Eurozone soap opera reveals a damaged relationship with markets

Democracies need to get some self-respect.

We’re all familiar with the story. Girl meets glamorous guy with flashy car and nice teeth who promises her the world. He screws around, and when she gets angry, he threatens to leave. But by now our girl is so dependent on the guy she’s desperate for him to stay. Sobbing, she throws herself at his feet and promises she’ll do better.

This soap opera can help us understand what’s playing out in the eurozone.

States fell in love with markets, and they let us down. Financial deals we depended on turned out to be phonies. When we talk about introducing extra regulation to prevent this happening again, financial institutions threaten to leave our borders and seek pleasure elsewhere.

Like the girl, democracies are now the ones offering to change. At the centre of the emerging eurozone plan is a call for fiscal integration, whereby states promise to abide by strict spending limits in return for bailout funds. But the underlying causes of under-regulation and overconcentration of market power remain unsolved. Our relationship with the City still suffers from an imbalance of power and we’re still at risk.

We need to be more honest about what triggered the current European crisis. Apart from Greece, the problem was not unsustainable levels of public spending. It was banks handing out risky loans and stockpiling bad debts. Spain is a classic example. The country ran a balanced budget until 2008, when it was forced to pile horrific property debts onto the public balance sheet to bail out irresponsible lenders. As this fantastic BBC graph shows  (see total debt graph), this is a common pattern for most countries.

I don’t want to abdicate responsibility. We all took on those loans from the banks when we shouldn’t. We all enjoyed that party in a bubble and lived a false dream when we should have kept a tighter eye on reality. Britain should have been in surplus from 2004-2008. The girl in our story should have been brave enough to see the writing on the wall. We should have taken action earlier.

But we are where we are. All we can do is change our behaviour now. It’s understandable that Merkel wants fiscal rules on states to make sure they don’t blow German money. But without addressing the banks too, you’re setting up a terrible incentive problem. Everyone knows if the girl gets back with the guy without punishing him for cheating, he’s going to do it again. In fact now he knows he can get away with it, he’s more likely to.

Sadly in the middle of the crisis, no country feels strong enough to limit financial services, whether it improves stability or not. In a desperate attempt to grow, governments are happy for banks to throw money at anything. Any bubble is better than stagnation. We don’t have the self-esteem or self-confidence to challenge our irresponsible partner and build a better relationship.

Although there is some talk of banking union, this is more about sharing bad debts than introducing stronger lending conditions. Although some like former F&C chairman Robert Jenkins says this may change, at the moment the assumption that “liquidity is free and will and will be freely available” continues to hold.

Britain is one of the greatest sufferers of self-delusion. Osborne is massively opposed to the transaction tax – the one small move Europe might be prepared to take to challenge the City – and he used his recent Mansion House speech to announce that the state will be underwriting risky loans. He’s pulled back on the already watered down proposals of the Vickers Commission, reducing the required amount of back up deposits to three per cent when columnists like Martin Wolf at the FT are calling for ten per cent.

You don’t have to be an agony aunt to figure out what comes next. Without a change in this poisonous relationship, we’re setting ourselves up for another fall. Our girl needs to rediscover her self-respect. Get it wrong, and it will hurt. But get it right, and democracies and markets have a chance to build a new, more honest and productive future together.

Democracies and markets could still find a more stable future together. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.