The Woolwich murder: time for solidarity not demonisation

A week ago a British soldier, Lee Rigby, was murdered in Woolwich, in southeast London. His murderers (subject to due process of law…) were two British black Muslim converts, who had taken up Jihadist views. Their methods were as low tech as possible, and they were happy to be caught, though they may have wanted to be killed by police snipers. For them the point was publicity. In this they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The story was promoted massively by all media outlets, and it is still getting a lot of coverage – quite out of proportion to other deaths, of civilians in London, or of soldiers on active service. The whole episode has stirred passions, and the results are disturbing.

At first I tried to retain a sense of proportion on the affair. It was pretty horrid, but more a random act of violence than a systemic threat to our way of life. But I seem to have missed something; the episode has hit Britain’s pressured working classes in a sore spot. For reasons that future historians will debate, soldiers have become a working class icon here in Britain (and perhaps the US as well). Their travails in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to symbolise the general pressures that working class people face: sent to fight wars nobody understands, and generally let down by the elites that sent them there. They are referred to as heroes.

This seems very different to the ways soldiers used to be regarded. The heroism is based on the dangers that the soldiers face and the endurance they show, not on the number of enemy that they kill. There was a bit of embarrassment when Prince Harry, after serving in Afghanistan, confessed that his actions would have killed people. Soldiering is about meting out violence; but we don’t really talk about that aspect of their work. There are occasional efforts to demonise the enemy, but it all turns out to be a bit complicated when many of your local allies appear little better. It is perhaps interesting that I don’t remember anything like this public regard for British soldiers serving in Northern Ireland, though I do remember having those feelings myself. The violence they inflicted on people that looked very like us, with some inevitable innocents, was altogether more visible, and made people feel uncomfortable.

Be that as it may, the target of last week’s attack could not have symbolised the working class icon better. And the reaction has been anger. The nasty islamophobic English defence League (EDL) has seen its popularity rocket. Attacks and threats on Muslims have soared. This seems to be a mainly working class phenomenon, though middle class prejudices are perfectly visible too, judging by the odd Facebook comment.

This is very depressing. The demonisation of Muslims and the Islamic religion is grossly unjust. All it can do is push more young British Muslims, suffering similar working class pressures, into extreme views. But demonising the EDL’s supporter doesn’t help either, and quickly takes on an air of class prejudice.

The fact is that most of British working classes, of all colours and races, are under pressure. Technology is killing traditional working class jobs and pressuring wages; housing costs, at least in places where there are jobs, are steadily rising. Benefit and public service cuts add to the pressure: though their effect on the working classes as a whole is complex – resentment at people living on benefit runs high amongst working class people. The education system often lets them down.

There are no easy answers. Stoking up a sense of victimhood, and throwing in the odd benefit or tax credit entitlement, is a road to nowhere, though advocated by many Labour politicians. By and large we need people to take more control of their lives and education, not blame everybody else when things go sour. The education system is slowly being fixed, though not all the government’s ideas are helpful. We need more social housing in the southeast, building on greenbelts if necessary. That’s hard and the government is doing much too little, though I don’t hear much convincing or constructive coming out of the Labour side either.

But it helps to understand and to listen. About the only shaft of light to emerge over the last week was an act of reconciliation made by a mosque in York to EDL protestors. Tea and biscuits made the headlines, but the real progress was made when the two sides got into dialogue and discovered their shared interests. Too many people advocate intolerance and confrontation (“standing up for what you believe in”), which only promotes misunderstanding and division. What is needed is true working class solidarity across race and religion to press for changes that will improve life in all our pressured communities.


Japan: are there lessons for other developed economies?

A while ago I wrote that the radical economic policies of Japan’s new government under Shinzo Abe would be an interesting experiment for the world. They were much lauded by austerity sceptics, such as Paul Krugman, who drew attention to aggressive monetary policies and fiscal stimulus, which they were advocating for other developed economies. I was sceptical. But early results have exceeded expectations. There is a good analysis here from the Economist, which also discusses the new government’s nationalist tendencies. Is this evidence that the austerity policies being pursued by much of the rest of the developed world are mistaken?

