Following on from my last post on transcripts. Mike Bird at City AM featured that post and noted that transcripts are recorded, but destroyed after the MPC minutes are signed off and agreed by MPC members. So, once MPC have agreed what they want us to think they said and discussed, they destroy the record of what they did actually discuss.
Danny Blanchflower, ex-MPC, tweeted that he thought that this was dubious in a democratic society, since MPC members are unelected, and, ultimately, appointed to act on the electorates’ behalf by the Bank’s Treasury clients. Adam Posen, also ex-MPC, is against, worrying that transcripts would mitigate against a free-flowing discussion, and discourage members from moving from their original position. [That's not an unintended pun on the Rawlesian original position of total ignorance]. Whatever the merits, as Danny pointed out in his tweets, it certainly ‘looks bad’. And often in matters of institutional competence and probity, it’s best to err on the side of making sure the right thing is seen to be done. Which in this case is not destroying the tapes, since the reason it looks bad is that destruction is about concealment. Of some embarrassing difference between the sanitised version signed off by MPC as a whole, and the original.
Further points from me. First, are these transcripts being treated consistently with other public sector documents? It seems quite odd that we can now read, 30 years on, the inner most thoughts of senior public servants and politicians about matters of war, yet we can’t see what was actually said at MPC meetings.
Second, Treasury observers attend these MPC meetings. Do those observers take notes or recordings? If they are notes, are they verbatim? Are write ups made of them and will they be released at some point so they can be compared with the MPC account of what they want us to think they said?
Third, this is just as important an issue for the Financial Policy Committee as for the MPC. If not more so, given the youth of this institution. The FPC is part regulator. And transcripts would be enormously helpful in giving detailed colour on whether that regulator was captured, or operated effectively against the financial sector lobby.
Fourth. Adam’s worry about the stifling of free-flowing discussion was countered by Danny’s suggestion of a compromise. No preserved recordings of Day 1 discussions. Followed by more formal discussions on Day 2 with preserved recordings. I have two things to add to this. Effective chairing could force discussion. Witness Bernanke’s challenging of the inflation-nutters on the FOMC, commented on by the Twitterati following the recent transcript releases. It would be the job of the Governor as chair to make these challenges and orchestrate discussion. Further, if it was clear that participating in debate and mutual discovery were part of the MPC members’ job, (it should already be), those members should want to avoid being seen as impervious to logic or counter-evidence and unprepared to shift their views. For sure, changing your mind can look weak. But not changing it can make you look stupid.
Fifth, and relatedly, transcripts would be a good device to allow us to discover whether the Chair was effective. Chairs of meetings have the power to set the agenda: was the agenda set for the good of the MPC, or in pursuit of the Chair’s own views or objectives? Transcripts can help us discover that.
Sixth, in the UK there are periodically questions about the independence of mind of the internal members. Are those junior to the Governor operating as individuals, and free to disagree – as is intended – or is the Governor blackmailing them into following his views, with the threat of giving them a bad reference in any possible Treasury-sponsored promotion up the ranks? Transcripts would help us figure this out.
Seventh, the Treasury Committee has assumed the customary right to hold hearings into the appointments of new members onto the MPC. They have no formal statutory right to oppose. Occasionally, members are re-appointed. It’s a shame that at least these Treasury Committee members can’t have private access to preserved transcripts to inform their assessments of the performance of the Committee as a whole, and whether particular individuals should be re-appointed.
[Update: Andrew Sentance and Kate Barker, both ex-MPC, tweeted that they are also against preserving and releasing transcripts].