British regional policy needs more government

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I found this week’s Bagehot column in the Economist interesting. It complains that Westminster is brain-dead, but that elsewhere there are signs of innovative thinking. This helps to raise the question of how to address the imbalance of Britain’s (and especially England’s) imbalance towards London. But it betrays some rather stale thinking.

The article itself is lightweight. It shows enthusiasm after a visit to the University of Warwick, and witnessing its projects promoting industrial innovation, and in particular the efforts of Kumar Bhattacharyya to push back against the idea that Britain’s future lies in financial services and not manufacturing. It contains no hard analysis. This is less disappointing for a political column that it was for an article a few months ago about what to do about the developed world’s “left behind places”. Towns and rural areas left behind by changes to the industrial economy. In spite of the promise of its headline, this article had very little to say about solutions. It instead seemed to encourage the further expansion of already thriving urban centres, on the grounds that this would clearly be good for productivity. This was another symptom of the the stale, conventional thinking that dominates the Economist’s journalism.

But the issue is an important one. The gap between London and England’s southeast, and other regions of England, Wales and Northern Ireland is problem for everybody. It is an obvious problem for the struggling regions, from Cornwall to Tyneside. It is also a problem in the prosperous regions, where the cost of housing is exacerbating social divisions. If economic prosperity could be distributed more evenly geographically, then it would be easier to distribute it more evenly between the classes and generations. Scotland, incidentally, is something of an exception, and a revealing one.

This has been obvious for a long time, but efforts by governments to do something about it have at best been only partially successful. Two things have been tried: money, and relocation of government agencies. There have been various initiatives to pump money into the poorer regions, a number of which are under the banner of EU aid. These clearly help, but the beneficiaries too often seem to be large corporations headquartered elsewhere, who simply manage to funnel the money back again. So many English regional towns are dominated by national and international brands at the expense of more local ones. The relocation of government agencies manage to disrupt local labour markets (the jobs tend to be quite well paid and put local businesses under pressure), but a bigger problem is that they fall victim to government efficiency drives which shrink them.

Where the Bagehot article is clearly right is that there needs to be more going on locally in these regions that central largesse. Centres like the Warwick Manufacturing Group clearly help. At the centre of thriving modern economies is brainpower. Universities and research are clearly part of this – as experience in other countries shows. But two points need to be made: political structures are vital, and we need to think about tomorrow’s economy rather than today’s or yesterday’s.

The lack of interest in political structures was a big disappointment in the Economist’s analysis. Political structures clearly affect the way economics is distributed geographically. Countries that are both quite large and politically centralised, like Britain and France, have more uneven economic geography than those that don’t – like Germany and Scandinavia. I think this is for two reasons. One comes from network theory, which I have advanced before. Humans can manage only a couple of hundred connections with other humans efficiently, so at the heart of any organisation, however large, there is a small network of people within it, and people that the organisation does business with. Large organisations simplify management to reflect this, which means concentrating power geographically. When government power concentrates, corporate power tends to concentrate with it, as government has such an important effect of modern business. Superficially this looks efficient – the trap that the Economist falls into, because the concentrated power centres are efficient in themselves – but that is at the cost of hollowing out elsewhere. Scandinavia may not have a centre that compares with London or Paris, but you can hardly say it is not prosperous.

The second, and overlapping, reason that centralisation of government is bad for outlying regions is the sheer dead weight of government decision making. In England most decisions involving significant money find their way back to the Treasury in London. Decisions get stuck in queues, and when they come to be taken, risk aversion prevails unless huge political capital is expended. Human progress generally demands risk-taking. The fairly obvious idea that rail links between northern British towns should be drastically improved is bogged down in Westminster politics. If the north of England was an independent country it would already be finished.

So it is not surprising to see that developed countries with devolved political structures usually have better distributed wealth than ones that don’t. Switzerland, a small country with highly devolved politics reeks comfort and prosperity almost wherever you go. As I have already alluded, it is no accident that Scotland, with its advanced level of political devolution, is the one British region that has been able to push back against the gravitational pull of the southeast. It doesn’t always work. Political devolution allows regional governments to choose incompetence; Welsh devolution has an unconvincing track record. And what of distribution of wealth within regions?

The idea that political devolution needs to be part of any solution is very gradually taking hold in Britain. Most politicians play lip service to it. But there is long way to go to change the political culture. But we also need to think about how the economy is to develop. This is the biggest gap in the Bagehot article. It bangs on about manufacturing. Manufacturing still dominates the way most economists and policy makers think about economics. But we need to move on. Manufacturing is going the way of agriculture. There is only so much stuff we can consume, just as there is only so much food we can eat – and in both cases you can argue that we consume too much already. Consuming more stuff is not what will make our lives better (though it will for an important minority of us). The more productive manufacturing becomes, the less important it will be to the economy as a whole – the paradox outlined by the economist William Baumol.

Before I develop that argument further I must qualify it. Manufacturing is still important. It is changing radically in ways that mean that we should produce more locally, and rely less on global trade. This is partly technological, and partly because the economics of importing from less developed countries changes as they, and especially China, develop. There is plenty of scope for innovation and Britain needs to keep up it. Manufacturing innovation based in Warwick, Sheffield and other places needs to be kept going. But it won’t be enough.

What we need to think about is services. The health economy will grow in relative terms, and not just because of demographics – prolonging life and reducing pain is what people want to spend money on when they get more of it. Public services such from social work to law enforcement also need to grow – or get radically better at solving problems rather than pushing them around the system. And there is care for the elderly. We shouldn’t just be sponsoring research into manufacturing into the regions, but into all these other things and more.

And it will not be lost on my readers that this means more government and not less, which has been the prevailing wisdom of most of the last 40 years. But it needs to devolved and better at its job.

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Can liberals ever match the emotional appeal of populists? Should they?

Boris Johnson, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, understands the new politics. This week he put it about that he wanted to provide the British public with a dividend from Brexit by increasing funding to the NHS to the tune of £100M a week (or £5Bn a year). If the facts don’t suit you, you create new ones; emotion beats dispassionate analysis every time. This is the policy of U.S. President Donald Trump, and it is working very well for him. Is there anything sensible politicians can do about such behaviour?