My scepticism when I last posted was based on two things. First that the policies hinged on companies raising wages, when their profits were under pressure. Second was that, based on Mr Abe’s previous form, I did not think that structural reforms to Japan’s economy would be pursued with vigour. On both counts it looks as if I was too pessimistic. This means that Japan’s economy might well get a sustained period of growth, and that it will reduce the burden of government debt. But applying its policies to other developed economies is problematic. There are three reasons for this.

The first is that for longer term success it is still the element of structural reform that is critical. Mr Abe refers to his programme as “three arrows”, in reference to a Japanese folklore story that you can snap the shaft of a single arrow easily, but not three held together. These three are monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reform. Austerity policies in Europe and America are firmly based on structural reform: especially in reducing the size of the state. Opponents of austerity tend to want to halt or slow down structural reform. Some say that it should wait until growth is resumed; others would rather avoid the reform process altogether. The three arrows approach would in fact promote reform, alongside the monetary and fiscal palliatives, and, indeed, the more considered critics of austerity do say this. But here there is a problem: Japan does not have an oversized state, so cutting back government expenditure is not a major reform priority, as opposed to opening the economy up to more competition and reforming corporate taxes. In Britain, France, Italy, Spain and so on the size state has run beyond what the economy can sustain, and so it has to be cut back, which in turn drains demand from the economy in the short term. There is good reason to doubt whether fiscal or monetary stimulus, beyond their current levels, are compatible with the need to shrink the state.

There is a second important difference in Japan. Its economy has a trade surplus and (which is linked) a savings surplus, albeit temporarily challenged as it has to import energy while its nuclear programme is in abeyance. That means that a fall in the exchange rate, as has happened to the Yen, will generate an immediate bonus to businesses, easily outweighing the extra costs imposed on the economy. This allows companies to put wages up. The savings surplus also means that the economy is not dependent on borrowing from overseas investors, who might be shaken by such currency depreciation. This is not the case with the austerity economies. Where their exchange rates have fallen, as in Britain, this has simply contributed to the squeeze on consumers without benefiting business to anything like the same degree.

Mentioning the exchange rate brings me to a third observation. It is that a lot of Japan’s success so far has less to do with with the country’s actual economic policies than with the effect of announcements on the zeitgeist. Implementation has hardly started, and yet the exchange rate has already plummeted and stock market risen, which is having the necessary warming effect, and set off a virtuous circle. The same can be said, in reverse, for austerity policies in the West, of course. But where reforms are necessarily painful, this is almost impossible to do. Economists have long been reluctant to admit the role of psychology in macroeconomic policy, and have let it in only gradually (through such ideas a inflation expectations). Governments and central banks have long known it – and Mr Abe’s government is acutely aware. The question for Europeans, in particular, is whether further aggressive monetary easing, linked to higher inflation expectations, combined with some fiscal stimulus would lift the zeitgeist and get the economies moving again. We have reason to be sceptical.

Almost all the developed economies in the world are experiencing difficulties. It is easy to fall in with the idea that this must be for similar reasons and that the solutions for each economy are similar. In fact each major economy is unique. And the differences between Japan and the others is amongst the largest. Abenomics may work for Japan, but that does not mean they will work anywhere else.


The battle for Britain’s political centre

The idea of a centre ground in politics, where elections are won and lost, is a persistent one, especially here in Britain (and England in particular) and in the United States. Winning politicians are said to “triangulate” a political position in this centre ground; notable exemplars of this idea were Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. David Cameron is supposed to have rescued the Conservative Party from oblivion using this strategy in 2010 to turning it into the UK’s largest party, if not outright victory. Now, in Britain, there is a lot of talk about it, and what political strategy each of the three established main parties (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat) should be; take this article, Both the Tory and Labour leaders need lessons in politcal geometry by Andrew Rawnsley. What to make of this?

This all starts with the idea that political views can be placed on a spectrum with the left at one end, the right at the other, and ground, the centre or middle, in between. Over the years I have repeatedly heard people claim that this idea is no longer a helpful analysis of modern politics. But it is remarkably persistent, and it appears to have been helpful to Messrs Clinton, Blair and Cameron. What seems to define the left-right spectrum is attitudes to social solidarity and the state. On the right there is a strong view that individuals are responsible for their own wellbeing, and that the state should do the minimum to help them, because such help is counterproductive. This view unites social conservatives, distrusting socialist values, and economic liberals. On the left there is a feeling that most people have little influence on their social outcomes, especially poorer people, and that they should band together, organised by the state to tilt the odds back in their favour.

