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 An unpublished YouGov poll by Policy Exchange, taken after last year’s Budget, found that just 14 per cent of voters realised the national debt is rising.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.

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

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 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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