An economics lesson for David Cameron

Comparing the UK's finances to a maxed-out credit card betrays a poor understanding of basic account

Ed Balls seems to be on track, as he is clearly rattling the coalition's cage. He made an interesting speech today at the London School of Economics, where he called for a temporary reduction in VAT, which would help to boost spending. This seemed especially apposite on a day when the Office for National Statistics published retail sales numbers that were horrid. A VAT tax cut would have the added benefit that it would immediately lower the CPI, which jumped artificially in January when Slasher raised it.

David Cameron's response to the Balls speech today apparently suggested that he is against tax cuts as a way to boost the economy. Amazing. A Treasury spokesman even suggested that tax cuts would lead to bankruptcy. "Tax cuts" has traditionally been a right-wing mantra, so that was something of a surprise -- and unlikely to go down that well with his backbench MPs.

I am afraid it really is time that Cameron took some lessons in economics before he talks the British economy into the ground. He has been the most unpatriotic Prime Minister we have ever had, with his entirely false claims that the economy was bankrupt when it quite clearly was not (and never has been). He has done this for cheap political gain and it has contributed to a collapse in consumer confidence. He should be ashamed of himself -- his job is to boost confidence, not to destroy it.

But most astonishing of all is Cameron's repetition of Nick Clegg's idiotic claims that the UK had maxed out its credit card.

If you have maxed out your credit card, if you put off dealing with the problem, the problem gets worse.

Asinine nonsense. Cameron shows no understanding of basic accounting. I guess that isn't surprising for someone who has never run a business and had to file basic accounts. Folks with silver spoons don't need to do that. Let me explain. There is an asset side to the balance sheet and a liability side. The national debt is not analogous in any way to a credit card. The debt has been used to pay for the infrastructure, roads, schools, ports, the Houses of Parliament and even Downing Street.

A little example makes clear that Cameron knows not what he is talking about. Suppose an individual receives a bequest from a long-lost uncle and is told it consists of a house with a mortgage on it of £200,000 and the house itself is worth £20m. Cameron would no doubt claim that it would be outrageous for the nephew to accept the gift because he would have to take on a mortgage of £200,000 on it. But that is absurd and the nephew is delighted at his good fortune and happily accepts the gift. The right question for the nephew would be: "How much is the asset (the house) worth, compared to the size of the liability (the mortgage)?"

The next generation will receive not only the debt but also the assets. The nephew and the Prime Minister need to compare the scale of the assets to any liabilities. Only a fool would focus solely on the liabilities.

Cameron is an economic simpleton. Yet everyone from Cameron's aunt to the family's pet fish, Eric, and the Conservative deputy, Michael Fallon, agree with Dave's credit-card anology. Sensible people cringe.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496