And for all the talk about the differences between the political parties disappearing, it is very easy to see this fault-line separating the core followers and activists in the Conservative and Labour parties. Think of the last Labour government’s attempt to get state supervision, through Primary Care Trusts, local authorities and other agencies to take a broader role in achieving social outcomes, like reducing “health inequalities”. Compare this to Tory ministers who delight in dismantling this infrastructure in the name of austerity.

But elections are clearly won and lost by floating voters, who aren’t convinced by the true believers of either party. Appealing to these voters makes the two main parties look very similar in terms of their election promises at least. Strange then that both parties seem currently more concerned to shore up their core votes and activists, rather than make a play for the centre. By this stage before Mr Blair’s victory in 1997, he and Gordon Brown were challenging the party’s core supporters by, for example, signing up to the Conservative austerity policies and promising not to raise income tax. Similarly Mr Cameron was doing photo ops in the Arctic with huskies to show his concern for global warming well before the 2010 election.

But the political priorities have changed. Neither party has made its activists so desperate for power by being out of office for a decade that they will sign up for anything. Labour needs to nurture the anger felt its supporter by the current government’s austerity policies, especially amongst those claiming benefits and those employed, or formerly employed, in the public sector. The Conservatives are shaken by the rise of the distinctly right wing Ukip, who are stealing away its core activists, even if they are also pulling in actual votes from elsewhere too. Both parties will need its foot-soldiers when the next general election arises in 2015.

But there may also be a bit of a problem for those chasing votes in the centre: the centre itself is fragmenting. This is suggested by some survey work reported in The Economist a couple of weeks ago, here. On the one side are those whose living standards are being squeezed (one definition of the “squeezed middle” of which much has been talked). These people are not just those in the direct line of fire of cuts, but those who were not particularly well off, and are now finding that their income is frozen while prices keep going up. These voters are open to Labour’s rhetoric about the government’s failed economic policies, and ideas for kick-starting it with things such as a temporary cut in VAT. A second group of centrist voters are not badly affected in their personal living standards, and are much more convinced by the government’s line that austerity is a necessary evil, following the irresponsible profligacy (by both government and individuals) that occurred under the last government. Each side seems to be doing a reasonable job of appealing to one of these two groups, but not headway in appealing to both. This does not add up to a winning majority for either party.

The big unknown is how the economy will be faring in 2015, as this could influence the balance between these groups. The Conservatives hope that the current fragile recovery continues, inflation falls and people feel that things are getting better; they will then be less willing to risk any change in economic policy. If economic stagnation predominates, Labour narrative might get stronger, though. No doubt both parties are keeping their powder dry to see how things shape up. The Conservative fall back will probably be to persuade the squeezed middle that Labour’s policies will mean higher taxes for them. Labour might do a Blair and say that they will adopt the government’s current spending plans except for some carefully chosen minor exceptions, and so reassure the better off middle. Of these I think the Conservatives will be the more credible, and combined with Mr Cameron’s politically well crafted policy on Europe, the party will do much better than people currently expect.

And what of the Liberal Democrats? They do not have a heartland in either left or right, but it is wrong to suggest, as Nick Clegg is prone to, that it has an ideological affinity to centrist voters, as the centre is not a coherent ideological group. The big problem for them is that they are very much on the government side of the economic debate, and will struggle to appeal to the squeezed middle, though banging on about raised income tax thresholds is meant to neutralise this. But the collateral damage that the Labour and Conservative party’s do to each other in the campaign could help them. They can try to develop the idea that centre voters are better off backing a centre party, which moderates the left or right through coalition, rather than trusting the main party ideologues to stick to their manifestos. So far though, that line of argument seems to be getting little traction.



