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 An unpublished YouGov poll by Policy Exchange, taken after last year’s Budget, found that just 14 per cent of voters realised the national debt is rising.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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How Facebook and Google are killing papers and transforming news

If journalism is to survive, it needs either to cut costs (read: sack journalists), or build revenues.

When I started work at the Daily Mail in 2005, there was often a discussion among the men who decided the running order of stories about which pages should be printed in black and white. Not all the presses used colour, and God help the unthinking journalist who placed a story about a man painting his entire council house with replica Michelangelos on a page that would end up in “mono”.

That story makes me feel very old (I’m 33), but it highlights the accelerated pace of change in the news industry in the past decade and a half. I also remember the cuttings library, and a time when headlines were written to fit arbitrary spaces on a page, rather than having to be stuffed full of searchable keywords. Those days are gone.

The first newspapers were printed in the 17th century, and the methods of both their creation (movable type) and their distribution (on paper) remained broadly unchanged for three centuries. When Marxism Today’s published its New Times issue in 1988, that system was unravelling. Computers had arrived and the print unions’ insistence on sharply delineated workplace roles was under threat. This had already led to the Wapping dispute of 1986, in which Rupert Murdoch moved his newspapers to new headquarters to break the collective power of the printers. It took 13 months and 1,262 arrests, but it ended with thousands of men in effect accepting that their skills were obsolete.

That trend has merely continued. Today’s journalism students are encouraged to become jacks of all trades – they learn how to make videos, record podcasts and use databases, they master Photoshop, they understand social media and, yes, they even write and edit stories.

On one level, the world of news now seems gloriously open: anyone can start a blog, anyone can publish on the Huffington Post (if you don’t mind not being paid) or Medium, and anyone can build a following on Twitter or Facebook. But there are new barriers to entry. Where many of my older colleagues at the Mail had started work at 16 – often on local papers, because NUJ rules demanded you spend two years there before heading to Fleet Street – young journalists increasingly have postgraduate qualifications as well as degrees. That privileges the middle class and those whose parents live in London, and who can therefore live at home while trying to break in to the industry.

Local newspapers, once the training ground for young reporters, are dying out: there has been a net loss of 198 since 2005, according to the Press Gazette. Their classified adverts have gone online or gone altogether, and some of those titles that remain are consolidated into remote industrial parks, far from the communities they serve. So there is less reporting of court cases and of the petty corruption of councillors (Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs, which still covers that ground, is never short of material).

In place of independent papers are glossy PR puffs produced by councils. In December, the editor of the Hackney Citizen complained that the local authority was producing its own fortnightly freesheet, Hackney Today. The latter sells advertising space, making it a direct competitor to independent newspapers, and the council pays for 108,000 copies to be printed by Trinity Mirror and distributed to households every fortnight. It is produced by a press office.

National newspapers are also struggling. Print circulations are falling and the returns on display advertising online can be pitiful. Most online adverts are “programmatic”: sold in real-time auctions on a CPM (cost per mille, or thousand clicks) basis. Users hate them for slowing page loads or interrupting their reading. Unsurprisingly, the use of ad-blocking software has risen steadily.

The industry has tried to fight back by expanding the types of adverts it sells. That is why everyone became so excited about video a few years ago: publishers could place an unskippable advert before a video clip and charge pounds, not pennies, using CPM.

The internet-only news organisation BuzzFeed had another strategy: from the start, it didn’t sell display advertising, only “native ads”: what used to be called advertorial. The theory was that users might be irritated by display ads but they wouldn’t object to a pet-food brand sponsoring a heart-warming video about life with a pet. In at least one case, this paid off handsomely – BuzzFeed’s 2015 collaboration with Purina led to a video called Puppyhood, which racked up four million views in two weeks. The challenge is to repeat that winning formula again and again.

Other publishers tried the start-up mantra: build it, scale it fast, hope the revenues turn up at some point. Medium, a cleanly designed blogging platform, was launched by the Twitter co-founder Ev Williams in 2012 and attracted big-name publications and writers. But on 4 January Williams announced that he was “renewing Medium’s focus” by cutting a third of its staff, because it was not financially sustainable. “It’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet,” he wrote. “The vast majority of articles, video and other ‘content’ we all consume on a daily basis is paid for – directly or indirectly – by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals. And it is measured, amplified and rewarded based on its ability to do that.”

If journalism is to survive, it needs either to cut costs (read: sack journalists), or build revenues. Hence the proliferation of sidelines: conferences, round tables, business-to-business operations, events, sponsored supplements and the rest. Some companies are trying a more direct approach. The heavily loss-making Guardian is investing in a membership scheme, and the radical US magazine Mother Jones has a pledge to fund in-depth reporting. (Individual journalists are trying this, too: the Patreon website offers readers a chance to fund writers directly, at a set cost per month or per piece.)

Of course, someone is making money out of the great flowering of content on the web. Facebook has 1.86 billion monthly users, and in the third quarter of 2016 its net income was $2.38bn, up from $896m a year earlier. Along with Google, it controls two-thirds of the online advertising market. “Facebook is the new town hall,” Mark Zuckerberg told investors. Unfortunately for him, that role in public life is what made Facebook the focus of the row about “fake news” after the US election. For millions of people, Facebook is where they get their news; its editorial decisions and inbuilt biases shape our common understanding of reality.

You might not have to get your words past the print unions any more, but you do have to pander to what Facebook’s and Google’s guiding algorithms deem important. Zuckerberg has more power than anyone who bought ink by the barrel ever did.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times