Kelvin MacKenzie isn't a good macroeconomist

Transfers from rich areas to poor ones are really very useful for not screwing up the economy.

Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie wrote a silly column yesterday. In it, he argued that "the middle class of London and the South East" are underserved by politicians, and called for a new political party which "believes that the striving classes in the South are overtaxed and overburdened".

It was, clearly, bunk. Charlie Hallam took most of it apart yesterday, pointing out that high pay is not the same as a large contribution to society, and that much of the boost London and the South East gets is merely entrenched advantage:

A start-up will find loans easier to obtain with a London address. Contacts are easier to make. Lobbying is easier. And there's that whole prejudice thing you don't have to deal with if you're based in the south.

The Economist's Daniel Knowles also points out that:

Every example he offers of London and the south being attacked takes the form of taxes on the rich—stamp duty for example—which also apply in the north. Meanwhile, the subsidy he says that the north gets is in the form of public spending: welfare benefits or social housing for example, which also apply in the south.

That is, far from wanting to fight for the South, MacKenzie is arguing for the rich of Britain and against the poor, wherever they actually are.

But there's a far simpler reason why MacKenzie is talking crap. The Telegraph's Ed West touched upon it in an otherwise faintly patronising post, writing:

Different parts of the economy require different economic policies, which is why the convergence of interest rates made the euro such a fundamentally bad idea for those countries on the fringe, such as Greece and Spain, since monetary policy would be set by people in Frankfurt and Brussels and therefore would be suited towards Frankfurt and Brussels. That’s a model that will work fine so long as the Greeks are prepared to live in perpetual poverty in the name of European solidarity, and that Germans are happy to pay the Greeks’ welfare bills.

The north and south of Britain are, by virtue of sharing the same currency, yoked to the same monetary policy. Short of some extraordinarily unorthodox economics – banknotes which catch fire south of Watford Gap? – that policy will be suboptimal for one or both areas of the country. Aggregate demand shocks rarely affect the nation uniformly, and so the Bank of England has to decide whether (say) inflation in the south is worth preventing a recession in the north.

But one way of lessening that impact is with common fiscal policy. That way, shocks in part of the country can be dealt with more quickly by transferring revenue from the healthy part to the struggling part. Which is, of course, exactly what MacKenzie was complaining about.

(It is worth noting that this analysis is roughly that which was relied on by every anti-Euro economist ever, who all feel very smug these days as Greece needs continual fiscal transfers just to stay in the economic bloc.)

The alternative – giving the north its own currency and monetary policy – may, I suppose, be what MacKenzie was angling for all along. It would certainly get those pesky Scousers out of his hair.

The North. 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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed only one in seven of the jobs the industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.