Understanding the case for Britain leaving the EU

The British Eurosceptics are on the march again. Much of this is the usual stuff and nonsense, based on Ukip’s good electoral performance last week, though that has more to do with an anti-politics mood, and worries over immigration, than EU membership. But of the noise has a more substantial basis. Former Conservative Chancellor and Europhile Nigel Lawson joined the fray with an article in The Times, shamelessly promoted by the BBC, advocating Britan’s departure from the EU. I see today that another former Tory cabinet minister, Michael Portillo, has joined in, though I’m not sure if he was ever much in favour of the EU in its current form – though this polyglot is anything but a Little Englander. An increasing proportion of Britain’s intellectual establishment is being persuaded by the case against Britain’s membership. I am interested to understand this phenomenon, rather than simply dismiss it. While any popular referendum will be won or lost on the basis of fear and ignorance (as we learnt from the AV referendum episode in 2011), I think it is important to engage in a more considered debate.

But I do need to declare an interest. I am a visceral supporter of the European Union project, and have been since I was a teenager. I was too young to vote in the 1975 referendum, which took place on the day of my Physics practical for A-level, but I was in no doubt where I stood a that point. I’m not sure where this feeling came from: it wasn’t my parents. I was a big admirer of Ted Heath, the former Conservative Prime Minister, which may have helped. Though while I fell out of love with the grumpy and inflexible Mr Heath, my Europhilia remained undimmed… though I shared it with replacement political heroes, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams. For all that, I hope I am able to put my emotions to one side to try and understand the arguments.

On doing the basic Internet research for this post, however, I found one thing rather striking. The absence of decent publicly accessible information on Britain’s relationship, and especially trade. The more serious analysis tends to have been done by Eurosceptic think tanks like Civitas. This Factcheck article from last year rather illustrates the point. This may be one of the reasons that Eurosceptics are making headway in the intellectual argument: the Europhiles aren’t really engaging, and where they do it is often weak stuff.

I think the intellectual case for leaving the EU is based on two key propositions: there is a huge dead weight of EU regulation which is dragging British businesses down, to say nothing of budget contributions; and the impact on trade of leaving the EU would be marginal, and the short term economic costs small. There are further arguments around sovereignty and immigration: but these are more emotional. Lord Lawson did not make much of them, so far as I could tell (I haven’t read his article, which is behind a paywall, though I did listen his BBC radio interview). I sense that behind the intellectual arguments there is a frustration with Britain’s slow economic progress, and a hope that leaving the EU would energise the country, perhaps rather like Japan has been energised by their recent change in economic policy.

Let’s look at each of the main propositions. First is the dead weight. I think this breaks down into the following areas: product regulation; financial services regulation; labour market policies; environmental standards; and agriculture and fisheries policy. Product regulation (on cars, for example) is probably the smallest worry. As we are increasingly global in our tastes, and need to export to pay for our imports, this is just a fact of life. International standards makes sense; I read an article in The Economist a little while back suggesting that the whole world was moving towards EU standards, making Brussels the regulatory capital of the world. There are clear advantages to the country being part of the creation process; but outside the EU the country could no doubt apply them more flexibly. I don’t think this is what is winding the Eurosceptics up.

Lord Lawson made a big deal about EU regulation of financial services harming the City of London and the country’s exports of financial services. As Britain loses weight in the EU, this is becoming more of an issue. There is a balance here: inside the EU it will be easier to export services to other EU countries; but outside it may be easier to do business with non EU countries. It is possible that the balance has shifted towards the latter. Behind this there seems to be a rearguard action by the City to undermine the idea that the British economy should be “rebalanced” away from its dependence on financial services. It’s no surprise that Lord Lawson is part of this rearguard.

Environmental policy is another ideological battle masquerading as an argument over the EU. There is a clear case for regulating such a cross-border activity as pollution and carbon emissions at an international level. But EU environmental policy has gone seriously off the rails recently. The Germans are building coal-fired power stations; biomass energy is being ramped up without regard to its wider environmental impact; political fudge has undermined the EU’s carbon trading scheme to the point of making it nearly useless. A weak economy makes higher environmental standards harder to fight for.

It is probably labour market and agriculture and fisheries policies that wind up the Eurosceptics more than anything else. Even Europhiles despair over agriculture and fisheries, though it is inching towards something a bit more sensible. The Working Time Directive is a major irritation to many employers in both private and public sectors. But British labour laws remain amongst the freest in the EU.

