Category Archives: Economics & Finance

Reflections on economics, investment and the financial world

Should I apologise for supporting the Euro?

The this week’s FT Janan Ganesh suggests that those who supported Britain’s entry to the Euro back in the late 1990s and early 2000s should own up to to their error and apologise for it. He feels that the arrogance of that generation of Europhiles is undermining the pro EU case as we face a referendum on membership. Well he won’t have me in mind. I am not a prominent politician; I wasn’t even blogging in those days. But I did have an opinion – and that was that that the country should be part of the Euro – though not at the exchange rate then on offer (about 65p per Euro). Should I hang my head in shame?

In fact this also seems to be a rather desperate line of attack by the Eurosceptics, who are at last realising to their horror that they are being out-manoeuvred. They want to discredit the whole pro-Europe cause. In today’s FT , one its other writers, Martin Sandbu, comes out with a robust defence of British entry to the Euro. He suggests that if the UK had been part of the Euro economic disaster would have been averted, because the European approach to fiscal and monetary policy would have been more pragmatically British. I have also heard a that idea suggested by a commentator from within the Euro zone, though I can’t remember who.

I’m not entirely convinced. But it at least raises the big question. It is treated as entirely self evident that the Euro is a disaster, and that British membership would have made things worse for the country. But both these are counterfactuals. We don’t know what would have happened if the Euro had never got off the ground, or if Britain had been a member.

Let’s consider the first of these. When the Euro was being formed the economies of Italy, Greece and Portugal were in real trouble. Their governments were losing the confidence of the markets; stagflation followed by hyperinflation beckoned. The Euro lifted these economies – before joining the governments were forced to bring fiscal policy under control; after joining interest rates fell dramatically. But these countries failed to deal with deeper seated problems, and eventually the chickens had to come home to roost. Membership of the Euro delayed the denouement rather than caused it. Indeed it gave these countries an opportunity to head off disaster which they failed to take. Contrast this, for example, to Belgium, also considered a bit of a basket case before the Euro, whose economy now prospers, relatively speaking at least. And for each of the other members of the  Euro that ran into trouble something similar can be said. Ireland suffered the consequences of a reckless expansion of its financial system not unlike that of Iceland, outside the zone. Iceland’s crash was at least as painful as Ireland’s. Their problems reflect underlying economic weaknesses that governments failed to tackle. The signs were there. Indeed no members inside the zone seem to want to return to life outside it, with the possible exception of Germany (and Finland perhaps).

The ambiguity of Germans is understandable. The interesting thing about that country though is that they were the only, or at least the first, country in the zone to understand the implications of membership for economic management. In the early days they realised they were uncompetitive, and embarked on a programme of “real” devaluation. This was a combination of holding pay rates down and economic reforms to improve productivity. The reluctance of other countries to embrace this style of economic management is the main failure of the Euro project.

And what of the second counterfactual? What if the UK had joined? Well the first thing to be said is that the country did not do so well out of the zone. The financial crash of 2008 was deeper, and the recovery slower, than the major Eurozone economies. Britain suffered a persistent current account deficit, supported by an unsustainable exchange rate. We were in a not dissimilar space to countries like Spain and Ireland, going through a financial boom offering the illusion of wealth while not enough was being done to fix the fundamentals. It is not so self-evident that things would have been worse inside the zone.

Or perhaps not. I would like to think inside the Euro the UK would have been locked into an exchange rate that suited exporting industries (like Germany after its reform/adjustment programme) and not so subject to financial shenanigans. That would have left the economy in a stronger position after the bust. But such an exchange rate wasSterling Euro X ratesnot on offer. The chart above shows the average exchange rate between the Euro and Sterling for each year of the currency (source: stastica.com). My view is (and was at the time) that the rate of 65p was high (or too low in terms of the graph). It was distorted by excessive government spending and a booming financial sector – there was a substantial current account deficit to show that it was unsustainable. It did not drop to a more realistic level until 2007-2008. That was too late. There was no chance that the government would have followed Germany’s example in conducting reforms to improve the real exchange rate – not while everything was rosy on the surface.

So If Britain had joined the Euro at its start or early in its existence, then the exchange rate would have been too high. Which would have made the adjustment period after the crash even more difficult. I’m not going to apologise for this because I understood that at the time (or that’s how I remember it!).

But there is a bigger issue that I will have to own up to. The design and operation of the Euro zone was flawed. There are two sustainable ways of running such a common currency area. One is part of an explicitly federal system of government, which allows substantial fiscal transfers between its members and a robust system of federal political control to match.  In this system members bail each other out if they get into trouble.To judge from most commentary, you would think that this is the only way to run the zone – and that because the European polity is not ready for such a federal system, then it will never work. But there is an alternative, where each member is not so tied to the others. Each country is left to run its affairs as it sees fit, and if it can’t pay its debts, it goes bust. It requires a sovereign insolvency regime. Nobody bails failing states out.

This latter arrangement is what the Germans wanted, and it is what most Britons that supported membership wanted too. But Euro-federalists in Brussels and the southern states saw the currency as a step towards federalism. The Germans didn’t help matters by insisting on  system of fiscal rules for members – the “Stability & Growth Pact” – which is only necessary if you are heading for a federal arrangement. The idea that the system was in fact of the federal type was implied by the fact that government bond rates for the different members were almost identical for much of the Euro’s life before the crisis. This was a bad sign – and yet most European leaders though it was a good one. When crisis approached European leaders were complacent. And when things went wrong, there was muddle and confusion. This problem is still not resolved.

And here I have to own up. While I saw some of the signs, I did not appreciate the full implications of this ambiguity. I thought it was a problem that could be solved by evolution from within.

I still believe that. But the politics of EU membership in Britain are toxic enough as it is. It is better that the country is not part of the tortuous politics of the Eurozone. That is why I accept the consensus that Britain probably never will be be part of  the Euro zone. Or not until firstly the zone finds a new and sustainable equilibrium, and secondly that Britain sinks into an economic mire that destroys its self-confidence as an independent nation. Both are possibilities.

Meanwhile I am not a fan of an independent Sterling. It has a way of distracting the political elite from dealing with deep-seated economic issues, like our current account deficit, our inefficient underlying economy and our over-dependence on volatile financial flows. But, it has to be admitted, that, with the exception of Germany, the Eurozone members were equally blind to the self-same issues. I apologise for not appreciating that enough.

 

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Election issues: the economy

The quality of debate in Britain’s General Election campaign is predictably awful. Arguments are reduced to simple sound bites. And parties try to muddy the waters on their opponents’ key issues rather than engage with them properly. Many issues are hardly discussed at all. In a doubtless futile mission to raise the level of debate I will look at a number of issues from rather more objective perspective, and handle the arguments on an altogether deeper level. I am not, of course, an objective observer: I will generally make the case for voting for the Liberal Democrats.

