The Tories must choose between lower taxes or the NHS

Discontent in the British Conservative party goes beyond frustration with the erratic leadership style of Boris Johnson, and his low poll ratings. Many feel that the government is failing to deliver on a distinctly Tory vision of how to run the country – one that is business-friendly with light regulation and low taxes. Shadow leadership contenders, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are both trying to capitalise on this discontent. But there is no way out, which is why Mr Johnson may yet limp on until the next election.

Item One in this discontent is the government’s covid strategy. Many Tories feel that it is too heavy-handed and too beholden to cautious experts. Leave the public to make up its on mind on precautions and take the consequences, they suggest. Their thinking is plainly muddled, and out of touch with most voters, but at least as the virus morphs into something a bit less deadly, so policy can move on in their direction.

Item Two is Brexit. In Tory eyes this was meant to be a great liberation from bureaucracy, which would allow “buccaneering” British business to achieve its full potential. And yes, one prominent Tory did use that word, referring to licensed pirates on the high seas back in the 17th and 18th centuries, at whose modern equivalent the Russians’ advantage is surely unassailable. In fact businesses have been mired in even more form-filling, associated with imports and exports to the European Union, which surrounds the country, and is thus its readiest partner for both. Some remember that it was much simpler back in the 1960s before Britain entered the Common Market – failing to understand how the world has moved on. Meanwhile rolling back regulations has been happening at a snails’ pace, as the regulations were more than a bureaucratic whim, and aimed to achieve a public good – which has to be achieved in an alternative way. Downing Street has resorted to pointing to crowns printed on beer glasses and the changed colour of passports as among the main achievements of Brexit. And that is before the insoluble problem of Ireland is brought into the picture, ever capable of exploding with dire consequences. In fact most Brexit voters, including the former Labour-voting ones that Mr Johnson so successfully courted in the 2019 election, never much cared for deregulation as a reason for Brexit. They wanted to see more restrictive immigration policies – which the Tories have indeed delivered. But that has brought more bureaucracy, and snarl-ups due to labour shortages. Tory MPs’ business friends are not particularly happy, even as Tory voters are now a lot less worried about the issue.

And Item Three is taxes. They are going up, both corporate taxes and national insurance, levied on people in work and their employers. This is nominally to pay for grasping the nettle on the emerging social care crisis, but in fact the money will disappear into the National Health Service, which has been completely disrupted by the covid crisis, and now has massive backlogs for routine care. The Tory discontents say that above all they should be a party of lower taxes (especially on businesses and the rich, sotto voce) – and that this is a betrayal. Mr Sunak hints that if it was left to him, he would be cutting taxes soon. Most people outside the Conservative Party wonder if he can possibly be serious. With little room for manoeuvre on the budget deficit and national debt (and if you don’t think such things are relevant, high inflation suggests fiscal excess) the only way this vision can be delivered is by cutting government spending.

At the heart of this is rising spending on the NHS. Since the party regained power (in coalition) in 2010, the government has attempted to cap NHS spending so that it just about kept pace with inflation. But as the baby boomers age, and skew the ratio of older people, demand has been rising at a higher rate. The financial pressure has caused system resilience to be reduced, and this is one of the causes of the now alarming backlogs. Tory hopes that NHS costs are containable are based on two fallacies and a misconception. Fallacy One is that demand can be met through making the service more efficient. Any user of the service can point to inefficiencies in this massive, bureaucratic behemoth of an organisation. But that comes with the necessary scale and complexity of what the healthcare sector is trying to do – international comparisons show that Britain’s health services are amongst the world’s most efficient. But these same comparisons also show that in many areas Britain’s health services less effective. We are, to quote The Times columnist Matthew Parris, “getting a second-rate service for the cost of third-rate one.” This is not what the public wants, and further cost restraint is liable to mean the service becoming third-rate all round.

Fallacy Two is that faster economic growth can allow spending to keep up with demand. Alas the headwinds against growth in a modern, developed economy are many, and I have written about these many times. That demographic problem that is stoking up demand is not least among them. Besides there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the wealthier people become the more demand there is for health services. Which leads me to the misconception: which is that excess demand for the NHS arises because it is free. That suggests that there should be ways of persuading the public to make do. But the problem is that the effective NHS monopoly on health care limits supply. Other systems are much better at mobilising private money – and where they do, demand is higher, not lower. A large and growing healthcare sector is one of the features of any modern, developed economy, however it is financed. Resisting it will breed discontent.

That points to an answer. If Britain could move healthcare to a public insurance model, such as the Netherlands or Australia have, the public would both get a guarantee that their basic needs will be met, and the mobilisation of private money to pay for a world-class service. I have been to Australia quite a bit over the years – and one thing I hear very little of is discontent with its health system. And Aussies know how to be discontented. But such a shift, as surely almost all Tories know, is an impossibility. For all its faults, the public has become attached to the system. And trying to mix more private money into it would be seen as a betrayal of its ethos. Doing this as a open public policy is clearly suicidal. But doing so by stealth, by restraining the public service while allowing the private sector to grow, is problematic too – although exactly this has happened to dentistry and optometry already. If wealthier people are paying big taxes for a service they don’t use, it will create discontent, and reducing their taxes will starve the public service, making it even worse. Neglect of the NHS under the Conservative governments of 1979 to 1997 was one of the reasons that support for the party collapsed in the 1990s. And one of the reasons that Mr Johnson did so well in 2019 was by promising to invest a lot of public money in the NHS, amongst other public services.

But people can pay more tax. Taxation in Britain is not especially high by European standards. If the system is well-designed the harms can be limited. Tories will have to embrace this, unless they want to challenge the public shibboleth of the NHS. Instinctively many Conservative MPs understand this, and they may realise that Mr Johnson represents the best way of postponing this awkward choice, and they may well let him muddle on.

What Conservatives should be doing is developing a new vision for the 21st Century that embraces higher taxes and a well-funded NHS at the heart of a flourishing health economy, based on world-leading health research and development. This is perfectly credible, unlike world leadership in buccaneering.

Now is the time for austerity

Contrary to some of the headlines, yesterday’s British Budget was an austerity budget. Its aim was to bring current spending and taxes into balance in three years, with a capital deficit restricted to 3% of GDP. With the current budget deficit at around 11% of GDP, that is a sharp contraction. The Institute of Fiscal Studies points out that most households will be worse off next year. The ratio of tax to GDP is widely projected to be the highest since the years of postwar austerity. Austerity is what current economic conditions demand. The main risk is that it will not be enough, and that it will precipitate a recession in the run up to the next general election.

That the Budget felt the opposite is down mainly to brazen but effective news management by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, and also to a stroke of good fortune. The main bad news was the substantial rise in National Insurance, alongside the withdrawal of most of the emergency support for Covid, notably an uplift in Universal Credit and the furlough scheme. This news had been broken weeks ago, and presented as in the former case a bold stroke to deal with the growing crisis in social care, and in the latter as the coming to an end of the pandemic nightmare. The stroke of good luck was that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility that produces the economic forecasts on which the Budget is base offered a more optimistic picture of the years ahead than hitherto. It charted a rapid recovery from the pandemic with a reduced level of long-term damage. The country is indeed rapidly recovering from the shutdowns that disrupted the economy, making the furlough scheme in particular redundant, and this does improve the economic statistics – but beyond that this all chaff. The tax rises have little to do with the social care crisis; rising prices mean that the Universal Credit cut is causing hardship; economic forecasts have a paradoxically backward looking methodology which makes them very unreliable. Mr Sunak has navigated these treacherous waters cleverly, but what does this all mean in the cold light of day?

Austerity, by which I mean the squeezing of the government deficit by raising taxes or cutting spending or both together, has a bad name at the moment. In this country it is attached to the policies of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010 to 2015, after the Great Financial Crisis (GFC), and to the following Conservative-only government. The crisis had shredded government finances, but its aftermath left economic demand weak. Economists pointed out that in these circumstances it was usually wise to loosen government finances, not tighten them. Years of hardship and lacklustre growth bore this analysis out. The defenders of austerity stuck to economically illiterate but intuitively appealing arguments, making an analogy with prudent household budgeting and the idea of protecting future generations from debt. There was a literate defence of government policy to be made, at least up to 2015, but practically nobody made it – I was a lonely voice (Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable also made a valiant attempt). This put the blame on the unbalanced nature of the economy before the crisis and the need to restructure it. But even I (and surely Vince) thought the austerity was overdone, especially with regard to public investment. Meanwhile the literate economic critique gave the left their opening to demonise “Austerity” as vicious crime against humanity. Loose fiscal policy and economic growth came to be seen as two sides of the same coin.

Given that experience, it was natural to respond very differently to the next economic crisis, brought on by Covid-19. Government coffers were immediately opened up with a number of very generous schemes to support individuals and businesses. These were successful in alleviating a lot of hardship – though economists making comparisons between different countries have struggled to draw a connection between fiscal generosity and the scale of economic damage. Britain’s government was one of the most generous, but many others suffered less economic damage. That, though, is more a reflection of poor management of public health than the economic policies. Also Britain was coping with a further disruption: dropping out of the European Single Market and customs union, and the implementation of tighter immigration controls – which collectively I will call “Brexit”. All the same it points towards a greater truth: this crisis is very different from the previous one, and that affects the economic response.

In retrospect the remarkable thing about the GFC is that it affected the demand side of the economy more than supply. Important though it may be to the functioning of the economy, the financial sector at the centre of the crisis did not have such a big impact on the “real” economy – relatively few jobs were directly impacted, and a lot of those were saved by narrow but generous government intervention. What it did was to increase the level of net saving by making it harder for people to borrow, while at the same time the shock stopped businesses from investing. Increased saving paired with reduced investment is the very definition of a Keynesian recession, to which the public policy response should be to loosen fiscal policy.

But the problem this time is very different. Demand is alive and well; the impact of the crisis on jobs has been muted, while the lockdowns have allowed many people to accumulate savings that are now available to spend. Supply, however, and especially in Brexit Britain, has been hit hard. This is particularly evident in trade and logistics, and also in energy. The problems are global, but Brexit has added an extra dimension in Britain, especially as many foreign workers went home as the lockdowns took effect. This was what the economy demanded at the time, but these workers are reluctant to come back, partly, but not only, because of immigration controls. In the last two decades Britain has relied on two safety valves to regulate its economy: imports and immigration. Mismatches in supply and demand have been met through both – and in particular the fact that the supply side of the British economy is relatively weak. Now neither is working properly – or rather they are only working in one direction – to accommodate reduced demand, as in the early stages of the pandemic, but not its increase. The result is visible: inflation.

Government politicians and economic forecasters shrug the problem off. The problems are temporary, they insist. Once more ships are back plying the seas and containers located in the right places, and businesses have adapted to the changed environment, then it will be business as usual. But this is complacent, and especially so in Britain. It reminds me of the early stages of the GFC (and has resonances with what I read of the oil shocks of the early 1970s); the crisis was evident by mid 2007 when the uncertainties arising from complex derivatives linked to the US housing market caused international interbank markets to freeze up. At the time (alas before I had started blogging) this was scary enough for me to sell all shares in my pension plan and invest in index-linked gilts. But most people were in denial, supported by the usual backward-looking economic data, which showed th problems to be limited. The metaphor I used at the time was of a ship holed beneath the waterline desperately sailing for safety. That metaphor works less well this time, but the problems with supply look deeper than most people are allowing. And in Britain the changes following from Brexit are long-term. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, cheerfully talks about the economy responding to the difficulties by restructuring to become a high-skill high-wage one; he is even encouraging people to push for wage rises. But such changes take time and investment – and meanwhile all putting wages up does is encourage a wage-price spiral. We have thrown away the stabilisers on our bicycle without having learnt to ride it unaided. These are exactly the conditions where governments should reduce overall demand by applying austerity.

What happens if the austerity is not enough? This was the topic of my last post. Inflation gets stuck at a high level; interest rates go up; hardship spreads across Middle England (and Scotland and Wales) and property prices dive; the costs of government spending go up. Recession follows. Most Government supporters seem to be in denial. The smarter ones (and I suspect that Mr Sunak is among them) hope that with clever footwork they can time the next election in a sweet spot while people are feeling good from inflationary payrises before the devastation strikes, perhaps supported by a (reckless) tax cut. But at least there is some appreciation that austerity needs to be the direction of travel. Alas the left have not caught up with this fact, ever unwilling to acknowledge that economic policy depends on context.

The government’s choice: higher taxes or higher interest rates?

Britain’s Conservative government is approaching two years in office. Depending on how it amends the legislation on fixed-term parliaments, it will seek re-election in as little as a year and half (May 2023), or, more likely, in two to two and half years (later in 2023 or May 2024). The endgame of this parliament’s existence is now in sight. Tory thoughts turn to the question of how to secure a further term in office.

The 2019 election was fought largely on the question of “Getting Brexit done”, as the Conservatives successfully framed it. But they also set out a broader agenda: “levelling up” – tackling inequality by securing a better deal for the less well-off regions and groups rather than by punishing the better-off; improving public services – mainly the NHS and police; curbing immigration – the big dividend from Brexit; and keeping the country on the path to carbon neutrality. This is pretty popular and the government shows no sign of backing down on any of it. But with the possible exception of immigration, these aims aren’t notably different from the opposition’s. The Tories are further distinguished by putting more faith in the enterprise and initiative of private individuals and businesses, rather than a bossy government and government-sponsored mega-projects (even if Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has a weakness for the latter). To many observers this agenda looks impossible to reconcile – a question of “have your cake and eat it”, but it is not entirely vacuous. The left tends to underestimate the importance of setting the zeitgeist so that private initiative sets society on the right path.

Nevertheless the shallowness of most Conservative thinking is breathtaking. One example of this is the idea, popular in the party, of announcing a cut in income tax before the next election. The idea is that this would show the benefits of Tory stewardship of the economy, and drive a wedge between Labour and many of its potential supporters. It would also straighten up the record a bit after the party was forced to raise National Insurance, which it had promised not to do. It is a truly terrible idea. Basic Rate Income Tax, alongside VAT, is the the most broadly based tax the government raises, and it is therefore a valuable economic tool. And yet raising it has become a politically toxic idea, ever since Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown promised not to do so in the mid-1990s. They preferred to raise National Insurance instead, even though this tax is narrower, and the employer-levied version adds friction to job creation. One of Mr Brown’s biggest mistakes was cutting the tax to 20% in 2007. The Great Financial Crisis soon after showed how much the government was relying on volatile capital taxes, and the income tax cut contributed to a dire budget deficit that panicked the subsequent coalition government into drastic spending cuts. Cutting the Basic Rate adds a level of instability to the country’s economic management.