In summary, the EU surely does impose costs on the British economy, even if the sceptics exaggerate them. What of the benefits, and the costs of leaving? These centre mainly around trade. There are no tariffs in the EU, and there is a series of rights and enforcement structures that make non-tariff barriers difficult to apply. This reduces costs to British consumers and increases opportunities for British exporters. Membership of the EU is known to be important to some industries, especially the motor industry, and helpful to inward investment. One of the few proper analytical studies I found on the Internet suggested that gains from trade within the EU had been significant. Britain has become highly integrated with the rest of the EU, and for the most part, according to these academics, this has not come through simply switching from other world markets.

But leaving the EU does not simply mean this comes to an end. The benefits flow in two directions, and the remaining EU countries simply wouldn’t cut the UK off if it left. Britain imports substantially more goods from other EU countries than it exports to them (accounting for about half Britain’s trade deficit in goods). The statistics for trade with the EU in services, where the country has a world surplus, aren’t in the regular statistical release, and I haven’t found a breakdown. But the EU market on services is notoriously less free. Eurosceptics argue that if the continuing EU want to try putting barriers in the way of the UK’s exports, the UK has plenty of scope for retaliation. It should be perfectly feasible to negotiate a free trade deal. And, indeed, this would take the relationship to something like the organisation that Britain joined back in 1973, and subjected to a referendum in 1975.

Two arguments can be made against this line of reasoning. First is that the relationship between Britain and the rest of the EU is asymmetric: the trade matters to Britain more than it does to other EU countries. That will make negotiation harder. But a more fundamental issue is the rationale for EU regulation in the first place. It is largely to prevent unfair competition through laxer labour or environmental standards. And yet this “unfair” competition is exactly what Eurosceptics have in mind as a source of growth after Britain leaves: the benefits of membership without the costs. It is hard to see that other EU countries, more sceptical about unfettered free trade than most Britons, will not impose costs. Such is the experience of the deals that Norway and Switzerland have been left with. Why would the European nations be more generous to the UK outside the EU than in it?

So much of the cost of leaving the EU is in fact unknowable. Eurosceptics are happy to make the gamble. Behind this, I think, lies a classic libertarian view of the economy. The less government regulation and tax, the better for the economy as a whole. Leaving the EU would allow the regulatory burden to be lifted, creative forces to be unleashed, and the country to storm forward. They are quite excited by the prospect, after years of grind and stagnation. Those further to the left regard this as fantasy. A society that is lightly taxed and regulated is only good for a small elite and will fail to build the infrastructure required for long term prosperity. Would you rather live in America or Denmark? It is these conflicting visions of the way our country should be run that lie behind the argument over Britain’s EU membership.


Will the Dark Forces save the Tories and crush Ukip?

My advice to Ukip is to savour this moment. After being repeatedly being dismissed and written off, their performance in last week’s local elections was the story of the day. They took over a quarter of the vote where they had candidates, and that was in many more seats than before. They won well over 100 council seats. The commentariat are reeling, and were talking about little else over the weekend. As the dust settles somewhat, what are we to make of it?

The obvious comparison is with the Lib Dems and their predecessor parties in their two separate golden runs, in the 1980s with the rise of the SDP, and in the 1990s after the merged parties recovered from their near death experience. Those were golden moments for their supporters. But by and large they presaged disappointment in the subsequent general elections (though not in 1997). Many predict the same fate for Ukip. But their influence on British politics could be profound.

They are, of course, a very different party from the Lib Dems and their predecessors. The latter always had one foot in the political establishment, however much they were outsiders to government itself. Ukip are complete outiders; while they pick up the odd defector from the Conservative party, they are not high flyers – like Roy Jenkins or Shirley Williams were. Ukip are from the political right, and rebel against Politically Correct notions, where the Lib Dems were liberal and, if anything, more PC than the others. But both parties have a set of clear core values which can bind activists to the cause, and both have proved able to pick up a mid-term protest vote. Many voters feel badly served by established politicians, and want to kick them by voting for somebody else, when not much is at stake.