There are plenty of good reasons to increase funding for the NHS, but a Brexit dividend is not among them. Such a dividend, famously estimated at £350M a week, was one of the most effective slogans of the Leave campaign in the EU referendum in 2016. It had only a slender basis in fact. Britain’s gross contributions to the EU are in that order, but most of the money comes back to Britain, including an unconditional rebate. So even if EU funding to poorer regions like Cornwall and Wales was cut off, along with farming subsidies and other goodies, there would still not be £350M a week of extra funding to go round. And that assumes that the economy, and the taxes funded by it, would not be adversely affected by Brexit. These criticisms were made during the referendum campaign, but the objections only served to publicise the original claim. People believed what they wanted to believe. For many this was the extra £350M a week for the NHS, starting on the day after the referendum result. Most were no doubt more realistic, and simply took the wrangling to mean that something was up, and there would be some kind of dividend.

But, a year and a half on, it is clear that any Brexit dividend will be a long time a-coming, if it ever does. It is not so easy to escape many of those payment obligations (e.g. to fund the pensions of British members of the European Parliament, such as the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage). There will be at least two years of transition in which not much will change, and certainly not the money the UK is paying out to the EU. And then even most Brexit supporters accept that there will be some economic dislocation, even if it does not turn out to harm the economy overall in the longer term.

Mr Johnson is well aware of all this; he is a clever man and very much part of the political class where such discussion is common currency. But the recent success of populist politics means that facts don’t matter any more. So why not just claim a dividend even if one does not exist? And so what if the government overspends a bit? It isn’t clear what adverse consequences would flow, after all. It would also show a government taking the initiative, rather than being trapped by events. A bigger political problem is that the government could announce the extra funding and then nobody actually notice any difference to the NHS. Its problems run deeper than money – such as its loss of EU national staff, and the reduced ability to recruit immigrants. The government already claims it has increased funding by a similar amount, and and the NHS winter crisis seems more dire than for many years. The NHS is an organisational monster than can quite happily eat money to no effect: it would takes greater management skills than Mr Johnson’s to achieve anything noticeable.

You don’t have to be much of a cynic, though, to think that Mr Johnson has no intention that the policy actually be implemented, knowing full well that the government will stamp on it, as it duly has. The whole thing is got up to improve his own chances of taking the top job, before a supposed generation of Tory bright young things pushes his generation out of leadership contention. MPs are rumoured to organising a putsch on Theresa May quite soon. There is a snag to that theory, of course: it might work. If Mr Johnson does indeed become Prime Minister, he would be left with the responsibility of managing the NHS.

Which is where the example of Donald Trump is instructive. Mr Trump was elected on a series of unachievable promises, based on a deep emotional appeal. That he has failed to implement many of these does not seem to bother him: he either pretends that he has, or blames some popular scapegoat group for any lack of progress. And it works. His approval ratings may be dismal by the standards of earlier holders of the office in the first year, but support amongst his base looks rock-solid. Few seem prepared to bet against him making it to the end of his term in 2020 and then being re-elected. He does the new politics of emotional manipulation too well.

Is there anything liberal political types can do? Mostly their attacks on populist politicians backfire.They either make dry intellectual arguments using facts, which are then ignored, or express emotional outrage, which tends to simply wind up the populist supporters even more. Trump supporters doubtless think that calling African and Middle Eastern countries “s**t-holes” is merely talking truth to the liberal elite.

People suggest that liberals should follow either or both of two strategies: to meet the populists half-way to undermine them, or to counter emotional appeals with emotional arguments of their own. The former is happening quite a bit already: it is becoming the centre-right mainstream in Europe. That is what the British Conservatives are trying to do, along with similar parties in other European countries – including Germany’s liberal Free Democrats. And it seems to guide the practice of Emmanuel Macron’s French government. While I would like to say that such strategies are doomed, it looks more like a response to political reality. The problem is that it is impossible to back it up with an emotional appeal that will beat the populists. That appeal is based on closet racism and an attachment to old values that contain the seeds of their own destruction: it is an attack on an important part of liberals’ own base.

Having said that there are two emotional strategies that might work: fear and backlash. For the former it is necessary to find a weakness in the populist position that will make people fear for their security and savings. But that is actually quite quite hard: the Remain campaign in the British referendum conspicuously failed, perhaps because the Conservatives in the campaign pulled their punches for the sake of party unity. Mr Macron did succeed in the final round of the French presidential election, however, when Marine le Pen’s ambiguity towards the Euro suddenly frightened a lot of her potential supporters.

The backlash idea takes the emotional appeal of the populists as the starting point, and stokes up outrage amongst those it attacks. But it is quite hard to appeal beyond a minority – populism’s targets are often chosen with care. Not always: the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment has real power, feeding off the misogynist attitudes of Mr Trump – that is surely the reason why this campaign is succeeding now where its predecessors over the years have fizzled. Women are not a minority, and you don’t have to be liberal to think that sexual harassment is disgusting.

But both types of emotional appeal suffer a problem in the political sphere. You have to pick up the pieces afterwards. Fighting emotion with emotion leads to either prolonged conflict or depression. In the end society must be healed somehow, and that healing takes place through putting emotions to one side, and understanding what people have in common and using a gradual process of persuasion and confidence building. That is one reason that populists will ultimately fail – and it helps that so many of them, Mr Trump and Mr Johnson included, do not value hard work or competence.

So what is the liberal strategy? They must let the populists burn out and collapse under their own contradictions. And then they must be ready with new ideas that will help society to cohere.

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2018: Trouble is brewing between Germany and Italy and between China and the US

Prediction is a mug’s game; you are more likely to miss something important than demonstrate insight. And yet it is the only good way to put your insights to the test. Science may be mostly about gathering and reviewing evidence, but the true test of its worth is prediction. And so, in line with tradition for this time of year, I feel I must have a go.

When I started to think about it, my feelings about 2018 were anticlimactic. The British political deadlock will continue: there will be no election and no change of PM. The Brexit negotiations will somehow manage to put off the more difficult problems yet again, probably through a transition deal that will look very like staying in the Single Market. The investigation into the Trump’s campaign’s connections to Russia may snare members of his team but not the man himself; he will stay in office. The Democrats may take the House of Representatives, but they won’t manage to retake the Senate. And so on. Things will limp on much as they are now.

But none of that is very brave. It just guessable, keep-your-head-down fare that does not put my understanding of the world under any real stress. And yet proposing something more exciting is a matter of luck, especially if I am confining my predictions to a twelve month period. I need to look at things another way. Where do I see trouble brewing, even if the chances of something breaking in 2018 is less than 50%?

