The Economist: austerity in 2010 "threatened recovery"

The coalition against austerity is overwhelming.

It feels as though a rubicon has been somewhat crossed: it is now, undoubtedly, mainstream opinion that fiscal consolidation – austerity, to you or me – in the immediate aftermath of the greatest financial crisis in 80 years was a terrible idea.

The Economist's Free Exchange column was never particularly supportive of austerity, occasionally going against the grain of the magazine's main editorial line to do so. But this week is a particularly strong attack on the idea.

In the print column, Ryan Avent focuses on the IMF's declaration that, in times of crisis, the fiscal multiplier could be several times higher than previously thought, and takes a look at wider research in the area:

What that means is that austerity may hurt much more at some times than others. In a 2010 paper Alan Auerbach and Yuriy Gorodnichenko of the University of California, Berkeley argued that the fiscal multiplier may be negative during booms, meaning that spending cuts actually raise growth. In recessions, by contrast, it could be as high as 2.5. A study by Lawrence Christiano, Martin Eichenbaum and Sergio Rebelo of Northwestern University suggested that although the multiplier may hover at around 1 normally, it could rise to more than 3 when interest rates fall to near zero, leaving the central bank with less room to act.

We called the IMF's realisation that it had severely underestimated the multiplier the most important 68 words in its world economic outlook, and it appears Avent agrees.

In the blog which accompanies the column, he doubles down on the claimtwitter):

Policymakers suffered from a striking lack of perspective in opting to pursue broad austerity beginning in 2010. It was clear at the time that some economies needed to begin cutting debts immediately and that lots of economies would need to bring debt down eventually. But a look at global conditions should have indicated that the normal cushions against fiscal cuts were weaker than normal or absent. And so the decision by countries not facing immediate market pressure to start cutting alongside those that were seriously undermined the consolidation efforts of economies in truly dire straits and threatened recovery.

Avent has much more to say, particularly on the failure of central banks to play their role correctly, and both columns are well worth reading in full.

It's always hard to argue about what ought to have happened. Politically, everyone will point out that it holds little weight: no party can win an election based on the claim that they would have been better if they had won the last one; instead, they have to present forward-looking visions, and explain why the country will be better in five years time under them.

And economically, whether or not austerity was right is now meaningless; it happened, and failed, but the circumstances are changing daily. We are (far too slowly) climbing out of depression, and at some point the arguments for fiscal consolidation will get stronger, and a new discussion will need to be had.

Nonetheless, it is worth repeating: George Osborne was wrong, emphatically, obviously and inarguably. His decisions hurt the economy and the nation entirely unnecessarily, and he refused every possible opportunity to ameliorate that damage. Plan A isn't just failing, it has failed. Yet there has been no contrition, no apology, and not even a hint of understanding. All there is is a lesson for future Chancellors: Don't Do This.

Sad Osborne is sad, but not about austerity. 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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.