Constraining our debt is not about left-wing or right-wing politics

We must avoid the potential devastation of compound interest.

The Roman Emperor Caligula knew about keeping people on his side – he would literally shower them with money, spraying specially minted coins from the first floor of the Forum onto an adoring crowd. But Caligula also knew that you shouldn’t do too much of it. It’s a lesson that Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls would do well to listen to.

Balls is arguably one of the most controversial politicians at work today. Every part of his sensibilities appears to lie with increasing government expenditure, which translates into higher and higher government borrowing. The unholy truce he has negotiated with Labour party leader Ed Miliband to stick to the coalition’s post-2015 spending plan is nothing more than a tissue-thin tactic to get the pair, and the Labour Party, past the finishing line of the next General Election without spooking the markets.

Balls’ approach to spending was forged in the heat of the administration of Gordon Brown, himself no stranger to the idea that the public purse could be extended infinitely as long as the tax take was coming in – even if it was from the City of London. But when the spring tide of money went out in 2008, the abandoned shopping carts and tangled web of detritus that is our public finances were obvious for all to see, and with it the budget deficit ballooned. The total size of our national stock of debt has been trundling steadily upwards ever since and in the next couple of years its value will hit £2trn. That’s about 120 per cent of our annual national income.

But this doesn’t satisfy the shadow chancellor. Even when George Osborne announces that the deficit has not reduced as expected, Balls performs that most elegant of political pirouettes that sees him telling us that our borrowing is both shockingly large and, simultaneously, not enough. In the City the collective slapping of foreheads is audible – political rhetoric and word play doesn’t really have a place for those trying to work their way through delicately balanced financial markets that are – simultaneously – incredulous and credulous that we are where we are or that our current borrowing can be sustained.

Advocating government spending control is more than usually associated with "being right wing". But "the right wing" have lots to gain from increased government debt; company profits rise and with it the value of shares. City traders could "short" our currency and bond markets in order to make a profit as they fall.

So it’s frustrating that the debate over government spending is lazily classified as a "right versus left" clash.  In fact the main goal of the Deficit Constrainers is to stop the God of Compound Interest from taking over our public finances; when you have to start borrowing to pay your interest bill you don’t have to be a customer of Wonga.com to understand you are in trouble.

And that is where the UK is. Deficit Constrainers, by and large, want a situation that is out of control brought under control, because in their view the ultimate cost to society of an ever-increasing interest bill is greater than standing back and wilfully ignoring that it is happening. For a graphic illustration of  where this ends take a look at the images of Greece and Argentina that have flitted across our screens in recent years – societies devastated by the effects of a national debt out of control when compounding took over.

You think it can’t happen here? Think again – because it isn’t political, it’s mathematics. And this is why Ed Balls is so dangerous – he appears to treat our national finances and the debate around them as a vehicle for political power rather than the national good. From the apparent policy tensions and by Balls’ own recent Commons performances it is conceivable that he could split from the Labour Party and join a new left-leaning organization whose main agenda is expanding public expenditure leaving behind a party struggling to differentiate itself from the others. Alternatively, he could stay in the Labour Party, who are then elected in 2015 on the basis of who they aren’t, and begin a Caligulaean campaign to increase expenditure from within government. Either way, after the silly season and the post-Carney carnival has moved on and we are faced once more with our realities, the attitude of Ed Balls towards government expenditure will have much more significance for how the markets view us than we are currently allowing for.

It’s frustrating that the debate over government spending is lazily classified as a "right versus left" clash. Photograph: Getty Images

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

Photo: Getty
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What happened when a couple accidentally recorded two hours of their life

The cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic.

If the Transformers series of movies (Transformers; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Transformers: Age of Extinction; and Transformers: the Last Knight) teach us anything, it is that you think your life is going along just fine but in a moment, with a single mistake or incident, it can be derailed and you never know from what direction the threat will come. Shia LaBeouf, for example, thinks everything is completely OK in his world – then he discovers his car is a shape-shifting alien.

I once knew a couple called Dan and Fiona who, on an evening in the early 1980s, accidentally recorded two hours of their life. Fiona was an English teacher (in fact we’d met at teacher-training college) and she wished to make a recording of a play that was being broadcast on Radio 4 about an anorexic teenager living on a council estate in Belfast. A lot of the dramas at that time were about anorexic teenagers living on council estates in Belfast, or something very similar – sometimes they had cancer.

Fiona planned to get her class to listen to the play and then they would have a discussion about its themes. In that pre-internet age when there was no iPlayer, the only practical way to hear something after the time it had been transmitted was to record the programme onto a cassette tape.

So Fiona got out their boom box (a portable Sony stereo player), loaded in a C120 tape, switched on the radio part of the machine, tuned it to Radio 4, pushed the record button when the play began, and fastidiously turned the tape over after 60 minutes.

But instead of pushing the button that would have taped the play, she had actually pushed the button that activated the built-in microphone, and the machine captured, not the radio drama, but the sound of 120 minutes of her and Dan’s home life, which consisted solely of: “Want a cup of tea?” “No thanks.” And a muffled fart while she was out of the room. That was all. That was it.

The two of them had, until that moment, thought their life together was perfectly happy, but the tape proved them conclusively wrong. No couple who spent their evenings in such torpidity could possibly be happy. Theirs was clearly a life of grinding tedium.

The evidence of the cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic: the idea of spending any more of their evenings in such bored silence was intolerable. They feared they might have to split up. Except they didn’t want to.

But what could they do to make their lives more exciting? Should they begin conducting sordid affairs in sleazy nightclubs? Maybe they could take up arcane hobbies such as musketry, baking terrible cakes and entering them in competitions, or building models of Victorian prisons out of balsa wood? Might they become active in some kind of extremist politics?

All that sounded like a tremendous amount of effort. In the end they got themselves a cat and talked about that instead. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder