Singing Keynes' praises

Philip Booth reviews "Masters of Money".

Last night's BBC documentary Keynes in the Masters of Money series will be followed by two others on Hayek and Marx. The first programme was brilliantly presented by Stephanie Flanders, though perhaps it was too strong in its praise of its subject. The uncritical nature of the programme is not necessarily inappropriate as Stephanie Flanders made clear that she was presenting Keynes as a hugely important figure in post-1930s Britain, rather than as being correct on all matters of economics. Perhaps, by way of balance, Hayek will get the same enthusiastic treatment next Monday.

As a person, Keynes was portrayed by his supporters as a "we are all in this together" sort of a chap. Some might find this difficult to square with his support for eugenics. There is a temptation amongst those of a left-leaning persuasion to assume that those who want to use deliberate government intervention to avoid misery are necessarily more concerned for the plight of all the people than those of us who believe in freedom - this is by no means the case.

Similarly, there was much discussion of his supposed internationalism and his efforts to ensure that we had a world monetary order that enabled the weak to prosper alongside the strong. However, in 1933 Keynes said: "I sympathise, therefore, with those who would minimise, rather than with those who would maximise, economic entanglement between nations.[L]et goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible. I am inclined to the belief that, after the transition is accomplished, a greater measure of national self-sufficiency and economic isolation between countries than existed in 1914 may tend to serve the cause of peace." This was not an isolated statement on such matters.

The issue of whether Keynes was right or wrong on the issues we today call "Keynesian" was skirted round. Apart from my own brief appearances, and criticisms from Kenneth Rogoff and some pertinent comments from David Laws, commentators had few reservations.

Let's take first the issue of the Great Depression. Britain was out of depression long before General Theory was published. Indeed, by 1936, output had almost would soon recover to the point which it would have reached had we seen trend growth from 1929. Britain did so with very tight fiscal policy. Monetary policy was very loose, of course, after coming off gold. But, this is precisely the policy that Keynes said would not work. It was used. It worked.

The US, on the other hand, had her Hoover dams and other major Keynesian projects. They were described in the programme as having created thousands of jobs. Perhaps they did. The point about Keynesian economics is that it is not very good at probing into both the "seen" and the "unseen". Economists should not generalise from the particular. Certainly, in terms of its effects on the economy as a whole, US policy in the Great Depression was an abject failure. Indeed, as Stephanie Flanders said, the US was not out of depression at the outbreak of war. In other words, there were 17 years between 1929 and sustained peacetime growth. Why was this? Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that, even if stimulus policies work in theory (doubtful in itself), they do not work in practice once put in the hands of politicians. Maybe the policy uncertainty created by giving government greater powers keeps those animal spirits low.

Arguably the worst prediction of the night came from Joseph Stiglitz. He said - presumably in March when other interviews were filmed - that we know what will almost certainly happen if the government does not borrow more money: "unemployment will go up." Unemployment has fallen every month since. We have a growth problem but, surely, if Keynes' economics of recession is about anything, it is about rigidities in labour markets rather than the enhancement of productivity necessary for growth. But, prediction is not Stiglitz's strong point. In a co-authored paper with one of President Obama's later Chief Economic Advisors, he said when commenting on the introduction of a new capital standard in 2002: "on the basis of historical experience, the risk to the government from a potential default on GSE [Fannie Mae and Freddia Mac] debt is effectively zero."

Would Keynes be on Stiglitz's side today? Who knows? And this was one issue on which Stephanie Flanders was deliberately equivocal. It is widely thought that Hayek did not review General Theory because he believed that Keynes would change his mind about the issues - as he did with Treatise on Money. Certainly, there is no reason to think that he would have proposed what came to be called Keynesian policies in countries already borrowing eight per cent of national income, where the government is spending 50 per cent of national income, where unemployment is falling and where real wages seem to be adjusting.

The role of money in creating the Great Depression was not mentioned in the programme - despite the widespread consensus on this issue. The cause was animal spirits, pure and simple. The same cause was cited for the crash of 2008. Indeed, it was even argued that before the crash politicians had been preaching (and it was implied practising) uncritically the doctrine of free markets only to be derailed by animal spirits. No mention of monetary policy and the "Greenspan put". No mention of too big to fail. No mention of Fannie and Freddie or Basel II. No mention of US bankruptcy law. No mention of the policy of encouraging home ownership amongst those who could not afford it. No mention of US deposit insurance which never had the risk-based premiums that were supposed to be levied. No mention of government spending accelerating in countries such as the UK, US, Portugal, Spain and so on. Hopefully, these causes will be presented in next week's programme. A government that follows the above policies and spends nearly twice as much as a proportion of national income as even Keynes thought desirable is not practising a free-market policy.

In a long feature on the euro crisis, it was suggested by the greatest weight of voices that Keynes would today have been warning against strong countries imposing austerity on the weak through government spending cuts and thus causing the violent protests. In fact, although he may well have recommended debt forgiveness, it is certainly not clear what Keynes might have thought on the issue of reducing government spending in countries where it has reached unsustainable levels.

We were also told that our international economic relationships would have been transformed if we had followed his advice and had a fixed exchange rate system where both surplus and deficit countries made adjustments. This may or may not be true, but surely Keynes would have pointed his finger at the deficit countries when Bretton Woods collapsed in the early 1970s, the seeds of which were sown a few years earlier. The problem then was not German deflation (inflation was low but positive) but US and UK inflation (the former caused by government spending on welfare and the Vietnam War, the latter by general indiscipline).

Indeed, famously, when the facts changed, Keynes changed his mind. Perhaps he would have learned to like floating exchange rates, which lead to the beggar-my-neighbour policies the programme criticised becoming an irrelevance. Perhaps Keynes would have seen floating exchange rates and the free movement of capital as the best way to facilitate economic adjustments between very different countries suffering from asymmetric shocks (though not to provide an excuse for endemic inflation).

Stephanie Flanders ended with a paradox. This man who believed in animal spirits and the unpredictability of human nature also believed in governments steering the economy. Next week, perhaps, we will hear that this is not just a paradox, but a contradiction. Perhaps we will hear too that, when people take responsibility for their own financial recklessness and respond to the diverse signals that they see in market prices, the economy can self-correct much more effectively than it can ever be steered by intelligent people in Whitehall - and recessions will be that much shorter.

Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs

Keynes. Photograph: Getty Images

Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.


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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.