But the Lib Dems have been able to do more than this. They have built a big wedge of MPs and a solid presence in local government, which in turn has led them into coalition government at national level. Could Ukip do the same? We should put aside two common criticisms of the party. First is that it is a “one-trip pony”, obsessed with Britain’s membership of the European Union, an issue which doesn’t really engage the British electorate. The party has successfully branched out into capitalising on anti-immigrant feeling however, giving it a much broader policy appeal. Attacking immigration policies is a wonderful political tactic for opposition parties; the government can’t do that much in practice about it, and to the extent that they can, nasty consequences would flow. And they can add a few other goodies of more local appeal, like attacking wind farms. The second criticism is that they are too dependent on their leader, Nigel Farage, who is a bit of a media star. There may be some truth to this, but we must remember that it is of the nature of minor political parties that the media concentrate on just the personality of the leader. It was a common criticism of the Lib Dems that they were too dependent on whoever their leader was at the time. In fact strength and depth was being built from beneath. This could easily prove to be the case for Ukip too.

Ukip still has two deeper problems. First are its libertarian and socially conservative policy ideas. Worries about immigration and the EU can rally a broad spectrum of voters, but when you start wanting to dismantle the welfare state and cut taxes for the rich, you are backed into a minority. The second is linked, and it is that both their activists and voters are predominantly drawn from older people. Can such people put together hard hitting and disciplined ground war machines in the way the Lib Dems achieved?

And this leads to their main significance to British politics (this applies almost exclusively to England – but the implications apply to the whole country). To the extent that Ukip are able to capitalise on their current success, it will be at the expense of the Conservative Party’s core vote. Ukip are currently drawing voters from all over the place, but when it comes to activists and committed voters, this will surely mainly come from the Tories. Labour politicians fantasize that they will split the Tory vote, and let Labour into a majority, much as the SDP split the Labour vote and kept Mrs Thatcher in power for so long. Some Tories are suggesting some kind of electoral pact with Ukip to stop this from happening.

Behind all this I see the murky presence of what I call the “Dark Forces”. These are a collection of newspaper proprietors (Murdoch, the Barclays, Dacre and Desmond) and big party donors, who have a political agenda not dissimilar from Ukip’s. So far they have found Ukip a useful stick with which to beat the Conservatives. If Ukip do well, then it proves to them that their policies are vote-winners. But the one thing that unites the Dark Forces more than promoting their conservative-libertarian agenda is their hatred of Labour. If Ukip are posing a serious threat to the Tory majority in parliament that they crave, then they will turn on them.

There is plenty of time for this. The more the Conservatives are running scared, the more they will curry favour with the Dark Forces. There are signs of this already, with the Tories softening their stand on press reform. Ukip will be allowed a clear run up to next year’s local and European Parliament elections, where in the latter case they stand a good chance of being the top party. Then the worm will turn. The press will start stoking up fears about Labour’s plans to raise taxes (the truth never did stop the British press – Labour’s softer stand on austerity policies will give this line all the credibility it needs), and building up the Tories as the only people that can stop them. Will it work? It might. The press remains extremely powerful in the British media (the BBC seems completely cowed by them these days); I can’t see any obvious signs that the Labour leadership understands the danger.

The British political soap opera edges towards a gripping climax in 2015.


How is Labour’s economic stimulus meant to work?

ON Monday at lunchtime Labour’s leader Ed Miliband was subjected to a fierce interview by Martha Kearney on the BBC Radio 4’s World at One. The main subject of contention was Labour’s economic policy, and in particular whether the party’s plan for a temporary cut in Value Added Tax would increase government borrowing. Mr Miliband did not want to say this, only that, because it would stimulate growth, it would help bring down government debt in the medium term. This was not an assured performance by Mr Miliband, but beyond that it seemed to me, perhaps unfairly, that he only had a superficial grasp of the economics involved. If so, he shares this superficial understanding with many members of his party, who lap up quotes from economic commentators such as Paul Krugman, and marry it to half-digested economic theory. So how is it meant to work? How can a temporary tax cut reduce government debt?

Let’s start with the Keynesian multiplier, which is widely taught in basic economics, and which I suspect comes to mind to most people here. You really have to do a bit of maths to understand the implications. Suppose you have an economy with a national income of £100bn a year, and an average tax take of 40%. You decide on a 1% stimulus with a temporary tax cut of £1bn. As people receive the extra money, 40% of it goes in tax, and they spend, say 80% of the rest on domestic goods and services (it doesn’t work if people use it to pay off debt or spend it on a foreign made car…). This adds £480m to the economy with extra expenditure straightaway. And this process continues in a virtual but diminishing circle, as that £480m is taxed, spent and so on.  If everything turns out to be mathematically consistent the stimulus adds over £900m to the economy. You have nearly 1% growth! This has cost the taxpayer (added to national debt) of £1bn in the first instance, but a lot of this has come back in extra taxes from the growth.

This is what people half remember when economic experts like Mr Krugman say that stimulus can reduce debt. But there are two problems. First of all, although on my fairly realistic assumptions most of the cost is clawed back, about a quarter of it isn’t. Keynesian stimulus cannot pay for itself at this simple, basic level unless people increase their spending by more than the stimulus itself. And secondly, it is a one-time event, so that you get 1% growth for one year, and then it stops, unless you repeat the giveaway. This tax cut is temporary. When you put taxes back up again, the whole process goes into reverse and the economy shrinks back to where it started. Something very like this happened to the last Labour government’s temporary cut in VAT: a small bounce that was undone when the cut had to be reversed, which, of course, they then blamed on the Coalition.

All this is well known to the Paul Krugmans of this world though, otherwise they wouldn’t be writing economics textbooks and winning Nobel laureates. When they advocate stimulus they are actually talking about something else: the effect of such a stimulus on the national zeitgeist. That 1% lift may make people and businesses happier. Businesses go out and invest more money; people save less, perhaps thinking that their share and property values will go up, and consume more. If this happens then all bets are off; the economy grows further, the government gets more taxes and the stimulus can pay for itself quite quickly and easily. Investment is particularly important; Maynard Keynes’s critical insight was that recessions happen when investments don’t match the amounts people save.

What to say about this? There are two potential snags and an irony. The first snag is that  the zeitgeist is a hard thing to manage. The whole thing can be undone by another crisis from the Eurozone, for example, which might reduce prospects for exports and dent confidence generally; or there could be some other crisis. The second snag is that this model of short-term growth assumes that there is spare capacity in the economy. When people and businesses go out and spend, domestic companies can readily ramp up production, employ new people and so forth. This is usually the case in a recession. But not always. In the 1970s, after the price of oil skyrocketed, the economy had to be restructured in order to grow – which was particularly hard because of the trade unions. Attempts to stimulate the economy simply led to high inflation while doing nothing for unemployment. Today, more flexible and globalised markets seem to have reduced the inflation threat – but stimulus can still be dissipated on imports and asset prices. What of the British economy now? Many commentators think that the British economy should be “rebalanced”, reducing its dependence on financial services and North Sea oil, as well as excessive private consumption fuelled by debt and property prices.

These potential snags to stimulus are why many critics of the government, such as the FT’s Martin Wolf, and many Liberal Democrats, such as the Social Liberal Forum, say that any stimulus should take the form of added public expenditure on investment, in infrastructure and homes. Since these have an inherent value, and help expand the economy’s capacity, there should be much less risk. This is a sensible idea in theory that is a lot less easy in practice. The public sector has a tendency to invest in wasteful projects for political rather than economic reasons.

This is where Labour’s plans are quite distinctive. They talk about temporary tax cuts, and hint at increased current expenditure. This is founded on a belief that there was not much of a problem with the pre-crisis economy, or unsustainable about the growth rates achieved in the years leading up to it. The crisis was simply a problem with the global financial system, and the country’s poor performance since is down to incompetent economic management from the Coalition. This is pretty much what Tony Blair said in his recent piece for the New Statesman. If you believe this then capacity is not at issue, and the zietgeist should be readily easy to fix.

And the irony? Left wing economic commentators like to laugh at the “Voodoo economics” of Laffer curves and self-funding tax cuts advocated by far-right commentators. Paul Krugman talks about their belief in the “confidence fairy”. But the left’s economic beliefs are no less dependent on their own confidence fairy.