Are fiscal conservatives even certain of what they're arguing about?

One of the problems fiscal conservatives have is that most of them can't actually agree about what they are conservative about.

One of the problems fiscal conservatives have is that most of them can't actually agree about what they are conservative about. Debt? Deficit? Absolute, or relative? And how should we talk about the issue?

For instance, one would guess from their name that deficit hawks care about the deficit – that is, the amount that a country spends each year in excess of the amount of revenue it receives, officially called (in Britain, at least) public sector net borrowing (PSNB). Last year, PSNB stood at a shade over £120bn, and this year, it's forecast to be £91.9bn. That's the government's deficit reduction strategy at work, albeit at far slower work than we were promised in 2010.

But other fiscal conservatives go after debt (the official measure of which, Public Sector Net Debt, stands at £1.03trn). Fraser Nelson, for instance, condems the elision between the two in today's Telegraph:

Cameron faces the same problem. He says he is “dealing with the debt” when he is actually increasing the national debt by as much as Labour proposed: an almighty £600 billion. But he has not yet been rumbled. An unpublished YouGov poll by Policy Exchange, taken after last year’s Budget, found that just 14 per cent of voters realised the national debt is rising. Another poll, released this week, found that only 10 per cent see what’s going on. Now, just as under Labour, ministers play word games and talk about “cutting the deficit”, knowing that most voters will hear “cutting the debt”. Astonishingly, almost half of British voters think that debt is falling.

It's certainly the case that debt is rising, and will be rising for some time. And confusing debt and deficit – as, say, Nick Clegg does – is unacceptably economically illiterate. But it's unclear how, exactly, being a "debt hawk" would work.

It is emphatically not the case that Britain can begin reducing its debt any time soon. For all that Nelson attacks the government for increasing the national debt, to reduce it would entail turning a deficit into a surplus overnight. Just considering the pain involved in entering into a seven-year deficit reduction program, doing it any faster would be politically impossible.

And in fact, given the various multipliers in effect from government spending, it may be economically impossible as well. There is strong evidence to suggest that the mere fact of trying to cut the deficit too quickly led to the contraction we're now experiencing; and that contraction has reduced government revenue and increased mandatory spending to a degree that makes it difficult to do any deficit reduction at all.

Being a debt hawk would thus seem to necessarily imply being a deficit hawk, at least for the time being. When – if – the structural deficit is eliminated, then the two groups can argue over whether debt should start being reduced; but while there is a deficit, it's silly to pretend that national debt going up is somehow surprising, and unless you want to go full Paul Ryan, you aren't going to get rid of it in a year.

All of this confusion is compounded by the fact that if it's unclear what we ought to be trying to reduce, it's doubly unclear how we ought to go about measuring it. Debt hawks favour quoting absolute figures, like those I've used at the top of the post, because frankly one trillion pounds sounds a lot more than "65.7 per cent of GDP". Yet the latter is probably a more accurate representation of where we are; for one thing, it allows us to accurately compare the economic situation with similar ones from history, as this chart (from Wikimedia Commons) does:

And for another, it conveys an important truth about the debt, which is that we can shrink it in two ways: either by paying it off, or by growing our economy big enough that what's remaining doesn't matter. This is the truth behind arguments over "deficit reduction versus growth".

But there is an even better way to discuss the national debt that in terms of a ratio to GDP, and that is in terms of it's cost.

The only downside to having debt is that you have to pay interest on it. But more debt doesn't necessarily mean higher interest payments – in fact, it's the exact opposite. Joe Weisenthal explains:

Using data from Bloomberg, we looked at basically all of the big emerging and developed markets* with a big bond market, and good data on debt to GDP and decided to check to see if there was any connection at all between debt to GDP and the yield on their 10-year bonds.

The answer, quite clearly, is no.

In fact, using an exponential regression, we detect a slight shift down and to the right, meaning that the more debt a country has relative to its GDP, the cheaper it is to borrow.

As debt goes up, interest rates go down. So doubling debt doesn't double interest payments, and halving debt doesn't mean you pay half as much servicing it. In chart form, that claim looks like this:

 

Our interest rates are so ridiculously depressed at the moment that even though we've almost doubled our national debt to GDP ratio, the amount we pay to service our debt has barely gone up by half.

This is what the debt hawks should be looking at. Not debt to GDP, and certainly not absolute debt; nothing matters to debt except the cost of holding it. And that cost doesn't present a particularly compelling reason for cutting it.

Gold, as a common and universally accepted store of value, is particularly useful to illustrate stories about abstract economic concepts like debt. Photograph: Getty Images

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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Google’s tax worries, Oxford’s race dilemma and the left-wing case for leaving Europe

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong.

