Inaction is now the biggest economic risk

The long-term cost of high unemployment to individuals and to society is huge.

The long-term cost of high unemployment to individuals and to society is huge.

Not surprisingly, NIESR's latest forecast, published today, has led to predictable headlines focusing on our prediction of a "return to technical recession." But this misses the point. We are forecasting that the economy will contract slightly in the first half of this year; some other forecasters agree, others don't. But the differences are within the margin of error; we could well be wrong. The point is that almost everyone expects, even assuming an eventual successful resolution of the eurozone crisis, that growth will be slow at best.

So what should be done? The UK economy currently suffers from deficient demand; the current stance of fiscal policy is contributing to this deficiency. A temporary easing of fiscal policy in the near term would boost the economy. The credible commitment to a sustainable fiscal policy over the longer term provides the government with the flexibility to provide a clearly defined and temporary boost to near-term demand. For example, an increase in government investment would not have a significant impact either on long-run sustainability or - given the way they are defined - the likelihood of the government meeting its fiscal targets.

It is important to be clear that this is not about averting a recession in the short-term. It doesn't matter very much, either to the economy as whole or to individuals, whether economic growth is 0.2 per cent or -0.1 per cent. This is about minimising the long term social and economic damage. On current forecasts - both ours, and that of the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) we are set for an extended period where growth will not be enough to reduce unemployment to the levels we saw before the recession. We expect unemployment to rise to about 9 percent - 3 million - this year and to remain high. Even in 2014, it will still be over 7 per cent. This compares to the OBR's estimate that the structural unemployment rate is about 5.25 per cent.

That difference - the "unemployment gap", shown in the chart below, is a measure of the how much extra (or less) unemployment there is as a result of macroeconomic conditions - i.e. cyclical unemployment resulting from labour demand, or lack of it (more explanation here). In other words, if macroeconomic policy is broadly on track, the unemployment gap should be small; it is a measure of the number of people who are not working because macroeconomic policy isn't either.

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The chart shows that the unemployment gap in the aftermath of the 2008 recession will be larger and longer than any recession since 1970 (which certainly means any recession since the war) including the early 1980s, although there is probably some uncertainty about the 1980s estimates. It says that - on the official view and the official forecast - the unemployment gap is a million now, rising, and will be higher in 2013 than now; and that even by 2015, fully seven years after the recession began, it will be over 2 percent of the labour force, about 650,000 people. Unemployment at this elevated level for such a long period is likely to do permanent damage to the supply side of the economy, with large long-run economic costs.

The argument about fiscal policy is often presented as "Yes, fiscal stimulus might do some good, but are you willing to take the risk?" In my view the risks are hugely exaggerated, as I wrote in this magazine. But people talk much less about the downside of inaction. If we do not do something to boost labour demand now, we are not just taking a risk, we are accepting the likelihood of continuing high levels of unemployment that will damage both many individuals and society as a whole. In 1925 Winston Churchill expressed his dismay that policymakers seemed to be "perfectly happy with at the spectacle of Britain possessing the finest credit in the world simultaneously with a million and a quarter unemployed." As Martin Wolf puts it, "How masochistic does one need to be?".

Jonathan Portes is Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. His blog is http://notthetreasuryview.blogspot.com

Jonathan Portes is director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office.

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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.

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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.