Austerity blues or going for growth?

20 10 2010

The discussion dominating public debate about how far and how fast we should be cutting the fiscal deficit is a giant displacement activity, which has dangerous consequences. The real problem facing the UK, and other western countries, is how to regenerate economic growth.

Whenever there is a sharp economic recession,  governments respond by artificially stimulating demand in the economy, through increasing public spending, interest rate cuts or tax cuts. Once the crisis starts to recede these emergency measures are gradually withdrawn. Almost all of the current public debate about the economy is about the speed of withdrawal of the stimulus. Nobody knows what the right speed is so this one will run and run, at least until the economies are back to normal.

However, it is what constitutes normal in this regard that we should be most interested in. Most western economies have seen real economic growth rates stagnate over a long period of time. Indeed it is this very stagnation which helped to fuel the spectacular credit boom that ended, at least temporarily, two years ago.

There are two ways in which the current preoccupation on cutting the fiscal deficit is dangerous. One is economic and one is social. The economic danger is that by focussing on public spending cuts we are ignoring the need for the state to actually invest far more in key areas of the economy than is the case now. The state plays a pivotal role for example on giant infrastructure projects which private business shies away from. In the UK this includes amongst other things new roads, railways and nuclear power stations. An obsession with cutting public spending does not create an atmosphere which is very conducive to more long-term spending commitments. Indeed it is often the longer term projects which get cut first as they have a smaller political constituency to offend.

The social danger is that the focus on cutting public spending is incredibly divisive and demoralising. Most people in the UK are now indignant either about how far their benefits are going to be cut, or why the benefits of others are not being cut more. While this creates short-term divide and rule advantages for the government, as people are blaming each other for what is going on, it has longer term dangers. An introverted obsession with minor changes in universal benefits or the funding of education does not help us address the bigger problem of how to inject a shot of dynamism into the UK economy. We are not yet asking the right questions about the future of the UK. If all our energies are devoted to holding on to meagre state benefits, rather than working on the bigger prizes that real economic growth can bring, then there can only be more stagnation to come.

*This blog also appeared in The Independent

** I will be chairing a debate on this subject at The Battle of Ideas next week

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Are we all co-operative now?

5 10 2010

The co-operative movement has been around in one form or another for centuries, both in the UK and elsewhere. Its heyday was in the late 19th and early twentieth century and it now plays only a peripheral role in modern life. The most generous estimate of ‘employee owned businesses’ is stable at around 2% of GDP. Why then has there recently been a sudden resurgence of interest in common ownership?

In the past, small producers and working class people joined together in producer and consumer co-operatives to defend their interests in the face of a chaotic capitalist system dominated by big business. In addition, common ownership was seen by some as part of a peaceful and gradual move from the market to a more socialised economy. Even today the Co-operative Party, as an ally of the Labour Party, returned 28 MPs to the current parliament under the joint title of Labour and Co-operative candidates, including Ed Balls, one of the defeated leadership candidates.

But the current enthusiasm for common ownership does not come from those sectors of society who have traditionally seen common ownership as some kind of limited defence against capitalism, but rather it comes from within society’s elite. Indeed, even David Cameron is said to be keen on promoting common ownership as part of his ‘Big Society’. In other words, it is not a grassroots movement as it used to be, but more a top down strategy developed within the elite and proposed as part of government policy through state ‘empowerment’.

There are some critics who see some of the discussion of common ownership as an attempt to offload the responsibility for social provision from the state on to other sections of society. The proposals for more common ownership in the area of social services, for example, are in this view a cynical attempt to justify cutting state provision of social services as part of deficit reduction. While it is true that there is a congruence between arguing for a smaller state and the reduction of public spending it would be wrong to think that fiscal issues alone are at the heart of the common ownership revival.

The broader problem which common ownership proponents are trying to address is the overall loss of dynamism of British society and the consequent loss of authority of those who are running it. This  crisis of authority is most evident in politics but operates throughout society. It has prompted a search for new ways of engagement between leaders and led. The recession gave extra impetus to this but was not the initial cause.

The elites who run Britain are faced with a tremendously important paradox, that capitalism is both unpopular and unchallenged. Its unpopularity means that large sections of society oppose those elements of capitalist society which are the most positive, economic growth and human control over the environment. The fact that it is unchallenged, in terms of any alternative, leaves the mass of society powerless, passive and apathetic. The elite search for resolutions to these problems has created  pressure to find new ways to engage with and incorporate larger sections of a disaffected and cynical populace.

Workers control or shared sacrifice?

Does any of this matter when considering the pros and cons of more common ownership in our society? After all, arguing against the idea that people should have more ownership and control over their lives would appear perverse. What democrat could be against more democratic control?

 William Davies in his Demos pamphlet ‘Reinventing the Firm’, which focuses on the private sector, and Philip Blond, whose ’The Ownership State’ is about the public sector are the two weightiest contributors to the current debate. Davies argues that there are 4 interlinked reasons why common ownership has become important today:

1. The banking crisis

2. The longer term crisis of the UK economy

3. The crisis in public spending

4. The moral crisis of consumer capitalism

According to Davies these 4 crises all point towards a new model of social ownership.

Common ownership  can take many forms, with differing levels of ownership and control. The best known, John Lewis, has a structure which rewards staff out of profits, but offers only limited control over major decisions. There is some evidence that employees in firms with an element of common ownership identify more with the business and exhibit greater job satisfaction.

However, a major problem with private sector co-operatives from the employee point of view is that they offer no extra guarantee of stability or job security. Co-operative businesses enter the market in the same way as any business and are subject to the same market pressures and to the laws of profit. If they do not comply with these laws then the businesses will fail alongside their non co-operative competitors. This kind of failure was the fate of many of the workers co-operatives set up in the 1970s, such as the Meriden motor cycle cooperative formed out of the collapse of Triumph.

 Normal shareholders have the option of selling their shares if they sense the business is failing. Employees do not have that option. Employees may be better off without the extra worry that the equity they have in the business, along with their jobs, can disappear if the business fails. This is especially true if the ownership is separated from effective control of the company. The danger here is that shared ownership becomes shared sacrifice.

Should we be more co-operative in the public sector?

Philip Blond points to the advantages of common ownership in the provision of social provision as being better productivity and better services. He locates his argument within the context of a decay of civil society. In that sense his argument is attuned to Cameron’s view that the solution to the crisis in the public sector is the ‘Big Society’, the rebuilding of civil society as a buffer between the impact of the recession and the needs of ordinary people.

 Leaving aside for the moment the economic imperative for cuts in spending is there anything positive about the ‘Big Society’ in this regard?  There is something positive about community initiatives which bring together people to pursue local objectives, such as school improvements or community run nurseries for children. Calling this the ‘Big Society’ does not seem to me to make much difference. The people who do this will do it anyway and everybody else will continue their normal lives. The main way that this would change is if the provision of social services outside the state becomes a necessity, in other words if existing provision is taken away.

Any argument for changes in the way that social provision is made which begins from the premise that there will be less rather than more resources available would tend to  have an inherent austerity dynamic to it. Of course, just because something is cheaper does not necessarily make it worse. There is an inbuilt tendency for production goods, tvs etc, to get cheaper but without any loss of quality. Perhaps both businesses and services can become better and more efficient through the adoption of co-operative principles.

Measuring productivity in the public sector is a highly contentious issue. Philip Blond makes a lot of the Office of National Statistics’  estimate that productivity in the Public sector fell by 3.4% in the past 10 years compared with a rise of 27% in the private sector over the same period. Just quite how you measure or compare the productivity of a factory worker with that of a teacher escapes me. The commodities that a factory worker produces get cheaper because it takes less labour to produce them. Are we saying that a teacher should be judged by how much they can cut the time they put into their pupils, or a doctor into the general care of their patients for that matter?

This is of course where the plans to cut public spending come in. The danger is that if we buy into the co-operative model for social provision, how long before we are told that the old and infirm need to be looked after outside of state provision, or that community soup kitchens should feed the unemployed rather than them receiving unemployment benefit? Philip Blond offers some justification for this view when he argues that common ownership can compensate for low pay in the public sector. He also highlights the fact that voluntary carers save the treasury £87 billion per annum

The state provision of social services was the compromise outcome of a struggle between the aspirations of the working class for more security in their lives and the recognition by the ruling class that some measure of social welfare, usually provided at the cheapest possible level, was desirable for social stability and the maintenance of the workforce. The events of the past two years have shown yet again how easily capitalism can descend into chaos and how powerless individuals are to defend themselves when that happens. Common ownership is an attempt to paper over the huge problems that our society faces. It is a paternalistic policy which at best can only affect the fringes of our society whilst having no impact on the central problem, the stagnation of our economy and of our society.

*I will be debating the issue of co-operatives with Will Davies and others at this event





Ditch the austerity rhetoric, Britain needs growth

19 08 2010

If, as opinion polls suggest, there is a majority in this country who accept that the Coalition Government’s austerity drive is necessary, then this would be one of the worst developments in the UK for some time. Why? Because it would imply that collectively we have turned our back on seeing growth as the way out of our problems.

An austerity mentality is the last thing we need at the moment. Penny pinching will not solve the problem of where the UK’s next economic impetus is going to come from. Businesses in the UK are sitting on piles of cash. The trend in results from Britain’s blue chip companies in recent months has been hugely increased profits, not just in the financial sector, but even in areas which apparently have been struggling such as aviation. These businesses need to feel that investing that cash in productive activities is the way to go, not storing it up like some 18th century miser, or perhaps worse, waiting for the next speculative bubble to erupt so they can pile in for more short term profiteering.

There are of course clear limits as to what this government, any government, can do to grow the economy, short of taking control of industry and investment directly. But political leaders are there to lead, to act as the collective voice for the aspirations of the country. By that measure the main aspiration of this country appears to be to stop a tiny minority of disabled people from ‘scrounging’. How lofty and inspiring!

The Coalition’s main claim to policy success in its first hundred days has been yet more reorganisation of education and the NHS, following on from years of New Labour tinkering. In those areas of the economy which desperately require leadership from the top to make things happen, such as investment in nuclear power and other large scale energy projects, it has vacillated.

Undoubtedly the Coalition’s biggest success so far has been to present public sector cost cutting as essential. But while everybody agrees that ‘scroungers’ and ‘bureaucrats’ should be cut, the logic of the 25% of cuts demanded from government departments is that 1 in 4 teachers will have to go, , one in four trains, one in 4 doctors if the ring fencing around the NHS is removed, and so on. Cameron and Clegg are fooling themselves if they think that most people are prepared to accept deterioration of public services and personal sacrifice without objection.

The Coalition is now worried enough about the success of its own austerity rhetoric that it is trying to row back a little. Nick Clegg said in a speech this week that the Coalition is ‘not just about cuts’. If the Coalition wants to avoid years of political misery all round it needs to ditch the austerity rhetoric and set some positive economic objectives, with as much government back up as possible. Economic growth will lift us all out of the mess we are in.





Osborne’s cuts, neither unavoidable or achievable

23 06 2010

So George Osborne has sent his message to the world’s financial markets. His insistence that the cuts announced in yesterday’s budget were ‘unavoidable’ was based mainly on the need to reassure international investors that the UK is still a safe place to lend money to ie we are not another Greece. But is Osborne’s austerity drive really unavoidable, and secondly, is it achievable?

Most of what was announced yesterday was about trimming public spending, through the wage freeze for public sector employees and taxing consumption by an increase in VAT.  No doubt this will bring some pain to many people but the real impact on public services is yet to come. So far there has only been a statement of intent to cut all government departmental budgets by 25%, bar the NHS and international aid. The full extent of where the real cuts are meant to fall awaits the outcome of a public spending review in the autumn. We are now in the position of a patient who is told to cut back on fatty food while we wait for the diagnosis of how many vital organs are going to be extracted.

There is a great deal of uncertainty even within the elite as to whether austerity is the best policy to pursue. The Financial Times has been full of articles throwing doubt on the wisdom of cutting public spending too hard at this point. Some of this has come from the normal doctrinaire keynesian suspects such as Robert Skidelsky, who believe that state spending should be staying up at this stage of the recession to boost demand, not down. 

But there are others who recognise that much of  what Osborne, with his Liberal free market colleagues, is doing is based on a  belief in a small state rather than through any financial imperative. Matthew Parris, for example, writing in the Times urged Osborne to drop the ‘unavoidable’ tag and argues

The Chancellor should not be embarrassed to say that he wants to wield the knife regardless of the deficit’s size.

Martin Wolf’s main fear is that with all of the western world, bar the US, committed to austerity it is hard to see where the opportunities for growth can come from. This gets to the heart of the problem facing the Con-Lib coalition. Drastically cutting the deficit only makes sense as a prelude to growth in the economy. Yet nobody is clear as to where this growth is going to come from. There are no obvious sectors within the UK economy poised for massive expansion. Neither is there an obvious market for UK exports, when the euro zone, currently the UK’s biggest export market, is itself in austerity mode. So, putting it crudely, we do not have enough to sell, and nobody to sell it to even if we did.

The government’s focus on supply side economics, freeing up the labour market and reducing the tax burden on private business, only works if it leads to greater investment and higher production. There is no sign of either of those things happening in the UK.