Still, that line of argument is unlikely to appeal to Tory MPs, who seem to have a blind faith in muddling through. The bigger problem for the party is that supply and demand is out of kilter in the UK economy, and cutting taxes will add fuel to the flames. As demand recovers from the shock of the Covid pandemic, it has revealed weaknesses in the supply side of the economy, which can’t keep up. Some of the problem is worldwide, with the global trading system put under stress by problems in container shipping, for example, or the production of microchips. But Brexit, or more precisely the country’s rapid departure from the Single Market and customs union, has made the problem much worse. On top of that there is the government’s hostile attitude to immigration, especially of people on lower rates of pay. Many immigrant workers have left the country, and don’t want to come back, even if the government would let them. These problems have hit the distribution of goods particularly hard, and imports especially. That matters a lot, because the usual way for the British economy to handle excess demand is to import more. With that option closed, unless the public starts to save more, the consequence is inflation. And sure enough, inflation has risen already. The government is even encouraging it by urging businesses to pay people more.

This is bad news for the government. Inflation is a corrosive economic disease that attacks savings, and usually hits the less well-off, and those reliant on pensions the worst. These are critical parts of the Conservative base (i.e. savers and pensioners). Under the widely accepted understanding of economic policy the way to counter inflation is to increase interest rates, preferably so that they exceed the rate of inflation itself. Right now official interest rates, which drive commercial rates, are very low, and less than inflation. This has enabled many people to afford very high levels of borrowing, usually to buy houses. It also means that the high level of government debt is not actually all that expensive to service (this may not impress followers of Modern Monetary Theory very much, but it matters to the government’s political credibility). Any rise to nominal interest rates will cause widespread pain, which will create a sense of economic crisis. One thing that tends to characterise Conservative voters is ownership of property. Rising property values gives them a sense of wellbeing (even if they have paid off the mortgage), and declining values makes them thing the world is going to pot. If mortgages become more expensive, property prices are bound to fall.

To head this off the government needs to reduce demand. The best way of doing this is to increase one of the broadly based taxes: Basic Rate Income Tax, Employee National Insurance or VAT. Taxes that hit the rich, such as Higher Rate Income Tax, are much less efficient for this purpose, as the rich save more – though they would help with the national debt. The government is, in fact, increasing Employee NI (as well as Employer NI), which will help. It also also trying to cut government spending. It has made a start by withdrawing Covid emergency measures, such as the furlough scheme and Universal Credit. But the politics of large additional spending cuts is awful. Maybe this will all be enough – but I doubt it.

Doubtless the Conservatives hope that within a year the inflation scare will have blown over, and that would give them the wriggle-room they need. And yet many of the supply-side problems that drive it will take years to solve, and may only be solved with a permanent cut to consumption levels. Responding to the problems with pay rises, as the government is encouraging, will also lengthen the time it takes for any settling down.

The chances are that there will be no room to cut income tax before the end of this parliament. Tory party managers should be thinking of other ways of trying to securing political advantage.

How will Britain’s economic chaos pan out?

Britain is suffering mounting economic chaos as supply chains break down. The government shrugs – these are just teething problems, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, suggests, as Britain finds a new normal as a high-wage high-productivity economy. Is this the nonsense it seems to be at first sight?

It doesn’t help that reporting on the emerging problems is very superficial – simply the regurgitation of statements put out by interested parties with no attempt being made get to the bottom of things. The government chooses to dissemble rather than inform. The current petrol crisis, running into its second week here in Sussex, even if it is easing elsewhere, is a case in point.

The government blames it on consumers – or a surge in demand caused by “panic-buying”. After the first few days this was clearly nonsense. People were running out of petrol. Such evidence as we had from the queues outside petrol stations, admittedly anecdotal, was that most people had delayed filling up, and were now desperate. And yet nobody seems interested in trying to understand what was really happening. The government kept on repeating the tangential but irrelevant fact (if it is the case) that there was plenty of petrol at the depots, followed by the non-sequitur that if people simply behaved normally the situation would right itself quickly. This morning the BBC Today programme interviewed a forecourt manager in Kent – and suddenly things started to make a bit more sense. Instead of the normal four fuel deliveries in the last week he had received just two. The current situation had come about because supply problems over the summer meant that forecourt stocks had run low, so that the slightest blip was enough to knock the whole system out of kilter. He didn’t say, but it was easy to infer, that a continuing shortage of deliveries meant that the system couldn’t right itself. This is fundamentally a problem of supply, not demand. The government’s tactic of increasing the number of tanker drivers, including by the use of the army, starts to make sense. It wasn’t simply a confidence-building measure, as ministers seemed to be suggesting, but an attempt to fix a broken system.

And what is happening to motor fuel is being repeated across many other sectors. A lethal combination of a hard Brexit, restrictive immigration rules and the covid-19 pandemic is delivering a series of critical labour shortages. The most notable is that for heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers, which is behind the fuel crisis. But it is far from just this – there is an emerging crisis on the slaughtering of pigs, for example. Problems emerged in the summer, or before; businesses did what they could to manage, but at the cost of resilience; as difficulties arise, the system breaks down. A small uptick in motor fuel demand broke the distribution system and it requires an influx of additional resources to fix it; the large, seasonal uptick called Christmas is approaching, covering all manner of goods (though hopefully not motor fuel). Muddling through could easily tip into breakdown in many parts of the economy.

The government’s problems are both in ideology and competence. Ideologically the government wants to move to a different sort of economy, less reliant on cheap, imported labour. Its leaders also believe in the problem-solving capabilities of free markets and private enterprise, and the need for government to step back. They fully expected teething problems following Brexit and the roll back of immigration, but they expected that businesses would adapt and solve these problems without the need for government intervention. So they shrugged off the early warning signs. And for the most part ministers lacked the competence to see how problems could become unmanageable, and what the best interventions might be. It doesn’t help that the public appears unwilling to hold the government to account, and seems happy to accept that “stuff happens” and that it is all somebody else’s fault. So we have strategy but no tactics.

Does this strategy make sense? I always felt that the strongest case for Brexit was what I called “the hair shirt” one – that Britain had it too easy in the EU, and was relying on cheap imports of both goods and labour. Brexit could force the country to raise its game, and move to higher productivity. Living standards would fall in the short-term, but the result would be more sustainable. What other countries have succeeded in reaching this high-wage high-productivity model? Not the US, where high levels of inequality make cheap labour plentiful in many places, and where the currency can be kept at a high level to make imports cheaper. The most obvious examples of the are in Scandinavia, and Denmark and Sweden in particular. These are obviously not such good exemplars for Conservatives, as they have achieved this within the European Union. Switzerland may be a more a congenial example, though it has opted for a higher level of European integration than Britain has. However there are also the examples of Canada, Australia and New Zealand – which are doubtless more acceptable. Japan, perhaps, is another case. But all these countries have built their success on strong exports, in agriculture, manufacturing and mining. Britain no longer has the potential for agriculture or mining exports on the scale needed; its manufacturing has been hollowed out. There may be alternatives, perhaps based on the country’s world-class university sector. Various aspects of health technology seem to me to be the most promising – especially since the centralised structure of the NHS provides opportunities for data mining (if that’s the right word). There could be a path through to the sort of wealthier and more equal society that the government seeks, or says it does.

But it is hard to see how the country can get there without serious investment, led by government. The education system is an obvious case in point. Universities look to be in relatively good health, so long as the supply of foreign students can be maintained, which means allowing successful graduates to stay in the country if they wish. The obvious gap is in technical education, to fulfil the many mid-level jobs that a high-productivity economy needs, as well as making the best use of the country’s Human Resources. Clusters of technical excellence also need to be developed across the country – this is best led regionally by empowering regional and local government. I also think that a better-resourced health service is required, both to supply the quality of service a country of Britain’s income level should expect, and to be the anchor for an expanding private health economy, developing new treatments and technologies that can be applied worldwide. These investments would need to be financed. If a government had the courage of its convictions, it would do a lot of this through borrowing – as the investment should yield a bigger money economy to tax in future. But doubtless more tax income would be needed too.

