I’m proud to be a “deficit denier”

The Tories have no empirical or historical basis for their hysteria over the debt.

I've spent the past year on this blog mocking and riling so-called climate-change sceptics or "deniers", so I'm amused to find myself for the first time included in a different list of "deniers". According to the Prime Minister, those of us on who are critical of his government's austerity measures, and prefer to delay spending cuts and tax rises, are "deficit deniers". Hilarious.

Let me be clear: I'd much rather be a so-called deficit denier than succumb, as the Tories and their allies in the media and the business world have, to "deficit hysteria". Those of us who oppose the coalition's fiscal sadism do not deny the existence of this country's largest Budget deficit since the war, nor do we pretend that cuts will never come. We prefer, however, to contextualise the deficit and to point out that, for example:

  1. the national debt as a proportion of GDP is much lower than at other periods in our recent history,
  2. the national debt as a proportion of GDP is lower in the UK than in the United States, Japan, Italy and other industrialised nations,
  3. the UK and Greek economies are not at all comparable,
  4. deep and early spending cuts don't guarantee the retention of our much-lauded triple-A credit rating,
  5. the deficit is a result of a collapse in tax revenues after a recession caused by the bankers, rather than Labour's "profligacy", and
  6. the best route out of debt and deficit is economic growth and fiscal stimulus rather than Hooverite cuts and premature fiscal consolidation.

This last point is perhaps the most important. I'm amazed that some senior Labour Party figures seem to have bought in to this Tory narrative of the deficit and the importance of deficit reduction.

The shadow industry secretary, Pat McFadden, said in a speech this morning that Labour's current opposition to cuts risks exposing the party to accusations by voters of "wishing the problem away".

Peter Mandelson says in his new memoir that the party's biggest mistake in its final years in office was "allowing ourselves to be characterised as indifferent to the deficit or in denial about the consequences as to what was happening in our public finances".

This is a load of rubbish. Labour figures should be at the forefront of explaining the importance of deficits in rescuing fragile economies from double-dip recessions. Labour figures should be, as David Miliband has said, making the "moral" case for deficits. Labour figures should be excavating their copies of J M Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

As the economists Ann Pettifor and Victoria Chick argue, in a brilliant contribution on the Bloomberg website:

It may seem obvious that if you want to cut debt, you cut expenditure, but Keynes showed that the government finances were very different from a household budget. For him, macroeconomic outcomes were often the reverse of outcomes based on microeconomic reasoning.

Keynes was instrumental in the development of national accounts, which give us the opportunity to test his conclusions. Combining the official estimates with British economist Charles Feinstein's invaluable historical estimates permits an analysis of the impacts of fiscal policy over the past century.

They point out that there are "eight episodes over which changes in the public debt (as a percentage of gross domestic product) can be compared with those in public expenditure" and they report that "the results stand wholly opposed to the conventional wisdom". As Pettifor and Chick write:

Comparing for each episode the average annual change in the public debt as a share of GDP and the average annual growth in government expenditure in cash terms, we have results that are perhaps even more remarkable than Keynes might have imagined. There is a very strong relationship between changes in government expenditure and the public debt.

But, outside the two world wars, the relationship goes in the opposite direction to that predicted by most commentators: increases in public expenditure are associated with reductions in public debt. Very roughly, so long as there is unemployment, for every percentage rise in government expenditure, the public debt falls by half a per cent, and vice versa. This is very compelling evidence in favour of Keynes's insights.

Even Simon Jenkins -- no friend of Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling! -- argues in today's Guardian::

Worst of all for Osborne is that, were it not for the continued rise in public spending, Britain would still be in recession. The ONS was quoted today on the crucial role of government spending in the first three months of this year in underpinning the economy. Private wages have been falling by 1.9 per cent and state wages rising by 3.6 per cent. Osborne is right to assert that this dependency on government is unwise and unstable. But it is one thing to accuse the patient of being a drug addict, quite another to send him cold turkey overnight.

Everyone professes not to want a double-dip recession, yet every bit of news, from home and abroad, suggests that this is now a real prospect.

He adds:

Why the west's economic leaders seem so trapped in a pre-Keynesian time warp is intellectually intriguing. An answer recently given by the economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times is that they care more about their "institutional credibility" in financial markets than about refloating a depressed economy. They are like statesmen who prefer to rattle sabres than avert war.

Another answer, closer to home, is that politicians seek to curry favour from their immediate circle. In the crises of the 1960s and 1970s, Britain's rulers spent their time with trade unionists and businessmen. They neglected the "supply side" and generated raging inflation. Now they associate with bankers obsessed with the security of bonds, and therefore with budgetary asceticism. In this respect, Osborne is no different from Darling. Both ignore Keynes's simple insight that businessmen will not invest and the economy will not grow if there is no consumer demand for products.

Hear, hear!

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit