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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

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