And yet the government has no such clarity. Rishi Sunack, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, talks of fiscal prudence and even future tax cuts. Unless he means to do the opposite of what he says (a possibility that this government is quite capable of), this is a bad place to start. A period of cuts to areas that need more money is beckoning. Meanwhile the government urges businesses to overcome labour shortages by raising wages. This at a time when one of the government’s key policies is a public sector pay freeze. Wage rises may be a good thing, but they are also liable to lead to price rises for the goods that people buy – a process that could lead to intolerable pressure through the economy. It is all very well to hope for higher productivity, but this is hardly feasible in many of the areas under stress – such as HGV drivers.

Where is this heading? The government has already been forced to “temporarily” relax immigration rules for HGV drivers and some others. Much more of this is likely – the government will try to tackle the shortages of “low-skilled” workers though temporary immigration visas. This is a strategy that many countries have followed, and it rarely goes well. It either fails because the jobs aren’t attractive enough, or more likely, it will simply draw in an underclass of highly exploitable workers from poorer countries, which could form the basis of poorly-integrated immigrant communities of the future, as the idea of “temporary” gets ever more stretched. To its credit, the government is clearly alive to the dangers, but it may find it has little choice. Another safety valve for the economy is increasing imports – though this won’t reduce the dependence on HGVs – as the country proves too small to sustain productive supply chains by itself, it can make use of those from abroad. That can be financed by the sale of ever more assets such as property and businesses to foreigners – perhaps the real meaning of “Global Britain”. This will be no more appealing to patriots.

And meanwhile in one part of the country an interesting economic experiment is taking place. Northern Ireland has one foot in the EU single market, and an open border with the Union. This has created supply chain problems with the mainland and empty supermarket shelves. But they didn’t suffer from petrol shortages (or not to the same critical extent). As the province’s supply chains become more integrated with the Irish Republic, and thence the wider EU, perhaps it will find things easier than its compatriots over the water.

I shouldn’t underestimate the resilience of Britain’s economy. Perhaps the stresses will indeed push the country towards a more modern economy – electric cars certainly look more appealing now. But for once I’m not optimistic.

The NHS makes Britain a high-tax nation. Tories need to get over it

The most significant political development here in Britain in the last week was the government’s announcement that it is going to raise National Insurance by 3% of income (1.5% each to be paid by employer and employee) to pay for additional short-term costs in the NHS and longer term costs of social care. Alongside it were announced a sketch for the future public funding of social care. This is a reversal for the Conservatives, who had promised not to raise rates of Income Tax, NI or VAT, which has caused consternation among many Tories. They see their dreams of Britain being a lower-tax country ebbing away.

With this new tax the proportion of national income taken as tax will be historically high – though I read differing stories of just how much. When I first started to work calculating PAYE and such in a small accountant’s office in 1976, the basic rate of income tax was 35%, and the top rate was 83%. On top of that “unearned income” was subject to a 15% surcharge, which could take the top rate up to 98%. Then there was National Insurance – admittedly at a much lower rate and capped so that it did not apply to higher levels of income. Corporation Tax was 52%. VAT was only 10% (or 8% on some goods I can’t quite remember), compared to 20% now – but I find it very hard to believe that the country is even close to raising as much tax relative to income as it was then. Maybe I’m missing something. It was a signal achievement of Margaret Thatcher’s government (1979 to 1990) that it cut these rates drastically without destroying the nation’s finances.

That achievement seems to have fostered an illusion amongst many Conservatives – that lower tax rates pay for themselves by creating economic growth – and the effect would be doubly beneficial if wasteful public spending could be cut too. They could point to successful countries with lower rates of tax: such as the USA and Japan – whereas many European countries were regarded as basket cases, suffering from excessive tax. Such people, often styled as “economic liberals”, dominated the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition of 2010 to 2015, and David Cameron’s majority Conservative government that briefly succeeded it. These governments drove forward a period of austerity, in which many areas of public spending were cut drastically, and spending on other areas, such as the NHS, failed to keep up with increased demand. Taxes did not fall so much, though. Personal tax allowances were raised – but tax collection was tightened up. This period should have awakened Tories to the fact that big tax cuts are off the political agenda in the UK. It required huge amounts of political capital just to stand still on the tax and spend equation.

At the heart of this reality is the National Health Service. Unlike most developed countries, the bulk of Britain’s health care is supplied for free through this nationalised utility. This must be funded by taxes (or if you are a follower of Modern Monetary Theory, taxes are required to ensure that the spending is not inflationary). Private health services exist alongside the NHS, but in most cases a wall is placed between the two. You cannot top up your NHS care with private money. Such are the egalitarian principles behind the NHS.

When the NHS was set up in 1949 it was widely thought that health services were like any other utility – such as the drains. Demand would be contained at a particular level when health needs were met – few people become intentionally ill after all. This has never happened. Health care has extended its reach as new conditions come within its scope, and new treatments become available.

All this is generally understood. But what economic liberals often fail to grasp is that if some perfect market mechanism could be found to supply medical services, backed by a perfect social insurance system, then the overall demand for medical care would be very high. In other words people would choose to spend on health services over and above other sorts of consumption. The consumer appeal of reducing pain and extending life has a strong competitive appeal. It is unknowable how much this hypothetical level of demand is – but to get some idea of how high it could be, look at the USA – where healthcare costs 18% of national income, notwithstanding high levels of unmet demand. In Britain the ratio is about 10%, with a lower income per head. So Britons get to spend 8% more of their income than Americans on other things. But other things they probably don’t want as much as better healthcare. They just have no good way of using their income to achieve this because of the way the NHS is structured, and because their political leaders have imposed such a draconian cap on costs. The NHS tops international league tables for value for money – but not for health outcomes. That is not the right way round. In one view the design of the NHS means that demand for health care is exaggerated, because it is free at the point of delivery. In practice the NHS acts as a constraint on demand, because it makes it hard for consumers to use their own money to get what they want.

Other health systems are better at drawing in private money to supplement taxpayer funding. This is done by not imposing a segregation between public and private systems – typically by using an insurance system underwritten by the state. Well-working examples include Australia and the Netherlands (America, on the other hand, is a horrible mess). Alas this not an option for the United Kingdom. The NHS and its egalitarian principles are a national religion that no politician dare touch. Since all health systems have serious drawbacks alongside their advantages, it surely makes sense to try and make the NHS system work better, rather than replace it with something new.

But making the NHS work properly means ramping up the level of funding so that it is closer to the level of “natural” demand, alongside taxes and fees that distribute costs fairly, reflecting that it is a form of insurance. To his credit Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair understood this when, in the early 2000s, he decided to just that, reversing many years of constrained spending. To balance this he and his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, raised National Insurance. At one level this makes sense. This tax is the closest we get to an insurance premium, paid while people are in work, and drawn down in retirement – alongside taxes on tobacco and alcohol, two big drivers of healthcare demand. However the Treasury hates the idea of hypothecated taxes, and there has been no attempt to fund the NHS actuarially. National Insurance is lost in general taxation. Alas Messrs Blair and Brown fatally misread the economy and cut income tax at the same time, all the way down to 20% for the basic rate. That was because of buoyant capital receipts from Britain’s booming capital markets. That income evaporated in the financial crisis of 2007 to 2009. Beyond a little tinkering with top rates, it has been considered toxic to raise income tax rates since Mr Blair promised not to do so before he was first elected in 1997. That is unfortunate because it is clear this tax that should be raised, rather than NI, as it would take money from better-off pensioners (people like me, in fact) who have not done so badly from the austerity years, but who can expect to be using NHS services more.

