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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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