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.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.