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 An unpublished YouGov poll by Policy Exchange, taken after last year’s Budget, found that just 14 per cent of voters realised the national debt is rising.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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The clever ideological trick that could save the Labour party

The Co-operative party could suddenly get a lot more popular. 

It’s do or die for the party’s moderate MPs, who have lost the fight for the soul of Labour and must quickly move on. 

The 172 Labour MPs who backed a no-confidence vote in Jeremy Corbyn earlier this year may not like their newly elected party leader much, but they loathe John McDonnell. 

So it is little surprise that one of them, John Woodcock, reportedly looked “sick to the stomach” when the Shadow Chancellor tenderly invited him for a cuppa in his office following the leadership election result at conference. Reading the tea leaves tells me those talks aren’t going to go well.  

Yet moderate MPs would do well to revisit McDonnell’s off-the-cuff comments from a few years back: “I’m not in the Labour party because I’m a believer of the Labour party as some supreme body or something God-given or anything like that,” he told a small audience in 2012. “It’s a tactic. It’s as simple as that. If it’s no longer a useful vehicle, move on.” 

Two feather-spitting former frontbenchers called for McDonnell’s resignation when these comments emerged in March, saying they revealed his Trotskyist tendencies. "The context (a hard-left gathering) and the company (which included Gerry Downing, expelled from Labour for his comments on 9/11) didn’t make for great publicity, no," a Leader’s Office staffer privately confesses. 

But McDonnell is right: There is nothing necessary, natural or divinely ordained about Labour’s existence lest it can get things done. Which is why the parliamentary Labour party cannot botch its next attempt at power. 

In the wake of Corbyn’s re-election, Labour MPs face a fork-in-the-road: fight this civil war until its bitter end - play the long game, wait until Labour loses the next general election and challenge Corbyn again - or start afresh. 

It is a bleak, binary choice, akin to a doctor delivering test results and declaring the illness is terminal as feared: the patient can go down fighting and die a slow death, notwithstanding a medical miracle, or instead take part in a pioneering new drug trial. This carries the risk of dying immediately but promises the possibility of life as well. Both options are fraught with danger.

The problem with the first option is that moderates have all but lost the party already. A poll reveals Corbyn won 85 per cent - 15 per cent among members who joined after he became party leader and lost 37 per cent - 63 per cent among those who were members of the party before the last general election. The result: victory by 119,000 votes. 

Corbyn has already announced he wants to give these foot soldiers far greater firepower and told Andrew Marr he had asked the NEC to draft plans for increasing the membership and including it in “all aspects of party decision making”. Labour is transitioning apace into a social movement: free of formal hierarchy and ambivalent about parliamentary power. 

So why wait until 2020? There is every chance that MPs won’t any longer have the power to challenge to Corbyn within four years’ time. If Momentum has its way with reselection and shadow cabinet elections, leading rebels may not be around to begin with. 

Even if MPs mount another leadership challenge, few believe organisations like Saving Labour or Labour First could put together a sizeable enough electorate to outgun Corbyn at the ballot box. He would be voted back in by a landslide. 

The alternative is for MPs to create a new centre-left force. The main plan under consideration is to join the Cooperative party, Labour’s sister party, and sit as a bloc of “double hatted” MPs, with their own policy agenda on Brexit and the economy. This new bloc would apply to the Speaker to become the official opposition. 

Plenty of MPs and members recoil at the idea of a semi-split like this because of the mixed message it would send to voters on the doorstep. "So you don’t have faith in Corbyn, but you’re a Co-op MP campaigning on behalf of his Labour?" Many believe a full-split would be worse. They fear being pitted against Corbyn-backed Labour candidates in local constituencies and splitting the left vote, opening the door to Ukip or the Conservatives in marginal seats. 

But if moderate MPs mean what they say when they warn of total electoral wipeout in 2020, risking a new centre-left grouping is intuitively worth it.  What do they have to lose? And how many more times can Labour’s moderates cry wolf - Labour "risks extinction", Sadiq Khan said yesterday - until voters call their bluff and tell them to quit complaining and fall in line behind their leader? 

While Corbyn’s polling remains disastrous, a Co-op/Labour party would boast a mandate of 9.3m people, a policy agenda in line with Britain’s political centre of gravity and a chance of becoming the official opposition: a risk worth taking in the face of electoral oblivion. 

A handful of battle-bruised MPs are talking about coming together. "Time to unite," a deflated Hilary Benn tweeted this weekend. There is a precedent for this: first past the post means the party has always been composed of uneasy coalitions of different groups - take the trade unionists, liberal cosmopolites and ethnic minorities of the New Labour years - and it is arguably no different now.  

Yet this is not about a coalition of diverse interests. It is about two parties within a party, each of which believes Labour is their rightful inheritance. Of the two, moderates are least likely to gain anything by engaging in an all out war. It is time they took a leaf out of McDonnell’s book and accepted it is time, regrettably, "to move on". 

Gabriel Pogrund is a journalist at The Sunday Times and a Google News Fellow 2016.