The Danes' counter-example

Additional stimulus hasn't caused bond yields to rise in Denmark. They're in the EU and have their o

Denmark's new three-party coalition government has announced that the primary aim of its economic policy is to secure a balance between revenues and spending and create growth by bringing forward public investment. The new Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who is Neil Kinnock's daughter-in-law, unveiled her coalition cabinet on Monday and indicated that her government would take a radically different approach from the austerity measures being adopted by other European countries. The new Danish government apparently intends to spend ten billion Danish kroner to upgrade roads, railways and bicycle paths. The stimulus agenda also includes plans to provide temporary tax credits for companies that invest in R&D and machineries along with new technologies. It said it also aimed to carry out a tax reform that would significantly reduce taxes on wage incomes.

This is a very interesting counter-example to George Osborne's and David Cameron's claims that austerity is crucial to keep bond yields low. This is what Cameron said in the rapidly revised part of his party conference speech yesterday, that in a draft version that was circulated told people to save -- when he really meant he wanted them to spend.

When you're in a debt crisis, some of the normal things that government can do, to deal with a normal recession, like borrowing to cut taxes or increase spending -- these things won't work because they lead to more debt, which would make the crisis worse. Why? Because it risks higher interest rates, less confidence and the threat of even higher taxes in future. The only way out of a debt crisis is to deal with your debts. That's why households are paying down their credit card and store card bills. It means banks getting their books in order. And it means governments -- all over the world -- cutting spending and living within their means.

Cameron's speech -- even the corrected final version -- gets it precisely the wrong way round. The only way out of a debt crisis -- if by debt crisis we mean, as he says, a situation where households are desperately trying to pay down debt because on an individual level this is rational -- is for the government to step in and spend more, at least temporarily. For the government to join in and try to save more too, which he argues is logical, is disastrous. A first-year undergraduate course in macro-economics should have taught him that!

What has happened in Denmark -- which, just like the UK, is not in the euro but is a member of the European Union? It is a nice test case, because if Dave is right -- which he isn't -- then bond yields should have soared in Denmark, even on talk of injecting stimulus. They haven't. Here is a selection of yields on ten-year government bonds for Denmark and the UK over the past couple of months or so.

 
  Denmark UK
05/10/2011 2.005 2.354
30/09/2011 2.069 2.427
23/09/2011 1.932 2.363
09/09/2011 1.975 2.456
02/09/2011 2.204 2.641
19/08/2011 2.362 2.606
12/08/2011 2.573 2.753

 

One argument the coalition has made is that the US has lower yields because the dollar is a reserve currency, so their data isn't relevant: currently their yield is 1.888 per cent. But that does present the government with a further problem, because bond yields in Sweden, which is also in the EU but not in the euro, are 1.695 per cent. They are 2.135 per cent in Canada, which is also not a reserve currency, and a paltry 0.879 in Switzerland, which really does look like a place of safety.

Based on the evidence from Denmark, putting additional stimulus into the economy has not caused bond yields to rise and they remain below those in the UK. The Danes are a much better comparison country than the Greeks, the Portuguese, the Italians or the Spanish that don't have their own central bank and currency as the Danes do; just as we do.

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

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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times