Politics is dominated by historical myths, about which the different political camps disagree. Examining these myths critically is one way that societies can find reconciliation. While “austerity”, the favoured shorthand for government cutbacks, is fast sinking as an issue in British politics, long since overtaken by Brexit, its mythology remains a defining issue. This mythology has right and left versions. I want to look at the mythology of the left.
Few in the Labour Party would disagree with Oxford Economist Simon Wren-Lewis in a recent article that austerity “will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.” We in the Lib Dems are implicated in this criticism, as part of the coalition government of 2010-2015 that implemented austerity. It is exhibit B in the Labour case that the Lib Dems should cease to exist as a political party, and that all “progressives” should simply join their party (exhibit A being the tuition fees fiasco). So what are we to make of it?
Mr Wren-Lewis sets out this narrative very clearly in his article. He is an open Labour supporter, so his comments come with a political slant – but he is a proper economist and the case he makes is a substantial one.
This narrative runs something like this: in 2008-2009 Britain followed the world into a severe recession, brought about by a global banking crisis. This inevitably created a government deficit, of which he says: “We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.” The Labour government used fiscal stimulus to moderate the effects of the recession, but the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that came to power in 2010 rejected this approach and focused obsessively (so the story goes) with reducing the deficit, using austerity policies – cutting government spending severely. He claims that this focus on austerity had no economic merit, and is best understood as a political exercise to reduce the size of government, with misery as its by-product.
Mr Wren-Lewis says that the government defended its policy with three arguments: that innovative monetary policy would provide the necessary stimulus; that improved business and consumer confidence would do the trick; and that financial markets would not finance the national debt unless action was taken. He demolishes each of these arguments, and I would not disagree with him, though there is an element of hindsight and the first two ideas came good in the end. As a result, he says, the British recovery was extremely slow, costing the average household £4,000 a year – coincidentally about the same as the Treasury’s estimate of the costs of Brexit.
But Mr Wren-Lewis is being disingenuous. There was a fourth argument for austerity. And that was that most of the deficit in in 2010 was “structural” – in other words had a deeper cause the recession. If I remember correctly, the Office of Budget Responsibility estimated that about 8% or so of the 11% deficit was structural. In other words a lot of the pre-crash tax revenues were gone for good, and would require more than short term demand management to bring them back.There is plenty of scope for disagreement amongst professional economists here – but it does suggest an alternative narrative, to which I personally subscribe.
This narrative posits that the British economy was not in a stable position when recession struck. It had already been pumped up by excess fiscal stimulus; there was too much private sector debt; and there was an unhealthy dependence on international finance and, to a lesser degree, North Sea oil. The evidence for this is not just the precipitate nature of the crash – bigger in Britain than in other developed nations – but the large current account deficit before, during and after the crash, and the high level of Sterling beforehand, and its abrupt fall. It is true that the public deficit did not look outsized by international standards before the crash, but, as my macroeconomics lecturer pointed out at the time, the overall economic context had classic signs unsustainable fiscal stimulus. The crash was more than an ordinary business-cycle downturn, it was Britain’s financial chickens coming home to roost.
So what does that mean? It means that fiscal stimulus as a response to the recession would have only a limited impact, and would not have restored the economy to its previous health, and in particular it would not have solved the government’s deficit problem. Before long the additional demand generated would have led to inflation (in fact unlikely outside economics textbooks) or (much more likely) a worsening current account deficit, i.e. stimulating other countries’ economies rather than ours. That put the British government in a bind. There was a case for stimulating demand through fiscal policy, and yet government expenditure had to be cut back towards something sustainable in the medium term. The government in fact plotted a middle way and, far from obsessively focusing on deficit reduction, moderated the cuts when the recovery proved slower than they expected. The trajectory of deficit reduction was close to that projected by the outgoing Labour government in 2010.
But many distinguished economists were and remain highly critical of the coalition’s austerity policies. Labour supporters can quote any number of famous names. But you need to read what these distinguished people actually said, rather than the mood music they fed into. In fact they hedged their bets. They focused criticism on the lack of public investment, and not across the board austerity. Investment, in theory anyway, is a magic bullet in this context. It generates future productivity growth, so helps to put the economy on a more sustainable future path, while at the same time providing short-term demand. This is a perfectly valid criticism of the coalition record, shared by many Lib Dems who were part of the government. But it does not suggest that the majority of austerity policies were wrong in principle. Taxes and spending were badly out of line and something had to be done to return them to balance. All I can say in the government’s defence is that public investment is much harder to do in practice than in theory – so often the money ends up in wasteful white elephant projects. But it would have relatively easy to allow the building of more council homes, for example.
Where I agree with Mr Wren-Lewis (though he does not explicitly say it) is that the macro-economic policy presented by Labour at the General Election in 2015, under Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, was much more sensible than the one presented for the Conservatives by George Osborne. Mr Osborne proposed a charge towards fiscal surplus that made little economic sense – and one year on it is being buried by his successor. The Labour strategy would have knocked some of the hard edges off austerity, while promoting a higher level of investment. The left is right to call to call it “austerity-lite”, but wrong to suggest that this was a bad thing.
So criticism of austerity is warranted, but this does not amount to what the left wants it to do: to prove that cuts to government spending and benefits were unnecessary, and still less that they can be reversed. Extra spending will require higher taxes. Economists may feel that austerity policies are self-defeating in many instances, such as in some of the Eurozone adjustment programmes. But there is also growing recognition of a deeper weakness in many advanced economies, including Britain’s, signified by the stagnation of productivity. That is limiting tax revenues and what governments can afford to do. That weakness should be the central topic of political debate.