This problem will come back to haunt this government, or, more likely, its successor. The extra 3% on NI may be enough to keep the NHS going for now, but it surely cannot do the job on social care as well. The wider economy may give governments more time, through growth and with greater scope for budget deficits than the Treasury is assuming. In the long run though, the NHS means that the UK will be pushing its way up the league table of higher tax countries. Conservatives need to get used to that fact.

The developed world’s business model unravels. Is that a good thing?

Free trade and globalisation; just-in-time supply chains; the supply of cheap labour (such as lorry drivers or fruit pickers); each of these has been a critical aspect of economic development in the last twenty or more years in developed countries. And almost every day I read an article about each of these is unravelling. This feels like a profound reversal – but what will it mean?

I can’t help thinking back to my management training in the late 1990s. There was one segment called “The Power of One”. The idea was that if you improved each aspect of your business by a small amount (“one”, which could be 1%), the overall effect on profitability could be profound. Profit is the difference between two large numbers – so improving each of those numbers by a small proportion has a disproportionate effect. If your revenue is 100 units, and cost is 98, your profit is 2. If you increase revenue by one to 101, and cut costs by one, to 97, your profit is 4 – double. This was part of an era of tight micromanagement and of continuous, incremental improvement. Alongside this came a trend to break up business processes amongst specialists by outsourcing – and often this was to businesses based in places where labour was cheap. Or sometimes to agencies that could procure cheap labour, often by using immigrant labour. This gave managers more ways to exert the Power of One, often using the oldest management technique of all: bullying. The changes might be incremental each year, but over time the effect was profound. Complex supply chains and cheap labour became embedded in rich world economies. Some big businesses, such as supermarkets, became very powerful; others, such as farmers and haulage businesses were squeezed dry.

By and large economists applauded this process. Prominent liberal economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman once said “Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything”. Human wellbeing is measured by the amount people consume (well it isn’t, economists admit – and then fail entirely to to act on this insight); in the long run to consume more per person people must produce more per person; that is the definition of improving productivity. Add to the mix gains from trade, a favourite concept of economists, and the gains made in the 1990s and 2000s through tighter management would be bound to lead to gains for everybody in the long run. Economists deal in aggregate numbers and sweeping generalities – their’s is not ask what is really happening beneath the numbers; that’s mere logistics that the little people like accountants are there to manage. But non-economists were not so sure that all was well. They pointed to a number of problems: inequality, exploitation, sustainability and resilience.

To many the rewards of all this productivity improvement were skewed. True, many things became cheaper and inflation was reduced to a small number – but the lives of many workers and small business owners were squeezed by the culture of continuous management bullying, and their livelihoods became less secure as work became here today and gone tomorrow. The big, powerful businesses controlling it all were not necessarily all that profitable, as they often competed intensely with each other, but they were controlled by small elites who were able to corner good incomes for themselves – a reward as they saw it, of making their business more efficient. And there was a strange shadow world of highly-paid professionals designing these complex systems and keeping them in being, in finance and consultancy.

But the inequality problem went deeper than that. Many of these techniques are about the use of cheaper labour (not all – just-in-time management is about inventories) , either by outsourcing to places where labour costs are low, or by importing workers from such countries. Economists are relaxed about this. Wages are low in less developed countries because productivity is low there. Trading with them helps the raise productivity and wages, so both sides gain. This is more of a stretch if the workers themselves are imported – but there is evidence of benefits to the exporting country in that case too. There are a couple of problems though. Labour standards are often lower and this is often exploitative and unethical. More fundamentally, it can only be a temporary fix. Living standards and wages rise in cheap labour countries (look at the succession of countries where this has happened – Japan, South Korea and now China) , and immigrant workers integrate into their new home.

There was also a hidden cost: to sustainability and resilience. Farmers were forced into methods that sucked the land dry (figuratively – depriving the soil of nutrients rather than water), and culled biodiversity. Few people want to be lorry drivers, and their average age is rising. And when there is disruption, such as an earthquake in Japan or a container ship grounding in the Suez Canal, chaos ensues right around the world. Never mind a global pandemic. Suddenly, the world is full of production and transport bottlenecks.

And so it has all started to unravel; the gains are being unpicked and reversed. The changes have been happening for a decade or more, but the first conspicuous reversal came with a political backlash that economists are prone to dismiss as “populism”. In 2016 Donald Trump railed against outsourcing, immigration and foreign trade deals. And in power he did his best to put the clock back, most successfully in trade. In the same year Brexit campaigners also exploited discomfort with free trade and immigration. The outcome has been a profound disruption to many businesses, as buying things from the European Union has become harder (and selling things there), while the pool of flexible European labour has diminished.

Brexit means that the shift has been particularly acute here in Britain – but Brexit has merely accelerated trends that can be seen right across the developed world, and which the Covid-19 pandemic has also accelerated. This has created a very challenging environment for many businesses, and it will surely mean that the prices of many goods will increase, and living standards, as measured by economists, will fall. But before we get too gloomy about this we need see it all in a broader perspective.

Firstly, most of this is about “stuff”: things that need to be moved around by ship, train or lorry. Productivity levels for stuff are already very high, to the extent that it plays a much smaller role in the economy as a whole than it used to. Manufacturing and agriculture account for less than 20% of British national income, compared to over 70% for services. Furthermore there is a lot of over consumption. Most clothes that are bought are only worn rarely. Who really needs an SUV with a max speed over 100mph to do the weekly shopping? Vast amounts of refuse is generated. Consumption of yet more stuff is not going to be the route to improved wellbeing. We can adapt to consuming less across our society without an adverse impact – even recognising that a significant minority of people would benefit from an increase in consumption.

Secondly, it is good thing if many people in lower-paid jobs (which I will not call “low-skilled” as the Home Office does) have more bargaining power. We are long overdue for a reversal of the balance of power between workers and capital, which has tilted towards the latter from the 1980s. This is why incomes have been skewing towards the better off. Whether what we are witnessing is enough to be such a reversal is another matter – but it is surely a step in the right direction.

And thirdly there are other ways to improve productivity. Automation may destroy jobs, but, as economists don’t tire to point out, it leads to the creation of others. Good process management, another 1990s idea, but one that failed to catch on as much as it should, could improve many industries, especially in services such as health care. It failed to catch on because it involves delegating more power and responsibility to lower levels of the organisation – something that senior managers and regulators like are uncomfortable with. Many observers suggest that the shock of lockdowns has spurred innovation and productivity improvement.

So it may not be a bad thing that the world is changing, but all change is disruptive, and the main victims of disruption, in the short run, are usually the less well off. But in the short term most of will find it harder to get many of the things that we want. there will be more self-service. But it may a step towards making the world a better place.

Should we be worrying about inflation?

Now is a very interesting time to be a macro-economist. The shock arising from the covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented in its extent (barring world wars, maybe) and its economic effects. Government responses, with very loose monetary policy combined with generous fiscal measures, is similarly unprecedented. The latter is remarkable in that its generosity is far greater than that shown by governments following the Great Financial Crisis that started in 2007. Economic conservatives have been routed and are grasping for evidence that their once confident assertions about the public debt and deficits have a basis in fact. These generally turn on the question of inflation.

