Was austerity a horrible mistake? Three challenges to the left’s narrative

The Prime Minister Theresa May recently suggested that "austerity" was coming to an end. That word is one of the political left's most successful abstract nouns; that Mrs May is now using it shows just how successful it is. Alongside the word comes an austerity narrative that is nowadays largely unchallenged. This is that the programme of public expenditure cuts started by the coalition government in 2010 was economically unwarranted, and therefore "ideological", and that this foolish policy is responsible for the UK's weak economic performance in the years since.

Conservatives are unbothered by this austerity narrative. They peddle their own rival one: that the preceding Labour regime was profligate with other people's money and that the cuts were needed to stop public waste. They further, and tendentiously,  suggest that this profligacy is what led to the financial crash in 2007-2009. They feel no need to challenge the left's austerity narrative; they just ignore it. For Liberal Democrats, as part of the coalition, the austerity narrative is much more painful. They neither challenge the left's version, nor come up with one of their own. That war is over and the Lib Dems lost, but for the small number of people who care about what happened and why, should we meekly accept the left's version of events, and acknowledge that it was a horrible mistake?

The economic logic of the left's case is based on the idea of Keynesianism. In 2010 Britain was suffering a recession, with a collapse in output in 2008 to 2009 following the financial crash. A recession is a temporary dip in aggregate demand which can become a doom loop: lower demand cause job losses, which in turn reduces demand further. The quickest way to counter this is to stoke up government spending: this keeps demand going, stopping the job losses until confidence returns, the economy starts growing and the excess government spending is then cut back to restore balance (funnily enough left-wing economic commentators rarely talk about that second phase). This is what Labour did to a modest extent in 2009. But the coalition embarked on a massive programme of cuts in 2010, sucking demand out of the economy when demand was already weak. Instead of bouncing back from recession, as you would expect, the economy stayed at its low level with little or no growth for years, until weak growth eventually returned - the worst performance of any major economy.  America, the argument goes, was not as severe in its cuts, and bounced back much more quickly. Some commentators go as far as to project how much the economy would have grown at the average rate before the crash, to show a massive gap between now and where the economy could have been.

One of the reasons why this narrative is largely unchallenged is that the picture is actually very complicated, so that it is not particularly easy to pursue a considered argument. The winner is goes to the person that shouts the loudest in a dialogue of the deaf. I will sketch out three challenges, however, but I will inevitably oversimplify things to keep this post a manageable size.

Challenge 1: the size of the government debt was becoming unsustainable. The budget deficit in 2010 was in the region of 10% of GDP (with estimates at the time being even higher). This is truly scary, and promised a massive rise in the size of government debt: could the financial markets absorb it? And if they couldn't, there might be a financial crisis that would create an even deeper recession. The Greek crisis, which was emerging at the same time, was used an example. But Greece doesn't have its own currency any more. In Britain we can simply create the extra currency when push comes to shove: the government doesn't run out. This is what Japan has been doing for decades with little ill-effect. But Japan has a current account surplus, meaning that the Japanese spend less than they produce, and do not need foreign money to keep the system going. Britain had (and still has) a large current account deficit, which means the opposite: we are dependent on foreign money. So, the argument runs, if these foreigners lost confidence in the British economy because of an ongoing 10% budget deficit, with the free creation of money (and hence a higher risk of currency depreciation and inflation), then there would be a crunch. At best, the government, or private sector, would be forced to borrow in foreign currency, destabilising the economy. At worst imports would rapidly become unaffordable, leading to severe inflation. This is a very hard argument to get to the bottom of on either side. There was no stress in the market for government borrowing as things turned out. But was that because of austerity? Or  sign that austerity was unnecessary? There is a very good case that the government could easily have borrowed more for investment (in council housing, say), a more difficult case for simply open-ended funding of bureaucrats and benefits.

Challenge 2: the government actually moderated austerity to reflect economic conditions. The government's plans to cut spending announced in 2010 were never adhered to; what actually happened followed the trajectory proposed by the Labour Chancellor in 2010 to tackle the deficit and included in the party's election manifesto. Unemployment never got out of control, and overall employment recovered much more quickly than the overall income figures. A lot of the comments from left-wing writers on the scale of the recession and austerity does not follow the facts. Some even suggest that because austerity was slower than planned "it was a failure in its own terms". This really is disappearing up your own backside. The scale of the cuts to public services simply shows how far public spending had got out of step with tax revenues. The more serious left-wing counter to this is that though employment held up, its quality did not. Pay was squeezed, and a lot of the new employment was insecure. There was scope for more demand in the economy, they say.

Challenge 3: the economy before the crash was unsustainable. To me this is the lynch pin argument, and I'm disappointed that it is so rarely made. This runs in a narrow form and a broader form. The narrow form is that government spending was at unsustainable levels, both because it was running a deficit at the top of the economic cycle, and, more seriously, because so much spending was funded by bubble taxes like capital gains taxes and stamp duty, while more reliable taxes, like income tax, were actually cut. That left a massive gap when the bubble burst, which meant that spending cuts or tax rises were inevitable even taking the Keynesian argument into account. There was never going to be a good moment to make the adjustment.

But the broader argument is more important. There was something fundamentally unsound about the pre-crash economy. It depended too much on the financial sector, drawing in foreign money to invest in British property and other assets. This drove the pound up, strangling export industries and giving us that large current account deficit. Growth in the economy depended on two very dubious sectors: finance and "business services" - the supply to services to other businesses, often in the finance sector. A lot of the reported income turned out to be fictitious, generating huge losses in the banks which the government then had to bail out. This was the culmination of two or three decades of poor economic management, when instead of modernising the economy, Britain went on an orgy of financialisation - not only pumping up a socially useless finance sector and its hangers on, but persuading people to increase consumption by borrowing more. In this light, projecting growth rates from before the crash to after it, to show how far it should have grown, is nonsense. The sustainable growth rate has been near zero for some years. And this puts a severe limit on Keynesian policies: the economy simply couldn't bounce back to where it was before without creating another bubble. In fact with the finance sector flat on its back, such policies would most likely have done little to raise domestic incomes, but simply sucked in more imports and foreign money invested in British property. The rebalancing of the economy, advocated by politicians of the right, left and centre, is a much slower and more painful process. We simply do not have the skills that a rebalanced economy will need.

This is not to say that the coalition government did not make serious mistakes. The more subtle critique made by prominent economists is that the government should have borrowed to invest. In other words the austerity was necessary, but that it should have been balanced by building more infrastructure and (perhaps) developing schools and colleges (the universities did fine). The left-wing commentators who cite these economists (the likes of Joe Stiglitz for example) overlook this.

The problem is that the British economy is in a deep mess, and it will not be easy to break out of it. We cannot do so by trying to go back to the economies of the 2000s, still less the 1970s. We cannot even go back to how the 2000s might have been if we had been wiser (looking more like Germany for example). Trying to work out what this new economy looks like and how to get there is the big challenge facing all politicians. Meanwhile we should regard any arguments about the easy restoration of growth with suspicion.