Are the cuts achievable? Ultimately this is not an economic but a political issue. Public services are heavily dependent on people. If 25% is to be cut then this will inevitably mean around the same proportion of public sector jobs going. The CIPD economist John Philpott estimates this will lead to 725,000 jobs being lost in the public sector. Comparisons are often made with the wage cuts and job losses that the private sector has experienced over the past two years, with very little opposition.

However the difference between the private and public sectors is that, if an engineer in Sheffield loses his job, this is a tragedy for him and his family. But outside of that nobody is affected. Even if the engineer’s firm is closed down, anybody wanting to buy a widget could go elsewhere. If a doctor loses her job, the same impact is true for her family, but also anybody who depended on her services will be affected as well. The vast majority of people cannot go ‘elsewhere’ for their health provision. How the austerity programme plays out will depend on how we all respond to the drastic decline in public services the government has lined up for us.

As I have argued before, the state plays such a central role in British society because capitalism is both too anarchic and too feeble to provide the goods and services that people need without state intervention. Dismantling the state looks like a bridge too far for the new coalition.





Why austerity won’t work

2 06 2010

Before we all put on the hair shirt and make a virtue of cutting public services the question has to be asked, will it work? Will  cutting public spending help the UK economy to revive? Is austerity necessary to keep the creditors, in this case those who lend money to the UK government,  from the door? Or is there something else going on here?

To understand what is at issue here it is first of all necessary to separate out the question of government borrowing from the problems facing the rest of the economy. The current obsession with the government deficit is because the overall amount that the government has to borrow to finance its operations has grown as a proportion of the economy over the past two years. This is due to a widening of the public spending deficit, that is the gap between what the government raises in tax and what it spends.

The main reason there is a higher deficit is that the recession led to a drop in government revenue from tax. As the recession hit, less people paid income tax as they were unemployed or took pay cuts and companies were paying less tax on lower profits. So the immediate question is, now that the economy is coming out of recession why not wait until the public spending deficit narrows again? And why does public spending have to be cut instead of more borrowing to finance the gap until income balances expenditure again?

The answer to the last question is that it does not. There is no reason why the current level of the deficit is any more or less sustainable than a higher or lower figure. In the abstract there is no level of government debt which is unsustainable. In fact Japan for example has had a much higher ratio of government debt for many years than the UK economy has now without it leading to any kind of crisis. People only fear lending money if they do not think they will get it back. The doubts over the UK economy are whether it can grow fast enough to repay the debt.

The fear is that money markets will stop lending to the UK or raise interest rates on their loans to a point where they become unsustainable. But even this fear has to be tempered by the fact that the average length of loans to the UK government is 13 years. This means that only around 7% of the loans have to be rolled over each year and thus being open to hikes on interest rates. There is therefore no immediate danger of the UK government being unable to finance public spending at its current level, even if that means having to pay a higher rate of interest on a small portion of the debt.

So why the obsession with cutting the deficit? Given that the problem was created in the first place by a fall in economic output, would it not be better to focus instead on how to grow the economy back to the point where current public spending is sustainable again? This is where the real debate should be, and where the real problems lie.

Some people argue that public spending is so high that it ‘crowds out ‘ investment in the private sector. In other words that taxes taken from the private sector and spent by the government prevent real investment taking place. There are two problems with this argument.

The first is that there is no shortage on money in the private sector which could be used for investment. The UK’s private sector is swimming in money. Nor is there a shortage of labour, the other necessity for economic growth to take place. Chris Dillow makes the point that adding together all those who could be available for work the real number of unemployed in the UK  is closer to 6 million, and that does not include those who are on incapacity benefit mainly because they get more money. So if there is no shortage of labour and no shortage of capital why can there not be faster growth? This is a subject which we have looked at in detail in previous articles . But suffice it to say that the reasons have almost nothing to do with too much spending in the public sector.

The second problem is that there is a strong case to be made that, as James Heartfield has pointed out, such is the intertwined nature of the private and public sectors in the UK, that lower public spending is likely to impact negatively on the private sector rather than positively. Around £80 billion of government spending goes straight back out to the private sector in the form of government contracts. In addition, the state supports private industry in many ways, through transport, communications, training, education, health and even direct subsidies. In fact, the first round of public spending cuts last week fell heaviest on some of the schemes that Labour had brought in to help promising parts of the private sector.

In the absence of belief in, or any plan for, faster economic growth the focus inevitably turns towards saving. When George Osborne talks about retaining the confidence of those who lend money to the UK he means he shares their lack of confidence in his ability to grow the economy and therefore has to cut consumption instead. But let us not believe that cutting consumption is the only way forward. It is only so if you have no plan to increase production.