Inflation plays a critical role in macro-economics. In theory it is what happens when supply fails to meet demand across an economy. There a number of reasons that this can happen but the most important, to macroeconomic commentators, is when a when aggregate demand is boosted by a government spending too much or taxing too little. Or, putting the same idea in a slightly different way, when too much money is being put into circulation by government policy. It is one of the points of agreement between orthodox conservatives, whose narrative is that bad things happen when governments intervene, and advocates on the left for Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), whose narrative is that governments can and should spend freely so long as inflation is kept at bay. Things get more complicated when you try to apply the theory to an open economy – one that trades substantially with others – that issues its own currency, but this is usually glossed over.

The theory of inflation had to be redeveloped after the 1970s, when inflation (excess demand) and high unemployment (inadequate demand) co-existed in so-called stagflation. The new theory, working its way through such ideas as monetarism, a craze of the 1980s, to the Neo-Keynesian consensus of the 1990s, built on the idea of inflation expectations. This suggested that inflation could happen simply as a function of the zeitgeist. The standard theory was that therefore it was essential that inflation expectations were “anchored”, and that it was the central bank’s job to do this. This theory has become so embedded that organs such as The Economist, who should know better, report it as fact.

In the first two decades of the 21st Century inflation in the developed world has been stable and quite low (around 2% per annum and often less). This has been hailed as a great success for central banks, who have firmly anchored those expectations. It has also been taken up by MMT enthusiasts as evidence that reticence over government spending and national debt, and especially the demon “austerity”, is vastly overdone.

And so here we are now. Many developed world governments, led by the United States, have thrown caution to the wind in response to the pandemic. This appears to have been remarkably successful in in that the economic impact of the calamity has been relatively limited. But now inflation seems to be breaking out everywhere. Optimists say that this is just the result of temporary supply bottlenecks, pessimists say that over generous economic policies are coming home to roost. Commentators pore over the available data and argue like mad.

If you find all this rather perplexing, you should. Macro-economists inevitably deal in simplified models that represent the actual world but imperfectly. The statistics they deal with, such as income and, indeed, inflation, are similarly imperfect representations of a complex reality. They all know this, but instead of taking on an air of humility, they find it easier to gloss over the difficulties and wallow in the vicarious power of dealing in the fate of millions. In the process most of them have become completely detached from reality.

Inflation is a case in point. What most economists seem to mean by the term is a devaluation of money: the price of everything going up without anything deeper going on. One of the 1980s economists suggested that “Inflation is everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon,” because it couldn’t happen in that favourite fiction of conservative economists, a barter economy. But a general rise in consumer prices may simply be part of a widespread balancing out of things across different markets. In the 19th Century, according to statisticians who estimate these things, there were many surges in prices, but compensated by falls at other times, so that there was no overall rise over the long term. Not coincidentally, money was closely linked to gold at the time, though that is incomplete as an explanation. A more recent example is the inflation that accompanied the economic boom in Ireland after it joined the Euro. This rise in prices was the only way an open economy could respond to a surge in productivity without a now-impossible currency revaluation. That didn’t stop the European Central Bank ticking the Irish government off. Another example came during the austerity years of the British Coalition government after 2010. There was persistent (though not especially high) consumer price inflation. But this wasn’t matched by wages, and it was simply the economy reflecting the reality of lower living standards. I remember one commentator suggesting that the inflation would make debt easier to pay off; nonsense because you pay debts out of income. Inflation then was not reflecting a devaluation of currency.

So what is happening now? Prices rises genuinely seem to reflect shortages in supply relative to demand, both in goods markets and labour markets. These may well reflect temporary bottlenecks. We can expect this to go on for some time as the pandemic has had far-reaching impacts on many supply chains and labour markets. Yesterday our local picture framer was complaining on behalf of his glass supplier that the cost of hiring a container from China had risen from £500 to £8,000 (or something like that), because all the containers are in the wrong places, not to mention the disruption to the Suez Canal. In Britain we have the added complication of Brexit disrupting both goods and labour markets; in that case when the dust settles most people are bound to end up a bit poorer. But the pessimists have a point too. The entrenched inflation of the 1970s started with similar temporary shocks, to the oil market in particular. If it really is all about expectations, this is how it starts. But there is so much noise in the statistics that it is really very hard to see what is going on.

Personally I am less concerned about inflation that many. I think the 1970s-style inflation was mainly a product of unionised labour markets and less flexible supply chains, which gave labour much more power. This certainly had a good side in ensuring a fairer distribution of wealth, but it prevented adjustment to economic realities. In today’s much more open world economy there are other ways than inflation for unsustainable excess demand to play out, in the most developed economies anyway. In the 1990s it may have been right to talk about inflation expectations being anchored by the central bank, but the world has moved a long way since then. Inflation is held in check by the forces of global trade. The stress is taken in the financial system through higher levels of debt and international capital flows. This is likely to end in financial busts rather than 1970s stagflation.

So if there’s trouble ahead we are looking in the wrong place. Is there trouble? Financial asset markets certainly look as if they are in a bubble, but the banking system looks a lot healthier than it was in 2007, when the last great financial crisis started to gather momentum. In Britain I think things are going to get much bumpier as the government tries to bring its budget deficit (currently an eye-watering 11.5% of GDP, though less than America’s 13.9%) back to a new normal. But there are so many uncertainties as to what a sustainable new normal will look like, that this very hard to predict. This is going to dominate politics from 2022 on as there is no coherence to the government’s message on this.

Interesting times indeed.

Rishi Sunak shows a sure touch with 2021 Budget

Yesterday Rishi Sunak, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer (though that job title belongs to no other country so far as I know), showed why is considered to be the country’s top performing minister after Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister. It was Budget Day; he got most things right, while putting off a lot of decisions for another day.

The central issue for the government is, of course, dealing with the pandemic. His decision was to continue with a whole raft of fiscal support measures, such as the furlough scheme, until the end of September. This is well after the vaccine programme is supposed to have brought society back to normal, sort of. This shows that Mr Sunak has learned from his mistakes. Last year he was too eager to hurry things back to normal and withdraw fiscal support. Like his boss, he seems to have effortlessly risen above the mistakes of 2020.

But how is this to be paid for? Government finance does not work like household finance, and especially not for a medium-sized developed country with its own currency, like the UK. Mr Sunak has simply added the costs to the national debt without any serious plans to repay it. After dealing with short-term support for the stricken economy, Mr Sunak’s next priority is to show how he will stabilise government finances in the new, shrunken, normal by reducing the budget deficit. He did this by freezing tax allowances and raising the rate of corporation tax (from 2023). The former will allow the government to benefit disproportionately from incomes increasing through inflation. This allows the Conservatives to stick to their pledge not to raise personal tax rates, nowithstanding the hurricane that has hit the economy.

A lot is missing from this plan. Public spending plans have not been changed once the emergency subsides, though it isn’t hard to see many ways in which the stress on public services will rise; some are painting this as strategic choice for a return to austerity, but surely it is too early to say for sure. The long-promised solution to social care funding did not materialise. The temporary increase in Universal Credit, which many want to make permanent, has been prolonged only until 30 September. There were various gimmicks under the heading of “growth strategy”, i.e. measures to encourage business investment, but nothing major. Tax advisers will indeed get an economic boost, especially from his 130% capital allowance scheme for “productive” investment. So the Budget was not the long-term strategic rethink many had been hoping for. The big question is whether the government has such a rethink in mind at all, or whether it is saving it for later. Saving it for later would be perfectly sensible in the current fast-changing environment. A lot of criticism is focused on these missing items, however. Another line of attack, notably from the Liberal Democrats, points to gaps in the emergency support, especially for smaller businesses. This is valid, but it is a bit late for a government rethink.