Let’s start with the issue the Conservatives most want to talk about: the economy, and which party is best placed to manage it. Their argument runs something like this: Labour cannot be trusted with the economy because they presided over the economic crash in 2008 and haven’t admitted their culpability. The Conservatives have a “long-term plan” that is yielding results without getting the country into too much debt.

Labour are more reticent. They don’t accept that their party was responsible for the crash (or no more responsible than anybody else). They are severely critical of the coalition’s economic record, which, they say, swung to much to “austerity” (i.e. too many spending cuts, benefits savings and a rise in VAT), which choked off and delayed the recovery. They point out that Tory plans for the next few years imply vicious cuts to welfare. They also point to stagnant living standards for most people. Their plans for the next parliament involve significantly more public borrowing, supposedly supported by higher levels of investment.

Arguments over the records of both sides over the last two parliaments are interesting enough. I mostly support the narrative of the coalition partners – but Labour can call on the support of many independent economists with real heft. But past record only counts to the extent it tells us about the future – and in this case it doesn’t tell us much at all. Both sides are placing more faith in the robustness of the British, European and world economies than is prudent.

Many economists and politicians assume that there is a natural rate of growth of about 2% per annum, based on improvements to productivity, that the economy can be guided towards by governments with sensible macroeconomic policies. This seemed to be true before 2008, but it is surely questionable now. Demographic changes, with the proportion of working age people falling, are only the most obvious reason for scepticism; there are plenty of others, about which I have written often. That leaves us with two critical problems. How would the parties cope with the likely possibility of continued economic stagnation? How might they reduce the risks of such stagnation by making the best of any opportunities the country does have for growth?

In the first case prolonged stagnation points to renewed austerity. In order to keep the national debt under control expenditure will have to be cut, or tax increased, or both. The deficit between taxes and spending is still high, and deficits are much harder to sustain if growth is low, even if, as now, interest rates are also low. Japan has managed to get away with prolonged deficits in spite of stagnation, it is true, but that is because they have trade surpluses and accordingly are less dependent on foreign borrowing. What will happen if Britain fails to get to grips with government finances? That is hard to say. In the modern, globalised economy, inflation looks much less of a risk, unlike the last time this situation arose, in the 1970s. Instead stagnation may become more entrenched, and unemployment rise, until there is a financial crisis and our banks start failing again.

If there is renewed austerity the question arises as to how much of the strain is to be taken by tax rises and how much by public spending cuts. As a nation, we have higher expectations of our public services and benefits than most: the NHS, schools, social care and pensions in particular. I cannot see how such expectations can be met without raising taxes. And here there is a big snag.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have ruled out any increase to Income Tax, National Insurance or VAT. These are the main taxes that the general public pays, and account for some two thirds of all taxes. Tax rises without touching these three mean, generally, that somebody else is paying. The trouble is that the “somebody else” idea is wearing thin indeed. Tax breaks for the rich have been steadily pared back (most recently on pension contributions), making our tax laws more complex and draconian in the process. Company taxes are considered off the agenda because that threatens investment (this may not be right – but treating company taxes as a football is clearly bad for investment). The wealthy are already paying for a large part of the services which they never use. Apart from practicality, we are threatening the idea that everybody should pay something towards public services, in order to maintain solidarity and consent. No party is facing up to this issue.

Labour is particularly vulnerable. Their spending plans are more generous than the Conservatives’, as they hope to borrow more against infrastructure investment. Their plan to cut university tuition fees is particularly foolish. The SNP and the Greens are even worse. The Tories are more realistic, if you take their formal plans, laid out in this year’s Budget, with a pinch of salt. These envisage an unrealistically vicious attack on benefits in the first two or three years, followed by a relaxation. This is likely to be smoothed out in practice. But the party gives the impression that they would squeeze public services and working-age benefits rather than raise taxes. This probably is not what most people want.

So, if the parties would rather not contemplate stagnation, how would they create the growth in productivity that would head this fate off? How might this be done? The traditional formula is so-called “supply-side” reforms – deregulation for the most part. The trouble is that these tend to benefit the lucky few, both in terms of skills and income, and geographical location, largely London and the south east of England, where property prices are already through the roof. So the most promising idea is to promote growth in the regions of England, and also Wales (Scotland is the one region of the UK has seems to have bucked the gravitational pull of the South East). There is no sign that any party wants to relax planning controls that might allow this swing to the prosperous areas to occur more smoothly. There is a growing realisation that more balanced growth can only be done through the devolution of political power, and the release of funds for infrastructure investment between and within the regional centres. The Coalition has been feeling the way forward with its City Deals, with Greater Manchester being the flagship.

Once again, the main parties are disappointing. The Conservatives seems to place too much faith in deregulation – and their hostility to the EU and immigration represent roadblocks to future growth. Labour shows an alarming impracticality when it comes regulating and taxing businesses – and tackling such issues as low pay and insecure temporary contracts. While both parties are starting to talk the game on regional devolution, there is reason to doubt their commitment. Labour’s attack on the decentralisation of the NHS to Greater Manchester was particularly revealing. On both sides there is a lack of fresh thinking. The Greens, SNP and Ukip, in their different ways, are worse.

What of the Lib Dems? They are silent on raising tax rates – which undermines their commitment to funding the NHS, for example. They are closer to the fresh thinking needed for regional growth – with a real understanding of what devolution means. They also have interesting ideas on developing a more diverse banking system and promoting alternative business ownership structures. But these ideas aren’t fully formed. They are the best of a bunch that ranges from weak to hopeless.

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Britain’s politicians scrabble over a weak economy.

Yesterday was one of the great annual set-pieces of British politics: the Budget. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, set out his plans for government finances: taxes and spending. This year, behind the theatricality, it was a bit of a non-event. There were few changes to previously announced plans. Mr Osborne rowed back somewhat in his longer term plans to cut government spending. There were some cheap gimmicks. Political inactivity is not necessarily a bad thing. But what is most remarkable is that neither he, nor the Labour opposition, were prepared to talk about the British economy as it really is. Is it any wonder that politicians fail to be trusted?

Mr Osborne’s speech contained a quite astounding piece of hubris. He claimed that Britain was on the path to becoming the most prosperous country in the world – overtaking Germany in the process.  But there is a big flaw in this notion. Britain’s output as a nation is lagging the impressive growth in the workforce. Britons are working harder but have little to show for it.  Mr Osborne sneered about the French economy – and yet French workers are over 20% more productive. Further, Britain is running a substantial current account deficit – which means that, like its despised Labour predecessor, the economy continues to be built on debt supplied by foreigners (or, perhaps, running down the nation’s overseas assets).