Let’s start with the world financial system. There is something unstable about it, even if it does not look as dangerous as it did in 2007 – it is more like the tech bubble of 2001. Asset prices look too high, largely because there is more saving than than the system is able or willing to convert into productive investment. This applies to the West, where too many assets are piling up in the hands of businesses and rich individuals, while many forms of investment are commercially unattractive to most people. And it applies to China, where there is something not right about the volume of money invested, especially through state owned businesses; a lot of useless assets don’t seem to have been written off.  But what will be the proximate cause of a financial crisis? A Chinese banking breakdown? Inflation breaking out in the US? A panic in the property markets? And when will the crisis strike? Personally I feel that government bonds are a better bet than other asset classes in the medium term, though that would not be the case if inflation got going. But that is more of a threat in America than it is in Europe or Japan.

And there is something not right with the capitalist system. Technology has changed the way it works, and our political systems have not caught up – rather like the mid 19th Century world in which Marx wrote Das Kapital. Most conventional economists really haven’t grasped this or it implications. The answer will be political change, but what? Without answers, political pressures will build up, and not just in the developed world. It is fashionable to suggest that liberal democracy is in danger, but the situation in the autocracies of China, Russia and Turkey, to name but three, don’t actually look any less tractable. But where will the political system crack? Governments have become better at repression. And there is no convincing alternative to sell. Yet.

What of Britain? The Conservatives look to be in deep disarray, but they have a lot of strengths – especially the widespread fear of the alternative, and the substantial funding that could unlock. We need to remember how close Theresa May came to a triumph, with the coherent ideology of Nick Timothy behind her – she might have destroyed Labour’s working class base. Their introversion did for them in the end. Can a new leadership revive their fortunes? I see similar strengths and weaknesses in Labour. Are they peddling new or old wine in their old bottles? I suspect more new than their critics give them credit for, which will make them a much stronger proposition. But there is an introversion too. The leadership is not sharing its thinking about what to do with this country; it just wants disparate people to project their hopes onto their vague pronouncements, so that they can gain power; only then might they share their real thinking with us. Meanwhile, the tensions within British society – the stagnation of the left-behind places, the squeezed funding for public services and benefits – will serve to increase frustration. Something spectacular could break the deadlock. But what and when?

And Europe? This looks like another deadlock. The populist xenophobes may have stalled a bit in 2017, but they are alive and well. It is striking that Poland’s ruling party remains very much in control, in spite of the fact that many Poles do not share their paranoia – their economic policies, which involve widespread cash handouts, are popular, and may not be as disastrous for the economy as many critics suggest. Economics is at the heart of politics – and politics is at the heart of economics. But the biggest threat to European stability comes from Italy, where elections are to be held in 2018. We might well get a strong pushback from that country against the way the Eurozone is run, at a time when German politics is being pushed in the direction of more conservatism on the Euro, and not putting Germany’s savings surplus to constructive work across the zone. That conflict could cause the system to break. But maybe the French can intermediate to give the Italians what they want while making the Germans feel they have won?

In America I see a strange mix of euphoria and anger. The tax reforms passed before Christmas were a big win for the Republicans, and it will give them real momentum. While the Administration, and the tax reforms, are generally unpopular, relentless propaganda from the many rich winners may baffle floating voters for a bit. That could be good for the Republicans in the congressional elections. It is a tall order for the Democrats to take either house, especially the Senate, where Republicans have plenty of opportunity to win back seats lost at Barack Obama’s high point. But the Administration’s malign neglect of the healthcare system could bite back.

Perhaps more significant for the world as a whole is the thought that China and the USA are on a collision course. Donald Trump is itching to start a trade war with China, to reverse what he sees as America being ripped off. China’s ambitions are increasingly global. At the moment the two have come to an uneasy accommodation, with North Korea a joint focus of attention. But this looks unsustainable; China will not stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, as only a military intervention of some kind will achieve that, and China surely does not have the appetite for that. But a trade war between China and the USA would be an attack on one of the central economic and political pillars of the early 21st Century world. It would be extremely destabilising economically and politically. China still needs exports to the US to sustain its economy; the US still requires to be bankrolled by Chinese money. This is surely the most likely source of a financial crisis.

And then there is the risk of war. North Korea is determined to develop a genuine nuclear threat to America, and this is a huge provocation. It’s not a happy situation when we seem to be relying on military men to provide the restraint on the President.

So to summarise: the two critical developments to watch are a clash between Germany and Italy over the economic management of the Eurozone, and a clash between the US and China over trade. Either or both could precipitate a global financial crisis resulting in a substantial reduction in asset values and the banking woes that would follow from that. I am cautiously optimistic that the problems of the first of these will be contained; I am not at all optimistic on the second.

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The quiet revolution in Britain’s schools.

I’m going to start 2018 on a hopeful note. I am privileged to be chair of governors at a primary school in Lambeth. This morning I attended the opening session of an INSET (staff training) day for my school’s “cluster” – a collaborative group of schools in the south Brixton area. I was a good note with which to start the year.

The area that the schools serve is a challenging one. Tulse Hill, where the event was held, gets into the headlines for the wrong reasons (recently: a fatal stabbing and hit-and-run death involving several vehicles, none of which stopped). It is dominated by large interwar and postwar housing estates, which are home to a lot of poor people. These are from diverse communities, generally referred to as “minorities”: African, Afro-Caribbean, Pakistani, Portuguese, Latin American, and so on. My school is in the middle of an estate that had the reputation of being one of the worst in the country. Nearly half the children at the schools speak a English as a second language. Nearly a quarter qualify for the pupil premium, a standard of poverty that manages to exclude a lot of struggling families. These challenges continue. Benefits cuts is making housing unaffordable to the poor, who are moving to outer London. They are encouraged by developers who want to demolish the old housing (and any non-housing property they can find) and replace them with modern homes, to be sold to better off people. The area is increasingly devoid of local jobs, services and even shops. The Labour council are enthusiastic partners in this process. So the school rolls are falling and the demographics are changing – though the rolls could bounce back as the housing developments mature. Many families are trying to manage in very challenging circumstances. They live next door to increasing numbers middle class families who are demanding in a different way.

Our meeting was appropriately diverse: the teachers, and a few governors, forming veritable United Nations. The schools themselves are diverse. There is one secondary school, which is an Academy, and four Church of England primaries, three non denominational primaries (including my school), a Muslim primary, and a specialist nursery school. There was a lovely buzz as colleagues, compared notes within and across the schools. Their achievements are astonishing. SATS test results are well above the national average in spite of the challenges (though in line with the rest of the borough – their achievement is not an isolated one). If you read about schools in the papers these days, you hear of pessimism; teachers leaving; budget cuts, and so on. The financial pressures are real enough, with falling rolls local making things worse for most  schools. The positive attitude of leaders and staff in these schools is quite humbling.

