Austerity versus stimulus

Don’t let anyone say I avoid the big subjects!

Whatever one’s instincts, where lies truth? Is there any definable ‘truth’ when it comes to this debate – stimulus versus austerity. A good starting-point is a book of that name, just published, a collection of essays edited by Robert Skidelsky and Nicolo Fraccaroli.

The question, as Robert Skidelsky and David Blanchflower argue, ‘is whether Britain should be compared to Greece… Britain could, the Keynesians argue, continue to expand its debt with no risk of lowering confidence in the economy, as long as that debt expansion was used to pay for growth expanding projects’. But does high government borrowing push up interest rates and inhibit private investment? – Friedrich Hayek’s argument.  Is there a danger that people will lose faith in the management of the economy? – Niall Ferguson.

The UK national debt will peak this year at 89% of GDP, the biggest since the 1960s and up 36% from a decade ago.  (Paul Wallace, Prospect, July 2017.) I’ve seen figures for the first quarter of 2015 indicating that the annual cost of servicing the debt was £43 billion, but a third of the interest in that debt is the government paying interest to itself – the result of quantitative easing. On the other hand interest rates are currently very low, and could rise, and in  Paul Wallace’s words, ‘The Treasury is right to worry about maintaining fiscal headroom to respond to a future downturn.’ But if we take out that one-third which the government is paying itself, then it doesn’t look quite so bad.

Comparisons with other countries are helpful, and confusing. My data isn’t up-to-date, but the USA debt was over 100% in 2011, and  Japan’s debt is approaching 200% of GDP. Paul Wallace quotes the IMF, which puts our public debt as the sixth highest of 26 advanced economies. The CIA World Factbook ranked us 18th internationally.

And what about total public spending, another key indicator? Down from 45% in 2009-10 to 39% now – which is its pre-crisis level of 2007-8.  Wallace points out that in the late 1980s Britain spent virtually the same on health and defence. Today we spend nearly four times as much on health.

What this tells me is that there’s a case to be argued on both sides. For stimulus and for austerity. But I’m a Keynesian at heart. Keynes understood that confidence is everything, investment and not retrenchment is the key, and that the private sector is the driver of all successful economies. At the same time there is nothing intrinsically wrong or to be frightened of when it comes to public expenditure.

I think the phrase I quote above is key, ‘as long as that debt expansion was used to pay for growth expanding projects’. So – just one example, but an easy one – scrap HS2. Any growth benefits will be miniscule compared to the benefits from investing the money elsewhere – not least in other infrastructure projects.

Where does this leave the NHS? Real spending on the NHS increased at a rate of 1.1% under the coalition, compared to 4.1% a year over the past few decades. In addition, much of social care is in crisis. Benefits will be pared back further in the coming years. Prisons are too often scary and ineffective places…. This where increases in current expenditure have to be focused. Not on re-nationalising energy supply or the railways, whether such goals are worthy or not. As for scrapping student loans – a contributory scheme, an adjustment to rather than a scrapping of the scheme, may be one way forward. Paying off existing loans would not be a sensible use of resources. And what of scrapping the 1% pay increase limit for public sector workers – a highly inequitable restriction, enforced for four years – and now the subject of very public bickering among cabinet members?

This takes us to current arguments about increased taxation, and how effective that might be. Could it be increases in VAT, and /or a mansion tax (highly controversial) – where revenue streams would be certain in a way that that increasing the top rates of tax or hiking corporation tax wouldn’t be.

With continuing impacts from globalisation, and automation, the future is massively unpredictable. My only sure conclusion at this time is that austerity, as currently enforced and anticipated, is unnecessary and counter-productive. But how we spend wisely – and at the same time promote investment and encourage business and international trade – that is another matter.

What is absolutely certain is that we don’t need the tomfoolery of Brexit. And we do desperately need a competent government.

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