Dwelling on this weakness would have made the political message too complicated. His mission was to point out that Labour’s dire forecasts for the economy had not come to pass. So we heard little of any ideas about how lift the economy from its evident mire. Some talk of making life easier for manufacturing. There was the core idea of economic liberalism (that the left calls “neoliberalism”) that a smaller government will allow the total economy to be more productive. Little was heard of the government’s most promising idea – greater devolution of power to regional centres.

Weak fare. But while Labour love to point out the economy’s weaknesses – especially the low wages of many workers – they haven’t any better ideas of their own. Indeed their thoughts on a more intrusive state clamping down on “predator” capitalism seems destined to make the economy smaller, if a little less unequal. Many of their supporters, including journalists at the Guardian, seem to rely on half-digested Keynesianism. Increased state spending (or less austerity as they prefer to put it) will raise demand in the economy which will then lead to growth. As a formula in 2010 or 2011 this might have had some merit. In the near full-employment world of 2015 it does not. Such policies are more likely to lead to an even worse current account deficit, and an economy even more dependent on debt, public or private. It does not address the productivity problem. To be fair, the Labour leadership seems to understand this – but they are still bereft of ideas to tackle it.

So the Tories say the economy is gathering strength fast, and Labour that it is still on its knees. There is a paradox though. The Conservative fiscal policies are appropriate to the idea of continued economic weakness, and Labour’s on confidence in the economy’s continued strength.

How so? If you think the economy is weak, you need to make sure that government expenditure is kept in check. There is nothing certain about future projections of economic growth – and with a weak economy there will be risks on the downside. With the European and world economies looking weak also, this is easy to appreciate. Fiscal restraint may not appear to be necessary based on forecasts, but it gives the government more options in an uncertain world. In contrast, if you think the economy will bounce back strongly, and that the productivity problem sort itself out, then Labour’s much more relaxed approach to government finances make much better sense.

The problem is, of course, that nobody understands why the British economy remains as weak as it does. Is it because deep structural problems, based on poor skills, changing industrial needs and changing consumer preferences (e.g. towards more work-life balance)? Could it be the progressive hollowing out of local economies outside the main economic centres? Is it because North Sea oil is running out, and the apparently highly productive finance sector just a chimera? Or is it just a temporary blip? Will businessmen respond to the right signals to launch an investment drive that builds economic strength? Perhaps labour shortages will force businesses to use their existing workers more efficiently and pay them better.

Regular readers of my blog will know I tend to the more pessimistic of these explanations – though this is based more on instinct than data. I believe it is perfectly possible to advance human wellbeing in spite of an economy that is weak in terms of income growth. But that does mean that we must break our addiction to debt, public and private. For that reason I like the right’s focus on government parsimony, and the left’s focus on inequality. Alas neither of our main political parties seem to grasp the real nature of our economic plight.

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British economy: neither Tories nor Labour have the answers

The political parties are playing a blame game on the British economy.  Yesterday another report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) was the unedifying battleground. This debate is interesting but unresolvable. And what matters is what the parties might do now if they were in charge. And on that neither Labour nor the Conservatives are convincing.

The controversy starts with the financial crash which began in 2007, and let to wider economic collapse in 2008 and 2009. The crash was a huge surprise to most politicians, and their electors. Before this steady growth of about 2% a year seemed to be a force of nature. There were squabbles about how best the proceeds of growth should be used. The downturn was very sharp, statistically the worst recession since 1945; comparisons with the 1930s are made. But in human terms things were not so bad as , for example, the early 1980s; we are a wealthier country with more fat to draw on – and unemployment did not rise as fast as earlier downturns.

But two things stand out. Firstly, thanks to steady inflation and frozen levels of pay, real incomes have been squeezed since the crash. Previously those in work tended to do better, but there would be more unemployed. Secondly the recovery was very slow – and not the rapid bounce back typical of previous recessions. There is a very powerful graphic in the IFS report which shows how average household incomes changed, adjusted for cost of living, which illustrates both points:

IFS household income

This shows that household incomes were level at first and then dropped steadily for the 22-30 age group until a year ago and then rose. For the 31-59s the squeeze levelled off at the end of 2011 with a gradual rise since. The over 60s have not done so badly, depending on how you measure their cost of living. Individually many people may be better off (things have get better as we advance through the age brackets), but overall the country has not recovered its economic standard of living.

The Labour narrative runs something like this. The economy was hit by a global financial crisis while they were in power, but a rapid fiscal response limited the damage. Measures included a temporary cut to VAT, as well as maintaining benefit levels, and, of course, a big bailout of troubled banks. In 2010 the Coalition took power and cut back these fiscal measures prematurely and increased taxes, causing standards of living to plunge, with only an anaemic recover since. Labour spokesmen claim, and their more partisan supporters fervently believe, that the government’s austerity has been a disastrous policy mistake, especially for the worse off. There is also a claim that the rich have escaped the pain and inequality risen.

The coalition counter-narrative is that the crisis in the first place was Labour’s fault, through profligate public expenditure and lax regulation of the banks. And the fiscal measures after the crash came at a staggering public cost, with a deficit of over 10% in 2010. This was unsustainable, and the current government’s austerity policies have saved the country from huge levels of debt and a huge future tax burden. If the recovery was anaemic, that was because of deeper weaknesses in the British, European and world economies. Now these weaknesses have been largely overcome, we are doing very nicely thank you. And a previous IFS study has shown that inequality has actually fallen, with the richest 10% paying a greatly increased fiscal burden – though admittedly things have been tough for the young and poor.

What to make of these competing narratives? I think the coalition argument is closer to the truth, even if they play up Labour’s mismanagement a bit more than is fair – not so much because there wasn’t severe mismanagement, but because that insight comes mainly from hindsight. But I’m biased and many learned people think that Labour’s narrative is in fact fairer. There is no decisive way of resolving the conflict, which requires the building of counterfactuals with economic models that are deeply flawed. But that’s the past and the important question is what is the best thing to do now.

And the answer to that question must start with this fact: the British economy is displaying a striking level of weakness. Three signs of this are worth drawing attention to. First is the lack of economic productivity growth. The IFS makes much of this. Employment levels are quite healthy, but this has not led to the levels of production that it should – which means there is no money to pay people more.  Economists have been stressing about this for some years now, but they have not provided a clear analysis of what this is all about. Personally I think a lot of it comes about from the diminution of the finance and oil sectors. The former’s high level of productivity was in fact a mirage; the latter is trying to make the best of ageing oilfields. I also think there is a wider issue in all developed economies, as we transition to a world where improved wellbeing does not depend on higher levels of consumption – which used to be the motor of economic growth.