What makes the achievements of these schools so impressive is that so many people outside London would consider them to be impossible. I routinely read people who claim that multiculturalism has failed; immigration places impossible challenges on public services; and that austerity has made life impossible. While there is certainly truth to the last of these claims (some services are becoming impossible, compounded by an appallingly designed new policy on nursery funding), but even here I am not finding the despair that I hear so much about elsewhere. Just be clear, I am saying this out of admiration for the positive attitude of management and staff in the face of challenge, not because I think squeezing funding from schools is a good idea. In fact the opposite: these schools have shown themselves to be such good managers of public resources that it seems a good idea to give them more so that they can achieve more.

None of this is new. I have mentioned the remarkable progress of London schools often, and tried to draw political conclusions from it. Instead, I want to talk about something else. There is a common management ethos in this diverse range of schools (shared, incidentally with another nearby school where I am a governor) that deserves much more attention that it will ever get. This was excellently articulated by the keynote speaker at our event, Mary Myatt. It was evident that she was preaching to the converted.

Mary’s mantra is “high challenge; low threat”. She says that the key to success is creating a work environment where people can and do experience high levels of challenge while not feeling threatened. That, of course, applies to the relationship between pupils and staff, as well as to between staff members. She enumerated many aspects of this idea, but one is especially important: inclusivity. Nobody, but nobody is left out. There is no child you cannot help. There is no awkward parent you don’t give a hearing to. There is no negative colleague that you don’t try to persuade. And if you do that, it is amazing what you can achieve with the team you already have. Mary is not shy about using a word that makes this all possible: love. “Professional love” she calls it, because you have to accept the tension of being demanding and compassionate at the same time. This well describes how the two schools I have been involved with have overcome challenge after challenge.

It is striking how different this is from a conventional wisdom that is still very widely held. The most effective way to challenge is to threaten; good performance is achieved by excluding the awkward; hard targets matter more than the stuff that can be waffled; and what has love got to do with it? I find it quite astounding that so many people thought that Donald Trump was an effective manager and were happy to give him a shot at America’s top job. Many people on the left and right seem to think that anger and confrontation is best way of dealing with challenge and opposition. Think of all those trolls, so mch the face of modern dialogue.

A further thought struck me this morning. The leaders who are carrying forward this revolution are predominantly female. Most of the schools where the achievements have been so striking and durable are primaries, and this is a very female dominated workplace – though I have been happy to observe slightly more balance in recent years.

The quality of management of the first school I was involved with, which became Outstanding when I was Chair, and has simply got better since, is I think the best of any organisation public or private that I have been involved with. My current school is on the same journey and its management has made phenomenal strides. It used to be said that excellent management was impossible in the public sector. Many schools are proving that is nonsense. They deserve more attention.

 

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Donald Trump’s security policy represents the revenge of the right-brainers

I am currently working my way through Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary. The theme of this book is the battle between the right and left parts of our brain. Mr McGilchrist thinks that in western civilisation left-brain thinking has become predominant, to the detriment of humanity. And yet, looking at the current state of politics, and Donald Trump’s recent announcement of United States security policy in particular, I am thinking that this a case of being careful what you wish for.

I am somewhat short of halfway through this book. It is an engaging read, but not a fast one. I may not doing him justice in the comments that follow – and when I finish, I will review it properly here. The big idea is this: the human brain, in common with all vertebrates, is split between two hemispheres. The right covers awareness of the world around us; the left focuses on completing tasks. Much of our conscious life amounts to a conversation between these two hemispheres. Mr McGilchrist sees the two hemispheres as rivals competing for domination in our own selves, and in the societies we create. He feels that the right side should dominate, as it is this side that puts things into perspective. But he sees everywhere the dominance of left-brain thinking, and that this is very destructive of what is of real value.

He has a point. The two-hemisphere system is an evolutionary success. That is because management is the marriage of two incompatible skills – those that require general awareness, and those that require detailed attention. The need for this duality is not well understood. The book produces some remarkable quotes from early research into the hemispheres, describing the right hemisphere as weak and nearly useless, which reveals much about prevailing thought. My professional life has been in business management. Almost all the advice and literature on this is a variation on left-brained thinking – the need for focus on key priorities, “SMART” objectives, and general discipline. There is some awareness that success depends on other things: values, creativity and managing risk. And yet there is little realisation that these skills require a different type of approach. Trying to reduce them to the terms of SMART objectives and the like will destroy them. This was dramatically illustrated by the banking industry in the great financial crash ten years ago. Risk management was treated as a technical task, and confined to strait-jacket of mathematical models, with results that were absolutely disastrous. To this day I don’t think this is properly understood by many managers and commentators. There has also been a similar misconception in artificial intelligence, which started off by thinking that left-brain thinking was all that the brain did, and all that needed to be done. Whether AI designers have got the implications of the duality fully on board I don’t know – but they have been making headway.

And yet. In common with most (all?) intellectuals who try to grapple with their emotional and intuitive side, including me, there is something very left-brained about Mr McGilchrist’s presentation. He reasons too much, and he does not question enough. As a result I think he’s missed something big. For all his distinctly partisan advocacy of the right-brain, he is firm that we need both sides of the brain. He is clear about what an excess of left-brain thinking means, but he has not thought enough about what happens with an excess of right brain-thinking. He equates it with a loss of effectiveness, but not much more. But left-brain thought is needed to bond societies together. Without it bad things start to happen.

This should be apparent from the dominant role the left brain plays in language. It should also be apparent from other disciplines where left-brain thinking predominates of necessity: science and the law. Both of these are about finding common ground and agreeing on things. Science is not so much about trying to find the truth about the world around us, but about developing a common body of understanding. That is what an obsession with objective evidence is about. It is trying to find something diverse people can agree on.

The right brain, on the other hand, is very much about subjective, personal experience. It helps form strong bonds between people who are already strongly linked, by place or experience, but generally does the opposite when those links are weak. Indeed nothing bonds, and defines self, like conflict.

Western liberalism is undoubtedly very left-brained, which means it is often bone dry. Think of Barack Obama, once he has stepped beyond his dreamy rhetoric; or the British campaign to Remain in the EU. Liberals are charged with a lack of emotional appeal. But that is almost its central point. Liberals want to bring diverse people together to live in harmony – and that means emphasising the dry and the dull: reason, rules and common ground.

Which brings me to Donald Trump. He stands for a reaction against dry liberalism, and the triumph of right-brain thinking. He is only interested in evidence and logic inasmuch as it supports his prejudices. Everything else is dismissed as “fake”. He relishes conflict with those that are different or who disagree. And this helps him form strong emotional bonds with his own tribe.

