Pegging benefits to wage inflation fails Macroeconomics 101

It's all about countercyclical spending.

As Gavin Kelly has written, it's unlikely that benefits increases will be linked to earnings in the way Newsnight's Allegra Stratton claimed last week. To do so would be short-termist in the extreme, and, given the role the OBR has in the budgetary process these days, practically illegal.

The reason is that, although wages are rising more slowly than the CPI, that's an unusual state of affairs. For most of the last decade, average weekly earnings have risen faster than inflation, usually by a considerable margin:

Overlay from Timetric

 

So one of the problems with hooking the uprating of benefits to pay is that it would be terribly short-term. It will save money until the economy recovers, and then cost far, far more than it would if there were no change at all. And if you want to borrow against the future, a better way to do it would be to just borrow against the future – using our ridiculously low interest rates.

That's the reason why it won't happen. But there's another reason why it shouldn't: The rating of benefits to inflation is one of the few fiscal stabilisers we have that works in boom times as well as bust.

Fiscal stabilisers are a key aspect of moving Keynesian economics from theory to practice. Acting counter-cyclically requires saving in a boom and spending in a bust, but that's generally rather tricky to do politically. As the election of the coalition proved, the fallacy that "there's no money left" is a powerful political motivator, and it's similarly tricky to argue for savings to be made and budgets to be cut if the economy is running at a surplus.

Fiscal stabilisers are aspects of the economy which do part of the job for us. The archetypal stabiliser is unemployment benefit. As more people lose their jobs in a recession, so we spend more money paying them Jobseeker's Allowance. When they gain employment again, as the recovery begins, the spending drops. Provided governments don't do anything stupid like end JSA, a small proportion of their spending is guaranteed to be counter-cyclical.

If benefits were to be pegged to wages, rather than inflation then some of that counter-cyclicality would be scrapped. The benefits bill would shrink in recessions and increase in boom times, compared to where it would be without the change. That would mean prolonged depressions, and a magnification of the boom-and-bust cycle. Macroeconomically, its one of the worst things you could do.

Unless, of course, it's all just a ploy to balance the books on the back of the poor, and the plan is to reverse the change once start wages increasing above inflation again. But no-one would be so cynical as to suggest that.

Piggy banks wait to be filled in a shop in San Francisco. 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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