books economics politics

Book review: The Lies We Were Told, by Simon Wren-Lewis

Simon Wren-Lewis started a blog in 2011, the unassuming but highly respected Mainly Macro. He has been commenting on it ever since as an economist and academic, and The Lies We Were Told gathers together the best of his blog posts into a book.

The years since 2011 have been eventful and the book covers austerity, the Eurozone crisis, the 2015 general election in Britain, Brexit, Trump and more besides. Across all these topics, Wren-Lewis offers a mainstream macro-economic perspective, showing how politicians use and abuse economic theory.

In particular, he highlights the disconnect between economics as it is discussed by politicians and the media, and how it is understood by economists – something he calls ‘mediamacro’. Politicians will frequently take a line and keep repeating it until it becomes unquestioned, a political ploy to control the narrative around an issue. The media run with it, and eventually it becomes conventional wisdom despite being completely wrong or even an outright falsehood. Hence the title.

For example, David Cameron and the Conservative Party successfully propagated the idea that the financial crisis was Labour’s fault. This is despite the fact that it was a global financial crisis. Similar myth-making happened around austerity. It was sold to the public as prudent management of the economy, but deficit reduction during a downturn is terrible economics. As far as Wren-Lewis is concerned, the ‘austerity deception’ was cover for shrinking the size of government.

Wren-Lewis is critiquing government, and as that government has been Conservative recently some are going to peg the author as Labour and take against him. It’s not without bias, especially since Wren-Lewis has been an advisor to Labour, but the party does get its fair share of criticism over its Brexit policies or its failure to counter specious economic arguments. I suspect that how partisan readers think the book is will largely depend on how partisan they are themselves.

The book is particularly useful in understanding the role of the media. There are good observations on false balance (he estimates that pro-Brexit economists were outnumbered by 25 to 1, but had similar levels of coverage), truth, and newspaper bias. It’s the kind of thing I’d have liked to have discussed during my journalism degree, and I hope it is finding its way onto reading lists for economics and media students.

It is a little strange to read blog posts in a book. By nature they are of the moment, and a compendium like this does lack the through arguments that it would have if it had been written as a book. The Lies We Were Told is probably best dipped in and out, rather than read cover to cover. You can pick and choose the things that interest you, and it could be a bit repetitive otherwise.  For economists struggling to be heard and for those in the media, his insights are well worth reading.

8 comments

  1. “For example, David Cameron and the Conservative Party successfully propagated the idea that the financial crisis was because of Labour overspending. This is despite the fact that it was a global financial crisis. ”

    If that is what Simon Wren Lewis is saying then it’s lies he’s telling. The Tories were very clear that Labour overspending left the country vulnerable to a recession rather than caused it. It’s an intentional twisting to say they claimed otherwise.

    1. “What’s happened over the last ten years is that Labour has broken our economy – and we must fix it.” David Cameron, 2008

      “Put bluntly, Labour created this mess.” George Osborne, 2009

      “Labour’s recession has destroyed more businesses than any other recession since records began.” John Penrose, 2009

      “We are still dealing with the consequences of Labour’s recession” Philip Hammond, 2017

      “recognise the causes: Labour’s recession, the deepest in our post-war history” Sajid Javid, 2013

      “When a country loses control of its finances, it loses control of everything, and it is the poorest who are hit the hardest. Labour’s recession proved that only too clearly.” Andrea Leadsom, 2014

      And just in case you think I’m picking on the Conservatives:

      “Did it admit that Labour was the party that crashed the British economy? Did anyone on the doorstep apologise to the people of Clifton for what the Labour party did to this country?” Nick Clegg, 2014

      “the Scottish government has faced the challenges of Labour’s recession” Bruce Crawford, SNP

      1. Not one of those quotes actually says Labour’s overspending caused the crash.

        What you have there is a strawman. Labour and wren Lewis can’t defend the overspending in the boom time which left the country vulnerable so they create a strawman that the Tories are saying the overspending caused the crash (They didn’t). Labour & its supporters can then say overspending obviously didn’t cause the crash and the Tories are therefore wrong. Repeat the lie often enough and people who get most of their economics from left leaning sources will think its the truth. It seems to have worked one you.

    1. Are you now or have you every been a member of the Conservative Party?

      No, I’m not. But I do like accuracy. I also believe you should Strongman arguments you disagree with. Straw-manning shows a lack of faith in your own argument. Much better to defeat the strongest point rather than dissemble and make up fake weak ones.

      We would do much better if we listened to what those we disagree with actually say rather than rely on what people we agree with say our opponents have said.

      Its like trickle down economics. You won’t find any actual supply side economist who believes in just making the rich richer and the wealth will trickle down. Its a deliberate misconstruction by its opponents but been repeated so often many people think its true.

      You are writing books about economics. Serious people try to get stuff right.

      So are you to going to continue to claim black is white or accept Wren-Lewis is spinning you here?

      1. I’m just curious about why you would take against what I think is a very obvious point. Blaming the recession on Labour was the most popular game in town for all Britain’s other parties, Conservative or otherwise. It’s all about the framing, the deliberate use of ‘Labour’s recession’ every single time you mention it. Then as Wren-Lewis explores, the media will do the rest for you.

        It was very clearly part of the strategy, followed through into the election with the endlessly repeated notion that Labour couldn’t be trusted with the economy because – in David Cameron’s words – they ‘broke’ it last time. I don’t see why you’d want to insist that this didn’t happen. Since you’re not defending your own party, I am none the wiser about why you’re picking that fight.

        1. You are not good at details. Read closely. What you wrote in your review was “the Conservative Party successfully propagated the idea that the financial crisis was because of Labour OVERSPENDING”. That statement is untrue. The Tories blamed Labour for the severity of the recession but NEVER said Labour OVERSPENDING caused it. That is the narrow point. And I think it’s fairly unarguable that if the UK had run a balanced budget 2001-2007 there would have been greater scope for fiscal stimulus and less need for financial consolidation afterwards. So Labour OVERSPENDING did make the crisis worse.

          But this is an inconvenient fact for Wren-Lewis and many Labour supporters who supported that deficit spending in a boom and so they are trying to change the narrative from ‘The Tories say Labour OVERSPENDING made the recession worse’ to ‘The Tories say Labour OVERSPENDING caused the recession. LOL’ in order to escape the blame rather than learn the lesson. I don’t want my home country to spend itself into a debt trap like Italy so I will fight against spendthrifts lying so they can do it again.

          I think it is a great irony that you are saying Wren-Lewis criticizes the media that the Tories deliberately use ‘Labour recession’ and the ‘media do the rest’ when Wren-Lewis is propagating a deliberate lie and hoping the ‘media do the rest’.

          So I’m picking a fight against a lie, one that is uncritically repeated here by you. Trying to change what you were saying from OVERSPENDING narrowly to recession more broadly suggests you don’t know the difference. Repeating that lie makes you Wren-Lewis’s useful idiot.

          Notice I’m not insisting that the Tories didn’t try to blame for the pain of the recession on Labour. Damaging your opponents economic credibility is important to politics. New Labour came to power endlessly talking of ending ‘Tory boom and bust’. The recessions during the previous Tory government weren’t confined to the UK so aren’t really caused by them but it’s the policies that exacerbate or ameliorate those recessions that governments are blamed for so shorthand is ‘Labour’s recession’ or ‘Tory bust’ and is generally fair.

  2. Well, hold your high horses for a moment. What you’re taking issue with here is my paraphrase of Wren-Lewis’s point, which is considerably more sophisticated than your caricature here. Rather than drag him into it, I’ve rephrased it to say “successfully propagated the idea that the financial crisis was Labour’s fault.” That is in my view inarguable from the politicians’ quotes above.

    Just to be clear: I’m quite happy with what I wrote. Remember the ‘magic money tree’ meme? Or the gleeful waving of the ‘there is no money left’ note? It’s all about insinuating overspending – and yes, mismanaging the economy, failure to regulate properly, etc too – because overspending justifies austerity. So I’m changing it for your benefit, and so that you can’t use my words to dismiss Wren Lewis.

    And I’m done with what is, when you stop to think about it, an awful lot of time sunk into a very petty point.

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