Mr Trump’s National Security Policy, announced yesterday, shows us some of what this means. Gone is the common enterprise to make the world a better place. China is not a partner with whom America can forge such a better world, but a rival who seeks to diminish America ‘s share of world resources. Free trade is not way that makes everybody better off, but a potential threat – a way that other countries can rob naive American policymakers. Of course, all of these ideas contain more than a germ of truth. Perhaps it is just another half-full or half-empty proposition. Indeed the BBC describes the policy as “pragmatic”. But right-brained thinking promotes conflict and conflict is sure to make the world a poorer place. For everybody.

The dialogue between the right and left parts of our brains is full of paradox. Left-brained thinking is very self-centred, but it is essential for harmonious living with our neighbours. The right brain sees the world as a whole, but it is one that is dominated by a single viewpoint. It is the tension that these paradoxes produce that makes the duality of our brains so powerful. Which leaves us with a final irony. The left-brained liberals are discovering their right-brained selves. Mr Trump and his ilk are producing a highly emotional reaction. And that reaction will in due course defeat him, allowing a more patient, constructive path to be resumed. The brain only works effectively as a partnership between its two conflicting sides. That should be the moral for our world.

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Brexit: Britain will end up in the Customs Union

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This blog has been wrong about a lot of things. Especially the Labour Party. But one area where my record has been very strong, in spite of standing outside the conventional wisdom, is Brexit. This is encouraging me to be recklessly brave in making my next prediction: Britain will stay in the EU Customs Union, even if it will take another two years or more before that becomes apparent.

Before the vote last year, I was always worried that the Leavers would win. I felt that my most persuasive argument for Remain was not that Britain would be better off in the long run outside the Union (though I did think that), but that the process of extraction would dominate British politics for so long that progress on any other of the county’s pressing issues would be halted. And thus it has proved. Poverty is growing, and Alan Milburn, the government’s (Labour) adviser blames it on the Brexit effect. The government may riposte that “absolute” poverty is still on the way down, but that claim looks very doubtful; “relative” poverty is clearly getting worse, after decades of progress. Poverty is a subject I will return to – I am working my way through a very challenging study from the Webb Foundation, which will require a degree of reflection. But Brexit is throwing up urgent problems in almost every area of government policy. And where it doesn’t, there is the indirect issue of distraction.

After the vote my first comment was that a long transitional period would be essential. A further prediction was that Northern Ireland would be the “surprise” issue that could derail the whole process, and it was the most important thing to get sorted out. This is now nearly consensus. , but at the time people were obsessing about whether Brexit would be soft or hard. The answer was in fact clear: soft in the short term, and then we’ll see once we’ve all understood it a bit better.

More recently there seemed to be an impasse between the British position that we should proceed to trade talks with the EU now, and the EU position that the “divorce” questions be settled first. I suggested that the British would win out in the end. And so it is proving. It suits the British commentariat to say that it is the British that are caving in, but in fact it is the EU side that has moved substantively; they are having to settle for some reassuring words. The mystery was why it took Britain so long get there; the answer to that was maybe that a bit of theatre suited both sides. There is a snag, though; just when it all looked settled, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionists (the DUP) torpedoed it. That was my Irish caveat – and, I should add, I understand Irish politics, north and south, even less than the Labour Party. Still, this looks more like a glitch than a full stop – a result from the Prime Minister Theresa May’s debilitating introversion that had left the DUP out rather than talking them to death – which is now what she will have to do. All that is required for the moment is a dose of fudge. The DUP may well create some real trouble later on, but now does not look the right moment.

I had drafted a blog a month ago saying that I thought the talks were on track to succeed in moving to the next step, just when everybody was saying it looked hopeless. I didn’t post it because it was ended in a whimper. So what? Where was it all going? I now think I have the answer.

The firstly, I think Brexit will happen. Many Lib Dem friends hold on to the hope that the seeming chaos of the negotiating process, and the absence of any clear vision of the long term, means that the whole thing will collapse. But the negotiating machinery in Britain and the rest of the EU is in place, and officialdom has got used to the idea. It will happen, it may just not make as much difference, in the short run, as people thought. The way politicians deal with hard problems (I nearly wrote “modern politicians” but this is surely as old as the hills) is to string things out. The expression is “to kick the can down the road”. You decide as little as possible for now, so that reality has more time to sink in, and hardened positions can soften. The consequences of this approach are not well understood by the commentariat. They talk as though you negotiate treaties as if you were buying or selling a house, which is the biggest thing that most of these people have had to negotiate for themselves. We are for ever hearing about this or that strengthening a negotiating position, and in particular how threatening to walk out makes you stronger. But it is nothing like selling a house. It is infinitely more complex; you have to live with, and do more deals with, your counterparty afterwards; and you can’t simply choose to sell your house to somebody else. You have to keep the engine running, to switch the metaphor.

So complete collapse is unlikely, and Brexit nearly inevitable. Reversal would cause more problems (in the short term at least) than it would solve. Besides, the political conditions for it do not exist. There has been no seismic shift in British opinion, even if polling shows Remainers edging ahead. The Conservatives desperately want to hang on to power to keep Labour out, and keeping to the legal form of Brexit is essential to keep the party together. Labour would like to create trouble for the Conservatives, but do not want to be put on the spot. The desertion of Brexit supporting working class voters from Labour could torpedo their hopes of winning the next election. And power, for the Labour leadership, is much more important than Brexit.

But time is short. The priority now is to get that transitional deal up and running. Though the idea is to make as little difference as possible to current arrangements, beyond a few bits of carefully chosen and powerful symbolism, it will be hard enough. There will be no time to sort out the ultimate destination. Hard Brexiteers will continue to babble away about complete independence; the more pragmatic people will keep arguing for this or that aspect of the status quo. The truth is that the British governing class, and still less the public, have not understood the options properly, and not decided between them. And that is not surprising, given how big and complex it all is. We have to kick the can down the road. (Alas I had hoped to resist clichés in this blog, but I need to finish this piece).

So the process will drag on. Perhaps even the British people will be allowed a say in the process. Another referendum looks very unlikely – and probably not desirable. Trying to reduce everything down to “yes” or “no” has proved very unsatisfactory. But a general election during the transition process is another matter. An election is not due until 2022, which would be three years into the process, by which time many decisions will have been taken. But once the current government has delivered formal Brexit in 2019, it may find it hard to hang on. Brexiteers seem desperate to avoid any popular participation in the decision-making process, however – a role reversal from before the referendum. But the government’s minority status, and its lacklustre leadership, will make it hard to hang on.

