Austerity's definitely happened. The question is how much damage it's done

The fact that austerity has failed does not mean no-one tried to implement it.

The Atlantic's Matthew O'Brien writes:

Britain's economy is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but this much is clear: it's a disaster. After its Olympics-fueled growth, such as it was, lifted it out of recession in the third quarter of 2012, Britain might be headed back after its economy fell 0.3 percent at the end of the year the fourth time in five quarters its GDP has contracted. Britain's now verging on a triple-dip recession, which is just another way of saying a depression…

It's no accident this era of zero growth has coincided with an era of austerity. Despite entering office with borrowing costs at 50-year lows, the Cameron coalition decided the government deficit, and not the growth deficit, was the chief threat to future prosperity. It raised taxes and cut the growth of spending, but did so with little regard for what constituted smart cuts and what did not… It's the economic equivalent of shooting yourself in both feet, just in case shooting yourself in one doesn't completely cripple you.

O'Brien goes on to argue that austerity can't be the only cause of Britain's slump. For him, the real puzzle is the collapse in productivity which has lead to a recovery in the labour market (of sorts) without a commensurate recovery in GDP. (That disconnect may partially be the result of some statistical fiddling on the part of the Government).

There's a number of possibilities for such an "enigma", from zombie firms which are only kept alive by the low cost of credit, through measurement error (both that mentioned above and something gone awry with the seasonal adjustments), to genuine slumps — temporary or otherwise — in productivity.

But one group of people think they have the answer to O'Brien's puzzle, albeit by discounting one of his premises. These are the "cut further, cut faster" Tories, for whom a failure to reduce the deficit as quickly as they desire is the same as a failure to implement austerity.

NIESR's director Jonathan Portes has taken on this tendency, in the form of a detailed response to two of its biggest proponents, Tory MP John Redwood and the Spectator's editor Fraser Nelson.

Nelson writes:

We’re witnessing the difficulty the left has in reconciling its official narrative with what’s actually happening. Yes, George Osborne’s policy is not working – but for reasons that the Guardian can’t quite bring itself to accept. It’s not that his evil cuts are retarding the recovery. It’s that he’s slowly abandoning his deficit plan. The figures show that core government spending is going up, along with the debt and (last month) the deficit.

Portes responds that yes, core government spending "is roughly flat in real terms, with cuts in some areas offset by the operation of the automatic stabilisers". But defining austerity in terms of core government spending is arguing at cross-purposes with those who argue that austerity has harmed the British economy.

The simple analysis of the government's austerity program is that the reduction of the deficit is equivalent to austerity. That was the initial definition the government went with, which is why the failure to reduce the deficit to any great degree is seen as failing on its own terms.

But deficit reduction can't be directly equivalent to austerity, since it can also be achieved by growth. (Which is the argument the anti-cuts left has been making consistently for the last three years.) And so we get to the circular argument in Nelson's claim that Osborne has failed at austerity. Because what he is describing as the failure to achieve austerity — slow paced deficit reduction and flat spending — is actually a symptom of the failure of austerity. As Portes writes, the causal inference is wrong. It's not that the Chancellor is abandoning austerity and so the debt continues to rise; it's that debt continues to rise because austerity doesn't work to reduce it, and so the Chancellor is trying to quietly change tack:

The government did not adopt policy changes which led to slower deficit reduction. Instead, the front-loaded fiscal consolidation illustrated above (along with other factors, such as the similar, and similarly misguided, policies pursued by our eurozone partners) derailed the recovery, which in turn led to the slowing of deficit reduction, which in turn has forced the government to abandon its fiscal framework. Again, the IMF sets all this out quite clearly.

For Portes, the important failure of austerity is in the resulting reduction in capital investment, because austerity stands opposed to fiscal stimulus (which he defines as "Government measures, normally involving increased public spending and lower taxation, aimed at giving a positive jolt to economic activity").

The Government, in its desire to cut the deficit primarily through spending cuts with a top-up of tax rises, thus failed to achieve one of its goals. Spending was not cut significantly, but between tax rises and initial moderate growth, the deficit has been reduced. This is the austerity which is decried. The fact that one of the measures through which this was intended to be achieved is not proof that there has been no austerity, but merely further proof that austerity is self-defeating.

And by focusing on attempts to reduce spending and achieve "fiscal consolidation", the government failed to implement fiscal stimulus (even going so far as to reduce public investment by 1.7 per cent of GDP).

The failure of austerity to greatly reduce the deficit, and the fact that automatic stabilisers mean that spending stubbornly refuses to fall — as we swap a pound spent on EMA for a teenager in school with a pound spent on JSA for an unemployed civil servant — are not the same as a failure to implement austerity. It has been implemented, and it has damaged the nation: the question now under discussion is just how much.

George Osborne looking at wheels. 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.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.