The second sign of weakness is more concrete. Our trade balance, which was strongly negative before the crisis, is not getting much better, in spite of a weaker pound sterling. This is strikingly different from the previous recovery from a recession, in 1992 – when a trade deficit was converted to a surplus quite quickly, and was the first part of a period of continuous growth that lasted until 2008. Martin Wolf, the FT  economics commentator, has said that in the Euro zone an adverse trade balance was a surer sign of trouble than a fiscal deficit. He seems more relaxed in a UK context, but I think it is highly significant. The country is living beyond is means, and has not solved the problems that led to the 2008 crash.

The third sign is closely related – the other side of the same coin. The vaunted recovery is mainly led by increased consumer demand rather than increased investment. The public (as well as the government) is trying to borrow its way out of the crisis. A strong level of investment would lead us to be more relaxed about a trade deficit – but this is not the case. Investment is recovering, but not by enough. And levels of debt remain stubbornly high.

A lot of the problem is actually beyond the control of any government. It is down to the freely made choices of individuals and businesses, and changes in technology, not just here, but in the countries we trade with.  But we do need our politicians to be on the case.

The Conservatives are unwilling to acknowledge the current level of economic weakness. They keep talking about their long-term plan for the economy, but this mainly boils down to further austerity, mainly cuts to expenditure, to bring government finances onto a more stable footing. They hope that private sector investment will pick up, and focus on things that will improve efficiency and wellbeing, rather than the merry-go-round of property prices. But further austerity will cause public investment in infrastructure to suffer, as well as education. Further, the party wants to “renegotiate” the country’s relationship with the European Union and put membership to a national referendum. The country’s international standing has already been a victim of this policy. Since so much of the country’s fate depends on the wider world, this is sheer folly.

Labour gloat about the current weakness of the economy, but have few answers. I have not heard a Labour spokesman willing to talk about increasing the economy’s productivity. They have ideas to tackle some of the symptoms, like raising the minimum wage to deal with low pay, but have no answers for the disease. And the party lacks a unity of purpose. Its left wants an end to austerity and attack on private business bosses; others talk of devolving power from the centre but have little understanding of what this really means. They do not look like a coherent government in waiting.

Meanwhile there are plenty of things we should be talking about. Encouraging weaker local economies to develop without permanent subsidy from the centre; choosing the right public infrastructure investments; developing a more complete and rounded education of our children and young people; working internationally through the EU and other institutions to tackle multinationals and tax evaders. But these do not reduce to bite-size policies and 140-character debates. So we will keep banging away at the unwinnable blame game.

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Greece: can you have reform without austerity?

The standoff between the Greek government and most other EU governments continues. The other governments are happy to extend loan facilities, but only if Greece stands by the conditions it had previously agreed. For the Greeks that is anathema, because it means holding to austerity. Many observers here in Britain seem to sympathise with the Greek side. And they offer a middle way: reform without austerity.

Three columns in the FT make the case. I have provided links, but beware – the FT operates a paywall with a very limited number of free goes. First was the weighty (intellectually) Martin Wolf. He condemns the EU programme for focusing too much on austerity and not enough on reform. Austerity sucks demand out of the economy, causing mass hardship; reform would make Greece’s economy more efficient. Next came the intellectually much lighter Tony Blair: Two false paths for Europe – and a new third way. This puts the idea into more overt political terms, though conjuring up memories of his own British “third way” that was politically successful for a while, but whose reputation is now somewhat tarnished. As an aside this is interesting because it shows that Mr Blair accepts uncritically the basic left wing economic narrative – looser fiscal and monetary policy will lead to growth. On Monday was regular FT columnist Wolfgang Munchau: Athens must stand firm on failed policies. This is positively vitriolic about the EU conventional wisdom on austerity, which he regards as economically illiterate and a complete failure. This article contributes to the picture by exploring Greece’s options in the event of breakdown, including the intriguing one of the country printing its own money.

So what to think? Austerity refers to the reduction of public spending and the increase of taxation. It is considered economically counterproductive because it sucks demand out of the economy, which in turn knocks tax receipts – which makes things worse by creating a downward spiral. In Greece’s case the object of vitriol is the target that the government should run a primary budget surplus of 3% , to pay for debt interest, which comes to about 3%, after the recent restructurings (and a remarkably low figure for debt of 175% of GDP). Surely even prudent governments should be allowed a deficit in a recession? So what about reform? It is here that each of these commentators is awkwardly silent. Just what on earth do they mean?

Economic reforms to promote efficiency usually mean changes to product and labour market regulation to make them more open to free market forces. These are undoubtedly required in Greece.  But they promote short-term insecurity to jobs and businesses. They are not politically popular, and I doubt very much that there that the Greek public distinguishes between these reforms and austerity. They all part of the same hateful phenomenon.

And the problem goes deeper. Regulation tends to create public service jobs., which deregulation threatens. Besides it is the scale of the public sector, both in terms of jobs and transfer payments, that is a large part of the problem. In several ways this undermines a dynamic private sector. They tie up resources; they undermine labour markets, and so on. For too many people the way to wealth involves politicking rather than delivering things that people actually need and want. And so reform often means cuts – which is back to austerity.

In fact to find ways of stimulating demand without blocking reform is quite hard. There is the economists’ old favourite: investment. But efficient public investment requires an efficient state to direct it. Otherwise the money simply lines the pockets of well-connected people. Surely Greece is vulnerable to this? More bank lending? Another can of worms. Frankly I will not be convinced that reform without austerity is a possibility until somebody can spell out a programme which delivers it. The Greek government is proposing a reversal of both austerity and reform. Once again British (and American) economists are guilty of using macroeconomic analysis to skate over practical problems that turn out to be the very heart of the issue.

There may be some hope a middle way though. Perhaps some fudge around economic cycles can be used to cut the target for primary surplus. And there must be some opportunity to reshape the austerity/reform programme to put more weight on collecting tax from wealthiest – which the new Greek government seems much better placed to do that the last.  Alas I am too far away from it all to have any feel for how likely such a deal might be. All I will say is that British commentators are generous with the taxpayers’ money of other nations, but their credibility would rise if they suggested that British taxpayers should join in. All the talk of respecting Greek democracy would then be put into a clearer perspective.

Meanwhile it seems quite likely that there will be some kind of Greek default. Following Mr Munchau it looks quite likely that the Greek government would issue some form of electronic currency of its own, in the from of IOUs, to keep things going. This may well be against the letter of the rules for the Euro area, but it could buy enough time for a compromise to be reached. And perhaps the development of a safety mechanism for the Euro currency area. The Eurozone needs to find some sort of middle way between the inflexibility of a gold standard, and the creation of a federal state without democratic consent. Might what amounts to local currencies be part of this?

Meanwhile, as the saying goes, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. That is surely the case for reform without austerity. Sorry Mr Blair.

 

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Economics in the age of information. Why are so many conventional economists wrong?

It feels an unequal battle. On the one side are ranged distinguished Nobel laureates, such Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, formidable intellects such as the FT’s Martin Wolf, together with any number of media economics correspondents, bristling with PhDs. On the other there’s me with a trifling 2:1 BSc (Econ) awarded in 2008 by UCL. But I’m hanging on in there. Clever as these people are, I think that they are working in the wrong paradigm. The world has changed but their basic views as to how the economy works hasn’t.

In my defence I can usually quote some formidable intellects, though, pronouncing very similar views to mine, such as Adair Turner or The Economists’ Buttonwood column. In this post I sketch a narrative that explains how this divergence of views came about, and why so much intellectual firepower might be ranged on the losing side of the argument.

My narrative pictures the developed world economy moving through a series of ages,  each of which required its own style of economic management and analysis. This is a giant oversimplification, of course. But then the science of economics is a giant oversimplification, and not physics applied to the human sphere.

I start my narrative in what I will call “the age of heavy industry”. This is not the beginning of the story, of course, just a good place to start. This is the century leading up to 1945. In this period economic development is led heavy industry and the construction of public facilities. These include infrastructure such as railways, ships, roads, and houses; intermediate facilities such as coal mines and steel works; and, we should not forget, armaments.  Other things were important, of course: agricultural development released workers from the countryside; the textile industry provided an important consumer goods sector. But world leaders saw their nations’ status in terms of the big, dirty, heavy things. Railways and steel works; dreadnoughts and artillery pieces. “Guns will make us powerful; butter will make us fat,” Hermann Goering said, capturing the spirit of the age. Such concepts as GDP were hardly developed; by modern standards rates of economic growth were unexciting. The view that inflation rates should be small and positive was alien, as the world swung between bouts of positive and negative changes to prices. Classical economics dominated conventional wisdom. “Working class” was synonymous with “poverty”, something which cut through political discourse, and many simply assumed was an inevitability.

After 1945, and starting in America,  this morphed into the age of light industry. Suddenly the domestic consumer became the leading driver of the economy. Technologies developed in wartime – such as plastics, motor vehicles, antibiotics – transformed the lives of ordinary people, and their production and distribution created stable blue and white collar jobs in a virtuous circle of job creation and consumption. Growth was led by increased consumption of ordinary things like cars and fridges; alongside this grew a service economy to support the growing wealth of ordinary people. The Soviet Union, stuck in the mentality of the age of heavy industry, was caught out completely, and in the end collapsed from a complete loss of faith in itself. All those steelworks, nuclear missiles and coal mines did not lead to economic power. Economically the management of GDP started to dominate everything, and an orthodoxy of demand management, whether through fiscal or monetary policy, became taken for granted. Arguments between different schools of economics were vitriolic, and yet they agreed on much. That inflation should be low but positive, for example, or that productivity growth would generate a steady, long term increase of national income, or again that distribution of income and the workings of finance were of secondary importance in economic management. And this is the world still inhabited by the those Nobel laureates, modified only slightly by recent events.  The problem with the modern economy, they say, is a lack of demand. It needs to be stoked up with fiscal or monetary policy; once this has been achieved rising productivity will get us back onto the road of steadily increasing income and the repayment of debt.

But the world has changed. Since the 1990s the age of light industry has been supplanted by the age of information. To understand this, think about a few ideas. First is the idea of satiation. People only need a certain number of things, after which increased consumption becomes pointless. There are still plenty of poor people, of course, but they are in a minority. and it is increasingly hard to understand poverty in terms of a lack of volume of goods in circulation. Many observers define poverty in relative terms, not in terms of physical benchmarks like nutrition and shelter. Thus you might be poor because you lack a flat-screen TV. Not because you need it, but because you feel excluded without it. It is clear that this kind of poverty is not going to be solved by cranking up the volume of goods produced.

Secondly, consider that often what people buy when they spend money is actually rather intangible. They pay a lot of extra money for the right label or provenance. These goods aren’t really being bought for their direct utility, but for what owning them says about the purchaser and where they belong. Again, these things aren’t driven by quantities that are consumed and plays havoc with quantitative notions like productivity.

Thirdly consider how the nature of technology has changed. Information and communications technology, and the services delivered by the new devices,  lead the way.  These advances are not, by and large, driving us into an ever rising cycle of consumption of physical things or even services. We are consuming experiences and information. and these things do not follow the standard laws of economics developed by Marshall and Walras who laid the foundations of modern economic theory.

And fourthly look what is happening to the nature of work. Those steady blue and white collar jobs are disappearing. Once they were considered demeaning and soul-destroying. But we valued the social stability they brought. Instead we have a world of work that is increasingly polarised, and where stability, in all jobs, is becoming rarer.

A further point is worth mentioning. Globalisation, and the rise world trade, especially between the West and the Far East has obscured many of these changes. Driven by the law of comparative advantage, developed economies gained from cheap manufactured imports in the 1990s and 2000s.  But this economic principle is driven by differences in the makeup of the trading economies. But each of the Far eastern economies, starting with South Korea and Taiwan and moving on to China, progressed and became more like the developed world. Comparative advantage, and gains from trade, are falling away. That party is now over. And as for the effect of global financial integration on national economic management… suffice it to say that this has profoundly changed the way nation monetary and fiscal policy works.

All these things point to a world that doesn’t follow the old macroeconomic patterns. Fiscal and monetary policies don’t seem to working as they once did. Variables such as inflation and productivity misbehave. These then join forces which old-fashioned economists understand, or should. Demographic change is reducing the number of workers as demand for labour-intensive health services is rising.

This creates a world in which economic growth cannot be assumed. Distribution of income and wealth becomes of primary importance, as does managing finance, and especially levels of debt. The world is ill equipped with economic models for this new age, and many distinguished economists are contributing nothing, especially when pontificating rather than basing their views on deep and up to date analysis of the data.

We have cause to be worried by the new trends, as it appears that much government and private debt might never be repaid. If that is gloomy, we should also reflect that this is a problem of success. The ages of heavy and light industry have achieved their wider purposes and left us with societies of unbelievable wealth and comfort. But we need to understand that improving the human lot requires a new way of looking economics.

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Syriza’s victory. This is going to end badly for somebody

Last weekend the anti-establishment, far-left party Syriza won the general election in Greece, and did better than most people forecast. Under Greece’s unique electoral system, which gives the largest party a bonus of 50 seats, they almost won an overall majority. Guardian journalists jumped for joy. For them it showed that their hated austerity policies can be challenged and beaten. Elsewhere there are quite a few calming voices; things can be worked out, seemed to be attitude. Both views are naïve.

First, in fairness, a couple of positive things need to be said about Syriza. The Greeks have been badly let down by their political establishment, represented in two political parties: New Democracy and Pasok. And yet it is these establishment parties that have been entrusted with sorting the mess out so far. Syriza are coming to government with fresh eyes and should be in a better position to clean things up and distribute the burden more fairly. They should certainly be given the benefit of the doubt for now.

And one of their central positions, that Greece should be forgiven much of its debt, is perfectly coherent. We need more caveat emptor from buyers of sovereign debt. Repayment of debts is not a sacred duty that comes before basic human needs. A more liberal attitude to debt is one of the ways in which progress can be made in unfamiliar economic environment we find ourselves in. There are, of course, trying consequences to such liberality: it will become more difficult to borrow.

That I think is were the more moderate commentators start. But difficulties with Syriza’s position start come thick and fast after that. This is what Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras said immediately after his victory:

Greece is leaving behind catastrophic austerity, it is leaving behind the fear and the autocracy, it is leaving behind five years of humiliation and pain. Your mandate is undoubtedly cancelling the bailouts of austerity and destruction. The troika for Greece is the thing of the past.

This is rage against austerity: the need to cut back government expenditure and raise taxes in response to the economic crisis. And this is what those Guardian writers like. The left wing narrative, applied to countries as diverse as Britain, France and Greece, runs something like this. In the 1980s a malign conventional wisdom infected the governments of the western world: neoliberalism. This sought to reduce the scope of government and regulation, and in its place rely on free markets.  All this did was to enrich an elite at everybody else’s expense. And it ended in banking madness that led to economic collapse in 2008. And yet these neoliberals remain in charge! They have used the crisis as a reason to pursue austerity policies. But these policies are an evident failure: everywhere they have been applied growth has been stagnant. When will the world come to its senses, reverse austerity and let growth return?

Syriza’s victory will test this narrative to destruction. The first problem is the debt renegotiation. Sovereign debt is about 175% of Greek national income. This sounds unsustainable. Surely all Syriza is doing is asking for common sense to be applied so that everybody can move on? But all is not what it seems. The size of that debt is a bit of an accounting fiction. Debtors have already conceded a lot on both interest rates and repayment schedules; the debt is not anything like as burdensome as the headline figure suggests.

And there are powerful reasons for preserving that accounting fiction. First, outright debt forgiveness is unpopular right across northern Europe – and not just Germany. Conceding ground on it will nourish the far right from France to Finland. And of course, it will undermine mainstream governments in Europe’s periphery: Portugal, Ireland, Spain and even Italy. The original Greek deal, put together with the hated Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF) was an elegant compromise designed to balance these destructive forces. The best the Greek government can hope for is a bit more of the same fudge. Allowing Greece to drop out of the Euro and the EU would be very destabilising for the rest of Europe; but it is hardly clear that conceding a lot of ground to “renegotiation” (a euphemism I have always hated) is any better.

And then there are those austerity policies on which the Troika have insisted. These are often portrayed as economic nonsense by the left, because of their effect on aggregate demand, which leads to a sort of doom loop. That is indeed a problem, but their fundamental aim is to put the Greek economy on a sustainable footing. Government expenditure and taxation were way out of line with each other; Greek industry was internationally uncompetitive. Unless these problems are tackled no solution is credible, which means that nobody will lend the Greek government money. Read the more thoughtful “Keynesian” critics and you will suggest that stimulus is focused on initiatives that do not undermine sustainability – infrastructure investment is a favourite. And that, as I have pointed out before, is not as easy as it appears.

Now the Syriza leaders are not stupid, even if some of those Guardian commentators are. Elements of their programme address the issue of sustainability: improving tax collection and targeting the wealthy elite more effectively. But many of their promises seem to go in the absolute opposite direction – reinstating government jobs and raising salaries; reversing changes to employment protection.

Now it is possible to sketch out a fudged way forward; changing the balance of Greece’s reforms, allowing a little more short-term slack, and a little more debt rescheduling.  But how is this “leaving behind catastrophic austerity”? It is impossible for Syriza to meet the expectations it has raised. The Vox Pops broadcast by the BBC over the last week or so suggest that the Greek voters themselves largely understand this – which is one reason to think that maybe such an outcome is what is in store. Mr Tsipras will simply follow the trail blazed by France’s Francois Hollande. In that event it will be the far left in other countries that will be left empty handed.

But a Greek exit from the Eurozone, and the EU, is the other likely outcome. If that happens Greece will indeed have banished the Troika and liberated itself from its debt burden. But the austerity that the Greek populace have suffered to date will look tame.

There is very little middle ground. This is not going to be an easy year. Behind that we can see a flaw in the leftist narrative. The economic policies of the 1990s and 2000s did not just benefit a wealthy elite in developed countries; benefits were spread right across society, including an expansion of government programmes. But these advances were built on sand. Lacklustre growth since 2008 is shaped by fundamental economic forces. It is the new normal. We had better get used to it.

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Inflation – deflation. More evidence that most economists have lost the plot

The economic crash of 2008 took most economists by surprise. As a result many thought tha the discipline was discredited and that it would, or should undergo a rethink. Alas though we underestimated the resilience of conventional thinking. For example, commentary about Britain’s recent low inflation figures, and about inflation in other countries, is straight out of a pre-2008 text book. That’s worrying because the world faces huge economic challenges – while professional economists are looking in the wrong direction.

This week Britain’s lowest annual inflation figures on record – though I’m not clear exactly which set of records this refers to. Overall prices were calculated to have risen by just 0.5% in 12 months of 2014. There was a lot of talk about whether this was good or bad news. On the bad news front the commentators suggested that these figures might presage deflation – negative inflation – which is a Bad Thing. Bad they explained because it undermines demand because people defer purchases, Bad because it makes debts more difficult to repay, or Bad because it makes raises the floor for real interest rates, so making money supply tighter than it should be. Japan since the 1990s is then quoted as the spectre. Some economists will point out that some deflation is not bad – if it is a sign of increased productivity making things cheaper, rather than a spiral of decreasing demand.

