As a rule I hate clichés. I cringe whenever I hear about a “perfect storm”. But I have a soft spot for the gorilla in the room, who is sometimes an elephant. The huge thing, obvious to everybody, but which it is impolite to talk about. In responding to Britain’s annual (OK, twice yearly) Budget I’m looking at one of them.
Britain’s Budgets are political theatre staged by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as our senior finance minister is known, annually, or whenever there is new government. There is also an Autumn Statement, which amounts nearly to the same thing. The whole exercise is a process of heavily manipulated speculation in advance, followed by a tumble of instant reaction. All this shows how news is the enemy of information. By the time facts are known, contextualised and properly analysed the news media have long since moved on. People who try to be a bit more serious, like me, are torn. By joining the circus of speculation and premature response we get more readers and more reaction. But this is often at the cost of saying anything that is worth saying. My compromise is not to respond until after I have read the reactions the morning after.
The Budget process seems particularly farcical at the moment. The government is trying to set out its plans over a five year period, and in particular over the five years of a parliament, which in both cases means up to 2020 at the moment. This means they depend on five year projections of the economy. These projections are produced independently of the Treasury by the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR). Without the smoothing hand of political manipulation, the five year outlook is highly volatile. Last Autumn the OBR “found” £27 billion; a mere six months later they had “lost” £56 billion. I can’t offer much help about what is going on here, except to point out that economic forecasting is a dodgy business, and this sort of volatility simply shows the absence of manipulation. It is no basis upon which to carry out serious economic planning. And yet the government says that it is doing just that. Last Autumn it used the £27 billion windfall to relax its fiscal plans. This time it was forced to tighten up a little, plus deploy a few accounting tricks to pretend that it is on course to meet tis five year target to move the budget into surplus, even as interim targets fall by the wayside.
But nobody is convinced, and nobody cares. It is far too early to worry about 2020, with so many unknowns. The critical thing is the next year, and nobody disagrees much with the overall thrust of George Osborne’s strategy. The muddle is particularly noticeable on the left. They are trying to capitalise on the fact that the government is missing its short-term austerity targets, while at the same time condemning austerity. Since 2010, the government has taken a pragmatic, Keynesian stance to fiscal policy, while pretending that it is being austere. This means that the country’s fiscal deficit and levels of public debt are higher than pretty much any other major developed economy apart from Japan, having started the crisis in a much stronger position. That this has still meant dramatic cuts to public spending shows just how out of control the government finances had become under the previous government, as it pursued the illusory goal of Scandinavian public spending backed by US taxes. The left are still in denial about this.
So what did Mr Osborne do? Not much. There were promised tax cuts on personal allowances and higher rate thresholds. He failed to increase tax on petrol, even after petrol prices have fallen so far. There were cuts to company taxes and capital gains. I don’t approve of much of this, though many liberals do. But the impact will not be huge. He stepped up the ratchet on public spending, without being too specific, but pushing the hard decisions way into the future in the hope, no doubt, that the economy will come to the rescue. There were gimmicks and irrelevances aplenty, like a sugar tax, and pushing schools towards academy status, which I comment on in another post.
But here’s the problem. Constraining, never mind cutting, public spending is getting harder. Benefit cuts are causing anguish that even Conservative MPs feel; the ambitious idea for Universal Credit could yet collapse amid its technical problems. The attempt to drive efficiency savings in the NHS through ratcheting up financial pressure annually, a policy that predates 2010, has now collapsed. Hopes that the NHS can achieve substantial savings through re-engineering are vanishing. The ugly behemoth is unmanageable, and the reforms made by the Coalition aren’t helping. Outsourcing bits of it will not help. Meanwhile demand continues to rise. The government’s bid to reform schools finance requires a lot of extra money to placate the losers if it is not going to run into big problems. Social care is in crisis. Attempts to curb the defence budget have collapsed.
Behind this can be spied a strategic problem. Or, rather, two. The first is a growing proportion of older people, with an added demand for public pensions, and health and social care support, while dropping out of the tax base. The second is that the benefits of a modern economy are increasingly going to the richest, leaving many behind without adequate savings, and putting pressure on the social security safety net. Rising property prices are exacerbating this, burdening many younger people with huge rents and no prospect of joining the property bonanza. I could add a number of further issues which suggest that the days of easy economic growth are over.
So demand for public services is rising, but the tax base is shrinking, or at least stagnating. There is a substantial current account deficit, which limits the scope for creative government finance (like “people’s QE) we need lots of foreign currency to buy the all those foreign goods we depend on. There is really only one way out. Taxes will have to go up, and not just on the richest. That means the sacred trio of income tax, national insurance and VAT. But nobody talks about this. Not even the opposition parties.
And that is the gorilla.