But where will we end up? A divided nation will at some point be desperate for a compromise, and one that makes the Irish border more workable. It is in fact quite clear what that compromise is: membership of the Customs Union. If it is good enough for a prickly and independent Turkey, why can’t it be good enough for a prickly and independent United Kingdom? The government has ruled it out. But the whole process has been one of options being ruled out and then being ruled back in again. Brexiteers have a vision of Britain being a free-trading beacon, showing the rest of the world how it is done – and that would mean standing outside the Customs Union. But the British public are not interested in that vision; and, besides, the rest of the world has moved on. The massive expansion of world trade is coming to an end (except maybe within Asia and between Asia and Africa).

It may take a general election before before the British ruling elite reconciles itself to staying in the EU Customs Union. But I think that day will come.

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The Budget shows that the Tories are in a political cul-de-sac

I will break my self-imposed silence because yesterday’s British Budget is one of those great set-piece occasions which can be used as a moment of reflection. Predictably, most in the news media squander this in a silly game of speculation about the short-term prospects of political leaders. But the Budget poses more profound questions.

The government faces two profound economic problems, which it must either learn to live with or expend political capital to solve. These are low productivity and housing. There are other big problems, of course: Brexit, austerity, regional disparities and income inequalities, for example. But Brexit is more about means than ends; austerity is symptom of the productivity problem; and the other problems are not so high on political agenda right now, though they are important to both housing and productivity. Broadly speaking, the government is being forced to embrace the productivity problem, and is doing its best to confront aspects of the housing problem, without being able to do enough.

Let’s look at productivity first. This is about production and income per hour worked. Since unemployment is now low, and immigration is looking less attractive, increasing productivity is the key to raising incomes, and, above that in my view, to raising taxes. Weak tax revenues lie behind austerity – the cutting of public spending to levels which are now unsustainably low. The government is forced each year to spend extra money to fix some crisis or other brought about by austerity. This time it was Universal Credit and the NHS. Next year it will be police and prisons, after that it will be schools and student loans. And so it goes on – this is no way to build for the future. The government could try to raise taxes, but this is so politically unpopular that not even the Labour Party is talking about it – they persist in thinking that there is easy money to be raised from big business, rich people and confronting tax evasion. So growth it must be, and productivity must rise. But productivity is stuck in a rut. The big news for this Budget is that at long last the Office for Budget Responsibility has given up hoping that there will be a bounce back, and so reduced its forecasts of income growth, which are used to set tax and borrowing assumptions. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, talked about fixing this, as all politicians do, but in practice has done very little about it. Labour, for all their huffing and puffing, are no better. Both parties propose a number of sensible small things, like increasing public investment and education, but nothing that gets to the heart of the issue.

So the political class have chosen to embrace slow productivity, by their actions if not their words. They are right, though they need to think through the consequences. My take on the productivity puzzle is different from pretty much everybody else I have read. I think that the primary cause is what economists call the Baumol Effect. The problem is not the failure of British businesses to embrace improvements, but the limited demand for goods and services that are susceptible to advances in productivity, such as manufacturing. There are things that can be done to raise such demand, but these mainly have to do with increasing incomes for those on low incomes – people with high incomes consume less as a proportion of income, and spend more on low-productivity items that confer status. Also if demand for exports could be raised, and imports diminished, that would help – international trade is mainly about high productivity goods. But nobody really has much idea how to deal with these problems beyond tinkering at the edges with minimum wage adjustments and such.

So what of housing? What, exactly, is this about? It is about high costs to both buy housing and to rent it. This is a very complex problem with deep roots. Most analysis is superficial, but this article in the FT by Jonathan Eley is a good one. Among a number of interesting points he makes is that the low number of new housing units being built in recent decades compared to earlier ones is a bit misleading. In those earlier decades a lot of housing was being destroyed: slums and temporary housing for victims of bombing in the war. It is not necessarily true to suggest that the problem is that too few houses are being built. In fact there are deep structural problems with the housing market. One is that private borrowing has been made too easy; another is that changes to housing benefit has subsidised demand for private rental accommodation. The result of this and a number of other things has forced up the price of land relative to the housing  built on it, and made trading in land central to economics of private sector developers.

The upshot of this is that it is hard to see any solution to the housing problem without a substantial intervention by the state to directly commission house building, and social housing in particular. Another issue is building on greenbelt land outside cities, which is now forcing suburbs to turn business premises into housing, and turning suburbs into an unhealthy housing monoculture. Caution on greenbelt building is warranted, of course, as suburban sprawl, as demonstrated in so many countries in the world, is not desirable either. Mr Hammond did practically nothing on either of these critical issues. He did try to tackle the housing problem, but mainly through the private sector and private markets which are structurally incapable of making things better for the growing proportion of the population weighed down by excessive housing costs.

That is entirely unsurprising. Solving the crisis, especially in an environment of low economic growth, means that current levels of house prices and rents have to fall. That is a direct attack on the sense of wellbeing of the Conservatives’ core constituency: older and better off voters. And if that isn’t enough, property developers and others with a vested interest in the current system are showering the Conservatives with money. A politically weak government is no shape to take this on.

And that, I think, is the most important political fact in modern Britain. Housing costs are not an intractable problem that we must learn to live with, like productivity. One day it will solve itself in an immense period of pain as land prices, and much of the financial system, collapses. The sooner it is tackled the less the pain will be. Labour may be useless on productivity, but they are much stronger on housing. They have a much better prospect of doing something useful. That does not mean they will win the next election – the forces of darkness on the right should not be underestimated. But it does mean that Labour is looking to be the lesser of two evils.

For my party, the Lib Dems, this is important. It means its stance of equidistance between Labour and the Tories needs to be modified. The turning point, in hindsight, should have been that moment in coalition with the Tories when the then Chancellor George Osborne said that he could not support the building of more council houses because that meant more Labour voters. The coalition should have been ended then and there. Just as in the 1990s when the Lib Dems leaned towards Labour, the party needs to accomplish the same feat now. It is much harder because Labour has abandoned the centre ground. But that is where the country is at.

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Time for another pause for reflection

Arthur Conway Young “Sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war”

Earlier this year I said I would scale back my twice-weekly postings in order to give me time for reflection. I was profoundly disturbed by the world around me. I used the word “depressed”, and though this sparked worries by friends about my mental health, this was, and remains, a good word to describe my feelings. I am being numbed into a sense of apathy. After that pause a surprise General Election was called. I was swept up in the excitement of it all, and indeed the British political landscape changed profoundly. But as the British situation regresses to stalemate, the excitement has gone. I don’t feel that my thinking is adequate for the situation the world is in. I need time to reflect, and, if need be, to change course. So I will scale back my postings again.

