Debt ceiling, round two

The USA is once again on course for financial disaster through no fault but their own.

Remember the debt ceiling debacle, when the broken American political system led to the country losing its triple-A credit rating, and nearly resulted in the largest economy in the world defaulting on its debt? Well, joy of joys, in nine months, it's all going to happen again.

The problem is the basic disagreement was never actually resolved, but merely postponed until after the election so that the Republicans could get back to the important business of tearing their party apart with excruciating primaries and loony-fringe candidates. The deal that raised the ceiling required a spending bill to be passed in both houses of congress that substantially removes the deficit. If no such bill is passed, then on January 1st 2013, a whole raft of automatic spending cuts are introduced at once, bringing in what American commentators breathlessly describe as "European levels of austerity".

Not only that, but on the same day those cuts come in, the the Bush tax cuts and the Obama payroll tax cuts both expire, increasing the tax burden on millions of Americans. Oh, and emergency unemployment benefits also time out.

Congress has had ample warning to sort out the mess (almost as much warning as it had before the initial face-off), but yesterday the House of Representatives rejected two possible solutions. The first, a bipartisan bill which has the most chance of passing in the Democrat-controlled Senate, was defeated 382-38; the second, the White House's preferred option, was unanimously rejected 414 to 0. Instead, it seems likely that the House will pass, along strict party lines, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan's bill, which has no hope of passing getting through any Democrats, calling as it does for "draconian reductions in the federal government's commitment to financing health care for the disabled, the elderly, and the poor", in the words of Slate's Matt Yglesias. So the Senate will reject the bill, and the whole damn thing will start again.

Faced with the unappealing task of repeating last summer, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke has weighed in, telling the House Financial Services Committee:

Under current law, on Jan. 1, 2013, there’s going to be a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases. I hope that Congress will look at that and figure out ways to achieve the same long-run fiscal improvement without having it all happen at one date.

All those things are hitting on the same day, basically. It’s quite a big event.

Barclays Capital has calculated that the combined effect of all these cuts hitting at once would wipe 2.8 per cent off the annualised growth rate for the first quarter of 2013, bringing them from 3 per cent to 0.2 per cent growth. For comparison, the UK – which is voluntarily enacting "European levels of austerity" – is currently forecast by the OBR to have 2.0 per cent growth over the year, and the OECD forecast yesterday had us on minus 0.4 per cent over the first quarter of 2012, with the USA already at growing at 3 per cent annualised.

The worst case scenario is unlikely to happen; just as an actual default was unlikely to happen when the debt ceiling needed to be raised. The most likely outcome is that Congress will simply postpone everything once again, renewing the tax cuts and shrinking, but not removing, the automatic spending cuts. But all of this has led Bloomberg's Clive Cook to declare:

But there’s a much bigger threat to U.S. power [than the growth of China]: the increasingly abject failure of the country’s own political class.

Congressman Paul Ryan. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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.

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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.