The leaves two bigger questions: is it sensible to put off dealing with the expanded national debt? And is it sensible to raise the rate of Corporation Tax? My answer to both is “yes”. The limits to government finance are very tricky to assess. On the one extreme we have countries like Argentina, constantly overdoing it and stuck in a world of inflation and debt crisis; on the other we have Japan, whose mountainous public debt and frlarge budget deficits are simply shrugged off. A large national debt needs to be refinanced over time, as the bonds that finance it mature. For now this is cheap and there are plenty of buyers. But that can change; interest rates can rise; investors can be scared off. There’s no sign of this at the moment, but this debt will be with us for a long time. Can’t the Bank of England take on the debt that the markets can’t digest anyway? Yes, but this is a bad idea if inflation is in the system, especially wage inflation. But some wage inflation is good – it is the process by which living standards increase, especially in poorer households. Another problem is if the country requires a lot of foreign currency (the position Argentina got itself into); this is a risk if the country has a large current account deficit. But there are no warning lights flashing on either inflation or currency needs. If that changes the government might need to raise taxes further – but not yet.

And as for Corporation Tax, the government’s reversal of strategy is spectacular. Starting with the Coalition with the Lib Dems in 2010, the rate has been steadily reduced to 19%; the plan now is to bring it up to 25%. This rise is widely portrayed as an attack on business. But that isn’t the right way to look at it. As a tax on profits, rather than on sales, employment or property occupation, it is a very efficient tax. The incentives to run a business efficiently remain unchanged by the rate. It is better regarded as a tax on capital. It is certainly one of the things that companies look at when deciding where to locate a business internationally – but it is still quite competitive at 25%, and basing attractiveness to business investment on tax rates is an invitation to footloose capital, not secure growth. Capital is already cheap, and the story of this century has been the rise of rewards on capital compared to labour. This looks like a good place a tax hike. There are problems with the tax, especially in its treatment of foreign trade and borrowing, but the rate is surely not too high.

Politically, though, this Budget is part of a general revival of the Conservatives’ fortunes. Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak are often painted as rivals, and doubtless they are, but so far this year they are working well together, promoting a narrative of a sure-footed, cautious but fiscally generous recovery from the pandemic. Labour, who had opposed the rise in Corporation Tax, are floundering.

The pendulum swings rapidly in politics, but Rishi Sunak is showing a sure touch. Later this year, as his bluff is called on public spending, it will be interesting to see what he and the rest of the government do.

Rethinking economics – what we should learn from the pandemic but probably won’t

I recently published some thoughts on the economics of the pandemic. This wasn’t one of my more coherent offerings, but somehow I needed to break the ice. I wrote about the short-term question of government stimulus. I made a throwaway remark about the pandemic throwing up deeper issues as well. I want to open the box on these, because I think the pandemic has shown the poverty of conventional economics. So here are some early observations

The narcissism of small differences

Economic commentary used to be about small changes to the economic aggregate statistics, such as GDP or productivity. That didn’t prepare us for the earthquake that came. There are some big things happening in the world, and the risk of a pandemic is only one: there is climate change, nuclear proliferation, bottlenecks in global production processes (microchips, rare earth minerals, etc), but we tend to overlook these in a quest for small gains here and there. It seems like an avoidance strategy for not confronting the bigger questions of our time. Above all we need to break away from our obsession with monthly or quarterly or even annual GDP growth. Alas even during the crisis commentators are trying to compare quarterly GDP figures between countries, at a time when they are surely unreliable, where differences in statistical methods between countries are not well understood, and when timing differences between countries on the evolution of the epidemic matter a lot.

Production is no longer central to economic performance

We depend on food, clothing and many manufactured goods, but these represent a diminishing proportion of the economy. Or, to put it another way, these activities only occupy a minority of workers. Manufacturing, by and large, has had a good crisis. Clearly it has been bad for some things, but it has been good for others (computers and PPE for example). Our roads and ports have stayed busy with goods being moved to and fro. But this has still left economic devastation. And yet economic commentators still tend to talk of manufacturing as being central. They fret about barriers to trade, the effect of bottlenecks on inflation, and stagnant productivity. And yet developed world economies have moved on from these things.

An economy where services matter more than anything for the supply of jobs, and health and care services in particular, needs a different mindset from one based on factories and products moving around on lorries.

Most of the economy is non-essential

As we locked down, we drew a distinction between essential and non-essential supplies and services. The former turned out to take up a surprising small share of economic activity, and it wasn’t hard to keep the show on the road. And much of what we deemed essential has a dubious claim to that status (garden centres? – of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t very good reasons for keeping them open). That is good news because it shows that there is more resilience in modern society than we thought. But it should make us reflect on whether we have our priorities right for the non-essential parts of our lives. Their action should be about providing wellbeing both to those using and supplying them. How well do they actually do this?

It also turned out that essential workers included a lot of people of rather lowly status in our society. Hospital cleaners; care home workers; supermarket shelf-stackers – all of whom tend to be paid as little as possible. The habit of calling these and other workers “low-skilled” has rightly been challenged. It is a stark reminder that a modern developed economy often rewards the ephemeral while taking the essential for granted.

We have found the magic money tree

The government has been called upon to open the floodgates of public finance, with a “what it takes” approach. The budget deficit has duly expanded into unthinkable territory. The sky hasn’t fallen in. Inflation and interest rates remain low. In fact there are no signs of financial stress at all, unless you count rather bubbly markets in financial assets. Doubtless that is partly because of the extraordinary economics of lockdown, when so much private spending and investment has been suppressed, leaving room to finance government spending. But we have much more flexibility on government finance than many thought we did, especially when we control our own currency.

If this looks too good to be true, it probably is. But we don’t really know what the vulnerabilities are. How do we know when we are overdoing it? For my liking economists are too focused on inflation. The consequence of overdoing things could as easily be some form of financial crisis that makes people poorer.

Hayek was right

We are supposed to be living in an information age, but governments, and everybody else, are blundering around for the lack of information. Governments can’t devise efficient schemes to help businesses in lockdown, even though they can afford them, because they have no good way of knowing which businesses need help, and how much. The result is that many are getting generous help they don’t actually need (including a lot of fraudsters), while many more that need help aren’t getting it. This information gap brings to mind the neoliberal ikon Friedrich Hayek’s argument in “the Road to Serfdom”. The most effective way of transmitting information in a complex society is the use of free markets. Government attempts to close the information gap result in oppression and corruption. The truth of that is evident in China, which has done most to gather and act on information about its citizens.

To them that hath shall be given

But the injustice of leaving matters to free markets is also very apparent. At first I was a bit sceptical by reports that poorer people were being hit hardest by the pandemic. People always say that, regardless of the facts. But it is very clear that people in poorer communities with less stable jobs have suffered more than anybody else. The big problem with free markets is that so many people lack the wherewithal to take part properly. This helps make the case for ideas like Universal Basic Income. The US scheme of giving handouts to everybody has been very helpful to the poorest, though it has also led to excessive gambling on financial markets by retail investors.

