Economic Experts Still Rule -- at Least for Dutch

Grading political parties by their promises is admirable. Whether it helps voters is another story.

So. Many. Facts.

Photographer: BAS CZERWINSKI/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most endearingly odd election rituals on the planet took place this morning in The Hague. The CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis put out its scorecard of the election platforms of 11 Dutch political parties for the March 15 election.

There are similar rituals in other countries. In the U.S., for example, the Congressional Budget Office offers analyses of the fiscal impact of actual legislation, while various nongovernmental entities attempt to calculate the consequences of presidential candidates' tax plans.

But I’m not aware of anywhere else on Earth where the process is so institutionalized and so exhaustive as in the Netherlands. The CPB is an institution of great prominence in its home country and great reputation outside it; its first director, Jan Tinbergen, was co-recipient of the first Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1969. It has been doing these analyses before every national election since 1986; this is now the third time that it has made its assessment in conjunction with the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, which looks at the environmental sustainability of the parties' plans. Dozens of government employees (I didn't see an exact number for this year, but in 2012 it was 60 at the CPB and 20 at the PBL) spent more than three months working full time on the project.

What did they conclude? Well, see for yourself (these are just a few key indicators that I selected from the report):

The VVD (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, "liberals" in the center-right, continental European sense), PvdA (Labour Party) and CDA (Christian Democratic Appeal) are the country's traditional big three parties. The SP (Socialist Party), which seems to come out the best in the above assessment, is a former fringe party that began stealing some of the Labour Party's thunder in the 2000s. Other parties currently doing well in the polls include D66 (Democrats 66, a centrist party founded in, you guessed it, 1966) and GL (Green Left).

Missing from the chart and from the entire 374-page report, though, is the political party that's been leading in most Dutch polls: anti-Islam, anti-European Union populist firebrand Geert Wilders's PVV (Party for Freedom). The PVV did participate in the previous CPB pre-election evaluation in 2012 and performed respectably, but Wilders chose not to submit a platform this time around. Neither did two other parties likely to win multiple seats in the next parliament: 50Plus and the Party for the Animals. For PVV and 50Plus, the decision may have had something to do with a particular priority of both parties that surely wouldn't come off too well in the CPB's budget estimates -- stopping a planned increase in the age at which one begins to receive the Dutch version of Social Security. It's slated to go from 65 to 66 next year, and up to 67 in 2021.

The fact that the party that may have more seats in the next Dutch parliament than any other isn't in the CPB report does seem to cut into the report's relevance a bit. But for now the PVV's absence can probably better be ascribed to expediency rather than principle (plus, it is highly unlikely to be in the next government, whatever its election result, because Wilders doesn't play well with others).

In general, it appears that Dutch political parties are still willing to submit their promises to the scrutiny of economic experts. In this age of expert-bashing and "alternative facts," that is at first glance quite admirable and reassuring. But it's also a little weird, given that the CPB report is populated not so much by facts as by the output of macroeconomic forecasting models -- and macroeconomic forecasting models aren't very good at macroeconomic forecasting. There has to be some kind of baseline to evaluate the parties' plans, but the models have inevitable biases that may be steering Dutch economic policy in less-than-optimal directions. One long-standing complaint about the CPB evaluation process, in fact, is that it nudges the parties toward economic plans so similar to one another that they don't give voters adequate choice.

The headlines on Dutch newspapers' websites after the report was released this morning were an indication of this. Most simply emphasized that, after years of austerity, all the parties are now in favor of spending and investing. Of the major national newspapers, only De Telegraaf, a right-leaning tabloid that is the country's largest paid-circulation daily, emphasized party differences. "VVD employment champion over the long term," reads the Telegraaf's main headline, with "SP plans do more for the short term" in smaller type. Now that's news a Dutch voter can use. Whether he or she should entirely believe it, though, is another matter.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.