What’s wrong with all of that? It is based on a logical fallacy that is so commonplace that most macroeconomists don’t seem to realise they are making it. In order to understand a complex thing like  a modern economy they have developed a series of aggregated statistics, of which GDP and its cousin economic growth, is one, and inflation is another. Fair enough – but for them these aggregates take on the properties of single, uniform phenomena. They then go further by inventing theoretical concepts such as “capacity” and “the natural rate of unemployment” which are unmeasurable and unreal, and pretend that they are real physical things. They then create a world rather anecdotal stories around this fictional world of statistical measures to convince themselves and others that this world is real. This fictional world is populated by people and businesses that are all essentially the same.

But reality is meanwhile diverging ever further from the fictional world. Let’s go back to that commentary on inflation. Will people put off purchases if prices are falling? The prices in question are largely fuel and food; deferral seems unlikely. And remember when the prices of electronic goods and imported manufactures was falling in the 2000s? Where people putting off purchases? It all depends on the precise circumstances – getting underneath the detail. Debts becoming easier to pay off if there is inflation? This depends on two things. Firstly that inflation must apply to your household income, so that it rises faster than the principal of the debt. Second that interest rates are less than the rate at which your income is rising. Neither is true for most people, or even close to being true. Inflation is not making debts easier to repay; deflation should not make repaying debts more difficult. And as for the business about money supply, this opens up a whole new parallel world that economists inhabit – that of monetary policy.

To work out what is really happening in the economy, you need to get behind the aggregated figures and ask what is actually happening and why. Most macroeconomists are unwilling to do this. They play with their aggregated statistics and focus on a fairly short to medium term policy options known as “fiscal policy” and “monetary policy” as if these were the only things that really matter. They remind me of Russian Tsars sending directives to distant provinces . We’re too busy and important to bother with the details; Just do what you are told and  it will all work out on average. And the world goes somewhere else, perhaps disastrously as was the case in 2007/08.

We have another case study in this muddled thinking: Japan. Macroeconomists are quite excited about Japan at the moment, because the current government is adopting a highly aggressive economic policies, following decades of stagnation. This includes an aggressive monetary policy that is straight out of the pre-2008 textbook – increasing the money supply and raising inflation expectations. This is not going particularly well, but the macroeconomists have a ready culprit – the Japanese have wrecked things through bad fiscal policy, since they raised the rate of VAT. Actually the fundamental problem with Japanese economic policy was that while prices were rising, pay (other than a few temporary bonuses) was not. In other words inflation has not proved the uniform phenomenon that economists assume. And that simply highlights that the main issue with the Japanese economy is the functioning of its labour market, not the conduct of macroeconomic policy (see this perceptive article in the FT from Bill Emmott). That and some severe secular trends that afflict all developed economies (demographic change, the evolution of the global economy, excess debt, accumulation of stagnant wealth, and changes to technological progress).

To be fair, the Japanese government, under its Prime Minster Shinzo Abe, has always been aware of this wider and more complex picture, and has been attempting to tackle the many roadblocks to change. For that prominent economists, like Joseph Stiglitz, call them “stupid”.

The world economy, and our individual nations, face huge challenges. We need new thinking. The laissez-fair (or “neoliberal” in leftist parlance) approach adopted in the 1980s has run its course. But the aggregate demand-management polices that preceded them are not the answer (I will not call them “Keynesian” out respect for the highly intelligent and flexible mind that Maynard Keynes possessed). Politicians and central bankers are grappling a range of practical problems that most macroeconomic commentators brush aside. and yet these commentators dominate the airwaves and newspaper columns.

Some of the outlines of this new thinking are quite clear. More focus on redistribution and public investment. Moving away from an obsession with economic growth. Tackling excessive debt. But these leave huge questions. For example: how do you tackle excessive debt without economic growth? I wish economists would turn their attention to these vital questions rather than rehash yesterday’s textbooks.

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Are politicians as stupid as Joe Stiglitz says?

Our politicians are being stupid. Thus says the eminent US International Festival of Literature in Cologne, Germany - 13 Oct 2012economist Joseph Stiglitz in a recent article The Politics of Economic Stupidity. In spite of its title, however, the article spends most it words explaining the economics, and actually says very little about the politics, beyond saying it is stupid in pretty much all of the developed world. He is venturing similar views to fellow US academic and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman (who is even more vocal about stupidity) and the FT’s Martin Wolf (whose comments are more closely argued and less polemical). All three are formidable intellects. Why are they saying this? And why are their views having such little impact on those responsible for economic policy?

The starting off point is the meagre rate of economic growth enjoyed by developed economies (mainly the USA, Japan, the Euro area and the UK) since the economic crash of 2007/08. The politicians cheer from the rooftops if growth occasionally reaches the rate of 3% per annum. But all economies are well below where they expected to be at this point by forecasters in 2007. Growth is meagre and living standards for the median citizen are hardly advancing at all. After a recession you should expect a rapid bounce-back, and then a resumption of steady growth of 2-3%, referred to as the “trend” rate, observed since the 1950s.

The proximate cause of this slow growth is, as these economists have it, a lack of demand. In other words our economies are producing enough goods and services, but not enough people are buying them. This shouldn’t happen. Economics is a circle: what we pay people to produce things is spent by them, creating demand. Demand and supply should balance out. But this can go wrong. If people save too much, and this isn’t balanced by investment, then there can be a downward spiral, in a process brought to popular consciousness by the economist Maynard Keynes in the 1930s. This is what seems to be happening across the various world economies now.

The traditional answer to this problem is for governments to stoke up demand artificially and thus stabilise things. In recent decades the consensus was that he best way of doing this is through monetary policy, usually low interest rates. This encourages people and businesses to spend more; once they spend more the system stops leaking, growth picks up and things settle back to a nice even flow. This should all be a nice self-adjusting process which does not lead to worse problems down the track. But, as Mr Stiglitz points out, this process does not seem to be working. I think he is right here, as I have blogged before, although most economists are in various states of denial about this state of affairs – so central has a particular idea of money and monetary policy become in conventional economics.

That leaves a second weapon in the conventional toolkit: fiscal policy. This means that the governments deliberately spend more than they raise through taxes, creating extra demand that then plugs the gap. This has been the incessant cry of “Keynesians” ever since 2008. But this isn’t as simple as it looks. It is not self-adjusting the way that monetary policy is supposed to be. The risk is that you build a pile of government debt that cannot be repaid, causing another economic disruption down the track that undoes all your good work. Or to put it another way, it often means prolonging unproductive and unsustainable activities that will drag the economy down in due course. It is meant to be a temporary corrective, not a long-term solution.

But, Mr Stiglitz and Mr Wolf say (I’m not so sure about Mr Krugman – he has become so polemical that I’ve stopped reading him), there is a way to square the circle. There is a magic bullet (they don’t actually say that). Public investment. If fiscal policy can be directed towards investment projects it will be sustainable. These projects will generate a return from which government debt can be repaid, either through direct revenues, or through higher taxes. And when government borrowing rates are as low they currently are, it doesn’t take much of a return to achieve this. And yet the developed world governments are reluctant to do this. This is what Mr Stiglitz is calling economic stupidity.