That process has already started, as I haven’t posted for about two weeks. Last week I went on a centenary battlefield tour of the Western Front, from the Somme valley near Albert, and north to Ypres and Arras. That was an experience enough to cause a pause for reflection in itself. It was an example of how political misjudgements can lead to devastating results for millions of individuals. It is hard for us to say what it was all for, even if we accept that many of the changes that the war ushered in were good. These changes were a profound understanding of the futility of war and the brotherhood of man, across class, nation and sex (alas it took another war before entrenched attitudes on race started to change). But, as the remarkable epitaph on the tombstone in my picture, taken in the Commonwealth cemetery at Tyne Cot near Ypres, says, this war did not end war. And indeed, what I find so depressing about now is that in so many ways the lessons humanity learned a century ago are being cast aside.

Look at Myanmar, where the hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas are being ethnically cleansed, with many thousands murdered while others are forced into inadequate refugees camps. This has caused barely a ripple in world affairs. The recent coup in Zimbabwe, which changes little, is causing more fuss. Chinese, Indian and Russian politicians, who these days constitute great powers in the emerging world order, couldn’t care less. The Americans are doing a bit more, but it is not in the new “America First” philosophy to care that much; and, to be fair, their power in the neighbourhood is greatly diminished. Europeans worry a bit more, but they are so far away that closer concerns crowd them out. This is the new normal: people’s lives just don’t matter compared to narrowly defined national interests.

Meanwhile, closer to home in Europe, grand liberal gestures, like Germany’s acceptance of Syrian refugees simply generate a fierce backlash. Polish and Hungarian leaders stoke up Islamophobia; our own politicians mutter about how foolish and “unrealistic” the German policy was. Meanwhile, in Britain we are distracted by the colossal act of self-harm that is Brexit, while the retreat of government services and benefits reeks profound social damage, which most people prefer to ignore. People respond to disturbing changes in the world around them by narrowing their horizons and saying it is all somebody else’s problem.

Still, there is hope. When I visit my local, 90% minority primary school, I don’t see the picture of hopeless and profound division that the conservatives say is inevitable. I see people working across ethnic and social barriers towards a common purpose: living together and promoting the values of tolerance and inclusion. I see the challenges of restricted resources being met imagination and resolve. There is a better way if only we had the courage to take it.

I am an optimist. But right now I need to work out how to channel that optimism more effectively. I plead the need for a little more space to do that.

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Household debt: the slowly developing crisis of capitalism

This week there is much debate on whether the Bank of England or the US Federal Reserve should raise interest rates from their current rock-bottom level. Behind this lies an important debate on the future of our economic system. A crisis, arising from high levels of household debt, is in the making.

Let’s set this in some sort of context. In the 1950s and 1960s levels of household borrowing (that is mortgages, car loans, consumer debt and such) were strictly managed, in a system designed to ensure financial stability as part of the global Bretton Woods system of managed exchange rates. This era is often viewed as something of a golden age by people on the left, as there was steady growth across all levels of income, and high levels of social mobility. There is a tendency to attribute this to the Keynesian consensus, of which the Bretton Woods system was a part. In fact it also had a lot to do with the explosion of  consumer goods industries which set in motion a virtuous circle of job creation and increased household consumption.

By the 1970s this system had broken down. The Bretton Woods system collapsed as the United States sought to finance the Vietnam war without raising taxes. We entered the world of floating exchange rates, which allowed much greater freedom for both public and private sectors to borrow money. Middle East tensions saw a spectacular rise in oil prices, which disrupted developed world industries. The consumer boom started to reach saturation, and growing productivity halted the job creation machine. Much heavy industry, such as coal-mining, and steel production, became obsolete, along with other job-rich industries like textiles. Keynesian economic management simply led to inflation while unemployment continued to rise.

Enter the neoliberal era, starting in the 1980s. Governments embraced the freer financial system. Consumer demand was now sustained by growing levels of household borrowing. Alongside this came an expansion of world trade. Developed countries bought growing amounts of goods from developing economies in Asia; the first wave were the “Asian Tigers”, especially South Korea and Taiwan; these were followed by the giants of China and India. This expanded trade reduced prices for consumer goods, and allowed a period of steady, if somewhat uneven, income growth in the developed economies. Slowly the developed economies reshaped themselves to a combination of highly productive high technology jobs, and a mass of low productivity service jobs, especially in healthcare. But the uneven nature of income growth, sustained by household borrowing was creating strains by the mid 2000s. In Britain household debt had increased from about 50% of national income in 1980 to 160% in 2007.

Then the great financial crisis struck in 2007, reaching its climax in 2009. This was only indirectly linked to high levels of household debt. The crisis mostly arose because the finance industry was allowed to grow in a very unstable way. This gave the illusion of growth, especially in Britain, in the years before 2007, only for the awful truth to be revealed when the government had to bail the system out. By and large, that source of instability has been fixed. But meanwhile globalisation as a source of growth for the developed world has run its course, while increasing productivity has become like running up a down escalator. Improvements in one area of the economy are most likely undermined by the creation of low productivity jobs in another, in a process economists call the Baumol effect. We are stuck in an era of low economic growth in the developed world.

Which is why some people are starting to worry about levels of household debt. Since the crisis household debt in Britain has been bumping along at about 140% of income, and it has been trending up in the last two years. But people’s capacity to repay debt is weakening. Back in the 1980s it was assumed that rising incomes would make debt more affordable. This is plainly not the case.

A further risk factor is that central bank interest rates are rock bottom. These interest rates are not the same as what is charged to real people and businesses (something we learned during the crisis, when the central bank cut interest rates, but most consumer interest rates went up). But it doesn’t look as if the interest rates people pay are going to get any lower, and so debt become more affordable. In the past central bankers could help alleviate crises by cutting interest rates, but now they have run out of road.

A third risk factor is asset prices: the price of property, shares and bonds. All three look high by objective measures, and so could fall. The process by which asset prices are set is complex and mysterious. But if assets are sold to unwind debt, then prices are liable to tumble.

Stagnant incomes; interest rates that can’t be cut; asset prices that look too high. This is a toxic brew. Some people hope that by raising interest rates gradually, we can slowly normalise the financial system, with overall levels of debt stabilising or even falling. Others fear that any rise in central bank rates will trigger a downward spiral.

But we need to understand that wider perspective. The neoliberal system has become unsustainable, and developed countries (especially the British and American ones that embraced it so wholeheartedly) need some fresh thinking.

One point should be clear, but still remains under-appreciated. Levels of private debt need to fall, and the safest route to doing so, without a disastrous collapse in demand, is for public debt to replace it. In other words we should not be so worried about budget deficits and national debt. However government spending needs to focused on things that will support the transition to something more stable, rather than just propping up structures that will be unsustainable in the long run. Ultimately national debt can be unsustainable too (though just when that point is reached is very much a matter of context; Japan has public debt of 200% of income without much sign of trouble). This is a national debate we badly need to have.

A second point also seems quite clear to me: asset prices must fall. This includes property, shares and bonds. This is required to correct some of the toxic inequalities of wealth. That will clearly create hardships and problems, but the government must stand ready to tackle these. Putting off the evil day will not help. That is why I think that central banks need to start the process of raising interest rates.

And a third point is that we need some serious policy ideas on how to tackle the issue of low pay for low-productivity jobs. It is no use hoping that productivity is going to resume the steady growth it saw in the later 20th Century. The forces that drove that – automation of manufacturing, and globalisation – are played out. In my view that means a much bigger role for the state in supporting society – but not by an unaccountable and out of touch central government.

These are radical changes. History teaches us that such radical change only comes from crises. There will be a new economic crisis. The only question is when, and whether our leaders will be intellectually prepared to manage its aftermath.

 

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Universal Credit is a bad idea badly implemented

Recently I complained about how government incompetence was now routine. One example of this is the government’s reform of benefits, known as Universal Credit. It is a particularly good example of what I was talking about. It is a misconceived idea, poorly executed.

Interestingly, the political conventional wisdom is that Universal Credit is a sound idea, but lamentably executed. And yet problems with execution usually reflect problems of design. Universal Credit was originally conceived by the Coalition government’s Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith (known as IDS). It is designed to replace a series of benefits, including unemployment benefit, tax credits for those on low incomes, and housing benefit to help those with low incomes pay their rent. The idea is that the level of benefit is scaled back as income rises, so that it is always worth a claimant’s while to take a job and increase their hours or rate of pay. Previously many of these benefits (though not tax credits) had a cliff-edge effect: if your income exceeded a threshold then you lost all of your benefit. It was sold as a simplification that improved incentives for people to be self-sufficient, and welcomed across the political spectrum. But it is only simple in the sense that it is relatively easy to understand what your entitlement is if you know your income. There is some law of government which runs that there is nothing more complicated than a simplification.

The problem is knowing what a claimant’s income actually is at any point in time and therefore how much they should get. This faces two problems. First is that claimants are by definition poor and struggle to manage cash flow. Keeping them waiting for their money while you work things out is not a good idea; paying them an advance runs into difficulty if the advance is too high and so the clawback becomes onerous – an issue that led to notorious problems for Labour’s tax credit system. The second problem is a complete lack of trust: the idea that claimants should report their own income would not be taken seriously by any politician – probably with some reason, though the contrast with the way better off people are treated is striking; the benefit had to be linked to hard data on income. IDS’s answer to this was to link the information gathering to systems for Pay As You Earn (PAYE) for administering income tax and national insurance deducted at source. But this was a highly complex undertaking, and, since mostly PAYE works on a monthly cycle, still leaves a six-week wait for new claimants, and a monthly payment cycle, for people used to budgeting by the week.

The complexities associated with this should have been obvious from the outset, but IDS is a particularly ideological and obstinate character, and refused to accept the scale of the problems. Implementation deadlines kept being put back.  When he resigned last year, I predicted that Universal Credit would have to be killed off, along with the fact that Theresa May would be the next Prime Minister. But although Mrs May is now PM, Universal Credit lives on. But the six week wait and monthly cycle are now becoming a hot political topic. A weak government will have to give ground, and doubtless a fudge is in the works. But that fudge will lead to further difficulties.

That’s not the only problem with Universal Credit. I haven’t mentioned issues that arise with self-employed people, of which there are increasing numbers amongst low income earners (known as the gig economy). Another issue is not with the fundamental design, but the way in which the government has turned the relatively gentle withdrawal of benefit into something much sharper, undermining the incentives for people to increase income. This was part of the government’s promise to reduce the costs of welfare. That is another aspect of the self-defeating nature of austerity – savings that build up future costs.

But it is the administrative architecture that is the real problem with the benefit, and why it will never work satisfactorily. The DWP wants a giant database for everybody with all the real time information on it that you might need to administer tax, benefits and any other entitlements, which can then be automated. This is a wildly impractical idea, but promoted by IT consultants on the basis that they will be able to get out with their fees long before the inevitable collapse. To be fair, I suspect that many IT professionals are just as deluded about the capabilities of IT as the shallow think-tankers who promote this sort of thinking in government. Even in a world of massively more capable IT, trying to get accurate, real-time data on incomes in a modern, free and diverse economy is an impossibility.

Are there other approaches? The US operates a rather similar idea in its tax credit system. This is based on the annual filing of tax returns by all citizens. This means that any amount owing comes back as an annual payment – something that makes the current discomfort with six-week waits and monthly payment cycles look laughable. Poorer citizens have to borrow against the expected credit, inviting high financing costs. But whatever the virtues of the American approach, it is incompatible with the way the current British tax system works. We deduct tax as much as possible at source, and tax free allowances scoop up a host of small payments that would otherwise be within scope. Only a minority of citizens have to file tax returns, with all the hassle and expense this entails. Extending Self Assessment (as it is known) to the whole population is not an inviting prospect – though the system is much simpler than its American equivalent.

So what to do? A popular idea on the left is to replace universal credit with a universal basic income to which everybody is entitled – so eliminating the need to gather data on incomes. The problem here is that it would require a big expansion of tax if this income is going to be at the level of maximum universal credit (up to £3,800 per year). My back of the envelope calculation is that the cost would be about £200bn per annum (excluding pensioners) – about the same as the entire income tax take. This is not impossible: overall tax receipts are currently £700bn, and a good proportion is being paid out already (especially if you include the tax free allowance). But it brings with it a host of issues around consent and enforcement. And would that level of income really be enough?

The alternative is to move away from these centralised, universal systems to ones that are more piecemeal and community-oriented. That would mean that each local area would need to work out its own system for alleviating poverty, including social housing, and job guarantees as well as cash benefits. All this to be administered by one-stop-shops that are able to deal with each person’s needs in the round.

But that would require such a radical change of thinking that I cannot see any sign of it happening. Our politicians, and political activists generally, are addicted to creating giant, universal systems administered through online portals, that have failure designed into them.

 

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