Perhaps only Brexit is a more important political issue in Britain than austerity – the policy of restraint in public spending that is causing acute stress in parts of the public sector. It might surprising, therefore, that the quality of debate is so low as to be nonsensical. But then again, when things get important, truth is the first casualty. So let me attempt a dispassionate overview.
First let’s look at the case made by government supporters in favour of continued austerity. This runs at the level of household accounting. The government is outspending the revenue it collects. This means it is piling up debts which future generations must pay. How irresponsible! “There is no magic money tree,” says the Prime Minister, Theresa May. But one of the first things you learn in economics is that running a government budget is nothing like a household one. And the government does have a magic money tree – it’s called the Bank of England. It is perfectly safe for a government to create money to pay its own bills, in the right economic circumstances. Japan has being doing this for a couple of decades. Plus spending government money in the right way may generate the means to pay it back – through bringing spare capacity into the economy, or through investing in projects that generate a return. Or even both at the same time. The case made by government ministers is simply irrelevant. But that doesn’t make them wrong.
The case made by the left has more economic sophistication – and it is even nominally supported by authoritative economists like Joe Stiglitz, an American Nobel Laureate (who wrote a useful textbook on public economics). The main argument they make is often referred to as “Keynesianism” after the great Liberal economist Maynard Keynes, who offered it a the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Keynes pointed out that if there is spare capacity in the economy, such as during a recession, extra public spending will not displace other activity, and it will (or should) therefore cause the economy to grow, and pay for itself. But this argument is made by left-wingers regardless of the economic climate. Find me a trade unionist that has ever, ever said that because the economy is overheating, government spending restraint is required. It’s like finding a businessman who says, in any given economic conditions, that interest rates should go up. They are like barristers making a case, no matter how ridiculous. What should judge and jury think?
Two pieces of evidence may be offered in favour of Keynesian expansion now. First is that economic growth since the great financial crisis of 2007-2009 has been lacklustre, and behind many of Britain’s peer economies. Surely it needs a kick up the backside? Second is that inflation is low and looks stuck. Actually, inflation has been creeping up a bit, but that is due to the pound falling. Pay inflation – surely the critical point in this case – remains low. In classical economics high inflation is the surest sign of an overheating economy.
But two pieces of evidence can be offered against Keynesian expansion. First is that unemployment is at near record lows for recent times, and overall employment is very high (unlike in the USA, there don’t appear to be a lot of people who have dropped out of the labour market and so not treated as unemployed). Second is that Britain has a high current account deficit – at 3.1% of income it is one of the highest in the developed world, though it has been coming down since the pound fell. That means that Britain needs foreigners to pay it in its own currency, or Britons need to acquire foreign currency to finance foreign debts. This means that the country depends on “the kindness of strangers” as the Chairman of the Bank of England put it. Among other things that takes some of the magic out of the money tree owned by the Bank – and is a contrast with money-plucking Japan, which tends to run big surpluses. Money trees need net savings (or current account surpluses) to nurture them, or else their fruit turns bad, as many a horror story from South America will attest.
So there should be public debate around what these pieces of contradictory evidence mean. Unemployment is low, but the quality of many jobs is low – so would people work more productively under the right pressure? Britain has a trade deficit, but most debt (including government debt) is still denominated in Sterling, reducing risks substantially. There is much to explore, but few take the trouble. Easing austerity could simply raise growth; it could cause us to borrow in currencies that the Bank of England can’t print; it could cause inflation; it could simply stimulate more low paid immigration; or nothing much might happen at all.
The important message, though, is that it matters how any extra government money is spent. This rather goes against the flow of the usual macroeconomic debate, which likes to deal in quantities rather than qualities. But if you read carefully you will see that trained economists brought into oppose austerity policies are quite careful about the type of extra spending they advocate. They want more investment. If the government invests in things that generate financial returns by making the economy more efficient and productive, then the question of whether or not the economy is running at full capacity is side-stepped. The Labour manifesto at the general election offered this line of reasoning, and that is doubtless why the likes of Mr Stiglitz felt able to endorse it. Labour also wanted to put taxes up albeit mainly on the rich – which, nominally, at least, should reduce excess demand.
Unfortunately this can lead simply to politicians labelling all public expenditure as “investment” – a favorite trick of former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. We need to look at matters case by case. What if the government gave NHS employees a pay rise, which some say they are due after years of pay restraint? Some of the extra money would come straight back in taxes; some would be spent creating demand which might help local economies to grow. But some might be spent in businesses that will just put their prices up; some might simply be saved (which has no short-term economic impact) or spent on things like foreign holidays that just add to the current account deficit. Unless balanced at least some extent by tax rises the economic case for this looks unconvincing (where those tax rises should fall is not a simple question either…). But there are other benefits to increasing pay. Would it make it easier to recruit and retain top quality staff that would make the service more efficient? That mean the service could run on fewer temporary staff and make cost savings by heading off medical complications? Well that’s the key, and it depends on strong management. These benefits don’t just happen.
But what of devoting more money to public health? If done properly, this will head off demand for health services, and reduce the costs of poor health elsewhere in the economy. The case for funding this from borrowing is much easier to make. A similar case can be made for schools funding – though again this depends on good management (though personally I am more confident of that in schools than in hospitals, if only because the former are much simpler to run).
There is a lot of extremely interesting debate to be had around the economic implications of different sorts of public spending. Would forgiving student debt be a financial catastrophe? Or might it provide an economic boost in exactly the right places? We need some dispassionate analysis.
Instead we have a Conservative Party that will not engage in arguments of any economic sophistication, and is allowing some of its cost savings to do lasting damage to society. And though the Labour Party understands this, it seems uninterested in the discipline that will be needed to ensure that extra government spending and borrowing does not drag the economy down, rather than boost it. Each party is sponsored by advocacy groups who think that the overall outcome for the country is somebody else’s problem. Such is modern British politics.