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.