As a Gmail user and a Google searcher, am I morally compromised by using the services of a serial tax avoider? Surely not. Google gets roughly 95 per cent of its revenues from advertising and much of that from clicks on the ads that surround its offerings. I have long observed a rule never to click on any of these, even when they advertise something that I need urgently. Instead, I check the seller’s website address and type it directly into my browser.

Taking full advantage of its services without contributing to its profits strikes me as a very good way of damaging the company. More problematic are pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca (zero UK corporation tax in 2014) and GlaxoSmithKline (UK corporation tax undisclosed but it has subsidiaries in tax havens), which makes many prescription drugs and consumer products such as toothpaste – I chew it to stop me smoking. To boycott all such companies, as well as those that underpay their workers or pollute the planet, one would need, more or less, to drop out from the modern world. Consumer boycotts, though they have a certain feel-good factor, aren’t a substitute for electing governments that will make a concerted effort to tax and regulate big corporations.

 

After EU

David Cameron is finding it hard to get changes to EU rules that he can credibly present as concessions. But the talks that would follow a vote for Brexit would be a hundred times more difficult. Ministers would need to negotiate access to the single market, renegotiate trade deals with 60 other countries and make a deal on the status of Britons living in the EU, as well as EU citizens living here. All this would create immense uncertainty for a fragile economy.

With a current-account trade deficit of 4 per cent, the dangers of a run on sterling would be considerable. (This apocalyptic scenario is not mine; I draw on the wisdom of the Financial Times economics editor, Chris Giles.) But here’s the question. If the UK got into the same pickle as Greece – and George Osborne had to do a Norman Lamont, popping out of No 11 periodically to announce interest-rate rises – Jeremy Corbyn would walk the 2020 election. Should we lefties therefore vote Out?

 

University blues

Hardly a Sunday now passes without David Cameron announcing an “initiative”, either on TV or in the newspapers. The latest concerns the under-representation of black Britons at top universities, notably Oxford, which accepted just 27 black students in 2014 out of an intake of more than 2,500. As usual, Cameron’s proposed “action” is risibly inadequate: a requirement that universities publish “transparent” data on admissions and acceptances, much of which is already available, and a call for schools to teach “character”, whatever that means.

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford – with its disproportionate numbers from a handful of fee-charging schools, such as Eton – would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong. Cameron rules out quotas as “politically correct, contrived and unfair”. But quotas in some form may be what is needed if young people from poor white, as well as black, homes are ever to feel that they would be more than interlopers.

In the meantime, Cameron could tell elite universities to stop setting ever-higher barriers to entry. As well as demanding two A*s and an A at A-level, Oxford and Cambridge are introducing tests for “thinking skills” and subject-specific “aptitude”. Whatever the developers of such tests claim, it is possible to coach students for them. State schools don’t have the resources to do so or even to research the complex requirements of the various colleges and subjects. Oxbridge admissions tutors must know this but evidently they don’t care.

 

A fine balance

The latest government figures show that, despite the former education secretary Michael Gove introducing £60 fines for parents who take their children on term-time breaks, the days lost to unsanctioned holidays are up by 50 per cent to three million in four years. This was a predictable result. Previously, the sense of an obligation to respect the law and set their children an example of doing so persuaded most parents to confine absences to school holidays. Now a modest price has been placed on term-time holidays. Parents do the sums and note that they save far more than £60 on cheaper flights and hotels.

A similar outcome emerged in Israel when daycare centres introduced fines for parents who arrived late. Previously, most preferred to avoid the embarrassment of apologising to a carer and explaining why they had been delayed. Once it became just a monetary transaction, many more happily arrived late and paid the price.

 

Minority report

Here in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, we are dancing in the streets. Well, not quite, but perhaps we ought to be. According to an analysis by the Policy Exchange think tank, Loughton is the third most integrated community in England and Wales, just behind Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands and Amersham, Buckinghamshire, but above 157 others that have significant minorities. We are well ahead of fashionable London boroughs such as Islington and Hackney, where residents obviously keep Muslims and eastern Europeans out of their vibrant dinner parties, whereas we have bearded imams, African chiefs in traditional dress and Romanian gypsies dropping in for tea all the time.

Again, not quite. I’m not sure that I have met that many non-indigenous folk around here, or even seen any, except in the local newsagents. Still, I am grateful to Policy Exchange for brushing up Loughton’s public image, which was in need of a facelift after the BNP won four seats on the council a few years ago and a TOWIE actor opened a shop on the high street.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war