Why vote? Part 2

4 05 2010

So,why vote on Thursday? It certainly cannot be because of any belief that any of the parties, or any combination of them in coalitions or minority governments, has a plan to reinvigorate either the economy specifically or UK society in general. This blog is grounded in materialism and does not believe that society can be progressed outside of continued dynamic economic growth. Discussion of how to generate more economic growth has been almost entirely absent from the pre-election debates, either on television or off it. All of the parties are mired in the low expectations of sustainable development and general pessimism about the prospects of our economy becoming dynamic again.

I therefore find myself caught in a no man’s land as far as the big economic issues are concerned. Unlike the Conservatives I do think that the state has a big role to play in helping to modernise the infrastructure of society like the transport system and  the power supply, in creating an education and training regime which is suitable for a modern society and in creating favourable conditions for the development and encouragement of new industries. The market cannot, and really never has, provided these basics of modern life.

Unlike Labour I do not believe that the state should be interfering in or managing the minutiae of our daily lives. The whole apparatus of the therapeutic state should be dismantled and we should be allowed to manage our own relationships with each other, within our families and outside of them, with minimal state interference. If those aspects of public spending were taken away it would make for a far better society.

The Liberals are a kind of anti-party at present which I cannot take at all seriously. There is nothing in their economic policy anyway which makes them stand out from the other parties.

Whatever happens at this election it should be clear that we are in a transitional state, away from traditional party politics but towards what is not yet clear. There have been some valiant efforts to inject more political debate into the election campaign, from the Institute of Ideas, Spiked, Big Potatoes and To the Point amongst others, most of whose take on modern politics I agree with. Experimentation along these lines must continue in order to help the birth of whatever new political movement will replace the old.

On the basis of all of the above, principled abstention from this election would be an entirely respectable position to take. However, there is in my view one reason to vote and one reason only. Whatever the result of the election, this country faces a very difficult future. Within a very short period after the election the next government will be forced to take radical steps to keep the economy moving. None of the parties has created a mandate for tackling the problems we face. In this situation the least worst scenario is to have a majority government which at least can be held to account for whatever it decides to do. Minority governments and coalitions will try to evade responsibility and load it onto the shoulders of others.

We need to be able to hold our government firmly to account for what happens over the next few years. New Labour is exhausted and the Liberals not serious. Neither has any chance of forming a majority government. For that reason, and that alone , the best result of this desperate election will be a victory for a majority Conservative government. I am not a Tory by instinct or tradition, but that is what we should vote for on Thursday.





Ten questions to ask your candidates about the UK economy

12 04 2010

According to the papers today, the election focus of the main parties this week will move away from the economy and on to domestic issues. Apparently last week’s spat over 1% increase in national insurance is what the parties think constitutes a debate on the economy. If you are thinking, given  the deep problems facing the UK economy, that this is a totally inadequate level of debate on the economy then you are right. And this is what you should do about it….

If any electioneers come to your door ask them as many of the questions below as you can get in. The links in each question refer to a discussion of the topic in other parts of this website.

1. The UK economy is slowly but surely slipping down the international rankings of economic size. Do you think it is possible to reverse the UK’s relative economic decline? If so how?

2. The recession appears to be over, do you believe we are inevitably now in for a long period of austerity?

3. The whole idea that economic growth is a good thing has come in for a lot of criticism, from Greens and others. Are you in favour of economic growth as an objective, or should we all permanently tighten our belts for the good of the planet?

4. For the past ten years the financial sector has been the motor of the UK economy. Do you see this continuing,if not what will take its place?

5. Is it necessary or indeed possible for the UK to revive its manufacturing industries, or should we focus on growing our services business, which already makes up 75% of the economy ? 

6.The UK manifestly needs a better transport and communications infrastructure in order to operate effectively. What should any government do to make sure that, for example, our railways, roads , energy or broadband provision, are world class? Or is this all just a job for the market?

7.  Most of the plans for job creation laid out by the main parties are based largely on supply side reforms, such as encouraging the sick to go back to work. Should government be doing more on the demand side as well, through, for example, creating favourable environments for successful forward looking industries such as bioscience,through support in taxation, policies, enterprise zones, science parks, the kind of educational and training policies we pursue etc.

8. There has been a very risk averse public response in this country to some cutting edge scientific developments, such as GM food, nuclear power and some pharmaceutical and medical breakthroughs. What would your approach to public fears around these types of issues be? Do you think government should be leading public opinion in these kind of issues or following it?

9. Should the UK be investing more in space travel?

10. What do you see as the cause of the economic crisis, greedy bankers, greedy people or the over reliance on the finance sector?