The Tory (and Labour) obsession with deficits and cuts

The new Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has published its forecast.

The row over cuts, deficits and economic growth continues. From the BBC:

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicts the economy will expand 2.6 per cent in 2011, down from the 3 per cent to 3.5 per cent estimate given in Labour's last Budget.

The lower figure will likely increase the impetus of the coalition government to cut public spending, as lower growth means fewer tax revenues.

Yet the OBR also says the deficit and debt will not be as bad as forecast.

It predicts that the UK's public deficit will fall, down to 10.5 per cent of GDP in the 2010-11 financial year, from the 11.1 per cent estimated by Labour.

For overall net government debt -- the sum of all borrowing -- the OBR estimates this will decline to 62.2 per cent of GDP in 2010-11 from the previous estimate of 63.6 per cent.

As the BBC's Paul Mason notes on his blog (hat-tip: Left Foot Forward):

There is only a 0.3 per cent of GDP difference (maybe 5bn) between Darling's structural deficit forecast and Budd's. This means there is no prima-facie ammo in the Budd Report for a significant tightening in order to eliminate "the bulk of the structural deficit".

Yet the "deficit hysteria" that I highlighted in my NS column this week continues unabated:

We are entering, as promised, the age of austerity. And the nation's finest minds are tormented by deficit hysteria. From the corridors of Whitehall to the studios of the BBC, the debt delusion -- that Britain is bust, bankrupt, broke -- reigns supreme.

Across the spectrum, from right to left to wherever the Liberal Democrats might be these days, politicians and policymakers mouth the mantra of "Cuts, cuts, cuts". "Swingeing", one of the oddest words in the English language, seems to have become a permanent addition to the political and media lexicon.

Larry Elliott has a brilliant but depressing piece in the Guardian today ("The lunatics are back in charge of the economy and they want cuts, cuts, cuts"), in which he reminds us of how FDR made the mistake of heeding the advice of the "sound money" economists in his administration and cut spending in 1937, thereby tipping the fragile US economy back into recession.

He also refers the reader to a new study by the economist Charles Dumas, of Lombard Street Research:

Dumas notes: "If some countries deflate their economies in an attempt to cut their government deficits, other countries will have a larger deficit -- and even the deflating countries will be partially frustrated in their endeavours. Why? Because they will induce a renewed recession that will hammer tax revenue and enforce greater relief spending." The result, he warns, "will almost certainly be renewed European recession, quite possibly a prolonged depression".

Meanwhile, Ed Balls and Alastair Darling are locked in a public spat over Labour's fiscal record in office and the latter's refusal to rule out a rise in VAT in the run-up to the election. I'm with Balls on this one. And, in my humble view, the former chancellor of the Exchequer too easily accepted the narrow, debt-obsessed parameters of the deficit hawks inside the Treasury, and in the commentariat and the financial markets. Labour's pledge to halve the deficit in four years was unnecessary and arbitary (why not three? or five?), and meant that the party was -- still is -- unable to make a credible or coherent case for Keynesian counter-cyclical spending.

Then there are those New Labour figure who seem to fetishise deficit reduction, cuts and balanced budgets. Andrew Adonis, the former transport secretary and one of the cleverest ministers to serve under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, wrote in yesterday's Sunday Times:

Credibility on deficit reduction after 2011 will be vital for Labour's new leader if he (or she) seriously aspires to become prime minister.

And John Rentoul, the Independent on Sunday's chief political commentator and self-confessed "ultra-Blairite", wrote in his paper yesterday:

The long campaign, with the winner to be announced at the start of the Labour conference in September, is good for the party. By the end of the process the candidates might have got down to the real issue, which is what Labour can say about the vast fiscal deficit with which it saddled the country.

The last bit of that last sentence reads almost as if Rentoul had lifted it wholesale from a Tory press release. It is nonsense, of course -- the bankers, not the Brown government, "saddled" the country with a "vast fiscal deficit".

Thankfully, the preferred Labour leadership candidate of both Adonis and Rentoul, the former foreign secretary David Miliband, is taking a more social-democratic approach, arguing at a packed Compass conference on Saturday that Labour has to make the case that "deficits are not immoral". The elder Miliband also hailed the columns -- in this magazine! -- of Professor David "Danny" Blanchflower, who has consistently and cogently argued against premature and dangerous cuts in public spending since he joined the New Statesman in September 2009.

In fact, here's Danny, writing in the Sunday Mirror yesterday, specifically on the subject of George "Slasher" Osborne's forthcoming emergency Budget and the associated "cuts":

"It will do terrible and probably irreversible damage to the British economy. I am now 100 per cent certain these actions will push us into double-dip recession."

I do hope Danny, Larry and I are wrong and, for the sake of this country, that the Osbornes and Rentouls are right. But the lessons of history, as Larry Elliott points out, don't bode well for the UK economy.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.