Free choice doesn’t work well in a pandemic

Libertarians have been very exercised by what they see as excessive government restrictions to individual choice. They feel the people should be left to make their own choices about the risks they want to run. Such critics have been made to look very foolish more than once. People may be able to make choices about personal risk, but they are ill equipped to assess the effect of their behaviour on others. The idea that the vulnerable should hide while leaving everybody else to take their chances doesn’t fit the complexity of society, where vulnerable people depend on others, or are forced to go out to earn a living. Instead of confronting these realities many libertarians instead tried to deny the facts, suggesting that covid-19 was similar to flu. This is another sign that unfettered free markets don’t provide efficient outcomes in many circumstances.

So where does the leave us?

What strikes me first and foremost from this is that we have become slaves to chasing marginal benefits while the planet is in crisis. As societies we could do a lot more to change the way we do things to address the dangers we face, without damaging health and wellbeing beyond some short-term disruption. “It will damage the economy,” is not an adequate reason for not acting. And the notion that economic growth is a prerequisite to positive change is false, in developed countries at least.

Government action is clearly part of the solution, but most successful action will come through individual initiative, with the action of free markets playing a central role, alongside a strong civic society that is able to challenge and complement government action. And it means that economists must move on from a focus to one focused on broader wellbeing.

Will we do this as life starts to return to normal? I wish I could be optimistic.

The economics of the pandemic: don’t panic

One of my favourite subjects in ten years of blogging has been economics. But for the last year I have hesitated. There has been a lot to write about, but somehow I did not have the confidence to say anything. A couple of weeks ago I got as far as writing an article, but it just meandered. But this week I have been bombarded with different opinions on the impact of the pandemic and what to do next, so I feel I must try to make some sense of it.

Most recently there were a couple of articles in the FT. There was an interview with economist Dani Rodrick, in which he urged that the left should make up for its attachment to neoliberalism in the 1990s and 2000s and meet the challenge of right-wing populism with a sort of left-wing populism. The focus of this should be the creation of decent jobs (the populism bit being the blaming of everything on plutocrats and bankers). He has certainly hit on something important, but to me left-wing populism brings to mind the late Hugo Chavez, and the creation of useless jobs given to political cronies, the running down of productive industries and bankrupting the economy on welfare programmes used to shore up politically compliant communities. This is where the policies of Labour’s former leader Jeremy Corbyn would have led in my view (he is a fan of Chavez after all). On the same day the neoliberals fought back with a piece by Ruchir Sharma, a banker, who claims that emerging market economies have responded to the crisis by pressing forward with supply-side policies, rather than splurging on stimulus. These are IMF-style programmes without the IMF – he points to China and India, amongst others. With developed economies resisting such reforms, he says these emerging economies will be better placed to overcome the shock. This is an interesting take on what is happening, but the conclusion is facile. Developed economies are at the productivity frontier, and they are not in need of many neoliberal reforms (with some exceptions such as Italy) – I agree with Mr Rodrick here, even if his picture of left-wing populism sends shivers down my spine.

And then we have some writing about President Joe Biden’s proposed massive stimulus for the US economy (£1.9trn is the headline). Left-wing commentator Robert Reich launched into enthusiastic support on Facebook. The Economist thinks it goes too far, and should be better targeted, echoing criticism from former adviser to President Clinton, Larry Summers. They fear that it will trigger inflation, and then rising interest rates, and a financial crisis. Meanwhile, also in FT, Gillian Tett has written about the remarkable stance of Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jay Powell, whom she thinks is being far to aggressive on the length of time he suggests interest rates should stay low. Meanwhile there is a lot of fretting about signs of overheated financial markets, with the popularity of crypto “currencies” like Bitcoin eliciting much angst.

There is quite a lot of agreement that governments are right to spend to support the economy, but a big concern on how far this should go. Critics of stimulus worry about setting off inflation. But conservatives have cried wolf on inflation many times in the last few years, and yet it remains stubbornly low. Most commentary on inflation misses the mark.

What is inflation? It is a devaluation of the currency, so that the same nominal units income or savings buy less, but that a fixed nominal amount of debt becomes easier to pay off. The focus of commentary tends to be almost entirely on the first, measured by overall movement in consumer prices. But if wages do not rise to match prices, then debts are not depreciated. It isn’t really inflation, in my books, but a structural adjustment. The three main reasons for this can be worsening terms of trade (i.e. imports becoming more expensive, usually because the exchange rate is depreciating), a decline in productivity, or a shift of bargaining power from labour to capital. None of these require the same policy response as inflation proper (i.e. higher taxes or reduced public spending, or higher interest rates). And in the 21st Century consumer prices and wages have rarely moved in line with each other in developed economies. Before the financial crisis of 2007-2009, wages trended ahead, largely because of improving terms of trade from cheap imports, mainly from China. After the crisis wages have usually failed to keep pace with prices, as the terms of trade moved against developed countries (Chinese products stopped getting cheaper), unmasking a steady process of the balance of advantage moving from labour to capital. All this is very different from the later 20th century, when most of the current theories of economic management were developed. Then wages and consumer prices usually moved in lockstep. The breaking of the link between prices and wages is one of the critical things to understand about the modern economy.

So what happens when demand runs ahead of supply? Inflation remains stuck because rising prices choke off demand, because wages for most people do not keep up. The typical response is for imports to rise. At least that is what I suspect from the limited times where this has happened in the 21st Century (I believe Britain in the mid noughties was a case in point). But a feature of modern developed economies, especially since 2007, has been a chronic lack of demand, while conservative government fiscal policies were the accepted wisdom.

So what will happen if President Biden’s stimulus gets going, with the Fed minded to keep interest rates low? I don’t think it will lead to more than a slight increase in inflation, largely because of the disconnect between prices and pay, but also because of the nature of the recovery. The Economist refers to some supply bottlenecks, such as in microchips, but these relate to distortions in demand arising from lockdowns. Assuming that the US comes out of lockdown, then the main rise in demand will be for services, rather than such manufactured goods, where there seems to be quite a deep pool of unemployed or underemployed labour. And doubtless imports will rise too, and the US dollar will strengthen relative to other currencies. Also much of the excess demand will be funnelled into asset markets, so the current distinctly bubbly markets could well continue. If there is trouble it will come from some kind of breakdown in financial markets. But they do not seem to be as vulnerable as they were in 2007. All this rather supports Mr Reich’s optimistic outlook. As the stimulus plays out things become a lot less predicable, but that is a couple of years away and not necessarily unmanageable.

What should the British government do? It has run up an astonishing budget deficit in its largely successful attempt to keep the show on the road in the crisis – unemployment is remarkably low I the circumstances. According the Economist the deficit is nearly 20% of GDP, the largest of any of the economies it follows. But the same statistical table shows something rather interesting: that the current account deficit to has fallen to 1.3%, and is unremarkable by international standards. Not long ago it was one of the highest. This, together with very low interest rates, suggests that there is no financial crisis, and therefore no need to panic, as the country did in 2010, when the budget deficit was 11%, though the current account deficit was a bit higher at 2 to 2.5%. The government’s main problem is its own rhetoric about government finances.

How quickly could things turn nasty in the UK? We are much more vulnerable to a financial crisis than the US, because we lack financial clout. But again we look much less vulnerable than in 2007. A big question is what happens if the current account goes sharply negative again. That is not necessarily unsustainable (it can be financed by selling property to foreigners). But if world interest rates should start to rise then problems might spiral. But my guess is that the country is safe for a couple of years at least.

There are some much deeper economic questions emerging from the covid crisis, which point to a major change in direction for economic management. These should occupy us more than short term government finances.