Have there been spending cuts in Europe?

Short answer: Yes.

Via Tyler Cowen and the National Review comes this chart (click for big):

What it purports to show is that talk of "savage austerity" is overblown, that in fact no country has cut spending by more than a few billion, and that compared to 2002 levels (why 2002 is unclear) every country is spending considerably more.

Veronique de Rugy, who made the chart, does make passing reference to its major flaw, saying:

If this data were adjusted for inflation (which I would prefer but the data isn’t available) it would possibly show a decrease and certainly a flatter line for all countries.

Presenting such a chart using non-adjusted numbers is borderline dishonest. Flatlining spending in the UK, for instance, is a 3.5 per cent cut in real terms if there is 3.5 per cent inflation.

Tyler Cowen argues that using nominal figures is legitimate since nominal figures are what matter in the short run. If we accept that – or if we accept the easier-to-swallow response that an honest chart would show austerity but not "savage" austerity, or "large" spending cuts – then the next place to turn is to the receipts of spending.

What we find is, as Cowen puts it, a large increase in "automatic stabilizers", a Keynesian term which basically means that more people are claiming things like jobseeker's allowance, tax credits, and housing benefit as incomes go down and unemployment goes up.

These various expenditures are lumped together in the category of "mandatory spending". They are all expenses which governments promise to spend as needed, rather than from a fixed budget. If the number of unemployed people goes up, the amount spend on unemployment benefit goes up, and vice versa. Since the number of unemployed people has indeed gone up, we would expect mandatory spending to increase – as it has done.

In order for nominal spending to stay flat, as it has done, this increase in mandatory spending has to be offset by a decrease in "discretionary" spending – buying things that we actually want. As of the 2010 spending review, the Government was predicting a 26 per cent cut in the departmental spending limits by 2015, from 27 per cent of GDP to 20 per cent.

That is where the "large spending cuts" lie. But Cowen argues that:

That is not how people phrase it, rather they are complaining rather vociferously about "spending cuts," many of which are either imaginary or extremely small.

Perhaps Cowen is merely objecting to political rhetoric, in which case he is correct that "savage cuts to the discretionary budget which are partially offset by a growing mandatory budget" is more accurate, although less compelling, than "savage cuts". But if he is arguing that it is wrong to even claim that cuts exist, then he is being blinded by the same argument that has taken in Dan Hannan and Toby Young. As Daniel Elton puts it:

It is in effect saying "Yes, we realise that your Sure Start Centre has had to shut down, but because there’s a whole bunch of people now in the dole, there are no cuts"

Snip, snip: Have there been spending cuts? 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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.