But alas life is not so easy. Public sector investment is an elephant trap. Investment projects that generate their own revenues and collateral don’t need the public sector to run them. Indeed it is almost always better to let them run in the private sector, where management and accountability is sharper. And by and large all the easy ones are being done already. It leaves some big projects that turn out to be very risky – like, for example, Britain’s HS2 fast railway. And because they are risky they are slow to get up and running, and not much use as tool for temporary fiscal policy.

But there is another set projects where the returns are indirect – they come from taxes in various guises. These include things like roads and bridges (given the difficulty of charging economic tolls), schools and hospitals, under Britain’s NHS. But the returns are difficult to judge and projects are selected not through a process of objective rating of financial return, but through political arm-twisting in a bid for short-term prestige. And the more urgent the need to create economic demand, the worse in quality these decisions are.

Examples about. After 2008 China embarked on a massive and urgent infrastructure programme. But although the country remains underdeveloped, much of this money was wasted; whole cities have been built and lie empty. The Chinese government is now grappling with a rising tide of bad debts from the state banks that backed these projects. Japan in the 1990s invested massively in infrastructure projects; the country is littered with “bridges to nowhere” and its economic problems are as intractable as ever. In Britain in the early 2000s the country invested in a whole host of Public Private Partnerships. Many of these are turning sour because it turns out the facilities (notably in the NHS) were not actually needed. Though the political opprobrium surrounds the PPP structure, and the way that there was no real risk sharing with the private sector, we mustn’t forget the problem at the heart of it all – public sector organisations are very bad at choosing investment projects. (Actually private sector organisations aren’t any better if the accountability is weak – but that’s another story). I could go on with other examples of government expenditure that were sensible in principle but badly designed in practice (Labour’s Building Schools for the Future, for example).

The upshot is that public investment is no magic bullet. It’s a good idea, and we should do more of it – but a top down blitz directed by the need to rebalance the economy in the short term is asking for trouble. Each project needs to be properly thought through and well managed. That means you can’t get them going in a hurry.

So what to do? I think we need to be more realistic about the direction our economy is going. Things are changing. The demographics are adverse. The excessive wealth of an elite is economically inefficient. Modern businesses require less physical investment. Technological innovation is more about improving the quality of life than ramping up consumption. Economist such as Mr Stiglitz and Mr Wolf are well aware of these pressures. I think their time would be better spent helping us to craft long term solutions rather than ranting on about “stupidity” that turns out to be not so stupid after all.

 

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Polly Toynbee is right – we need more honest debate on tax and spend

I don’t approve of Polly Toynbee. She’s so deep in the Guardian bunker that she rarely has anything useful to say. She writes polemic that will entertain the left, but not persuade anybody else . So I wasn’t expecting much from her article last week Economic dishonesty is the deadliest deficit of all. I was expecting her to repeat the Labour myth that the economic crisis was somebody else’s fault, and that austerity policies have strangled the British economy. But she was making a point of value. It was that the Conservatives and Labour have very different views of the future government finance – but they were both concealing their differences.  The Conservatives do not want to spell out the implications on services and benefits; Labour do not want to look irresponsible, or to be painted as the party of high taxes.

She wrote her article before the Autumn Statement delivered by the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Ms Toynbee should be pleasantly surprised at how things turned out, though I doubt that she is. The British government’s future policies on taxation and public expenditure have taken centre stage, and important differences have emerged between the political parties.

It started with some rather excitable coverage on the BBC Radio Today programme, which pointed out that Tory party plans for future spending would take it back to being the lowest proportion of national income since the 1930s. The bare statistics were factual (inasmuch as future projections can be described as factual) – but a comparison with the 1930s is farcical. National income is incomparably bigger than then – so a similar ratio of spending to income will not produce destitution that is in any way comparable. For similar reasons, the economic crash of 2008-09 is no way comparable to that of the 1930s, in spite of some of the ratios to national income being similar. Mr Osborne rather publicly objected to the coverage, drawing attention to the whole issue. Up to that point Ms Toynbee’s forecast seemed to be coming true.

In turns out that though Labour and the Conservatives are aiming at the same date to eliminate the structural deficit in British spending (i.e. cyclically adjusted spending less taxes), beyond that the difference between Labour’s spending plans and the Conservatives’ is as high as £27bn per annum. Differences on this scale are significant.

The next act in this drama was an attack by Mr Osborne on his Liberal Democrat coalition partners that they had lost the plot on economic policy because their plans were closer to Labour’s than the Conservatives. Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Treasury minister, made a robust response about the impossibility of Conservative spending plans. Ms Toynbee, in typical Guardian bunker style, had painted the Lib Dems as indistinguishable from the Tories, so she would have been less than pleased about this – but not too upset since she no doubt thinks that the Lib Dems are a political irrelevance these days.

It is to be hoped that these spats are the beginning of a serious political debate. Up until now we have experienced manufactured political rows over the immigration, the European Union and the NHS. Admittedly the Tory preparedness to take big risks with Britain’s membership of the EU is a serious political issue – but the row is more about tactics and competence than strategy. On the other issues the politicians have very little of practical value to say. But the gap between left and right on state spending (I refuse to call it “economic policy” as most commentators do) foreshadows very different visions for how the British state should work.

The right has an economically liberal view of the state, with both state services and benefits being pared back, leaving more space for private enterprise and consumer choice. The left does not seem to have such a clear vision – much of its energy is being devoted to keeping public services and benefits as they are and avoiding serious questions about the future. That is a pity, because shifts in both demographics and the distribution of economic power point to a larger role for the state.

The problem with the debate, though, is that none of the political parties is being clear about what they want to do. It is good that we are talking about broad numbers on the size of the state – but this needs to be brought down to specifics. The Conservatives need to be clearer about what they plan to cut, and how they want to reshape benefits. Labour and the Liberal Democrats need to do this too – because their plans also involve big cuts. But they also need to talk about taxes. The Tories are quite right that the only tax raising idea that they will talk about, the Mansion Tax, is small beer.

Britain, along with most of the developed world, needs to rethink tax, state benefits and public services. I do not believe that they can be shrunk in the way the right suggests. But neither are they sustainable in their current form, as the left seems to think. That, not immigration, exactly who delivers health services, or even membership of the EU, is one of the critical issues of our time.

The more politicians debate these issues, the better. But if they obfuscate, then Polly Toynbee’s angry rhetoric will for once be justified.

 

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