The Times' bizarre economics

Straight outta 2010.

The Times has an economics leader (£) today calling for the cutting of public spending to continue. It's a remarkably sloppy piece, straight out of the 2010 election campaign, and ignoring everything we have learned in the two and a half years since then.

The piece starts by pointing out that the Chancellor will have failed to cut debt as a proportion of GDP by the end of this parliament, something he initially staked his reputation on. It then, accurately, points out the the principal risks to Britain's economic health come from anaemic growth, not a collapse of "confidence".

The leader then runs through the failure, even after the third-quarter growth, of anything resembling the recovery, and comes tot he relatively sensible conclusion that Osborne ought to delay his fiscal targets.

Then it all goes off the rails:

The IMF has argued that increased borrowing should be tolerated rather than tackled with tax rises or further spending cuts. That does not mean that the Government has been wrong to seek a rapid reduction in the budget deficit. Cutting spending does not simply take demand out of the economy. It reduces sovereign risk and the premium that the Government has to pay on its borrowing. As sterling is not a reserve currency, maintaining fiscal credibility is an especially important task in economic management.

The low market interest rates that the UK needs to pay should be counted a success. They are a precondition of recovery.

Where to start. Cutting spending reduces sovereign risk? Are we still having this conversation? The UK controls its own currency, and exclusively issues bonds denominated in that currency. Sovereign risk is infinitesimal. We cannot go bust like Greece; we cannot default like Argentina. The worst thing that Britain could do is attempt to inflate its way out of debt; but that hasn't happened, and isn't going to happen, because spending is manageable, inflation is low, and interest rates are lower.

The leader also claims that cutting spending lowers "the premium that the Government has to pay on its borrowing". Which is again nonsense. As I wrote just two weeks ago, when Conservative MP Jesse Norman launched a bizarre attack on NIESR's Jonathan Portes:

Sovereign debt yields can be low either because investors think there is little chance of the nation going bankrupt, or because there is scant competition from other potential investments pushing up the yield. Since the crash, the chance of Britain defaulting hasn't changed from basically-zero, but the growth rate – and thus the average return on investment from putting your money in the "real" economy – has plummeted.

The status of Sterling as a reserve currency is also weird, inaccurate and slightly irrelevant. Sterling is a reserve currency – it is the world's third most held, after the euro and dollar. It is no longer the reserve currency, true – the dollar took that title after World War II – but that also has little to do with the importance of fiscal credibility.

And while the low market interest rates the UK needs to pay are helpful, they should not be considered a success. If anything, they are a sign of Osborne's economic failure. If the market truly expected a recovery, the first thing that would happen is interest rates would rise, as investors finally priced in the fact that they could expect real returns if they put their money elsewhere in the economy. As it is, returns on investment in government bonds remain close to zero, as investors flee to a safe haven.

Osborne needs, first and foremost, a plan to end this depression. Cutting spending acts against that goal. Market interest rates, and the risk of sovereign defaults, are irrelevancies to that question.

Money. 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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She knew every trick to get a home visit – but this time I had come prepared

 Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone.

I first came across Verenice a couple of years ago when I was on duty at the out-of-hours service.

“I’m a diabetic,” she told me, “and I’m feeling really poorly.” She detailed a litany of symptoms. I said I’d be round straight away.

What sounded worrying on the phone proved very different in Verenice’s smoke-fugged sitting room. She was comfortable and chatty, she had no fever or sign of illness, and her blood sugar was well controlled. In fact, she looked remarkably well. As I tried to draw the visit to a close, she began to regale me with complaints about her own GP: how he neglected her needs, dismissed her symptoms, refused to take her calls.

It sounded unlikely, but I listened sympathetically and with an open mind. Bit by bit, other professionals were brought into the frame: persecutory social workers, vindictive housing officers, corrupt policemen, and a particularly odious psychiatrist who’d had her locked up in hospital for months and had recently discharged her to live in this new, hateful bungalow.

By the time she had told me about her sit-in at the local newspaper’s offices – to try to force reporters to cover her story – and described her attempts to get arrested so that she could go to court and tell a judge about the whole saga, it was clear Verenice wasn’t interacting with the world in quite the same way as the rest of us.

It’s a delicate path to tread, extricating oneself from such a situation. The mental health issues could safely be left to her usual daytime team to follow up, so my task was to get out of the door without further inflaming the perceptions of neglect and maltreatment. It didn’t go too well to start with. Her voice got louder and louder: was I, too, going to do nothing to help? Couldn’t I see she was really ill? I’d be sorry when she didn’t wake up the next morning.

What worked fantastically was asking her what she actually wanted me to do. Her first stab – to get her rehoused to her old area as an emergency that evening – was so beyond the plausible that even she seemed able to accept my protestations of impotence. When I asked her again, suddenly all the heat went out of her voice. She said she didn’t think she had any food; could I get her something to eat? A swift check revealed a fridge and cupboards stocked with the basics. I gave her some menu suggestions, but drew the line at preparing the meal myself. By then, she seemed meekly willing to allow me to go.

We’ve had many out-of-hours conversations since. For all her strangeness, she is wily, and knows the medical gambits to play in order to trigger a home visit. Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone. It usually revolves around food. Could I bring some bread and milk? She’s got no phone credit left; could I call the Chinese and order her a home delivery?

She came up on the screen again recently. I rang, and she spoke of excruciating ear pain, discharge and fever. I sighed, accepting defeat: with that story I’d no choice but to go round. Acting on an inkling, though, I popped to the drug cupboard first.

Predictably enough, when I arrived at Verenice’s I found her smiling away and puffing on a Benson, with a normal temperature, pristine ears and perfect blood glucose.

“Well,” I said, “whatever’s causing your ear to hurt is a medical mystery. Take some paracetamol and I’m sure it’ll be fine in the morning.”

There was a flash of triumph in her eyes. “Ah, but doctor, I haven’t got any. Could you –”

Before she could finish, I produced a pack of paracetamol from my pocket and dropped it on her lap. She looked at me with surprise and admiration. She may have suckered me round again, but I’d managed to second-guess her. I was back out of the door in under five minutes. A score-draw. 

Phil Whitaker is a GP and an award-winning author. His fifth novel, “Sister Sebastian’s Library”, will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain