 20th century were directly as a result of all-consuming military conflicts that profoundly deformed the economy. In the second place, the problem is not the size of the debt per se, but the rate at which it is increasing, the deficit. At the current rate of increase (around £150bn per year), the size of the debt would double in a little over five years, by which time it really would be at an historically high level. Furthermore, whereas in 1945, say, reducing the debt was a relatively easy task, there appears to be little prospect of it being reduced today.

  3. As governments borrow more to spend then that spending adds to GDP, so its inevitable that the extra spending as a %age will not show up as as a high a figure as it perhaps deserves. The harsh numbers are a better guide.

    Public Net Debt was £348 billion in 97/98 (and set to plateau and dip thereafter – thanks to Tory spending plans). In 10/11 it was £772 and sky rocketing.

    Socialists are totally disingenuous in their cherry picking of statistics. Debt having dipped to £312 billion in 2001 it then started its inevitable Brownian rise despite what we were told was growth.
    By 2005 it was £425 billion. By 2008 it was £525 billion. So lets be clear — the brilliant policies of Gordon Brown -skills which various august bodies claim to value (well he IS coming free) – added £213 billion to our national debt in times of alleged prosperity. Within another 2 years he was going to add virtually another £250 billion!

    All this getting on for £500 billion of debt was going to do do something to the GDP – but the ugly debt is still there even if you cover its face with a sack.

  4. Which makes it interesting to note the Tories supported government spending levels. Ironic that Labour got it wrong this time by following Tory economic policy. And I’m no Labour supporter (never voted for them :))

  5. So Ken was right if he said before the Credit Crunch rather than when Brown left office. Which I think is what he meant. Ferguson was way out – as usual. His facts in his books are rather spurious as well.

    The deficit up until the CC was small. Then a massive hype to bail out Northern Rock then it hit the fan from the USA and all countries were in the same boat.

    The right wing say Brown ruined the economy which is total bunkum. He never created the CC. He ran the economy well until the CC, all figures prove that. The booming economy was for all to see. We had 1 million Poles working here to do the immense construction tasks. Provincial city skylines rose with skyscrapers.

    Ferguson claims to be some sort of economic historian. He did not do economics to my knowledge.

  6. Private Debt -> Consumption -> Boosts Growth -> Boosts Tax Revenues -> Can’t go on forever.

    What many miss is the growth in Private Debt and what many do not acknowledge is that that Government does not have money. People have money and pay taxes. Those people have to contribute to national debt repayments through their taxes or directly to their own private debt obligations. It all comes from the people.

    Over regulation, wage controls, and such like have COSTS despite the many assumed BENEFITS. The “anointed” with their views of a “problem” and application of “solutions” has been the biggest failure of our times. The generation of self-inflicted wounds.

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