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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle